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Exploring "Negative Space":
My Writing Conversation with the McBrides

Remarks on the Occasion of the May 2006 Reunion

Look at this photograph.
What do you see?
Write for a few minutes:

Re-create, verbally, this visual artifact.
(a.k.a.: describe what you see!)
What do you feel, about what you see?
What do you think, about what you feel?

Do the same thing for this photograph:
describe what you see, and what
you feel and think about what you are seeing.

I start with these images--
and with your writing about these images--
to sound the keynote of our conversation this morning:

Exploring Negative Space-->
Turning a Negative into a Positive

Classic "ambiguous figures" play with an exchange
between positive and negative space.
We can learn, from looking @ them,
and revising our perceptions,
to see what we have not seen.

An explanation of what negative space in a painting is,
how and why to use it
By changing your the negative spaces...
rather than focusing on the object, you end up with
a much more accurate painting....Negative space...
requires you to concentrate on the space
around the object rather than the object itself.

My 15-year-long writing conversation with McBrides
has been a move into negative space,
an exploration of the edges of light,
a revision of the hardness and softness
of the edges of what I thought I knew.

That's (some of!) the territory I'd like
to cover with you this morning...

Those of you who studied with me during
the 10 years beginning in September 1991 will remember
Clifford Geertz's story about "turtles all the way down"
as a touchstone of our class.

Those of you who landed in my arms 10 years later
(from September 2001 on) will remember, instead,
an image of the "puzzle pieces moving in both directions":

What I want to talk with you about this morning is how I/we got
from A) to B),
from (using only) texts to (starting conversations with) images,
from being "linear" to being "loopy"
(yes, the puzzle pieces move in both directions...),
from increasingly incomplete to increasingly generative,
from "infinite regression" to infinitely productive....

Let's begin with the turtle stack:

There is an Indian story--at least I heard it was an Indian story-- about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked...what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."

Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of anything I have ever written about....Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it commit oneself interpretive to commit oneself to a view of ethnographic assertion as "essentially contestable." Progress is marked less by a perfection of consensus than by a refinement of debate. What gets better is the precision with which we vex each other. (Clifford Geertz, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," 1973, my emphasis added)
"Turtles all the way down" became a cliché among McBrides
(and I acquired quite a collection....)
But (back then) I didn't understand the edges of this idea at all.
I think I understand a little better now where it might take us.
Let me see if I can explain....

According to Wikipedia, "turtles all the way down" refers to an infinite regression myth about the nature of the universe: An infinite regress in a series of propositions arises if the truth of proposition P1 requires the support of proposition P2, and for any proposition in the series Pn, the truth of Pn requires the support of the truth of Pn+1. There would never be adequate support for P1, because the infinite series needed to provide such support could not be completed.

The most widely known version appears in Stephen Hawking's 1988 book A Brief History of Time: a scientist gives a public lecture on astronomy (the Earth orbits around the sun, the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy....) and a little old lady in the back of the room responds, "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down." There are multiple other versions, inflected for multiple other contexts, including a 1967 linguistics dissertation in which the scientist is William James, and the story is evoked because of "its bull's-eye relevance to the study of syntax."

The different forms of the anecdote give it different meanings. For Hawking, the turtle myth is one of two accounts of the nature of the universe; the turtle theory is patently ridiculous, but his own theories may be just as ridiculous. "Only time will tell," he concludes. For Geertz, however, the myth is patently wise, teaching us that we will never get to the bottom of things. This is the difference between a positivist and an interpretive approach. Positivists read myths literally and find them false and foolish; interpretivists read them metaphorically or allegorically and find them true and profound.

With the help of all of you,
I have been stumbling my way towards the edges of both these approaches,
towards another sort of understanding,
one that "loops" between what Wikipedia calls
the "positivist" and the "interpretivist,"
between the "literal" and the "metaphoric,"
between the the "wise"and the "ridiculous,"
between asserting and questioning,
between believing and doubting.

I've traveled with the McBrides over the edge
into "negative space,"
into a strange-but-familiar landscape,
a place where we find ourselves crafting stories
that surprise ourselves--stories we find useful
precisely because they surprise us.

The trajectory of my writing conversation with the McBrides
has been from something that worked (though I didn't quite know why)
to a much more explicit understanding of what was happening, and how.

(To whet your appetite for this story:
what do you see when you look @ THIS image?)

Sharon Burgmayer, "Safe Haven"

(or: Womb/rain...Om/brain...?)

I use this image as pre-figure for