Negative space

A recent visit from a poet friend has me thinking I need to change my perspective again–always an important thing for an writer to do. If we don’t shuffle things up once in awhile, we get mired in swamps of the too-familiar and keep resuscitating what we have done before.

Sometimes, that is what needs to be done. But sometimes we need to move on.

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Years ago. when I took visual art classes, my instructors taught me about how to see negative space as a method of considering the subject not as my brain wanted to see it but as it existed in relation to other objects in the visual plane. Those gaps between what we see as objects we automatically assume are “empty” spaces; but once we learn to perceive them, we recognize how vital they are to the composition. I learned that an arrangement–say, a still life–might contain more interesting negative spaces than positive ones. One moment of noticing, and the idea of what I could “see” would be transformed.

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Most people learn about negative space through the Gestalt concept of figure-ground organization principle. I found out about it through teachers who had me draw the spaces between subjects.

What does this have to do with writing or poetry? Here’s a spot I could easily allude to Keats’ famous coinage of the phrase negative capability. But that’s not what I mean.

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Change the viewpoint: new images arise; the shadows differ; the light’s at a different angle. What was ground becomes, perhaps, foregrounded.

Writers need to make these shifts, too. I have spent considerable time learning forms and meters, experimenting with styles and stanzas, working with phrasing and syntax, pushing at fears and feelings, playing with images. That has been all to the good, but maybe I ought to approach the task and process of poetry-writing with an eye to what’s been in the background. Some of it hidden in plain sight, like those negative spaces, some of it skirting behind the plane of the subject, genuinely hidden until the perspective shift occurs.

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~

Maybe what I need is, simply, space.

 

Rational & connected

When I instruct freshman college classes in essay-writing, it’s clear to me that few students (usually around 18 years old) have any understanding of what it means to be “rational.” They often believe they are rational thinkers because they are good at math or interested in a scientific discipline or eager to study law, medicine, or economics–all factual and rational pursuits, in their minds, though they tend to think based on gut instinct and social upbringing. I have spent considerable time pondering this reality, which affects my pedagogical approach. In the presidential election cycle years the situation seems especially obvious…and problematic.

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I wonder how much of the gut/emotion-responses’ validation, retroactively, by “rational thinking” evolves from psychology or human nature, and how much from culture. Culture is due to connectedness influences: we want to be identified as part of, or differentiated from, the community of human beings around us. Psychology overlaps with culture; I may be a bit out-of-date, but it seems that the study of psychology tends a little more toward the individual’s nature, even accounting for the “nurture” aspect of individuality, which is culture-based. And people who are US citizens have by and large been raised in a capitalist culture, a form of capitalism spurred to dazzling speed and pushed into far-reaching areas of culture/nurture by our for-profit media system.

The resulting culture flowered into persuasion-based, desire-based “needs.” My students and I are acculturated into seeing and judging, seeing and desiring, and confusing want with need. That approach works for businesses that need to make a profit; they have to make their audiences yearn for products. Gut-based persuasion works better than rational persuasion; ask any marketing campaign designer. Connecting one person’s “need” with the community’s perceived “need” also works.

These urges are not rational approaches to purchasing, budgeting, prioritizing, or voting. If, however, one’s job is to analyze buying trends, examination of the efficacy of such approaches is rational indeed. Thus analysis, any form of analysis, should be scientific and rational and based upon a genuine understanding of human beings–our natures, our connections, our influences. Call it interdisciplinary, or synergistic.

How can analysts learn about the gut instincts and unreliability and cultural natures of their fellow humans? An excellent way is through studying the arts.

Of course, I would end up here.

Sciences, if we consider them rational pursuits not entirely independent of one another–granted, that is another conversation–likewise should not be independent of the arts and humanities. The visual and kinetic arts produce sensations that feel emotional yet which can be critically analyzed, rationally pursued and discussed. Novels inform readers of the vagaries and irrational motivations of the human heart; they tell us about character and culture and urgency. Poems tell us, in ways that science never has been able to elucidate, what feels most true. (See Fiona Sampson’s article in The New Humanist, though I admit she provides a biased view, as she is editor of that journal).

This semester, my students and I will be examining what it means to be rational in an academic argument. Perhaps we will go further than that, but I do not expect to change their hearts.

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Among & on the milkweed

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Baby box elder beetles?

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Adult box elder beetles. Possibly. (I’m no entomologist.) Milkweed: definitely.

Wandering this evening, down into the meadow, drained of words, exhausted, I found these creatures emerging (and the milkweed silk and seeds emerging, and the katydid songs emerging) and felt I was among the living.

Which I am. And also among the milkweed.

Civic gratitude: CNAs

In this media moment of accusations and epithets, I would like to pause and acknowledge some hardworking citizens of the USA.

Caring for the extreme elderly is hard, and I use this blog post to praise Certified Nursing Assistants and home health aides–a largely female workforce that, despite being underpaid and overworked (therefore, on occasion, justifiably terse or grumpy) provides crucial assistance and genuine caring for human beings who can no longer manage full  independence.

The nursing career has become a medical and social science that has sometimes more to do with observations, measurements, communications with physicians, and data entry than with assisting patients through touch, eye contact, and conversation. I have no criticism about the need for scholarship among today’s nursing force; in fact, my job permits me to work with many aspiring nurses as they pursue their studies, and I feel confident in these young people’s abilities. I just want to take a minute to thank CNAs, who do the majority of hands-on, personal helping of patients and at-home clients, especially in highly-populated regions with huge hospital networks.

Many CNAs are from lower-income backgrounds. Or they are recent immigrants. They willingly take on shift work and plenty of manual labor as they provide help for those who need it. They bathe patients, assist with bedpans, clean up when there is no bedpan, turn patients, monitor patients’ comfort levels, rub down fragile skin or sore muscles, all while managing to respect each person they care for as an individual human being. Even when they are ignored or treated like servants, when people (stressed, ill, or deeply anxious people) basically ignore them, don’t learn their names, resent their accents, these workers do their difficult jobs. And they smile at people.

Sometimes that smile is so needed–by a patient or a member of the patient’s family.

Bless you, folks. You are doing the kind of work every compassionate and ethical society needs in some way or another.

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Complexity of perspective

A brief aside in which a contemporary philosopher admits of complexity among humans as social animals and implies (later on, more specifically illustrates) the challenges that individual consciousnesses create in resolving conflicts, or even in making individual decisions as to what is “right.” But what a thrilling capacity, if frustrating to theorists, our multiplicity is:

Human beings are subject to moral and other motivational claims of very different kinds. This is because they are complex creatures who can view the world from many different perspectives–individual, relational, impersonal, idea, etc.–and each perspective presents a different set of claims…The capacity to view the world simultaneously from the point of view of one’s relations to others, from the point of view of one’s life extended through time, from the point of view of everyone at once, and finally from the detached viewpoint often describes as sub specie aeternis is one of the marks of humanity. This complex capacity is an obstacle to simplification.

–Thos. Nagel, “The Fragmentation of Value”

Yes, an obstacle to simplification–but juicy and interesting, which clearly Nagel rather relishes. Viva complexity!

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For a philosophical discussion particularly pertinent to the US presidential campaign this year, see his “Ruthlessness in Public Life.” Both essays are chapters in Mortal Questions (1979).

 

 

Nagel, on stepping back

From Thomas Nagel’s 1979 Mortal Questions, and still relevant today (as philosophy tends to be), on doubts, questions, and the value of being reflective and skeptical. My italics to emphasize the sentence in paragraph 3:

“Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.

This fact is so obvious that it is hard to find it extraordinary and important…Yet humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…they can view it sub specie aeternitatis–and the view is at once sobering and comical.

…this is precisely what provides universal doubt with its object. We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even when they are called into question.

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source: Instagram stock photo from sochicat

The things we do or want without reasons, and without requiring reasons–the things that define what is a reason for us and what is not–are the starting points of our skepticism.”

We judge and choose based solely upon our own perceptions and experiences–it seems unnatural to do otherwise; yet stepping back makes it somewhat possible, through listening and observation, to make connections and find relationships with what is Other than ourselves. First, we must agree to feel skeptical about our own view of the world and to pose inquiries and then to shut up and pay attention to someone else’s experience of the human occupation. (See my post here.)

I do, however, admit–as Nagel does–to the limits of philosophy as relates to public policy. Whether reflection can change the methods of oligarchy, capitalism, dictatorships, the Leviathan, revolution, social attitudes, the masses, democracy, or the Republic has already been answered:

“Moral judgment and moral theory certainly apply to public questions, but they are notably ineffective. When powerful interests are involved it is very difficult to change anything by arguments, however cogent, which appeal to decency, humanity, compassion, or fairness. These considerations also have to compete with the more primitive moral sentiments of honor and retribution and respect for strength. The importance of these in our time makes it unwise  in a political argument to condemn aggression and urge altruism…the preservation of honor usually demands a capacity for aggression and resistance to humanity.”

We continue to adhere to unfounded but deeply ingrained notions we cannot rationally justify, and that remains a truly interesting aspect of human life. It is a set of notions I do not criticize nor defend, but which I do think we should question.

Even as we vote–if we bother to vote–with our guts and our resistance to what is Other, even as we defend those powerful interests from which many of us benefit, we should keep up our inquiry and work on becoming more aware of other human beings’ situations and sufferings, joys and social experiences. One thing about the human being and the whole human endeavor: as long as we possess our consciousness, we also retain the startling and magnificent ability to learn new things.

Here’s to life on the anthill.

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Steve Tobin, “Termite Hill,” 1999–stevetobin.com

 

 

 

Growing, watching

Garden update: my valley experiences, once again, a bit of drought.

And I have scored a victory–possibly temporary–against the bunnies, thanks to some very hard, hot work by a pair of my best beloveds and lots of chicken wire. Now, as the weather gets into long spates of heat and humidity, I watch and wait while the garden does its growing.

I watch the tomatoes ripen. I watch the birds:

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Three swallows among the tomatoes

The bluebirds enjoy perching on the fenceposts. This one doesn’t look too blue, but I promise it is a bluebird.

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I guess I need a longer lens.

I watch the herbs and vegetables flower. The cilantro and dill flowers bring all kinds of pollinators to the garden. I found a new kind of very tiny bee this morning, but my camera doesn’t have the best close-up lens. It was a cute bee, very small, grey, and fuzzy.

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The borage gets a bit thuggish but attracts pollinators; cilantro and dill manage to sow themselves among the onion rows.

The beans rows are missing, because the rabbits ate them all.

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Speaking of bees and pollinators in general, I have found some lovely blogs by entomologists online, full of close-up photos, environmental information, and fascinating tidbits about bugs and their interactions with the flora and fauna that surrounds them. I am continually struck by the amazing interconnectedness of life when I read these posts. In addition, something about the sort of scientists who observe insects at close range and study their anatomy and life cycles seems to inspire a kind of geeky humor as they follow their biology passion into the field. Or maybe that quality exists only among the sort of entomologists who also blog!

Here’s one I like, Standing Out in My Field, the nature of a punny field biologist.

Possibly I should have followed my own third-grade dream of becoming “a scientist.” My tendency to watch things, especially as they grow–to be an observer–would have served me well in a scientific field discipline. Though it isn’t a bad quality for a writer to possess, either.