Sunday, October 3, 2010

Image, Sometimes?


Speaking of Taboo: perhaps the heaviest ball-and-chain around the ankles of contemporary American academics is the taboo against non-verbal learning. We with Ph.D.s are generally wary of anything that can't be explained as a 25-page article. Things like practicing Yoga, or even simply "exercising," are not thought to be a necessary part of good scholarship (and of course, fat geniuses like Voltaire and Hume make my argument shaky at best).

But I was talking to a friend (from L.A.) yesterday whose mother was a bit of a mover and shaker, apparently, in the 1960s--was even friends with Gia-Fu Feng, who was, along with Alan Watts, sort of the primary force behind the introduction of serious study of Eastern ways in California during those days. My friend mentioned the Esalen Institute. I had only vague memories of reading about the place, which is tucked away in Big Sur, almost purposely out-of-the-way, and so I read up on it. Wikipedia sayeth:
Rather than lecturing and listening to lectures, a number of leaders and participants began experimenting with what Huxley called the non-verbal humanities: the education of the body, the senses, the emotions. The intention of much of the new work was to suggest a new ethic: to develop awareness to one’s present flow of experience, to express this fully and accurately, and to listen to the feedback. The "experiential" workshops that grew out of these experiments were particularly well attended and did much to shape Esalen’s future course.
I think I'm for this kind of stuff. They do massage and other physical stuff out there. I'd like to see it make its way into academia in the next decade or so. To do this would require arguing for a renewed understanding of the relationship between physical education and what-we-call education. And of course, at the highest levels, this could work its way into a discussion about whether the format of something like "the dissertation" might be modified or even scrapped altogether: imagine, instead of a dry 300-page tome in the "objective" voice if we had 30-year olds focusing for seven years to produce something more like Carl Jung's Red Book (take a look!).

To people comfortably steeped in the 19th century any deviation from forms like dissertation writing might seem anywhere from self-indulgent to heretical. But I messed around with this kind of thinking, intuitively, while I was in graduate school: I even produced a few wild (mostly) non-verbal "teachings" with help from photoshop. They're garbage compared to Jung's, but if I had been encouraged by the institution to continue in that direction, maybe I could've produced something more.... moving?


Of course, these images are not intended as "arguments" -- the point isn't to affirm or deny their "content," but only to contemplate them. Ultimately I think it might benefit all students (not just "artists") to make an occasional effort to create objects of contemplation. This is not a purposeless endeavor; its purpose is one of the highest: to quiet the mind--to give each other practice in looking, listening.

On the other hand: I get the objection. If we are allowed too much license, then we are not sharing turf, are not agreeing to a set of rules. Jung's book is self-indulgent. I guess the question is whether it's still a kind of value that academia might encourage.

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