The Confident Web

The last few months I have been responding to six principles identified by Acharya Arawana Hayashi during the Shambhala Art Weekend I attended in Boston last spring. In this post I am contemplating the principle of confidence, “…when we are actually creating a work of art there is a sense of total confidence. (True Perception p.2)

In his lecture on Neopragmantism, Professor Fry offers a theory that human language did not originate out of a need to communicate but out of a propensity to scribble doodles and make melodious or rhythmic sounds. Language has come to serve human communication needs, but existed prior to performing that service. This theory on the origin of language is in radical opposition to the often quoted axiom that we write to be read. One version of the axiom, by Leo Rosten, goes:

A writer writes…because he is driven by the need to communicate. Behind the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is the need to be understood.

I’ve quoted Rosten and other writers saying the same thing. The things I believed I was communicating varied: memory, fantasies, ideas, emotions, attitudes, etc. I was deeply convinced that as a writer, my primary purpose was to communicate. It seemed obvious and incontrovertible, a natural and empirical fact, which should have been a red flag. As Alenka Zupan?i? points out:

…it is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.

Professor Fry makes a compelling argument. Humans can use fire to cook food, but does that mean the purpose of fire is to cook? Cooking is only one of many purposes humans have found for fire, and it continues to exist whether we give it a purpose or not. Humans can live in caves, but is the purpose of a cave to be a home? By analogy, making marks and sounds can be used for communication but that may not be their purpose.

There could have been a human being sitting by a fire and making marks in the dusty floor of a cave. The first mark might have been /, another mark was made, \, two short strokes slanted in different directions. Then maybe this person made those two marks in the same space, X, creating a new mark made of / and \ but different from either one. What was the writer in the cave communicating with any of these marks?

By fire light, this person continued making marks, squiggles and scratches. A mark something like O might have been made, perhaps after the marks S and Z were written on top of one another. This person was then able to write, XOXO–a pattern of opposites; X is an inside with no outside, and O is an outside with no inside.

True Perception identifies two types of art, relative symbolism and absolute symbolism. When writing is communicating something, such as a memory, fantasy, idea, emotion, or attitude, the marks are relative symbols because they rely on contextual reference points. Written in the context of a personal letter, XOXO is a relative symbol signifying kisses and hugs.

But this pattern of marks is also an absolute symbol that communicates nothing other the pattern itself. Trungpa uses the phrase, its nature is like the sky to describe absolute symbolism. Applying the analogies Professor Fry used, absolute symbolism is like a fire or like a cave.

At the World Science Festival in 2009, Bobbie McFerrin demonstrated how an audience can quickly recognize musical patterns and create music within that pattern. The scale he uses is the pentatonic scale, an ubiquitous musical scale used in folk music from West Africa to Korea to Scotland. The notes of the pentatonic scale do not themselves communicate any message other than the scale itself. Like a corecursive acronym, such as GNU, an absolute symbol represents itself and communicates phaticly.

These marks are not being made because of a desire to communicate, and yet these marks can communicate. Perhaps, this writing is a manifestation of a base instinct encoded in my human DNA. As Professor Morton describes in a lecture titled Beautiful Soul Syndrome, a spider’s web is an expression of its DNA, but it would be a misunderstanding of evolution theory the interpret such expressions of DNA as teleological.

Our lungs evolved from swim bladders in fish. There’s nothing lung-y about a swim bladder, nothing predictive or teleological about it, nothing superior about a lung, nothing metaphorically suggestive of breathing in the swim bladder, and so on. Like history, the more you find out, the more ambiguous things become.

Writing is one of humanity’s most audacious activities. How daring to mark the world! Writing is also as natural as a spider’s web or a beaver’s dam. The approach to art making and art appreciation in True Perception is as a natural phenomena. Because writing is an expression of natural instincts, I don’t need to write with a sense of insecurity or worry, or even with a sense that I am a writer.

…we develop a sense of confidence, confidence that space exists in front of our eyes and that it is not demanding anything. p.23

When I’m engaged in the act of writing, I can tap into that base instinct where the writing space does not demand anything. I don’t need to worry about communicating clearly or even communicating at all. I am only concerned with the marks themselves.

If I choose, I can return (and I often do) to the web I’ve created with a mind toward making the text communicate. That part of my process resembles reading more than it does writing.

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