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Evolving Systems: September 2009 Core Group Meeting

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

September 22, 2009 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

Working Without Mirrors, Glassy Essences, and Indubitability:
From the Subjective/Personal to the Objective/Inter-Personal and Back Again

(see here for session outline)

Background (Paul):

Our third meeting and subsequent discussion further explored the notion of "againstness" as a strategy for inquiry, adding in important considerations of the relation between individuals and the communities of which they may (or may not) be a part, willingly or otherwise.   

"I still want to argue for againstness, and for the diversity of againstnesses, as a primary way (ways plural really) in which one can know oneself and a primary way (ways, again) to come to know the worlds around and within us ... I wonder if we don’t make up groups for ourselves in order to comfort ourselves against the (authentic) experience of being alone." ... Mark

"I wonder, too, if it's always or only the case that we dream alone -- aren't our dreams filled with images and soundings of other people, words, places, times, and things?  I don't think our choices are limited solely to group participation as the institutional legitimization of desire or independence. " ... Alice

"I think the group is stumbling into some good stuff here: serious questions about identity, expectations, etc. ... Benjamin

"Perhaps the third realm involves the intellectual-personal and the emotional-academic. It wouldn’t involve the normal family or academic identities, but might involve the fuzzy identities we have which don’t fit into the traditional family or academic realms ... Bharath

"our search for words that might enable us to inhabit a variety of not-so-threatening againstnesses" ... Anne

"I like very much the notion of "being" as "an unstable state ... provisional, and experimental."   And would be happen to sign on to a program to give more emphasis to the "fluidity of perception" not only in language but in human cultural constructs generally ... Paul

My aim for this session is to share a set of experiences on the "fluidity of perception" and use them to explore together a way of thinking about inquiry that makes "againstness" less threatening/more appealing, as well as a shared and complementary feature of both the personal and the interpersonal realms. 

Short background readings:

Additional relevant materials

Session outline: observations and stories

A meeting summary (Liz)

This past week, Paul led us through a set of visual experiences to highlight a particular example of “againstness” understood as a generative meeting of the inside and the outside.  With the example of the meeting of the unconscious and conscious he posed the question of whether “againstness” has an undeservedly bad reputation. 

Our dialogue led to a critique of inquiry as defined referentially to truth-seeking versus a proposal for inquiry alternatively defined by a conscious process that tolerates the mystery remaining from the “whole-number” nature of division by certainty.  We need to explicitly override our unconscious propensities.  Using the example of the unconscious and conscious interface, Paul illustrated inquiry as a process shaped, and in fact arguably detrimentally limited, by the brain’s unconscious drive to resolve ambiguity, i.e., to decide, to choose in its meaning making one of two opposing or multiple interpretations.  He argued for an alternative approach, one where the conscious overrides the unconscious to hold in wholeness the full range of possible interpretations that the original ambiguity entails.   Arguing that resolving ambiguity forestalls a rich and complex understanding of the world, the intent was to demonstrate how this biological propensity unless counteracted, inherently limits the functional efficacy of our inquiry into the world and its nature.

The experiences included viewing multiple images that could be interpreted in one of either two deliberately manipulated interpretations (dualism, illustrating the gestalt effect), or in a range of possibilities (multiplism).  As an example of the first; we looked at an image of either a women preparing in front of a vanity mirror, or a human skull.  In another example of the first, we responded to an image of a vase depicting upwards of 10 dolphins swimming all about or an image of a woman and man in an embrace of love-making.  As an example of the second, we reacted to an abstract colored ink pattern where observers reported seeing a range of interpretations—moose, elk, dragons, others, etc.  In these examples of Rorshach tests, three elements of constructed meaning were indentified: individual unique biology (genes), individual past experience, and meaning from shared discourse about experiences (culture).  The interpretations could constitute physical representations or that of ideas, concepts, and feelings that might be perceived as present in the images.  

Our discussion surfaced several questions.  The idea that the unconscious brain has as its purpose the resolution of such ambiguities raised the question of whether we should be able to even perceive ambiguity.  It raised the question of resolving ambiguity in relation to the brain’s decision-making process.  Are they equivalent?, how do they fit together?  Different interpretations lead to decisions, which have consequences—e.g., avoiding the runaway bus.  When there are life threatening consequences can we control this process?  The freedom to choose may not be open to all, i.e., what of the social context of exercising control over the unconscious, as in the prom night example?  Is the argued view an elitist view of inquiry?  And, if we could learn to override the false sense of certainty caused by this function of our brains, what new problems might be generated in our practice of inquiry?

Finally, does such an alternative construction of inquiry really constitute a turning away from certainty/truth-seeking, or might it be simply a turn towards another version of it—one certain about process as opposed to a specific type of outcome.  Aren't  both referring to some notion of an "ideal"?

Continuing discussion (below)



Anne Dalke's picture

Writing the unthinkable: the cul-de-sac of creative evolution

I've just finished an interesting late '60-ish memoir-ish novel (novel-ish memoir? really not quite sure about the genre here) called Divorcing, by Susan Taubes, a BMC philosophy major '51, later philosopher, epistemologist--and suicide. Taubes's memoir/novel is very cinematic and dream-like in its cutting back and forth between the world w/in and the world w/out (and in its confusions about where one ends and the other begins--as well as how books operate in that space in between: "You can be dreaming and not know it. You can be awake and wonder if it’s a dream and not believe it. But...with a book, whether you’re reading it or writing it, you are awake…In a book she knew where she was" [88]).

Anyhow, it looks as though Susan Taubes and her (in)famous husband tried a series of miserably unconventional, unhappy  arrangements, motivated largely by the assumption that "romantic love is the great cul-de-sac of creative evolution. God’s big booboo” (246). And so, in the context of that memoir/novel, I found myself wondering whether that  is, in large part, what these many words below are circling 'round: the question whether our loving (committed?) relationships w/ one another 1) fuel or 2) stunt our own growth--along with that of the universe. How much are they open to life's possibilities, how much do they close 'em down?

Speaking of which: I spent a good portion of the past weekend in a workshop on "Writing the Unthinkable" with Lynda Barry, who, it turns out, has a pretty good sense of how the unconscious works to feed consciousness : almost all the exercises she gave us were intended to "open up the drawbridge between the back of the brain and the front of it," to help us develop a "gradual belief in a spontaneous ordering form available in the back of our minds."

But for me the workshop (all two-day-long eight hours of it!) stopped short, in not going beyond the brainstorming portion of writing to the revising and editing and forward-moving part. We were accessing the past --" go back to the earliest times," Barry said again and again; and while you're there, make a list of your elementary school classmates, or of other people's mothers. But there wasn't any moving into (writing to?) the future. We were accessing memories, enjoying the experience of writing...whereto?


Paul Grobstein's picture

From ambiguity to skepticism to social conventions

I can't but be struck by the variety of quite different concerns triggered by a relatively straightforward set of observations suggesting that what we experience is always a construction, an idiosyncratic resolution of inputs that are themselves always ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.  Several quite different perspectives that one might have thought had little in common seem equally to be challenged by the notion that perception may necessarily always be a local construction.  Or maybe there is something else going on, also or instead of?   

One challenged perspective appears to be that of many scientists, and "realist" philosophers, for whom the notion of an "objective reality" seems, at least on the face of it, to be critical to their own enterprises.  The same concerns were provoked by, among others, Thomas Kuhn, Richard Rorty, and Paul Feyerabend.   Realist scientists/philosophers have yet to be fully persuaded  that an objectivity that emerges from multiple subjectivities will not only suffice for their needs but give them greater room and resources with which to work.  Trying to persuade them of this is something I'm used to.  

What is newer to me, and hence is to me more interesting, are the concerns of people who are more comfortable starting with subjectivity, and so who might feel a greater affinity for the notion of perception as construction.  But here too the notion seems to run into resistance.  My sense is that this relates in general to the issue of the "glassy mirror," ie to the notion that it is fine to treat skeptically objective descriptions of an external world but one's own subjective experiences need to be taken more seriously.  This is precisely the point where Descartes found himself, accepting the necessity of skepticism with regard to everything except certain inner experiences that could not be doubted, and hence asserting the existence of an internal certainty which he attributed to a realm distinct from that of ordinary experience. 

Internal certainty is of course an appealing characteristic, whether one attributes it a realm outside everyday experience or not.  What's interesting to me, though, is that in many ways internal certainty seems to serve the same function for subjectivists that an external touchstone does for realists: it provides a stable framework for coping with uncertainty elsewhere.  Perhaps then the need for subjectivists, parallel to that of realists, is to be persuaded that a subjectivity that emerges from multiple objectivities will not only suffice for their needs but give them greater room and resources with which to work.  For me, an appealing characteristic of the evolving systems framework, of presuming an absence of any fixed foundation either external or internal that might limit exploration, is that it could similarly serve to empower both subjectivists and realists. 

An intriguing and perhaps instructive experience in all this was finding myself being heard not as empowering by virtue of inclusion but rather as "against" various things - the glassy mirror, affiliation, community, society, and love - and hence as exclusionary. 

"I felt that we were being offered a tale intended to liberate us from social conventions, from the scripts that bind us, into alternate possibilities. But what (@ least some of us)  heard was the dark side of that tale. A script that separated us from one another. A script that might be freeing only to those who are already felt themselves free of such bonds.  The challenge here was that those under more pressure, more stress, are less likely to be able to play with interpretation, less able to imagine alternative explanations. And they are the ones who may need that capacity the most."  ... Anne

"I would like to think about Paul’s giving up the “glassy mirror” in relation to Mark’s idea of the “authentic experience of being alone”. It seems to me that in one way Paul’s idea reenforces Mark’s idea, but in another way it detracts from it ... There was a strong affirmation by Paul that the “glassy mirror” is unhelpful, unsupported by the facts, more wrong than the perspectival view! I got the sense that we are supposed to abandon it, give it up, ditch it, free ourselves from it. But all this vehement opposition presupposes the very sense of an objective reality, and saying that one view captures reality better than another." ... Bharath

"It is not possible to consider the intellectual or practical implications of the ways in which systems evolve without working simultaneously from (looping between) singularity and connection, autonomy and affiliation, agency and suffering ... I am hopeful that we can ...  create a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality." ... Alice

As I've written below, I share Alice's interest in finding a space that declines both "an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality," and very much agree that such a space needs to acknowledge the fundamental role of phenomena of interdependence, affiliation, and, with some care about definition, love.  To put it differently, the story I intended to tell, however it was heard, was not "against" the glassy mirror nor "against" social conventions nor "against" love, unless  being "against" something is understood to mean one wants to eliminate it, to " to abandon it, give it up, ditch it."  For me, "against" doesn't mean any of these things.  "Againstness" means only "recognize the limitations of" so as to "free ourselves" from those limitations.  

Just as I would, for this purpose, point to limitations of taking as fundamental either "experiential singularity" and "objective, universal reality," so too did I point to limitations of taking as fundamental the glassy mirror and was heard (correctly) as pointing to limitations in taking as fundamental affiliations and other social conventions.  What I intended wasn't to deny the existence or value of any of these things but only to suggest that none of them should be treated as "unwobbling pivots" or "unshakeable starting points."    One uses any or all of them to act ...

observes the consequences of action, and then uses those observations as part of one's on-going inquiry into anything and everything for which they may have relevance. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of the stories of other people, so be it. If they raise questions about the appropriateness of thinking, that's fine too. And the same, of course, holds for the validity of the feelings one had, or the logic one was using, or the sense data one had collected. Its all open to reconsideration and renewal ... Writing Descartes

While I certainly intended to dethrone the "glassy mirror" in general, it didn't occur to me to think particularly about the relation between perceptual ambiguity and human interpersonal relatedness, so perhaps that needs a little more detailed consideration.   I don't think that the "authentic aloneness" implied by perceptual fluidity calls into question human interpersonal relatedness in any general sense.   Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and so our ways of resolving ambiguity are always informed by our interpersonal interactions, both direct and via culture.  When we resolve ambiguity, we are not alone; we draw on our human interconnections in experiencing whatever we experience.  On the other hand, perceptual fluidity does imply, as Bharath says, that our actual experiences themselves must be presumed to be "singular" unless and until they are shown to be otherwise by interacting with others.  Our relatedness both contributes to our ability to resolve ambiguity and is enhanced by our individual resolutions of ambiguity.  Such looping it seems to me helps us to appreciate the importance of interpersonal relatedness rather than denying or demeaning it. 

There may though be a greater concern about the relation between perceptual fluidity and "social conventions."  While perceptual fluidity contributes to an appreciation of the important general role of interpersonal relations in our lives, it can indeed be a challenge to particular social conventions and perhaps to particular attachments, insofar as these depend on people seeing things the same way.  It is perhaps for this reason that perceptual fluidity is felt by some people as challenging to  human values that seem particularly fundamental to some people.  I don't think perceptual fluidity is actually so inconsistent with human values, and have made this argument below with regard to concerns about love, attachment, and  suffering.  Here I want to address the more general issue of "social conventions."

As humans, we all, to one degree or another, have to live and make our way in a world of inanimate things, living things, and other human beings.  "Social conventions" evolve from the interactions of human beings, and in turn influence human beings both unconsciously and consciously.  Such influences can open new possibilities for the evolution of individual human beings but they may also be oppressive/constraining to them (cf Culture as Disability).  From the evolving systems perspective, social conventions are no less significant than "objectivities" or "subjectivities" but also no more so.  To put it differently, social conventions are no more certainties than are rocks and trees our our deepest feelings.  They are all things to pay attention to but also to be skeptical of, all things about which to entertain the possibility of changing.     

Yes, the story I told was, if not quite consciously intended as such, an encouragement to "liberate us from [among other things] social conventions, from the scripts that bind us, into alternate possibilities."  And I'm happy to have had it heard this  way by others.   I would further  argue in that context that that story is not at all a luxury to be conceived by and made use of only by tenured academics.  "those under more pressure, more stress, are less likely to be able to play with interpretation, less able to imagine alternative explanations. And they are the ones who may need that capacity the most."  I don't know that those "under more pressure, more stress" need the capacity to conceive alternatives more than the rest of us but I'd argue that the importance of that ability is both recognized and made use of at least as often by "oppressed" people as it is by advantaged ones.   Using constraints, both internal and external, to bring into existence new ways of being is central to both revolution and evolution, human and otherwise.  Individuals, groups, and cultures are bound only by those constraints they have yet to find ways to transcend. 

Along those lines, what intrigues me is not only how the conversation grew to encompass issues of interpersonal relations and social conventions but the significance of those things for the conversation itself.  I had a strong sense of not only being heard to say things I was unaware of saying but also of  being myself seen to be things that I don't think of myself as being.  As Bharath pointed out:  one can't both tell a non-foundationalist story and insist that it is "right."   I felt myself to be offering a story for whatever use it might be to others without making any "truth" claim.  And felt myself to be opening possibilities rather than rejecting possibilities, though I was clearly felt by others to be doing the latter.  Similarly, I felt myself to be sympathetic to those oppressed by social conventions but was felt by others to be ignoring such issues or  positioning myself above them. 

All of this is to say, at a minimum, that the interpersonal/social arena is itself clearly one in which "what we experience is always a construction, an idiosyncratic resolution of inputs that are themselves always ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations."   And in that arena too the existence of multiple resolutions is generative.  But, in thinking about it, I suspect there is a bit more to what is going on.  My guess is that other peoples' experience of me differs from my own not only because I exhibit behaviors other than those I am aware of, but also because I am seen by others as occupying particular niches as defined by social conventions.  Since I am a male, white, tenured, academic scientist, the story I tell is presumed to have particular characteristics whether those are what I am myself intending to convey or not.  I would of course, like others, prefer to be seen as an individual, rather than a representative of a social group.  Perhaps this is another reason to acquire an appropriate skepticism of social conventions?      



alesnick's picture

beleaguered knowing (plus another word for love)


I take to heart Paul’s wish to be seen as an individual not as a representative of a group. I respect that wish, share it for myself, and am sorry if I spoke so as to call its likelihood or viability into question.
Humans’ seeing one another as individuals is an important source of energy for evolving systems. When people cast one another as types, opportunities for exchange and growth are stunted. At the same time, that we are members of groups participating differentially in social systems makes up a significant part of what we contend with as we negotiate the human world, and the recognition/ownership of this might facilitate our transcending it, at least from time to time. 
Looking back to consider why I spoke as I did about race, gender, and tenure (social categories that both create and reinforce conventions), I see a picture of myself feeling beleaguered -- not actually by Paul’s story, but by a sense I carried in with me to the meeting, which comes on me from time to time, that my responsibilities were outweighing incoming energies and openings. (From this standpoint, perhaps I am more apt to see others as types because I am feeling typed.) I think that as I listened to Paul’s presentation, I grafted this sense onto it, and so heard it as potentially supporting a denial of the weight of responsibility. Perceptual fluidity and responsibility don’t have to be opposed, I see that, but they can be.  Okay, so they can be. A conflict! I see that there is something in my outlook sometimes that makes me skittish about the risk inherent here. So I numb the apprehension of the risk by “going moral,” when in fact the moral is not the exclusive territory of either realm.
This may connect with the problem with thinking people need to see things the same way. Of course we can’t see things the same way, and it impoverishes the world and experience when we try to. As individuals, within ourselves each of us has changeable, conflictual ways of seeing things, as well. At the same time, I wonder about the value of synchronicity, not of perception but of intention/commitment to working through the differences in furtherance of a shared, and individually forwarding, goal, vision, or promise -- towards Truth, in Bharath’s formulation (cite needed).
One more note I’d like to make concerns the point Paul makes about giving too much credence to subjective experience. I think this, too, is a response of the beleaguered. So: a response to feeling marginalized by one’s roles or statuses in life can be to discount external forms of authority in favor of internal forms. I take Paul’s point that a better approach is to be skeptical of all ways of knowing -- to assume that they have important limits as well as potentially something to contribute to one’s own evolution.
* * *
Re: another word for love, I have been thinking that not only creature-to-creature love, but the love of the creature for life itself, is an important outlook to recognize. Recently my husband, who works in a cancer hospital, met a man with terminal cancer who is volunteering at the hospital. This man has created a web site,, in which he writes about his outlook. About love of life, he writes:
“Many years ago, a friend lent me a wonderful book, Artur Rubenstein's autobiography.   The remarkable lesson from his story was not his musical gifts or international career as a concert pianist, but his philosophy, which I've found amounts to nothing less than the secret to happiness.  The concept is simple: the unconditional love of life.  The key is the "unconditional" part.  The idea is to love and treasure the gift of life for all that it is.  Don't think, I would love life if only ... I had more money, or lost 5 pounds, or a better job, or whatever might bother us.  The love of life doesn't depend on conditions.  Once you get to that point, then, there's no obstacle to loving life. 
Now, till recently, life's been pretty good and my frustrations and disappointments have been minor.  So the unconditional love of life has been pretty easy.  Cancer makes that unconditional part a bit tricky.  But love of life is too important to abandon because of some wayward cells.  Life is wonderful and I love it.”

This seems to be a refusal of beleaguered knowing.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Noticing "beleagured knowing" and moving beyond?

Let's add this to a growing catalogue of evidence for the generative value of "againstness," interpersonal and otherwise, where "againstness" is understood as the sharing/exploring of difference rather than the hiding of it, and in the context not of winning/losing but rather of valuing difference as the grist from which new things emerge.  "Beleagured knowing" is a wonderful concept to have come out of this particular rubbing against.  My guess is that "beleagured knowing" is a significant part of how we all make sense of the world, and that we could all usefully examine our ways of doing so with the objective of freeing our thinking by identifying and ridding ourselves of instances of it.

Maybe that's actually closely related to the continuing effort to accomodate "synchronicity" and "love" in these conversations?  "Beleaguered knowing" is defensive and, as Alice says, the upshot is that "opportunities for exchange and growth are stunted."  Perhaps synchronicity, resonance, and love are the state of openness that exists when one has successfully achieved "a refusal of beleagured knowing"? 

Among the intriguing notions this opens up is a difference between trees (or frogs) and people.  My guess is that trees and frog don't experience "beleagured knowing."  They act based on internal models of their surroundings and change those models based on experience, but don't "defend" them.  And probably also don't experience "love" when there is a "fit" between those models and things outside themselves?  We, on the other hand, experience the fit or lack thereof between our models and things outside of us that we are modelling, and that might give us both the capacity to pursue promising alliances as well as resistance associated with feelings of needing to defend our models?  Perhaps, once noticed, we could learn to cultivate the openness as a source of new things and treat the defensiveness as a barrier to them?  

Anne Dalke's picture

trying on accessories

I agree that the story Paul told a few weeks ago was strangely a-social. And I think that we must (and mostly do) attend to each other more than that story acknowledged.

I also think that describing love as one of several late products/constructions of a particular quite restricted branch of a more general evolving system, of principal interest/concern in a contemporary human context doesn't really distinguish it from any of the things--form, meaning, aesthetics--which are already on the table/in the air in this discussion. My understanding is that we are explicitly focusing, in these conversations, on what happens to emerging systems once conscious form-and-meaning-makers get involved in the process. And it seems to me that love, like aesthetics, is one of the significant meanings we make out of such forms....

So I want to try my hand @ re-telling this story in a different set of words (we'll see where it goes, but I think also) to a different end. It's about what happens when the (seemingly?) contradictory needs of solitude and social life war against each other (n.b. the recent review of Gail Collins' new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present--which (evidently) showcases both all feminism has been able to do, and some of what is not (yet) accomplished: "It is not easy to attentively raise your children while holding down a good and demanding job. Feminism did not remake the world of relationships....Feminism did not resolve the conflicting desires for passion and domesticity, familiarity and romance...").

I agree that we started in relationship. In the primordial soup, everything was related to everything else. But I would say that, out of that web of affiliation, individual organisms emerged, who separated out, trying (among other things) to distinguish themselves from one another. I'm not @ all sure, in that evolving process, that "we" all were actually looking for "more stable interactions." To jump forward a few eons, love, as it was practiced in my family and home town, certainly did not involve "a distinctive openness to new possibilities," but precisely the opposite: a neophobic clinging to what was known.  Love, in that time and place (and I'd hazard in most times and places) wasn't about seeking "forms of interaction as yet unexplored," but rather the security of predictable interactions. And so (in reaction), some of us (okay, me: leaving the rural South) became neophiliacs--moving away from what was known, in an eager search for what was new, different, surprising.

It is that past that makes me a little skittish about (most) calls for community; I have too much experience w/ the costs of affiliation. In a few weeks, I'll be hosting the visit to campus of Kate Bornstein, a performance artist and transgender activist in whose various books I have been finding good company. I've just finished her Gender Outlaw, which argues for the importance of humor in social change, suggesting that

"the fool became a fool by flexing the rules, the boundaries of the group, and this is antithetical to the survival dynamic of most groups. A group remains a group by being inflexible; once it stretches its borders, it's no longer the same group. A fool, in order to survive, must not identify long w/ any rigidly-structured group....A fool is indeed foolish who serves a special interest...."

It is those special interests which solidify most groups, and (always, always) create their outsides. 

And it is in this context that I've found Alice's recent musings about "color"--about the intriguing notion of mosaics as both making fragments, and thereby opening new spaces among them--especially interesting. They seem to me directly related to her description of our looping between singularity and connection, autonomy and affiliation. What these images of colorful mosaics suggest to me is that the more we insist on our fragmentation, the more we take our separation from one another as a starting point, the more we need to work on our affiliations, on the connections between us. If we start instead @ the other "end" of the loop (=@ a different place on the loop), in the primary-ness of our affiliations (which is my starting place), then what? Then, I betcha, we'd most likely be pulling apart, insisting on individuality.

Kate Bornstein again, this time from the beginning of My Gender Workbook, which describes her "identity and fashion" as "based on collage. You know--a little bit from here, a little bit from there? Sort of a cut-and-paste thing. And that's the style  of this book. It's a transgendered style....the more fluid my identity has become...the more playful and less dictatorial my my fashion has become--as well as my style of self-expression....That's how I shift from one phase of my life to the next--first I try on the accessories."

So: that's the way we all go, shifting from one (individual, social, global, planetary, extra-terrestrial) phase of life to the next.

Trying on accessories. Collage-like.

(from Forms are Converes of Meaning)


alesnick's picture

Feeling or phenomenon?

In the context of this exploration, I am thinking of love not as an "inner feeling" or awareness of the comforts or confinements of affiliation, but as (here I grope for words) a life force, or way things (work, people, goods, help) move.  In this, the connection with "openness to new possibilities" is close, if the openness is not a matter of attitude or stance, but of interaction with the world that is part of our continuing to live -- like hunger, or, well, storytelling.  I know that millions of people don't get enough to eat, and that this is a failure of love, just as many live without the capacity or context for storytelling (I am thinking of the last ten years of my father-in-law's post-stroke life, but there are other examples). But that they fail  doesn't mean that satisfaction of hunger with eating and of storytellers with listening aren't crucial. 

Anne Dalke's picture

"an atomic view of the self"

I think this phrase, which I jotted down along w/ lots of others during our session last Tuesday, was one that Alice articulated in response to Paul's story. It was also mine. Embedded in it I hear (and here also articulate) the question whether--in insisting that each of us makes a different story of the same imput (say a pattern of dark and light pixels, in which some of us see dolphins, other humans, @ play); in insisting, further, that each of us makes different stories @ different times; in insisting, even further, that we can and should hone the ability to generate alternative interpretations--Paul was describing selves that are radically alone, fundamentally separate, entirely independent--the "authentic aloneness" Bharath describes below. Where, in such a story, are the shared scripts--those "prom dates" out of which we compose our stories? Where the intersections that allow us to write, and act, plays in common? Where the acknowledgment that we get our stories from one another? That we can alter one another's stories as well as our own?

I felt that we were being offered a tale intended to liberate us from social conventions, from the scripts that bind us, into alternate possibilities. But what (@ least some of us)  heard was the dark side of that tale. A script that separated us from one another. A script that might be freeing only to those who are already felt themselves free of such bonds. The challenge here was that those under more pressure, more stress, are less likely to be able to play with interpretation, less able to imagine alternative explanations. And they are the ones who may need that capacity the most.

In my EMLY seminar this week, we read Lisa Belkin's wonderful 2002 NYTimes Magazine essay, "The Odds of That," which says, among other perceptive things, that we are a species biologically programmed to see patterns--a tendency which increases when we sense danger. Pattern-seeking animals,  we are "hard-wired to over-react." Under pressure, in fear, we turn correlations into coincidences; we respond to  anomalies as if they were "real," part of larger, and meaningful, patterns. Finding such connections is the way we make sense of the world, and so comfort ourselves both with a sense of its order and our own ability to weave things together.

Wil Franklin's picture

Interesting intersection


Too many interesting intersections with conversations I've been having with my students.  I must read "The Odds of That" because of the connection to an August 18, 2009, NYTimes science article by Natalie Angier, "Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop". Here she is summarizing primary literature (which my class also looked at) that has found behavioral and neurological changes in rats associated with chronic stress.  In short, under stress rats are much more likely to default to habits while the non-stress control group was able to demonstrate more flexibility in behavior patterns. This was also correlated to changes in brain activity and anatomy.  In stressed rats, regions of brain associated with habit formation and habit displays were more active and larger, while in the non-stressed counterparts regions associated with executive function/decision making were proportionally more active and larger. Natalie, of course brought human behavior to bear on this and it sounds very much related to the point that we are “hard-wired to over-react”.  Also, speaks to Paul’s point that diversity in stories is a good thing and even, perhaps, too much fear to behave outside of group norms restricts flexible behavior.


Furthermore, in another related conversation with my students about the evolutionary origins of morality, as evidenced by altruism in primates among other social animals including ants and bees, I found intense resistance to the idea that all moral behavior can be reduced to selfish acts.  That statistically speaking (over large numbers of individuals over many generations) altruism can be an evolutionarily stable behavior if individuals are parts of communities and even more so if the members of the community are closely related.  Under these conditions, what seems on the surface as an altruistic act, is actually the most individually beneficial act (= Darwinian fitness). For a very in depth look into this view see Richard Dawkins’, “The Selfish Gene”.  To me, this points to the group as the preeminent source of morality, but my student’s were shaken by the notion that we are all selfish.  I’m not sure there is an operational difference? Furthermore, they could not tell my what the source of morality should/ought/is, but still had a sense that “true/pure” altruism exists.


Now back to finding common stories.  Can it be possible that it is enough to be biologically programmed to make patterns and that we are similar enough to find similar patterns in all the noise/chaos?  And is it enough to say we are all individuals that are dependent on one another?  That that dependence has generated an evolutionarily stable sense of responsibility to others?  We are not moral, we are just selfish enough to act in ways that benefit the group?

alesnick's picture

Love as a Fourth Term

The Evolving Systems project is “an exploration of  the idea that form, meaning, and esthetics are interdependent emergent characteristics of an ongoing evolutionary process originally lacking any plan, intention, of purpose.  And of the implications of such an idea for both intellectual and practical life.” 

In addition to the absence of original plan, purpose, or intention, the project is informed by a belief that systems evolve in directions not conceivable in advance, not  towards pre-established goals or visions, but, as it were, on and on, with resonances and repercussions that themselves become sources for further evolutionary process.  So form, meaning, and aesthetics happen, as part of our inhabiting and changing the universe with and along with things like weather, schools, rocks, robots, coal, committees, baby formula, and knives. But something else happens, too.

Something is missing from the trio of form, meaning, and aesthetics. For this reason, I am writing to propose that we add love to the list of key characteristics of the evolutionary process under investigation. While any of the first three terms might be understood to encompass love, it is important to add a term that requires us to bring into central focus a range of meanings occasioned by particular human engagements: attachment, loyalty, engrossment, responsibility, care, and joyful regard for the distinctive being of someone or something outside oneself. It is not possible to consider the intellectual or practical implications of the ways in which systems evolve without working simultaneously from (looping between) singularity and connection, autonomy and affiliation, agency and suffering.

Without such simultaneity, such looping, we fall prey to what I will call the independent fallacy: an assumption that we are firstly, primarily, alone.  Bharath writes, “If there is nothing outside of us which is objectively real which each of us is trying to represent, then the singularity of each of our experiences is itself the most we can focus on.” I am hopeful that we can focus on more, that we create a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality. A non-foundational entry point needn’t deny this possibility; indeed, it is in part through human interaction, bodies and brains, that we need, and thereby become able, to recognize these poles and to transcend them. 

At our last meeting, we began to explore the idea that perception is radically perspectival and dynamic.  At the time, I was concerned about the possibility that this approach paid insufficient attention to the exigencies and pressures of attachment.   In response, Anne wrote

I felt that we were being offered a tale intended to liberate us from social conventions, from the scripts that bind us, into alternate possibilities. But what (@ least some of us) heard was the dark side of that tale. A script that separated us from one another. A script that might be freeing only to those who are already felt themselves free of such bonds. The challenge here was that those under more pressure, more stress, are less likely to be able to play with interpretation, less able to imagine alternative explanations. And they are the ones who may need that capacity the most.

At the same time, people under pressure and stress have a perspective, too. The central issue is not that some people are more stressed and some are less so (though that is surely true); it’s that everyone’s life goes forward within webs of love (though this is more obvious about and to some, at varying points, than others).   Of course webs of love are not the only webs in which we live, and we are not always sustained by them; but they are part of what makes human life happen and endure.

Thought and judgment are informed, even constituted by choice:  in association, location, livelihood, attention, language. They are also informed by attachment, which is a channel for choice. A newly joined group member introduces her starting point this way: “One reason for the delay in expressing my interest is a fear of commitment.  I am afraid that if I commit myself to a particular starting position, then I won’t ever be able to reach certain other areas.” So it is, but so too without commitment. You have to start somewhere, and you can only start somewhere. And you are already somewhere. Starting, you become engaged with others (dead, living, intimate, distant). They, together with much else, comprise your path. Like other paths, yours opens more clearly onto some views than others, and you can change both path and view in various ways as well as change your company, and work, along them. These changes, and those you refuse and long for, are matters of form, meaning, aesthetics, and love.

alesnick's picture

3 years later -- whitman clears it up

Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd

By Walt Whitman


1  Out of the rolling ocean, the crowd, came a drop gently to me, Whispering, I love you, before long I die, I have travel'd a long way, merely to look on you, to touch you, For I could not die till I once look'd on you, For I fear'd I might afterward lose you. 


2  (Now we have met, we have look'd, we are safe; Return in peace to the ocean, my love; I too am part of that ocean, my love—we are not so much separated; Behold the great rondure—the cohesion of all, how perfect! But as for me, for you, the irresistible sea is to separate us, As for an hour carrying us diverse—yet cannot carry us diverse forever; Be not impatient—a little space—know you, I salute the air, the ocean and the land, Every day, at sundown, for your dear sake, my love.)


Anne Dalke's picture

"Love is the first motion"

Reading this, the phrase that came immediately to mind was John Woolman's
"Love is the first motion"--meaning (I think) that love precedes action.

Or that it should.

I do try to remember that, when I can, and when am most angered: to act out of love.

It occurs to me that, if this group is exploring, @ its deepest level, the ways in which human intentionality affects evolution, and the emergence of life, and of all systems of aesthetics and meaning, then reflecting on the sorts of interactions we engage in, and what motivates them, should indeed play a significant role in our discussions (not to mention our interactions w/ one another).

This afternoon, @ work on a presentation to the "open conversation" arm of our project, I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which we might communicate with others (more evolved members of our species? other as-yet-evolved species?) across "deep time and space." And it occurs to me that most of the efforts to do so,  so far--to put warnings on nuclear waste, or send out messages in space ships--have been fueled less by love than by a desire to be seen, to be remembered as having lived lives that were meaningful and important.

Yep: to have been loved. To be loved.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving systems: origin and significance of love and suffering?

I certainly agree that connection, affiliation, love, and even "prom dates" are features of evolving systems in the most general sense, and need to be both accounted for and treated as causally significant.  My guess though is that  at least the last three of these terms are quite late products/constructions of a particular quite restricted branch of a more general evolving system, of principal interest/concern in a contemporary human context.  That's not to say at all that they are unimportant either to humans or more generally,  but only that they can probably be best made sense of in the context of previous things from which they emerged and their continuing bidirectional interactions with such things.

To put it differently, I share Alice's wish to "create a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality," but am not optimistic that that can be done by appeal to particular subjective human feelings like "affiliation" or "love" as fundamental starting points ("Love is the first motion."). There is, in trying to do so, a bit of a "glassy mirror" reliance on the primacy of inner feelings, and indeed on particular inner feelings (would one make the same argument for "hate"?).  In addition, appeals to the importance of "love" have a long history in human affairs and that history suggests (to me at least) that feelings of affiliation and love are not a fully effective antidote either to singularity or to an indifferent objectivity.

I do think though that Alice's sense of something "missing" in our thinking about evolving systems in general (or at least in mine),  something having to do with both "love" and "suffering," is both persistant (see her Challenge, difficulty, joy, and disappointment) and important.  Let me take a crack at fixing that, both for myself and anyone else interested, in a way that might both advance the general discussion and contribute to thinking about both "love" and "suffering" in the more specifically human context (my thanks to not only Alice but also Anne and Bharath for conversations that helped me with this).

Many of us, myself included, have a tendency to think of evolving systems as beginning with one or more kinds of singular entities with relationships emerging subsequently from their interactions.  An alternative perspective that might be usefully adopted in the present context is that it is not isolated singular entities with which evolving systems begin, that they instead begin with entities that are defined at least in large part by their interactions with other entities.   To put it differently, while certain phenomena of relatedness (love, hate, suffering) may be restricted principally to human experiences (or, more probably, to living organisms with story telling capability), relatedness itself may well be an essential characteristic of evolving systems in general.  Animals and plants, to take just one example, are defined in large part by their relatedness to and contemporary dependence on one another.  And living things, in turn, exist by virtue of  an essential relatedness to the non-living world from which they take origin and with which they continue to interact bidirectionally.  My guess is that a fundamental relatedness exists as well in the "active inanimate." 

A little onion-peeling of this sort (recognizing that human concepts have nested meanings, some specific to the human context, others more widely applicable) may be useful in regard to "suffering" as well (see Evolving inquiry: the unconscious as a bridge for another example re "spiritual").  I don't think that trees or rocks suffer in the sense that humans do.  On the other hand, I do think that trees are responsive to their interactions with other trees (as well as other living organisms and the non-living world) and that they actively modify their interactions so as to favor some interactions over others.  Even the interactions of rocks with other things exhibits a distinction (to the observer at least) between more and less stable interactions.  So perhaps it is not only relatedness that is fundamental to evolving systems but also some tendency to move from less stable to more stable interactions?  And "suffering" is the human awareness of being in what is for a human a less favored set of interactions?

What about "love"?  One might think of it as, for humans, the opposite of suffering, the feeling of being in a more favored set of interactions with other human beings.  But I suspect there is more to it than this, both for humans and for evolving systems in general.  Several years ago I wrote about a human state of "interconnected vastness" in which "issues of power and control disappear" as do "fears of loss or inadequacy", and later suggested that it corresponded to an "absence of conflict that can exist on the interpersonal level (at scales ranging from the dyad all the way up to societies/cultures) but can also exist in terms of interactions between the self and the non-human world."  This characterization suggests that "love" may go beyond not only "humanness" but also beyond a particular favored state of interactions.  It involves as well a distinctive openness to new possibilities, to forms of interaction as yet unexplored.   There is an interesting irony in the possibility that love in the sense of "openness to possibilities of interactions as yet to be explored" might be the core of the "love" onion, that feature of the human concept that is most useful the general evolving systems content and while being in some ways the feature of love that humans many humans least readily recognize.  In any case, one might say that is not only relatedness and some tendency to move from less stable to more stable interactions that is fundamental to evolving systems but also an openness to new possibilities.  

Does the onion-peeling help?  My sense is that a fundamental relatedness, and a tendency to move toward more stable relations together with an openness to new possibilities, does in fact give us a "a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality" and does so in a way that grounds human existence comfortably in a more general evolving systems pattern.  In the best of all worlds, perhaps it gives us as well the wherewithal  to think in new and productive ways about the more specifically human problems of affiliation, love, suffering, and even prom dates?  Our humanity provides us with ideas and inclinations that we can try and connect to the non-human world and the non-human world in which we are rooted in turn gives us back perspectives useful in the human world?    

Wil Franklin's picture

Non-human Love - An oxymoron or emergent property already known

Love as a steady/robust state or more beneficial set of relationships is provocative and compelling. It may seem at first that I wish to shed the primacy of human love as a first mover or significant shaper of our world, but quite the opposite. I think what Paul is suggesting brings into sharp focus the good, use and power of love. If I am correctly interpreting Paul, love need not be a particularly human phenomenon.  I think of single celled organisms of which there are many, and compare that to all the multicellular organisms.  In biological evolutionary terms, cells do not love each other, but when in stable/mutually beneficial association they persist over time. With more time they can become something more. Like love, these association can and are quite dynamic and complex – cells interacting to form tissues, tissues interacting to become tissue systems, systems interacting with each other to form bodies and onward and upward in nested hierarchical complexity.  Love just may be another new particularly stable/robust arrangement of agents that is not only beneficial to the individual agents, but may prove to be a stable new agent that other new forms will emerge from.  Seeking love you will create anew.  Not that big of a leap if you ask me.

alesnick's picture


I am wondering how the desire to be seen and remembered as having lived a meaningful life could itself be an expression of love's force, whether or not that love is shared interpersonally or in ways that are palpable to us as individuals. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

needing to be remembered as meaningful?

I am, of course, inclined to onion-peel this one too.  All participants in evolving systems, humans and otherwise, have a "meaningful life" because their lives provide the platform from which additional lives come into being.  In a very real sense, every life, human or otherwise, persists in what it has given rise to.  It is not only "love's force" that is a peculiarly human occupation but also "the desire to be seen and remembered as having lived ...".  Trees and rocks both live quite significant lives without worrying about being seen doing so.  Perhaps humans, as per The Taoist Story Teller and Culture, could learn something useful from trees and rocks?  Or, more accurately perhaps, recall something useful from our ancestors? 

Bharath Vallabha's picture

authentic aloneness

I would like to think about Paul’s giving up the “glassy mirror” in relation to Mark’s idea of the “authentic experience of being alone”. It seems to me that in one way Paul’s idea reenforces Mark’s idea, but in another way it detracts from it.

I think Paul’s point reenforces it in that if everything is perspectival, then in an important sense each of us is alone. If there is nothing outside of us which is objectively real which each of us is trying to represent, then the singularity of each of our experiences is itself the most we can focus on. And I take Paul and Mark to be suggesting that this is not a bad thing, but in fact a good thing. If I understand this line of thought, then I find it to be courageous, hopeful, and open to the wealth of diversity in the world and within ourselves. This is a focus on “aloneness” which is not pessimistic or despairing, but life affirming.

It seemed to me though that there was something about the way Paul was making the point which cut against his own point. There was a strong affirmation by Paul that the “glassy mirror” is unhelpful, unsupported by the facts, more wrong than the perspectival view! I got the sense that we are supposed to abandon it, give it up, ditch it, free ourselves from it. But all this vehement opposition presupposes the very sense of an objective reality, and saying that one view captures reality better than another. It presupposes that two people, say Descartes and Paul, share enough space in common that one can criticize the other. Whatever we might think of that, it doesn’t gel with the thought that we are in some sense liberatingly alone. From that standpoint of authentic aloneness, I am not sure there is anything to give up at all, any history to overcome, or anything to get less or more wrong. There is only each of us being a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, and enjoying the beautiful and sometimes painful colors caused by those reflections.

p.s.: I vote for Ben to talk about what he was orginally thinking of talking about, instead of continuing the conversation from last time. I imagine these issues will be coming up anyhow. 

Benjamin's picture

Smiling on the "Ambiguous Figure" Out There...

I liked Paul’s coordination/presentation yesterday (Tuesday, 22 September 2009). It was important in the sense that it forces us to break out of thinking in terms of absolutes -- absolutes such as “external reality”, “normatives”, “objects”, and so on. Paul and I, indeed, have discussed this whole theme in another context in a paper we’ve been working on.

I also want to note that I did indeed run the “ambiguous figures” exercise with my graduate class this morning -- a class comprising art education, museum studies, and industrial design students -- and got good results. Lots of discussion followed. One of the most interesting questions was this: “What does all this say about religion?” And that was intriguing, since right after our group’s meeting yesterday, that was exactly something Paul highlighted -- how this all relates to Maimonides and the question of God and religions practice...

But as Paul knows, and as I expressed in our group discussion yesterday, I still think we are left with a problem with this whole topic of “ambiguous figures” and the “out there” as ambiguous generally, and I think that some of the other members’ comments also were inclined to that conclusion. Let me put my perception of the problem this way, and I won’t speak for the group:

(a) The basic model here makes sense (to me): “out there” is noise, coming into not just vision, but all the senses. The unconscious “collapses the wave function” and resolves the noise into one form or another: “it’s a horse” or “it’s a cliff”.

(b) We can also have a feedback loop, wherein the conscious mind can play around with this resolution, and let us actually see the image both ways, flitting back and forth, as we indeed were able to do with those “ambiguous figures” we looked at.

(c) However (and I know that this may madden Paul), we need to address the apparent fact that the unconscious portion of the brain is doing this resolving. Sure, it’s an evolutionary advantage, but then it implies -- and here we drift into Greek philosophy -- an actual underlying order beyond all that noise out there. That is, something made that unconscious develop this process, but more exactly in a true world of pure noise, there can be no process, period.

This gets into the larger idea of whether emergence of form, pattern, and process (especially) can actually happen from pure chaos or noise. This is something Paul and I have debated, but might be an interesting topic for the whole group.

Next session, I am going to talk about the Chinese book known as the “I Ching”, in a session which at first I thought would not relate to Paul’s session. Now I am thinking that may not be the case... But you all can decide...

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