Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Return of the Aesthetic Jedi - Part 1: Postmodernism Takes Yet Another Hike

I think I can say with confidence that in the 7 years I spent in art school the word "aesthetics" was never uttered in my proximity.  I must admit this realization never occurred to me until I recently reacquainted myself with a series of essays written by the philosopher and art theorist John Dewey, titled "Art as Experience".  In that compilation, first published in 1934, Dewey takes as his central motif the notion of the aesthetic not only in art but in all aspects of life.  I had carried that book around for 25 years since my first reading and, in need of something to do rather than watch paint dry while working in my studio, I had on a whim brought the book with me to my artist's cave.  Little did I know it would become a catalyst that would break down the walls of some baffling and stubbornly persistent compartments housed in my feeble brain.

It might seem odd to some that a word like aesthetics would be, for all intents and purposes, taboo in the context of an art school.  However, it makes a kind of perverse sense when one considers the time.  My schooling period took place in the late 1980's and early 1990's, a time when postmodern philosophy and theory were all the rage in most arenas of cultural study.  The heroes (or should I say anti-heroes?) of that time were Derrida, Foucoult, Lacan.  The buzzwords were deconstruction, pastiche, conflation, appropriation and, perhaps most stridently, desire.  It was horizontal thinking tumbling the citadel of vertical thinking, non-hierarchical organization erasing the pathology of hierarchical organization (conveniently ignoring the fact that privileging non-hierarchical over hierarchical is itself a hierarchical organization).  Most importantly for the matter at hand, it was an atmosphere permeated by the assumption that all values were culturally and linguistically constructed and therefore relative; therefore, no values were universal.  And if no values are universal, then how could one even speak of aesthetics?

So you can imagine my surprise at reading John Dewey and hearing him say - to paraphrase in more colorful contemporary language - "If it ain't aesthetic it ain't worth squat".  Ping!!!  The light bulb flashed in my head.  Suddenly words like dialectic; pattern; rhythm; wholeness; synthesis; mindfulness; development; evolution; all began to tumble and mix together, whirling and spiraling as  they formed themselves first into a coherent train of thought, then a vision of increasing crystalline-like clarity.

However, before we take that train any further down the track let's come to a common meeting-of-the-minds about the term aesthetics.  The usual dictionary definition goes something like this - "The study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty".  An aesthetic setting might simply be a sensually pleasurable environment.  An Aesthete is someone who loves beauty, or in some cases just possesses good taste.  These are some of the more common associations attached to the word.  Because beauty (and by association, aesthetics) is usually conceived in sensual terms the notion is easily susceptible to being dismissed - if beauty is literally "in the eye of the beholder", who can say what is REALLY beautiful, not just in my eye but in, at the least, most eyes?

Fortunately, Dewey takes a much deeper stab at the meaning and implications of the aesthetic.  He anchors it not just in sensual experience, but in ALL experience.  And that opens the door to a much wider territory, one in which beauty in sensual terms is just one small piece of the landscape.  In his view all experience, whether sensual, intellectual, emotional or simply practical, either has or doesn't have a quality of the aesthetic (and as I paraphrased, if it doesn't it ain't worth squat).  For instance, you might have had the experience today of eating lunch, and you might have thought to yourself "that was a nice lunch experience".  But then you would remember that night in Paris at a first-rate bistro and think to yourself "Now THAT was an EXPERIENCE!  Or, you might tell a friend over drinks, "I've had sex with a lot of people in my life, but that night with so-and-so, now THAT was an EXPERIENCE!"  Lunch was an experience, Paris was an aesthetic experience.  Sex with most is an experience, sex with so-and-so was an aesthetic experience.  What's the difference?

Or is there a difference?

To be continued...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

My Significant Other is the Kosmos Redux: Part 7 - Back on the Hook


I'd like to clear up a little terminology I use in the title before I wrap up this blog series. Redux is a word derived from the French language, and literally means return, though in its original context referred to the return of feudal landowners from years spent fighting the Crusades in the Middle East during the Middle Ages.  I'm not a Christian Crusader (though I'm sometimes accused of  being an Evolutionary Crusader), but before I began this series I hadn't returned to the blog for more than a year, a year that certainly felt, in my personal life, like a prolonged war. 

Kosmos, spelled with a K, is an early Greek term meaning the totality of existence, including not only the physiosphere and biosphere, but also the noosphere, the sphere of mind and culture, and if you like the theosphere, the sphere of spirit.  This differentiates it from the most common usage, Cosmos, which typically refers to the physiosphere (as in Carl Sagan's famous book "Cosmos") and sometimes including the biosphere.  And as I noted earlier, since Kosmos is all-inclusive, once it has become Significant Other, as in my case, divorce is simply not an option - there is literally no where else to go!

I also want to explain a little of my process here on this blog, which is also the process in my art-making.  When I begin I have a faint inclination of where I want to go, what my goal is...but it is faint, a seedling at best.  I begin, I take two steps forward, one step back,  then another back, then another forward...and then, if all goes well, if my faith allows it, it just tumbles out.  It is almost another voice, maybe my deeper self, who knows?  And when it's finished, I almost always step back and wonder, where the fuck did that come from?  And BTW, this is not channeling, this is not a visitation from on external entity whether Abraham or Hierarchy or Seth.  This is simply creativity.  And in that, it may simply be the evolutionary impulse unfolding, from rocks to roses to Rumi to... who knows? 


Rocks to roses to Rumi...physiosphere to biosphere to noosphere.  This suggests a hierarchical progression, or perhaps more appropriately a holarchical progression, meaning a progression that transcends previous levels yet also includes and embraces them.  Transcend and include, a series of  nested emergences, where each level is a whole that becomes a part of a bigger whole. For instance, to use the physical world as an example, atoms are wholes that are transcended by molecules, which in turn still include atoms.  And there's more. To paraphrase Ken Wilber, the lower is more fundamental, the higher more significant – atoms are fundamental to molecules, meaning molecules could not exist without atoms, but atoms can do just fine without molecules.  However, molecules are more significant than atoms, hold meaning and qualities that atoms by themselves can never have.  In the same way, the physiosphere is more fundamental then the biosphere since the biosphere could not exist without the physiosphere - no rocks means no roses, yet rocks don't need roses to rock and roll.  But the biosphere holds more meaning, more information if you will.  And of course, the noosphere is more significant than the biosphere, holds more meaning and information, but take away the biosphere and the noosphere simply disappears.  Biosphere more fundamental, noosphere more significant.

This is where a seeming paradox appears when it comes to Kundalini awakening.  This is fundamentally (pun intended) a physical process arising out of the biosphere, or to put it more succinctly, out of the body as an element or an expression of the biosphere.  Its first manifestation is a decidedly biological one, in and of the body, and its continuing presence seems to act on bodily processes, including the biological brain.  The traditional literature describes this as an awakening of dormant possibilities lying asleep in the body; the Hindu version describes it as a coiled snake slumbering at the base of the spine.  And I can assure you, it is an unforgettable biological/physical experience when it arises.  But if we go back to this holarchical notion of physiosphere to biosphere to noosphere, isn't it a regression to return to the biosphere, to bodily processes?  Could this be, to put it in Ken Wilber's terms, an odd example of the pre/trans fallacy, meaning  misinterpreting a regression to pre-conventional or pre-rational experience as a trans-conventional or trans-rational experience - or in this case, mistaking a pre-rational or simply biospheric experience for a trans-rational or higher noospheric experience?

I think a way around this paradox is not to think of Kundalini as an awakening, but rather as an emergence.  I know I'm splitting hairs here, but emergence puts us squarely back on the evolutionary track. Not dormant energies waiting to be awoken from slumber, but possibilities emerging under the necessary conditions.  In my case the necessary condition was my having utterly failed in the noosphere, crashed and burned.  All webs of interlocution had unraveled in a dead end, and as you might remember, suicide was looking decidedly warm and fuzzy.  With the noosphere barren and dry, webs frazzled and disintegrating in heaps all around me, how could I possibly evolve in any meaningful way?  Why bother?

I call it a grace, this emergence of previously undreamed energies and possibilities.  It was as if the presence of the theosphere, the sphere of spirit, sensing my connection to the noosphere as nearing complete disintegration, reached across the void and yanked me up by my bootstraps (or more appropriately, my spinal cord) through the vehicle of the biosphere.  This was not a regression, but in fact a jump start, an overriding of my quickly failing noospheric holon.  A classic case of agape, the love of the higher reaching back to the lower, embracing the lower in its web of interlocution.  And I did nothing to deserve this - no devotional practice, no high ethical standards, no exceptional life of service or humility.  Perhaps the one positive act I made was accepting all responsibility for the mess I'd made of this incredible miracle of life that I was granted, and even that was far more an act of despair then one of courage.

But grace doesn't let you off the hook.  Oh no.  An interlocution with the Kosmos is not a one way conversation, a one-and-done deal and now back to the good life defined by a great plate of lasagna and a little nookie (neither of which, by the way, is precluded - remember, transcend and include!) .  A process is begun, a new responsibility is in effect because this web of interlocution is evolution itself, and you have to own it.  If that Mother of all Significant Others asks "What are you, why are you here, what are you doing here?', you better get down to business and come up with some answers!  Which is why, to come back full circle, art-making and indeed all creativity in any walk or circumstance of life has such a deeply moral and deeply energizing dimension, operating in the imperative to evolve our noosphere through the creation of webs of interlocution that are the hallmark of that very noosphere, the sphere of mind and culture, the sphere of us.  Rocks to roses to Rumi to...who knows?

The End...for now...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

My Significant Other is the Kosmos Redux Part 6 - Rocks to Roses to Rumi

There's a relatively new branch of evolutionary study known as Emergence, one that focuses on the whys and wherefores of the arrival of completely novel processes in nature.  The first novelty, of course, is the manifest universe itself, apparently appearing out of nothing - or at least,, nothing we can currently comprehend - about 13.7 billion years ago.  There's a clear series of novel emergences that science has identified arising after that creative leap, from pure energy to sub-atomic particles to hydrogen as the first atom, followed eventually by helium and so on down the periodic table, and much later gas clouds to stars to planets.  Each of these stages was the emergence of something new, something never in existence before.  And as each of these stages emerged the physical laws that governed them emerged - there was no law of quantum physics before subatomic particles appeared, no law of the behavior of hydrogen before hydrogen appeared, no law of gravity before gas clouds and stars and planets appeared.  All of this novelty just kinda happened, one after the other, until after billions of years we had what is known as the physiosphere, the sphere of matter, and all of the laws of physics that hold it together.

And then, at least here on planet Earth, something entirely novel emerged out of the physiosphere - life, and the emergence of what was to become the biosphere, the sphere of life and living systems.  How the hell did that happen????  You might remember back 30 or 40 years ago a hot topic in science was the attempt to duplicate the emergence of life from the primordial soup, the optimism that it was most certainly possible and in fact inevitable to create life in the laboratory from chemical processes.  Well, guess what?  It still hasn't happened, not even close!  However,  once it emerged here on Laboratory Earth it took off, from single cell organisms to multi-cell organisms, from fish to reptiles to mammals to.....us.

It's estimated that the human brain reached its current level of biological development about 200,000 years ago.  What's so interesting about this is that the human brain, though physically developed, was still immersed in the animal world.  It had all of the physical potential in our ancestors that you or I have now, yet it remained relatively dormant until that marker I referred to in the last installment of this blog, the emergence of art and other novel developments in human activity about 50,00 years ago that seems to indicate the arrival of human culture on the planet.  And with that something novel emerged from the biosphere, namely the noosphere, the sphere of mind.

So here we have a series of nested emergences - from apparently nothing the physiosphere emerged, then somehow here on Earth the biosphere emerged from the physiosphere, then somehow the noosphere emerged from the biosphere.  In other words, rocks (physiosphere) to roses (biosphere) to Rumi (noosphere, and for those who don't know, Rumi was a 13th century Persian poet and mystic -I needed an R name).  And with the emergence of the noosphere, the sphere of mind and culture and art, an entirely new game-changer appeared - the ability to build evolutionary structures in the realm of the noosphere that in themselves were new emergents, novel and entirely unknown in evolution, through the cultural interaction of humans.  What was the agent of this ability?  Webs of interlocution, of course!!!!!

Whew....gotta catch my breath here.

Those studying the science of evolutionary emergence usually confine themselves to the physiosphere and/or the biosphere, those aspects of emergence that can at least be contemplated in the realm of material observation.  The noosphere, however, is a little trickier.  It's abstract, intangible, hard to grasp.  It doesn't sit still long enough to be observed in the laboratory.  Or so it seems to the empiricist.  But to the artist, and to the philosopher, the noosphere is quite tangible, quite concrete in experience.  It's where the action is!  And I would propose, it's where questions arise, such as...what are we, why are we here, what are we doing here?  And of course, why art?  Which is why, going back to my original thesis, art and art-making has a deeply moral dimension, and I would now say as well a deeply moral determinant guided by evolution itself, through the myriad webs of interlocution that we create constantly in human culture through the arts and creative acts in all walks of life.  And I'm going to suggest here that the creative impulse, through its agent the web of interlocution, is now for humanity the very essence of evolution itself.

And, to pull this whole blog series together (I hope, I hope), I'm going to inquire into how Kundalini, a biological process arising from the biosphere, and creativity, a mental process arising from the noosphere, are somehow intimately connected, somehow part of the same web of interlocution that is evolution itself expressing itself mysteriously, ecstatically, endlessly .

To be continued...

Monday, November 11, 2013

My Significant Other is the Kosmos Redux: Part 5 - Prelude and Fugue #2


I was listening to an audio tape by the spiritual teacher Adyashanti and heard an interesting description of a method he used which he characterized as an inquiry.  Apparently when he was a young man and in the early stages of his path he would go to a coffee shop after work and, while nursing a cup of Joe, write in a notebook in an attempt to answer a deep question such as "What is surrender?".  He would continue to write until he approached the very border of what he knew to be true, teasing out everything he had in him, then stop and wait.  He would not write another word until a real truth came to him - no theorizing, no fantasy, no wishful thinking.  Oftentimes he would wait for hours for the next truth to appear, but always he held back until he knew that what was to be written was indeed true.

Upon hearing this I realized that he was essentially describing my own method in writing this blog.  This is really an inquiry into the questions I find myself asking, and in that regard also an articulation both for myself and you the reader, one that is intended as a dialogue even if I can't hear your internal mutterings in response.  And as far-fetched as some of it may seem, everything I write is the truth from my experience (or in some cases, a tentative speculation based on true experience - this is, after all, an inquiry).  Of course, I may be fooling myself, but then part of the nature of an inquiry is to unmask self-deception, and part of the nature of a dialogue is to corroborate and articulate experience.  Webs of Interlocution, my friend!

The point of this is, I have been told by a few that I'm a tease, leaving the reader hanging on the end of a limb with each new posting.  And sometimes that hang-time is really, really long.  My advice is that, like a football player returning a punt, you call fair catch and wait for the ball to nestle into your waiting arms, and be assured that as I end each posting I've taken it to the very border of what I know and no further, except maybe to peak over the edge into the unknown.  Besides, after a fair catch the clock stops until the next play begins, so rest in timelessness!  And as always, to be continued...


There is apparently a branch of scientific speculation known as Neuroaesthetics, the study of the neurological correlates to aesthetic appreciation - or as one article about this was titled, "Beauty is in the Brain of the Beholder".  It seems that some neuroscientists have discovered areas of the brain that are activated by aesthetic beauty, and have even been able to increase appreciation of beauty in some cases by stimulating that area.  This has led to speculation about the purpose of art for humans, especially interesting as art appears to be ubiquitous in human culture.  In fact, many anthropologists point to the first appearance of art in the form of cave paintings and adornment-making all over the planet as a marker of the dawn of humanity around 50,000 years ago.  So the question that naturally arises is, "Why art?".

Indeed, I've been asking myself that question for quite awhile.  This new neurological exploration hints at some tantalizing clues, mostly based on evolutionary survival advantage - for instance, one theorist speculating that Cro-Magnon man survived while our Neanderthal cousins became extinct because of the introduction of art in our ancestors as a method of imaginative problem-solving (and I might add, imaginative web-of-interlocution building).  This is all fascinating, and certainly a piece of the puzzle.  However, reducing everything to biological survival advantage, as fashionable as it is these days, hardly answers the really, really big questions.  If we're to seriously ask "What are we, why are we here,  what are we doing here", and now add to this "Why art?",  can the answer really be..... simply to better survive and propagate?  After all, that answer begs the question, "Why survive?", a question that appears to be utterly ignored in scientific discourse.

Methinks we gotta dig deeper, spin finer webs, cast them far and wide.  Because the truth  of "Why art?" can't be captured in the puny net of "biological survival and propagation of the species".  And I suspect the truth of "Why Art" is intimately connected to the truth of "What are we, why are we here, what are we doing here?".  So let the inquiry begin!

Let's begin back in the day, those good old days when art first emerged in human culture.  50,000 years or 100,000 years, it matters not.  Whether by UFO visitation, space wandering mushroom spores, natural selection, or grace, it matters not.  What does matter is that suddenly something new emerged, something apparently in the consciousness of those proto-humans that hadn't existed anywhere on the planet for billions of years.  It's interesting to look at these early humans because they were presumably free of so many of our modern affectations - narcissistic self-expression, hunger for fame, commodity market manipulation, to name a few.  They were big apes on the savannah, mostly interested in the next meal and a little nookie, and suddenly they started making stuff that seemingly had more to it then just survival and sex (though admittedly some anthropologists still insist on reducing all early human motivation, including art, to the next meal and a little nookie).

There's a possible clue in the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France.  This site is not the oldest evidence of art making by humans, dated to about 17,000 years ago, but is certainly a production of pre-civilized humanity, long before Stonehenge, long before the Pyramids.  The huge caves are filled with hundreds of images of animals, a shaman-like man, apparent star charts, and abstract symbols.  An interesting aspect of the caves is the manner in which they were discovered - a teenager in France in 1940, while searching for treasure, happened upon a narrow channel in the ground and explored it with three friends, crawling on their bellies in the dark for many yards and coming upon the vast caves in total darkness.  When they lit an oil lamp they were probably the first humans in many, many thousands of years to lay eyes on this astonishing gallery of images.

Now, imagine yourself as a Stone Age individual being led for the first time to the caves.  Under a cloak of mystery you're pushed into a narrow, completely dark channel in the ground, urged on to crawl an unknown distance in total sensory deprivation (accept for hard earth under your hands and knees and the occasional invisible crawly thing on your skin).  Finally, after a seemingly endless and terrifying journey, you come out into a large chamber and stand as someone lights a torch, revealing hundreds of ghostly animals and symbols dancing all about you in the flickering light of the torch, eerily alive yet just as eerily unreal  Is it too much to speculate that your breath would be taken away, that you would have an experience far removed from a good steak and a great lay, that you just might be blown right out of yourself and into a truly transformative experience?

That's what I call one powerful web of interlocution!  And if I'm right, it would have been building completely new, completely evolutionary structures in the consciousness of those early humans, structures that may well have benefited survival but most certainly had deeper implications.

To be continued...

Friday, September 6, 2013

My Significant Other is the Kosmos Redux Part 4: Prelude and Fugue #1


In previous installments of this "Redux" I brought up the need to address the question "Who am I?".  This is a common enough question to ask, yet something about it has been bothering me.  It seems to me that the "who" part is asking for a personal answer, an identification of personality traits or societal roles.  Am I Jeff the Writer, Jeff the Artist, Jeff the Mildly Lecherous but always Polite Gentleman?  Do I look for answers to an Enneagram or Rorschach test, a horoscope or a stethoscope, a fingerprint or an EKG readout?  Or, when all is said and done, am I Donald Duck?

But that's not at all what I'm talking about here.  Personality inquiry is fine, names and roles inquiry is fine, but underneath all of those "who" questions is a more fundamental inquiry, perhaps a more philosophical one - namely, "What am I?".  Am I my body, my thoughts, my emotions, my experiences?  All of these things come and go, change and develop or regress, repeat like a bad habit or unfold like a spring bud.  Yet while all this is going on, passing through like clouds in the sky, what is it that is aware, what is the "I" that is always there regardless of circumstance or emotions or thoughts, regardless of health or sickness, regardless of age from womb to grave, of skin as smooth as a baby's bottom or as wrinkled as Grandma's face?

That's a really, really tough question.  And if I'm right our search for the answers will most certainly involve webs of interlocution.


The body is a perplexing thing.  Whatever you may think of reincarnation, you must admit you are an incarnation by definition - a bodily manifested something, just as everyone else is.  Yet this body changes constantly, it develops from egg to embryo to fetus to infant and onwards.  And it does this without our direction or consent, despite our desires or needs.  Quite miraculous, really.  And then we have this thing we call mind, which seems to some extent separate and distinct.  Our body certainly effects our thoughts and moods, yet where exactly are our thoughts?.  In our brain's neurons, in our hormones, in serotonin and dopamine?  Some think so.  To me our thoughts seem to be in some other dimension, some non-material temporary autonomous zone.  We build structures of consciousness in this zone, invisible structures that define and guide our very complex notion of, among other things, the good, the true, and the beautiful (or sometimes the badass, the kinda sorta true, and the hot and sexy).  Yet these invisible, abstract structures are entirely dependent on the body - in fact, so interwoven with the body that it's very difficult to tell where the body ends and the mind begins, if indeed there is any boundary at all.

And of course, we are imbedded in a web of interlocution with our body.  All of our senses are talking with us, our illnesses schooling us, our pleasures delighting us, and our pains guiding us.  Constantly.  From womb to grave.

Then, for some of us (and I think for more of us than is generally known), a new and entirely unexpected interlocution rises from the body and a new web begins to weave itself.  At least this is how I think of the Kundalini process after 5 years of steadily increasing dialogue with the phenomenon.  In this unusual web there are new structures being built, both of mind and body, and I have almost no say in the process, nor do I have any idea where it's going or what its purpose is.  Yet it seems to be whispering in my ear, just as it did on that fateful day when the first alarming jolt of electricity arose, the simple command to surrender, to let go, to ride the wave again, and again, and again.

Which, to an inquiring mind, begs a question - if this is an interlocution, a dialogue, than what the hell am I in dialogue with?   Certainly the body is the medium, the structure, the language through which I'm being spoken to.  And it does seem bodily structures are being built - I sometimes feel my brain is being rewired, software downloaded, hardware reworked (I can't prove this of course, though it would be interesting to be wired to some neuronal detection device during an especially intense session).  Even as bodily structures are being built, so are mental structures seemingly in parallel with the bodily ones.  This is entirely a subjective statement, though I will say that my art and writing have flowered as never before, my focus and concentration are at the highest in memory, my ability to comprehend difficult abstract concepts has expanded beyond my own belief.

All of which is fine, though in a sense secondary. Primary to these apparent changes is the source of these changes - what am I in dialogue with? Even if the medium is the message, there must be a  generator of that message, or as I have suggested, an interlocutor.  And, to flesh out and mimic my three questions from an earlier installment, "What is it, Why is it here, What is it doing here?".

Could it be that the questions "What am I, Why am I here, What am I doing here?" are somehow intimately connected to this inquiry into the Kundalini process, into its source and means and purpose?  And just perhaps, could it be that the questions " What am I?" and "What is it?" are in fact one and the same question?

To be continued...