Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Matthew Dallman - The Humanities As The Integral Tradition

A new post on The Arts and Humanities as the foundation of the integral tradition. Check out the whole post, but first, here is a taste.
The Humanities As The Integral Tradition
On the tradition and task of imaginative fullness after the theory wars

By Matthew Dallman

The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.
Neil Postman

Writing in the introduction to Plato: The Collected Dialogues, Huntington Cairns wrote, “[Plato’s Dialogues] have been attacked as politically aristocratic and as philosophically mystical. However,” he continued, “few serious and fair students of the dialogues have ever denied their suggestiveness and the extent to which they stimulate thought.” As a general principle, the capacities of suggestiveness and thought stimulation at profound levels are made available to the motivated learner through any of the works studied in the Humanities. Of course, that which forms the core curriculum of the Humanities are often called the Canon. What the Canon actually is, as well as what makes it up, are subjects of some controversy. It used to be, in older times when materials such as paper were scarce, that the word “canon” was written on those religious texts that were to be preserved. These were held as the standards or models of thought (the word “canon” shares its history with what we call the “ruler”, or measuring stick). Remembering this, it is no surprise that much of the controversy about the canon has to do with critiques of just who gets to decide what is canonical, and under what authority. Thus the rise of the belief held by more than some that great works of art or thought are only “great” because the Church, the authors of famous survey books, traditionalist professors, or self-appointed taste-makers have said so, arbitrarily. The entire “dead white males” critique comes from this controversy, as an example of the wider project of multiculturalism that seeks to increase exposure to non-Western cultures.

If we define the Western Canon the great works in theology, the arts, history, philosophy, as well as the study of languages, from, say, Homer to Joyce, the question inevitably arises about what to do with the Canon. Or more specifically, what should artists do with the Canon? Should they ignore these works, and the study of languages, and set out for entirely new sources of inspiration, critical thought, and layered/discreet insights into the human condition? After all (leaving languages aside for the moment), the Canon does change, with works more recent than Joyce as potential members (and, it bears important note, increasing non-Western works as they become more and more available, and vice versa, directionally West to East). Certainly some American professors and critics have sought to alter the Canon, or even completely reorganize it. And it can be seen that some apparently hold the view that there is not just one canon, but many, depending on particular subject matter. And some people don’t think there needs to be a canon, or canons, at all. Some find the whole notion just too problematic.

Because it would take numerous articles, or even a book, to address the conflicting views of the canon, let me cut to the chase: What if we were to adopt the definition of the Canon proposed by Camille Paglia? Which is, essentially, that the Canon is loosely made up of those works of art and thought that have demonstrably influenced artists across the ages, and up to the near-recent time? If we were to adopt such a definition, then we could leave aside any objections of authority and leave the matter up to, simply, a matter of inspiration, and the organic and non-systematic operations of creativity through our most inspired and gifted individuals and groups. It wouldn’t be up to critics, or professors, or survey-book authors. It would be, rather, up to no one in particular. Instead, whether a work itself can be seen to have inspired creativity that was expressed in works of art is the main criteria. Scholars could undertake the investigations of who and what influenced artists, when the influence is not readily apparent (as for example, it is quite apparent that The Bible has been profoundly influential to artists, and further proof of that really isn’t necessary). Providing the information by way of scholarly articles, plus what is evident in the public sphere, and — wha la! — we have Canon by, essentially, cultural autopoiesis, the automatic regeneration fueled by inspiration, that mysterious dynamic.

It is important to realize that if you look at various lists of members of the Canon and investigate the ideas raised throughout the classic works of thought, you can start to understand why one of the founders of the famous “Great Books” initiative at the University of Chicago, Mortimer Adler, said that these works comprise a “great conversation” through the ages. The works talk to one another. Ideas are exchanged, elaborated, elongated, and reframed, all the time. It is also important to understand how these works were taught in “classical education”, which was the general practice for over 2000 years. Only the last 50-75 years have seen a moving away from the classical education approach (of the Trivium as primary education) and towards a style that began in Prussia as a way to occupy children so that parents could work outside of the home, and children would be taught skills that would ostensibly help them succeed in the industrial age.

This must be known far and wide: classical education is a developmental approach. First the Trivium, then the Quadrivium, with age-appropriate materials for study and learning at each step of the learner’s growth. The fables of Aesop are a perfect example, because these can serve multiple purposes as the student matures. At the beginning, these fables are read to the young student; later on, the fables can be closely-studied as models of effective writing; and later still, the fables can serve as fantastic first-reading in the study of the Ancient Greek language (the fables’ original tongue). And throughout the rest of the learner’s life, into adulthood, the fables can be used for rumination upon the human condition. It is no wonder that Aesop has long been part of the Canon. After all, the works of he Canon are meant to be a central part of one’s study through life, for its works store cultural insights and persuasions not to be swallowed whole or naively, but following Cairns, as highly suggestive thought stimulation, that bear the fruits of depth and profundity through one’s maturity.

If the desire is to renew cultural imagination, if the desire is to learn from those that have come before us, if the desire is to know what has occupied, and even flummoxed, great minds from the beginning of recorded history, if the desire is to restore awareness of theological, philosophical, aesthetic, linguistic, historical, and classical truths across the ages, if the desire is to find democratic ways to expand consciousness, deconstruct boundaries of time and space, learn archetypal forms of expression, and to foster fullness in mysterious ways, I simply don’t see any way around the simple path in front of us: make the Canonical works of the Humanities your daily bread, part of your sadhana, or practice of artistry. (For more on artistry practice, see The Artist’s Breath.) For doing so connects your artistry practice with immersion in the full spectrum of ideas and archetypal forms. It is a study whereby this full-spectrum, along with your unique human experiences, form the content that animates what flows through your art, and so, simply, without anything but study, hard work, and courage, your artistry practice takes lineage in the integral tradition, and can contribute to it.

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