synthetic zero


May 15, 2008

We tend to think of love as having primarily to do with the qualities of the loved one; we love them because they are beautiful, smart, talented, compatible, etc.


May 13, 2008

The great Robert Rauschenberg passed away today.

I vividly remember seeing this scroll, "Automobile Tire Print", in a museum as a young man, and feeling its strange sense of reverence and irreverence together --- playful yet oddly profound. I recall my mother remarking, with a smile, "Robert is such a master." Gazing at this humorous scroll, I felt, funnily enough, just as though I were looking at the work of a famous calligrapher. I knew exactly what my mom meant.


May 4, 2008

There's a style of communication very prevalent in Japanese culture, and to a lesser extent in Asian culture as a whole, which is used far less frequently in the West, and certainly less dramatically, yet it has formed the crux of my own style of listening and to a lesser extent, speaking, for a very long time. The essence of it is: when someone I trust, or suspect I might want to trust, indicates something which seems incomprehensible, or contrary to my own views, surprising, or shocking, this gives me great pause, and I stop and contemplate it until I have penetrated what the person means. I may end up agreeing or disagreeing with the person: but inevitably I learn something, and it changes the way that I understand the situation. Sometimes it completely changes my perspective.

Wait until you understand why the person has said what they have said before you either accept it or reject it. It's a kind of cultural rule of thumb which has served me very well in my ability to understand very tricky things. It's perhaps the most valuable habit I acquired from my parents, who do this themselves: I watched them as I was growing up, and learned this habit by imitation. There are tremendously intricate and subtle things that can be expressed in this way; things that would be nearly impossible to communicate otherwise. It's the entrance to so many beautiful and amazing worlds. It's not the same as allowing others to dictate worlds to you: it's simply being open enough to let other worlds have the chance of restructuring yours. The main benefit is: being able to inhabit spaces that were not part of your original makeup. It's something Japanese do very well: integrating other worlds, even revolutionizing their own in response to contact with something initially that seems foreign. It's something I've benefitted from tremendously.

It's almost as though Japanese go through the following imaginative game whenever they hear someone saying something or see them doing something: "If I were them, why would I do/say that?" (Not merely, as is common here, "Is it right or wrong?" -- a very different way of thinking entirely!) They really think this way, all the time. It can sometimes lead to big mistakes; but more often it leads to deep insights. It can lead the Japanese to throw out centuries of tradition in the blink of an eye, yet still remain "Japanese" in some sense. How do they do this? Once you understand why someone does something or says something (to the extent this is possible), then it becomes your own.

Those moments when you're really prepared to listen to someone else, even when you don't understand where they're coming from: those are precious moments, rare, and places of indescribable potency. Worlds can be created and destroyed in those moments: and it's worth it. Don't get me wrong: it doesn't mean necessarily accepting the other person's world --- in the sense of adopting it yourself or agreeing with it --- but if a sort of rejection is in order, it is one done more though a sense of understanding than ignorance. More often it leads to a new world, different from the one either speaker or listener inhabited before.

Of course, sitting here thinking about this again, I realize there is one thing that tends to make this style of listening very difficult to adopt: and that is, to create a new world you have to be ready to step back from your world and see it from a different perspective, to reframe it, to discard it. That is to say, you have to hold onto your perspectives lightly enough to be able to discard them. However: most perspectives contain within them injunctions against doing just that. They are internally structured specifically to prevent this, or discourage it. These injunctions are both unnecessary and harmful: but to the extent we buy into them, we sabotage this style of listening. It's perhaps the biggest tragedy in the modern world.