The Edge of the Real: Our Fragmented World

Big Hole Battefield 1

I have been arguing that in order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. But this is to state another basic condition of making sense of ourselves, that we grasp our lives in a narrative. This has been much discussed recently, and very insightfully. It has often been remarked that making sense of one's life as a story is also, like orientation to the good, not an optional extra; that our lives exist also in this space of questions, which only a coherent narrative can answer. In order to have a sense of who we are we have to have a notion of how we have become, and of where we are going.

Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

Charles Taylor

We all exist in time. We know that yesterday we went to the market, and tomorrow, we'll visit with friends over dinner or spend our days at work. We look back in remembrance and forward in time with anticipation. We understand the cycle of time as a part of life.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes wrote a very long time ago,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
  a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
  a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
  a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
  a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
  a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

While we may acknowledge this to be true, we also desire for time to stand still. We desire stability and continuity, to keep the good and avoid the bad. This is a response to a world that is more fragmented than whole.

Look to the conditions of our external world. It is a world of change that is often disruptive, random and unwelcome. Yet, it is this very fragmented world that we ask to be consistent, stable and compatible enough to make us feel good about ourselves and provide a ground for a personal identity that can withstand the change we experience. This fragmentation is primarily between our inner selves and the world that is separate from us.

The challenge to be a whole and complete as a real person becomes more urgent as our world fragments into hyper-realities.  Of course, to see this, understand it, and live into it requires us  to understand how our inner and outer lives have become so fragmented, how the world is and is not a mirror of our inner state, and how we can establish a path to personal wholeness.

The Hyper-reality of the External World

The hyper-real social world that I describe in The Spectacle of the Real is a world of random experiences that are presented to us as daily events of significance intended to define who we are as people.

Look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, or, watch the news scroll across the bottom of the screen of your favorite news channel, and you'll see events, causes, ideas and personalities that are promoted as information that is important for us to engage. These status updates are not descriptions of all that is taking place, but rather a filtering of what is important and what is not. The selection of what is included and not included is commentary on the news, not the news itself.

ALL media content is mediated content, not raw data for our own critical mind to determine whether it is news or not.

The early promise of social media was as a more or less unfiltered reservoir of people and information to connect and engage.  Social media sites have evolved into clever, highly sophisticated advertising platforms, promoting not just products for sale, but perspectives and social philosophies intended to guide our understanding of the future and our place in it. The more they know about us through our social media postings, website selections and online purchases, the tighter and more closed the sources of information that are provided to us.

The hyper-reality of social media fragments the narrative sense of our lives, that Charles Taylor describes. For our lives to be understood as a continuous, unfolding story, we need to be able to see our life experience as a whole in two ways. First, as having continuity and connection over the entire length of our lives, and second, as being open to what is new, different and unpredictable.

Hyper-real contexts always place us on the outside of the screen, looking in at those who are doing the real living. We are meant to see a reality that is larger and more important than our own existence, filled with the fascinating people we must follow, and never, ever, involving us as direct participants in their lives. The result is that our inner lives take on a stunted, not flourishing life, disconnected from an outside world that can fully engage us

I have often heard people say in response to my daily change of my Facebook cover picture, how much they would like to go to the places that I have been. There is nothing unusual about those places. Many are within minutes of where I live. Or, the number of times the thought has crossed our minds about how much we would like to do what those crazy guys in a YouTube video did or say what they said. Social media sharing is a vicarious experience, not a direct one, as it is not quite as real as the one we create when we act upon some desire to go see a concert or hike to a beautiful mountain waterfall.

The reality is that the attraction of the screen is always random, momentary and intermitant, never whole or complete. Our lived lives, on the other hand can be filled with meaning, friendship and a real sense of accomplishment and contribution.

As Umberto Eco wrote in Travels in Hyperreality"the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." This is the hyper-real, social media context in which we seek to understand who we are as persons. The more deeply engaged in this hyper-real world we become, the more disconnected we become from our inner selves.

The Numbed Self, or, The Hyper-Real Inner Life

Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 1960s, was one of the first to recognize the social impact of images on a screen. His most famous epigram is the medium is the message. In McLuhan's most important book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man there is a chapter entitled The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis. In this essay, he uses the Greek story of Narcissus as a way of seeing the effect that electronic technology has upon us a persons.

"The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions ...

... the wisdom of the Narcissus myth does not convey any idea that Narcissus fell in love with anything he regarded as himself. Obviously he would have had very different feelings about the image had he known it was an extension or repetition of himself. It is, perhaps, indicative of the bias of our intensely technological and, therefore, narcotic culture that we have long interpreted the Narcissus story to mean that he fell in love with himself, that he imagined the reflection to be Narcissus!"

Narcissus was unaware that the image was of him. His inner self-awareness was disconnected from the external reality of the pool. His sense of self or identity was broken.  His awareness of who he was had been severed from his awareness of the world beyond his perception. The wholeness of life was lost on him. He had no way to tell a complete or whole story of seeing his reflection in the water, because his perception of the image in the water and his self-perception were disconnected. He was a fragmented man captivated by a hyper-real image in the water.

McLuhan was one of the first media critics to see electrical technology as a tool for replacing our sense of identity with an artificial image. The computer screen, the iPad, the Smart Phone are objects which are now extensions of our identities, representing our inner selves in the outer world. This is why it is do difficult to let go of them. To let go is to lose our identity.  Whatever is on the screen is not who we are, but, rather, a substitute representation, a hyper-real presence.

Sherry Turkle two decades ago began to speak about how Life on the Screen provides us multiple identities. In her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other  she has similar insights as McLuhan's.

Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies. These days, it suggests substitutions that put the real on the run.

... we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.

But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes. And with constant connection comes new anxieties of disconnection, ...

This is a fragmented relational world lived through the hyper-space of the screen.

At The Edge

Charles Taylor in his book, A Secular Age, draws a distinction between the self of the modern age and that of the premodern one. He speaks of the modern self as being "buffered" against the intrusion of the outside world, and the pre-modern self as being "porous" so as to allow what is in the outside world to take on meanings that intrude into our sense of who we are.

By definition for the porous self, the source of its most powerful and important emotions are outside the "mind"; or better put, the very notion that there is a clear boundary, allowing us to define an inner base area, grounded in which we can disengage from the rest, has no sense.

As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don't need to "get to me", to use the contemporary expression. That's the sense to my use of the term "buffered" here. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

... the porous self is vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear.

... the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but seen as an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

As Taylor's description shows, the separation between our inner selves, or "minds"  and the world at large is much more complex than simply identifying either a connection or a detachment between our inner and outer worlds.

The point I wish to draw here is that the extremes of either a "buffered" or "porous" self are products of the fragmentation of the world in which we live. Wholeness is discovered, lived out, at the boundary between them, which I'm calling The Edge of the Real.

Two Questions

There are two questions that I wish to raise that I will pick up in part two of this essay.

1. Is the fragmentation between our inner selves and the outside world neutral, neither good nor bad, just the way things are, and therefore, just something to adjust and adapt to each day?

I am asking whether what I have said thus far has any merit. Am I just creating an issue where this is none?

I ask this because Taylor in his A Secular Age clearly shows that there are benefits to living a bounded, buffered life, creating a safe space between my inner self and the outer world.

2. If this fragmentation is unhealthy, then what does it mean to be a whole person, and how does one bridge, cross over, heal the gap between our inner lives and the outer world?

I ask this question because of what I observe in people who are broken and people who are whole. I see a pattern or a collection of patterns that point to how the boundary between the world of our minds can engage in the world apart can become a place where life is made whole.

The Edge of the Real is a place of discovery. In part two, I'll explore what I see as the source of wholeness, and part three how to create wholeness in our lives and work.


The Art of the Real

 

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Analytical writing ceases to be able to express what is real and what we know about it.

Christian Smith

What is a Person?

Christian Smith's statement is particularly true of writing about beauty. For beauty, as in this vase created by Mollie Curtis of Laguna, New Mexico, is something that must be encountered in the real of life. The moment I saw it, I couldn't take my eyes off it. It isn't just the pattern, but the creativity that went into it. All by hand. No template. No formula. As she told me, a blank slate when she began. Just imagination applied in shape and image. For me, this is symbolic of the real that cannot be put fully into words. It must be encountered, not simply observed.

It is, also, somewhat contradictory to think that writing about reclaiming the real is an act of reclaiming it. The real is something that can only be reclaimed in the world of experience, of doing, of action, in creativity and through change and transformation. It is more than what goes on in our heads. It engages the fullness of our body's senses, emotions and thoughts. It connects to the moment of encounter with past remembrances of similar encounters, and gives a grounding to understand our place in time and place. This is what it means to live in the real. It is full, complete, integral and alive.  

We do need words to help us tell the story that gives meaning to the work of art and to life as a whole. In many senses that story is a story of human encounter. This is why the best novelist creates for us a real world in our imagination. She elicits from us emotions and memories, images in our minds that create a world in which we are apart as the story teller proceeds.

Carried out in the fullness of our lives, the words come to us within a context that guides us to see how we can act, not just feel. To make a difference that matters, that gives meaning to the action itself, we must be engaged in a real context as whole persons. To reclaim reality today, we must articulate why it is necessary, and why we have a problem at all.

The Inadequacy of Analytical Observation

Christian Smith's statement above gets at part of the issue, that of treating reality from an analytical perspective. This is what Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist discovered as he studied the cultures of North Africa. He found that the analytical tradition that emerged out of the European Enlightenment two centuries before was inadequate. He writes,

Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a 'point of view' on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges. 

Let's look at what he is saying here.

Objectivism is a belief that we can know something by standing apart from it. From the observers point of view everything is an object for detached observation and evaluation.

In its most benign sense, it is what the clinical lab does with the blood after your doctor draws it from your arm during your annual physical. Back from the lab comes a reading of your blood count that gives your doctor an indication of your health. However, as essential as this data is, it is your doctor's ability to see the whole context of your body's health that gives meaning to the data in the blood analysis. What matters is not an analytical reading, but a synthetic one that blends analytical analysis with an understanding of who this particular person is in their life context.

Detached observation and analysis has become the primary means for critics and commentators in the worlds of sports, entertainment, politics and society at large to present themselves as authorities.  They speak with an air of authenticity. As alleged 'objective' observers, they claim to provide "objective" knowledge for the viewing public. They exist to inform us about the issues of the day, and guide us towards a "correct" understanding of events.

Watch them on television as they interview the subjects of their observations, the practitioners of whatever arena the commentators are observing and their condescension emerges. Because they are detached, analytical observers, they believe they are more honest, objective critics. Listen carefully to their questions, and a formula reveals itself. It is the formula of The Spectacle of the Real, that I've written about in this series of posts. There I write,

Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news - a statement of "facts" that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of "who, what, when and where" - is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis - more important than the "facts" of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.

The problem is that there is an 'accepted' narrative, and an 'unaccepted' one. The former we must 'accept' on face value, because it comes from those who have been chosen as "authoritative" interpreters of events. In this sense, the real is not authentic, the 'narrative' is the substitute for the real. The acceptance of the broadcast narrative leads to an audience and a populace who are passive receivers, dependent upon their daily missives from the screen to tell them what is true and real. This is the nature of the world as a series of spectacles as French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord has written in his book, Society of the Spectacle.

In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. ...

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. ...

The concept of "spectacle" unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.

Life seen as a series of spectacles, without continuity or reality, but rather a bright, shiny appearance of something of significance.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, tells the story of the French Impressionist painters of the late 19th century. In that day, the public celebration of art was governed by the French government. An annual artistic competition called The Salon was held to determine the best (good?) art of the day. Repeatedly, the grand epic paintings of day were chosen, and the Impressionists paintings of ordinary life through very different images of color and technique were rejected. Gladwell writes,

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. Everyone at the Cafe Guerbois agreed on that. But the acceptance by the Salon came with a cost: it required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful, and they risked being lost in the clutter of other artists' work. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impressionists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The Spectacle of the Real is a constant reminder to each of us that the world is a Big Pond, and we are all tiny minnows. We are dependent upon them for their observations to determine who we are, what we are to believe and how we are to live.

It is impossible with this kind of manufactured narrative-based, posed objectivity to establish a basis for understanding what is real. Every person has a 'point of view' that they use as the basis of their analysis. Everyone of us. We, each one, speak from a context that disqualifies us as objective presenters of reality. This isn't a problem, but a social asset. Our point of view is OUR perspective. Just as The Impressionists perspective was THEIR perspective.

Context matters because it is the ground upon which we live in the real. The further we distance ourselves from the spectacle of manufactured opinion, the more likely it is that we will discover the value of our own opinion, and consequently begin to express it inways that are creative and elevating to the worlds in which we move.

It is important, therefore, that we own our prejudices, claim our perspective as our own, and speak and act from a standing position in the arena of life. In doing so, we are better able to engage in conversation and deliberation about the crucial issues of our time, because we are honest about our bias and perspective, and have the humility and self-confidence to listen, learn and engage with people of differing view points. But to get there, we must see clearly how objectivity is a mask for prejudice.

What is good art?

In college, I took one philosophy course.  It was on the philosophy of art. I took it because I was interested in art, especially the visual arts, and wanted to develop my critical faculties for understanding what I saw.  The professor told us, at the beginning of the course, that we'd spend the semester exploring art from the standpoint of what is 'good' as a way to get at what art is. What he did not tell us at the time, but became obvious, fairly quickly, was that he did not believe that there was such a quality as good.

As the semester proceeded, many of us in the class became increasingly aware that while our professor claimed an objective perspective as our academic authority, we students increasingly did not. Instead, we viewed him as a dishonest teacher of philosophy. Ultimately, it was not his stated position on 'the good' or art that disqualified him as a professor worthy of our respect and allegiance, but, rather, his constant denigration of students who saw things differently, who were trying to work out in their own real world context the meaning of art and the good. What I learned from that semester is that all knowledge is interpreted knowledge, interpreted from within a person's own life experience.

Habitus

The issue here is not that we have opinions, but the relation that our opinions have to reality. Bourdieu writes,

... The theory of practice as practice insists contrary to positivist materialism, that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded, and, contrary to intellectualist idealism, that the principle of this construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus, which is constituted in practice and is always oriented toward practical functions.

To know something is not to know it as an object, but rather as a part of a living context that is constantly in flux, always changing, and in which we live each day. To know something, anything, is 'to learn' to know it. This knowing is an engagement, or as Bourdieu calls it, a habitus, that involves us in the thing to be known.

These 'structuring dispositions' or habitus are the virtues that Aristotle writes about in his Nichomachean Ethics. Virtue is more than an ethical perspective as in "She is a virtuous lady" or "He is a good man."  Rather, it is a learned mastery of living. It is life as a craft to be mastered, a work of art to be created over the course of our lifetime. It is our capacity to live fully in a real world, with all its hardship of work, pain and suffering, along side the beauty and goodness that we can create through our own desires for meaning, connection and impact. Aristotle writes,

Virtue, then, is of two kinds, intellectual and moral.  Intellectual virtue owes both its inception and its growth to instruction, and for this very reason needs time and experience. Moral goodness, on the other hand, is the result of habit, from which it has actually got its name, being a slight modification of the word ethos. This fact makes it obvious that none of the moral virtues is engendered in us by nature, since nothing that is what it is by nature can be made to behave differently by habituation.

But the virtues we do acquire by first exercising them, just as happens in the arts. Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones ...

We don't know something because we read a book about it, or took a class on it. We know something by living in a learning relationship with it. Mollie Curtis did not wake up one morning and create beautiful pottery automatically. She learned over many, many years how to create a work of art as the one shown above.

The vase is a whole and complete expression of Mollie's art. It stands alone. It is does not need reference to anything else to be complete. It is not symbolic of anything. It is a work of art that is whole and complete in itself. As a result, it will be a lasting source of fascination as it resides in my home.

It is an expression of a creative life of integrity. Nothing artificial, nothing intended to push a perspective, just art for the sake of creating something beautiful.

 This vase is a product of the mastery (virtue) of Mollie's craft. It is good because it is a reflection of her learned skills. Goodness is another way of talking about excellence. As a work of excellence, it stands on its own, as a unique expression of the artist her self.

The Choice

Ultimately, it is not necessary to understand the inner workings of the Spectacle of the Real. All that is required to reclaim the real is to act, to create, to contribute to the world in which you live.

Start somewhere, and go where it leads. As you do, your world will expand. It doesn't expand by spending more time passively observing others expressing their 'authoritative' opinion. It does not because it lacks a context in which you live.

Plan each day to choose to do something that makes a difference that matters. By doing so, by focusing on creating impact, you turn away from a passive fascination with the spectacles of our time.

Ask yourself these questions.

Why is it important to understand why Mylie Cyrus has taken her performance craft in the direction that it has?

Why is it important to pick sides in the political games that Washington plays to distract us from what is really going on?

Why is it important to know how much money NFL quarterbacks make each year?

Now ask, how does this change my life, and especially what I'm going to do today?

More importantly, what will I do differently because of knowing more about these spectacular subjects?

Follow the desires that we all share. There are three of them.

1. That our lives have personal meaning.

2. That our relationships are to be health and happy.

3. That we make a difference that matters with our life.

We all share these desires. They are part of what makes us human. And to flourish as human beings, we must find ways for these desires to live and find fulfillment.

Lastly, think for yourself. Don't let anyone tell you what you must believe, think or do. Stand fast as a person of dignity, with gifts to share, having a purpose that elevates your life and the lives of others.

This is how we create our lives as works of art that enable us to reclaim the real.

May this be true for you and all those whom you touch with your life's work.

*******

This post is apart of the Reclaiming the Real series. Links to the other posts can be found here.


The Map of Memory

ParkerHomesteadThreeForks

Parker Homestead near Three Forks, Montana

                                         

                                         Time past and time future

    Allow but a little consciousness.

                                    But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

                          The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

                              The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

                           Be remembered; involved with past and future,

          Only through time time is conquered.

Burnt Norton

Four Quartets

T.S. Eliot

Time is the nemesis of progress. Time is change. Yet, not all change is progress. Instead, change is the natural state of all things. Things grow and decline simultaneously. To see this reality requires perspective, the perspective of memory.

To remember is to see the past as integral to the present and instructive for the future. But memory is difficult in a time of images and spectacle.

William Faulkner wrote in his novel Light in August,

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

Our memories are a presence that lives in, some say haunts, time. History is not just collections of the facts of time, place, person and institution. History is memory. Representations of the reality of our lives: of our past successes and failures, of love, rejection, boredom and abandonment, of joy and suffering, of life and death. Memory is the record of life lived.

Living in a time where images and spectacle dominate and dissimulate, we distance ourselves from the reality of the past as it lives in the present. There is an unfortunate prejudice against the past as less progressive, modern, forward and complete. The result is the lost of a context for perspective for knowing who we are, and why our lives, and our world is as it is. In remembering, we reclaim time as the past is present for us.

Remembering in Context.

Anyone who has a shared past with others realizes that our perception of the past is highly individualized. It is personal. Listen to a group of friends who have shared a concert, and they each remember something unique to their own experience, even as they stood and clapped and cheered together. The richness of the experience is both shared and individual.

Our memory is a patchwork quilt of recollections that help us to see the past. We don't remember facts, but the connections that link what we call facts into a picture that helps us to remember the past as present. As that recollection lives, it changes, becomes clearer, and its value grows.

I don't remember every meal I've ever eaten. I do remember the ones where there was a significant human encounter with another person or persons. I remember Thanksgiving at my mother's parent's home; how the cousins ate in the foyer of the house; how we played football in the front yard, and roamed the woods surrounding the house. These moments in time remain with me, and form the bond that I have with my sisters and my cousins. Time remembered and cherished.

In The Spectacle of the Real, the past is not history as it happened last week or a century ago.  It is a platform for the sensationalization of the current moment. This past no longer represents the past, but rather a simulacrum, a replacement of what happened to serve the moment of attraction. The past becomes a Disney-like hyper-reality, pristine and sanitized for consumer consumption. 

In this way, our memories are valid only if they fit a narrative structure that is contrived and hidden. The spectacle nature of hyper-reality makes it difficult for the real of the past to live in the real of the present. There is no connection, no relation that allows for this blending of time past and time present to make sense.  As a result, memories, instead of serving us by connecting us to meaning, are treated as illusions.

Is it any wonder, then, why life in the modern world feels so disconnected and unstable. These are not just feelings, but recollections of our embodied memories telling us that something is awry, not quite right. We must listen to reclaim the real.

Our memories, therefore, are the ligaments and tendons of time that tie together the events of the past into a body of remembrance that gives us perspective and meaning. The more we remember, the better able we are to discern the real from the hyper-real, the true from the false, the good from the meaningless.

Memory in a Lockbox

Memory in modern thought has been treated as if it was a container for objects of remembrance. We retrieve the past as snippets of data that are contained in a book or an encyclopedia, sealed in a bank lockbox or in a computer harddrive to be shared on Twitter, Pinterest or Tumblr. David Farrell Krell describes this perspective.

"'Memory,' says John Locke, ' is as it were the Store-house of our Ideas.' ... Memory is a storehouse whose stores are nothing stored nowhere. ... Call it then a power to revive perceptions of 'Ideas' once perceived, along with the assurance that one has perceived them before; a power of the mind to paint its 'ideas' afresh on itself, though with varying degrees of verisimilitude. Verisimilitude? To what should memories approximate? Whence the assurance that one has perceived this or that before? Apparently memory is a storehouse?"

The Wikipedia entry on memory provides a similar description.

"In "Psychology", memory is the process by which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Encoding allows information that is from the outside world to reach our senses in the forms of chemical and physical stimuli."

I find this not only an inadequate perspective, but misleading about human experience. It suggests that memory is a fixed object of information that can be isolated from our experience. Maybe, in a laboratory, a memory can be isolated in such an pristine manner.

However, we don't live in research labs, but in the real world, where our memories, good or bad, live with us. We don't have the option, if we desire to live healthy lives, to isolate parts of our lives, like the past, our memories, as if they don't matter. We are whole beings, not mechanical thinking contraptions that can simply shut down one function so others may continue unhindered by remembrance.

Our memories function within our intellectual, emotional and spiritual selves. We are not separate from our memories. They live with us. We can choose to embrace them or deny their presence, and that is where the challenge of recovering the real in our lives exists.

Memory in Context

Our memory exists in a context of space and time, and in relation to the people who were present then, and who are present now.

I remember many events as a child. I remember being lost at the county fair, fearful of never seeing my parents again, and then standing at the gate, relieved to see them approach. I see and feel it as if it was yesterday.

I remember the days that I spent as a refugee worker during the summer spent in Pakistan in 1981. I remember how those eight weeks were a progression of days of travel, on foot, by jeep, van and plane, every day, to a new corner of the mountains of northern Pakistan, engaging new and different people every day. I remember those days as if they were one long epic story that occurred yesterday. The pictures that I took, the map that I carried, and the journal I wrote in that summer, all contribute to memories remaining vivid to this very day.

As a result, my memory of Pakistan, is not that which we see on the evening news. My memory is not the televised spectacle of the war on terror taking place on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead, I see a country divided by terror, no different than ours. I see mothers and fathers, and their children suffering because of wars, both internal and external, that have been their constant experience for centuries.

Is memory just data, like a commodity, stored and retrieved at will? Or is our memory a context of living history that influences how we live, relate to others, and find direction in life?

This is the question that we must answer to find reality for our lives today.

The Map of Memory

A better analogy for our memories is that of the map, an interactive map of connections, personal, physical and cultural. There are points on the map, the "facts" of history, like a birthday date, the name of your 4th grade teacher or that song from your first junior high school dance. Our recollection moves between these kind of facts to create a landscape of memory that we remember as a story.  Tied together they create a landscape of recollection that places us back in the moment of time.

When I was five or six years old, I swiped a pack of gum from the drug store that my parents patronized. As we drove home, my father asked where I got the gum that I was chewing. I said at the store. He turned the car around, and took me back to the store, where I apologized, and my father paid the clerk. That early childhood moment, I remember vividly, the layout of the store, the moment in the car, the place on the route home when my petty theft was discovered. But the central memory of that moment in my childhood isn't the fact of my thievery, but rather the shame I felt.

In this sense, the map of memory cannot be just facts, but rather the connections between those facts. These connections are paths that link the parts of our experiences into a whole picture, like a map, which guides us through our memories. The more complete the map, the more complete our memories.

Our memory is part of the moral context of our lives. We access meaning and purpose for our lives through our embodied sensory experience.  To remember is to be ever present in that memory. With that memory, we remember what matters and why.

Where do those connections come from? Our memories are not created out of nothing. They don't originate with themselves. They are not like the false memories of the Spectacle. They are representative perceptions of the world that we experienced at the time, that remain with us as memories.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in Phenomenology of Perception,

"... in order to fill out perception, memories need to have been made possible by the physiognomic character of the data. Before any contribution by memory, what is seen must at the present moment so organize itself as to present a picture to me in which I can recognize my former experiences. ... ."

We are embodied persons, not memory containers, or mechanical thinking machines. Our memories are links to past perceptions that are recollected in the context of current ones. This linking creates a map of memory that is constantly being evaluated and reformed in the blink of an eye. Merleau-Ponty writes,

"No sooner is the recollection of memories made possible than it becomes superfluous, since the work it is being asked to do is already done."

Living memories, therefore, no longer live in the past, but in the present, and become part of the moment itself. This is the unfolding character of time and history. It is not linear, but whole, opening itself up to new "maps" or landscapes of understanding.

A Map of a Moment in Time

I see it in my minds eye. I see the precise moment, the place in my fifth-grade classroom, the angle of my head as I looked at the speaker on the wall, as the principal of my elementary school announced to us that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

That memory is a map of a whole series of moments all linked together like a network of pathways that will forever remain with me.

I remember vividly what happened from that moment on Friday afternoon through Sunday morning in late November 1963. The Friday afternoon in the classroom. The Saturday I spent at my friend Steve's house where every channel on the television was about the assassination. The Sunday morning as our family watched coverage on the television, then seeing Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted out of the Dallas police station only to be shot dead by Jack Ruby. 

All those recollections of moments within that three day time frame serve as a map through those days. It is not the linear record of the clock, but rather a map of the landscape of time. Landscape as in a panorama of images and emotions all connected together to create a whole, embodied memory though my own personal, quite selective recollection. What is remembered is the connections that link the various parts of those days. This is how memory works. It is a landscape canvas that captures a moment in time that continues to live, past and present together.

Memory as a Living, Ever Present Story

History, in its simplest form, is a story in the context of a specific time and place.  It provides perspective for understanding how we got here, and, possibly, where we are going. The map of memory helps us decide today what is true or real within the culture of the spectacle because it reveals the embodied relationship we have to the past.This is what a well-told story does for us. Places us into a context of meaning that helps us to know ourselves within the larger scope of history.

History, as a living narrative, is accessed through memory and recollection. Seeing history as the facts of chronological time, retrieved as lists of dates, events and personalities is to fail to see that the meaning of the past has meaning for today.

This is why the novels of William Faulkner have had such a powerful influence upon people in the South. We are brought into a world of living memory that resonates as true and real, even though we live in a different time and place. Few of us alive today, lived in the culture of the Deep South in the late 19th, early 20th centuries. Faulkner's stories are narrative histories of human imagination that place us in a time remembered that is as contemporary as it is historic.

Lee Anne Fennell describes Faulkner's literary world as,

"... a 'land haunted by memory' ... too little attention has been given to memory's overarching role in elucidating such distinctively Faulknerian elements as disordered time, preoccupation with the past, the influence of the dead, and, most importantly, determinism. It is memory ... that pulls pieces of the past into the present, resurrects the dead and remakes family history. ... Time collapses for Faulkner's people: the past is conflated with the present, the dead share narrative space with the living, and childhood traumas lie just beneath the skin of the present moment."

This is not the container view of memory, but rather a living context, a living presence, that is more spiritual than informational.

Faulkner's intentional disordering of time brings the past into the present as a living reality that is not just personal, but a shared experience of human community, at its best and worst.

French novelist Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay about about Faulkner's use of time in The Sound and The Fury, writes,

"In the classical novel, the action has a focus ... It would be futile to look for this kind of focus in The Sound and The Fury: is it Benjy's castration? Caddy's unfortunate love affair? Quentin's suicide? Jason's hatred for his niece? Each episode, once it has been grasped, invokes others - in fact, all the other episodes connected with it. Nothing happens, the story does not progress; rather, we discover it behind each word as an oppressive and hateful presence, varying in intensity with each situation. ...

It is man's misfortune to be confined in time. '... a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune. ...'  This is the true subject of the novel. And if the technique adopted by Faulkner seems at first to be a negation of time, that is because we confuse time with chronology. Dates and clocks were invented by man: ' ... constant speculation regarding the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial which is a symptom of mind-function. Excrement Father said like sweating. To reach real time, we must abandon these devices, which measure nothing: '... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.' Quenton's breaking his watch has, therefore, a symbolic value; it forces us to see time without the aid of clocks. The time of the idiot, Benjy, is also unmeasured by clocks, for he does not understand them." (emphasis in the original)

Faulkner's treatment of time, as Sartre describes, is quite similar to what I see as the map of memory. It is landscape of recollection that travels with us.

Faulkner is famously remembered for the quote from Requiem for a Nun, "The past is not dead. It is not even past."  I find this to be true. It is a living presence that fills in the gaps of perspective so we can better see the world as it is. This is not just an alternative to the Spectacle, but its opposite.

Mapping Our Memories

In order to regain our sense of the past as a living reality, we need to make one important shift in the way we perceive the world.

We need to see that the world is not a collection of parts, of time and history as simply a linear list of dates, names and events, and that our lives are lived in a meaningless succession of discrete moments in time. We need to see life as whole, as integral and complete when the linkages of time and space are recognized and recalled.

"The past is not dead. It is not even past."

To recognize this to be true requires us to be skeptical of all claims to authority by those who produce The Spectacle of the Real. They must earn their credibility and our trust by demonstrating a respect for the past as meaningful in itself for making sense of the present.

It is, therefore, not enough to simply understand that history is the map of memory. We must understand how to use the map of memory to reclaim the real that has been lost. I'll address this in my next post, The Lost Maps of Reality.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Reason for the Real

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... is trust.

In the realm of the spectacle and the hyper-real, what matters is not engagement, but attachment. This kind of attachment, born of fascination, creates a co-dependency between the observer and the observed, between the viewer and the screen. With the spectacular, the pull is to become absorbed in the singular moment that evolves into a 24/7 series of manufactured moments.

For example, I ask because I do not know, what is the fascination with the Jodi Arias murder trial? Why does CNN and other networks invest so much air-time in the coverage of this one case. What is there to learn from it? What difference does this case make to the lives of millions of viewers that coverage of another court case does not?

This is the spectacle of the real that becomes the preferred hyper-real experience precisely because it is not our reality.  The culture of the spectacle is at its core voyeuristic.  We could describe this type of programming as murder-porn because it exploits the same sexual fascination with young attractive women to drive viewers to the screen.

When reality is engaged, a truth emerges that provides a way to understand how we relate to one another and to our environments. It is this relational connection that creates engagement. It is a connection that has a mutual flow between the relating parties. This is true even if we are speaking of our relation to the natural environment. 

Our human relationships of trust require honesty, transparency and openness in an environment of mutual sharing. It is possible to have these relationships virtually. But they must be intentionally developed.

The reason for the real is to create environments where doubt, suspicion and anxiety are replaced by trust, understanding and peace.

I'll write more about this in future posts. This short one is to simply clarify the points that I've made in The Spectacle of the Real and The Path to the Real.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.


The Path to the Real

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All that passes descends and ascends again unseen into the light: the river coming down from sky to hills, from hills to sea, and carving as it moves, to rise invisible, gathered to light to return again. ... Gravity is grace.

The Gift of Gravity (1982)

Wendell Berry

In my previous post - The Spectacle of the Real - I take us on a long excursion to show how in many areas of our lives, we live in an unreal world of hyper-reality, spectacle and simulacra. This last term - an unusual one - is the simulation of one reality as a mask for another. It isn't a replacement, an alternative perspective, but something different. It accomplishes this diversion from reality through the use of images and the presentation of spectacles as a means to grab our attention.

The effect of living in this unreality is that it ill-prepares us for a time when reality surfaces in the form of disaster, disease or disappointment.

The Liberating Limits of the Real

This is what happens for the victims of a house fire, or a cancer diagnosis or the sudden discovery that a trusted business partner has been embezzling funds. Reality in this sense, accompanied by some kind of pain, awakens our perception to a world that we've been ignoring.

I've seen this in people who have suffered through economic hardships and loss. One response is denial and diversion.  Another is anger followed by bitterness and cynicism.

Then, there are those who wake up, fight through the pain to recreate their lives. For these people, they embrace the reality of their pain and use it as a lever to change their lives. In the words of Fredrich Nietzsche, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

Pain, suffering or failure confront us with the reality that there are genuine limitations to our existence. We discover a horizon to our lives when we discover we can't do it all "by my ownself", finding that we need help in completing a project or doing our best work requires collaboration with others or recovering from injury. Our limits are liberating as a result as they open us to possibilities that weren't present. Our limits are mainly time and space, the strength of our bodies, the capacity of our spirit, and our minds' imagination.

 The Embodiment of the Real in Time.

Without a grasp of reality, creating continuity in our work over time can be difficult. There is a transitional nature to life. Most of us speak of this, with teeth clinched, as change. Time and change are indelibly linked together as Aristotle writes,

Time is a measure of change and of being changed, and it measures change by defining some change which will exactly measure out the whole process of change ... .

We move through stages that flow enabling us to build upon both the good and the hard in life. Without a grasp of the real, we see life as random, intermittent, and disconnected from purpose and meaning. This perspective is the perfect platform for the spectacle to become the default culture of our time. It is embodiment of the irrationality of change.

As a result, we don't see the gaps, the in-between spaces, the transition points, the ways that creating openness or vacuum in processes lead to opportunities that can carry us beyond our horizons.  We don't discover the flow, where life flourishes. Without the real, sustainability is difficult to establish.

The problem of time in an age of hyper-reality and spectacle is that we believe that we can make time stop. Time is not a quantity. It is not really minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years or a lifetime. Rather, it is the way we recognize the embodiment of change as life. If all time is is a measure of an endless series of days, then we have a life of random spectacle. However, if time is a measure of change, then we can see meaning unfold in ways that help us to see how our lives can make a difference that matters. To do so requires that we recover the reality of time as change.

It is change that represents time better than the clock or the calendar. I take this thought from Albert Einstein to his life-long friend Michele Besso as an indicator of what this means.

For us who are convinced physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.

Change is what we experience in life. Some of it is welcomed, some of it not. But change, none-the-less, is what we live with each day. To face reality is to recognize that the boundary between the past and the future is a transitional one. What we call the present is just a way to identify the activity of change, those transition points, that we all experience. 

The border between past and future is porous, not defined. Some transitions are hard and fast, others slow and gradual, blending what was before into what will be. There is no static present that can be claimed and fixed in time. There is only the movement of time forward measured by change.

The illusion of time as something fixed is seen in our sense of having lost or wasted time. What we are really lamenting in those moments is the loss of opportunity or the failure to take advantage of a moment of change.

Along the path to the real, we recognized the importance and value of change in our lives. To resist change is to fail to understand life as it is. To embrace change is find the flow of life and time as synonymous. 

The Embodiment of the Real in Space.

Being able to distinguish the real from the fake or from the simulacrum of the virtual requires us to think differently about how we perceive the world we are in. Instead of taking statements and images at face value, we need to look at the wider context, which is always greater than the event or the presentation itself.

Almost seventy years ago, French writer Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote,

“We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: the world is what we perceive. In more general terms we must not wonder whether our self-evident truths are real truths, or whether, through some perversity inherent in relation to some truths, that which is self-evident for us might not be illusory in relation to some truth in itself. …  The world is not what I think, but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.” (emphasis mine)

We each inhabit a space. We move into and through other spaces to inhabit them along with others. The limitations and horizons of our lives are porous. We move into spaces and become a part of that space. There is a relational character to the way we move through spaces.

I sit in my favorite chair to read, but I do not become the chair. The chair and I do have a relationship that joins us together. It is not just momentary, but historic. It is my mother's chair from her childhood. I think of her as I sit. I remember other times, like the time I discovered a new way of looking at the world because of a passage in a book.

The same is true with other objects of which I am largely unaware yet within reach as I sit and read. The lamp behind me. The small table beside me. The pen and pad for taking notes. 

As I sit down, into my chair, for a brief moment, I feel the comfort of the cushion and tactile softness of the fabric. Then my awareness of the chair is gone, transferred to the book that is in my hands. Then to the words on the page, but not to the individual words but to the string of words that create a sentence, but not even the sentence or the paragraphs, but the meaning that the author's words suggest. Even then, I do not see the words, but the image or thoughts that the words conjure up in my mind, until I come across a word that I do not know. I stop, refocus to that word as the object of my awareness.

Our perception of things is whole, but our conscious awareness is always selective, governed by how and why we are moving through spaces.

I walk into a grocery store. I'm looking for things on my list. I ignore most of the things on the shelves that my eye catches. I don't see them. There is no conscious acknowledgement of those products. Yet, I am perceiving them because something triggers a recollection of a kind of cheese that I had a party last week. I go over to the cheese section, and find that special cheese that was not on my list, but is now in my cart.

We see more than we acknowledged. A part of these spaces are our memories, or recollections of things past. These are memories that are triggered by our senses. I've heard that smell is the sense most rooted to our memory. We remember things, not in our conscious awareness, but instead as an awareness of the wholeness of the spaces we enter.

We are watching a movie, and, we think, "I've seen this before." But where? We trace back through our memory. We are not thinking about the movie itself, but rather the context, the place in which we saw it. We try to remember the room, the people, the conversation afterward, the time of day, and other happenings in our daily lives at the time. Then our recollection of the space clicks into our awareness and we are there, in the past watching the same film. We relax, satisfied in our recollection, and settled back into watching the film in the present.

We move within physical spaces and encounter people and places that not only help form memories, but impact us as persons.

Educational programs that primarily focus on the development of intellectual knowledge are less effective in educating the whole person than those that create a range of behavioral responses to the situations we encounter. Aristotle wrote,  

"Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it; people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly we become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate acts, brave by performing brave ones."

This learning does not take place only in our minds, but in our bodies within the places we live and move, work and play.

To see these spaces as they are means that we must get out of our heads and recognize that we are fully embodied persons moving in a world of fully embodied persons who, like me, inhabit a world of objects that also inhabit a space. In this sense, it can be said that in whatever space that I am in, that I have a relationship to those things, those physical objects, like chairs, lamps, cabinets, refrigerators and the like.

A wood worker becomes a master craftsperson by developing a relationship with the tools of her trade and the wood that is her canvas. That relation becomes less conscious and more second nature as she develops that relationship.

It is just like learning to ride a bike. Once learned, being conscious of maintaining balance is not necessary. That knowledge is now in our bones, and it was not learned solely in the mind, but in the bodies that we have.

When you go to a restaurant, do you care where you sit? Of course you do. If they put you in the kitchen, by the backdoor, near the dish washer, you would be offended and leave.  The spaces we inhabit matter to us because each part operates as a part of the whole context.

When we enter the restaurant, we look for a space that is a network of relationships between the chairs, the tables, the lighting, the placement within the room and its proximity to people. We do not identify each of those separately, but as a whole set of relationships.

This is how we interact with reality, as a relationship to a whole context of space and time.

The Path through Space and Time

The virtual, online world lacks this context. We have the surface of the screen in front of us. The view could be Antarctica, but we are in shorts and a T-shirt on a ninety degree day in Miami. In virtual space, our body is mostly disconnected from the context that our mind inhabits.The connection is more emotional as we find ourselves immersed in a narrative of virtual reality. It can be compelling because it does touch us, but is still incomplete, because the embodied experience is missing.

We are more than thinking machines. We are more than feeling response mechanisms. We are embodied, perceiving, relating persons moving in and the through the spaces that we inhabit.

To recover reality, we need to recover our awareness, our perception, of the physical spaces that we live in each day. We need to immerse ourselves in the processes of change that carry us forward. To do so is to seek to discover the fullness of human experience within the world as it exists.

Over the next few posts we'll look at how to recover the real in some specifics ways of living and understanding.

We'll consider how reclaiming a context of history helps us understand why, where and how our lives unfold.

We'll look at the nature of meaning or values as reflections and guides to the real.

We'll explore how our relationships with one another are the most the best and most beneficial context for recovering the real.

And finally, we look at the nature of personal leadership within the context of social, institutional and organizational life.

The recovery of the real follows a path. As a result, it is a journey of discovery that will bring both pain and joy, freedom and obligation. It is the journey of living.

Series Note: This post is one in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.