20th August 2016 am – A 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 2 (am)

This is the third in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my first two posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment


Time and Space (What can the hemispheres tell us about the basic structure of reality in relation to time and space?)

This is one of the topics that Iain is currently working on (see my last post for the others). Iain had so much to say about this that ultimately this session was about ‘time’ – there was very little time or space for ‘space’😉

Time is full of paradoxes, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. Iain thinks they illuminate the view of the two hemispheres. These time paradoxes were first noticed by the Ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC when they started to use more analytical tools which conflicted with other sources of reality.

Some examples of paradoxes of time are (see also p.137-140, The Master and his Emissary):

The Sorites Paradox

If one grain of sand is not a heap of sand, and two grains of sand do not make a heap of sand, but thousands of grains of sand make up a heap, which grain of sand determines that the grains of sand now make a heap? For the right hemisphere the heap is not a sharply defined category, but a matter of degree; it is a process rather than a thing.

Theseus’ Paradox

If Theseus’ ship is frequently repaired, each time restoring rotten wood with new timbers, then when the ship no longer has any of the original timbers, is it still the same ship? If you think of the ship as a sum of its parts then it isn’t the original ship. But if you think of the ship as a whole, then it is.

Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, which is very well explained in this website . See also William James’ explanation (p.52)

Leave Achilles and the tortoise out of the account altogether, he [Bergson] would have said—they complicate the case unnecessarily. Take any single process of change whatever, take the twenty seconds themselves elapsing. If time be infinitely divisible, and it must be so on intellectualist principles, they simply cannot elapse, their end cannot be reached; for no matter how much of them has already elapsed, before the remainder, however minute, can have wholly elapsed, the earlier half of it must first have elapsed. And this ever re−arising need of making the earlier half elapse first leaves time with always something to do before the last thing is done, so that the last thing never gets done.

Zeno’s arrow paradox

‘An arrow fired at a target cannot move, because, at any one moment, the arrow is either where it is, or it is where it is not. If it remains where it is, then it must be standing still, but if it moves where it is not, it can’t be there. So it cannot move at all.‘ (p.138. The Master and his Emissary).

William Blake wrote

William Blake

Source of image

These paradoxes illustrate how the left hemisphere’s take on reality conflicts with the right hemisphere’s take.

Iain’s talk then moved to Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides in the 5th century BC thought that reality is an illusion, motionless and changeless. (I find this a helpful site – The Timeless Infinite Universe  – for more information on Parmenides). But for Iain, it is Heraclitus, one of his ‘favourite’ philosophers, who seems to ‘have grasped the essence of the balance between the hemispheres, while remaining aware of the primacy of the right hemisphere’ (p.270, The Master and his Emissary). For Heraclitus everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary). ‘One cannot step twice into the same river’. This of course relates to the left and right hemispheres’ views of the world.

Failure to take into account context, inability to understand Gestalt forms, an inappropriate demand for precision where none can be found, an ignorance of process, which becomes a never-ending series of static moments: these are signs of left hemisphere predominance.’ (p.139, The Master and his Emissary)

The left hemisphere orders points in time and tries to fix it, but our sense of time as duration is entirely dependent on the right hemisphere. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) pointed out that there are two words for time in French – temps and durer – fixed time and duration. Time can be conceived and represented as something that has points in it, and it can be measured, but only retrospectively. Alternatively time flows. In this conception you can’t capture or measure it. You can’t capture movement or motion, you can only capture still frames. The projector gives you the motion.

moving hand

Image from Iain McGilchrist slide presentation

At this point Iain also talked about extension in space. He lost me on this and even looking it up and with a one-to-one explanation from Iain himself, I do not fully understand it, but I think that the The Timeless Infinite Universe site is helpful with this too. The bit I understand better is about ‘infinite divisibility’ because I remember doing a maths problem based on this when on a 20 day maths course for teachers, which just goes to show the value of embodied experience in learning.

Infinite divisibility refers to the idea that extension, or quantity, when divided and further divided infinitely, cannot reach the point of zero quantity. It can be divided into very small or negligible quantity but not zero or no quantity at all. Using a mathematical approach, specifically geometric models, Gottfried Leibniz and Descartes discussed the infinite divisibility of extension. Actual divisibility may be limited due to unavailability of cutting instruments, but its possibility of breaking into smaller pieces is infinite.

I also found this fun website – Why you can’t divide by zero.

I think the point that Iain was making is that this type of breaking down and analysis is a retrograde step. You can’t have motion without time and space and vice versa. Time and change and space are all bound together.

Iain then talked at some length about the experiences of time and space of people with right or left hemisphere damage. People with right hemisphere stroke will, when having a shower, see not a flow of water but separate drops of water with extreme clarity. People with left hemisphere stroke will see the water flowing more powerfully than before. Jason Padgett describes this experience of seeing parts rather than the whole and losing the fluidity of motion after his own brain damage.

We need both types of hemisphere vision to see something. The left hemisphere vision effect is to slow things down, but in reality there is no ceasing of motion and continuity cannot be composed of discrete objects even if there is an infinity of them. Precision is always an approximation. At what point do you see something precisely? We spatialise time in the left hemisphere and put points on it, but in reality there are no points. As soon as you say ‘now’ it’s no longer ‘now’. The past and future take place in your ‘now’.

Life is a narrative but you can lose this with right hemisphere damage. If you don’t have an understanding of flow, then you don’t have a narrative. Narrative is how we make sense of evidence and the right hemisphere needs to be involved. All living things and inanimate things flow. Flow is an unpredictable, generative force which when obstructed gives incredible patterns. Interestingly I recently heard this talked about in a seminar about the Shape of Air by Bronislaw Szerszynski, Reader in Sociology, Lancaster University, who wrote …..

The air is at once familiar and mysterious, and we can explore the intertwining of these two characteristics by thinking about the ‘shape’ of the air. There are many reasons why it is hard to conceive of air as having shape: because the air is more or less invisible to our eyes; because it is not a discrete object that we can stand alongside but a continuous medium that we inhabit; and because it is a constantly moving fluid that fills space and seems to have no external or internal boundaries of its own.

…. and showed us some amazing images of the patterns that air can make when obstructed.

Flow cannot and does not separate out parts. There are no slices of experience, time or space. Analytic thought can drive out intuitive observation. In flow you don’t notice time passing, you are flowing with time at the same speed.

Schizophrenia and autism, although there are many types, are conditions of right hemisphere damage. Iain suggested that autism is primarily a disorder of time, bound up with a sense of reality, flow and self. Absence of flow through right hemisphere damage can also be manifest in the body and patients with right hemisphere damage may lose fluid motion and become jerky in their physical movement and thought. Schizophrenics sometimes speak of themselves as being machines or robots. Interestingly more men than women tend to be on the extreme ends of the autism spectrum and many great analytical philosophers have been on the autism spectrum.

And for those of us in the latter years of our lives, why does time speed up as we get older? Iain suggested some reasons for this. Affect may be one reason; affect associated with the past and the future. For older people the past may be highly charged with meaning and we may be fearful of the future, so we want to hold on to the past. When we are older we are less good at allowing ourselves to be absorbed because we keep an eye on time passing. Ideally we would sustain a position of being in flow, when we would not notice time passing, but would be flowing with time at the same speed.

Personal reflection

A look in the index of the Master and his Emissary to find references to time and space reveals that there is a lot more to the relationship between time and space and the hemispheres than we discussed on the course. This was a difficult session to follow and it has been hard to make sense of my notes. I don’t have a background in metaphysics and many of the ideas and language were completely new to me. But at a basic level, I can see that an understanding of time and space as flow or fixed points must affect our perception of reality.

The main message for me has been the reminder of the importance of the state of flow, where we are not distracted by constant interruptions, where time is not broken into points. In my life ‘flow’ free of distractions is a luxury I don’t often experience!

Authors/people referred to during the session

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

William James (1909) – A Pluralistic Universe

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

This is the second in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course – Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist .

Here is a link to the first post. An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1.


19th August 2016 pm – An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2 (Embodied beings: language, thought, emotion, spirituality – and the brain, of course)

500,000 years ago man lived in social groups but how did he communicate? Language developed 80-40,000 years ago and written language developed 4000 years ago. So it can’t have been through speech.

There are two important things for speech, control of breathing and control of the tongue. Apes can do neither, but birds can control breathing which enables them to sing.

Whilst language is associated with both hemispheres (but it has different meanings in each hemisphere; an analogy is the paint box, left hemisphere and the picture, right hemisphere – p.99 the Master and his Emissary), there is every reason to suppose that language emerged from music, from the right hemisphere and that in infants language starts in the right hemisphere. New-born children communicate through music (squeals, howls, repetition, rhythm) and also through the face. Babies learn their mother’s voice in the womb and pay attention after birth to stories that were read to them in the womb.

But plenty of animals communicate without language (whales and dolphins), and even some human groups can communicate without language. For example, whistled Turkish is still used to communicate across valleys.

We don’t need language for communication or thinking, as evidenced by crows that can perform sequential reasoning tasks (see this post about last year’s course – Two types of language ) and pigeons can distinguish between Monet and Picasso.

Left hemisphere stroke sufferers, who lose the power of speech are still able to communicate and do quite complicated reasoning such as needed for solving mathematical puzzles.

Robin Dunbar argued that the development of language was related to the inability to sustain communication through manual grooming, which we see in apes and other animals, as populations grew in size. We need language to administer large groups and to give us boundaries.

Whilst Dunbar’s research has been criticised, it supports Iain’s view that there is a close link between language and the hand, a strong connection between language and the body and that the whole of experience is, at some level, embodied.

Understanding is related to grasping, ‘grasping the meaning’. As we know, we can get meaning from ‘body language’. We also get meaning from metaphor. Language links us to the world through metaphor. It is not insignificant that Iain chose a metaphor for the title of his book. We use metaphor to talk about experience. Every word we have is rooted in the body. Meaning is always contextual and embodied, never detached and thinking is a deeply embodied process because it is related to action. It is about our relationship with the world. Language grows in us. Thinking is an aspect of the way we attend to the world and in most languages there are two words for knowing, which each has a different root in experience.

The right hemisphere is more attuned to spiritual experience, which is rooted in the body, involves bodily practices and integrates emotion with thought. (See Charles Foster – Wired for God. The Biology of Spiritual Experience). All thought originates in the right hemisphere and is processed in the left.

Iain also talked about thinking in last year’s course.

This year he seems to have put greater emphasis on thinking as an embodied process and perhaps we shall see why when his forthcoming books are published, which according to his profile in our course booklet will include:

  • a critique of contemporary society and culture from the standpoint of neuropsychology;
  • a study of the paintings of subjects with schizophrenia;
  • a series of essays about culture and the brain with subjects from Andrew Marvell to Serge Gainsbourgh;
  • a short book of reflections on spiritual experience.

For the rest of the session Iain talked about the two ways of being in the world.

  1. The way of the left hemisphere is the way of certainty where things are cut off from the environment, static, fixed, known and abstracted – a representation of the world.
  2. The way of the right hemisphere is where things are complex, uncertain, fluid, changing wholes (which does not mean anything goes) – a more real world.

From the Ancient Greeks to the early Renaissance, we have seen the rise and fall of civilization in the West three times, each time associated with flowering of both hemispheres in balance followed by left hemisphere dominance. This is laid out in detail in the second part of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary.

Iain believes that we are now in a hall of mirrors; we have cut ourselves off from what would lead us back into the right hemisphere:

  • the natural world – the ‘space’ offered by nature
  • culture – which used to be embodied and passed on in folk wisdom, but mobilisation changed this
  • the body, which is treated like a machine
  • art – twentieth century art has abandoned its role to play clever games
  • religion – which has become very left hemisphere dominated or abandoned all together.

Some of us had an interesting discussion on the third day about conceptual art, which Iain does not appreciate! He feels that art does not need text and should not need to be articulated. For him it should be visceral and embodied. My own perspective is that whether or not art is visceral can only be judged by the viewer and maybe for some people, conceptual art can evoke a visceral response. It may also depend on how you define conceptual art. A Google search for conceptual artists includes Marina Abramović. Her work can evoke a visceral response in me as can some architecture.

Iain closed this session by saying that a left hemisphere dominated world looks bleak. It involves

  • loss of the broader picture
  • knowledge replaced by information, tokens or representations
  • loss of concepts of skill and judgment
  • abstraction and reification
  • bureaucracy (Berger):
    • procedures that are known
    • anonymity
    • organisability
    • predictability
    • justice reduced to mere equality
    • explicit abstraction
  • loss of the sense of uniqueness
  • quantity the only criterion
  • ‘either/or’
  • reasonableness replaced by rationality
  • failure of common sense
  • systems designed to maximise utility
  • loss of social cohesion
  • depersonalisation
  • paranoia and lack of trust
  • need for total control
  • anger and aggression
  • the passive victim
  • art conceptual
    • visual art lacks a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives
    • music would be reduced to little more than rhythm
    • language diffuse, excessive, lacking in concrete referents
  • deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder
  • flow just the sum of an infinite series of ‘pieces’
  • discarding of tacit forms of knowing
    • ‘network of small complicated rules’
  • spectators rather than actors
  • dangerously unwarranted optimism

(Source of text in this list – Iain McGilchrist presentation slide. See also another post I made after hearing Iain talk in Edinburgh – The Divided Brain – Implications for Education).

This bleak view of a left hemisphere dominated world is outlined in detail in the conclusion of his book, The Master Betrayed, p.428-462.

Personal reflection

This session resonates with some work on embodied learning I did with my colleagues Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau, in which we explored learning, perception and action through the senses, with particular reference to synesthesia. In one of the ‘cases’ that we discuss in the published paper a child on the autism spectrum responds with his whole body to the colour purple.  In another, we discuss how infant children in Montessori classrooms engage in embodied learning to explore mathematical patterns. I think if you have worked with infant children (which I have) or children on the autism spectrum (which I have but not as a teacher, only as a researcher and observer) then the idea of embodied learning is very familiar. At what point in our education system does embodied learning become less important and why? Perhaps we spend too much time talking and not enough time making enough use of all the senses we have.

On a separate point, it is interesting that the bleak view of the left hemisphere’s world was presented as a bullet-point list, whereas the right hemisphere’s view of the world was presented with an image of a coral reef (see the first post in this series). Iain did not use many slides for this course and when he did use them they were usually images. This was the only session in which we were presented with a list. The bullet points seem to make the listed content even more bleak and of course they make a point, the point! But whilst this day ended with this pessimistic view, the overall message was thought-provoking rather than depressing.

Authors/people referred to during the session

Charles Foster (2010) Wired for God. The Biology of Spiritual Experience

Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

David McNeill’s work on thought, gesture and language.

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2015).  Synesthesia: from cross-modal to modality-free learning and knowledge.  Leonardo Journal 

During this course, run by Field & FieldIain McGilchrist spoke to us twice a day, for an hour and a half at the start of the day and an hour and three quarters in the late afternoon, although these times were flexible and usually ran over. He also ate with us and had coffee with us, as well as making himself available during the day for discussion and questions. He was very generous with his time.

I tried to take comprehensive notes of his talks, although he speaks fast, sometimes reads and doesn’t always use slides, so it wasn’t easy. Perhaps he would say, as one of the participants said to me, it is enough to be in the experience, we don’t need to record everything. Last year I had a similar discussion with a close friend about taking photos and blogged about it then – Photography and ‘Living in the Moment’.

For me, I want to make sense of the course. For this I need to remember and reflect on what Iain has said and I have a terrible memory, so note taking is essential for my understanding, which does not come immediately but later with reflection and further study. I like to think that my poor memory is not due to right or left brain hemisphere damage but who knows ☺

So this is the first in a series of blog posts that I will make about what I have heard and learned. I did this last year. These were the posts I made then. So this is the second time I have attended this course. To repeat what I wrote last year, these posts should not be read as what Iain said, but as what I think he said, i.e. my interpretation. Every one of the 40 participants will have heard something different. We each attend to the world from our own perspective, from our own right and left hemispheres. If you are reading this post and have a different perspective, I would welcome your comment. The course was highly stimulating and I loved the discussion between participants, so it would be great to continue this.

Now to write about the first session.

19th August 2016 am – An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

This first session covered an introduction to the divided brain and a discussion of why hemisphere differences matter (in particular asymmetry – front and back, top and bottom, side to side), some current understandings and misunderstandings.

The session was similar to last year’s Day 1. I noted some of the same content, but also some differences.

Perhaps it would be good to start by reiterating something Iain said frequently throughout the course and that is that we always use both hemispheres of the brain for everything, but each hemisphere contributes something different – so, for example, it would be wrong to say that creativity or emotion are functions of the right hemisphere only.

An analogy for the functions of the left and right hemispheres is your glasses and your eyes. Your eyes (your right hemisphere) are more important than your glasses (your left hemisphere). If you wear your glasses with your eyes shut, then your glasses serve no function at all and you see nothing; but if you don’t wear your glasses and have your eyes open, then you can’t see properly.


Source of image

Although I attended this course last year and have followed Iain McGilchrist’s work for a number of years, and although I had seen many of his slides before (if not all of them), I still came away with a sense of having learned more.

An image of a coral reef, like the one above, was the first slide we were shown. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the universe doesn’t work by the law of parsimony. It is not tidy nor ordered, but chaotic, super abundant and filled with a multiplicity of differential being. This is the world of the right hemisphere. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and this is what Iain realised on leaving school that he had not been taught. At that time a number of propositions that he held true seemed to be in opposition to what was being taught. He was being taught that the world is inert, but he knew it to be deeply responsive. He was being told that progress is linear, but he knew it to be circular; we arrive back at the place just above where we started. As a teacher I am reminded of Bruner’s work on the ‘spiral’ curriculum. I would also say that progress is not only circular but can be the result of multidirectional and backwards and forwards pathways, which calls into question prescriptive lockstep progression through a given curriculum and schemes of work.

At the time Iain was questioning whether progress is linear. He feels that the purpose of the intellect is not to abstract, classify and generalise, but to pursue the unique and embodied. We have to make generalisations, but categorising is not the whole story.

This interest in embodiment and mind/body relationships continued when he was studying English at Oxford under John Bayley, where Iain learned that the more you analyse something, the more you try to take something apart (e.g. literature or poetry), the more you put barriers up. Analysis is only an intermediary. We must go back to the whole, just as when learning to play a musical piece, we must ultimately forget the ‘learning to play’ in order to give the final performance. This seems to me to be an important message for researchers, i.e. don’t lose sight of the whole when steeped in data analysis.

Why do we constantly stop at the point of analysis (i.e. in the left hemisphere)? Why does so much learning appear to be disembodied, when we know, for example, that reading poetry such as Wordsworth, or listening to music, can have a physical effect, changing our pulse and breathing, making the hairs on our skin stand up? This is a mind/body problem and it was questions like these, together with further study in medicine and psychiatry and a particular interest in what happens to patients with right hemisphere damage that led Iain to spend 17 years writing his world acclaimed book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

Iain also noticed that what is implicit loses its value when made explicit and from his work in medicine and psychiatry and discussions with John Cutting  came to know that for patients with right hemisphere damage (such as schizophrenics) experience of the whole world changes. I do now wonder, retrospectively, whether trying to elicit tacit understanding through deeply reflective processes is counter productive, as by definition it makes the implicit explicit. I need to think further about this as some of my own research has focussed on eliciting tacit understanding.

But we know from Iain’s work that the reason we have left hemisphere dominance is because the Emissary (the left hemisphere) fails to return what is learned to the right hemisphere, so we have to return what we have learned by making things explicit to the right hemisphere, and not lose sight of the whole. I didn’t get a sense from the course that any of us really know how to do this, but more of this in a later post.

After this introduction to his thinking and the types of questions he is trying to answer, Iain turned his attention to the physically divided brain. The detail related to this is in the first part of his book.

The Divided Brain
We could ask why is this organ, which is all about making connections, wastefully divided? The answer lies in the need to pay two different kinds of attention to the world. To stay alive we need to eat and, at the same time, watch out for predators, i.e. we need to attend to the world in two ways. This is best illustrated by this RSA Animate video, although I think nothing will serve as a substitute for reading the book.

There was an interesting discussion later in the course about whether needing two different kinds of attention means that we have to be able to multi-task, but Iain said, no, we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time. There might be a lot going on at the periphery of our vision and attention, and our focus might rapidly change from one thing to another, but we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time.

Attention creates the world we live in. It changes the world. We can only know the world we can attend to.

The two hemispheres pay different kinds of attention, therefore it follows that the two hemispheres create two worlds. We each inhabit two worlds, which can be depicted by the Yin Yang symbol or Escher’s hands.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 18.00.55Some people don’t like the dichotomies which these images depict, but the point is that some differences are substantial. Some differences are not reductive but illuminating. We can see that Donald Trump and Einstein have more similarities than differences but it is the differences that are important, just as it is the differences between the hemispheres, rather than their similarities that are important. Iain McGilchrist sees the two hemispheres as different personalities, which have had a profound effect on the history of civilization and the making of the western world. Whilst it is important to stress that both hemispheres are involved in everything (and Iain did stress this many times), the right and left hemisphere do this differently; they have different views of the world as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 18.03.57

(Adapted from Iain McGilchrist presentation slide. See also – The Divided Brain – Implications for Education)

The purpose of Iain’s work is to elucidate and provide evidence for his concern that in the Western hemisphere the left hemisphere’s view of the world dominates our culture and through this we lose an embodied experience of the world. We need more balance. Each hemisphere’s view is necessary, but each is not as truthful. The message that Iain wants us to take from his book is that the right hemisphere’s view is more like reality.

‘The divided nature of our reality has been a consistent observation since humanity has been sufficiently self-conscious to reflect on it. That most classical representative of the modern self-conscious spirit, Goethe’s Faust, famously declared that ‘two souls, alas! Dwell in my breast’ […]. Schopenhauer described two completely distinct forms of experience […]; Bergson referred to two different orders of reality […]. Scheler described the human being as a citizen of two worlds […] and said that all great European philosophers, like Kant, who use the same formulation, had seen as much.’ (p.461-462, The Master and his Emissary).

Personal reflection
The key message for me from this session is that differences are important. This resonates because my recent research suggests that it is difficult to maintain and sustain diversity and heterogeneity in a community; communities tend towards homogeneity. This can close down the possibility for seeing alternative perspectives. It is multiplicity and difference that enrich our lives.

Authors/people referred to during the session
Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Oliver Sacks (1973) Awakenings. Vintage Books.

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

At the end of next week I will attend, for the second year running, Iain McGilchrist’s four-day course on Exploring the Divided Brain  organised by Field & Field and taking place in the Cotswolds, UK.

At the end of last year’s course, Iain talked very briefly about the implications of left hemisphere dominance for education. I know from another of Iain’s talks that I attended in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, that he is now writing a book which focuses on education – The Porcupine is a Monkey . I am hoping that we will hear more about this on this year’s course.

I have been interested in the links between Iain McGilchrist’s ideas about the Divided Brain and teaching and learning, since I was pointed to his book by Matthias Melcher (@x28de) in 2011. Matthias and I have often discussed the possible links between McGilchrist’s work and Siemens’ and Downes’ work on connectivism. As such I am hoping that the following questions might be discussed on the course next week.

If (as discussed in the book The Master and his Emissary) we are living in an age of left hemisphere dominance, then how can a left hemisphere dominant population recognise the merits of right hemisphere thinking?

A recently developed theory for education in a digital age is ‘connectivism’. This theory has been proposed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The theory posits that knowledge is in the network of connections between people, concepts and neurons, and that learning involves the creation and navigation of networked connections. In addition, Stephen Downes claims that knowledge is pattern recognition, although in a paper critiquing connectivism, Clara and Barbera have questioned how we can recognise something that we don’t already know. In what ways does the theory of connectivism align with the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain in relation to recognition and representation?

Connectivism is a theory for a digital age. Advances in technologiy increasingly focus on virtual and augmented reality and machine learning (e.g. the use of pattern recognition machines to study paintings ) Given these sorts of developments, can we say that technology can function like the right hemisphere and if so, what might be the implications for left hemisphere dominance?

Last year’s course was very thought provoking. I wrote a blog post about each of Iain’s sessions. Here are the links – The Divided Brain – A four day course with Iain McGilchrist.  I am expecting to find this year’s course equally thought-provoking.

Anna Lovatt opened the symposium on The Materiality of Nothing at Lancaster University by discussing the work of Richard Tuttle. In the programme for the day she wrote:

This paper will trace Tuttle’s career from his early engagement with the artists of the Betty Parsons Gallery (including Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly), to his scandalous retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975. I will argue that Tuttle’s pursuit of the zero degree can be understood as part of a career-long interrogation of the practice of drawing.

In a reading of her chapter in a forthcoming book Anna Lovatt interprets the materiality of nothing with reference to Richard Tuttle’s critical investigation of drawing, drawing degree zero. All the ideas in this chapter are new to me, and the chapter has not yet been published, so it has not been easy to follow this through. What follows is a personal limited understanding with a focus on the ideas which resonated with my own thinking and work.

Drawing degree zero relates to Roland Barthes ‘Writing Degree Zero’, in which Barthes was interested in creating colourless writing in the indicative mood middle zone (degree zero) distinguished from and between language and style. In a similar way Tuttle conceived line (the drawn line) as being in an in between zone of absence and emptiness that has little to do with signature or autobiography.

In the ‘60s when Tuttle was exploring these ideas drawing was being dismissed by artists such as Pollock and Rothko and an exhibition of his minimalist work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975 drew heavy criticism from the art critic Hilton Kramer, who wrote that if less is often considered to be more then ‘in Mr Tuttle’s work, less is unmistakably less… One is tempted to say, where art is concerned, less has never been as less than this’. Anna Lovatt pointed out, with some irony, that in the case of Tuttle’s exceedingly minimal work, less had clearly become excessive!

Like Barthes, Tuttle explored how to stay in the neutral middle zone between the visible and invisible. He did this through working with white paper octagonals which he pasted to a wall of the same colour. Depending on your view you might or might not see these octagonals.

8th Paper octagonal

Eighth Paper Octagonal 1970

In this interview Tuttle talks about this work as follows:

I was doing white paper octagons on a wall at a museum in Dallas. And the critic came along and made mock introductions, “Oh, this is Richard Tuttle. He’s interested in impermanence in the arts.” And she said that to Betty Parsons, and Betty just immediately snapped back, “What’s more permanent than the invisible?” It fits in with the whole line—that in any art form, there has to be an accounting of its opposite condition. If you’re going to be a visual artist, then there has to be something in the work that accounts for the possibility of the invisible, the opposite of the visual experience. That’s why it’s not like a table or a car or something. I think that that might even be hard for people because most of our visual experiences are of tables: it has no business being anything else but a table. But a painting or a sculpture really exists somewhere between itself, what it is, and what it is not—you know, the very thing. And how the artist engineers or manages that is the question.

In 1971 Tuttle began work on wire octagonals. Anna Lovatt showed us his 10th Wire Octagonal, explaining that this work traces the outline of an absent object through three lines, the wire, the line and the shadow and introduced the notion of ‘shimmer’, which I understood to be the idea that the line is constantly shifting and moving because it is predicated on the position of the viewer.

10th wire piece

Source of image: Nicci Haynes at Flickr

Richard Dorment describes how Tuttle creates the wire octagonals as follows:

Each is made in the same way from the same materials – graphite (pencil), nails, and florist’s wire. First Tuttle draws a looping line in pencil directly onto the wall. Next he places a length of thin flexible wire over the contour of the drawing, pinning it down so that it lies flat on the wall. While keeping each end of the wire attached by a nail, he then releases the wire so that it springs up and off the wall to create a new “line” above the original drawing. The released wire now casts a shadow, creating another line on the wall, which looks so much like the one in pencil that it is hard to determine which is which.

By allowing the wire to take it’s own shape Tuttle relinquishes control and out of this steps the shadow over which he has no control. So this art is about a space between no personal expression and expression. My tentative understanding is that it is in this middle, empty, intangible space, a space of absence, between something and nothing that creativity, new ideas, alternative perspectives can emerge. Maybe teachers and learners need to do more to pursue and negotiate this space.

This was the title of a talk given at The Materiality of Nothing symposium at Lancaster University by Gary Sangster, Director Arts Catalyst.  This is how his session was described in the programme for the day (I have added the hyperlinks).

Apropos of Nothing will consider the escalation of transdisciplinary research and collaboration amongst artists and scientists, its impact within those fields and on the broader economies and publics, as well as the barriers and deleterious effects of these new strategic engagements amongst different fields of knowledge.

Two Arts Catalyst projects focused on loss, disappearance, and invisibility, Graveyard of Lost Species, a project that both explores and documents loss in the Thames Estuary, and the Nuclear Culture research project exhibition, Perpetual Uncertainty, that considers the residual effects of nuclear radiation and the notion of deep time, provide insight into complex issues of material presence and absence. Apropos of Nothing is about the pursuit of meaning and its elusiveness, its imprecision, within the data-driven, information-based knowledge framework of our current socio-political economy.

graveyard of lost species

Source of image

Gary Sangster talked about both these projects, also saying that art is a speculative enterprise and a contingent thing. He said that in the future it could well be that Monet (as an example) won’t be valued but will be relegated to the basement as has happened to many artists in the past. There was some discussion about whether value is lost by being relegated to the basement, but his point raises all sorts of questions about the permanence of art, or any of the work we do, and whether or not we should expect it to have permanence.

This is an interesting question in the light of the artist Dennis Cooper’s recent experience. Google has deleted his blog, which effectively was his studio and gallery of many years work. Presumably this was a form of censorship, although my understanding is that Google has yet to give a reason.

I have seen a number of posts asking why the work wasn’t backed up. My question is how prepared are we to create work in any form that is only transitory, and moves from being ‘some’ thing to ‘no’ thing? Could this make us more creative? It seems that a number of artists engage in this kind of work, i.e. the here today gone tomorrow type of work, often created in the environment, but even this work is often fixed by a video or a photograph. It seems much more difficult to completely let it go and be prepared to accept the absence. On the other hand how can absence have an audience?

This was an interdisciplinary symposium, held at Lancaster University, UK, about the immaterial/intangible, which aimed to bring together people with different perspectives to negotiate the imperceptible.

The seminar was introduced by Dr Sarah Casey – Lecturer in the Lancaster (University) Institute for the Contemporary Arts but also an artist who explores the limits of visibility and material existence.


Sarah Casey Murmur #3 – http://www.axisweb.org/p/sarahcasey/ 

Sarah asked us why we should consider the materiality of nothing, answering her own question by saying that ‘no’ thing implies the lack of ‘some’ thing and suggested that we tend to step around the intangible rather than try and deal with it directly, as exemplified by the Romans who didn’t have a zero in their numerals.

But as Sarah told us invisibility and immateriality are different. On reflection I would have liked a bit more discussion about this. On her website she asks  “at what point does visibility disappear and drawing become immaterial?”

In her introduction Sarah asked us to consider how we create something out of nothing and used erased drawings as an example of work that focuses on space and absence. With just a little research I can see that this topic has exercised a number of artists. For example Robert Rauschenberg explored the extent to which art could be created by removing marks rather than making them (see Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953) and a number of other artists have explored invisibility and aesthetic absence. Interestingly, during the day, as we listened to presentations I sat next to artist Gerry Davies who was almost continuously drawing in a small notebook. I was intrigued by how he used the rubber on the end of his pencil as much as the graphite, creating and removing marks in equal measure.

Sarah suggested that we need absence and space for imagination, interpretation and reflection. I found just this 10 minute introduction to the day fascinating and am grateful that Sarah and Lancaster University opened this seminar to the public.

There were many stimulating ideas to come out of the day, which I hope to find time to record in at least one future blog post. Although my understanding of much of what was talked about is very limited, I am intrigued by all the ways in which we can align ideas such as invisibility, absence, silence, immaterial, emptiness, speculative, contingency, indeterminacy, invisibility and nothing, to teaching and learning, particularly teaching and learning in the online environment where it is so easy to be invisible to each other. This has often been seen as a negative aspect of online learning, but maybe this is a short-sighted view.

For those who are interested in the programme for the day – here it is.

The Materiality of Nothing Programme 14th July