Overgrown

There are few things I remember from before I was ten. It’s unfortunate, but nothing can be done about it. That’s just one thing tyrant Time steals from all. Memories. Yet nestled between my memories of holding poofy newborn chickens in Kindergarten and locking my brother in a cabinet are days spent next to my mother, stumbling through sentences word by word, leading me to literacy.  The lamp we used to light the books marked the start of my developmental dash through literature, a dash which began with “he goes to the park” and arrived at “why are humans born free?” My parents are immigrants, so I didn’t see much television or many native speakers. As I grew older and mentally stronger, as my days became longer and my thoughts became denser, my speech started limping.

It was probably that the books I read possessed enough charisma to ensnare my worship. I repeated them, often without grasping their intent. This led to an interesting few years at grade school: once, when two of my peers were fighting, I threatened to shoot them with a gun to make them stop.  I earned myself a reluctant peace and a visit to the principal’s office. Another time, I told a distressed, existential friend that we are all the children of God. Books had evidently given me an understanding of threats, power, and words that even a description of Foucault’s pendulum lacks, and the tolerance of a saint as well.

As that one Chinese guy in a predominantly caucasian charter school, making friends took considerable effort. The cultural isolation was enough to make a Chinese transfer student immediately declare us lovers. (We later separated after she saw me picking my nose). Sure, I had a friend in Timmy, a freckled, brown-haired boy, with light, emotive eyes, and an obnoxious green winter jacket, but sometimes that jacket would compress into a disapproving pose. No Daniel, he would say, I’m not going to play spaceship with you again. You made the ship’s electronic nose sneeze too many times last time. Whenever I pass by a recycling bin, I am reminded of him, mostly because he looked a little like a tree, and because I thought that trees were probably angry at people who forgot to recycle.

After those types of days, I would wipe off my boots on our family’s stiff welcome mat, shed my jacket, and occupy my favorite reading corner, with the lamp I always used. It might be raining outside, or snowing, or the wind might be blowing so hard that the weeping willow seemed like it had just gone through a particularly blunt argument with its significant other, but I really didn’t care. I would read until my mother called for dinner, and then read under the lamp til bedtime. I felt powerful reading books. I could read them hesitantly or rapidly, change characters to fit my tastes, change their actions to do my bidding. I was the fundamental god of my intellectual realm.

My teachers caught me on many attempts to replace reality with my reality. They would catch me smiling at my lap, unraveling how zombies could possibly exist and why they were chasing my favorite character Dink. They would call on me, expecting a precise answer to a math problem, only to find me blazing through space fighting with giant sentient gas planets born from electromagnetic waves broadcasted by green giant dragons. They would watch that other kid Eric take the wooden train I was playing with, expecting a fight, only to be surprised when I offered him the rest of the cars and returned to the quiet reading section of the classroom.

Thomas the tank engine can’t be a very useful engine without useful things to pull, after all.

It’s not surprising that books hold power over people, held such power over me,  since books are alive. Yann Martel says it best using his character Pi as a mouthpiece: “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways.” What can a book be, but mad? What else but a book can be so unpredictable yet make perfect sense? I have never read a scientific article and been impressed by its structure, by the unusual arrangement of commas, by the rhythm of several syllables, by the sentiments of a character. I have been surprised by the trick Peter Pan pulled on Captain Hook, or by the foundation of Harry Potter’s powers, and by the tangential humor of Captain Underpants. Books drive my thought discordantly, much like people, and like people, they have a will of their own.

They say that authors write books but it’s more like they plant them. They build a garden, surrounded by the barriers of paper and intimidating hardcover binding, sometimes split with ornate gold letters, other times displaying an interesting picture. They hoe and water the garden, and plant some seeds. They tend to it for a moment and then leave for greener pastures. Some, like Edgar Allen Poe, die alone in the streets of Boston in only his underwear. Others still live and sometimes return to trim their garden, but it is too late. The plants have overgrown their boundaries and intertwined in intricate, marvelous symbiosis, and cutting off any leaf would kill the completeness of wholesome monstrosity. The author might wonder, “I only put carrots and peas in, how did I end up with a cyan cross between cauliflower and eggplant?”

Then the day of the farmer’s market comes, only the farmers can’t get the fruit, vegetables, herbs, or whatevers they’ve grown, so the buyers are forced to travel down to the fields and pick some plant matter for themselves.  Some are nearsighted and can only reach for the periphery, while others stretch, bend, contort, squeeze, and breathe in all sorts of ways to reach the seemingly juicier fruit inside. Others grab the easy, low hanging fruit. The buyers return to the market square and discover that everyone has their own unique, relatively similar fruit-vegetable thing, and people begin to try each other’s.

Maybe books don’t actually grow trees. But their pages contain much more than the sum of their parts. Ideas interact with each other, and that would be enough to produce enough complexity to satiate me, but the authors themselves bring interesting ideas. Ideas that I would have to live an entirely different life to arrive at. Old, archaic ideas from the far sands of Persia or the mountains of Greece. New, fresh ideas from the shining chapels of the Ivies and the bustling hubs of cities. Dangerous, controversial ideas from overzealous celebrities, politicians, technocrats and religious fanatics. Only seeds can beget more seeds after all. I can only take from what I can receive.

It is true that books are like overgrown gardens, filled with organic complexity and interaction, but is that not the same for people? Two people will catch differently a book thrown at them.  They are both complex, with lives, passions, emotions, memories, beliefs, morals, and faults. Talking with another person also forces me into a different pace, a different style of thinking that involves perhaps more compassion or more logic or more inanity. People change each other just by interacting, not because their words are strong, but because the mechanisms that run them are delicate enough to spiral into a completely different parametric motion when touched.

I’m sure that when I read books I felt powerful. But I’m also sure that I was not at all. No matter how much you can imagine, construe, you can only work with ideas you’ve given. This is also true for the author, and this is also true for the book, no matter how much entanglement it undergoes. But books can still come from completely different swathes of life than yours, where the pumpkins are blue and the corn is a ruddy red, and people are used to it. Furthermore, those exotic gardens have a vitality people do not. As long as there’s somebody there to conserve them, to water them with thought, to harvest them with interpretations, they will blossom and festoon themselves with the seeds of thought for the next generation. Not even tyrant Time can stop them. Books are powerful, other people are powerful, but I do not actually have agency. The chirality of the human soul is determined by the machinations of others.

People enact change upon one another, and upon one another, and upon one another. Thus the perpetual motion machine of intellectual evolution wobbles onward.  The parts of this cycle seem impossible to unravel, but the broad strokes of its motion are bold and easy, like the blurring together of disparate colors in a pointillist painting. And each book captures within its boundaries a portion of this churning vortex that sucks the reader in and produces an entirely new person afterwards. They must be taking people on journeys because I’ve experienced lives that I cannot have possibly experienced.  Books are complicated, and people are complicated. Some businesses are complicated enough that they are legally thought of as people, with their own rights and taxes to pay. Shouldn’t we be thinking of books as people then? They are mad, so aren’t they living?

I know many people who have chiseled away at the mold that my fluid identity is cast in. My father and mother, for better or for worse, subjected the mold to pressures that warped and damaged its frame. The shape of my mind is therefore fittingly unusual. Holden Caulfield made me react and reflect on the realities of today’s society, further twisting the cast. Atticus Finch made me question the foundations of my moral thought, straightening and strengthening some portions, but corroding others. Edmond Danton took me on a trek around the world, heightening the cast’s mountains and deepening the cast’s valley. When I close each book I read, a seed is planted within me. and I hope that in time these seeds combine to produce something interesting in its own right, I hope the world can accept the plant that grew out of the cast instead of the expected polished metal.

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Another Attempt at Defining Art, Except Subjectively

I wrote this essay on the definition of art to enter PLATO’s 2017 Philosophy Essay Contest. I don’t think it’ll win anything, but I’m leaving it here anyways. For reference, the prompt of the contest can be found here. The essay references the prompt occasionally, so I recommend reading it before the essay itself. 

Whether being used as a means of remembrance, as in Picasso’s Guernica, or as exploration of concepts, such as Botero’s fascination with volume, or something else entirely, art indubitably has had great presence in society. Movements such as those during the Renaissance have emerged that campaign both to give art respectability through standards and others, such as Dadaism, attempt to liberate it through rejecting standards. However, despite these movements, despite all these standards, art has long escaped satisfiable definition, often leading to the exasperation expressed by Sarah and Mike in the scenario.

Art escapes objective definition because it is subjective, in that the recognition of art is based on an individual’s socio-cultural background, or context. As western philosophers became exposed to new cultures outside of Europe, as society has expanded and evolved, the definition of art has expanded and twisted to conform around what society deems as art. In this way objective definitions of art have been continually predisposed to failure. If humanity encountered an intelligent extraterrestrial species tomorrow, and what society accepts as art suddenly changed due to cultural exchange, no doubt objective theories would spring up that attempt to encompass society’s new expectations.

Art is, however, is not subjective due to the general influences of society.  It is possible for multiple people to discuss and realize that their conceptions of what embodies art are quite different, and to end up embroiled in fierce debate. (Once again, Sarah and Mike.) Yet, both of their conceptions of what art is are permissible. Though they both used the same general framework, the same general function, to judge whether an object was a piece of art or not, the background predispositions, biases, and beliefs brought to bear on the judgement process differed, so it is not surprising that the final verdicts differed. Sarah is Sarah, and Mike is Mike. The elusive nature of the definition of art can be explained by knowing that an absolute definition of art is not only impossible, but also wrong.

Art ultimately is used passively to derive, or at least improve the pleasure one possesses. In invoking the word passive, I take it to mean something that is not experienced directly. In using the word direct, I take it to mean that a direct experience is a completely true experience for the individual considering a supposed piece of art. In saying completely true, I mean completely his or her’s; if a painting deliniates a real mountain, than a corresponding completely true experience would be having that person actually see that mountain. This description accounts for mimicry many pieces of art possess, of objects, of concepts, of other forms of art. Art can mimic other objects, or other established forms of art, if it bestows pleasure. Considering a few forms of art reveals this. Poetry, song, and literature often describe real events, but not directly. If a piece depicts a concept which does not exist in reality, as many do, even if the concept’s parts of source from reality, the piece is already passive. Concepts can also be absurd or strange, or even abstract, and have the art which houses those concepts still meet the first requirement for being considered art. Strangeness seems to be the only thing exuded by the looping video, while Sol LeWitt’s work is characterized in a way that seems very abstract. Yet the question of whether they are actually art or not is answered by whether pleasure is derived from it.

Art also must be created by an intelligent being. Nature, no matter how splendid, is not art, unless belief in intelligent design means that nature is in fact the product of intelligence. When Mike disparages the pile of sticks, he claims that he could also create a pile of sticks much like it. If he did, than he would not consider it art. However, it is possible that another person would find concepts within that pile of sticks that brings them pleasure. Hence, to that person, the pile would be art, while to Mike, it would be a pile of sticks. Mike’s claims at most damages the prestige of the supposed art piece: whether it is actually art depends on individual taste. This also means that Mike and Sarah’s displeasure with LeWitt’s work only disqualifies the work as art in their eyes: I might gaze upon the work and applaud it as a piece of art. This also means objects can change from art to not art as new beliefs are formed, much like how new knowledge can result when reality changes.

What affords people pleasure, and what people can derive it from, is wholly dependent on the individual. It is possible for people to agree on what gifts them pleasure, as Sarah and Mike do in acting puzzled about the looping video and the pile of sticks. I am not saying that there are not common sources of pleasure and displeasure. Humanity is, afterall, restricted by the same five senses, similar degrees of intelligence, and generally situated in similar environs. However, closer examination of humanity in detail reveals disparities in this common ground, caused by geographic isolation and a resulting memetic drift. This gives individuals different contexts which afford them the ability to judge what is art and what is not different from each other. Individuals are the ultimate beholders of what constitute art because further division of an individual while retaining some form of consciousness is impossible. A separated half of Mike cannot think; because Mike is dead. In knowing this, it is apparent that Mike is free to believe what he believes, and Sarah is free to believe what she believes.

A thought to consider is that of man-made structures. Roller coasters, ballparks, swimming pools, and the like can all provide people with pleasure, and are manmade. Are they, in fact, art? No, because the pleasure obtained is from direct experience. These objects all provide services that are directly experienced: riding a roller coaster, watching a game, swimming. That is not to say that they cannot be considered art for other reasons. These structures, through diligent architecture, can become aesthetically appealing and evoke a concept which people find pleasurable to look at, thought if that occurs the object has become art not on the basis of its primary intended use but because of appearance.

Dancing, and acting are also two sources of possible objection to this argument. If a piece of art must be passive, in that it represents something indirectly, would the dancer or actor performing a play not be experiencing their dancing or acting directly? The dancer and actor would be experiencing their dancing or acting directly, but not the concepts that their dancing or acting is meant to convey. Dancers often represent objects or abstract ideas with their movements. At least, dancers must represent the music through their dancing. So their dancing is representing a concept passively. In this same way actors are not acting true to themselves, but instead representing the concept that is their role. The character that they play would see not the set of the actor’s play, but the actual setting the play seeks to portray. In this way even the actor experiences the concepts portrayed in the work he or she performs passively.

Another possible objection I will examine comes from a hypothetical situation in which virtual reality and filmmaking have progressed to an extent that it is possible to view extremely lifelike technologically induced dreams. If a documentary producer decided to produce a documentary meant to viewed through VR technology so that the viewer felt as if he or she were actually experiencing the subject of the documentary, and so that the sense-datum received exactly mirrored the sense-datum the person would have received had they actually gone and experienced the subject of the documentary themselves, would they still be experiencing the documentary passively, and what ramifications does this have for documentaries or pieces of art depicting reality in general, if they managed to somehow exactly reproduce the original authentic sense-data? Could this so called documentary be called art? Is film-making not an art? In asking this question, we first assume that the sense data received is exactly the same, and produces the same effects in the person’s mind, in order to allow the transmitted experience to meet the requirements for being direct.

In this case, the ostensible documentary could not be considered art, as it has become direct experience. Though I assumed the existence of reality earlier in this essay, such existence may be an illusion. Sense data is something which people intuitively trust. If the world were an illusion like the Matrix, akin to the world described by Descartes in his evil demon argument, than direct experience would still be possible. Though I assumed physical objects earlier in the essay, this was the purposes of argument. The objects which people judge as art might be just thoughts, or it might be something in the Kant’s noumenal realm: what matters is that the person would receive a precise set of sense data if he or she sensed it. There is a case where this documentary could be considered art: if the director’s cut footage together from multiple experiences. Jumping from experience to experience instantly is impossible, so experiencing a documentary through VR with jumps between experience would provide sense-data impossible to replicate directly, since people cannot teleport. If a documentary producer simply did one long take for his documentary, I question if it can even be called a documentary. It may satisfy the conditions to be a documentary, but even then it cannot be art.

A possible objection hinges on the similar nature of some subjective theories of ethics. In these subjective theories, what is considered right either depends on the context provided by an individual, or the context provided by a community. An example of such a subjective theory is egotism, which considers the ethically right to be the most beneficial action for the individual. In this, however, lies the possibility for a conflict of interest to arise, conflicts like those between co workers trying to claim credit for the same piece of work. Ethics, outside from prescribing what is right, also serve as a means for mediating conflict, and even interaction between individuals. An ethical system which allows two individuals to both be technically correct and hence reside in an ethical gray zone is faulty, having failed one of the functions an ethical system must provide. Why is it, however, that the conceptions of art possessed by people can conflict, without moral consequence?

Conflict between individual definitions of art, or the subjectivity of art itself is allowed because unlike Ethics, art’s purpose does not require universal acknowledgement. If one person considers anime trash, but another considers it god’s gift to earth, the art can still fulfill it’s purpose: to bestow pleasure. Art has no requirement to be universally defined because it fulfills it’s purpose on an individual basis, while Ethics must serve all, in order to mediate conflict.

In conclusion, the definition of art follows a general form, but the pieces identified as art vary from person to person. This is because the things that bring each person pleasure, things to their taste, vary from person to person as well. Art is not art for a person if it cannot bring that person some form of satisfaction or happiness through passive means. You have your art, I have mine.


Works Cited

Adajian, Thomas, “The Definition of Art”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/art-definition/>

“Botero: “La Pintura Nace De Una Reflexión”.” BBC News. BBC, 25 July 2005. Web. 31 Jan. 2017.

Descartes, Rene, John Cottingham, and Bernard Williams. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Pure Reason. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1955. Print.

Locke, John. John Locke: An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon, 1975. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. New York: Oxford UP, 1959. Print.

Blackburn, Simon. Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.

McKay, John P., Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler. A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

 

On Writing Practicallity

Stravinsky accused music conductors of tarnishing his craft for their own self gain, likening them to noxious weeds. Hughes decried existing standards of teaching excellence, whatever those are. That who must not be named in academic papers according to the majority of academics adds a disdain for writers to the fray. But why, one might ask, does the being who should be excluded from existing in academic papers at all cost hold disdain for writers? Writers are respectable, aren’t they?

Writers are typically thought of as noble creatures. Having been educated through cliches such as “the pen is mightier than the sword”, it is only natural that this is so. A pen wielding army scours the globe constantly, searching for news, inspirations, topics. They inevitably will prod the tightest of lips open and expose the horrors hidden within society. It follows that the typical journalist should be welcomed as a crusader doing good work in good faith for the common good.

Is this the image people hold of writers? No, and perhaps with good reason. In a society which rewards intellectual genius applied to physical reality, writers, who work with an abstract art form, are left in dire straits financially. The end goal becomes not the truth but the paycheck, and so writers are left to scour for scarce leads, which are then embellished as needed. Thus, writers distort a truth sent often to millions and gain a benefit for one. Even when the distortion is not for monetary incentive, it is often born of an unconscious desire to influence others to see what the writer sees, which laughingly assumes that what the writer sees is somehow right, or even means anything.

But, can we blame a writer for acting in this way, if society is the one who forced them into it? Yes. Yes we most definitely can and absolutely should. Consider a world where the fault of an action can be transferred to a prior cause, much like how we would presumably transfer the blame for yellow journalism from writers to society. Why stop at society? Doesn’t society have a cause? Why not blame the Earth which nurtured society? Why not blame the gravity that created the Earth? Why not blame the space time which curved, creating the illusion of gravity? Why not blame the universe for existing at all?

writing

Thanks to absurdity, we have established the sins of nonfiction writers, yet what about fiction writers? Instead of prodding reality, they weave an entirely new universe for both the young and the old to enjoy. It is now possible to frolick around in an endless array of parallel universes even when restrictions are in place. The person who would be blasphemous to mention in any sort of academic writing could potentially endlessly sink time into consuming Japanese graphic novels, thanks to the work of the intrepid crafters.

And to what end? Consider the following scenario. A writer releases a book, which garners popularity immediately. Millions of children, housewives, or elderly idle around absorbing garbage for 48 hours. Imagine what could’ve been done with those 48 hours. 3 college essays. 2 lucky egg frying attempts in which the house survives. A lawn which actually has every slice of grass mown. The development of wifi which does not lag. Ascension to the top of the osu! leaderboards. Getting sniped from the top of the osu! Leaderboards! Infinite amounts of procrastination and existential crisis with and about osu!. The laying of bricks across the border between Canada and the United States. The transport of a police cruiser to the top of the MIT main building dome, and then a walk down MIT’s infinite corridor. All are possibilities which the millions could have done.

But objections might be raised to the prior list. First, shouldn’t children at least read books, since they nurture the development of imagination? No, since evidently any attempt at imagination is and should be squashed, as we are admirably currently doing in our public schools assumingly in order to compete with the human calculators in China. America, after all, needs its nerds to protect its integrity as both a superpower and a math olympiad medalist. Secondly, shouldn’t housewives be allowed to read after resting their dainty hands following a hard day in the home? Well, shouldn’t women be allowed to waste their time in the rat race instead of on books like men, instead of being caged in their domestic sphere? Finally, observation of student treatment of elderly substitutes in Stevenson, namely mass cheating on a quiz by convincing the sub that notes, and by extension iPads, were allowed, allows us to conclude that people don’t care enough about the elderly for a refutation to worthwhile.

Well, surely the poet, who manages to shape human emotion into a sequence of squiggles on a page, who creates something which can move its readers through sheer visual detail alone, deserves praise? To address this the comparison of an artist and a poet, and the realization of their shared lack of practicality is sufficient. Sure, the admiration of nudes in a museum can invoke emotion in an audience, but what good is emotion? It can, assuredly, help us last through stabilizing our minds until our inevitable deaths, but that’s about it.

Scholars are thankfully, not writers. Writers twist existing truth, and are forever doomed to languish in imperfection. A scholar on the other hand, has no qualms with telling his teacher Russell that he couldn’t do philosophy, ridding the discipline of a perhaps the only writer available, spending decades in a movie theater, and finally emerging from the theater with an entirely new set of beliefs. Such is the fortitude of a scholar: they will raze their minds and plummet into the void to find their truth., away from useless reality. Writers, instead focus on spreading worthless ideas and connecting people. When the last man on earth climbs out of the bunker into the nuclear wasteland of Earth after the end of WWIIl, hopefully it’s a scholar. He/she would imbue the world with truth, where a writer would continue the unacceptable diversity of thought unnecessary in a world with only one person.