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Nature and Creativity: The Science of “Soft Fascination” and How the Natural World Presses the Reset Button of the Brain’s Default Mode Network

 

“Our everyday experience does not prepare us to assimilate the gaping hugeness of the Grand Canyon or the crashing grandeur of Niagara Falls. We have no response at the ready; our usual frames of reference don’t fit.”


Nature and Creativity: The Science of “Soft Fascination” and How the Natural World Presses the Reset Button of the Brain’s Default Mode Network

“In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” Thoreau wrote in contemplating nature as a form of prayer — a clarifying force for the mind and a purifying force for the spirit, a lever for opening up the psyche’s civilization-contracted pinhole of concerns.

A generation later, in a different corner of Massachusetts, William James pioneered the study of attention with his then-radical (at least to the Western mind) declamation: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

James distinguished between two kinds of attention: “voluntary,” in which we willfully aim our focus at a particular object or activity with concerted effort, and “passive,” which approximates the Eastern notion of mindfulness — an effortless noticing of sensations and phenomena as they naturally arise within and around us, our focus drifting by its own accord from one stimulus to another as they emerge. James listed this “passivity” as one of the four qualities of mystical experiences. But it is also the most direct valve between the mystical and the mundane — the type of attention that places us in our most creative states.

Aurora Borealis, observed March 1, 1872, 9:25 P.M.
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering astronomical paintings. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In the epochs since James, scientists have termed this effortless attention “soft fascination.” It is at the root of our mightiest antidote to depression and our most generative mindsets, and it comes to us — or we to it — most readily in nature.

Whitman knew this as he was recovering from a paralytic stroke and observing how infallibly nature can “bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.” He intuited what science has since measurably demonstrated — that these affinities hold the key to what is brightest and most creative in us, for they are at bottom affinities with the freest parts of ourselves.

In nature, we go unfettered from the world’s illusory urgencies that so easily hijack the everyday mind and syphon our attention away from its best creative contribution to that very world and its needs. When we surrender to “soft fascination,” we are not running from the world but ambling back to ourselves and our untrammeled multitudes, free to encounter parts of the mind we rarely access, free to acquaint different parts with one another so that entirely novel connections emerge.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare English editionof Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Annie Murphy Paul devotes a portion of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain (public library) — her wonderful inquiry into the art-science of thinking with the whole world — to the science of this peculiar and singularly fertile state of mind, into which communion with the non-human world deposits us:

Scientists theorize that the “soft fascination” evoked by natural scenes engages what’s known as the brain’s “default mode network.” When this network is activated, we enter a loose associative state in which we’re not focused on any one particular task but are receptive to unexpected connections and insights. In nature, few decisions and choices are demanded of us, granting our minds the freedom to follow our thoughts wherever they lead. At the same time, nature is pleasantly diverting, in a fashion that lifts our mood without occupying all our mental powers; such positive emotion in turn leads us to think more expansively and open-mindedly. In the space that is thus made available, currently active thoughts can mingle with the deep stores of memories, emotions, and ideas already present in the brain, generating inspired collisions.

Zarathustra and His Friends by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

“Soft fascination” has an active counterpart in another state we experience most readily in nature: awe — that ultimate instrument of unselfing.

Citing the work of the Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner — our epoch’s William James of awe — Paul writes:

[Keltner] calls it an emotion “in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear.”

One of the pleasurably fearsome things about awe is the radically new perspective it introduces. Our everyday experience does not prepare us to assimilate the gaping hugeness of the Grand Canyon or the crashing grandeur of Niagara Falls. We have no response at the ready; our usual frames of reference don’t fit, and we must work to accommodate the new information that is streaming in from the environment.

Awe strikes the human animal indiscriminately of its age or era, its biometrics or identities. Its interleaving of pleasure and fear is at the heart of Virginia Woolf’s arresting account of a total solar eclipse, at the heart of the young Hans Christian Andersen’s climb of Vesuvius during an eruption, at the heart of the middle-aged Rachel Carson’s quiet, rapturous encounter with the moonlit tide, at the heart of what impelled Rockwell Kent toward “the cruel Northern sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins,” at the heart of “the overview effect” that staggers astronauts in orbit.

Total eclipse of the sun, observed July 29, 1878, at Creston, Wyoming Territory
Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

Paul writes:

The experience of awe, Keltner and other researchers have found, prompts a predictable series of psychological changes. We become less reliant on preconceived notions and stereotypes. We become more curious and open-minded. And we become more willing to revise and update our mental “schemas”: the templates we use to understand ourselves and the world. The experience of awe has been called “a reset button” for the human brain. But we can’t generate a feeling of awe, and its associated processes, all on our own; we have to venture out into the world, and find something bigger than ourselves, in order to experience this kind of internal change.

North Wind by Rockwell Kent, 1919. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

It is hardly surprising that in such states of awe, even the most nonreligious among us find the closest thing to spirituality. Without this reset button, how would we ever look at a dandelion and see the meaning of life?


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For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Brain Pickings

01 Jul 2022 at 15:20

Evenly Distributed | 2226

 

In 1974 on the PLATO mainframe system there was a 32-player 3D networked first person space flight simulation game.

Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2022/06/25/301-2225-navigation-styles/

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Evenly Distributed

William Gibson first said “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” in 2003.

During my 20’s, I arrogantly thought that phrase was about me. Living in the west meant living in the future. Owning a smartphone. Or sending and spending Bitcoin in 2012. But the more I learn about the history of computing (see episode 22-23) I realise how wrong I was.

The future is already here. But by the time it gets distributed, it’s coming from the past.

Have a think, as we’ll come back to this. When did you first play an online multiplayer game?

I spent June reading about mainframe computers and old operating systems.

Did you know that in the 1960’s IBM spent more money on its System 360 project than the US government spent on the Manhattan project during the second world war?

This effort produced the first suite of computers to run microcode. Or rather, the computers that made the distinction between operating system and architecture. Half a century ago it cost IBM a staggering amount of money to get us to the computing paradigm we have today. 

But it’s the PLATO mainframe system I want to talk about today. 

P-L-A-T-O

  • Programmed 
  • Logic for
  • Automatic 
  • Teaching 
  • Operations

It began life in the early 1960’s. Under the guidance of electrical engineer Donald Bitzer at the University of Illinois. Bitzer believed in collaborative production and recruited a team of so-called ‘creative eccentrics’ to help write the software. The team included university professors and high school students. Together they built a future still being unevenly distributed to us today. 

I should also mention Bitzer, in addition to being the godfather of the PLATO mainframe. Invented the plasma screen flat panel display AND the Touchscreen. 

Both technologies were integrated into PLATO systems from 1964.

PLATO TERMINAL

Star Trek the original series – a contemporary of PLATO – meanwhile still imagined computers with cathode ray monitors and analogue push buttons.

Star Trek TOS

Mainframes are interesting computing environments. You share a computer and connect via a terminal. Sort of like the relationship between web browser and cloud application (or the blockchain) we have today. 

By the mid 70’s PLATO was able to support 1000’s of concurrent users. 1000’s of people sharing the same code space, or dare I say, the same world. 

Here are some of the social features that users of the PLATO enjoyed:

A General-purpose message board
Electronic mail
Notes files (a system very similar to BBS or news groups)
Real time 1:1 text chat using a program called Termchat. Any user could message any other user active on the system directly.

There was also a program called Talkomatic.

The first multi-user chat room system. Up to 5 people could communicate in  real time.. In 1973, at launch it supported up to 6 rooms with 5 people per room. According to David R. Woolley writing in 1994, Talkomatic logged over 40 hours of use per day immediately at launch.

PLATO also had screen sharing software called Monitor Mode. A user could share their screen and chat to a viewer or viewers via text chat. 

In the mid 70’s anonymity mode was also introduced to the newsgroups as an experiment. Users could leave notes on a public message board with their ID marked as ‘Anonymous’. Those people were legion then too I suppose.

Celebrities, characters and influencers emerged in this environment welcoming identity play. 

An undergraduate student at the University of Delaware became the PLATO humorist Dr. Graper. You can find a complete archive of his surrealistic writings at grapenotes.com. His first post from July 1977 includes these lines:

I love exposure. I need attention. Show me how to get both and you’ll get my love Grapenote

Which sums up social media pretty well doesn’t it?

In the 1970’s PLATO users were participating in what we would today call an ‘Online Community’. People from across the country were meeting in Talkomatic, and then carrying on romances via ‘term-talk’ and email etc.

This was of course just the educational part of the system. It also had games! 

Let me tell you about the games. 

dnd

In 1974, mere months after the release of the first dungeons and dragons ruleset. Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, then students at the university of Illinois released dnd.

Which, you guessed it, is a top down dungeon crawl roguelike game where you explore a dungeon based on the d&d ruleset. The very first game to also feature a boss fight.

Spasim

The same year, Jim Bowery developed Spasim. A 32-player networked space flight simulation game and 3D first-person space shooter. Yes, that’s right. In 1974 there was a 32-player 3D networked first person space flight simulation game. Teams of 8 players could fly spaceships around 4 planetary systems.

https://thejaymo.tumblr.com/post/688513887013928960/spasim-1974

By 1977 things had evolved even further….

Avatar

Avatar was a 2.5-D graphical interactive role playing dungeon that supported up to 60 concurrent players. It was so difficult that one person could not play it alone. To survive, players had to run in groups. Avatar had in-game chat to facilitate this.

Like any virtual world, a community sprung up inside the game. Over 600,000 in game hours were spent in that world. Staggering numbers. 

By 1985 however, the PLATO system was made obsolete. Mainframes aged out in favour of the personal computer revolution. Individuals sitting at their own computing machines. It would be another 10 years until networks connected individual users together again. 

The 1960’s collaborative code space future PLATO envisioned is still being rebuilt and distributed to us today. 

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thejaymo

02 Jul 2022 at 19:27

Swipe UX  | Weeknotes

 

There must be something in the air!

Several blogs that have had longterm ‘unreachable’ status in my RSS reader have shown signs of life this week. I’ve seen 3 accidental ‘Hello Worlds’ pass by as blogs have been reactivated/updated with the Twenty Twenty-Two theme.

One of the blogs was a very good friend from home when i was growing up – who I haven’t seen in years. I DM’d them straight away on Instagram with “Blog!”.

It transpires they are sick of Instagram and Twitter. They read a lot of newsletters and remembered how much they enjoyed blogging in the 00’s. So thought they’d fire up wordpress and get back on it.

In the early 2010’s they did a photo-a-day with a little diary/microblog caption for about 800 days straight. When Instagram became ‘the platform’ for photos, they moved their practice over there and built a sizeable audience. But over the last few years, their own post rate and the engagement has dropped off. If no one is paying attention – then things might as well get posted to the wider web.

Our conversation then drifted into a discussion about how they have been using the Internet – mostly since lockdown. Vertical video/tiktok/shorts/swipe mechanism has taken over all our apps and our lives. They said that they lacked the self control and feel uneasy about the thing. The remedy (they feel) is to have a blog.

Hank Green recently posted the keynote/talk he was supposed to give at Vidcon

It’s about “How the transition to swipe-based video products has upended the online video creator economy and has resulted in a loss of value for both platforms and creators that will never be fully regained.”

I really appreciate that Green calls out the Swipe UX for what it is:

“Something that’s so good for the audience that they’re going to like it as much as like some drugs.

We’re going to have to have a product in place to tell you to stop using the platform. That’s how sticky this is gonna be because the swipe is such a marvelous mechanic.

He despite the talk being short, he goes into detail about how swipe mechanics are really bad for creators. Ultimately it’s about attention.

2 years ago when I made a 301 about TikTok I said the “action of video skipping is in many ways more important than the content.” And added that ‘Discernment’ is the core skill that needed to be cultivated in order to make the most of these apps.

2 years on – now that the same UX has been rolled out to almost every platform – my mind is changing.

I’m not sure discernment is at all possible. I agree with Green that the swipe based mechanic is a net negative design pattern and is bad for everyone except the platform. Perhaps we should agitate for UX freedom – I’d love to be able to remove shorts from apps homes screens.

If you give in to temptation, they suck you in. It really is like drugs – or gambling/addiction. Strong words.


Speaking of blogging I’ve been threatening to go back to Tumblr for years. But I’ve finally made the move.

Follow me or add my Tumblr to your rss https://thejaymo.tumblr.com/

I’ve been making really poor (high) quality memes that make me laugh. I’ve been using CLIP + VQGAN and then using a little template to put the text on. (click the images to see the full sets)

LIZARD !

BIRB !

My LIZARD ! memes were the product of a very stupid conversation I had with Eve late at night. So it was nice that they (along with some other pull quotes from my writing about AI/Prompts) got a mention in this fantastic essay ‘Magic Notebooks’.

The essay is well worth your time and a very good overview primer on ‘the discourse’ around this technology.

Prompt artists are developing a grammar, a xeno-language for communicating with the mathematical entity and collaborating with it to achieve the desired result.

It pairs well with this recent article from Max (@deepfates) on similar prompt related subjects I’ve been in the garden with.

Magicians deal with the mirror world as well, though they contact it through other means. Scrying mirrors, shamanic trances, and ceremonial rituals are all different ways to blur the boundary between this world and the world of language, the imagination. Prompticians use the lens of a language model, instead of their own ability to simulate worlds, but we can learn much from magic.

Magical techniques and beliefs differ around the world, but the actual practices can be grouped into five branches: sympathy, scrying, sending, summoning and syzygy. Each has its own lessons for the prompt artist.


Photo 365

175/365


Permanently Moved

Evenly Distributed

In 1974 on the PLATO mainframe system there was a 32-player 3D networked first person space flight simulation game.

Support the Show

Help keep things up and running

£5 Monthly

Includes Handmade Zine

The Ministry Of My Own Labour

  • Calls with a couple of cool projects!
  • Call with Julian and NFL crew about ‘Last Week From the Future’
  • Wrote 5k words on worlds this week. Still behind my self imposed schedule tho 🙁
  • I owe loads of people email 8-(

Dipping the Stacks

Artificial Intelligence and the Crisis of Materialism | by Mitch Horowitz | Jun, 2022 | Medium

To exclude the question of the extra-physical as we approach and attempt to define AI and other predicaments of current life, is to leave us as the blind men describing an elephant.

What Chinese media reveals about Shein’s secretive operations – Rest of World

Shein’s rare speed to market creates upwards of tens of thousands of new data points, giving the company even more market intelligence about what it should make next.

I Should Be Able to Mute America

The rest of the world should not have to know the name Bari Weiss

Where Did the Long Tail Go?

‘The Long Tail’ was supposed to boost alternative voices in music, movies, and books—but the exact opposite happened

Do Birds Dream About Their Own Birdsong? ‹ Literary Hub

One might argue that the activation of the birdsong system during sleep is evidence that zebra finches were dreaming of singing their song.

Reading

Permutation City by Greg Egan is absolutely chock full of amazing sci-fi ideas. The book is as fresh in 2022 as it must have felt in 1994 when it was first published.

The book is an exploration of transhumanism, electric universe physics, MUDs etc. Really fantastic.

Thats all I’ve read this week. (it was a long book!)

Music

thejaymo.net Spotify Playlist

Forests – Get In Losers, We’re Going to Eternal Damnation

It’s been a minute since I last listened to Forests. Singapore based midwest emo lads Forests have followed up 2019’s “spending eternity in a Japanese convenience store“ with “Get In Losers”.

This new album is even more singalong than Forests two previous outings.

Check out the song Saint Loser and you’ll get the idea within the first 10secs.

Huge anthems, tongue in cheek songwriting over math rock riffs. They absolutely hit the sweet spot every time! with every song!

I wouldn’t say that there is anything *new* sonically from Forests on this record compared to previous records.

However, this album is chock full of confidence. 3 albums under their belt, Forests have become the band I suspect they always thought they could be.

Really hope they tour in the UK soon. Fucking love these lads.

Remember Kids:

Why does this meme feel like a personal attack

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The post Swipe UX  | Weeknotes appeared first on thejaymo.

thejaymo

03 Jul 2022 at 14:11

June 3, 1947: The Young Jack Kerouac Coins “Beat” While Grieving His Father

 

“My conscience of life and eternity is not a mistake, or a loneliness, or a foolishness — but a warm dear love of our pour predicament.”


June 3, 1947: The Young Jack Kerouac Coins “Beat” While Grieving His Father

The youngest of three children in a working-class family, Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) yearned to be a writer by the time he was ten. He began keeping a journal at fourteen and never stopped. Everywhere he went, he carried a spiral notebook or a railroad brakeman’s ledger. He called the journals his “work-logs,” “mood logs,” “scribbled secret notebooks,” using them to “keep track of lags, and digressions, and moods.” He filled their pages with streams of thought and feeling, reckonings with what it means to be human and what America means, punctuated by drawings and riddles, psalms and haikus.

Just before he turned twenty-four, Kerouac watched his father Leo slip out of life with the mortal agonies of stomach cancer — his father, who had risen to America from a long lineage of potato farmers in rural Quebec; his father, in whose print shop Jack had nursed his childhood dreams of becoming a writer; his father, whom he saw as the only person capable of reconciling spiritual values with Americanism.

Adrift in the ether of grief, Kerouac struggled to make sense of life and loss and his young self. He turned to the only self-salvation he knew: On his mother’s kitchen table in working-class Queens, he set out to write the great American novel. There, he would make of himself a Melville for the twentieth century, but always with a strain of Whitman — of that soulful sensitivity to the bittersweet dimension of life, that secret kinship with the lonesome, the melancholy, the outcast, who are often most awake to beauty.

Jack Kerouac by John Cohen. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)

Over months and months of “ascetic gloom and labor,” he produced 300,000 words sprawling across 1,200 manuscript pages, populated with characters that embodied his own multitudes — the romantic poet with the existential bend, the stoical grief-stricken mother, the Village hipster, the indomitable wanderer, the perennial lost soul.

Just like Steinbeck used his journal as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt while composing his own masterwork, Kerouac continued using his notebook as an integral part of his creative process. “Doubt is no longer my devil, just sadness now,” he wrote in it more than a year after his father’s death, as the novel began taking its final shape. Later, he would compress the epoch of heartache and creative fury in a single spartan statement: “I stayed home all that time, finished my book and began going to school on the GI Bill of Rights.”

He couldn’t have known it then, the way we can never foretell the way the confusions of the present imprint the hallmarks of the future, but in grieving his own father, the young Jack Kerouac was becoming the Father of the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac by Wendy MacNaughton

The previously unpublished journals he kept in that period, collected in Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947–1954 (public library), contain not only the record of his self-creation but the creation of the Beat ethos itself.

In an entry penned in the middle of weeklong Independence Day party at his friend Allen Ginsberg’s house in Harlem, the twenty-five-year-old Kerouac uses the word “beat” as an adjective for the first time, a year before he formally introduced the term “Beat Generation” to describe New York’s underground nonconformist creative youth.

On July 3, 1947 — a sweltering Saturday — he writes:

To get to the hymn of images, the facts of living mystery… I spent another 3 days without eating or sleeping to speak of, just drinking and wineing and squinting and sweating. There was a vivacious girl right out of the Twenties, redhaired, distraught, sexually frigid (I learned.) With her I walked 3½ miles in a Second Avenue heat wave (on Monday this is) till we got to her “streamlined Italian apartment” where I lay on the floor looking up out of a dream. Seems like I had sensed it all before. There was misery, and the beautiful ugliness of people.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
Art by the teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1920. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In this waking dream, this deja-vu of life, his friend Herbert “Hunkey” Huncke appears — a scrappy sporadic writer and petty thief bedeviled by chronic addiction, whose affable candor had made him a beloved fixture of the New York Beat world. The dreamt-up Hunkey comes bearing news of Kerouac’s first wife turned lifelong friend — the woman to whom he would write his most beautiful letter a decade later. Now, in the sweltering stupor of youth and grief, on the pages of his journal, he goes on to coin the epochal use of “beat”:

There was Hunkey — in this evil dawn — telling me he had seen Edie in Detroit and told her that I still loved her. What a surprise that was! — how strange can Hunkey get? Hunkey scares me because he has been the most miserable of men, jailed & beaten and cheated and starved and sickened and homeless, and still he knows there’s such a thing as love, and my stupidity… and what else is there in Hunkey’s wisdom? What does he know that makes him so human after all he has known? — it seems to me if I were Hunkey I would be dead now, someone would have killed me long ago. But he’s still alive, and strange, and wise, and beat, and human, and all blood-and-flesh and staring as in a benny depression forever. He is truly more remarkable than Celine’s Leon Robinson, really so. He knows more, suffers more… sort of American in his wider range of terrors. And do I love Edie still? — The wife of my youth? Tonight I think so, I think so. And what does she know? And where are we all?

In a passage that presages his later pull to Buddhism and its salutary teachings of nondualism, he adds:

God it’s a strange sea-light over all this… We are in the bottom of some ocean; I never realized it before. In my phantasy of glee there is no sea-light and no beatness, just things like the wind blowing through the pines over the kitchen window on an October morning. I’ll have to start pulling all these new things together now. And this is why men love dualisms… they cannot get away from them… and they feel independent and wise among them… And they choose about and stumble on to death and the end of phantasy. (or beginning.)

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s visionary 19th-century illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

Two years later, in an entry strikingly evocative of the young Sylvia Plath’s largehearted (and bittersweet in hindsight) life-resolution in her own journal, Kerouac points in words what would always remain the central animating spirit of his art and life:

I shall keep in contact with all things that cross my path, and trust all things that do not cross my path, and exert more greatly for further and further visions of the other world, and preach (if I can) in my work, and love, and attempt to hold down my lonely vanities so as to connect more and more with all things (and kinds of people), and believe that my conscience of life and eternity is not a mistake, or a loneliness, or a foolishness — but a warm dear love of our pour predicament which by the grace of Mysterious God will be solved and made clear to all of us in the end, maybe only.

Complement this fragment of the altogether breathtaking Windblown World with Melville on the mystery of what makes us who we are, then revisit his reflections on kindness and the self illusion, the crucial difference between talent and genius, his “30 beliefs & techniques” for writing and life, and the stirring story of the night Kerouac kept a young woman from taking her own life.


donating = loving

For a decade and half, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month composing The Marginalian (which bore the unbearable name Brain Pickings for its first fifteen years). It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider lending a helping hand with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.


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Brain Pickings

03 Jul 2022 at 19:54

Keith Haring on Our Resistance to Change, the Dangers of Certainty, and the Root of Creativity

 

“To be a victim of change is to ignore its existence.”


Keith Haring on Our Resistance to Change, the Dangers of Certainty, and the Root of Creativity

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Henry Miller wrote as he contemplated humanity’s future. And yet it does need to be stressed continually, because coursing through us is the fundamental paradox of our humanity: our longing for permanence amid a universe governed by entropy — the great source of our existential restlessness and our creative fury, to which all of our sorrow and all of our art can be traced.

The oracular Octavia Butler captured this in her reckoning with the meaning of God: “the only lasting truth is Change.” The rest of nature is constantly attesting to this inconstancy. And yet with every fiber of our being, we resist its fundamental reality — even though our very fibers, each and every cell composing us, have been replaced since we first came into being. As life lives itself through us, our bodies change; the physical places and social spheres we inhabit change; if we are alive enough and courageous enough, our opinions and ideas about life change. And yet we cling to the comforting illusion that we remain, in some unmappable region of being, fundamentally ourselves — our immutable selves.

Art by Keith Haring

Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) was only twenty and already colliding with his own impermanence when he turned his soulful intellect to these perennial paradoxes in Keith Haring Journals (public library) — the posthumous gem of a book that gave us his largehearted wisdom on creativity, empathy, and what makes us who we are.

Two millennia after the ship of Theseus and a generation before neuroscience began illuminating the dazzling realities of different minds, Haring marvels at our tactics for bridling the basic effervescence of being:

The physical reality of the world as we know it is motion. Motion itself = movement. Change. If there is any repetition it is not identical repetition because (at least) time has passed and therefore there is an element of change.

No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically. Everything changes, everything is always different. All of these variables merging, interacting, destroying each other, building new forms, ideas, “realities,” mean that the human experience is one of constant change and, as we label it, “growth” [and yet] most living human beings build their lives around the belief that these differences, changes, don’t exist. They choose to ignore these things and attempt to program or control their own existence. They make schedules, long-term commitments, set up a system of time and become controlled by their system of controls.

Keith Haring at work. Illustration by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

A century and a half after Emerson lamented that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” Haring considers the underlying unease that leads us to these coping mechanisms, these artificial hedges against this most natural manifestation of nature:

People don’t want to know that they change.

Unless they feel it is an improvement, and then they are all for “change,” and will go to great lengths to “make changes” or contrive situations or force a change that is unnatural… Some attitudes I see all around me are:

Change is acceptable as long as it is controllable.

Change can be predicted.

Changes can be contrived and/or altered and/or planned.

Part of our willful blindness to change in the grand scheme, Haring intimates, is our unease about change in the small scheme of the self — the multitudes we each contain, discontinuous and contradictory, a flickering of emotional and mental states that never still to a permanent constellation across the sweep of time. He observes:

Usually the underlying fact that change is reality, that we are constantly changing and constantly in difficult situations, different states of mind and actually different realities is

ignored

or misunderstood

or misinterpreted

or confronted.

Most simply, people know to some extent that they feel different at different times or look different to themselves different days, but few people really try to experience this or question it or really investigate its reasons or its implications.

In a sentiment evocative of Iris Murdoch’s meditation on the beautiful, maddening blind spots of our self-knowledge, he adds:

To be a victim of your own knowledge is not understanding what your knowledge is and what its result is.

To be a victim of change is to ignore its existence.

To be a victim of “living by what you think” is to ignore the possibilities of “another way to live” or the possibility of “being wrong about the way it is” or ignoring the possibility of “not knowing what you think.”

Thinking you know the answer is as dangerous as not thinking about the possibility of no answers.

Creativity, Haring suggests, is a form of candor, a kind of fidelity to reality — a way of responding to change genuinely rather than artificially:

Pure art exists only on the level of instant response to pure life.

[…]

I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.

Complement this fragment of the wholly wondrous Keith Haring Journals with the forgotten prodigy William James Sidis on the controversial science of change and reversibility, then revisit Haring on the love of life even in the face of death.


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Brain Pickings

04 Jul 2022 at 18:01

Facebook Asks Judge to 'Crack the Whip' in Attempt to Silence a Black Whistleblower

“He was fired by Facebook’s outsourcing partner, Sama, in 2019 after he led more than 100 of his colleagues in a unionization effort for better pay and working conditions. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his work, and is now suing both Meta and Sama in a Nairobi court, alleging that he and his former colleagues are victims of forced labor, human trafficking and union-busting.”

[Link]

Ben Werdmüller

04 Jul 2022 at 20:02
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