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The Redness of Names

To reflect on existence requires thought. And to share that reflection, a language in which to communicate it.

Abstract thought evolves from the moment it consciously differentiates itself from what is being thought about. Thinking could be said to be taking place prior to that moment, but it's as an undifferentiated part of an indivisible whole; like a current within the ocean, say, or the jet stream in the upper atmosphere, or, symbolically, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The moment that thought recognises itself as distinct from that which is being thought about, the fabric of existence cracks open and splits in two. It fragments into the experience of existence itself and that which is reflecting it, or reflecting upon it. This is the primary duality, the fall from grace, and Adam and Eve scurry away, red-faced and self-conscious, having confronted themselves in the Mirror.

Reflection is articulated in language, and as our languages and societies have evolved, two principal and intimately related dichotomies have evolved in the reflecting and articulating: process-orientation vs object-orientation, and auditory-based multidimensional analogy vs visually-based unidimensional logic. The dominant mode in each instance is the latter, and this essay sets out to show how this dominance has brought us to an unhealthy state of imbalance, placing all the weight on the side of stasis, permanence, fixity, at the expense of the dynamic, fluid, ever-changing fundamental nature of the world, the universe, around us.

Spiral © James Seo, Spiral © James Seo, Spiral © James Seo, Spiral © James Seo, Danube river basin

Where's the river? Map of ground water courses in the catchment basin of the Brenz, a tributary of the upper Danube. (2)

“ Logic is an element within reason. Both love straight lines. That is why they are a favorite playground for the eye person. The straight line has an impelling and simplifying quality. Ana-logic is linked with the ear. It moves, cautiously and carefully, along curves and spirals – like the spirals in the human ear. Human thinking was originally founded on analogies – and analogic 'thinking' is still more flexible, creative, revolutionary, intuitive, free, spontaneous, and less rigid, fixed, and violent than logical thought. ”
Joachim-Ernst Berendt (3)

Red Fragments by Motoko

'Red Fragments' by Motoko

Pinwheel galaxy M101

Pinwheel galaxy M101

“ A thing is not what you say it is or what you photograph it to be or what you paint it to be or what you sculpt it to be. Words, photographs, paintings, and sculptures are symbols of what you see, think, and feel things to be, but they are not the things themselves. ”
Wynn Bullock

“ We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us. ”
Rabindranath Tagore

Cochlea by Edward Allington

'Cochlea' by Edward Allington

The Process of Objectification

"River", for instance, is an object-oriented abstraction, a nominal designation, that communicates nothing about the nature of rivers unless the person has already experienced a range of "river" for themselves and can make the connection between the name and those various experiences. A more process-oriented analogue, such as "water-singing-on-the-rocks", is an evocation of the experience of an aspect of the nature of rivers, more specific in the image it evokes, more multidimensional, analogical and auditory, and ultimately more faithful to the experience being communicated, but without apparent reference to any perceived entity (object) of which that singing water is part.

It might be tempting, from the perspective of an object-oriented outlook, to perceive object-orientation as an evolution of process-orientation and hence superior in some way, yet closer examination shows it to be no more than a shuffle around the popup launcher icon elephant. For instance, "river" might appear to have the advantage of economy in communication, but if it then becomes necessary to qualify it with a description of exactly what aspect of "river" is being referred to (eg. "a shallow hill stream with a rocky bed"), any economy is illusory. It might also seem to be taking a broader view of things by placing the water in a wider context, but within the context of the continuous unbroken cyclical flow of the Earth's water between ocean and atmosphere, "river" seems no less an arbitrary and contingent designation (see drawing left) as "water-singing-on-the-rocks" might seem at first glance in relation to "river"; approximate and valid only within certain parameters, much as Newtonian physics remains within the context of quantum mechanics and Chaos theory. Indeed, "water" contextualised in this way reveals itself as a perfectly adequate term encapsulating the whole, the specific part, and the cyclical process, potentially rendering "river" somewhat redundant. Process-oriented descriptions are more primitive (= prime, primal), and less sophisticated (= removed from nature) than our own object-oriented ones, but to use either primitive or unsophisticated in any kind of derogatory sense merely displays an unjustified linguistic chauvinism. As R Buckminster Fuller said, "I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe." (1)

Since quantum mechanics (not to mention the esoteric traditions of the world's religions) have demonstrated that process, rather than objects as things-in-themselves, forms the underpinnings of the workings of the universe, object-oriented languages, with their preponderance of nouns and the visually-keyed conceptual primacy given to them and to linear relationships between them, are at a disadvantage. The very language –> thought process –> language feedback loop itself presents an obstacle to realising a true reflection of reality. Note that it took a discipline with a different principal language – mathematics – to break out of the strictures of visually-biased linear unidimensional object-orientation and reveal the underlying process, and that the persistent bias in our everyday language has meant that the findings of quantum mechanics have singularly failed to make much impact on mass consciousness and consensus views of "reality" despite nearly a century in currency.

I See ...

Process being primary, it becomes axiomatic that object-orientation is itself a process, even if one that we're largely unaware of. It has to do with our disproportionate reliance on the sense of vision. The eye instantly distinguishes between 'self' and 'other' (paleo-linguists have noted the direct relationship between the words for 'eye' and 'I' in a large number of languages throughout the world (3)). It objectifies 'things' outside of itself because that's what it's designed to perceive. It focuses in straight lines.

Visually-biased linear logical thinking is superbly suited to the mechanics of the application of will. It's a doing, achieving, acting type of thinking. It works flawlessly in closed inanimate systems with limited sets of conditions, variables and parameters; the sort of situations predominating in our man-made environment. And it appears to work with tolerable approximation in our interactions with our natural environment; at least well enough enough of the time for us to dismiss the times it doesn't as being of limited relevance.

Linear thinking is, however, incongruent with the natural world. It's hopelessly inadequate and ill-suited to modelling complex open animate systems – living processes, the workings of nature, the experience of life itself. Natural processes don't move in straight lines, but curves, circles and spirals. Even objectified, the topology of life's surfaces features curves, not straight lines, so utilising linear logic to try to model the nature of life can only ever glance tangentially off the surface of the "object" of study. Hence we rarely hit the mark, and our rational conclusions – the end of the line of thought – end up somewhere out in the middle of nowhere completely disconnected from what it is we're trying to understand. The geometry of natural proportion does not resolve to nice whole numbers or even anything anywhere close. Irrational numbers are the cornerstone of nature's constructions so it follows that irrational thought processes are necessary to accurately model their workings.

... Red

The differentiation of an aspect of experience from the whole, and the objectification and naming of it, is the process by which it acquires an apparent autonomous existence. A name pins it down, separates it, delineates it; and, if we're not careful, brings it to a standstill where it remains, static, no longer "in the flow" or part of any ongoing process. The extent of this conceptual separation owes much to the visual sense which perceives discrete entities to a far greater extent than the auditory sense, so it's perhaps no surprise that the characteristic nature of the process falls within the visible spectrum.

This process of differentiation and naming is coloured red. Red is distinctive, distinguished, distinguishing, arresting. It's the colour of beginnings and ends, births and deaths, cardinals, red letter days, underlinings, borderlines, boundaries and the breaching of those boundaries, and stop signs. It's the colour of love and the colour of hate; magnetic, attracting or repelling. It's the surge of strength when we see red, both literally and metaphorically. The colour of copper (Venus) reduced and iron (Mars) oxidised, where feminine and masculine principles meet and merge in the red flames of passion.

"Red was the very first colour to be designated by name in virtually all primitive languages – the name of Adam, the first man, means, according to ancient Hebrew tradition, both 'alive' and 'red' – and the colour most used in primitive and classical art." (4)

While being initially the means by which we acquire our unique individuality, 'aliveness' and vibrancy, the process of reddening as expressed through the languages of the "civilised" world, with their object-oriented focus, have come to define and refine an increasingly fragmented world of things, each of which acquires the status of an individual entity, separate and distinct from all other entities. Process is seen as subsidiary, describing a transient series of linear and unidirectional local relationships between enduring things. Yet the fundamental reality modelled in more primitive process-oriented languages, in the texts of ancient religious philosophies (predominantly in the East, but also in the esoteric branches of Western religion), and in the equations of quantum mechanics, is one where thingness emerges as a subsidiary, relative, contingent and transitory product of enduring multi-dimensional and non-local process – much as the sounds of individual instruments can be momentarily distinguished within an orchestral movement – in which resonance, vibration, is key.

Object-oriented languages and their accompanying modes of thought have powered the rise of civilisation and developed through it, providing a currency in which to trade all manner of artefacts, structures, organisations and entities external to the self. They are the languages of exchange, this for that; of practical cooperation, of mechanics and technology, of function and form, of the external material world, held together only by laws and axioms describing the parameters within which things may be permitted to interact with other things. In defining the world in these terms, they have come to shape the world in these terms, and in doing so preserve a profoundly fragmented and largely uncomprehending view in which the whole has no part.

Our knowledge has come to be represented in a never ending list of autonomous specialities, each of which are jealously guarded by their priestly "experts" who preside over storehouses of objectified "facts", ensuring that only those adhering to the prescribed rubric-marshalled path can be red-carpeted over the threshold as "authorised" commentators on the subject of how those facts relate to one another and what meanings are permitted to be derived from them. Non-compliance gets the red card. Overstep the boundaries and everyone sees red.

It's surely no accident either that our increasing tendency in western society to "see red" correlates with an increasing visual dominance in our perception and thought, and an increasing tendency to worship at the altar of objectivity.

"Aristotle long ago observed that 'the blind are more understanding that the deaf because hearing exerts a direct influence on the formation of moral character, which is not immediately true of what is seen. The human soul can also become diffused by way of the eye whereas what is heard results in focus and concentration.'

"Modern psychologists and neurologists confirm that very finding. A psychiatrist who first worked in a home for the deaf and dumb and then in an institution for the blind – and wishes to remain anonymous because of the personal nature of what follows – reports:

""It was a relief to come to the home for the blind. The institution for the deaf and dumb erupted with aggressions. You wouldn't believe what those people did to one another. How they were constantly charged with anger and fury. How murderous their looks were. The blind were much more reserved, cautious, ready to help, and sensitive, and tried much more intensely to understand and accept their fellows."" (5)

We have turned the world into a gigantic department store (in more ways than one), and relate to it accordingly, and in doing so have almost completely lost sight of the underlying life processes which precipitate the entire edifice into existence in the first place, all the while unconsciously continuing to fragment it into ever more self-made and self-maintained entities with all the characteristics of the living system they ultimately reflect. As above, so below. While the underlying process itself is an essential part of the nature of existence in relatively individualised form, our accounts are not in balance; we've overdrawn the boundaries and run too far into the red. We've tied ourselves up in red tape until we can no longer move.

As David Bohm pointed out at the beginning of his 1980 book, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, "It is especially important to consider this question today, for fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual; and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them." (6)

Eve's apple was surely a red one.

Yet red is the Hebrew colour of God as well as the Christian colour of Satan, and 'evil' is only 'live' back to front and inside out; a consequence of reading things in the Mirror without realising it's a mirror that's being looked in. Balance and a sensitivity to the full spectrum – and not just the visual spectrum but the entire spectrum of vibration – rather than a shift to a different area of the palette seems to be called for. That would just be a shuffle round to a different part of the elephant, after all. Better dead than red? Ah no. In nature red is a mostly hidden colour, running underground in ferrous soils beneath a cover of vegetation, bursting outward riotously, vibrant and intense, only in brief outcroppings, flowerings and fruitings, or else running in threads beneath skin, scales, fur and feathers. Exceptions are the great red deserts, but deserts do not support a great amount or variety of other life and Mars has so far proved barren.

The world is becoming a redder place. Hardly surprising then that it seems to us to be warming up. Whether humankind's role in the reddening is volitional or just part and parcel of something bigger, symptomatic of a trend or fluctuation within the consciousness of Gaia itself, is anyone's guess. In any case, it's not our industrial processes and way of life that are fundamental to our role in global warming, but the thinking behind them. A greater consciousness of invisible process and less conceptual emphasis on substance and linear relationship would seem to be key. If we want to truly understand life process, then we need to model our thinking on the nature of the process itself. Our organ of hearing, the cochlea, is spiral in shape, and it's in listening, deeply, attentively and ana-logically, to the stories we tell ourselves, that we come closest to understanding the process. The texts of the great religions teach by analogy; a fact that's been widely missed, even when the analogy (eg. in the Christian New Testament parables) is blazingly obvious.

Ultimately, all experience of life can only be described in terms of a subjective "sensation as if ..." since we have no means of experiencing life but through the filter of our own individual existence, and no means of communicating the nature of that experience except by analogical reference to experiences we can share.

You could argue that our rigid clinging to the illusion of permanence is really just a psychological reaction to our mortality, a vicarious wish-fulfilment projected onto the world, in some vain attempt to quieten a deep-seated existential angst. Regardless of its origins, the essential fact is that it's a predominantly illusory perspective, and for as long as it persists, we fail to appreciate the nature of the world as it is.


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(1) Buckminster Fuller, R, Agel, Jerome and Fiore, Quentin. 1970. I Seem to be a Verb. Bantam Books. (↑)
(2) Drawing after G Wagner in Schwenk, Theodor. 1996. Sensitive Chaos (p76). Rudolf Steiner Press. (↑)
(3) Berendt, Joachim-Ernst. 1985. The Third Ear: On Listening to the World. Henry Holt & Co, New York. (↑)
(4) Theroux, Alexander. 1994. The Primary Colours. Macmillan Publishers Ltd, London. (↑)
(5) Berendt, op cit. (↑)
(6) Bohm, David. 1980. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Routledge, London & New York. (↑)

Postscript. This March/April 2008 Orion magazine article, The Failure of Names by artist James Proseck, touches on the subject from another angle.


© W Howard, March 2007
General Essays | The Redness of Names
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