HARVEY B. SARLES
Context: a Residuum?
When Context Matters (…for sure?)
Context and Form
Context and the Scene
Malinowski and Context
Time and Place
The Seat in the Movie
Visions and Context
Context and Confidence
More Complications of Context
How Large is Meaning?
A Critique upon Criticism
Context and Mind
My Dog and Context
The Contexts of â€˜Weâ€™
Context and Culture
Who Owns the Context?
Context and Linguistics
The World Works
Process and Memory
Deep vs. Surface
Becoming a House-Husband
Form become Content become Form
Searching the Unknown
Life in the Interstices
Context and Meaning
Context and Logic
Ongoingness and Context
Context and Confusion
Space and Context
A Musical Program
Velocity and Intensity
Escape from Context
Searching for Bedrock
Flow of Conversation
Prediction and Prophecy
The 80â€™s, 70â€™s, 60â€™s…
Surreal and the Avant-garde
On Seeing Faces
Paradoxes and Parables
Harvey B. Sarles
Context: a Residuum? — `Leave it to context!’ `This means that, because of (its) context! — in another context, it would mean the other.’
Is context something, some entity, a process, a mode of being? Where is it? How do we know which context we are in, which to apply? How do we learn context? Is context anything; or merely a convenient notion to apply when nothing else will do?
Is context, situation? Is context, bedrock, underpinning?
Is context a notion which is `around’; available to fill, available to invoke – like G(g)od – when one needs or demands explanation? A quality?
Is context for ourselves? – for others?
Where to begin, to consider context? Some entry point, some issue or example, better, more persuasive, more expansive, pivotal, than others? (e.g., language/thought as a pivotal arena from/in which to enter Human Nature argumentation, understanding!)
When Context Matters: (for sure!?) – 1) when the `same’ event means differently because `it occurs’ in different contexts: e.g., swinging a wooden bat in cricket and in baseball; addressing a group of people for the first time, for the nth time; therapeutic talk, friendly talk; hitting to punish, to correct, to vent one’s anger; 2) when the `same event’ means differently to different interactor/observers; e.g. a lover’s quarrel inside, outside an ongoing relationship; a slap to instruct a child/to punish it; violin playing to the player or other experts, to the listener; 3) when `different’ events mean the same: e.g., a period in hockey, a quarter in football; talking for the hearing person, signing for the deaf; 4) etc.
Context and Form: is the Form-Content problem a sub-issue of context? I think that form and content are not always in any opposition, but are often in some process:form–> content–> form–> content–>. This is not exactly a change in the notion of what is a form or formal or formalism, but a change in one’s being. Or form-content is paradoxical, not any mere antinomy. The attempt to remove one from the other seems (always?) to lead toward the transcendental winning over and replacing the actual in various ways; e.g., granting agency and causality to a deity who tells us how we are, even that we are creating vast layers of Angst even over the facticity and experience of our own existence – e.g., of death over life, of permanence over change, of the universal over the particular –> the disappearance of myself. If, on the other hand, content wins in this game of apparent war, then we believe that we must believe in order to exist. Either way existence is problematized; probably cheapened and weakened. A problem in being and becoming?
Context and the Scene: Where are we? How do we locate ourselves?
“It was a cool, overcast morning…” – the reader is to inject s/himself into this scene, as if s/he were there, observing actually or magically. Once there…
Once there…- once where? Is an aspect of context, placing ourselves in a particular event-space? Once there, do we know, within some limits, what is likely to happen in that setting: what will not happen: what is unlikely, impossible? Is this (some of) what we mean by context?
Is the world divided up into some number, some kinds of context? What parts of this translates across cultures, across languages? In what senses can we `enter’ any scene – metaphorically, a bodily `transport?’
Do contexts, say sports events, possess `time’ dimensions; or parts: innings, periods? If an event will end with winners and losers, is that context? If so, knowledge of outcome determines as well as interprets? Does context determine as well as interpret? Or is it such that context is a larger, wider principle, a question of procedure or outcome, and somehow both subsidiary and different?
Ex: Once we possess an axiom system, a mode of proceeding, we can do/generate a geometry. But how do we know enough to do geometry? Or to know that is what there is to do; what we are supposed to do; can do?
Malinowski and Context: “…the study of language in the context of culture…no future study of language except as an aspect of culture!” (Appendix to Ogden and Richards: The Meaning of Meaning) I was trained to believe this: that to understand, one has to understand the background, the experience, the…?
(The battleground he created was over the definition of culture. But this languished, and gave way to some `universal’ notion of language-as-human nature, and culture, particularly as-context, was lost.)
If, for example, the virtues of a particular society are stoical, then the notion of `tragedy’ is very different than where the cultural outlook is frenzied. Thus, it would appear, the study of culture includes such (habits of) outlook, of vision, of `virtues’ and of motivation. A word, a meaning, a concept is to be located within…such frameworks. Here, the virtue of the concept of `culture’ is that it provides and portrays the human condition most widely. Large (potentially) numbers of people sharing common outlook and/or experience – different from some others – are to be understood, collectively. The `psychology’ of a person, how s/he means some word or idea, is to be considered only within that cultural vision.
The advantage of looking most widely, and early in the task, is that one notes the commonalities within which to both notice and interpret differences. One also discovers (perhaps) that one’s own context is so second-nature that he/she does not consciously observe his own habits. (Easiest to learn through doing a phonemic analysis of other languages: self-insight!) And the quest to pursue context devolves equally on finding ways to observe one’s own habits of thought and being: consciousness vs. self-consciousness.
An Ursprache: at some level of being and understanding, I seem to have little problem communicating with persons of extremely varying backgrounds. With some others – often `of my own kind,’ the troubles of communicating, of mutual understanding, seem insurmountable. Perhaps it is a question of depth, of willingness, of some context which sets the scene in which we will `work’ at the understanding…or not.
To get a baby fed – in another land – is very easy. The task is well understood – the context (perhaps) is clear, clean, well-defined.
In `body-work’; e.g. violin play (Isaac Stern, the movie – From Mao to Mozart), the fact of understanding is easily communicated, by the students performing in a `new’ way, thinking (virtually) as Stern had suggested.
Is this a case of recognizing large differences – e.g., in language – and being willing to act in terms of other kinds of analysis? A question of a mutuality of knowing, of strategy, a similarity of `politics,’ an acceptance of others-as-oneself?
Time and Place: What can happen at 3:00 a.m.? – in the middle of a forest, of a small town, the desert, the city?
What is the range of `possibilities,’ of likely events, of the family of events in which certain unlikely events, make sense, and others are remote or ridiculous? Which, of this range, is `actively’ within our thinking?
Notions of time and space set off our thinking in certain, delimited lines. Once there…
Most persons I have asked about how they remember themselves at say, eight years old, think first about one or two specific people (school teacher, mother,…), or places (at home, school), then proceed to think about events. These `entry’ memories are the metaphors, the `events’ in terms of which we, perhaps, pack or organize our memories. They are like access codes: what we decide to remember, or what we decide not to forget; a way to gain entry to a story. They are like the index to a book of maps.
Once `in’: then how do we proceed? What do we look for? Do we have principles of organization, of how to find where we are, and what we want? (Why is the obvious so difficult to articulate?)
Once in: there are (apparently) likely events, those which derive from those events (going to the bathroom at 3 A.M., and falling in the toilet). How do we shift – from gaining entry, to remembering where to go, how to move on?
Is form-content itself a shifting dialectic in our conceptual dynamics?
How do we remain in the map which we have chosen? – e.g., in teaching, having such total `concentration’ that all other thoughts disappear; that my memory of the course becomes enhanced, possibly `total’ during the teaching?
Is it that we shift from form (map) to content, over and over? Is form-content itself a shifting dialectic in our conceptual dynamics?
Which Key? – in music, the key signature signals the context: how particular notes will be played, in relation to which others; which will be dominant, where `home’ will be. And it certainly makes a difference to the music, to its hearing, to `what it is,’ what the key is; like a “law.”
The announcement of a theme, the timing, the length of a phrase or a stanza: everything seems to be heard in relation to these. Do we, hearing a particular (sort of) pattern, then seek to hear it again, or some limited sets of variation upon it? What’s `interesting’ in music, is when this pattern which our minds seek is altered or broken in certain ways?
If this be true, then any/every note, every event in music must be heard in relation to, in the context of the piece of music. (And when I practice to perform any particular piece, I have to memorize – virtually – the relation between each note, its preceding and following, in order to `play in tune’).
This sets or confirms my notion that we operate, in some senses, in absolute-relative fashions: i.e., we decide quite firmly `where we are’ (the `context’), then hear always in relation to some ongoing, some phenomenology, of the context. Its dynamic requires, apparently, some updating and re-invention of the `absolute’; perhaps this is what we mean by a short-term memory. In any case, the context must be kept `in mind,’ while the `content’ is heard/experienced in some relation to the (outline of) context. (As well as in relation to other, `internal,’ events of contiguity, etc.)
Several orders of question arise:
1. Does the dealing with each `internal’ event ever alter the context? or do we keep the context `pure,’ as it were? (We must operate in at least two different sorts of time mode!)
2. Do we keep the context in memory as some sort of constant, or do we remember to recreate it; e.g., when we `need it?’
3. How do we go from one `context’ to another; i.e., give one up as our absolute, or take on another one? – it doesn’t seem difficult to do most times (more difficult: to shift from Western Classical to South Asian to Amerindian music!)
The Seat in the Movie: A young woman was seated in a not very full movie theatre. There were five seats in her row. A man with two young (11-12 years) girls sat down next to her; she moved over to the end seat. Why?
The context: she would not have moved if the theatre were more full; i.e., as the theatre was mostly empty (the context?), the man’s sudden presence was felt as a sort of attack upon her, an assault.
She would not have moved if one of the girls had sat next to her. (As far as we could tell the girls sort of pushed the man to go in first; i.e., he recognized that this would not be a good move).
So here the context had to do with the fullness of the theatre, the fact that, 1) it was a man moving, 2) next to a young woman.
Visions and Context: Are there world visions (Montague), somehow larger, more encompassing than contexts? They are not merely visual lookings-out, tendencies to see or to sense certain events rather then others, but ways of organizing what there is, what there can be. Maybe visions are ways of reducing/enhancing surprises. Visions are outlooks, orientations, ways of thinking about self, time, life and death, others; what counts, what motivates, whether there is the concept of success and failure; what is love, what is virtuous.
Is the relation between vision and context akin to that between cosmology and metaphysics?
Isn’t it that context-is-context because – within a shared vision – it is fairly clear where we are, what the context can be that everyone somehow knows?
Vision is like that proverbial conceptual bedrock, underlying.
Vision and judgement are the same/similar because the possible, noted, counted, interpreted events depend; e.g., on whether one assumes he is conceived/exists in sin or is neutral: whether God is and is supportive, loving, vengeful; whether one’s family is loving, punishing… why life is, and what is worthwhile.
Experience: it all comes down to what (I think) it comes down to. What is context is what I treat context as: how I (you…) see and agree that a context is; where we are, when, the conditions, what happens here usually, what is likely, not likely.
So, you ask, what is experience? Is it everything we are and do? What is, then, not experience? Does experience, is experience a reductio ad absurdum, a nothing-else-left? Then isn’t it nothing – because we have to list everything we are, and by the time we are half way through, it is all different?
So it is salient, significant experience! The kind which is knowing-what’s-going-on. It is selective, it must have its own life, its own patterns, rules. What are they; where do they derive; do we learn them; do we remember them – or do they arise, naturally, when the conditions are right, when the congruencies congeal?
When I hand something to someone, how do I extend my arm the `right’ distance; how does the other know to take whatever it is; and not to drop it? Is it an awareness, a knowledge of someone else, about what “I” will do, or how I am aware of what they will do? – an agreement to…? – based upon?
I go to play the violin, now with an organist – we have a text. She recognizes me – large, hulking me, moving slower than usual into the empty church spaces of mid-week, mid-day. `Hello,’ she says. `Hi,’ say I. The organ turned-on, breathes and heaves, the blower hissing, the air changing in pressure, a mass of metal tubes, a balustrade of oak, all come to life. I take out my fiddle, apply a tiny bit of rosin to bow, and begin to tune. `A,’ please. And the organ plays `A’ – and I twist my left hand around the neck of the fiddle to disengage the peg which winds the string called `A.’
I listen, she listens, while I move the peg very slightly, carefully, fully controlled, and stroke the string with my bow. `Too high, just a bit low’; moving around the organ `A,’ trying to match timbres: vibrating air, vibrating string, in pipes, resonating wood a century old. `O.K.,’ we agree. Tune the other strings to `A.’ What do I hear; fifths, I hear fifths. Hm-m-m.
Let’s play the 7th Corelli Sonata. I say, `O.K.’
`Take the first section twice, the second, once!’ `O.K.’
The text I have is short, a single melodic note, no double-stops for violin. Her text is three times mine, and includes mine. I see mine, only.
We begin. The sound, what a sound in that room. We are both transfixed, looking for Corelli’s ears, making sounds that would sound right: pure, lovely, wonderful.
The context? The church, us, the instruments, the texts, the acoustics, our level of ability and of knowing?
We play – da, da, ta, ta, da,ta – da, da, ta, ta, da,ta. I play but these syllables are the way I phonate. The violin plays other. I know what I sing; I know, too, what the fiddle sings. They are similar, but we are different, my fiddle and me; and we are one. The organ plays, too, in relation to the violin. It, too, is other, and the same.
We follow the texts; we play the first section twice, the second once. “Comments?” I ask. “Good speed,” she says, “maybe a slight bit faster.” “Terrific” I say. “Terrific,” I think. Ready to perform…And we do!
The audience, come another day, hears what we do, and enjoys. But their experience, while like ours, is also different. They do not perform; they enjoy, are critical. They love the space; think of it as a church (which it is, too), or they do not. Two persons performing: they know us as other besides as players; or only as performers. They do not have the text, do not know Corelli, confuse him with Tartini or with Tarentella. But we play, we perform, and it is good.
What context? How many?
How many shared, which ones? How many differ – which?
Context and Confidence: If the audience is nervous that the actors are less than competent to do whatever the context `calls for,’ then the nature of what is context becomes interestingly problematic.
If, in the previous study (Experience), the musicians are not sufficiently competent – or have a really `off’ day, then the audience finds itself becoming, first critical, then embarrassed, possibly distressed. Why?
Well, everyone has heard poor performances, amateur music. What did they expect? And do expectations have much to do with context?
And the other side of the coin: what if we are (of course we are) more competent than they have any `right’ to expect. We’re not professional full-time players. In this case they come into the context with lesser expectations, and will be relieved to realize that we can do what we claim, and that they can `relax and enjoy.’ And it will be better than if they came with high expectations and were `disappointed.’ (I try to perform `beyond embarrassment!’)
In any case expectations affect context; not in the sense of what will happen, but of how the audience will deal with the experience that, indeed, will occur in that context. Do expectations have much power in actually defining the (boundaries of the) context?
Well, that, too, depends…if my friends come to see me play, they may not expect too much (not too much enjoyment, neither much embarrassment). For them, at least, knowing me in other contexts(?), they come to watch a `me’ they do not know well, another persona – yet they will have to respond to me-as-friend in later moments, after the performance, and in other settings. So, for them, the context of musical performance includes their knowing me in other contexts, and having to deal with me and their own embarrassment – if the musical performance is below some `standard.’ (How do they come to such a standard?)
For those in the audience who know neither player, they will judge the performance in terms of their experience, bounded fairly cleanly already within the context of the playing of the music.
All of this to say that there is some overlapping of contexts which depends on the experience(s) of the audience, potential futures, relation of audience to actors, and of the expectations with respect to the actuality.
More Complications of Context: The performance (violin and organ – I have a musical recital in mind), will take place in what is otherwise and obviously a Lutheran Church. From my perspective this is convenient (being at the corner near where I live), there is a new organ, a good and willing organist, and the acoustics of the room (the Sanctuary) are extremely good – at least for organ and violin. The baroque literature is extensive and rich. (Some years later, playing in the romantic: baroque tends to sound `all the same.’)
However the fact that this room is a church will have several effects, depending on the nature of the audience. Some will find it especially edifying because it is a church; others will have to overcome some feelings of improper-ness; others will find it convenient being next to an urban lake promenade; others will like it because it is convenient, in the neighborhood, and I am a neighbor, known – if not very well.
For the church-positives the music will be `inspirational,’ the meditations will be divine, spiritual, etc. For the anti-church the music may have to be better to captivate and capture their thinking. They will have to be `enticed’ to enter the situation fully, to suspend the notion of peculiarity upon finding themselves in a church.
And if money is asked?
On the other hand, the context is clear: performing baroque violin-organ music. And it would be the same; anywhere, everywhere.
One more complication: what if we gain a `reputation?’
(Not to worry!)
How Large is Meaning? Take an ordinary word: e.g., `table.’ It is a thing upon which I write – we eat upon the `same’ table, at other moments. It is a verb: `to table a motion.’ It is other objects: `a table of contents, of numbers.’ It goes in many directions depending upon…context, situation, neighborhood. Confusion? – hardly. Why not?
Meaning is as large as … usage?
A Critique Upon Criticism: yesterday I was an actor in a doctoral thesis examination. The rules of this game are well-known, were played well by the two “outside” examiners (I was one). Two of the “inside” examiners were troubled (probably) by us outsiders, and they were exercised by some aspects of the thesis, particularly the uses of certain, apparently idiosyncratic terms which seemed `loaded;’ biased.
I reacted, or generally attempted to control the scene in the Rhetoric Dep’t (and so I tried to stretch the notion of rhetoric back upon itself, several times over). (See how difficult it is to “set” this context in writing! briefly and interestingly!)
My critique was a critique of the notion of criticism, attempting to show, to ponder what criticism is, that the rhetorician-critic uses a mode of analysis to “control” the definition of the situation or subject matter (here, TV ads); that criticism thinks it exists, has a history, essentially independent of the observer-interactor-viewer; i.e. that the critic has knowledge or method by which he (thinks he) can judge what is good, what works, etc.
This was a complicated discussion because I asked the candidate to defend both his thesis and his field, when, in fact, he had taken on a role of critic and was not exactly in any position to defend anything. And, in fact, his was not a critic’s view, but the view of a teacher and maker of ads. So his analysis was more of `how to do’ as an ongoing process, rather than an analysis from hindsight. `His’ examiners, in fact, got upset when the analytic position was `revealed,’ naming itself and calling attention to the rhetorical aspects of the analysis, and they, like many other `critics’ like to remain `experts’ without probing too deeply or broadly into the nature of their expertise; particularly into their claims of expertise.
The complications were various, but especially because the context and the grounds of the discussion kept changing. (I plead guilty to helping this process along). But this is inherent in any rhetorical discussion, because it is presumed that thesis is an interaction; and that 1) one interactor `knows’ something the other does not, and 2) that the nature of the interaction also affects the communication of that message. (A third issue – that the interactors have different `orientations’ or `outlooks’ as well as experience – does not seem to concern these rhetoricians too much).
So the interaction is assumed to be out-of-balance in some sense or other, and there is (at least) a double sense of context: a content and an instrumental or processual aspect.
It seems to be that context can easily shift between these two (at least two): that the nature of the `content’ is not ever crystal clear in any sui generis sense, and this is not any mere form-content debate because the `form’ is not clearly separable from the relationship between the interactors. And there is always the possibility that one interactant can `call attention to’ the rhetorical aspects of the situation, shifting what is content, or shifting the very grounds of the discussion of what is content, what is form, even of what is context. And this is part of what makes life interesting and the study of context complicated.
But we didn’t (at least I didn’t) get `lost!. And that’s not bad. `Home’ must both be `somewhere’ and `where you find it.’
Context and Mind: in a general sense, every discussion of context is a wonderment about how minds work or operate.
How do we know: where we are; how a context is `set’; how do we shift into a particular scene and stay there, play within the rules, etc.? What happens to `minds’ when a player shifts the context `in mid stream,’ etc.? (Answer: those who are `rigid’ get apopleptic! – most technician-academicians).
Example: Much learning, conceptual change does not (cannot?) take place within a well-defined context. Most (in my experience) takes place when the context is ambiguously presented, and the students have to search for the rules which define the nature of the context (most will do this). But a nihilist will delightedly find that this teacher must be a nihilist, too, masquerading as a person of knowledge.
So – mind! Ha-ha, did I take you to another context? Are you right back here? Do you smile? Do you frown? Should you read this aphorism once again? (Where are you now?)
My Dog and Context: usually when we walk at night my dog is off his leash. When he greets other dogs, he does well if the other dog is also free. However whenever either dog is put upon the leash, the very next moment growling ensues and a `fight’ begins. Is the `same’ dog – on a leash – a different entity? Or is the perspective from the leash (and person) so different that a `friendly’ encounter turns sour? Has the space altered? Yes, yes, yes!? Is a change in perspective – of this sort, say – a change in context?
Boundaries: when does an event begin, end? How do we know? And what difference does it make? In driving a car, will a merging driver `let me in?’ How do I read s/his intentions?
Generally there is `sufficient’ time for decisions, retractions. How do I know that s/he is thinking about the same thing I am? – only negatively; i.e., there are few accidents of this or of particular sorts, and any `competent’ driver… So – it must be – that drivers are either operating within very similar contexts, or they are different, but similar enough for…`jazz.’
And their `decisions,’ when there are conflictual decisions, have sufficient time for no accidents – mostly. Thus the world operates, and boundaries are just enough bigger than our thinking about what to do that it usually goes on smoothly; except when weather conditions change, and some drivers either do, or do not sufficiently…for.
In violin play the transition from down bow to up bow, (etc.) has many possibilities with respect to what is a beginning or ending; what is smooth/rough, silky, seamless, etc. In a string transition segment it is possible to play two melodies on the alternate strings by moving each string in its (own) distinctive way, of giving a tiny added length to each note in an internal melody. Or by getting louder toward the end of a note’s duration, it appears to transit toward the next note, more than from the previous, and so on. The setting and continuity of context, of different melodic elements, has practically infinite possibilities – and most listeners can hear the differences, even though they can’t specify what their cause or mechanics.
Depth of musicianship is to find, through study, and to be able to play (in performance) as much, thoughtfully and well, as one can find `written into’ the composition.
Equally, playing with particular instruments and in certain spaces `makes’ the experience different, and one must study how to play well with, e.g., organ – as I am doing now, in the small church on the corner where I live. Example: very little vibrato, the violin wants to be `pure’ in relation to the reedy, breathy organ. Are these examples of context? Both organ and the room, and each particular composition force me to alter and to learn new techniques – especially, in this case, bowing (right-hand). The intonation problems are severe, but more like playing in other settings, and with respect to each piece – but less affected by the organ and the space.
My bowing has to be much quicker at boundary points – in order to sound `clean’ with the organ. Also I have to get louder toward the end of each bow, rather than the reverse – I think because the organ amplitude is constant on each note and a relatively `slow’ instrument and I have to make my `bright’ (i.e. quick response) violin act as if it is slow by enhancing end-duration. So, the question of boundaries, contexts, etc., is a somewhat shifty business, and is relative – in certain terms. But that there are boundaries, that we note them and can operate within their terms (hearing music, reacting in driving), suggests that the effective or working boundaries in our lives are well within our sensory possibilities and must be in order to function in any real world. (It may well be, however, that we work at extending them by study and experience. But if no one can get to especial points of seeing or hearing or whatever, then they would not enter and remain in general domains.)
Episodes: Certain (types of) events are episodic. Within (the way we experience) time, they are short, clearly finite. In sports, I am thinking of ski-jumps, diving, and weightlifting (perhaps dashes in track), television ads, etc. These are different from performing music or teaching. (I suppose love-making can go in either mode or manner, and maturity is `anti-episodic!’)
The episode-as-context, especially as discussed in sporting contexts, is interesting because of the way participant-performers claim they think about them. In ski-jumping, e.g., the thinking-out is done the previous night in the hotel room. The `ideal,’ perfect jump or lift or dive is constructed in the imagination, they say, by specifying some three or four event points in the episode (the most `significant,’ crucial, difficult, troubling – perhaps the least of these), and imagining how to do them as perfectly as possible (out of much prior experience – a distillation?). During the episodic performance the athletes do not actively `think-out’ the activity, but try to get their bodies to match in actuality these 3 or 4 moments with their imagination of what they ought to be. And if they match very closely, it will be a champion performance…they say: both champions and ex-champion/coaches.
In episodic events, nothing is (intended to be) random. It is clear what the event consists of, and it is easy to judge it well or badly, because I guess, it is so clearly specifiable. (Playing music, teaching,…are not episodic.)
Nostalgia: whenever I hear some music which I have performed, I not only listen and enjoy the music but find myself reliving the performance out of my past; its preparation and so on. In this sense the music is not mere music, like much other music, but a study and a `getting off on’ my earlier experience with it. Thus the `same’ event – by objective standards – resonates very differently in my experience than in others’. So the relation between context and experience may be full of, and informed by, particular history.
Similarly the performance of music which is well known by the public, is very different from mere music. This week we are performing Pachelbel’s “Canon.” It was recently the theme music for a popular movie and has received radio exposure as well. In this context, the public `has’ the music memorized, and wants its memory, apparently, titillated. The difficulty, for the performers, is that the audience in such cases turns from hearers into critical listeners.
Such musical moments have become “cliches.” Like other moments and notions excerpted from ongoing experience they become counters and filters through which and in whose terms other experience is now interpreted, detailed, counted, and understood. Heard prior to such cliches, or after they have matured or altered or been forgotten, the experiences are other.
The Contexts of `We’: what you and I know and have experienced together; that which we regard as both of us knowing; that which I can as well ask you to refresh my memory, as to query my own memory. How much can I, how much do I, must I, rely upon you? – you upon me? How much do we work at remembering together, tracking upon the context of `we?’
Here there are two senses of Culture: that which we share in common because we have shared the earth at the same period, and that which we have decided to share together, to entrust the knowledge to the other as to ourselves. They end up being similar; the first more passive, the second a common acquiescense…a `contract?’
The “Contexts of `We'” – what a wonderfully peculiar usage of `we!’
Context and Culture: what remains, for me, in any theory of Culture has to do with the shared contexts of persons of shared (cultural) backgrounds; seeing boundaries, knowing what is happening, where they are, likely and unlikely outcomes; what makes sense, what does not: what is hope, guilt, justice, the future; why is life, death; what is sadness, a tragedy; what we deserve, what luck is; what is competition and why, or why not; what is a friend, are there enemies; what is human, what not; health, pain – what is there to do; why should I?..do anything, ask this sort of question; to whom are my loyalties, in what conditions?
Why Culture (CULTURE) fades, for me, is that many of these questions are indeed shared by members of different cultures – at certain times in their lives – and some vary widely within what were previously thought to be monolithic cultures.
Differences, on the other hand, can fade or be downplayed in dire circumstances, or where a Messianic or other rallying cry is heard. (For example, in modern fundamentalism all differences can be relegated to false or Satanic interference). `Culture’ can be used, as `Race,’ to oppose, to explain undesired behavior; to place persons on some ladder of progress or evaluation behind wherever we want `our side’ to be found. Culture as concept calls attention away from a changing world, away from existence, experience.
If the question is: why are people(s) different, the response is that there are many sorts of differences. What question do you ask; and why? We differ – all of us – day by day. Is that what you meant? What do we worship…at the feet of…? Because our parents do/did! These questions/answers no longer seem very difficult. The difficulties are in knowing generations (i.e., having lived long enough to watch the amazing differences within those whom one knows well-enough) in believing one’s own observations; in continuing to query the world and seek to question what is going on.
Urbanity and bureaucracy are, after all, very similar the world around; and democratizers of experience in interesting ways. Life is always and everywhere an ongoing translation. The question of Culture comes down to the nature of translation construed in the broadest sense. (See: Question-Response System, Human Grammar, in “Language & Human Nature”) – From Malinowski (“On Primitive Languages in the context of Culture”) – in Ogden and Richard’s “Meaning of Meaning.”
Who Owns the Context? in some cases, in some places, not only do persons share an outlook of common vision and insight but they believe they have a proprietary right to that idea. Anyone who differs from them, they think, actively disagrees with them. Any disagreement becomes an argument, not only between the discussants, but about what is right and what is wrong.
Currently there is such a battle already waning into disinterest and unimportance, between the disciplines which presently call themselves Anthropology and Biology. Anthropology believes it owns the concept of Culture; Biology, the concept of Nature. The human condition they have divided roughly and unevenly into two: Culture and Nature. Both assume that each humanoid is some combination of the two. The argument that seems to be taking place is over how much Nature vs. how much Culture; or how changeable, how fixed is the human condition, as if Culture means learned, plastic, changing, and Nature is predetermining in `its’ effect.
Since, I think, this way of thinking about human nature is prejudging and silly, and has its roots in ancient thinking and metaphysics, this `debate’ forces me to wonder who I am as an Anthropologist: to seek out (good, thoughtful) Biologists and to ferret out the underlying arguments and unpack the discussion, both to see why it takes this form, and how to alter the way we think in order to probe human nature without taking all this intellectual baggage into the fray.
This has turned out to be difficult particularly because of the proprietary nature of the discussion. If one criticizes, he is placed – as an antagonist – into the `opposite camp.’ That is, since both sides are dualists and have made up, to a large extent, their opposition, whatever they perceive as opposition (including criticism of every stripe), they take the argument to belong to the opposition as they have defined it. Neither the Biologists’ theory of Culture, nor the Anthropologists’ theory of Nature has a great deal to do with how thoughtful practioners of either discipline experience their respective worlds. (Except there is a tendency for some younger persons to become the opposition as defined from outside, rather than from inside the discipline.)
What, then is the context for the discussion of human nature, behavior…from the perspective of the Anthropologist, the Biologist, the critical thinker? Now that Culture has been co-opted by business and literature how does it play; what does it mean?
The critical thinker ends up being a pariah to both proprietary camps and must either leave the fray or seek to write for different audiences and/or in different times!
What Generalizes: Consider: an infant, relatively isolated, reared in a home with three or four other persons; brushing briefly, occasionally upon others of diverse interests. About three years of this experience, limited and bounded, and this child can speak to a hundred million persons; to everyone who speaks that language. That’s amazing!
Does anyone know how to grasp the nature of being, of language, which enables this to occur?
Consider: here I sit in my kitchen artificially warmed by flowing electrons, listening within a mode of non-hearing to morning classical music (today mostly Christmas), writing to you, and to you, and back to myself; imaging all things, all of us. Writing, a way to enter your mind; a way to enable you to enter mine. And you can do this without electrons, without music, not even in your kitchen (perhaps without even knowing writer, kitchen, or what is classicism!)
How is it that I write to you such that you can see it, take it into your thoughts, and make my thoughts yours? Is it what it is? – or what we know about what (it) is?
Experience: The organist with whom I perform violin sonatas is conducting a group of about ten strings in playing Pachelbel’s Canon. This canon doesn’t have a melodic `center,’ exactly, so each pair (of three pair) of violins, either have to watch the conductor, to listen to the previous melody two bars earlier, (the canon repeats every two bars) and perform the same music in about the same way; or listen to the cello which provides the `coherence’ to this music.
Experienced players can do all three. But the less experienced (and less adept) players, tending to play fast passages even faster than they are supposed to be, are `stuck’ in the technique and can neither watch the conductor nor continue what they have been hearing in its own terms. But, we discovered, they can `correct’ themselves by listening to the cello. The problem is in getting them to remember: 1) to listen to the cello; 2) and then to correct themselves.
The less experienced players seem to get `stuck’ in technique, in hitting the notes in tune and on time, and have little excess energy (?), or conceptual being (?) left over to watch the conductor, etc. Performing enhances this tendency to `concentrate’ upon technique. (Music without technique is, perhaps, `worse’ than technique minus music – but players tend toward technique rather than toward music.)
There are various ways to get past such problems, to `gather’ experience. Most obvious, of course, is to have sufficient technique, so that – in any moment – one can rely upon the ability to perform within smaller and smaller limits of `correctness.’ (The notion of `sufficient’ technique itself changes in many and various ways with practice, improvement, etc. – and is its own long story!) With this technical sufficiency and a trust and confidence in it, one can release oneself from a technical reading of the musical text, and can `learn’ to watch, listen to others, to predict (a lot of experience involves various sorts of predictions), etc. So in much of musical performance and playing in groups, `experience’ consists in extending oneself from the literal text to attending to many simultaneous occurrences.
Concentration: A Sunday morning in the neighborhood Lutheran Church, I was to perform Corelli (7th Sonata) and Handel (F major, 1st movement) at 10:30. At 7:30 I arose and proceeded to warm up, doing mostly bowing exercises and concluding that I should have been doing intonation exercises to make me more secure in performance.
Our 18 year old son (S.) had gone – in our car – to ski in Colorado and hadn’t yet called. Between preparing to perform and considering at some level of my being what could have happened between here and Vail, I kept calm as well as I knew how.
At about 8:00, he called and said all was well except for one spin-out into a soft snowdrift going up the mountain from Denver. He had forgotten to call the previous afternoon and had gone to sleep after driving all night.
My relief (?) carried over into my violin preparation; my muscles relaxed, apparently; my thoughts dulled, and I had a good deal of trouble staying consciously in my practising. I ran through the exercises, but they were not done particularly well or thoughtfully.
I went to the church at 9:30 to rehearse till 10, then relaxed. Perhaps I was too relaxed.
At 10:22, we began the Corelli. I remembered to tighten the bow for the `Marcato’ first movement.`Ba, ba, ba,ba, ba, ba, ba,…!’ and I was pretty much in control. Repeat; go on. People now streaming in to the Sunday after Christmas. The sound of the organ wonderful in this church. The violin, resonant; just wonderful to hear, and to play.
“Me?” Stray thoughts creeping in. “Me? What am I doing here?” The organ in a funny, off-balance counterpoint with violin.
The 2nd movement, a run (Corrente). My right hand, not so secure. A trembling. “Steady down, little finger! Relax wrist! More shoulder!” O.K. “Da, da-a-a.” The next note, the note after. All of a sudden, the next page, the trouble-spots overlaying each note. “Will I do O.K., there? Yes! No! The present, each next note, still playing, still being played. Still, creeping in; “What will happen?” Now, thinking the last movement, “the string changes, E to A to E, so fast.”
Each note, now overlain with the fingers on my right bow hand tightening when they should relax, preparing for the disaster of futuristic images. And I want each next note to sound just…”out,out! Here I am. I am right here. I wanted to be here. I wanted to perform. I was trained to do this. Love each note! Stay here; right here, right now!”
“Listen to the organ.” Mary, calm, steady, beating out that fantastic wind reverberating. “Take it in, my little mind. Love this note. Give it everything it deserves. There is no better sound. Keep here. Keep here. Ssh-sh. Build now to crescendo. Breathe. Repeat. So lovely. Later. Later, all the stray thoughts, all the random worries. But, now, listen, play; make each moment, every note as beautiful as I know how. Take the energy of the audience into the sound, play the violin into the edges and depths of their minds.”
And so, I drew into each moment the curtain round my thoughts, concentrated, played. The piece became…of-a-piece. The faltering, never out-of-control, steadied into a performance. Compacted, concentrated.
Congruence: My Teachers (Smith and Trager) used to talk about `congruence’ as if it were a major concept, perhaps the principal conceptual area to be considered in understanding.
Congruence means, I think, that what is going on in any interaction (especially), has to be understood with respect to whether it `fits,’ is congruent with whatever else is happening.
It signals, I think, the notion that context is a multi-layered, many-leveled sort of thing, and that within some larger context(s), events can be seen as fitting, being congruent with or not. It suggests that some events with some larger context(s) fit one notion, some fit another notion of what is going on.
If, for example, two persons do not go `outside’ some rules or boundaries (the idea of the `breaking of context’), and maintain a conversational pose, they might or might not be dealing in communcative behavior. They might, for example, be deep into their own minds, blocking any communication; they might be talking at several levels within the interaction, each connected with any future possibilities (e.g., if `you’ understand me, really, you’ll be able to separate what I `really’ mean from what I am saying). The question of analysis (and description) comes down to whether and with respect to what, the events are congruent.
In any event (?) there is thought to be a level of context which `contains’ all ensuing events (like a sporting event-which has its own rules for continuity), for what constitutes it – and within that, much can and does occur at many levels, of various sorts. The clue to analysis, to understanding, splitting up the complex into its event-forms, was said by my teachers to be congruence.
My trouble with this is that congruence demanded some (I think a lot of) surreptitious theories of meaning, even of context, in order to say what event was what, belonged with or to which others, etc. That is, in order to `know’ congruence, one would, already, have to know what is context, presumably what we were trying to discover…eventually.
So within the concept of congruence we find ourselves caught in another circle, much wider, perhaps, than the ones others are caught in, and holding-out much long-term promise (and, no doubt, a truth of a sort!)
Context and Linguistics: On comparing words within a sentence as a part of my studies in linguistics some years ago, I realized that there was variation in the sounds depending on the location within the sentence. Whether a word was initial, medial, or final (say) in a sentence, made a difference in the sound of any/every word.
Whether this has to do with the `form’ of a sentence or with other factors (as well), it suggests that we have in mind a much more complicated notion of languaging than had been noted previously. It means that location (within certain structures?) and context are intertwined in interesting ways.
It means, also, that any observed `word’ not only is that word (i.e., contains within its duration information specifying that it is that word and not any others), but that within its duration there is also information about where it is in the sentence. Thus, every linguistic `event’ (e.g., a `word’) is both event and context for itself and what surrounds it, or it is somehow `about’ the structure within which it is embedded.
What this could mean, to generalize, is that many/most events we note or observe are not only or merely those events (i.e., what we think, for whatever reasons, is that event), but they also carry information about structures and context.
Why I think this is complicated: in contexts that we already operate within, the fact that, e.g., words vary according to location in a sentence, was not before noted. So we are (we must be!) the kinds of observers who accommodate at least some sorts of contexts already in our observations. That is, we do not self-consciously note the dynamics but somehow act as if they are not there while simultaneously taking them into account in our own familiar worlds. In others’ worlds we do not take them into account, but act as if we can observe clearly; i.e. outside of context. (Our tendency is to apologize for this by assuming whomever or whatever we observe is simpler than we are.) So the problem is in `knowing’ what we see, `learning’ how to see/observe as if we are within the proper context and structure, etc.
Ex: seeing so-called retarded or autistic people as they really are (Timian). What we `see’ in their behavior we label to ourselves as `retarded.’ While such persons are `different from ordinary’ in certain physical ways (which we’re studying now), the notion of `retarded’ is our designation, and may not fit them very well, if at all. (It has much to do with differences in muscle structure and in dealing with gravity.) Here, we can both study them, and learn about our observational habits and tendencies.
Problem: How to examine (re-examine) our observational categories and tendencies, especially as we are `bound’ to certain contextual habits, or see with respect to our own categories.
The World Works: The work of the world yet goes on:`it’ knows what it is doing. Most people, however, seem deeply suspicious (pessimistic?) of this and think that the world is much too complicated to work. Or they think it (our institutions, etc.) has no flux, and will break before it changes. Or they are narrow thinkers, or historical thinkers…
In many senses the fact of the world ongoing seems very simple. Children get born, raised, etc.; marriages, society. There is/are some theories – we may assume – by which this happens; or there are no such theories necessary. If, we assume, the world works, there are theories underlying, and our job is to understand them, see when they get into trouble, see ahead, etc. (Machiavelli, M.Krieger).
Where are these theories and how do we locate them…become the principal questions. And `Context’ is at least the residual answer: context is (about) the sorts of knowledge by which all of us know where we are, and how events are to be considered and understood, within…It is or contains frameworks, perspectives, theories of architectonic and directions for moving in these.
Assuming all of this to be generally correct, the lack of explicit work on context is likely due to several factors: 1) we are context-congruent observer-interactors; i.e., we are creatures of context and become aspects of it rather than (remaining) observers who update ourselves at all points within some process. Our possibilities of consciousness, objectivity, etc., are suspended with respect to whatever is contextual; 2) our attentions are positively directed to other sorts of issues and problems (e.g. toward individuals rather than to relationships between persons), and we never `get back’ to contextual issues; or we fall for content rather than form or the reverse; 3) whatever is context changes in such ways that it is, e.g., `form’ in one `instant’ and `content’ in another (e.g. language, music); 4) context is many modes simultaneously and we don’t know how to direct questions at its `essence’; 5) context is a residual notion invoked to account for whatever seems to be left over (and we hope this is small); 6) etc.
Process and Memory: in, for example, teaching, the teacher goes through the process of teaching (`change,’ `learning,’ etc.) with the students to at least some extent. After the course, as/when it resonates still in memory, the course changes somewhat, and becomes an event, a product, a kind of unity (I think).
As teacher, I have in mind both the process (multiple, manifold, ongoing, altering) and the outcome (say six months, five years later). I `teach toward’ a desirable outcome and bend the process in that direction. The students, having no real sense for that outcome, experience the course very differently from the teacher; while it yet appears to all that the course events are identical for everyone, including the teacher.
The process, the teaching, how I’m going to get those particular students, that particular class, within the range of my desired outcome, depends on the weather, the students, the times, the mix of many, many factors. All of these I try to take into account and keep my eye on the afterward of the memory of the course: an example of how form turns into content; and of other things as well.
(Why do I think this is somewhat accurate? – returning students, sitting in on the `same’ course the next year, have a very different notion of the course, and are surprised [annoyed, upset, challenged] by the experience of the process; i.e. they had `redone’ the course in memory.)
Deep vs. Surface: a diversion – away from contextual issues. Since context “is” residual, the data, the observables (it is assumed) cannot possibly be anything but `form’ (like the telegraph wire, carrying the message/context). Therefore we must look deeper to see what rules `generate’ the observable (e.g., like algorithms for numbers, forgetting that behavior is not exactly as formal as numbers; grammar for words, forgetting that words are noise are represenations are discourses with other persons).
These rules become, then, the data, the reality which governs, and the subject-matter of our lives. And we forget the context, the nature of the observer (by which the surface is described, and the forgetter of the context). And we spend the next eras seeking to define and refine what is either not there to begin with, or what we believe will yield some truth if only we define the right `units,’ analyze them `correctly’ – never getting back to why we thought about anything `that way’ to begin with.
Becoming a House-husband: J. with whom I share my life, has gone to work, and I remain mostly at home, arranging, cleaning, cooking, etc., etc., etc.(1981-2).
Since I had cooked, cleaned some previously, this was not all new. I knew the various rooms, what is in the house, where most of it `belongs,’ what to get rid of. What is new, from a contextual perspective, is that I am seeing so much more than I had previously, that it is difficult to believe and to fathom.
Before, I could do my chores, perhaps like it was an assignment; a task carved out by J., out of the range of whatever good-housekeeping is. Now I am the one who assigns to myself, the manager I have become.
And I see so much more: what is out of place, what is a half-done job; what clean and neat is. I have developed, by now, a fairly complete, fairly `enclosed’ aesthetic. Having vacuumed the floors for many years, the most astonishing newness is to be actually able to see dust as I vacuum, and note what is then clean – or not.
Thus what was, what I was as observer of the familiar, has altered radically. My house – a home of 15 years – now new, now enclosing a similar store of events, now all expanded, turned somewhat.
Has this filtered into the other concepts of my life, my observations? How was it that I saw so little then, so much more now; that I then (also) accounted myself a careful observer? What else do I not see, enclosed in a vision of implicit knowledge, boundaries in so far from the edges? (J. Timian: “Becoming a wife-boy!”)
Form become Content become Form: it is clearer to me that context is at once real and a will-o-the-wisp.
Like bed-rock it is always presumed to reside `at bottom.’ But when we attempt to pull away the coverlets of our lives, we always get closer in some senses, but never seem to arrive. Either there is no bottom, no bed-rock, no basis for the assumptions in terms of which we (science, experience,…) proceed, or we don’t know how to look; or somehow the bed-rock is itself in some senses `in flux,’ or…
Example: hairstyle – what is `pure style’ now, comes `in’ and will be what is normal in several months. That is, what was form, through the adoption by sufficiently many persons, becomes content: what is and what is real. After a while (days, months, centuries, millennia,…), via various processes (!), what was real, content-full, becomes form once again, as the underlying acquaintance with the content is lost, forgotten, abandoned, and once more in the categorical world of what is attractive (alive) or not (merely lost).
Example: language learning (development): based on some (intrinsic?) interactional propensities of the infant, the infant begins to exercise its vocal chords (form), and this is responded to by parents as if it has content (meaning); the infant somehow learns that this is to be used as meaningful, expands the repertoire as sound and muscle use, given meaning by parents, accepted as meaningful, and so on and so on. Form become content…etc. The infant-which-survives principally is that “one” into which the parents have read personage which is interpreted by them as the actual person (…on the complications of being oneself).
Example: rhetoric, the style of speech, of teaching, is for some reason or in some senses `attractive.’ The student-listener attends, the message-content is packaged, but remains ill-understood. The stylistics of the teacher change to assume, to act as if the content was/were understood; the nature of the teacher-student relationship changes; the student comes to believe that she/he understands, now has to take on a proprietary relationship to the content of the course, and so on. Form become content… [Example: Greek Dance Poses: Diane Watts, teacher of Isadora Duncan. Instead of worshipping Greek statuary, as many 19th century idealists did, she recreated the poses…as a dancer.]
But this is true of any writing or of any speaking in which the ideas, the content, are not yet known or understood. And, perhaps, this is why context is both bed-rock and non-existent, depending on…perspective, time and place, what is already understood,…
(In this sense [in this context], does context `progress?’ Is context a paradox; a parable…a paragon?)
Example: Plato’s Dialogues. Plato runs a double-game (at least). The `form’ of the dialogue – what dialectic `does’ to our minds in engaging in it – versus the `content’ of the dialogues (Western thought is essentially Plato’s “content”). In some places these seem parallel or complementary; in others they seem opposed, and seem to have little to do with one another. A student of dialectic who studied pedagogy with me, took the notion of the dialogue to be the whole of pedagogical dialectic, and taught teaching in terms only of the quality of dialectic (to engage people-listeners-students). I, who operate in terms of the content principally, always directing and redirecting in terms of the underlying ideas I was trying to teach, found myself at great odds with him, who seemed to me to be always manipulating form – to enhance the attention and enjoyment, irrespective of subject matter, ideas or content. In the end (I believe), his students would end up `empty’ and tending toward nihilism when it is/was never clear why anyone does anything; except as theater. (Formalism –> nihilism –> boom!)
Searching the Unknown: it may well be that our methods, our ideas about the unknown will not illuminate much more broadly, especially more deeply what is not yet understood. Whatever our methods, some of them hide or obscure as much as they may direct. Or there may be arenas of thought and experience which we do not know because of our linguistic habits, social experience;…
It has seemed to me that there are several processes for pursuing the unknown, which I gather under the concept of `locating‘ problems or issues. First I speak with, interview, practitioners of various disciplines and orientations to find out what they do, what they know, and if possible, to move to the `edges’ of each discipline to find out where their methods and knowledge direct them. After a while – with much experience – one can sense where they tend to move, what they might or ought to inquire about, but in fact do not.
Example: neurology has a `circular’ view of mental retardation, which supposedly `explains’ that `retardation and/or autism’ is due to neurological, unchangeable disorders. This belief directs them and their followers away from observing, once the diagnosis has been made. Thus what is actually different or peculiar about such `funny-looking’ people is never well-described because neurologists do not believe it will tell them/us anything. (Wrong – in my view!) Especially, it is useful to compare different disciplines who claim to study the same subject matter (e.g., human behavior) but from different orientations or disciplines.
After a while, also, one is driven to reading the writings of those who formulated the questions and answers, the visions and modes of inquiry. One begins to discover what was bothering them, what their intellectual-temporal histories taught them. Perhaps it is correct to say that one studies what the contexts of s/his lives consisted in: what they loved, hated, feared, for what they worked, for whom they could succeed, fail; what gods they had, what illness, and so on. And one can begin to see what was invented, when a concept gained strength, fell, was objected to, was replaced, forgotten, and, to some extent, why.
Then, with luck, one can rediscover `today’; where we are now, how we got here, where we might go, and of what the `proximate’ unknown might consist. One studies the forces for change, equally those for stability, and notes where the weaknesses are; which aspects of life are and will be fought for, defended seriously, and not so seriously.
Perhaps one can then begin to see what is not yet seen, imagine the unimagined…(mysticism as another response to wanting to know what there-is-not-yet).
Life in the Interstices: like Dostoievski I used to think I lived in the underground, waiting there till it was dark enough not to be seen. Then mole-like I would poke up my head and look around. Since my vision was not too good, especially in the zones of twilight, I was assured that nothing much was going on; not too much, that is, that was interesting or important. I retracted, pulled myself back into my hole of protective self-satisfaction, and continued on with my tasks some of which were, no doubt, calculated to plug up that hole, once and for all. Even when I had encounters with the lighted world I remained hidden, having learned to pass in the world as if I were one of `them.’
Then there was some trouble, and an invitation. I emerged, got a lawyer, found a new friend, and began to look at where I had gotten. No longer underground, a fantasy no longer sustainable, I awoke to find myself inside; yet not exactly any place which I could specify. And not any place where there was company. It was, I discovered, within the structures and organization of some entity, some thingness called a university. But I was somehow in-between, in the interstices.
Now the view from the interstices may not be clear; objectivity may be more vain than vision and observation from some place, or from some usual location; but it is not uninteresting. For one thing I now wander abroad in the world, and others with `place’ think I am somewhere, as well; and treat me as if I am just like them. But I know that I am not and do not belong any where. And so I have, in many senses, rejoined, but live still in the interstices. Attempting to locate them, I walk in their ways, and parallel ways as well, living in the interstices.
Metaphor: metaphor has something to do with something which it isn’t exactly. Like a dictionary this is somehow a large, perhaps unabridged circle; stay on the journey long enough, everything will be revealed in terms of other things, and the ride will be sufficiently heady that we require nothing more: “The Glass-Bead Game.” (Hesse)
Instead some of us prefer to stay at home, looking for the somethings which metaphors are metaphorical…to. Often, it seems, context is invoked when is becomes finally obvious that everything/something is something else’s metaphor. Or at such points we deny that there are any somethings. And we get worried about whether we are anything either. (If you don’t `believe in’ reality you may pick up your pay check; but you may not cash it!)
It seems that context will never (?) be able to tell us that we are, but its study may enable us to locate our selves. Its solution will be located in the kinds of thinking which will show us how we both are and are our own metaphors, simultaneously. We must be continuous enough, sufficiently `absolute,’ that we are – identifiably – in (almost) all contexts. (There may be contexts in which we `give away’ our selves but know how to get identity back.) That is, memory (its bases) must be sufficient that we always find our selves; know who we are/who I am.
The strange power of metaphors is that they often work to convince us that someone knows something which – if it were said `straight’ – would be totally unconvincing. (Any metaphor in a storm!)
The use of metaphors historically, within the discussions of what it means to be human, is quite amazing. We are dual; we are speechless statues; we are culture, language; phalluses when we have lost our tongues; assholes when we supercede being pricks; heads when we are stoned; tool-makers when nothing else convinces; brains when we look at ourselves and forget we are looking out as well.
Context and Meaning: But this is Malinowski’s problem. If we `know where we are’ (already; to begin??) then we can analyze the meaning pretty easily. If we don’t know the context then the analysis is not grounded anywhere, at least not anywhere where we can be secure in Knowledge. The same `word,’ the identical concept, `means’ differently in different contexts. The problem is what is it to locate ourselves (or anyone or anything) and how do we go about this? (The fact is that most living creatures, even humans, do this quite well, most of the time.) A problem in the nature of orientation and navigation (Donald Griffin)?
Ambiguity: Life is not so sparkling clear as the beer ads would claim for their water, but neither is it so murky, in any sense constantly or consistently.
It is tempting to build a theory of meaning by matching, arranging, resolving what appear to be ambiguities (Chomsky). But the mere fact that they are (apparently) resolvable, at least arrangeable, should tell us that we operate within some, probably logical frameworks of even recognizing an ambiguity. It seems, to be, to require a great deal of various sorts of knowledge, to recognize ambiguity.
Perhaps the study of context should begin(?) with developing the idea of the necessary frameworks to recognize (and to resolve?) ambiguity. (Trager used to deny that there were any actually occurring ambiguities in living; I think he thought they were all `structural.’)
Context and Logic: raising the issues of context seems generally to be part of an attack on logic in the sense of the possibility of abstracting (from…contexts) statements being capable of being, say, clearly false or true or at least resolvable.
The intellectual difficulty and trap is that the concept of human rationality (so far) is tied intimately to this limited notion of logic. And as questions of meaning have arisen (especially, perhaps, within the notion of language translation), it has become fairly clear that there is more both to logic and to meaning, than any mere truth and falsity.
Also clear, from geometry, that certain sorts of pivotal assumptions – shifts in these – provide logical algebraic systems. Within each geometry, algebra, truth means differently. A question about context, here, is how we know/are told which geometry we are (to be) within?
Being Human: one of the residual senses in which context remains secreted, is Human Nature. Apparently we hold out some promise, some wish, that the facts somehow implicit in being human `explain’ a great deal of life and of life’s experiences.
“That is innate; this is inherent; a universal” – meaning that it is shared by all humans somehow as an attribute of whatever being human means. The practical result is that a number of problems remain hidden, obscure, unrecognized: but in an insidious intellectual sense: fixed, predetermined, life experience continually blurred.
That is, that since they are (assumed to be) inherent, they need not be raised to actual, rational, conscious or conscientious discussion; moreover, we apparently assume they form a bedrock, an assumptive foundation which will/can/must explain whatever is truly deep and profound. Somehow all of this seems to make present experience pretty banal. Or we look for causality, for being and experience in externalities: God, death, ESP,…all of which we seem to use to provide us categories and gathering principles within which to place experiences – again, as if these notions will explain life’s experience beyond which they (the categories) are and (life) is.
And all of this obscures, in a variety of apparent ways, the senses in which we are inter-personal; in which we experience the world in ways others claim it is to be, and force us to organize how we(I) contemplate experience.
This notion of Human Nature also seems to have persuaded us to seek for Self-Knowledge from within the categories, the experiences, and thinking-about that we already somehow possess: because we are human. As if this will tell us a great deal we don’t already know: a search for exactly the correct method, a seduction of the philosopher into believing that knowledge is (already) within him/herself (Rorty’s review of Derrida’s On Grammatology).
Ongoingness and Context: The notion of context implies some starts and stops, some divisions of time/space, of eventness, into discreta both similar and different; and in ways that we can find, and in places where we can find our way, where we are and what we are doing.
But like the chicken and egg, the whole business is ongoing. There is no obvious beginning, and the endings are not so clear either.
We construct life – or life is – such that there are different times, and we construct rituals – or life is – to state these times, to celebrate them, to announce them, and to convince ourselves that they are and are real.
Context and Confusion: most of the time in most circumstances we are located within, we invent our selves within several contexts. The difficulties, complications, ambiguities, have much to do with who I am and who we are, and what we are doing, because the situation is multiple – in form, in logic, in relationship.
Every human relationship has, within it, so many possibilities that it seems impossible to proceed with almost anything at all: everyone can be friends, lovers, enemies; instruments to use, to love, to hurt; students, teachers, doers, the done-to; the in-this-moment, the past, all tomorrows. (I could have turned out to be my exact polar opposite; the precise one who would have hated the me I now an and killed me – Borges.)
So which ones are we in? What is this moment, this time? In ordinary English, for example, the common past tense is multiply ambiguous: “She was here” – could be yesterday or 2000 years ago. And we need more to know which is meant; or even if she is properly female – or even what female means.
Who then decides what context this is, who delimits, who confuses, who…what?
Mistakes, Confusions: There we were at a high school hockey game, an intersectional game with the crowds of people from a town to which we are now `tied’ by marriage. All was fine, a good game, a happy crowd.
But sitting next to me and in my line of vision to the ice and hockey action was a youngish man whose saliva was being created in the most gigantic proportions known to humankind. Chewing tobacco, we thought. And how did we know this? Because he had an every-two-minute’s bolus which he emptied on to the floor beneath his facial orifice. Yecch. A virtual lake of sputum.
I thought of what to do, what to say, appalled as I was. And did exactly…nothing. I thought to say,”Sir, your sputum stinks!” But since his friends said and did nothing, neither did I. A problem in context? His behavior so awful, so improbable? (My esthetic? My problem?)
Instantaneous Stimuli: psychologists (always) trying to bound the stimuli to its smallest possible dimensions, zero rise-time, then immediate fall – to set boundaries to the immediate, to know when precisely is now. The problem is to know what is a stimulus, then we have a chance of knowing what is a response, and what it is a response to (…trying to `locate’ or pinpoint causality).
Here context, history are problems. Stimuli are supposed to be context-free, to stimulate their (particular) responses, to cause clearly and cleanly whatever they cause; and the organism is presumed to be always in the same state, a zero-state, or a state whose activity does not interfere with receiving the stimulus.
Remarkably (?) eyes and ears act as if they are clear, at least much of the time. Pain, too, except that acupuncture seems to confuse this tendency of ours to be able to cleanse our `pain states.’ Perhaps it is that we are very good (?) at cleansing ourselves of context (blinking, swallowing!?), preparing ourselves to see and hear, thus to be cast within each next moment and to be creatures in-time and simultaneously open to stimuli (i.e. outside of time).
In this sense, context is the ways in which we are: 1) not free to be open in each next moment; 2) the senses in which – from which – we must `cleanse’ ourselves, to be open to instantaneity. (How, then, are we continuous – lacks of instantaneity?) Is such cleansing the same as forgetting?
Space and Context: Certain events happen in certain sorts of space: often, usually. Certain events do not, definitely do not happen in particular sorts of space. The space `itself’ tells us a lot about context, perhaps spaces `set’ context.
Is this all because of experience and expectations? Is it because of how we use space, how we react and interact in particular settings? Is it how space manages, permits, forces us to be or do, in certain ways? (P. Wilson – “The Domestication of the Human Species” – in which it is claimed that we became `geometrized’ in our thinking when we humans became domestic, living in fixed settlements with indsides and outsides, and privacy, and…). Is space then, real – related to our being and moving within `it’? Or is it (another?) form of agency in which we have come to exteriorize our being by placing causality outside, then finding ourselves inside of…?
A Musical Program: how to organize the recital we are going to give next month!?
Two sonatas are `good introductory pieces’ – thus they will begin the concert (Telemann) and begin the post-intermission (Handel). The Bach is `too hard’ on people’s ears and minds and they will need the rest (and us too); so just before intermission. The Corelli is easy to hear and a `crowd-pleaser’ – good to finish and leave them with a lot of energy, looking still for… So we have been operating in terms of some notions of how audiences’ minds are, and will experience listening to music of particular sorts.
The `Bach is difficult to listen to,’ because there are no `anchors’ exactly, where the beat is obvious in any continual manner.
The organist will introduce the concert with pieces `in keys which will transit the music from one mood to another.’ And everyone will love the experience…
So, people (friends mostly??) will come to a concert knowing that music will be performed, probably in a good mood to enjoy, ready to sit for a couple of hours. And we hope to entertain them, and to have them…how? – wanting more? thinking it was wonderful?
The audience who knows me, mostly don’t know me as a violinist (already some shift of context).
Velocity and Intensity: Performing for a (studentâ€™s) wedding with a neophyte but eager organist I had to play a Corelli Sonata, (Opus 5,#7, final allegro) at about half usual speed.
At `ordinary’ speed the music has a wonderful intensity, particularly good and well-suited for recessionals and other sorts of finishings. But at half speed it lacked intensity and continuity (though still being lovely). I tried to compensate by being very `deliberate’ with my bow, attempting to increase the amplitude from softest to much louder within each stroke of the bow. Apparently this worked to (re)create the notion of a lilting song, and as effective finale. What is the `ordinary velocity’ of the world and experience? How does this affect our lives: perceptions, experiencing, etc? What do velocity and boredom have to do with one another?
Illusions: do we experience them? – do we seek them? If there are illusions, is there a reality opposite to, or in dialogue with the illusion?
Are we used to seeing at a particular `velocity?’If there is a slight change of speed, do we `notice’ it, a `just exactly’ rapid enough change? Is there a human `time,’ in other words; a time and a timing in which we do not note what is normal or usual but only the deviations?
Is illusion a perception; i.e., a raw perception devoid of context (like a reflex); or is illusion dependent on context in some senses? Do we, accepting (some definitions of) context predict next events such that illusion as a change is in opposition to those predictions?
How is it that some `people’ on a stage turn into `actors?’ Is the cinema or TV different from actuality?
Lighting (illumination), timing, depth of space…?
Is illusion a boundary on what is reality (much as death may inform life)?
Observation: what sorts of contextual observers are we? Do our (raw?) perceptions change through, say, the duration of what we consider to be a single event? In the duration of a spoken sentence do we hear amplitude of pitch in some constant way, or somehow in relation to what has happened and what is about to happen?
Does this `truth’ (that we are contextually-bound) claim that we are `relative’ rather than `absolute’ observers? – and that we are relative within contexts, but observe `extra-contextually’ in pretty constant manners? How can we `break context’ to discover the nature of our own contextually-bound observations?
Escape from Context: in a sense, context is both relative and simultaneously the notion which everything else is relative with regard to, and we are caught within smaller or larger circles of thought and of being: the reductionist and the holist seem like vortices of equivalence but opposite in direction.
But there are constancies, moments, senses in which we are placed in surety, in some senses of absolute: some sense like the tuning of my violin A. That is all I need; and everything else is played in relation to it; in harmony with it. But that A, that is my life-line. That A, I can take anywhere and everywhere and it is sufficiently the same to act as if it were The Place; the escape from context. And it works. Is the world like playing the violin? (Would pianists agree?)
Searching for Bed-rock: where, what does it all come down to? Where is bottom, the foundation; what is fundamental, where do we begin, when did it begin? I keep sensing these are the wrong questions, looking for some surety, some purity: then it will be clear and we will know.
But isn’t `it’ already clear in various senses? Are we looking for the world to hold, for a time to stop (again!?) so we can see how it starts or was started?
Humans (others?) construct the world fairly sufficiently. Living within some senses of our senses we know beginnings and endings, are as amused as enraged by ambiguity, have our worlds mapped within a complex of cognitive frameworks. The bed-rock is ourselves, and that usually works, except as M. Krieger says, when we are in trouble and need `advice.’
Flow of Conversation: conversations and discourse seem to have a certain direction of flow. Once a context is `set,’ the participants knowing and agreeing, then there is/are progressions or movement.
But there are various pitfalls – where a conversation enters a morass; an area of quicksand where ideas do not `follow.’ That is, there is a (several!) kind of logic of process and flow: where the focus, the context has been forgotten or lost; where an unrelated idea comes in from `nowhere’; where there is a `disruption’; where one gets into a side idea, and no longer can get back…not `realizing’ where one is, or not willing to admit one is lost, or not knowing how to get out of such quicksand…one gets deeper into arenas of confusion.
But this illustrates that ordinary/usual discourse has `rules’ of ongoingness, of flow. Usually this works sufficiently well. Only sometimes there is trouble.
Editing: When there is too much, where something has been left out, where ideas do not follow well, where there could be better flow; where there is some elapsed time between writing and re-reading, then one enters into an editing mode: the same reading, yet different in perspective, in purpose. To write is to create something `from nothing’; to edit is to possess that something, that writing, and to `improve’ it.
Problems in editing: often, I read what I have written to confirm my ideas or myself – not editing, but some form of self-love, of having memorized my previous being, of flattery, of…? A different `frame-of-mind’ is necessary, to see it as a critical reader; not merely the audience which is the writers’ mirror-image.`Distance’ of time, of attitude..of context?
Multiple Sclerosis: a loss of context. An inability to place one-self in…? Some years ago a woman who had developed symptoms of multiple sclerosis studied a course on Kinesics with me. Like many other persons with symptoms, she wanted to rid herself of them (to become well, whole,…) and possibly to become famous for developing a ‘cure’ – all at the same time.
The usual neurological ‘story’ is that the nerves become demyelinated, thus incapable of transmitting nervous impulses as they did earlier. Various forms of paralysis develop, often beginning with visual problems (holes in the vision) and moving to either or both sides, developing muscular weaknesses (due to lack of nervous innervation), etc. The disease may be rampantly ‘progressive’ or very gradual.
Working together in an interview/dialogue mode we did note several things, and raised various questions which may have to do with context. Indeed, we wondered if the disease is not somehow a contextual pathology. First, it was clear her ‘memory’ was spotty. She had little ‘access’ to the memories of where and with whom she was at age four, seven, ten. As we interviewed others to see how they ‘construct’ their personal histories, most of them seemed to ‘begin’ this process by locating themselves somewhere: home, school – and/or with particular others: family, friends, teachers. Once they begin this process – reported this way – then they could go on to elaborate various events which unfolded more or less like other narratives.
Since these are processes occurring in the ongoing present, we (all) seem to have ways of (re-)constructing such stories to ourselves which we believe to be fairly accurate history (or we construct these histories in the form of narratives which we then check with family, friends and conclude they are accurate…one of the problems of moving and aging is that the others are not available to check one’s stories and theories of personal history, etc.). Whatever is considered to be MS, the student had no history available to her, and this seemed somewhat disorienting for her in her ongoing present. She could not, that is, be secure in her having an accounting for how she ‘got’ here, and this seemed to carry over to knowing what was happening right now; perhaps increasing or enhancing her sense of pathology.
We did not get very ‘far’ in our understanding except to wonder about some contextual issues: do the so-called symptoms occur frequently in all of us, but the person who develops progressive MS will become ‘literal’ or infatuated with these symptoms, or can no longer ‘turn them off’? That is, are the processes of the ongoing context merely continuous and obvious in the human condition, or do they require a frequent re-generation of ‘orienting stories’ to oneself? Do most of us have occasional symptoms, but somehow ‘work’ past them? How do we become, maintain, sustain issues of identity, orientation, location, navigation, which seem to be necessary for knowing who and where we are at any moment – how active are these processes?
Titles: beginnings, announcements, locators, statements about what is about to happen, how to interpret them; what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’; endings of whatever else, calls to disattend to whatever runs downs one’s stream of consciousness. Perhaps titles are calls to halt, much as calls to begin. They focus, concentrate, announce that for the next ‘interval’ the events will hold together, will follow, will belong; there will be an introduction, middle, (a climax, perhaps), an ending, a termination…and we shold be ‘on the alert’ for other such…other such what?!
Titles carve niches into the banks along the various streams of consciousness – indicating that the ongoing being and thought of anyone is not any single dynamic process, but some mess and melange of…Some of them seem to wander in quite obvious, at least known and tracked cycles (sleep/wakefulness, menstruation, micturation, hunger, thirst). Others seem aspects of the (re-)generation of identity. Some may concern ‘themselves’ with internal dialogues or with internal dialogues to others of one’s imaginings and realities.
Some titles are announced: ladies and gentlemen; dear mother (now quite dead for many years, but still she demands some place in my thinking, at least occasionally, and how ‘I’ do this remains somehow important in…); to myself; to Plato and Confucius whom I seek to understand and often refute; to Descartes whom I laugh at and with; to Janis with whom dialogue is…; dear students, children, neighbors; dear those who do not understand me; dear president, pope, Saint to whom I aspire; dear jerk, dear sick and dying; dear deity in whose name…
Some titles are ‘given’ or ‘earned’ or ‘happen’: duke, or Nobel or poet laureate, parent, wise person, buffoon. Some of these remain active in one’s life and in others’ thinking about them, and acquire power or they do not.
Some of them are ‘circular’ like this one which both begins and ends with the bold-faced…Titles.
Titles (stories, poems, aphorisms): I choose the name of a topic to pursue thinking/writing that day, any day, every day. It begins the topic, the title does, portraying a domain of thought, signaling a discussion to come. In the old days – before computers – it would be as if there were a blank page to be filled partially…or mostly. Now, I merely type in the word (Titles), place it in bold face, and go on as long as the blank page of my former meanderings will take me.
The first sentence/paragraph depicts the problem, lays out the domain of the pursuit of an idea, a thought, something which needs at once to be expressed and thought out. It (the reference of the title) needs to be of a size and scope which can possess a beginning, middle and end -like some logical narrative, but with condensation, a certain parsimony; the attempt to get to the bottom, the centrality of whatever the title represents in the world, in my thinking and analysis, ‘should’ (if I understand any potential audience now or in some futurity [or in some past from which I live my present]) resonate in your reader’s mind as well. It should carve out some issue which is clearly problematic – or one which I can convince you might be problematic.
The first sentence/paragraph states approximately what is the issue, and why it might be problematic. In an aphoristic work (such as the present one on ‘Context’), the title might draw its problematicity from the previous ones, hinting strongly that this one is a further unpacking of some underlying issue. It might repeat a previous one (Titles) by showing/claiming that the titled problem has a variety of possible resonances, allowing me the author to go somewhat further afield, perhaps deeper into a question whose understanding has perhaps a simple or more superficial arena, but one which also goes in various other directions, gathering ideas as it circles back upon itself or becomes its own self-reference, sometimes causing/enticing the reader to go back to see how the piece got here…and even getting the reader to look for deeper questions than had been seen previously when the beginning and the title led in one direction whilst the piece was moving (also) in others.
In the first paragraph of this aphorism, for example, I tried to conflate a writing with a day, suggesting that my life (thence the reader’s?) has duration akin to the duration of the study of ‘context’. This might give the reader/thinker (another attempt at conflation and the development of linkages – and, I think, more properly in the domain of pedagogy than many other aphorisms which are more exploratory and internal rather than this piece which is self-reflective) the idea that the reading of an aphoristic essay is an aspect of s/his lived life, occurring over some time sufficient for the ideas to enter and penetrate and be reflected upon, gathering whatever it is that ideas gather. Indeed, I think I am trying to get and give some sense for the duration of thought occurring over the decade this has been in the thinking and writing. (Is the writing up to the portrayal of the ideation? Which is knowledge, which skill; is there any difference?)
The title has, I hope and expect by now an increasing set of dimensions from subject to object to self-analysis to a wondering why I am pursuing the issue of Titles even when I merely use the title to discuss how to think our such an aphorism. Actually (!?), the issue of the term is the sense in which it sets a context in terms of which what follows is to be interpreted and understood. And here I am trying to stretch the possibilities of what can be ‘included’ within the topic of Titles, to attempt to entice the reader to read the damn thing yet again, to see how we got here, reflexively giving it its own life while complicating the thinking of the reader perhaps to the point of breaking or utter boredom.
Counter-Intuition: Though it remains murky to me that there is some obvious sense to the term ‘intuition’, it has often been clear in my pedagogical practice that there are some powerful moments in the teaching art which I understand to be ‘counter-intuitive’.
What I-the-teacher seem to discern is some ‘direction’ or directedness to the thinking of many of the students in some particular course. Having seen this displayed in several students, I seem to track on its course, and am predicting how and/or where they will go, next. Once engaging in this observation and surmising, I then guess what will be counter to their mode and direction of thinking, and spring this on them. See my Teaching as Dialogue.
Facial Expression: (Quote from L & H-Nature?) A proportion of whatever is context concerns the nature of our presence – bodily, occupying space, ‘able’ to demand the attention of others, and so on. This complex area of our being has been backgrounded within the import of literature, narrative, and the excitement which symbolic extension has created in our theories of human nature. In the idealist tradition in which abstraction has meant so much, it is also worth recalling that Plato ‘got rid of’ the body in the dialogue Phaedo, at least as having much importance in the exploration of our being, which he pointed toward knowledge of the formal – and always external to our bodies. (This has much to do with the intellectual ‘wish’ to banish change from what is knowing, and the body is certainly changing and changeable – but Plato did not see the Heraclitean notion of knowing truth, that the changing body like the proverbial ‘river’ also has duration and stability…of sorts.) Nonetheless the cliche that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ embeds itself in the hard facts of presence and the power it has in the providing of context.
This area of our being is extremely complex (at least intellectually; practically much of who we are resides here), having apparently multifold senses of meaning including quite basic issues of how we see others (and ourselves), but also including a variety of judgments actual and metaphorical.
It is not so clear to me how to provide written contexts to explore and underline the import of presence as a central focus of our existence. Surely one can proceed by examining the variety of literary approaches to ‘setting scenes’ – i.e., ‘locating’ the action (time, place, occurrence – variety/absence) – much of which is ‘unnecessary when one is present and ‘in person’. Much of what we mean by ‘following’ a scene seems to be ‘derived’ from experience in being with others; especially faces, but also presence more generally.
An analogy, perhaps, to illustrate from ‘later’ experience how much of the knowing of our presence is already backgrounded by the time we learn to read: at first letters are quite abstract to the learner – little squiggles which have no obvious meaning. Gradually they are ‘learned’, become parts of words; words are attached to meanings the child already possesses, become aspects of sentences. All of whatever letters symbolize become facts to be used in reading (or writing – think of the strangeness of the typing keyboard), and their complexity becomes quite inapparent. Their actual complications may be ‘recalled’ in the attempt to learn to read in another orthography…In any case, the complexity of the body in its presence (with others) is much more complex than the quite complicated learning of reading, but is so much background that we have quite literally read it out of what we know about knowing.
So, the face and facial expression: to begin, the presence of someone’s face seems to ‘demand’ that we actively look at ‘it’, look at s/him, or have to take quite a lot of energy to deliberately ‘not look’. Unusual faces also capture energy – ‘pathologies’, the ‘mask’ of death…we invest being in persons essentially ‘as their faces.’ Perhaps it is not too strong to claim that context ‘begins’ here and returns here. As I (the narrator, the reader, the observer,…) ‘face the world’, read the book, I locate myself and others and the seat of actions, ‘decide’ what is real or surreal or…And I decide not how the world is, but primarily how others (and I, thus I) will decide ‘how it is’, where I am, you are…
The I of my presence is much more the ‘body in the mind’ as I look out (M. Johnson), interpreting the world with my bodily presence being there. (See: my Body Journals) With respect to facial expression, context is quite paradoxical, perhaps multiply paradoxical, ‘using’ a ‘fixed’ gaze ( a person who has enduring duration) to signal and determine the locus of being in the present, but also seeing and looking at what others look at…and interpret, and give meaning to, and change,…and change the rules for seeing what there is and what is happening.
Prediction and Prophecy: Entire eras are given over to theories and practices which portend and portray our notions of futurity. The two which are most clear (others?) are prediction and prophecy. These seem to embed, as sort of meta- or master contexts, the ways in which we cast our being ‘forward’ and interpret how the future will be – and, reflexively, how to understand the present.
Both of these (importantly?) have to do with modes of knowing: do we judge the past and present and cast these judgments into our sense of futurity –> prediction, or do we call upon some agency (deity, chance, personal destiny or vision, a shared spirit or nagual with another [dead, alive] person or demi-person or animal) to interpret what will happen at least in terms of who/what keeps the world afloat.
These modes of future interpretation are akin to the geological theories of catastrophism and uniformitarianism, where these have been granted historical dimensionality in interpreting why the earth came to have its present form: e.g., from Genesis or from the study of ‘nature’, as well as why and how life is (humans and our presumed relation to other species: we ‘have dominion’, are related to them, should live in harmony, etc.).
In the context of the study of context the important aspect is the sort of outlook we take to the interpretation of our experiencing: the questions we raise about our very existence (‘do we exist’ is quite recurrent in eschatological Platonic traditions); how do I relate to myself, others, to the world; why is the world the way it is, and how does this reflect on and determine what I do; how do I ground knowledge and myself; etc?
Beginning and end-of-life debates are illustrative: is the fetus a ‘person’ or an ‘individual’? In predictive eras, this is not ever very clear, but it seems that most persons gather meaning to others the longer they endure beyond a few years of age; in prophetic eras, the judgment is made based on an interpretation of external (deific) agency; e.g., returning the soul to heaven. Similarly with euthanasia.
But the powerful potential of prophetic thinking is quite apparent in the context of millennial moments (1995 and counting). At this moment, the prophetic thinkers find no end of sport in interpreting changes (especially plagues and other disasters, but not necessarily) in the context of expectation of the return of the deity, our ‘release’ from this existence, and so on. Since (the thinking goes) what is happening is forewarned, there is nothing much to do to stop or redirect wars, pestilence, or epidemics: they are ‘supposed’ to happen within the prophecy (mostly from the Book of Revelation in this case). See: my The Crisis in Meaning.
Similarly the effect on our thinking and activity can be framed in very different ways depending on the context of prophecy or prediction. Some of them easily come over into self-judgment: what was I ‘meant’ to be, what is success for me, etc?
Tâ€™ai Chi: The study (and practice) of the Eastern martial arts is interesting and illuminating both for what it consists in, and what it offers as critique and lessons upon being and upon society. The Confucian setting is the (only? – Jewish?) major tradition which is at once utopic and within life: that no matter how much we know, there is more to learn; however much we can, there is more. Life is a directedness toward a perfection which is always in the doing, becoming, and being. Moreover, there is always a mentor, a teacher, a person of some more advanced age who knows more than I, and can do more; can do me in. It is a tradition in which futurity in located within the practice and persona of a teacher.
Like the other healing traditions which involve bodily movement, it consists particularly in stretching and relaxing (rather, relax then stretch) movements which help us deal with the inexorable pullings snd compressions of living longer in gravity. Tâ€™ai Chi particularly is the ‘yielding’ art, while others (e.g., karate, judo) are more externally directed, linear. Yielding involves a study of one’s standing body, especially the support of legs in the various directedness of 360Â° of movement. It involves the exertion of the muscles and limbs, as well as the release from tensions, directed as it were by the breath. In its yielding, it is the preparation and preparedness for any attack or onslaught while standing well anchored and flexible, and at the ready to effectively absorb any movement directed at our bodies. One deflects and absorbs the momentum and turns it into one’s own defensive deflection. The ‘form’ – it usually is done in a sequence of movements which are calculated to exercise the entire body in all possible dimensions – is a set of movements which are often ‘named’ to enable the person to concentrate on the doing, rather than upon the details of memory and analysis. Like the other martial arts, it attempts to downplay any rational analysis and to direct all energy to the moment and the performing.
It appears to be very slow, but the slowness is experienced very differently from the observer and the person who is doing the form. One attempts to both move and to release tension in the moving, and this requires a way of moving which uses minimal energy to accomplish any moving, and this appears slow to the observer, but correct and necessary to the doer.
It is a recipe for a long life with a sense of directedness toward a/the best possible mode of living. It is a doing relying on a well trained and confident body sitting upon a most firm foundation, always at the ready, but never needing to strike out unless provoked. When provoked, it this is unavoidable, one accepts the attack, turns it about into one’s own energy while apparently yielding…
Tâ€™ai Chi is a useful example/metaphor for the study of the grounding of one’s being within the mores and morass of contextual being.
Grudges: Casteneda’s observation that the hardest thing to do in life is to see what is happening right now is well illustrated by considering all the grudges we develop in life and in its living: grudges against others, against ourselves and our histories, with respect to what might have been, and the variety of vengeances which seem to offer to us ways of reducing or ameliorating the sense of anger or…whatever we call grudges.
Something happened once upon a time, and entered our memories with a vengeance like concretions dropping upon our heads from the tops of mountains. They got our attention so fully at that moment, and that moment persists in our thinking in each right now, crowding our thinking, and pushing the possibility of concentrated action toward the peripheries of our being. That hateful person, and what s/he did…to me, against me. Grudges toy with concepts of justice, asking and bending in some dance with whether what happened was deserved.
In the context of context, grudges frame and shape the experiencing of each moment by offering to us interpretive accountings of what is held and balanced against what we see in the judgment of our memories. I see not a person free of my venom, but of someone I yet owe, of someone who virtually owns my interpretation of present representations of her being. I want to hit back at him; he who hurt me or didn’t appreciate my being or good works or hurt someone I love or whom I depend on.
Grudges provide a shaping of the present in which the variety of the contexts of my being are (subtly?) not free to be fresh or very new, but always contain the press of the history of my thinking which didn’t go in the direction I might have wished at some earlier moment, but was controlled somehow by someone against whom I yet hold a grudge. And I wonder, in each next moment, what new grudges are accumulating in what I am destined and burdened to hold in memory, while I tell myself I walk anew each day.
I wonder, too, if vengeace will end the sense of any grudge, or merely deepen its effects in my being, will lead toward some sense of vindication and protect the grudge, or help it to be satisfied and thence to disappear.
The ’80’s, ’70’s, ’60’s,…: Time and history are the fuller, the longer we exist and walk upon this earth. Each moment of my being is full now of some sense of the ’90’s, but also of the ’80’s, back even to the ’30’s. And this is just in the experiencing of my being, and of being in the world: songs, ideas, images, experiences, wars, fantasies, all and whatever. In talking with the young, the sense of each moment differs so radically, talking with those whose each minute stretches so-o-long, while my time races, and my times race.
All of this does not yet begin to touch the sense of vast scales of history which float in my mind’s being and seeing the rock in front of my foot and wondering whence it had come to this place and how, and how humans began and endured and what does this have to do with me. Thinking of precisely where I am, and where anyone is, the question of the analytics of histology and multi-micro seconds, and how quickly eventness occurs tends to overwhelm the scale of my being, and to look to see how quickly/slowly is the human.
The pace is blinding/boring.
How tempting to balance some sense of the eternal and the infinite with the rush of present being. Looking to my history, looking to history while trying to walk in the myriad contexts of each day and each person whom I know, while trying to sort what is significant from what is meaning-less, I can appreciate how the turn of the millennium is at all moments so close and so far, and just who is counting…what.
Facial Expression: Gray’s anatomy discusses facial expression as being the muscles of the emotions: happy, we smile; sad, we frown, grimace – as if our being resides in some more-or-less permanent state which is punctuated occasionally by our emotions acting up or out.
The fact is that the question of expressions on our faces underlines some complications and peculiarities to the general consideration of context. Where to begin? – is difficult because there is no beginning, no clear boundaries. Our faces do not move from some neutral or zero state in which there is “no” facial expression to smiling states of happiness which are somehow observable and measurable to any external watcher. The face is already always in some muscular tensioned state: at “rest” the tongue is not flaccid, the lips are in some particularities of lateral or raising/lowering. Facial expression is not movement from nothing, but from some already/constantly held muscles (principally around the mouth and eyes).
The issue of expression is further complicated by the fact that what “we look like” is some congeries of the external facial “showing” of these muscular tensions, with respect to or in the background (context?) of facial hair, eye placement and directedness, etc. We remain looking “like we look” as a sense of identity to others, even when we express ourselves in some sense “emotionally.” Like age, gender, (social and cultural background, etc.), interpreters of our facial expressions “read” our expressions within a fairly vast number of characteristics which are at play upon the facial…mask(?).
Faces are (this is difficult to state with precision) expressions which are seen by others. Thus it is not clear where the facial expression is located exactly – upon the face or within the interpretation of the observer and/or both. If one’s face is understood (to oneself) as being seen and interpreted by others and at least partially defined by how they see our faces, then it seems not so clear where is the seat of the emotions: within the expressing person, within the interaction, within the imagination of the interpretation of the feelings which then show up on one’s face. How continuingly important is it in one’s life (for example) is it, that one’s significant others interpret(ed) one’s expressions “positively” or not?
Some thinkers have attempted to take the dualism of mind and body and find a third or “interface” arena in the emotions and in their expression. This has been accompanied by a quasi-historical story that humans got to be human (uniquely, to have reason, etc.) as they learned to speak as articulations of the emotions. The “status” we assign to facial expression thus plays intellectually into the question of the harder (less changing) reality of the body. We find ourselves, in this argument, not very able to discern the contextual issues which are framed or at least illustrated by facial expression, because the questions are seen as either-or’s rather than as issues of relation, of context, and of the (dis)confirmation of one’s being as being important, worthy, credible…(See: The Body Journals)
Identity: Caught in myriad swirls of context defining context and being defined leaves one flying, hopping, and never thinking that ground is anywhere exactly, or that there is any ground upon which I stand, upon which I find and locate myself. Yet I am who I am.
The me I call myself, the identity, picture, social security number, address might remind me and reassure me that I am who I say I am. But that all seems fragile, especially now that I try to state it as some fact. Some fact of philosophical and religious history, the notion of the individual is so taken-for-granted that I can get lost without ever being exactly sure that I am…not lost.
At play with words, the issue of context would have no discernment unless I am findable; surely sure that I am who I am. The clue is not located within myself – as the individual that is the body which contains the soul which Plato told me I am, and Augustine told God to tell me that I am. Rather my/me is at once caught withi the swirls of contexts, and interestingly extricated by the others who tell me that I am who I am…over and over again as the I who I am changes drastically and grows from seven pounds to one hundred seventy, from 15 inches to five feet fifteen. Who I am is who I am… treated as being.
Identity is the basis, the ground, the place to begin to unravel context, the where that circles’ swoop come to rest to start again: the focus and locus for change and continuity, for boundaries and the peelings off of paradox. It is less a specific place, not so specified, but a sense that there is such a center to one’s being, and that there are modes of finding it every day, often, from time to time. It is the focus of an internal dialogue where many voices are mediated and demand a singular one: I am…who I am. And it/I take this notion into a complex world and move on, changing rapidly and radically while being like Heraclitus’ river contained within the banks of my being.
It is this sense of confirmed identity which can analyze, interpret and act in terms of the varying contextual issues and meanings which so complexly intertwine being with being who I am. See: my Identity and Being.
Clericy: The fact (!?) that identity is granted and confirmed by others – how strong equals how significant the others are – is shown by the development of conscience, perhaps also of consciousness. We live as beings independent only to some degree – and sustainable as such only within specific and bounded contexts. I am who I am is an I which is fragile at many moments of being.
The boundedness of myself contains within it only so much power of self-definition, only so much strength and willingness of self declared and sustained. For many of us this is not sufficient, at least at some times in living, at some moments in history, when we feel afflicted and sense our energies’ waning. At different moments, in different settings and cultures – all contexts of sorts – we long to believe that our insufficiency is proper to our being, and this can be garnered less from within, more from without.
The power of self-definition is diminished as we yield the who I am to some notion of externality. The concept of conscience – of doing what our parents told us to do, of not-doing what they told us not…to do – is translated by many of us into longings and belongings. In most settings, we are at various moments in life not so complete within ourselves as we are led to want to be: thus love and marriage and intimacy and family. But in the context of clericy, we long to believe in believing (See: my meditations on…Next Places)
It seems less important – viewed globally – what we might believe in. Rather the wanting to exteriorize, to locate reality or authority outside of me or us, to become a supplicant to our own imaginations as our cultural-significant others also seem to define this, leads us to deities and ideologies: power less shared with others, but deriving from them as if we are small and weak and ‘they’ can tell us how to be and what to do.
In the context of context, the power of clericy is to reduce possibilities and to confirm and strengthen the lines in terms of which we see and interpret: particularly issues of being.
The positive aspects of clericy with respect to being and deepened understanding and human possibilities are that we use the power we have granted in our believing to treat others humanely or well, to deal with ourselves with patience and humility (in Judeo-Christian contexts).
But the dangers of clericy are all too powerful, leading us to abandon possibility and responsibility to deity, bureaucracy, cult: to kill…in the name of (holocaustic murder reduced to policy necessity), to commit suicide (Jonestown), greed; to shift radically from political left to reactionary right without ever giving much notice because all is clericy, and I have no position from which to judge seeing what is and who I am.
The boundaries of communality of individuality are never very clear, nor is the firmness of our identity always so assured that we are not susceptible to finding ourselves so attracted or so repelled that we join with others in exteriorizing all our beings, thus reducing being and the variety of contexts to a very few problematics: e.g., do I exist, will I die…rather than giving care to how I am living today.
Surreal and the Avant-garde: I tend to liken these concepts or notions to issues of “counter-intuition” and “learning”, which I use in my pedagogy to get students to call their critical attention to what they already accept and believe. If the opposite, or the inversion is seen to be at fairly direct odds with what they (must already) think and believe, then they begin to see how they have thought, and the way is open to move on. This does not necessarily mean that they are wrong in any overarching sense; merely that they have gone in particular directions or made certain assumptions. And I want them to open up, think more broadly and critically, in order to…move on. Pedagogically this is a complex problem: the teacher has to set-up the reality of the presumptions, then get the students to question it; to question themselves without undermining the authority of the teacher. The teacher has to be pretty sure of their intuitive modes of thinking at some point, then think oppositionally and state a counter-intuitional point in such a way that it will be “heard” – realized.
Similarly, the surreal seems to call attention to one’s own and prior thinking about what is the real; to make one realize in fits and starts that one has seen the world in one way, when it can be seen other ways; otherwise. On seeing one thing, the surreal causes or forces one to see that s/he is seeing the other as well. The surreal is thus peculiarly contrastive: like, perhaps, seeing a gorilla “causes” us simultaneously to see the gorilla and to see both its likeness and difference from humans, and to wonder how we see humans. Whether all humans see gorillas in this way is dubitable. Thus when I/you see a gorilla and experience the contrastive moment, it seems to have much to do with the intuition we have (as Western thinkers?) about the juxtapositional relation between humans and non-H’s.
Contextually, the surreal seems to cause/allow us to see ourselves seeing, to multiply our modes of seeing and to further complicate the world. Similarly with counter-intuitions, the recognition of the intuitive in one’s thinking explodes possibilities, and methodologically seems to open one up to be able to further explore how one already sees and thinks. What was obvious now becomes problematized; what is problem may lead toward new knowings.
The complication – perhaps this is an appropriate term – is that the surreal and the counter-intuition seem to lead many to question the very nature of reality rather than to enjoy its further explorations. Perhaps this occurs to those who Kierkegaard says approach the world through fear rather than wonder. In the teaching context, the fact that the teacher has some sense of how to utilize the insight into one’s intuitions to further conceptual change, seems to ensure development, rather than to arrest it, and to cause many to enter severe doubt about the grounds of their being and knowing.
Here context seems to bend to and within the outlook of the observer-interactor: whether the surreal destroys the real or opens it radically, whether the counter-intuition moves on and becomes the future direction for thought and development and is judged good and interesting and progressive…!?
On Seeing Faces: (on seeing what there is…) The question had arisen in my life as I pondered my daughter’s appearance at the age of 19, and caused me to say that she hadn’t much changed in looks since I had seen her first at the age of 15 minutes new. J remarked that she had changed vastly, radically, but that my image and imagination of her hadn’t much altered during that period of growth and change. It was as if my vision was – in part at least – quite fixed and placed in some mental compartment which was not very easy to open; which I didnâ€™t want to bring out into todayâ€™s light.
On this same daughter’s adopting of a Korean infant, we went to hear an author speak about adoption. She confirmed that one is not very good at “seeing” much about one’s family members. How they might appear to others, whether they are “attractive” in some larger sense, or even that they appear culturally or “racially” different…if they do. One sees one’s significant others not in social terms of categories, but as the person to whom one relates closely: a spouse, child, parent, friend. This identifying someone as some one seems to leave no space for categories, even though one might be very sensitive to social categories shared with others when seeing others with whom one has no “special” relationship.
Therefore seeing others is itself a contextual issue. I wonder how far and wide this applies to other aspects of being and of the world, and how to go about seeing through my seeing!?
Paradoxes and Parables: and aphorisms, psalms, lamentations, meditations and whatever may be which gets us to think, rethink, think again, and move into futurity differently than…we would have before their contemplation.
The paradox of paradox is, I suppose, that we begin to make a method and critique of being by thinking that any and all oppositions need to be resolved. This is restrictive and falls within the logic and method of logic, itself. Instead, the pleasure of paradox is that ‘it’ (whatever we experience as paradox) extends however we were thinking, showing us that what we thought formerly was one, is not one plus, or one and its inversion, or opens us to futurity which is more textured and complex, hopefully without being overburdening.
The point of paradox is to show us that we had fallen into the limiting trap of believing that what we had accepted as a truth had taken on the clothing of who we are: we wear it rather than think it. Paradox mirrors our thought in appearance so we can see our seeing. “One cannot step twice into the same river” extended to the human face has not been nearly as obvious. My face changes as it remains the center of my identity. So it is that paradox, even when it is clear and clean, is contextually laden: face it!
Parable is a story (a story which works!) which illustrates to us that we have other similar stories at work in our thinking and being, and teaches us…lessons about what we are about; how to see our seeing without the oppositional and resolutional power of paradox; gently and without the guilt of logical error as its lessons may lead us to reconstruct memory as we alter the experience of being, and the experience of experience. Even here, context sits about parable hanging onto some dirigible of sun’s setting reflections or hovering above directly like a personal black cloud just about to spit upon our heads. As death is parable we cannot hear it when it is overwhelmed by feelings we call fear. For as Kafka says (Parables and Paradoxes): “in this life (which is the only life we have)” many of us Western thinkers do not even see the parable. As structures (political, religious, educational, etc.) are parables, we concretize them like they are aspects of the built world, and seem wont to find ourselves actually in the mirror, so we know what self to be.
Other Issues of Context:
Context and “R” – religion
Lx- Breaking of Context (Same/Different)
Virtues (time, place)
Mental Illness – A Problem In Context?
The ‘inspired closeness of language and spirit’ (Cheever referring to Reagan’s statement on being assassinated: “I forgot to duck.”
Culture â€œshockâ€: returning home after a significant/long period away.
Children learn context(s) – meaning is outlined and underlined – words and more exactitude come later – why language explodes at certain points in development.