Edward Abbey – he of Desert Solitaire, one of the classics questioning the values of our modern world – wrote a short and scathing essay of a laboratory scientist intent on studying dog behaviour because “no one had done it before.” In a lab of course. Perhaps it would have its very own cage … with a blanket. Abbey doesn’t bother to demonstrate his knowledge of dog behaviour by his interaction with dogs, he simply states that any 10 year old boy will know more from having a dog as a loved companion and playmate, than any lab scientist will ever know. Sometimes we take the myth of objectivity a little too far. Abbey’s essay woke me up a bit. I realised that I had been doing similar things by looking at land through a particular lens.
It makes you think about what it is to ‘know’. F David Peat – a nuclear physicist – discusses this in Blackfoot Physics in which he examines an alternative Indigenous worldview where the whole idea of an outside objective view is incomprehensible – the world into which quantum physics is taking us as well. The Blackfoot have a concept of ‘coming to knowing’ which is only achieved by not just doing, but being – the gaining of implicit knowing of a huge complex rather than the specific facts of some single things outside a context. It is more than a hunter learning to be a hunter by hunting, it is coming to knowing through some broad set of senses – the net effect being they expect a young person to survive and find their way home from hundreds of miles away. This is intimate knowing.
Intimate knowing is what Aristotle referred to with Phronesis – practical wisdom – his “queen of the intellectual virtues.” You do not get it in the classroom, because that has no context. You do not get it by learning a technique through doing – riding a horse perhaps, working in a lab. You get it by experiencing the complex, particular and shifting contexts. You get it by being inside something.
And that is a challenge to our current world view – that intimacy is more vital than objectivity.
In order to know – I mean really know, to have wisdom, to understand, to ken (“D’ya ken, laddie? No ye wee counting instrrrument therre laddie, but rreally ken”) – you need intimacy – an intimate relationship with a thing, a space where you lose yourself in being at one with the new whole that is you and that thing (the actor, the act, and the stage)- without one reference at all to an explicit thought. You know and act, because you are wrapped up within and around that thing – the implicit dominates the explicit. You don’t think, you just feel and do, because you just know.
You see this when artists get into a zone. You can reach the sublime. At a dinner party once when discussing the incredible intimacy you get when you allow your emotions to channel through you, our host suddenly rose and returned with a painting she had done in a burst of emotion when a lover had left her life; a naked form wrapped up in its own limbs – profound and beautiful in despair. No words were needed to describe how she felt.
You see it with a great sportsperson whose 10,000 hours of doing allows them to just be within something. The intuition of the expert of this particular place. There is beauty here as well. So much beauty. The chef who can bring tastes together in some new complex which a food technologist could never do with all their chemistry. The musicians creating something essentially indescribable outside of bearing witness to the experience. Or a man and a dog working a flock where one slow step to the right can make the whole thing change. You see it when a nurse or paramedic just act with a lightness of being, where intuition supplants the procedural rules. You see magic created not by the machine of ordered parts, but by the organic, feeling, intuitive thing. They have moved beyond the measures and procedures and manuals to another world where lies creativity and art.
Call it being in the zone, or Zen and the Art of Archery, or channelling, or whatever. But it’s real.
Have we forgotten that truth in our rush to dissect and murder with value-laden measures we call ‘objective’? Do the politicians and Treasury economists who think the world a machine have any idea what they are doing when they not only dismiss the inherent wisdom and intimacy of local democracy, but make the appalling judgment to emphasise the STEM subjects over the Arts and Humanities. Back to the novice rules where there is no room to hold more than one function in your mind at the same time – so all we will be told to see is grass growth, or milk units, or trees but no forests.
Does objectivity – which I would argue is a complete myth – have a higher place than intimacy in our pursuit of better knowing and judging? I think that is an epistemological fallacy.
And part of the myth is the arrogance that so often resides within the most myopic and irrelevant of spreadsheets. I know them well. All well and good as guides – sometimes you can laugh and do the opposite. Dangerous as unthinkingly followed guide-dogs, leading those who dare not think outside the box, for fear of having a quantitatively unsubstantiated view – and technocrats are not good at questioning deeply buried assumptions. Or is it professional ego? The biggest fears (or egos) have the smallest ears. The biggest egos are never vulnerable enough, nor curious enough, to listen and learn from the gentler folk, or the land. The biggest egos must do and can never be content to just be. Their love of mechanical order and dissection – and never mind all the metaphysical assumptions with that view – results in the imposition of hierarchical command, the dis-integration of meaning, the alienation of thought and reflection. It results in separation, because it believes with the most ardent faith in separation, in the very opposite of intimacy.
Have we assigned a false status of ‘knowing’ to technocratic hierarchies where the least intimate, the least connected, those who least understand this thing, this complex, in this place, in this time, with these ever-shifting conditions in play, with these contingencies?
Some of these least intimate deign not to listen to the people “hefted” to this place; they think that being disconnected provides a position of better knowing.
Have we forgotten what it is to “heft” to land and place and community? Why have quanta and presumed universal mechanical order been afforded a higher status than the shifting qualities of life as a murmuration of starlings? What metaphors we live by.
This world of ours; this world of people, landscapes, ecology, community, and economy is a soft system: complex, shifting and adaptive, and defined by relationships and place.
Look at those things through the eyes of a narrow machine operator of life, and you will always get it wrong. You can destroy the promise in pursuit of a single function ‘efficiency’: turn the stream in all its beauty and constant creativity into a drain; turn a street where people meet and walk and talk, creating happiness, ideas, initiatives and play …. into a grey and foreboding place where all those unmeasured ‘inefficient’ things are destroyed in pursuit of more cars; without thought, without ken, without acknowledgment, without any concept of their own hubris and sin. The totalitarian spirit-crushing, idea-killing, dialogue-silencing, unseeing and fragile world of Fascism, Soviet Communism and Mega-Corporate hierarchical madness.
You have to be hefted to a place to realise what can be lost when hierarchies of dull professionalism trump the potential they cannot see, and make a machine out of a work of art. To realise the magic we can create requires intimacy within a thing – “the hitter and the hit as one reality.”
Our world is in a conflict with two comprehensive world views. You can call them by all the names of spurious and confusing worth – Modernity or Indigenous perhaps – but what they really amount to is summed up by the relationships they encourage and discourage. We are stuck – for the moment – in a comprehensive world view that encourages distance and discourages intimacy…..
… at a time when we need more than ever connection and intimacy.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.
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