Engagement with the internal and the external in contemporaneity
How do I engage with the natural world and the man-made world during this current period? How do I differentiate between my own unique internal experiences and the experiences which are engaging in information external of my own senses? Is it even possible to differentiate between these experiences?
We are living in a time of information, globalisation, wealth inequality, great technological advances, debt, ecological change on a vast scale, urbanisation, war, violence and consumption. On top of this, we have our individual lives to live – the physical needs to eat, drink and sleep. The continual rhythms of society, our lives in sheltered accommodation, families, recreation, education, healthcare, security, conflict, all go on, amidst this confusion.
What this means is, if one engages with current information, i.e. the news, then how can one also have a meaningful relationship with the natural world? I recently read A Natural History of Selborne and thought about how our relationship with the natural environment has changed since the time in which it was written (late 18th century). In the book, Gilbert White discusses the natural history of Selborne and talks in depth about the immediate natural world surrounding him: the vegetation, the animals, the physical geography and the lifestyles of the inhabitants of Selborne and the surrounding villages and towns. One of the sentences which stood out to me the most was when he speaks about the temptation of hunting.
It is no longer possible to engage with the world in the same way that the civilisations before us did. Civilisation has moved on from hunter-gatherers and has since been through (at least) three industrial revolutions: the mechanisation of machinery, mass production and the digitisation of industry through the internet. Whilst civilisation has developed, people have become more dependent upon civilisation for survival. This is a result of the centralisation of the production of physical goods such as food, objects, tools and services but also the worldwide acceptance of intellectual concepts such as government and currency. Civilisation now operates on a truly global scale, with similar products, services and cultures available internationally. We are engaging with this globalised world with our bodies and our minds – but perhaps are engaging in the physical reality of the contemporary world increasingly with our minds.
If one wants to engage with the natural world, whilst simultaneously engaging with contemporary information this is very difficult as the contemporary information is rarely related to the natural environment (unless is it around the issue of global warming). The natural world can appear very beautiful, but how does one engage with it if you are not physically working with it? And would it appear so beautiful if you were working with it?
Mock-up of ‘Permaculture and the Philosophy of Self-Reliance’ book cover
“Most men are sportsmen by constitution: and there is such an inherent spirit for hunting in human nature, as scarce as any inhibitors can restrain.” 1
Where has as this temptation gone? Our disconnection from the natural world has helped to wipe out this primal instinct and has replaced our time with a constant stream of information and vast amounts of work.
He marvelled at the natural world. I mean, how beautiful it was. How could it be this great? Life was overwhelming and incomprehensible. John knew that he would never be able to create something like the natural world. I mean, it was incomprehensibly beautiful. Outside I mean. Could he not just stay like this forever? Absorbed in the natural world. The thing is, he was. But he was also consumed by his mind. Trapped by the thoughts which overran his physical body. Or ruled his body. But the body also ruled his mind. But he was still a part of nature, just separate from it. 2
It is important to engage with the man-made world and the urban environment in a world in which we are not engaging with the natural world with our bodies i.e. working with the land to feed ourselves. Personal agriculture and self-sufficiency is very difficult today; very few people (at least in Western civilisation) survive solely through the production of food. I am not suggesting people should aim to become self-sufficient farmers, this is very difficult and not desirable.
Photograph of the Vredestuin permaculture gardens, Rotterdam
Cognition occurs simultaneously with sensory experience.
Engagement with the natural world can be compared to engagement with the man-made world.
Engagement with contemporary information leads to cognitive engagement with the outside world via this information and a sensory experience with the outside world via this information.
Mindfulness and action are the only things that could possibly stem from this engagement with the above. Can one disengage themselves from the outside and inside worlds of physicality and information by practising mindfulness?
Diagram of Contemporary Experience
Here are two quotes related to how we experience Art, one is from my own text Painting in 2017 and another talks about the exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2016. I have included them as I feel that one’s experience of Art is important when understanding one’s overall experience and understanding of life.
Representational painting is a visual depiction of physical existence. We visually understand the physical environment through colour, so when we look at a representational painting, if there are colours which mimic the physical environment, then the physical environment has been represented through paint. When we paint, we are applying colour, thus giving us the ability to capture something which exists as colour using colour; if we want to paint the clouds (which are white), then we will use white to paint them. Representational painting allows us –through colour– to capture what we are seeing in front of us, so that when we can no longer see the physical reality, we have a physical body of colour which is representative of the visual physical reality.
Painting is able to visually represent the “objective physicality” of physical existence through application of colour but it is also able to embody the non-objective and the non-physical. […] We have the ability to access the physical and the non-physical, the rational and the irrational and the objective and the non-objective through paint. […]
But why would I bother to paint the landscape? When I experience it in its full physicality, it is a much fuller experience than any painting could be. And if I like the landscape so much, wouldn’t it be better to work with the land itself? Why not break from the solitary act of landscape painting and work with the land, rather than from it. 3
“This is one of the most astonishing exhibitions of our time – and in the final rooms, one of the most heartbreaking. Here we see Monet’s very late works of lumpy reds and thick yellows, painted from memory when he was more than half-blind. After his cataracts were operated upon, all boundaries dissolve into light. Debussy composed a piece inspired by this scene, and I would single-handedly carry a piano up the steps of Burlington House in order to hear the notes, as separate as the first drops of rain, played beside the works themselves. In these galleries you witness something very rare: a naked expression – by brush, pen, or musical score – of what the artist believes to be most valuable and elusive in the human spirit. It happens in Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the great self-examination of the heart wrung out on scraps of paper in jail; it happens in Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, it happens in Johnny Cash’s rasping last album, Ain’t no Grave, where the guitar notes are reduced to a handful and scattered like gravel. And it happened in Monet’s garden. In the end, art is art, but gardens are life.” 4
Photograph of the Fal River, Cornwall
Landscape with Divisions of Colour
Oil on Canvas
We can also understand our experiences through pleasure and pain. This understanding relies very heavily upon an internal experience. And now that our experience of the world is so engaged with the external, perhaps this understanding is insufficient.
Pleasure does little to fulfil all of our needs and in fact stunts our ability to be fulfilled.
The pursuit of pleasure is an impossible task. It is not possible to satisfy ones’ desires permanently. Mindfulness is the only option in which our bodies needs can be met. Or is it? In an attempt to control the behaviour of the world’s inhabitants, mindfulness says “You HAVE to live like this. It is law. The relationship between pleasure, pain and happiness is very complex but pleasure does not equal happiness. What appears certain, is that pleasure does not equal happiness.”
It is remarkable how much choice we have, how we can do what we want, with no restriction. What prevents us from doing things is the ideology that each person holds. The ideology which governs us, and helps us to make decisions. The ideology that can come from religion, or another form of spiritual belief, or the belief of something else, such as pleasure and pain. The inner turmoil about caring for other than oneself is wrapped up in our ideologies. The values that one holds can determine ones’ behaviour. If one is self-contained, and has reached a higher path of enlightenment from mere mortals, how much do they care about the others? Does inner peace and happiness come at the cost of the happiness of others, or the disregard for others who have not be so fortunate to find peach and fulfilment on their separate paths. Ones ideology will help to forge a unique journey upon a part on the path free from judgement but filled with power, weakness, pleasure, pain, happiness and misery. 5
The decimation of the earth through capitalism which is reaching its tentacles to all corners of the earth is having a profound impact on our bodies but is perhaps having an even more profound effect upon our minds. Pleasure and pain do not define happiness, but they do help to define our physical experiences. If our experiences are primarily external and engage our mind rather than our senses how are we able to understand and navigate the world through sensory experience?
Engagement with image
Two dimensional images are having an impact on the way we engage with the both the internal and the external.
We can split everything that we see into colour, and it is these divisions of colours (or colour differences) which allow us to understand the physical visual environment. An object or being is visually understood in relation to its physical make up - which gives it its visual appearance. This physical visual appearance is partially understood through colour differences which provide information about its shape and size. […] 6
Information – audio, text, video, image etc. that does not affect one’s immediate physical experience but exists upon a screen or paper will affect the mind and consequently the body. To see this information as actual reality will changes one’s perception of actuality through this unreality which exists in two dimensions.
Much time and effort is taken to alter, change or enhance the visual appearance of one’s body. This includes:
• Permanent physical altering – changing the shape of one's body through increasing/decreasing bodily weight or strength.
• Non-permanent physical altering – which includes the addition of physical objects to the body such as clothing or application of make-up.
• Virtually altering their body – by changing the divisions of colour within photographs.
[…] The rise of predominantly visual social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr has perhaps contributed to the increasing importance that people place upon their physical appearance. This change in behaviour and attitudes may have led not only to an impact on how people are perceived (and perceive themselves) in virtual divisions of colours but also how they are perceived in actual physicality.
Roland Bathes writing on The Death of the Author can be applied to this idea of divisions of colour. Barthes states that the writing of an author and the author themselves are sometimes seen to exist together as the same being (or are at least analysed simultaneously). Barthes argues that it is not the author but the text as language alone which acts and “performs.” The author and text are separated when the author writes; the writing exists as written language and is not connected to or does not make up part of the author. This suggests that the writing of the author cannot be criticised under the same umbrella as the author as they are separate. By applying this idea to visual appearance, one could argue that you are not able to judge a person on their visual appearance, as, much like the writing of the author, visual appearance exists separately from the person.
Photographs of Jacob
If a person’s physicality is solely visual and is not associated with non-visual differences, one’s physical self and one’s physical appearance cannot exist simultaneously as a single entity. Instead, one’s self and one’s appearance will exist in isolation from one another. Therefore, judging another being on their visual appearance (which can be associated with race and gender amongst other things) becomes impossible as one's self and one's appearance are not connected. One’s appearance is not who they are. One's appearance is not them, if their visual appearance was changed, removed or altered, they would remain unchanged. Through this understanding, one realises that one's appearance is separate from one's self and this prevents all criticism, analysis or the placement of meaning on appearance. 7
How does one connect with actuality when you are presented with a constant stream of information completely unconnected from one’s actual experience? How does one know what is real when information exists as concept. When we understand something it must make sense to us and we understand though our understanding of these concepts within the physical world.
We know that the world is round, because someone told us that it is; the sun rises in the East and sets in the West. But have we reached the end of the sea? Personally? How can we prove the world is round? Through Google Maps? Our understanding of the world is based upon our own experiences of it.
If we travel on the aeroplane halfway around the world from London to Sydney then we think that we are half way around the world. Our phone map tells us that Sydney is in Australia and we have been following the GPS on the plane, which has tracked our progress across the world via this map. We have seen photos of Sydney and our friend has told us that we are going to be met by their friend then when we are met by their friend and the photos appear to be true, we trust our understanding of the world as it makes sense to us.
I have never been to Sydney, but I believe that it exists. Why?
Is this even important?
Homage to Josef Albers and Mark Rothko, displayed alongside Jason Ronallo’s Homage to the Square.
Oil Paintings on Canvas, Digital Images on Monitors
This piece of writing is not supposed to make perfect sense. It is meant to be stimulate a thought process about what is real and what exists within reality.
1. WHITE, Gilbert. 1789, The Natural History of Selborne
2. MAY, Edward. 2017, The Pursuit of Pleasure
3. MAY, Edward. 2017, Painting in 2017.
4. WOODWARD, Christopher. 18 April 2016. Painting gardens? More of a radical pursuit than you think
5. MAY, Edward. 2017, The Pursuit of Pleasure.
6. MAY, Edward. 2016, Divisions of Colour
7. MAY, Edward. 2016, Divisions of Colour