Thursday, November 15, 2012

do your work and 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 take thomas bayrle Maxwell Kaffee (above) as a metaphor for the paradox of the one and the multiple. we find it 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, to render reality "coherent," could paradoxically take us into unexpected detours.

when should we let things just 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)

the answer is near. one just have to take the chance:

 Since before time and space were,
the Tao is.
It is beyond is and is not.
How do I know this is true?
I look inside myself and see. (vers. 21)

we don't see our will as being impeded by anything other than our desire to act. in the big realm of overall causation, our will is not the only mover, but one amongst hundreds of millions of other intersecting wills. seldom we stop to ponder our volition 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 of the ONEw32w2?

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."4 

as in jazz, taoism offers 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.

tao is plural, it offers diverse 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 into 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. now 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. 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. 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 advises: a man who knows he is a fool is not a great fool (how close to this). as you'll see, the fool becomes an distinguished character in zen.

there is a caveat though, if we unproblematically go 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 then meaning displaces the being.7

said differently, desire may end up killing the true 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. 8
risus purus that may work as an antidote to the negative attitudes of our political comedy: anal-retentiveness, social hostility, impetuous rage and self-importance.

the tao of self-knowledge is personal, contrarian & paradoxical!

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.
(vers. 71)

i am closing this post wednesday november 21 
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).  7Sarah Kay, Zizek: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, 2003), p. 162.  8 Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, (Verso, 2007), p. 82


Anonymous said...

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...

This amazing piece opens your mind up to the idea of nothingness to be able to at least, to some extent, understand what you encounter in your lifetime. Understanding these flaws of yourself gives you sincerity. And makes you a stronger person. It crucifies the self, which nowadays can be traced to be the cause of suffering, and inspires you to continue the journey of virtue and enlightenment while knowing that you wont fully attain it. The beauty is the journey.

Uriel Perez

Angel Martelo said...

So far, I honestly find the concept of "Tao" to be quite interesting; partly due to how Laozi proclaims his teachingas on the Tao. He does so with a certain conviction and authority, as if he is objectively sure of what he speaks about, which is potentially detrimental to his role as teacher, particularly due to Laozi's comments on the archetypical fool who subjectively(and falsely) thinks he knows of what he personally speaks of.

It takes a certain boldness to state things like, "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," and everything else he states about the Tao.

Therefore I must ask; where did Laozi acquire this knowledge? Was it simply from philosophising to himself? Did he write the Teo Te Ching from a blend of common sense, deep pondering, and personal theories about the cosmos? Or did he have a mystical experience/encounter with the Tao which resulted in attaining such pearls of wisdom?

"Since before time and space were, the Tao is. It is beyond is and is not. How do I know this is true? I look inside myself and see."

Can the Tao be understandably witnessed by "looking inside one's self and seeing?"

I'm not trying to downplay the wisdom found in the Tao Te ching, I enjoy much of the little I've read from it. However, I feel the need to point out some things.

1. Laozi, seems to me, is tacitly suggesting to not speak of things one has no true(in the sense of profound awareness or direct experience) knowledge of, as if you knew them to be true, when in reality you can only believe. In this way, beliefs can be held and expressed as beliefs, but it would be foolish to present said beliefs as truth, whether to yourself or others. Likewise, it would also be foolish to present what one knows to be true as simple fallible belief. Talk about possibly walking on thin ice.

2. Even more important, Laozi, I assume, is also implying that this " true knowledge" is accesible/attainable, at the very least, to all sentient human beings, buried somewhere within ouselves. Therefore, currently held beliefs can later be either discarded or glorified,depending if they happen to be true or not, by arriving at this "knowing" that is hidden in ourselves.

Laozi then, again I assume, would not want us to simply accept what he preaches as our beliefs(at least not indefinitely forever), nor to falsely claim we know them to be true, when in fact we do not; but instead to discover the Tao by "looking inside ourselves and seeing what is there," so that we can discover the same truths he attempts to communicate to others, and thereby knowing them to be true. Basically to discover the same Tao(rememeber Tao is just a word which points to a wordless reality) Laozi has discovered, which would lead to the same conclusions he has, without the need to rely on him, his teachings, or even hearing of him to begin with.

If such a "thing" is truly possible, to have an encounter with the "Infinite," the "Cosmos," the "God," and be changed/altered/healed by such an event, which may be viewed as "returning to Source;" then it's something that all should seriously ponder to strive for.

To "look inside one's self and see," whatever that means, sounds like it can be quite epic.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a little bit ironic to have one of the longest posts about texts that seem to exemplify the importance of just living it.

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)

All of this aside, I really enjoyed this post and the readings and discussions that take place in class.

Jacob Sims

Jonathan Pratt-Perez said...

I enjoyed this post professor. There's certainly a lot to be said, or better yet, experienced, about it.

The first thing that strikes me is how the more "liberal" (and I use that term relatively) person tends to accentuate Eastern Philosophy's relativistic portions (e.g. "The Tao doesn't take sides; it gives birth to both good and evil" and "Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease.") while "passing over in silence" as Wittgenstein would say, the absolutist remarks which abound to a greater degree.

This seems to me a perhaps intentional oversight of the clear dialectical pedagogy which is employed in Eastern Wisdom texts. Both sides are not mutually exclusive but interrelated and equally absolute. The particular is nothing without the whole and the whole nothing without the particular. To render greater importance then to the relativistic portions, whether theoretically or practically, must be seen as an innovation.

Other interesting notes would be the clear parallel to the Christian Trinity in this statement:

"The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things."

One could find a trinitarian theological explanation of this nature coming straight from the pen of St. Aquinas or St. Augustine, with the slight variation that the one is the Tao, and in turn the one is also the multiplicity (the three).

Furthermore, being myself highly empathetic to anarchistic doctrine, I am also critical of capitalism. However, the capitalist bashing in the article seems to me to simplistic and dishonest. Capitalism BREEDS that kind of attitude and behavior, there is no doubt about that, but materialism and consumerism are in no way endemic only to it and no other political ideology. Moreover, materialism and consumerism are not explicit capitalist doctrines. To portray it as such knowingly is the stuff of demagogues (not to say that this is currently the case).

All in all though I enjoyed the content of the post.

God bless

Brian Farin said...

The Tao has given me much insight into how to live and accept life. Sometimes when facing the dysfunction around us in the form of harmful relationships amongst people, between man and nature, and the everpresent mental noise that we all experience constantly, it can be pretty depressing. Things aren't always the way we want them. Then we beat ourselves up for wanting the wrong things. We drive ourselves literally mad.

Here is where the Tao philosophy really takes command and asserts its teachings. You dont always get what you want, but you always get what you need. "The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao." Lao Tzu has drawn me in completely with this statement. There is no rule book in life. Good and bad are rooted in the same source. Start thinking youre wise and you become foolish. The best way to live is to accept things as they are (while still obviously striving to make your life a healthy one physically and emotionally) and to enjoy our time here with happiness.

Something that always helps me realize and achieve balance is observing nature and its perfection. There is nothing good about a mother cow caring for its calf, and nothing evil about a wolf who attacks that calf. There is a dichotomy of constructing and destructing. It is s cycle. It is beautiful. If only humans would find our harmony--which means using natural resources only for our basic needs, being mindful of everything--for every situation has wisdom to teach us.

I liked what you said in class that you believe if a destructive force were heading toward Lao Tzu he would just enjoy the last few moments. Also, one of the above comments mentioned that Lao Tzu held himself in high regard to suggest that his own philosophy is absolute truth--While that is true, for I dont believe it possible that one man can find absolute truth, we should certainly be grateful to him for at least directing us in a positive direction.

Anonymous said...

In this post 3 points especially caught my eye and attention. first of all, the cartoon about killing one mouse and by doing so killing all these future mice. It is something that we never thing about, yet so important to do so. because we can change the world, and even though our actions now might seem insignificant right now, later on they might have a completely different meaning.

the other two parts that i thought were very important were the two verses:

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.

and the other one:

Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.

both of them i think kind of speaks about being humble, and that what really matters is the journey itself and not the ending point. What matters is how we get to that enlightenment and happiness, what we do to get there and the way we do it. even though sometimes, it seems that it is not what we wanted, at the end it will get us to where we are supposed to be. so the way i understand it is that we have to embrace it and enjoy the ride.

overall, i really enjoyed this post, and it made me think about many things, because there are so many great ideas written here.


Anonymous said...

I get the feeling that the tao te ching is in some ways everything we know to be 'true' but dont want to accept. I think this approaches the problem of 'crowd psychology' really well. It can be very hard to have a real discussion and get to the core of the discussion with a person when in crowds or with masses, but when two individuals converse you get totally different results. This is much of what Lao Tzus teachings are about. Being able to try and approach the individual problems and put a strong emphasis on the individuality and how much individuals actually make a difference. I sometimes get the feeling that in this era people are a lot less individual and more about the collective. For most of my life Ive believed that individuals are more important than the collective, I think this 'guide' is great approach to understanding this and trying to do something about it.

-Jonathan Kohn

Francisco Silva said...


Not taking sides - acceptance. People tend to accept or take sides bearing what is good only. It is a much easier pathway to follow, it becomes a much more pleasant journey, it conveys a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

When it is said that Tao is like a well, but never used up, it is like the eternal void. It is because people tend to live in denial. Denial of acceptance of the bad, of the evil. The evil or the bad can simply be a desire. Not having what is desired is felt as frustation which in turns causes anger and disappointment. If you don´t realize the source, you stumble in confusion and sorrow. Realizing the source of the desire, acceptimng the bad or the evil, brings balance, equilibrium, quiet mind, composure, understanding, detachment. Just like it was said, it is primarily a matter of fit.

Verse 56 implies balance, equilibrium, detachment:

close your mouth
block off your senses
blunt your sharpness
untie your knots
soften your glare
settle your dust
thi is primal identity.

Free the mind. What is thought to be good, see it as bad. What is thought to be right, see it as wrong. Again, it brings up the concept of contradiction. To become aware, to be free of impediments, sides can not be taken - welcomes both saints and sinners.

Verse 22

if you want to become whole
let youself be impartial
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.

Yes, desire may end up killing the legitimate consciousness of equilibrium and contentment.

Will end this comment with verse 71: not knowking is true knowledge. When taking one side only, when accepting or favoring what is in the best light of an assumed better outcome, when having conviction that experience and knowledge are not matter of contention, that is when the fool looms. The assumption of knowing - truth is, true knowledge is being aware that you don´t know.