The Effect of Emptiness and Non-saturation

I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell. -Michael Polyani

Essay number six.  I can feel myself uncomfortably breaking through something. As before, I’m not sure what I’m going to write, but this time I feel like I’m tired.  I feel like I’m facing something hard.  Like I’m already full and now I’m going to try to take in one more thing.  But I know there is another way to approach my creative process.  To face the page as if it is empty.  To allow my mind and spirit to ease into this page. To let the starkness of it draw me towards it.

Emptiness is a great fear, and a good friend of mine.  When it comes to love, when it comes to friendship, even sometimes in my work which is so profoundly relational, I can get so scared of the silence, of the emptiness.  There is a silence that comes over a group sometimes that is the womblike, the potential, the waiting, the ground of being, but if I am losing track of myself, my physical body, my perceptual tool, in that moment I can try to fill it hastily.  To shape it and know it.  To control it.  It happens with individuals too.  A crush.  When I want something from someone, their silence can feel like a cold, steely, clamping tone.  But that is information I’m inventing. I’m creating the narrative itself, inside my own mind, to fill the silence or emptiness I perceive around me.

I notice it with creativity, too. Or maybe more precisely art-making has been the means of noticing it in the first place.  Over the years I’ve come to one practice after another to face that emptiness, to face the blankness, to face the arising.  One wonderful polymath, Michael Polyani — chemist, politician, philosopher — writes about affordances.  The question is what does an environment afford, what does it make available? When I try to force or control a situation, a crush, a workshop, or an act of art-making, I predetermine (thus limiting, or freezing) the affordances of the environment, group, materials, or relationship.  I do this by perception. By engaging with perception as if it all that can be known. I take what I can perceive as the only truth, and then I act.  But the deeper truth is that my truth is only a very skimpy, narrow, slice of the whole. When I reach the point of facing the abyss, the silence of a moment or of a page, and then take my own silence in front of it, something present in the environment but not necessarily available to my senses (or sometimes, necessarily unavailable) can appear.

Polyani writes that we can know more than we can tell.  He calls this subception.  And it can be honed. It’s not that I make myself helpless or passive in the face of the emptiness.  It’s that I make myself open to what he calls a tacit dimension by applying a skill called subception.  I access subception by allowing one sense or tool to stand in the place of another, to displace my proximity to knowledge, and thereby reach into meaningful meaninglessness and this emergent, tacit dimension.

For example, as I’m writing this essay I am applying myself (my body and its senses) to the movement and rhythm of typing.  That is what is pushing me into the moment, and remaining present as it dissolves and becomes the next moment. My mind stays open, listening, and receptive and my hands, which are at a remove from the ideas that are appearing on the page, are in relationship to the keyboard.  That relationship is availing itself of affordances (in this case words and ideas) that I would not have been able to perceive if I were trying.

Since the end of 2014 I have been applying this technique to a very long series of drawings.  I’m calling the style surrealist automatism, but it can be looked at in this way, as well.  That the impulse is not the suppression of control of the gesture in order to release an automatic and more primary gesture wherein unintended but coherent images can appear, but instead (or also) that the gesture and the relationship of the pen to the paper, and the pen to my hand, the pen as the mediator of the relationship between my hand and my paper, help me to avail myself of affordances that are emerging from the mind.  Emerging.  Not already present, but through the action itself, they appear in the environment in such a way as they become perceptible to me, where before they were not.

It’s my understanding that this kind of facing of emptiness, of breathability (which is a word I’m relearning as I continue to read Francois Jullien’s The Great Image Has No Form), of non-saturation is a way of accessing unknown resources that can be at a seeming far remove from the actions themselves.  For example, these drawings seem to be creating a world of their own.  Shows, publications, management, all kinds of unknown boons (affordances) are appearing that I would not have thought of bringing forth.  With my poetry, which I have been much more systematic in both writing and publishing, there is not this seemingly magical aspect of emergence, of something new that exists on a plane that is not where the original actions are occurring.

Last week I said I refused to write about the current political climate on this continent.  I look at the blogosphere, the social media, the news and all I hear is this.  Even the fashion magazines are full of DT and the circus of disbelief.  So, while I’m no longer in the state of chest-tightening anxiety I was last week (it was the Ste-Foy shooting that pushed me over the edge; too close to home) I won’t contribute here to the roaring noise. I would, however, like to link this notion of emptiness and non-saturation to a discussion of resistance tactics.

A few days ago I was in Toronto and I went with a friend to a rally in front of the US Embassy.  There were, I think, maybe five thousand people there.  Impressive for a weekday morning in Toronto.  There is a lot of feeling, there were a lot of signs.  There was a lot of angry shouting from the podium,  a diatribe about colonialism, racism and loudly shouted narratives of identity and justice. Fair enough, considering the immigration ban at hand. The gathering seemed coherent in its way.  There were calls and response, the crowd was connected, mobbish, but not moved, not motivated.

Einstein wrote that we cannot solve our problems on the same level of thinking that created them. The anger and hurt, the offense and militarization of consciousness at the rally is the same level of thinking that brought all these people together in the first place. It’s not that they are the same thoughts.  They are the opposite thoughts, but they are created in the same level of simplicity/complexity as one another. They exist in a world together. An emergent property is something that belongs to the tacit dimension. Beyond. An emergent property could not be perceived or grasped at the level of simplicity from which is arises. In looking at the ways we want to respond at a demonstration or a rally, we could ask, with all these energies here, what wants to emerge?  What might emerge?  What is emerging?

I’m suggesting here that the access to that tacit dimension, the solution and responses that we have not yet perceived or conceived, comes from being willing to face emptiness and non-saturation.  It take emotional resilience to do it. That is, it gets to fucking scary and then you stay and face it and it gets worse.  But you stay, without becoming a victim, but growing a skin, like bark, and knowing that the rings of time are in you, and no one will know until you are chopped down, but you know.  You know that the facing of yourself to yourself is the same as facing a blank page.  I’ve been very personal in these last essays, and here I’m going to do it again.  I am enjoying merging the things I’m thinking of and the books I’m reading with my emotions, struggles and life stories.  But I’m not choosing it.  In order to get these essays to work in the ninety minutes I allot them, I have to trust the shifting, laden air between my fingers and the keyboard to draw out emergent and subceptive ideas and concepts.

For as long as I can remember I have had trouble in romantic love. That most troublesome thing! I know I’m not the only one.  (I’m looking at you, anyone.) This thing about silence has haunted me there, ghosts not only of my own childhood, but I suspect they are ancestral ways of knowing the world and of working to make it make sense in whatever way is possible. Ghostly contortions. For me, that has taken the form of control. And especially, as I mentioned above, of controlling silence.  That might be auditory silence, or it may be the kind of active silence, which isn’t to be heard but only felt.  That not-knowingness.  I have wanted to control. To know. To force.  And it never works.  It only gives me solutions on the scale and complexity of my problems.  That is, in this case, to create more problems. But the drawings, the process of drawing, also of writing at different times, and of freestyling, but somehow especially these drawings, they have built a strong muscle in me, a skillfulness that is slowly ripening, of being able to face that emptiness. It was tested in the month of December past, where I suddenly and without warning experienced a month-long silence. With a crush (a crush. What a word. Laden with shame, and frivolity, but it never feels like either, does it? It feels like a waterfall, like body surfing, like fire walking). And I was able, for the first time, to hold myself back from controlling. For the very first time.  I had to sit on my hands, I filled two entire journals.  I stayed in bed.  I became very ill.  But I did not attempt to control the situation.  And then, after the third week, suddenly it hatched.  The silence. Itself.  It hatched in my consciousness, in my body.  There, in the environment was a brand new affordance. Like the action of my drawings, this non-action unleashed a new world.  In this case, a new sense of freedom and self-possession, a kind of regal inner shape I’d never noticed, and one to which I thought I could feel my day-to-day world responding.  At the level of the problem, I was feeling small, contracted, unloved. At the new level of complexity, I felt protected and protective; worthy.

Why do I share this? Certainly not to say don’t rally, don’t protest, don’t demonstrate.  We should and we will.  But to say, what is the impulse that keeps us on the same level of thinking as what created the problem?  What could we do to break into that fortress of “it’s always been this way” and hatch?

I remember the Vancouver Occupy Wall Street gathering, the first day, in front of the art gallery. I’d been vaguely following the movement, but was working in India, and not tracking it all very carefully. However, I was in Vancouver for the first day of action, and I was compelled to see what was happening.  I got my V for Vendetta mask from my friend Madlove and slipped into the crowd with my cardboard sign that read “What Gives?” When I got there, the crowd was four thousand, there was a mic and a long line up of speakers who sounded very much in tone and spirit like the ones I heard in Toronto three days ago. There was no moderator, no facilitator, just this long line of vitriol. After some time, there were some breakout meeting scheduled, and I went to one. I forget the topic.  About twenty people were on the gallery’s back stairs.  There were other such groups all over the grounds.   The conversation was awful.  One man who was waving two very large red flags interrupted everything anyone said.  The person hosting the discussion was just trying to ignore him.  I offered to keep a speaker’s list and some semblance of order appeared.  There was meant to be a general meeting for all four thousand plus afterwards. An acquaintance I knew was part of organizing the whole thing had witnessed that simple little facilitation tool and came up and asked if I would convene the general meeting.  In five minutes.  The sun had gone down and the area was lit with flood lights.  I said I would open it, but that I didn’t know enough about what was happening to any more than that. I opened the gathering by asking people to do an exercise we call milling.  Like flour.  Mixing.  I had them walk around, then stand back to back with someone they didn’t know, then turn to that person and tell them why they had come today.  After doing it a few times, we began to teach the crowd techniques to communicate with hand gestures.  They came to eight points of organizing consensus (when to meet again, how to make the gatherings accessible, how to arrange transportation, how to communicate online etc.).

It’s one way to bring out affordances.  To face that emptiness of not knowing the other, not knowing the people in the crowd, to take the facelessness of the crowd and face it with a tool that is not originary to that crowd until it hatches.

I think that this does not only apply to rallies, but to any time we are wondering and looking for ways to be active and political.  To let the moment not be fully saturated with control, with form, with pigment. To allow it to breathe.  To let it be love, to let it emerge.  To let the silence deepen until I realize that inside any moment all I have to face is myself.  And that myself is full of endless content, endless insight, endless beauty, endless inspiration.  Myself is my environment. The tacit knowledge, the new world that the chick hatches into, we reach that by what Polyani calls indwelling.  Dwelling within the self. Within the silence.  Allowing a moment to breathe.  Allowing it to unfold into complexities that embrace the unknown, the new, and the beyond.

Having written this, I can’t help but laugh.  I just wrote an essay on the importance of feeling like I don’t want to write an essay.  In releasing the control of that feeling, by facing it and fully feeling it, by moving into the emptiness and the rhythm of not-knowing, I feel a satisfaction now, on this side. I’m happy to see the word count, curious to reread and wondering what kind of sense and non-sense have emerged.


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