A huge three-year project is all over bar the shouting. For the last four weeks, as things drew to a close, I’ve been lining up all the things I’ll be able to turn my attention to when I’d done with it. The very first thing on the list was to have a grand clearout of the little 8 by 12 foot room I euphemistically call my ‘office’. Already, though, that pious aim has bit the dust as my wife knew it would.
So, I ask myself why I seem to thrive on ‘heaps’—heaps of miscellaneous papers, alternating with books open at certain pages that must once have had some significance for me, unanswered letters and printouts from articles on Internet sites, lists of things to do (either long since done or completely forgotten), half-written poems, heaps here and heaps there, so precarious that yesterday the tortoiseshell cat who has to be where the action is jumped up to play on my keyboard for a tickle & a stroke and sent the whole pile adjacent to it crashing to the floor—bulging files with plans for new projects, books that might be useful, newspaper cuttings… The deluge always goes before me.
Eventually, I picked it all up and made a new heap on the other side of the room in the middle of two currently unidentifiable heaps that have been there at least six months.
Part of the problem is, I discovered some years ago, that I have a distinct proclivity towards the visual: I need to see concrete evidence of whatever I choose to involve myself in; it’s no good filing things away because they just disappear from my living space; a few years ago I bought ten box files (it was cheaper to buy them in bulk) and they’re all up there, neatly labelled, staring down at me, contents untouched since I first made a valiant attempt to get organised that way.
A corollary is that this psychological heap-obstruction acts as a kind of consolation—it’s such a plausible explanation for my thriving on heaps that I find I’ve no need to do anything about it. It makes sense and so I feel comfortable with it as a way of being.
One of the books left open in a heap (the one nearest to the computer) was Hilgard’s Theories of Learning which I last consumed in its entirety in 1967 (the last year in which my ears could pick up the sound of bats screeching in the evening air). It has, in terms of one of its chapters, a ‘positive valence’; it is something very meaningful to me because it provides ideas & possibilities for understanding. The relevant chapter is the one on Kurt Lewin, part of which can be converted into this systemic process (page 261):-
I can easily relate this to my endless struggle with ‘heaps’:-
I was greatly attracted to the concept of ‘valences’ back in the years when I was learning a few things about how to teach. I did not have the concept of systemic thinking in my bones till long after I had done with formal teaching in 1992 and so I did not depict this process in this way back then.
I had a similar penchant for Lewin’s concept of Life Space, a psychological space which might be thought of purely as something internal (something like The Figure of Eight, to which I have often referred) but which could be congruent with an individual’s actual physical space.
Writing & reading on a train to Colchester, I think about all this and the past floods in as I seek to reduce Hilgard to my own words now: train presence and mental activity—two quite different worlds.
My life-space is the space in which I live psychologically, as seen from my own view-point. It includes each and every object, person, idea that ‘I’ have anything to do with. It corresponds in many ways to the world about me, to the world of things, people & ideas, being my selection from these—it becomes my world always in edited and distorted forms…
My life-space is a psychological set of possibilities which will be quite different in style & make-up from yours. I move about in my life-space just as you do in yours. If only we human-beings could always keep this in mind!
And this is how I remember Lewin—by the one word ‘hodology’: life is a road or pathway through a living space. ‘I’ attempt to make my mind-journey as congruent with my physical journey as possible.
My life-space contains an image of dark corridors and a small dingy library where once I took part in a play-reading. This was in the old building of Kingston Grammar School in Surrey; I have carried the image around with me for 60 years; it occupies a significant corner of my life-space, standing for my concept of learning—that it takes place in out of the way dim places of the mind; some might call it the ‘subconscious’, but I prefer to think of it as the bottom of the Figure of Eight; you come across new ideas (or you refresh them) at the turn of a corridor just when you’re not expecting them; or you find them lying around in heaps… You file them away on the infinite shelves of your being; they take root there and twine themselves around one another spiralling up towards the light.
‘Life-space’ is a Mental Construct
Just like any other scientific model, life-space is a mental construct: it is made up of physical, social & conceptual elements but is not normally to be identified with them as external factors except where an individual is so at home in the world that everything fits.
I want to write a famous symphony. Related to my desire my life-space might be depicted thus:-
This is a notional bit of life-space through which there is a certain something-or-other (an ‘I’ maybe) that charts a hodology across the boundaries, taking each stage into account in turn; it inhabits the life-space and works on it to make it fit ‘reality’. In fact, it is well aware from the start that it will never progress beyond ‘final version’ because although it knows that, on the basis of past experience, it can successfully traverse the first three boundaries it will never make the final push into ‘marketing’.
In this case, whatever it is that moves through the life-space knows that an additional strand is the knowledge that though ‘a [not to say famous] symphony’ has a very positive valence for it, it will never now succeed as it imagines that it might once have done! It will just have to be content with the small scale pieces that have been performed by professional groups. Designing a life-space is a very good way of doing a reality check!
However, Lewin was dead set on the idea that all behaviour depends for initiation on the present moment rather than on past & future: ‘past events, like future events, do not exist now and therefore… cannot have effects now…’ Events of the past can contribute to an understanding of the present but the way forward is from a thorough grasp of the NOW.
Because things of the past happened then they do not have to be repeated in the future now nor should future aims, intentions & objectives have to be a focus for the present moment.
My two little examples of life-space are just sub-regions of a very much more complex thing. While hunting through my heaps I came across a photocopy of a couple of pages from an unnamed book which seemed like a good visual metaphor for the way things develop.
The explanation of the diagram talks about ‘the evolution of a chaotic inflationary universe. Every microscopic causally connected sub-region of the universe…’ inflates variously into areas with different emphasis. ‘If the universe is infinite in size then there will exist an infinite number of these regions…’
The rubric to this diagram describes it as depicting ‘the evolution of an eternal inflationary universe. Each sub-region that inflates can give rise to a large number of inflated regions which meet the conditions necessary for them to undergo further inflation themselves. This process can continue ad infinitum and, by the same token, may have been continuing since a past eternity…’
If a human being is a microcosmic representation of the universe, then these diagrams can easily be related to the way the human mind works: it has bits of ideas some of which develop and split off from others only to reduplicate themselves again and again…
Learning and Life-space
Successful learning ‘…means to have a more highly differentiated life-space in which there are more [and more] sub-regions connected by defined paths…’ and the images along the way are significantly coloured & shaped to suit the context. The pathway from one region to another is insecure until they have been structured in well-ordered cognitive patterns then the way becomes much clearer. (Hilgard on Lewin)
The reward of this way of learning is intrinsic to the activity; external rewards & punishments are irrelevant: the recognition of patterns and the discovery of pathways is all that’s needed.
The problem with an education based on external rewards is that learners are constantly looking for shortcuts and cribs from Google in order to, as they imagine, meet standards.
It becomes appropriate to think of goal activity as successful or unsuccessful rather than as rewarding or punishing. This is Lewin’s position and I see that all through my time as a teacher it’s how it has been for me: as one strives for intrinsically successful outcomes, the pattern of learning becomes more and more well-defined, the shape of it clearer and the evidence more profound. I could not leave anybody I was teaching with other than this image of the learning adventure.
Just to Get Within the Region of a Goal is a Success
It’s just a matter of setting forth with your own self alone.
Darest thou now, O Soul,
Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?
No map, there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.
I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou—all is a blank before us;
All waits, undream’d of, in that region—that inaccessible land.
Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds, bound us.
Then we burst forth—we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul—prepared for them;
Equal, equipt at last—(O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil, O Soul.
Oh, Walt, that’s right! There no other way…
To the Lighthouse
And then there’s Mr Ramsay, wandering on the terrace, always on the outside of life, annihilating his small son’s hopes & expectations of going to the lighthouse tomorrow with his, “But it won’t be fine”—so dashed his hopes that ‘had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him…’
Poor old Mr Ramsay’s mind was brilliant but he had a feeling that it was not quite on top of things any more…
‘[It] was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q. Here, stopping for one moment by the stone urn which held the geraniums, he saw, but now far far away, like children picking up shells, divinely innocent and occupied with little trifles at their feet and somehow entirely defenceless against a doom which he perceived, his wife and son, together, in the window. They needed his protection; he gave it them. But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q—R—Here he knocked his pipe out, with two or three resonant taps on the ram’s horn which made the handle of the urn, and proceeded. Then R.. —He braced himself. He clenched himself…
A shutter, like the leathern eyelid of a lizard, flickered over the intensity of his gaze and obscured the letter R. In that flash of darkness he heard people saying—he was a failure—that R was beyond him. The lizard’s eye flickered once more. The veins on his forehead bulged. The geranium in the urn became startlingly visible and, displayed among its leaves, he could see, without wishing it, that old, that obvious distinction between the two classes of men; on the, one hand the steady goers of super human strength who, plodding and persevering, repeat the whole alphabet in order, twenty-six letters in all, from start to finish; on the other the gifted, the inspired who, miraculously, lump all the letters together in one flash – the way of genius. He had not genius; he laid no claim to that: but he had, or might have had, the power to repeat every letter of the alphabet from A to Z accurately in order. Meanwhile, he stuck at Q. On, then, on to R
Feelings that would not have disgraced a leader who, now that the snow has begun to fall and the mountain-top is covered in mist, knows that he must lay himself down and die before morning comes, stole upon him, paling the colour of his eyes, giving him, even in the two minutes of his turn on the terrace, the bleached look of withered old age. Yet he would not die lying down; he would find some crag of rock, and there, his eyes fixed on the storm, trying to the end to pierce the darkness, he would die standing. He would never reach R… (Virginia Woolf)
An anticipation of Z, the goal, but never to get near it…
Hilgard: ‘To make noticeable progress toward a goal may provide a success experience even though the goal is remote…’ Hilgard stresses that ‘ego-involvement’ is a key factor in learning. Mr Ramsay was ‘ego-involved’ but suffering from distraction; he inspired loathing in his children because of it.
The question then becomes—Which bit/s of ego should be involved so as to stimulate effective learning. Which of your ‘I’s are best harnessed for a learning episode?
These are just a few of the ‘I’s that go to make up True Personality as opposed to the False Personality that passes the time comparing itself with other people instead of just getting on with the Hodology. Mr Ramsay was perhaps too busy comparing himself with other people—he had forgotten himself in self-justifying and making accounts.
Z is Master-I, Observer-I, Meta-I, somewhere beyond all these small ‘I’s.
Meanwhile these ‘I’s are pretty useful: Ignoring-false-alleyways-I, Being-satisfied-to-strive-I, Being-content-with-tension-I—the tension of the drive towards some kind of completion, for instance; the fulfilling of an outline for a piece of work which is not entirely mapped, the not quite knowing which direction you’re going. Then there are the Emergent-I’s: Stickability-I, Being-excited-by-the-pathway-I, Feeling-excited-by-the-notion-of-cognitive-structures-I.
If something along one’s hodological space has a suddenly discernable structure then one must pause to observe its architecture, to look at the scaffolding, the holding together of the bricks & stones thereof, its context
Hopeless! Hopeless because I’m only too happy to choose to be distracted along the way. The chaos & disorder, fog & swamp of the fifth section of my life-space is where I often stall. What is it? Being-indolent-I, Being-happy-with heaps-I, Focussed-on-other-things-I or Trying-to-manage-distractions-I?
Managed Distraction—the Nature of the Quest?
A bit further down the heap, buried under old Hilgard, is a thin nice hardback volume containing an account of an address by an English writer & novelist to whom I am attached, HMTomlinson, given to members of the Harvard Union on October 14th 1927. (Between the Lines) He laments what he regarded as a general loss of positive conviction in society and a consequent loss of a feeling of passion.
The modern mind, it may be said, apart from poetry & music, has not a few positive convictions, but they are concerned almost solely with the perfecting of machinery and the organisation of material forces.
In that context, says Tomlinson, given that in the meeting-place of a poem two people come together in spirit, poet and reader, what possible chance is there for rhapsodising?
‘The poet and the response live together in the same world and breathe the same air…’ but it’s a tainted air and the poet who stands up against machinery and all that it entails will be regarded as antediluvian. Look at what modern machinery accomplishes in the realm of the human soul. Look at the money-grubbers who, for instance, prophesy the Death of the Book.
Serendipity and the Pococurante
While I was writing this Glob on a train journey, I retrieved a discarded newspaper from the floor…
My interest was stimulated by the first line of an article about Jeff Bezos, ‘the man causing the death of the printed book..’. The name meant nothing to me but it turns out, as I suppose everybody else knows, that he is the founder and CEO of Amazon.com so he’s also considered to be ‘the man said to be killing our high streets’. His business has faced investigation for tax avoidance in a number of countries. The 15th richest person in the US, with a fortune of $23.2billion (£14.5billion). In the latest Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People he finished 40th—just three places behind North Korea’s Kim Jong-il. A Power Possessor. Probably part of the global capitalist conspiracy against the working classes.
He is apparently considered by some to be a genius on a par with the late Steve Jobs whoever he was. His comment to the interviewer, “I’m having so much fun…” tells me everything I need to know about him: if ‘fun’ is the sum total of your attitude to life on earth, the driving force behind whatever you do, it shows a lack of real concern for anything. If Gurdjieff had concluded that the answer to his fundamental question ‘What are we doing here?” was ‘to have fun’ there would be nothing of the analysis of human life that led from his studies. Did Plato set out to have ‘fun’? Did anybody of any intelligence make that the basis of their philosophy? Does it figure in my life-space I ask myself…?
He continues, “…and what we really love to do is pioneer and invent. We like to take things that are ordinary and then improve them to the point where people think: Wow, that’s totally different… And then what’s really exciting is when that new way we invented becomes normal, that’s kind of like the ultimate compliment…”
Invention for the sake of invention, making improvements to the ordinary when the task of life is to find wonder in the ordinary, conning people into thinking that the New is all that matters, subverting human intelligence, finding that your new invention is the ultimate A Influence… A mode of thinking that would never occur to somebody who is making so much money that he can fritter it away on other time-wasting pursuits.
His big invention is ‘his world-conquering e-reader, the Kindle’ and its latest spinoffs. “I predict that some years from now reading books on Kindles will seem so normal people will have forgotten it was ever considered new and that will be a huge accomplishment I will be very proud of. It puts a huge grin on my face, and those grins are contagious…”
Viruses abound and they are poisoning the human brain. There are no books on Kindle—there is electronic flickering and disappearing off the bottom edge of things. Books are substantial things with paper pages and solid covers that rest on shelves and smell—well, of books… Somebody who can grin from ear to ear at the death of real books is a hasnamuss.
Bezos says he ‘starts with the customer and works backwards’—not so: he invents for the sake of inventing and then creates a market to make lots of money, knowing that gullible people will just fall for it.
He funds space exploration—he says, “I really do think we want to live in a civilisation where millions of people are living and working in space…” We do? Thousands of people would quite like to live comfortably and do some paid work on this planet. In any case we are already in space so what would be the difference? We take ourselves with us wherever we go: a Bezos on Mars would be the same as a Bezos on Earth. Human beings in outer space have already set up arrangements for Star Wars.
He’s just invested—with the CIA—where’s the morality there?—in a company aiming to invent the world’s first superfast quantum computer; he’s spent $42 million (£26 million) building a clock inside a Texan mountain that aims to run for 10,000 years intended to be a symbol for ‘long-term thinking’.
“You start thinking about things differently if you think in 10,000-year time horizons. We humans are now very capable of changing the planet in a bunch of ways and because we’ve got so technologically capable as a species we need to think long term, not just about climate and natural eco-systems, but about civilisation and all kinds of things. Most nation states that exist today won’t exist in 10,000 years. Who knows what will happen in that kind of time frame…?”
That’s Big-Z fantasy thinking… Count me out. It’s no bad idea to start thinking properly in 2013 let alone in 12,012. In Mr Ramsay’s terms Bezos has got to about F or G and it sounds as though, with that smug self-satisfied grin, he will never get any further.
Such a Huge Conceptual Gap
…we are never likely to listen to the words which are strangely not in harmony with the things we want to hear and a success which cannot be measured by an accepted standard will be a failure…
So why carry on with an anti-machinery rant? Bezos is an icon for modern machinery in all its aspects.
Well, says Tomlinson, one is ‘…sustained by the hope that there are more people in the world than might be thought who regard things as they are much as one does oneself…’ Maybe one ‘…will hear responsive halloos from everywhere in the surrounding darkness…’ Maybe not…
But, Tomlinson pulls himself up short: he realises (rhetorically) that he was supposed to be addressing the Hervard Union on the subject of literature; in order to carry his audience with him, he wonders what his survey of the effects of a machine-age on humanity has to do with literature. It has to be remembered that he was writing in 1927 long before all the e-tackle made things even worse.
Machines come and go—they are the things of fashion, the Issue of the Day; convincing people that they must at all costs keep up with the latest gizmo is the monetaristic brain-washing pressure of the age. There’s a great danger that art & literature & music will go the same way—things of the moment to be regarded for a day or so and then consigned to the great litter-bin of time.
But, says Tomlinson, literature is just not like
…the cunning collection of old furniture or antique clocks. If literature were that, if it were not a flowering of life, just as is any rose, then it would be no better than an indoor game. Literature is more than that to us. It is more than a pleasing [fun-provoking] occupation for those who prefer it to golf or possess a nice discrimination in old porcelain. It is not something ornamental to be added to the house when business improves and leisure is won… Literature is the expression of a human need more compelling than that satisfied by commerce or politics…
Or, he might have added, by machinery—or, were he alive today, by e-books, ‘fun’, or the mind-rotting recourse to pre-packaged knowledge.
In the best of poetry and music, humans rise a bit above themselves. Once you have been moved by it, once you have been changed by Moby Dick or by a passage of great music, you will find it hard and even dangerous to venture upon a survey of modern life and its native literature.
I have on many occasions looked up from the pages of a book, travelling on a train or slumped in a deck-chair on a summer lawn, to find myself coming from a whole conceptual world that somehow transforms the scene in front of me; thinking I have ‘…sighted Mount Zion—people who only think they have sighted that delectable mountain are likely to prove awkward customers…’
I imagine that I have always been an ‘awkward customer; when I was ten my mother’s mother said I’d grow out of it by the time I was thirty but here I am at 75 having had too many sightings of Mount Zion for my own good..
My life-space has contained one long hodology from book to book, each one an oasis in a world dominated by machinery and, apart from the obvious fact that I have added the computer to my skills as a human being, I remain impervious to all the latest trash.
Of course I know that the book I hold in my hand is the product of a machine process and you might point out that things have advanced in the last hundred years, that Beethoven could not fly across the Atlantic… but I would ask what sort of advance that might be just as I’d have to wonder what the point of a clock in a hole that will run for 10,000 years is.
Tomlinson had apparently contracted specifically to talk about style in literature, its expression and how to get a grasp of the practice of it. I wonder how disappointed his listeners were when he pronounced that ‘…the closest study of the styles of all the great masters of English will not give us anything of importance to say, any more than wearing Napoleon’s old hat would help a modern general to victory… A zeal for truth is the spring of art [which may just be] a matter of instinct…’
How to make sense of the business of ‘style’? he asks rhetorically. It’s something that has to be resolved in the dark recesses of the mind. ‘Remember that [you] are never more alone than when [you] have to resolve something of the first importance to yourself. You have to set your own course, steer your ship by what stars you know…’
How will you know when you have arrived? You won’t, says Tomlinson. But you’ll have made the attempt. His conclusion is that if you ‘prefer less risk and more assurance with careful industry of making the right landfall with a profitable cargo…’ then you might as well join the machine-stampede.
‘Literature is different. It is not a profession if we mean by that a means to food and shelter. It is in a vital sense a profession of faith…’ evading every concrete image one might care to use for it.
That is perhaps the status of Lewin’s life-space image with its sub-regions joined by hodologies that lay themselves down as you tread the territory. There’s nothing there to start with—nothing but nettles & dry bones and a long empty vista till your footsteps begin to wear a path.
Where Does This Machine-world Lead?
What is its purpose? This is the kind of question that is never asked. What is the end of material wealth & power? What is civilisation about?
Tomlinson ends on an optimistic note: change our thinking and we change our world; we can hold to the belief that ‘…some day the ugliness which is supreme will be laid low…’
Identify with that and you could get excited for a moment.
Defining one’s life-space is a good reality check. Where does one wish to be? What are the stages? What is the nature of the boundaries between one step along the way and another? How will the boundaries be traversed? What are the by-ways and what the path direct?
In the course of writing this I have got just halfway down the first heap. But at least I have filed Hilgard & Tomlinson in their correct alphabetical places on my library shelves. That’s progress…