A Truly “Universal Way of Looking At Things”
A few moments ago, I posted a quotation from the artist Maurice Grosser’s The Painter’s Eye to the comments section of the previous post on Holonic Awareness. The quote is excerpted from Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, which is also a book I highly recommend to students of Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy. I found the quote so deeply meaningful, significant, and revealing in relation to what Gebser calls “the mental-rational” or “perspectival” consciousness structure that I have decided to comment on it at even greater length than could be done in a short comment.
The passage appears on pages 77 and 78 or Hall’s The Hidden Dimension. Here, Grosser is describing the proper distance — not just physical but psychological — for the proper visual rendering and representation of a subject or model in perspective space, just as the Renaissance artists would have approached the problem.
“At more than thirteen feet away….twice the usual height of our bodies, the human figure can be seen in its entirety as a single whole. At this distance… we are chiefly aware of its outline and proportions… we can look at a man as if he were a shape cut out of cardboard, and see him… as something as having little connection with ourselves…. It is only the solidity and depth we see in nearby objects that produce in us feelings of sympathy and kinship with things we look at. At twice its height, the figure can be seen at once. It can be comprehended at a glance… understood as a unit and a whole… At this distance whatever meaning or feeling the figure may convey is dominated, not by expression or features of the face, but by the position of the members of the body. .. The painter can look at his model as if he were a tree in a landscape or an apple in a still life…the sitter’s personal warmth does not disturb him.
But four to eight feet is the portrait distance. At this distance the painter is near enough so that his eyes have no trouble in understanding the sitter’s solid forms, yet he is far enough away so that the foreshortening of the forms presents him no real problem. Here, at the normal distance of social intimacy and easy conversation the sitter’s soul begins to appear… Nearer than three feet, within touching distance, the soul is far too much in evidence for any sort of disinterested observation. Three feet is the sculptor’s working distance, not the painter’s. The sculptor must stand near enough to his model to be able to judge forms by sense of touch.
At touching distance, the problems of foreshortening make the business of painting itself too difficult…. Moreover at touching distance, the sitter’s personality is too strong. The influence of the model on the painter is too powerful, too disturbing to the artist’s necessary detachment, touching distance being not the position of visual rendition, but of motor reaction of some physical expression of sentiment, like fisticuffs, or the various acts of love.” (pp. 77-78 of The Hidden Dimension, Hall’s emphasis)
There isn’t much that I’ve found in the extant literature that describes so perfectly the psychological adjustments needed to the conscious attitude and the act of perception to render something or someone in perspective, or what is meant by the notion of “keeping things in perspective” and “the point-of-view”. What Grosser has described here is essential to appreciating what Jean Gebser means by the mental-rational or perspectival consciousness structure and mode of perception, as it has developed over the last 500 years since the Renaissance, functioning in both effective and also, now, its deficient modes.
Gebser’s critique of the mental-rational/perspectival consciousness structure is not so much with the structure itself, which is serviceable and definitely has its value and uses, as with its pretensions to truly represent the “universal way of looking at things”. This, Gebser asserts, is delusional, since it can only render a partial view of ourselves and of our full reality. Grosser describes, in effect, how to cultivate the “objective attitude” through perspective distancing, locating that neutral psychological space where the eye is maximally objective, detached, and disinterested, and undisturbed by “subjective values”.
That objective space, which is also the objectivising attitude, eliminates everything but the “Ego-It”, subject-object, relation. Spaces of intimacy are eliminated, and therefore also the role of the senses that pertain to intimate spaces. Tactile space is eliminated. Personal space (or “the soul”) is eliminated. The space of conversation — dialogical space — is eliminated. The ideal “point-of-view” — the space of objectification — is thus made impersonal, if not inhuman. The perspectival eye wants to be little more than a machine — disinterested, detached, disengaged, noncommittal, purely “rational”. The subject or model for Grosser ceases to be a human being, and becomes an inert object “as if he were a tree in a landscape or an apple in still life” as he puts it.
This is radical reductionism, is it not? And yet this attitude pretends to be the “natural” or “universal” or the “common sense” approach to the world when it is quite obviously, and by its own admission, not that at all. By excising from the awareness the more intimate timespaces — space of the soul, of touch, of speech or dialogue and therefore also of the sensual in terms of the auditory, the olfactory, and the tactile altogether — the “model” is basically turned into a dead thing, a “still life”.
Given that, do we still need to wonder where the “Death Economy” or the “Megamachine” has its roots?
It’s not difficult to see in Grosser’s method of the perspective construction of reality the root and source of Rene Descartes’ metaphysical dualism and method. That neutral abstract space of the perspective “point-of-view” becomes the same abstracted cogito of Descartes, purged of all subjective values and which assesses and objectifies a world that is not living but is an automaton — an “I” that confronts an “It”. The seeds of a pathological narcissism were planted in that abstract space. And its in these terms that you have to understand Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s objections to Cartesianism as he put it in his essay “Farewell to Descartes” and why Rosenstock-Huessy describes himself, rather, as an “Impure Thinker”. By contrast, Rosenstock-Huessy argues that his “cross of reality” and “grammatical method” is a more truly universal way of looking at things. That argument has some merit, since it closely approximates what Gebser describes as “integral” or “aperspectival consciousness” (or holonic awareness).
It’s easy enough to see from Grosser’s description of perspectivising consciousness that it has no claim to be “realistic” when it eliminates from awareness or consideration far more than half of reality — the living part — just like that DARPA logo for the Total Information Awareness programme discussed in the previous post. What did Grosser want to eliminate from his perfectly perspectivally rendered “still life” if not time, change, and the flux of life?
But that this has become the “normal” way of looking at things — that is a disaster for consciousness and a disaster for life.
It’s not difficult to appreciate how this abstract perspectival space of the “point-of-view-line-of-thought” became the basis for the principle of politics that the “pursuit of rational self-interest” is a sure guide to the good life and the good society. This was somewhat effective as long as the “rational” was deemed the reflection of “Universal Reason” and Universal Reason with the Mind of God and the Mind of God was made manifest as the Clockwork Universe and prototype, therefore, of the Megamachine.
As Hall points out, significantly, Grosser actually distinguishes four “spaces” — intimate, personal, social, and public spaces. But what space is it that is the abstract space of the perspectival “point-of-view”? William Blake actually had a name for that space. He called it “Non-Ens” — non-being.
The space occupied by the abstract point-of-view consciousness is Blake’s “Single Vision & Newton’s sleep” and is the meaning of the quote from Blake that graces the masthead of The Chrysalis: “For man has clos’d himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”.
It is clear that perspective perception and the mental-rational consciousness has no justification in claiming to be a truly universal way of looking at things. It is not ecological. It is not holistic. It is not universal. And it is certainly not integral. That much is clear from Grosser’s description of it. The laws of linear perspective are not “natural”.
It must be said, though, that this mode of attention and perspectivisation is in the throes of breaking down, and it’s not too difficult to see why — its deliberate negligence and omission of time, which has become a severe stress upon this particular modality of consciousness. Evolution. Zigmund Bauman’s “Liquid Modernity”. Complexity and Chaos Theory. The Heraclitean Flux. Toffler’s Future Shock. Grosser’s description of perspectivisation also shows why it is breaking down. It cannot handle flux. It cannot handle time and change effectively. Life is a process of time even moreso than space.
Hall’s “Hidden Dimension” is also the return of the repressed, and the “repressed” or suppressed is not difficult to discern also in Grosser’s account of perspective construction of space. Those things that offend and injure “pure reason” and the objective or perspectival standpoint are matters closely connected with time and change and are transient. fluid, or mutable.
Perspectivism remade the world. No doubt about it. It still has its appropriate place. Even as Blake’s “single vision” it is still a valid aspect of fourfold vision. It is still one of the four ways of knowing described by E.F. Schumacher in A Guide for the Perplexed. Holonic awareness is possible for us. Ecological awareness is possible for us. And it also includes perspectivism as one of its elements.
It is ironic, of course, that the revolutionists of yesterday have become the conservatives — and even the reactionaries — of today. Their identities are bound up with the perspective consciousness structure as the rule of the self-interest and “the point-of-view”. It’s the irruption of time into consciousness that is now the “chaotic” element and the source of anxiety for the modern mind. But, as St. Augustine also put it, “time is of the soul”.
Holism is the future. No question about it (assuming we survive the “maelstrom of blind anxiety” about identity of which Gebser speaks). Whether we call the holonic “fourfold vision” (Blake) or “integral consciousness” (Chaudhuri, Gebser) or “aperspectival consciousness” (Gebser), or “supramental consciousness” (Aurobindo) or “transhuman” (Nietzsche) or “metanomics” and “metanoia” (Rosenstock-Huessy) it’s all the same. The “diaphainon” and “diaphaneity” (or “transparency of the world”) is Gebser’s preferred terms for holonic awareness and its mode of perception.
As ugly as the manifestations of this current pandaemonium, havoc, chaos, and “maelstrom of blind anxiety” are — as post-truth, post-rational, post-modern, post-Everything society — it is symptomatic of the breakdown of perspective consciousness and a preparation for a reconstruction of what we understand by “human nature” or “truth” or “reason” and so on. As the hegemonic mode of perception and structure of consciousness, perspectivism and the mental-rational consciousness has already exceeded its sell-by date and its shelf-life. You can appreciate why that is so just from Grosser’s description of it. Sixth Extinction Event. Climate Change. The Anthropocene. George Monbiot’s “13 impossible crises” foreshadowing global collapse. All these attest to the deficiency — the degeneracy and nihilism in fact — of the continuing hegemony of the mental-rational/perspectival consciousness structure.
Ages of Discovery are also ages of chaos. But take heart in Nietzsche’s remark about this “two centuries of nihilism”: “you must have chaos in yourselves to give birth to a dancing star”. That’s just another way of speaking of “the dark night of the soul”. Not yours or ours alone, to be sure, but also that of the Anima Mundi as a whole.