May 30, 2013

Where You Come To

Working my way through the clutter of the last two years of grad school paperwork, I came across a favored quote (which I have noted before) from a book on how we see and how we create what we want to be seen. The author frames this around abstract artists who step away from the rules of convention that govern representational painting, but it's applicable to many forms of thought. He describes the process of stepping away from those rules and into abstraction as going down a ladder, letting go rung by rung, subtracting, until you find yourself in a place where you can be fully skeptical of the visible world. As he states it: "The ladder of disorder leaves conventional representation behind, in favor of images that explore inadequate representation." I love that sentence, and the notion that this sort of descent allows one to more freely act on what one favors -- because this sort of descent allows one to see beyond certain structures, and beyond the need for certain structures.

This is not a way of living, not some form of enlightenment or whatever. It is rather a forging of new connections in the brain, using vision as the tool do so...a sort of un-training while also rewiring. The author is addressing the mesmerizing idea of encountering abstraction or content of any kind that can't adequately be pictured. He positions you at the top of the ladder encountering something incomprehensible; do you climb down, subtracting as you go? And what does the world look like to you when you reach the last rung?

When one is fully skeptical of the visible world, skepticism about other things comes fairly naturally. For if you can see (without the aid of super-special They Live glasses) the difference between what the author James Elkins calls "the machinery of realism" and whatever else there is, you kind of train your brain to hear the difference too. Meaning you become better attuned not simply to hypocrisy but to how people actively construct ideas about and identities for themselves. And what becomes remarkable (at least to me, and I am maybe late to this game) is the sort of oddly beautiful, reliable, limited rhythms that people use to reify their identities. Like the beautiful, reliable, cirumscribed brush strokes representational artists use to show us the known and knowable. (Possibly this is also on my mind because of the imminent arrival of cicadas on the scene; listening to their sound is like listening to the earth thinking.)

This is something I realize is probably an after-effect of going back to graduate school at my age. I have emerged halfway through the process very far down the ladder, having let go of more rungs than I can count, but with a much better ability to assess constructions of any kind. This is especially true of theories, which are rampant in education -- theories of teacher motivation, student identity, knowledge acquisition, brain development, learning styles, affect in the classroom, etc. I see why they are rampant, see the comfort that comes from descriptions of the structures in the visible world, like the comfort we all find in our descriptions of ourselves. These are the rules of representation in my field; these are the familiar rhythms. Having now climbed well below the world of conventional representation that these generate, I am not aligning with or embracing any. Instead I am viewing them from below, as images of fascinating, incomplete, always inadequate representations. And this is yet another weirdly happy place I feel lucky to have come to.