[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
13 May 2013
One of the things I really like about being a teacher is that I get to learn with you. Very often in conversations with students I get referred to resources that keep my thinking engaged and alive. I had just such an experience recently when Ben referred to the book, Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I felt a little chagrined for not knowing it and ordered a copy quickly. I’m glad I did, not only for what the book offered, but also because it led me to another of Mark Johnson’s books, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, which is helping me to think about embodied aesthetics. I recommend both books.
Last night I was speaking with a friend and (MFAIA graduate), Michael Robinson, and he made a remark about the importance of returning to texts that you’ve already read. Specifically he was referring to Judith Butler, a post-structuralist philosopher who is a famously dense writer. Because of the complexity of her thinking, we joked that once you’ve read everything she’s written you might be prepared to understand her first book. While this is an overstatement, it got me thinking about how important it is to return to ideas and discourses that we think we’ve already learned, and to consider how time, experience, and other learning might prepare us to re-enter the conversation, see anew, and draw new things from that we’ve come to take for granted.
In a sense, Lakoff and Johnson’s thinking offered this experience to me. A decade ago I thought a lot about dualism and the Cartesian divide—that is the idea that mind and body, emotion and reason, the spiritual and the physical can somehow be separated. In my day-to-day life, I feel satisfied in my understanding of Descartes’ mistake. It’s been exciting to return to these ideas, through the lens of contemporary brain science, to think again what embodiment means. I was particularly moved by the directness of Lakoff and Johnson’s arguments in relation to the nature of reason and the history of the philosophy of reason. Significantly, they are considering the way we’ve historically thought about thinking—largely through social observation and reflection—in light of new technological insights into cognition, enabled through the brain sciences. New ways of seeing have led to radical new ways of understanding. In the introduction of their book, they provide some useful reframing, in service to dislodging readers’ assumptions (which are very often embedded in our language, as well as being taught via schools and religion):
- Reason is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience. This is not just the innocuous and obvious claim that we need a body to reason; rather, it is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Thus, to understand reason we must understand the details of our visual system, our motor system, and the general mechanisms of neural binding. In summary, reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or of disembodied mind. Instead, it is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.
- Reason is evolutionary, in that abstract reason builds on and makes use of forms of perceptual and motor inference present in “lower” animals. The result is a Darwinism of reason, a rational Darwinism: Reason, even in its most abstract form, makes use of, rather than transcends, our animal nature. The discovery that reason is evolutionary utterly changes our relation to other animals and changes our conception of human beings as uniquely rational. Reason is thus not an essence that separates us from other animals; rather, it places us on a continuum with them.
- Reason is not “universal” in the transcendent sense; that is, it is not part of the structure of the universe. It is universal, however, in that it is a capacity shared universally by all human beings. What allows it to be shared are the commonalities that exist in the way our minds are embodied.
- Reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious.
- Reason is not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative.
- Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged.
(I recommend the entire book, but you can also get a taste by reading the first chapter at http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/lakoff-philosophy.html –from which I’ve drawn this quotation.)
This material is still new to me, but I know that my affinity for it has to do with its emphasis on connectedness and embodiment. Since reading it I’ve marveled at how much of my daily philosophy is based on faulty precepts—such as my distrust of emotion, the way I think of myself in relation to other animals, and my inaccurate belief that I can think deeply and clearly if my body isn’t moving. I’m not sure its possible to change all these assumptions, but I suspect that the process of cultivating awareness about them will impact my creative practice in important ways.
A bit more than a year after I graduated from art school, I was put on a hiring committee for the person who would become my supervisor. As we considered the relative merits of the candidates, the woman who directed the program for which I worked directly asked me what I thought. I hedged, and said that I didn’t know what to think, I only knew what I felt. She nodded and asked again, adding: It’s your feelings I want to know, it’s your intuition that we trust.
It was the first time that I recognized the value of intuition and, perhaps more importantly, the value of my intuition. It might have been the first time that I realized that I had intuition, and certainly it was a revelation to learn that others recognized it and valued it.
When Ben and I discussed Lakoff and Johnson’s thinking, we started with the idea that reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious. As I inferred above, what this means, what any of Lakoff and Johnson’s propositions fully mean for me, will take time to unpack, and I’m not certain that connecting their idea to intuition fully gets to the depth of the point. However, it’s striking to me that we can navigate the world, discern and know, in ways that are seen and valued by others, but invisible or unconscious to ourselves. In a sense, today it’s obvious to me that intuition is a form of knowing, a way of reasoning—but it’s not something I can take from granted. With the benefit of hindsight, I understand now that my intuition is primarily a result of learning through processes of fabrication, the making of things, a consequence of learning to look and see, rather than something I learned from the processes of talking, writing, or reading—although I hesitate to underscore this too sharply, lest I infer another fracturing of our being.
Thinking about these matters with Ben, I was reminded of bell hooks’ essay, “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process,” (Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge, 1994) in which she describes the dualism of the traditional classroom as a place where “only the mind is present, and not the body.” I think I connected Lakoff and Johnson with hooks because I think formal education and the learning that comes through creative practice can utilize the same epistemic methods. In fact, I think they can be the same thing—although most formal education eschews this possibility by adopting hierarchical and authoritarian models of teaching, reinscribing mind/body dualism. Considering how to heal this divide, hooks considers the nature of the erotic, and writes:
To understand the place of eros in the classroom, we must move beyond thinking of those forces solely in terms of the sexual, though that dimension need not be denied. Sam Keen, in his book The Passionate Life, urges readers to remember that in its earliest conception “erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propelled every life-form from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.” Given that critical pedagogy seeks to transform consciousness, to provide students with ways of knowing that enable them to know themselves better and live in the world more fully, to some extent it must rely on the presence of the erotic in the classroom to aid the learning process. Keen continues:
When we limit ‘erotic’ to its sexual meaning, we betray our alienation from the rest of nature. We confess that we are not motivated by anything like the mysterious force that moves birds to migrate or dandelions to spring. Furthermore, we imply that the fulfillment or potential toward which we strive is sexual—the romantic-genital connection between to two persons.
Understanding that eros is a force that enhances our overall effort to be self-actualizing, that it can provide an epistemological grounding informing how we know what we know, enables both professors and students to use such energy in a classroom setting in ways that invigorate discussion and excite the critical imagination. (hooks, pp.194-195).
I’m offering these lengthy quotations because they speak to me of a common concern—shared by Lakoff and Johnson and hooks, to be sure, but also within our program’s degree criteria—which to me is a concern about praxis, the dialectic of belief and being, knowing and action. They also remind me of something particular about the creative process and get me thinking about art that truly matters to me. Art making requires us to fully inhabit our bodies, to allow those things we call reason and emotion, feeling and cognition to dance as one. Art that matters to me comes from a place of the artist’s passion, it allows the body’s feeling to communicate its knowledge as fully as the knowledge transmitted through language. Again, I don’t mean to be drawing lines between language and making—indeed in an embodied sense they support and enable each other. For writers, they may very well be unified. Rather I mean to make an argument for integration of those facets of ourselves we’ve been encouraged to see as separate, and to invite us to be suspicious when we find ourselves asked to navigate the world in a disintegrated way. And it’s a reminder that we sometimes default to disintegration because it’s easier than understanding ourselves as whole and connected.
At least, that’s true for me.