Thursday, November 24, 2011

do your work & step back (post for comment)

Thomas Bayrle, Maxwell Kaffee, Oil on canvas (1967).

The Tao doesn't take sides;
it gives birth to both good and evil.
The Master doesn't take sides;
she welcomes both saints and sinners.- Tao Te Ching


i'd like to talk about this void of tao calling what fullness?

imagine an event before us, which appears incomplete. it's out of joint. and what isn't?

i take thomas bayrle Maxwell Kaffee (above) as a metaphor for the nausea that implacably pursues roquentin in La Nausée, the paradox of one-and-the-many that we find again in kenyan artist ingrid mwuangi's If:

The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things. (vers. 42)1

Ingrid Mwuangi, If, digital c-prints mounted on aluminum (2001).

The Tao is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities. (vers. 4)

according to the tao te ching, our will to fix things can paradoxically take us into unexpected detours. when to let just things be?

If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,  (vers. 16)

we generally don't see our will as being impeded by anything other than our desire to act (a point we should heed from hard determinists). yet, in the big realm of overall causation, we're not alone. our will is "differential," one amongst hundreds of millions of other intersecting wills. seldom we stop to ponder our volitions as an infinitesimal fraction of an overall sum of (unknown) wills in the here and now, plus the already existing chain/reactions which our time/space.

how to see one's will vis-a-vis this higher order of will/differentials? what's the relative limit between one's doing and one doing too much? and viceversa, how much of our lives simply end up -unknowingly- "happening" to us?
ray bradbury, A Sound of Thunder, edition of collier's magazine (june 1952).

just as in bradbury's A Sound of Thunder,2 imagine how much of our planet's future is -and is not- in our hands right now.

The Tao is like a bellows:
it is empty yet infinitely capable.
The more you use it, the more it produces;
the more you talk of it, the less you understand. ( vers. 5)

on the positive side, think of serendipity in science, randomness in quantum mechanics and aleatoricism in music. 3

Marco Fusinato, Mass Black Implosion, ink on archival facsimile of score (2007).

on the negative side, think of Black Swans, popper's historicist fallacy and uneventful events. which brings us back to the mismatch of essence/appearance. of course, the question that we need to answer is how can we tell the difference?

Look, and it can't be seen.
Listen, and it can't be heard.
Reach, and it can't be grasped. (vers. 14)

the answer to the problem is not that simple, because there is no single unequivocal course of action. it's at this point that jazz can help. when musicians improvise, they are also part of a center of energy given by the whole ensemble. if one sees it synchronically (as if you could make a slice in the music sequence) the musicians seem to solo, if one sees it diachronically, it plays as a perfectly fit sequence. the success of the solo depends precisely of this give-and-take between part and whole and vice-versa. this is known as "groove," the sort of tao of jazz.4 

as in jazz, taoism is perspectival, i.e., there can be different solutions to a given problem. this doesn't mean that all solutions are the same. just as there are good and bad improvisations, there are good and bad solutions to a given problem (in its uniqueness, tao is plural).

tao has multiple interpretations. why? think of this question: is the Big Dipper made by nature? Philosopher nelson goodman thinks not: a constellation is a "version," i.e., a construction that picks some stars from others. the same with "star," which is a version that "picks" (configures) stars from other celestial bodies.5

Lecia Dole-Recio, Untitled, paper, vellum, tape and gouache (2003).

goodman explains:
Truth of statements,rightness of descriptions, representations, exemplifications, expressions,... is primarily a matter of fit, fit to what is referred to in one way, or other renderings, or modes and manners of organization.6
in our quest/struggle with reality, we keep building construction upon construction (human endeavor in science, politics and the arts, reflects this dynamic). what comes first in Ochoa's Collapsed? hint: the concrete wall is the future event of the aggregate of rock, sand and water. you see the cause, then you see the effect, but never at once. art does the trick! 

Ruben Ochoa, Collapsed, Concrete, steel, burlap, wood, dirt (2009).
at some point we discussed the apparent riddle of the Tao Te Ching, which brings forth the idea "speaking/not speaking" in zen, which we'll go into detail pretty soon. the Chuang Tzu helps: "if tao is made clear (by words), it is not tao. if words are argumentative, they do not reach the point."

yeah, every now and then we just have to let go and shut up. at that point one really but briefly understands the value of letting words flush down the word/sewer.

Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity. (vers 56)
tao listens to silence. composer & buddhist john cage puts is beautifully: "every something is an echo of nothing."

let's pay attention to tao's subtle groove:  

If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up. (vers 22)

in our reading tuesday, we commented an important and often glossed over element in taoism: humor. Let's come back to it. chuang tzu counsels: "the general idea is to show the happy excursion, the enjoyment in the way of inaction and self-enjoyment." (Chuang Tzu, A Happy Excursion)

no one fits this metaphor better than a child. we must try to bring back our lost innocence and sense of wonderment. there is something to be said for a child's natural ability to take in the world without any prejudice.

Brian Chippendale, Ninja and Maggot Series, (2006).

unfortunately, growing up means repressing this ability so that the adult becomes an entrenchment of hardened stereotypes. meanwhile, our ability for enjoyment gets regimented and instrumentalized.

"having fun" -as we usually use the word nowadays- carries this sense of being entertained, which in our post-capitalist society is exactly the opposite of true fun, the equivalent of forfeiting our curiosity by domesticating ourselves into vacuous, purposeless compliance.

against this disposition we must present tao's flexible, contrarian, comical, side:

 Teruhiko Yumura This is Ja, for Flamingo Studio

tao's flexibility avoids the pitfalls of intellectual constipation:
Proud beyond measure,
you come to your knees:
Do enough without vieing,
Be living, not dying.

now the fool comes back. he's been with us this semester. chuang tzu says: a man who knows he is a fool is not a great fool. how close this is to this. as you'll see, the fool becomes an distinguished character in zen.

i'd like to warn you however, of unproblematically going for enjoyment, not only because, to begin with, the capitalist imperative "enjoy yourself" can castrate the true feeling we seek, but because, as sarah kay points out, enjoyment can be a double-edge sword: "enjoy-meant," and the meaning displaces being.8 said differently, the desire ends up killing the feeling. i think this is what philosopher simon critchley has in mind when he cites a telling passage from beckett's Watt:
The bitter the hollow and -haw, haw!- the mirthless. The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethics laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. Not good! Not true! Well, well. But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout - haw!- so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs -silence please- at that which is unhappy. 9
it is risus purus that may work as a therapy to demystify the negative attitudes of our political comedy: anal-retentiveness, social hostility, impetuous rage and self-importance.
1 taken from Tao Te Ching, translated by s. mitchell2 in his short story A Sound of Thunder, ray bradbury imagines the impact of the so-called butterfly effect:
Maybe Time can't be changed by us. Or maybe it can be changed only in little subtle ways. A dead mouse here makes an insect imbalance there, a population disproportion later, a bad harvest further on, a depression, mass starvation, and finally, a change in social temperament in far-flung countries. Something much more subtle, like that. Perhaps only a soft breath, a whisper, a hair, pollen on the air, such a slight, slight change that unless you looked close you wouldn't see it. Who knows? Who really can say he knows? We don’t know. We’re guessing. But until we do know for certain whether our messing around in Time can make a big roar or a little rustle in history, we’re being careful.
3 serendipity is the finding of something valuable without its being specifically sought. in general, activities and skills that can function in parallel may interact in unplanned and unforeseen ways. professor Jeffrey McKee argues that some of the most important forces of human evolution (the roles of which have been largely neglected) are chance, coincidence, and chaos. according to McKee one cannot understand how humans evolved without taking these three factors into account. see, The riddled chain: Chance, coincidence, and chaos in human evolution (Rutgers University Press, 2000). 4"when jazz is really grooving -whether it's a solo pianist, a quartet, or a big band -there is indeed an unmistakable feeling of buoyancy and lift (...) relaxed intensity is the key." Johnny King, What Jazz Is: An Insider's Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz (Walker: 1997) p. 24. 5 Hilary Putnam, Renewing Philosophy, (Cambridge, 1992), p. 115. 6Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, (Hackett Publishing, 1978).  7 See, Youru Wang, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Chuang-Tzu and Zen Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking (Routledge, 2003), p. 98.  8Sarah Kay, Zizek: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, 2003), p. 162. Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, (Verso, 2007), p. 82


Anonymous said...

I think that improvisation is the only way to overcome our daily dilemmas. Mainly because if we try to formulate a plan that may be a great solution to a problem, life has a way of squashing it down, the approach can be also seen as “going with the flow.” As much as one may try to set certain goals in life, or certain ideas for the future, there are always detours we have to take and sometimes in the end of it all, those ideas become new ideas. You can’t really expect life to go as smoothly as one may expect, it just doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, as pessimistic as this may sound, trying to return to the innocent days of being a child is something many try to reach but will never attain. As mentioned in your post, we endure too many hardships and our view of entertainment is lost and manipulated into something different. Our imagination is also lost, which was the source of our entertainment as kids. Now it’s all about viewing others imaginations or re-make of those imaginations (movies).

Anthony DeCollibus

RF said...

"The universe is perfect intervene at your own peril."

Personal will is an illusion. You're not in charge. Anything that moves you toward solidity as time progresses is an illusion. What Lao-Tzu was pointing when he wrote the Tao Te Ching was the nature of the Universe, how it plays fair etc and many other things. It is a very advanced piece of writing. Enlightenment is all about deprogramming yourself until you reach the true value.

Stop thinking, and end your problems.
What difference between yes and no?
What difference between success and failure?
Must you value what others value,
avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous!

Other people are excited,
as though they were at a parade.
I alone don't care,
I alone am expressionless,
like an infant before it can smile.

Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.

Other people are bright;
I alone am dark.
Other people are sharper;
I alone am dull.
Other people have a purpose;
I alone don't know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

I am different from ordinary people.
I drink from the Great Mother's breasts

Lao is pointing at how he has become a child. That is what Awakening aka Enlightenment is. Becoming a child, free of preferences, satisfied with everything. Content. Etc etc. "To be awake is to be alife" said Thoreau.

Gerald said...

Please forgive me if I go on a bit.

Oh the elusive nature of reality, ever present yet hidden from sight. One reaches for it but ends up proverbially grasping at smoke. Even so, I think deep in the core of the mind, every aspect of reality is known. I sometimes see philosophy not as an attempt to bring reality into focus, but the other way around. The conscious mind over complicates what we already know, and is then attempting to bring itself into focus. The more we experience, the more complicated reality becomes. One must then look through the multi-layers of their existence in order to comprehend what is. These are the dual realities of the conscious/sub-conscious mind. Since the two parts never completely meet, reality remains a half mystery that can be guessed at but never fully understood.

Tim Smith said...

One of the reasons I decided to take this class was because I was made aware of Taoism last winter and became fascinated with it. Specifically, the concept of Wu Wei. I am glad to have learned about other eastern religions/ philosophies this semester, but I am really glad to be learning more about Taoism. The concept of Wu Wei is closely tied to nature, letting things be and "acting without acting". This got me thinking about animals. Animals, who are not capable of abstract though, are free from complicated emotions and the need to make plans. Animals simply live from moment to moment. If they are hungry then they eat, if it is mating season then they mate, and if threatened they will defend themselves. the only drawback to their lack of abstract thought is that they cannot contemplate the meaning of their existence and their place in the universe, which I believe to be one of the best things about having a frontal lobe in our brains. To me, Taoism and Wu Wei means having our minds unfettered, and moving without effort from moment to moment without being tied down by emotions and complex thoughts. This is much easier said than done.

Lava Arms said...

"Just let it go, man!"

O the throes of Man, that we may weep and weep and yet never will we fill the vastness of our hearts with tears.
Were we to pour the entire Earths oceans into the void that is the center of the human soul, it would be but a drop in an even bigger inconceivable sea of longing.

Look, and it can not be seen. Listen, and it can not be heard. Grasp it, and it can not be touched.

The balance that exists in nature is the denizen of life; through millennia, the silence in the void has brought forward color, sound, shapes, tastes, life. It did all these things with out the order of man. Life came from the pitfalls of darkness; in an eternity of burning flame and seeming chaos, the delicate flower of life grows uharmed and untouched, ready to serve its sweet nectar to gentle passersby, such as the bees or the birds, the flies and the lizards.

When a great leader leads his people to victory, the people say "We did it all by ourselves!"
Truly, the Tao is the great bastion of anarchy as it empowers the individual by siding them with the ever constant and undefinable force of nature, while the oligarchies literally attempt to do combat with a force that is responsible for the beginning of time itself.

HA! Do battle with nature? You destroy the very thing that gives you life! Stop your toiling, your causation for self importance! It's weighing you down!

The greatest form of respect is unspoken. A man who demands respects deserves none.


This post was very interesting, with a lot of different topics going on. I would like to cover the importance of keeping your inner child. I find this to be extremely important, in my opinion its what keeps you sane. Its ironic that when you are a child all you want in life is to be a grown up, and when you are a grown up all you wish it to go back in time and be a carefree child. At least that’s how I feel sometimes. Being more like a child lets you think less about the negative things in the world. It also keeps you honest and true to your beliefs. You find joy and amusement in the simple things in life. How beautiful is that! You use your imagination more and see beyond what is in front of you. Seeing life in this form is a gift because it keeps you young and light hearted. Even mundane tasks become enjoyable using your childhood spirt. Life is not a cupcake, and we should all you this tool to our advantage.

Alivia Poirier said...

I love the idea of being empty so one can hold. To be empty is to be full!! But what action does this allow? To be empty implies non-action, a patience unlike the patience of waiting? Patience is not my strong suit, anxiety is my strong suit. My mind dwells in a constant state of waiting. Waiting for the inevitable, the unexpected, that which i deserve and do not deserve.
It's true that the sanest man takes everything as it comes but where I struggle is the line between what is "coming" at me and what i have created for myself. Our impact in endless and constant and at the same time it seems so small and meaningless. The duality maybe explains itself, going with the line of thought, wondering "where our will begins and others will's end", is there any real differential? Ive lost the ability to tell what is of great importance and what is of little importance, maybe it's all the same.
alivia poirier

Anonymous said...

Life is so simple but humans complicate unnecessarily. We complicate it with words, and explanations, and meanings. Not everything needs a definition, sometimes we just have to appreciate the beauty of it. The Tao basically says he who admits he is a fool is not a great fool. I suppose it is human nature to try to "describe" everything and be all knowing... but sometimes we just put too much emphasis on words and classifications and not enough focus on the beauty of the thing or the thing itself.

Adrienne Jackson

Anonymous said...

It depends, everything depends on what type of person you are! It's like how you'd see tourists looking up at tall building or how they'd look out the windows of a bus or their car at every restaurant they see, only to say or think out loud that there bound to eat there in a few days or so. They're excited because they never been! That is how a child views the world. But if you're too serious or too comical, could the same thing apply to you? Could you, or I, see the world with big bright eyes without placing judgment or thinking to yourself "I already know this shit, man!" and really look at it from a point of view of a child? It's like how I'd look at the Miami skies making it seem like if I were to ever move to another state I'd feel like I'd see the difference because I looked at it with awe, making everything appear more colorful and less of what it really is or what we make of it through what we were taught to be true. I mean, life is already complicated and difficult enough, and it's ashame how most children are forced to witness this truth through the lips of adults that can't seem to get that a child's innocence is richer then GOLD. Because of what we are surrounded by, we ruin things, we make things appear dim and dark when it really isn't. We make everything look like a burden, a chore, when we have a choice! Enjoy it. Seeing from the eyes of an innocent is quite beautiful and it would be sad if we couldn't get that good feeling back. But something in me says, we lost it and we just might keep it that way. (Some of us that is, but I have every intention to get that good feel back, and you should do the same if any of this applies to you.)

Dulange Absolu

Andrew McLaughen said...

I find it funny how easily people will cheer and boo a person’s philosophy based solely on who’s saying whether they have an actual point or not. I heard a lot of “this makes perfect sense,” “the inner child is what people must truly try attain,” “simplicity is the answer,” blah, blah, blee, blah, blah. However, I could have sworn I heard the same this exact philosophy coming out the evil mastermind in a movie or comic. You’ll hear this towards the end of the story where the bad guy gets the upper hand and instead of killing the main hero, he’ll divulge into the reasons why he has done his deeds. Many times a villain is doing this for what he perceives are good reasons. There are so many reasons why these antagonist due such deeds such as “ignorance is bliss” so what the main bad guy is trying to do is destroy information for the betterment of society; An evil emperor who wants to simplify society by riding complex goals from people; An antagonistic cultist who says not to be afraid of death due to how things cycle and the apparent existence of eternal life. Now the audience watching the story unfold usually won’t say “this idea makes perfect sense,” but most likely will say “he’s insane,” “reducing people’s mind to ignorance will cause more problems,” “we can’t just trust that death is good,” “this reduces the value of people,” “goals, complex or not, is what life is living for,” blah, blah, blee, blah, blah. Do take note: I’m not saying either side is right, but just pointing out the hilarity of how people can unknowingly switch sides on an issue or topic based solely on who’s saying it. If you don’t get what I’m saying then I recommend reading some of the verses in Tao Te Ching in an evil voice and you might find it sounding very similar to a bad guy’s plan at the end of a recent blockbuster. Of course, after everything is said and done, at least, one of the audience members will think of what the antagonist has said and might say “despite the antagonists insanity, he had some logic to his plan.” I guess this, at least, gives me the right to say “despite Lao-Tzu’s logic, he had some insanity in his plan.”

niggi stardust said...

A watched kettle never boils, if your sitting around waiting for something to happen in your life, you may to come to find you wasted more than half your life in a seat. When ever you " give up on love" it seems you meet someone new. Things come in this life when we least expect them and its better to just be an open.. empty.. door way waiting to recieve what ever is coming your way.

Steven Brungard said...

Decision is the only power within this universe. Each of us hold that power and none of us can escape responsibility to use, abuse or fail to use our power.

Decision produces results arrayed from good to to evil. Decision is the source of all values.