Friday, January 8, 2010

Quality IV: Middle-World

So, if we can throw our minds back to the distant past, to a raging conversation about Diversity that blew across the like a hot wind, and specifically to Scott Walters' posts on the lottery (I and II) and the conversation it sparked, I'd like to continue my thoughts on quality that Scott and August Schulenberg helped sharpen for me, and expand a little further. The point I made about quality back there that I want to bring back to mind before I continue is when I said:

I disagree that relativism reduces every argument to absurdity. I think that in our post-modern times, a false opposition was created: Objectivism versus Absurdity -- Objectivism versus nothing. If there's no objective truth, there's no truth at all.

The other day, a close friend of mine mentioned that he was starting to feel that, philosophically, he was a nihilist. I was concerned, because the idea that there is some sort of meaning in the world is very important to me. I asked him what he meant when he said nihilist (because obviously the term is one thing and the actual meaning of the term is another).

He said to me this: in the end, we all die, so what does it matter?

I told him my personal answer to that question, which is that although in an absolute sense, nothing we do matter, because on the scale of the absolute, everything we do turns to dust. (Those of you to whom there is another version of eternity -- whether it be the persistence of energy in the universe or a seat by the hand of God or a transcendent state of nirvana -- have already parted ways with me, assumption-wise. I beg you to indulge two atheists debate the theology of their atheism, if you will).

This is where my point above comes into play. Even though our lives might mean nothing in the absolute, it might still mean something in the relative.

Suppose I am at a moral cross-roads -- whether or not, for instance, to save a drowning child. In the absolute sense, this decision is meaningless. The child dies, now or later, happy or sad, whether or not I intervene.

But at the scale in which we live our lives, this moral choice has meaning. We live our lives on the minute-to-minute scale, and therefore the idea of a child dying now or dying after having lived many years of life is a huge change in both my life and the life of the child.

To some, it seems as though these two statements are a contradiction, or that one gets to the heart of the matter more than the other. To some, the meaninglessness of the absolute wins--all our attempts at meaning are just the pretensions of molecules. To others, the meaningfulness of the everyday wins, and they project that meaningfulness into the absolute -- creating an absolute whose sense of values are exactly the same as ours.

(This is my personal belief as to why advances in astronomy are treated sometimes warily by religion; man was made in God's image, because God is a concept that only makes sense in a human scale. What does the book of Leviticus have to say about Quantum Mechanics or Black Holes?)

At any rate, I happen to believe that it's okay for things to be desperately important to us and unimportant "in the grand scheme of things," for the same reason I think it's fine for theater to be so deeply important to me when, really, we know that we'll only touch so many people in our lives and who is to say how much it will actually impact our culture.

My ideas on this subject were largely shaped by Richard Dawkins. Not only his book The Selfish Gene, but more importantly, this TED Talk:

Middle-World. The scale in which we live our lives. Everything we do is based on those assumptions. And we have the capacity to understand the other scales, increasingly, but there will be limits. That's fine. At the end of the day, we live our lives here in Middle World.

And within middle-world, there's also differences in context, differences in understanding. I'm not saying we need to accept the limitations of our own little contexts, but at the same time, it's fine to have our own yardsticks and contexts. The degree to which people can share that context is the degree to which people can agree on common standards, can form a common culture. And our ability to bridge contexts and translate across contexts is one of our greatest strengths, and one of our highest goals.

When we talk about quality needing to be right from the perspective of the audience, what we mean is, it needs to at least on some level match the assumptions or understandings of that audience. We want to push boundaries, but we don't have to push all of the boundaries--in fact, if we make our desire to "provoke" or "surprise" too central, we'll lose that common context we share with our audience.

I once worked with a director who shared a very different perspective with me on this. We had a big argument, us the cast and him the director, on how we should relate to our audience. One of the cast-members said, "If we make this choice, it's going to hit the audience in the face with a shovel." To which the director responded, "YES! Exactly!"

This is what is wrong with trying to tear apart all of the structures and understandings a person has -- it just simply doesn't work. You can't communicate with them. In William James' Pragmatism, he discusses how people learn. He says that we slowly accumulate theories, assumptions, understandings, and facts, and cobble them together into a web of ideas. When a new theory or fact comes along that doesn't mesh with what we have, we make the smallest adjustment possible to make all of the facts and theories mesh together again. As an artist, you can massage along their understanding, but if you try to shake apart their web of ideas too hard, the easiest thing for them to do will simply be to dismiss you.

This, I think, is what commenter Kiley meant by saying:
... consumers tend to measure new products, services and ideas against that which they are most familiar with, rather than being open to experimenting with something new or unknown. This is despite how potentially beneficially those ideas or experiences might be to them personally or to their collective community. Under this premise, I believe that some / many consumers initially reject most art, consciously or not, particularly that which is not of the immediately pleasing or pacifying nature. Arts ability to prod, provoke, and challenge thus suffers in my mind when it is not wholly support by means external to the marketplace.
I don't know if I agree with the "wholly" part of that sentiment, but the core of it is what I agree with. When faced with an idea that is outside of their own personal "middle-world" (remember that we are all, literally, at the center of our own experiences), they will be hesitant and need some coaxing to come along. You can entice them outside of their comfort zone, but you can't beat them.

In America, this is made more difficult not only because of the market forces, as Kiley rightly mentioned, but also because of the competitive landscape. Consumers can choose what they entertain themselves -- and even if they decide to choose something intellectually stimulating, they can choose to be intellectually stimulated by people who agree with them.

That's part of quality, or of value, or of resonance -- finding that delicate spot where you entice people to some place they didn't think they wanted to go, showing them the other worlds while still resonating in the one they have to live in. Boy that is difficult.