A Fine Mess We’ve Gotten Ourselves Into…
When you look at the clouds they are not symmetrical. They do not form fours and they do not come along in cubes, but you know at once that they are not a mess. A dirty old ashtray full of junk may be a mess but clouds do not look like that. When you look at the patterns of foam on water they never make an artistic mistake and they are not a mess. They are wiggly but in a way, orderly, although it is difficult for us to describe that kind of order.
Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy, p. 27.
This post has struck a chord. I’ve long been interested in the way order is perceived and how we make assumptions concerning the nature of order. The way it’s been an easy laugh to poke fun at the cranky pronouncements from past generations about what is and what is not ordered.
It’s long felt like there’s some key to be discovered in how we choose to call some things ordered and others chaotic. That this could be a meaningful approach to sorting out how we do things in such a way so that we don’t need to continue fighting the jumble of conditioned reactions arising out of this confusion of thought. How we can work directly with the phenomenon of order and disruption instead of always being a few — or many — steps behind.
I urge you to go ahead and read Tendrils of Mess…. Please come back when you’re done….
Including non-humans was a breath of fresh air! This is one of the stumbling blocks keeping us from discovering a coherent approach to order. It’s a result of the blind-spot that has lead to this “original sin….” Unless we look at the question of order from outside of the divisions of human versus natural, human versus animal, human versus the cold hostile universe; we cannot deal with the root of the question.
Let’s take this report as a springboard. What comes to mind?
The first thought is that this strikes directly at how we look at whether any piece of attempted communication “makes sense.” The same assumptions and conditions apply here as they do in architecture or any mess generating enterprise. If we limit ourselves to a choice between two views: “This makes sense.” versus “That’s a mess!” We are functioning within the narrow constraints set by our self-limited point of view. We are functioning in a system where mess is the result of not imposing an order. So long as we do this we cannot even see if there are other ways of looking at the concept of order.
Alan Watts’ cloud is not messy. Neither is a tornado-ravaged strip of forest; once we leave our prejudices out of it. They are no different other than in the ways we react to them. Inside a turbulent and active situation — like hang-gliding inside a cloud instead of contemplating it at a distance from a comfortable and stable position — we would lose our equanimity regarding the cloud’s lack of messiness. We would find it violent and disruptive. We would then most likely deduce that it was chaotic. Its likely prejudicial effect on our intention to stay alive would lead us to see it as a hot-mess indeed!
This shows one way across the human versus non-human divide. Our perspective, our point of view in relation to something’s potential to disrupt our intentions colors whether we are willing to see it as partaking of an order beyond our grasp versus seeing it as chaotic and inimical. We can look at the transformation in cultural attitudes during the Nineteenth century that Romantic fashion for seeking out the sublime that took wild “nature” from the category of fearful entities and brought them into the realm of the Aesthetic.
This has been taken as a sign of our loss of fear as these forces were “tamed” by our growing powers. More of a sign of increasing hubris than of Progress. The expansion of another category besides the elemental and the human realms. The category of the inconsequential. Itself a novel misunderstanding of something everyone living before the so-called Age of Reason knew quite well, the realm of Mystery where awe resides.
Let’s let this line sit for a bit….
Let’s get back to the other thread shining from the tangle in Sarah Perry’s post. What strikes me most significantly in any encounter with any part of the non-human realm is this sense that there are no messes there. There is an insight within this aesthetic instinct, whether in the mind of a Bower Bird or of a “free-thinker.” Everything and every creature we come across is poised at the crest of a movement of energies and forces through time. It is as much a ruin of what was there before as it is a culmination of the development of some increasing order. Yet, a hill does not read as a spoiled mountain. And a bird is not a perfected dinosaur. Each is what it is.
Our dog, Delfina, is of an ancient breed, a Portuguese Podengo. She looks like we might expect a dog to look scratched onto a rock-wall in an Ice-Age cave. In fact, she does look quite like a dog painted on an Egyptian tomb. One of her traits is that she never smells bad. Doesn’t need baths. Her coat cleans itself. It’s one of her “wild” traits. Like standing ears and taking human commands as suggestions to be considered in the light of her own deeper wisdom.
Interesting the way domestication has brought other creatures into our realm of mess; tainted by our “original sin.”
If we step-back then, how can we bring our own actions into this …. We could call it a Cosmic Realm?
The hint seems to lie somewhere in altering our approach to intentionality….
The question of intent has been rising in significance these last few years. So much of what’s been just out of reach has had to do with the way we tend to mistake our notions of cause & effect for the way things actually work. We do things because we intend some result. When we don’t get that result, but some noxious outcome with compounded disruptions, we complain of unintended consequences and proceed to do the same thing over again only with added vigor. We confound willfulness with efficacy. Just as we refuse to see that there’s a great gulf between increased efficiency and a beneficial outcome. More precisely, we refuse to untangle desire from outcome.
This has something to do with why our actions result in ever-more messes and ever-fewer noble-ruins, let alone beneficial results.
In aviation there’s a concept called the “Coffin Corner.” This is the altitude at which an aircraft’s stall-speed and maximum speed intersect. It’s where a plane is both too slow to fly and too fast to keep from breaking apart. There’s no where to go from here but down….
So many of our predicaments rhyme with this condition. We’ve reached the limits of doubling down. Peak double-down. So long as we refuse to consider the limits on our will; that we’ve reached the point where diminishing returns intersect with all that we can muster; we’ll never do anything but squeeze ourselves further into coffin corner.
What does the way out look like? What’s the equivalent to slowing down and making a controlled descent, to complete the aircraft analogy?
It has something to do with how we make messes. How we think we can go higher and fly faster, in some unknown way, climb out of our coffin-corner.
So long as we keep looking at order from within this binary of order versus messes we can’t break free of this enchantment. This noxious, if not evil, spell.
At the risk of leaving the impression on you, dear reader, that this essay is just a mess, we’re going to end it here. Let these points of inflection percolate. See what comes to mind.