Monday, April 30, 2012

The value of the profound in the absurd

Poetry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Originally written February 26th, 2010

Have you ever wondered why so many supposedly deep insights have an element of wackiness to them?

Any good religious or spiritual insight (and to some degree any truly profound paradigm shift in science as well) has to contain the absurd.

Ponder that.

It has to defy the logical, analytical style of comprehension, to point to that which beyond such forms of understanding. It creates the necessary space for a new way of seeing the world beyond the safe boundaries that other parts of the mind wish to create and reinforce.

Anything outside of a closed system will appear odd or absurd or even impossible from within that system. It is not captured or explained by the current set of rules and expectations in place, and so when encountering or considering such novel phenomena using available "left-brain" conceptualizations and terminology to try to grasp or contain them can create a confusing and contradictory riddle instead of a stunning new insight.

Pioneers in expanding our view of the nature of existence, of its substance and value, initially seem to be speaking and thinking incoherently because there is no common experience of their vision and no vehicle to readily make this new vision available to others.

This is where the artist comes in to play.

The Artist and Metaphor

It might be fair to say that, actually, it is the artist, including those working in the medium of science and mathematics, who is able to explore beyond the normal limits of imagination in the first place. Only those with this developed talent can find their way outside of the boundaries of normality and back again, let alone attempt to describe what they have encountered in ways that would be meaningful to others.

And even then, those with very little talent at all for such creative plasticity in altering their worldviews, the socio-cultural and socio-psychological maps of cognition that we take for granted as "the way the world works and what all it contains", those people of little novelty in imagination will accept the new vision once it has been shown to have value within the economy of the cultural currency of validity.

[To clarify the usage of the terms above, cultural currency here refers to what people value in a particular culture, what gives something "weight" or "substance" in terms of significance. Validity of course refers to that which inspires acceptance or legitimacy. Hence the currency of validity within a given culture is that which makes something seem both significant and legitimate. In the current modern paradigm of Western cultures this validity is found in the idea of a consensus of scientific experts its currency is grounded in materialism and positivism. Currency can also be expanded in this cultural context to include purpose, efficiency, and productivity.]

Those insights which lay outside of this economy of culturally informed values will be seen as useless at best and dangerous at worst. It should not be surprising then how often such visions are mocked, excluded, derided, or suppressed. This is not an argument or an appeal for all ideas which lay outside the standard worldviews and economy of values to be considered tragically maligned strokes of genius, but the extreme reaction of small-minded groups against art and the artist, the latter construed broadly as per the beginning of this essay, is to familiar to deny.

The artist  often discovers and always reveals her visions through metaphor. Violating convention, taking something from one domain of experience or category of meaning and placing it within another, this kind of boundary violation is a central component for both generating and relaying new visions, whether in visual, lyrical, acoustic, or other media of expression.

Symbolic Action and Interpretation

Why should it be a surprise that breaking these rules and conventions and asking "What if...?" is vital to empowering novel insights? Or that this comes from temporarily quieting the parts of the mind which try to control and limit ones thinking by creating and re-creating familiar patterns?

The power of symbolic activities (ritual or liturgy through music, dance, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, etc) is to set aside this space outside of ordinary space and time outside of ordinary time, a setting referred to by the term "sacred". While this has religious overtones, it is nonetheless a common theme in the cultural life of all human societies. They are directed by a narrative of the familiar worldview which nonetheless contains elements of dislocation and disorientation, either obviously or subtly woven into the characters, the theme, or the plot.

These jarring elements, which have metaphoric potential, then have the potential to challenge and reorient the worldviews of the participants of these symbolic actions (which includes the audience). Particularly effective instruments, whatever form they may take (a book, a song, a play), do not have simply a one-off impact. They continue to challenge and provoke the participants over time, for a while becoming familiar and dull and then suddenly opening up possibilities in a previously unanticipated direction.

Thus we might expect that particularly jarring elements, which seem really bizarre or even absurd, to have the greatest potential for transformation. They also have the greatest potential to be misunderstood or abused, especially by those whose thinking is so locked into the "left brain" mode of regularity, familiarity, and a flatness of imagination that these elements are either rejected as obviously foolish and misinformed or accepted as incredulously fantastic and yet literally true.

This is not to bash so-called "left brain" thinking. It is highly useful and extremely important. Instead, it is to point out the danger of using an inappropriate mental framework for appraising the artistic and the spiritual. It is just as wrong-headed to think that 5 + 5 =10 would look nicer if it was rearranged as = 5 + 10 + 5 =. That may have some improved aesthetic quality, but it misses the point of what the formula is meant to convey.

Nor is this meant to suggest that what has been described as "left" and "right" brain perception are somehow incompatible or mutually exclusive. I suspect that not only are both are necessary they are more powerful the better integrated they become. Yet understanding the correct venue for interpretation of symbolic action is crucial to this balance.

The Use and Abuse of Religion

The collective wisdom of a religion contains insights and practices for different mental perspectives, but when one dominates, the tradition becomes unbalanced. As hinted at before, religion is an example of a societal repository for cultural narratives, symbolic actions, and central metaphors. And religions always contain something that a left brain analysis would find absurd. A story that seems beyond reason.

Yet if what if such a story was a culturally-framed and metaphysically encoded catalyst for rewiring one's ontological perspectives and shifting one's orientation to existence? (That is, what if it recreates our worldview in a significantly new way?) The value of the narrative then goes beyond a misguided quest for historical accuracy about a particular supernatural episode to a form of historical validity concerning the worldview of a society. Whether or not the stories happened in just this or that way, they are valid because they have absorbed and preserved a society's cultural memory, the perspective and narratives that they used to understand their world and the jarring elements which provoked them to move into a more expansive perspective.

This cultural memory also includes the revisions made to their worldview over time, a cumulative record of changes necessary to overcome the blinders and limitations of common errors in perception and even it's own biases. This creative reconstruction of oral tradition, poetry, etc moves the participants beyond where the limitations of their own history by appropriating it in new ways. It is a form of continuity by revision, as old paths are repaved with insights from more expansive visions of the world. Such revitalization can be disruptive as the narrative reorganizes itself, which can lead to schisms and branching of narratives Yet they also provide a cohesive force by maintaining many of the same narrative elements even as new layers of meaning are added or uncovered.

To accept such a view would mean that the re-imagined cultural memory/narrative as catalyst is not going to be valid for everyone at all times. Societies may swap elements from these narratives and some individuals may find as much enlightenment from being liberated from one story as others are in embracing it. The cultural construction itself is only as true as one's own experience can allow, and no amount of debating over philosophy or science can change that. We are religious creatures, even if we eschew what we think of as religion, but we can learn to respect and honor this impulse while recognizing its capacity for abuse.

Not just art and religion

Beyond the question of art or religion per se, another example of the potential importance of what superficially seems wild, random, or bizarre comes from the general question for meaning and for understanding health and interconnection from an interpersonal perspective. This is the basis of various forms of traditional medicine around the world, including what is often categorized under the heading of "shamanism". When you connect the creative mind the brain's extraordinary influence over the body, the interactive potential is very exciting.

Speaking and thinking in such poetic language is becoming a lost art in the modern world. But it is something we can all practice.

See this follow-up post on the same topic.

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