Category Archives: culture

Myth, Self, Art, Synaesthesia, Metaphor

– second in a series –

“In general it can be said that myth, as experienced by archaic societies…is always related to a “creation,” it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working was established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; …that by knowing the myth one knows the “origin” of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an “external”, “abstract” knowledge but a knowledge that one “experiences” ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification; …that in one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted.”
Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp. 18-19.

“I know a lot about objects, how they get to be what and where they are.”
Michael Snow, Letter from Michael Snow to P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture No. 46, Autumn 1967.

The mythic way of knowing articulated by Eliade is not “knowing” the way we know a recipe for a cake, or the number of miles to the moon. It is a knowing that exists in time, and exists while it is part of the knower’s experience. It requires someone to know it.

Synaesthesia, or the triggering of one sense by another, has many similarities to Eliade’s mythic experience. Through it the person experiences one stimulus as another; a flash of color as a sound, or an odor as a tactile sensation. And similarly, this connection between two disparate elements requires a person to experience it, or it does not exist. Recent research into synaesthesia posit anatomical structures that may provide for it:

“In a fascinating theory Maurer & Maurer (1988) suggested that normal infants are typically synaesthetic, with subsequent neural and synaptic pruning leading to more segregated senses in most of us (see also Maurer & Mondlach, 2005). Those few who are synaesthetic as adults are, then, those whose cross-modal connections do not wither in the same way. This theory provides a developmental mechanism and behavioral correlate for the hyperconnectivity proposed in a number of the theories discussed by Hochel & Milán (2008).”
Alex O. Holcombe, Eric L. Altschuler, & Harriet J. Over, A Developmental Theory of Synaesthesia, With Long Historical Roots. Cognitive Neuropsychology, accepted 8 Aug 2008.

Like the mythic experience of knowing, the vanishing point of synaesthesia is within the person who experiences it. It does not present itself as an objective fact, independent of the person. It empowers the person with a sensory knowledge that is personal and meaningful, and that is self-evident. Having a synaesthetic experience provides a personal history that enriches a person’s relationship with the world, a relationship that supports one’s trusting one’s senses to provide meaning about the world through its own act of creation.

This world of inner meaning is one that children know well, and it is a world that is rarely nurtured by our educational and parental institutions and practices. Even our art and music education often avoid developing these experiences, focusing instead on the more measurable skills that lead to professions.

The relations provided by the synaesthetic experience are isomorphic with metaphor. Synaesthesia provides a mode of knowing that and how two disparate phenomena share an essence. Metaphor places one language object in the syntactical space of another, leaving the individual to make sense of the unexpected displacement. Often this making sense invokes internal sounds and images, memories and imaginings, meanings and humor.

With art making, the artist engages a medium and becomes more sensitive to it, more aware of its subtleties, What is it that the artist moves toward in art making? The artist navigates, through a medium, toward the mythic state of creation, in order to experience that creation, to cause it to be, and to sense it becoming. It is not an objective truth that the artist finds. The art work is not the final object. The artist is no more a factory than Warhol was.

It is the focus on consumable product that has anaesthetized the American culture from valuing or even knowing these related experiences: the creative moment in art work, the ritual re-enactment of myth, the sensory meaning of synaesthesia. It is as though these states don’t exist, as if they are meaningless.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art practice.

The Rarified Art of the Individual

Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

-First in a series-

With the deflation of the consumer culture that is happening all over the world today, Americans have a chance at adapting for the resulting environment.

Americans (and certainly other cultures, but certainly Americans) have for years accepted the practice of delaying the construction of a self, by spending their money—and lives—purchasing distractions. Art has been capitalized and made into objects for purchase, created by a small and distinguished tribe of specialists.

With the loss of purchasing power—so people have less ability to purchase distractions—preceded by a surge in the availability of low-cost media production tools (video and audio production, post-production and that folk-art distribution system the web) we have a corresponding surge in art making (with a lower-case “a”).

Younger generations who have grown up with computers create media easily, without a clumsy “always learn before you do” approach that was so helpful to the mechanical universe. Those at ease with computers jump right in and probe, trying one thing, learning its effect, and then trying another, burrowing into the web to find what it has to offer, or the software to find what they can produce. Alan Kay has rightly despaired of the loss of pre-planning, of an architectural approach to problem solving, in this dive-right-in approach. But the computer environment is one that rewards digital spelunking.

Instead of simply watching television for hours at a time like their parents and grandparents, a larger group is able to make their own and share it in online society. The online sites for displaying one’s own videos, or the thousands of sites for distributing one’s own musical tracks—these are the real killers of the music companies and movie theaters. That which had been the creative domain of Artists now have the floodgates open and the artists pouring their creations into them.

It is important to note that once someone has a minimal set of equipment and software, one can create for only the cost of one’s time. While every audio and video professional will argue that the quality that consumer and prosumer products can’t match that of the truly professional (and hugely expensive) equipment and software, it is absolutely the case that with today’s prosumer equipment one can produce media of higher resolution and lower noise levels than could be professionally delivered in the 1960s. Compare a HD video on Vimeo.com with a playback of Bonanza on any CRT.

What is more important than the resolution of the new technology is the ability to produce in media iteratively. As a film student in the mid 1970s with a disabled father and a mother who was an art teacher in a public school, I didn’t have money for multiple answer prints. Filmmaking was a process of trying something, then trying something ELSE. Even editing in video, which could be done for free where I was studying, was a long and painful process involving grease pencils, two reel-to-reel decks and multiple reels of video tape that had to be wound and rewound to start points for each edit. I worked in film and video with every moment of my free time (and still do), but today the ability to revise as one goes is incredibly supportive of quick learning and quality improvement, especially when combined with a distribution and social review system that allows the creator to obtain informal and instant feedback on work in progress. And all work is work in progress.

What happened, though, was the domination of the culture of the specialist, the pouring of money into huge Hollywood projects where, by concentrating the work of hundreds of people into the production of stories of individuals, we have a slight-of-hand that further supports the unobtainable hero. Hundreds of minds and specialists are not one mind, and we addict society to watching the magical existence of screen stars to appear to make their own decisions, and overcome their own problems.

It’s not that I don’t like Benjamin Button or even Hollywood films in general. But the illusion that it has always used as its attraction has created the illusory economy and culture that is now, for a moment, shown its real structure. Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

The aging generations who now have time but no money will logically experience mostly their loss. But a child who doesn’t have paints will scribble in the dirt. And before aboriginals were taught to paint on canvas, they painted on sand.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art (small “a”) education.