Friday, August 20, 2021

You Are Therefore I Am: From Dualism to Allocentrism (and What Any of It Has To Do With Art)

If pressed to encapsulate in just a few words what might be the foremost imperative of our time, one might justifiably hasten to offer Forget Descartes. But such would be to cast things in a negative light, and anyway, to be fair, the fault was hardly Descartes' alone. In any case, what is becoming increasingly clear in the contemporary Western consciousness is that our beloved cogito – that noble affirmation of the self muscled into being by rational thought, and that cultural shibboleth with which every thinking person has at least a passing acquaintance – was, in fact, a colossal error. It was an error, we now know, in its separating the thinker from the whole person, and it was a colossal one because of all that came with it – namely, an entire cognitive style incapable of understanding without first cleaving what is to be understood into mutually exclusive twos. Mind versus body, thought versus emotion, human versus nature; spiritual on the one side and material on the other, animate in rigid contradistinction to inanimate: twin pillars of our culture all, and now one by one being laid bare as the phantom structures they always were.


Of course, it has become fashionable these days to claim that we're beyond all this, that we have definitively entered the post-Cartesian era. But in truth, it's not so easy to forget Descartes. For one thing, even a cursory look at our language reveals so much partitioning and dichotomizing that it seems nothing short of a complete overhaul is going to do justice to the task. Try going an entire day, for example, without thinking of your body as something you have. And to have, of course, is to have a haver. (Who is this mysterious haver who gets invoked whenever there is body-having to be had?) Then there's the rigid subject-verb-object construction, by which active somethings are always committing deeds on passive somethings-else, disallowing for more nuanced relationships in which agency is entangled. What's more, if the ready alternative to dualism is an undifferentiated oneness[1], then we're forced to surrender the truth of our experience for an abstract (and, let's admit it, rather woolly) idea. For new age feel-goodisms notwithstanding, I am not the same as that tree, nor am I identical with the worm nesting in it; less still am I interchangeable with the bacteria feasting on all three of us. Perhaps more to the point, I am not you, and you are not me, and however mutually admiring we might be, I doubt either of us would sincerely welcome an assertion to the contrary. 


Clearly the truth lies someplace else or in between, and indeed we are now feeling our way toward that other place. In what's known by some as the Relational Turn, a new understanding[2] is being articulated, an understanding that recognizes the distinctions between things but that locates the very thingness of each thing in the web of relations sustaining it – social, biological, ecological, and cosmic. "Interbeing" is Thich Nhat Hanh's beautiful word for it, and while still largely inchoate, the vision it promises should give us much hope. Nevertheless, to most it is still a vision, and this leaves us in a rather curious position. Here we are, standing before the expanse of the new century, livened by a consciousness newly alert to a greater truth, and yet burdened with a language and cognitive structure inadequate to its realization. Between paradigms, someone has called it. In such an awkward state of suspension, a certain paralysis can be forgiven.


And yet, hovering between paradigms, there is something we can do – something that is in fact actionable today. It involves a pivot, a (deceptively simple) change in direction. The turn I mean here is psychological, but it is also more; it is a reorientation of the entire self away from itself and toward what we might call the axis of otherness. The logic is simple: if we are for now stuck with the dualisms bequeathed to us by a dying order, we can at least turn away from the agent occupying the center of that order –  namely, Me: the Cartesian me. This is the thinking me, the fully isolated, autonomous, self-sustaining agent to whom all that exists beyond itself is conceived of as foreign –  foreign and, obeying the Cartesian dualism[3], to lesser and greater degrees also hostile. So it is a turn, yes, but it is also an opening, for out there on the axis of otherness lies an unexplored wilderness: that vast expanse of world that is decidedly not-me – human and nonhuman, animate and otherwise, spiritual, material, and however else we want to conceive it. I'm calling it an allocentric turn, away being the general direction, but above all it is a step in the direction of a more accurate worldview.


But what exactly would this mean, this great opening outward? In practical terms, it would mean, first of all, a moratorium on subjectivity, a strategic suspension of talk about human interiority. For after centuries of probing the depths of the human psyche, we have become all but insensate to what lies beyond it: the inner lives and styles of being of other species; the quiet world of rocks, trees, and minerals and all the stuffs of the earth; those of our human artifacts that exercise their own kind of animacy; all that cosmic matter whose vitality pulses lightyears beyond us. Attend. Become interested. Above all, listen. Listen to the voices of otherness, to the stupendous diversity. Revel in the differences that make not-me not me. On a strictly human scale, we might enact a daily practice of allocentric empathy: study other people, even strangers, and inhabit their otherness. Without imposing on them our ideas about what they should be (for in the Cartesian world, shouldn't everyone be like us?), marvel at the differences. In a truly post-Cartesian world, others and otherness would become designations of honor.


Opening still further: If this reorientation of the self can be enacted within each of us, it can also make its way into our larger cultural endeavors. Which is, finally, how we arrive at art. Can art become allocentric, and if so how? Before answering, we should question its complicity in the obsolescing order. Consider the art world today: One needn't look far to find Descartes around every corner. He is there first and foremost in the supremacy of the ego-agent, that juggernaut of ambition out to make a name for itself, out to achieve its immortality-by-proxy. But perhaps more subtly, he is also there in our preoccupation with ourselves in our art itself – both with human subjectivity in general and, increasingly these days, with the individual self of the artist as the work's subject. Art as self-expression; art as biography; identity art; art about the human condition; even art that, engaging with the spiritual, locates the meaning of that term in the inner life of the human being: does anything characterize recent art more than these? How can art make the turn? How can it make the shift onto the axis of otherness?


Two possibilities immediately suggest themselves. The first follows the imperative of the more general shift: Embrace a moratorium on human subjectivity. Instead of art about ourselves, our inner lives, our personal identities, how about more art whose subject is the world beyond us – not just the animals and plants that vastly outnumber us but also the wealth of inanimate things, both earthly and cosmic? The second possibility involves human agents, but those who by definition occupy the axis of otherness – namely, our viewers, those neglected agents on the receiving end of our art. Can we imagine a mode of practice in which it's the viewer who's central? Can we imagine a kind of art made for her body and consciousness? No longer about the artist or even the artist's ideas, this would be an art whose purpose it would be to do something to someone, namely to generate an experience, perhaps even a transformation. Imagine what such a shift in emphasis might mean on a large scale. First, how refreshing it might be to have an alternative to the egotism and careerism that so plague our time. But even more important, it might mean a greater role for art in the larger culture. For a viewer-centric art would mean nothing less than a shift from artists making products to artists, individually and collectively, providing a service. Art in the service of culture: the very words teem with promise. 


But it is when the two possibilities are merged that art becomes truly allocentric.  What I mean is this: Can we imagine a kind of art made, first, for the viewer, for a shift in her consciousness, but then in addition, a kind intended specifically to turn her in the direction of otherness – to draw her out beyond her ego-self and toward the immensity of not-me? In what way might this be achieved?


One way presents, on the face of it, a paradox – one we might call "the way out is in." For if what we want is for the viewer to take leave of her self, to inhabit for a time the domain of otherness, where better to begin than with the otherness within – all the parts of herself that her Cartesian Me has cast off? The ostensibly mindless "animal" senses, the wayward and dismissively feminized emotions; all the autonomic processes so vital to life over which we have no conscious control; all the unconscious content housed deep in our species-memory – where better to begin than with a turn toward these? This, however, is just the first part. In order for the Cartesian me to fully take leave, it must be presented with something it can't master – namely, a situation so impervious to the grasping intellect that the latter, flummoxed – shipwrecked – beats a hasty retreat. And here we come to the otherness within art itself: that rare kind of art that, defying ready comprehension or systematic interpretation, instead plunges the viewer into the ocean of unknowing. 


The ego of the viewer absent, her senses absorbed in the manifold mystery before her, she now takes the full step onto the axis of otherness. For it is when we are at our most creaturely, which is to say most fully immersed in our bodies, most fully situated in the here and now, that we truly open ourselves to the world. We’ve all had the experience: as if a scrim has been lifted from in front of our eyes, the world rises to present itself in all its wondrous strangeness. Colors are intensified, light and shadow come to life, the separation of the different senses gives way to an undifferentiated sensing. In such a state, nothing need be understood, just fully beheld. And if the work in question is sufficiently compelling, the viewer might just stay like this, wide open, long enough to be moved. If it is extraordinary, she might just walk home thus, turned inside out – her whole being a porous organ drinking in the otherness of the world.


It might be objected that we already have art like this – art that moves us, perhaps deeply and enduringly, beyond ourselves. Indeed we do, though with the reign of the discursive[4] that looms over today's art, it is by no means the norm. What we don't have, however, is a practice of thinking, talking, and writing about art in the allocentric terms such an approach demands. Is such a reversal feasible? Let's imagine. Imagine that instead of pivoting our discourse around the artist and her ideas, we drew into the center the encounter itself: that between the object of perception and the viewer receiving it. Ideas may or may not play a role, but let them be the viewer's ideas -- whatever passes through her consciousness in the dialogical encounter. Further honoring the move toward otherness, we might focus on how the work elicits any alloversion in her – how it moves her beyond her ego self and turns her out toward the world. Imagine an analysis – an article, a review – that elides all mention of the artist whatsoever and speaks solely about the textures of the receiver's ec-static experience? In a culture that has all but deified the Individual Self, such a thing might be as necessary as it is discomfiting.


Of course, what I'm calling allocentrism is by no means the final goal. For in truth, the otherness toward which it turns turns out to be inseparable from ourselves; we and all that we are not are interwoven through and through. In truth, what happens to you happens to me because what happens to you shifts the larger whole in which both of us participate. But the seeds of the real insight are embedded in the turn. For in moving outward beyond ourselves to explore the wilderness of otherness – in the felt experience of all the differences that populate that wilderness – we might just come to recognize our utter dependence upon it. It might arrive as an epiphany: We ingest not-us every day in the form of food to survive. We rely on all the photosynthesizing not-usses for the very oxygen we breathe. That giant ball of plasma in the sky – that paragon of otherness with which we in fact share our origins: even the most formidable rationalist won't think herself into being once we reach, as we must someday, its terminal midnight. But for now, we have a choice to attend: we can cling defiantly to our unraveling separation and involution, or we can willingly, courageously, and humbly make the turn, extending ourselves outward to meet our relations. In anticipation of the latter, perhaps art will rise to the occasion and, in the role of gracious host, initiate the introductions.


[1] I am aware that in philosophy there is now what’s called “dual-aspect monism.” As a layperson to that field, perhaps I can be forgiven for finding this somewhat comical.

[2] New to us in the West, that is. In other places and cultures it is very old indeed.

[3] We call it the Cartesian dualism, but given the strange antagonism implicit in the binaries, we could just as well call it the Cartesian duelism. (We marvel at the hostility of our bi-partisan politics, and yet there it is baked into our very worldview.)

[4] What I mean here is what I call “issue art”: art that addresses, interrogates, challenges, subverts, etc. issues and ideas (which is to say the artist’s issues and ideas.)

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