Attending to the invisible ‘Other’

Attention is how we relate to the world and what we attend to determines what we see. At this stage in my life I am interested in how I can ensure that what I choose to attend to doesn’t blinker me to the possible implications of attending too closely to a given idea. The balance between focussing and keeping a broad perspective often seems elusive.

I’m not sure how this can be achieved, other than to be aware that there is probably always an alternative perspective and there may be things I am missing. But recently the focus of my attention means that I am noticing that a number of authors seem interested in similar ways of thinking.

Most recently my attention has been drawn to a podcast (via Mariana Funes) in which Chris Richardson interviewed Ulises Mejias, author of Off the Network.  I am already familiar with Mejias’ work having cited him in a paper co-authored and published with Mariana early last year.

In the podcast Mejias tells us that he and his co-author Nick Couldry have written a new book, soon to be published, in which they reflect on how the conversation has shifted since he wrote ‘Off the Network’. At that time, pre-Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, few people were interested in critical studies of the internet. Now there are many articles being published that are critical of the network. Mejias likes the direction things are going but still has some concerns. Whilst noting that attention has shifted from believing that companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon can do no wrong, to thinking that they need tighter controls and regulation, he doesn’t believe that this can be done by throwing more technological innovation and more algorithms (which are becoming increasingly complex) at the problem.

In their new book Mejias and Couldry consider ways in which to unmap the network and un-think these technological determinisms. They question what happens when networks no longer promote agency but instead become templates for organising and structuring society. Mejias believes that a lot of our social biases are being mediated through our social devices and that we don’t even think about this. We carry smart phones and pay our internet bills, but what goes on behind the scenes is opaque and invisible.

It is this idea of what is invisible that interests me. What are the implications of what is invisible for how we live and learn? What are the implications of not being able to see the whole picture? Mejias’ argument is that in this digital age if you are not in the network, you are invisible, you are ‘Other’. This he calls ‘nodocentrism’ – a way of thinking that becomes so dominant that it erases all other ways of thinking, ‘the rendering illegible of everything that is not a node’ (p.10 Off the Network). The network can only see nodes and only recognise other nodes.

Mejias suggests shifting our focus to the spaces between the nodes and between the lines in a network. This space is important. It is not empty, and it can influence the network, although in this interview Mejias didn’t explain how. Does the invisible actually connect the nodes in some way? This reminds me of questions and discussions about the influence of observers (called ‘lurkers’ by some) on the web. What might the influence of the invisible be?

Iain McGilchrist also writes about the spaces between, but in a different context. Mejias’ concern is with nodocentrism and that the invisible ‘Other’ is not ignored but acknowledged. McGilchrist’s concern is with the meaning of our lives and that we underestimate that we are not atomistic. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom he says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

For McGilchrist the spaces between are critical for meaning. He uses two examples to explain this. The first – an electric current. He says: An electric current is manifest between two poles, a positive pole and a negative pole; it’s not in the positive pole, it’s not in the negative pole, it’s not even in the positive pole plus the negative pole, nor is it in the space between the two poles, because that space is nothing. It’s in the whole betweenness of the two poles and what that brings about at a wholly different level.

McGilchrist’ second example is music. In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says: ‘Music is all betweenness. Take a note A flat, what does it mean? Absolutely nothing. Take another one, a B. It means absolutely nothing. Put 30 000 of these things together and you’ve got Bach’s B minor mass – which means a hell of a lot. So, what happened there? It’s not in the notes so it must be in the spaces between the notes, but the spaces between the notes in a melody are just silence, the spaces between notes in harmony are just silence, the spaces between the beat of the rhythm are not there, so if you put a lot of things that mean nothing together, a lot of spaces that mean nothing together, you find something that means more than anything you can experience in the world. How does that happen? The answer is betweenness.’

So, for McGilchrist and for Mejias, the spaces between, whilst invisible, are redolent with meaning and highly significant to our understanding and knowledge, just as the empty space in atoms, which makes up 99.9% of their structure is significant to our understanding of matter.

Both Mejias and McGilchrist believe in the importance of being willing and able to recognise the invisible ‘Other’ – that the invisible ‘Other’ makes a significant contribution to our lives, knowledge and understanding; without an understanding of the ‘Other’ we cannot see the whole.

McGilchrist believes an understanding of the ‘Other’ to be essential for an understanding of ourselves. In his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ he writes:

…. the self originates in the interaction with ‘the Other’, not as an entity in atomistic isolation: ‘The sense of self emerges from the activity of the brain in interaction with other selves’ (p.88).

…. An affective relationship with ‘the Other’ over distances of time and space provides the wherewithal to understand ourselves as part of a three-dimensional world – not just three-dimensional in the spatial sense, but with temporal and emotional depth, too …. (p.365)

Mejias’ understanding of the ‘Other’ and feeling invisible comes from his personal experience of being an immigrant. He has said:

‘That experience of being in this country as an immigrant, both inside and outside, having to adopt certain ways of thinking and having to erase other ways of thinking, other parts of me that cannot be rendered in this new context, I think that’s where this idea [of nodocentrism] came from.’

Mejias believes that there are things we can do politically to address this; choices are important; research will have to become more open. It’s something we need to do for ourselves.

McGilchrist believes that we need to access the world beyond words. The world ‘beyond’ ourselves (p.399, The Master and his Emissary). In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says he thinks we can actually change things, but we each have to take it upon ourselves to be part of the change.

The strong message from both these authors seems to be the need to recognise that we may not be seeing the whole picture, either on or off line and that we should be open to the ‘Other’.

It may be that I am making links between these two authors where they don’t exist, or which don’t resonate with readers of this blog post. Perhaps the focus of my attention is such that I have failed to see the whole picture, which would be ironic. It is difficult to access a world beyond words.

But sometimes words do resonate. To end this post, here is a quote which I saw at the Kochi Biennale (Fort Kochi, Kerala, India) earlier this week, which serendipitously also references the ‘Other’, but in another context.

Virtual hyper-connectivity has paradoxically alienated us from the warm solidarities of community; that place of embrace where we can enjoy our intelligence and beauty with others, where we can ‘love’; a place where we don’t need the ‘other’ as an enemy to feel connected.

Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels. And before speaking, listening to the stone and the flowers; to older women and wise men; to the queer community; to critical voices in the mainstream; to the whispers and warnings of nature.

Anita Dube. Curatorial Note. Kochi Biennale 2019

The Materiality of Nothing

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.

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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