Sunday, March 23, 2014

On Paradigm

There are two kinds of thinking. There is one that we are aware of and another that accompanies us unnoticed. This other thinking is the automatic, preconscious activity that constitutes our world: it makes the structure before us into a table, the brown surface into polished wood, the complex sensation of colour into brown, the texture into oak. It puts everything in place and places us against it. This thinking co-creates the world, shapes it to the specifications of our culture, time and circumstance. This activity provides the foundation for conscious thoughts and the framework for perceptions. The moment we open our eyes we see through its lens.

For the young child this preconscious thinking is not yet fully in place. She learns it in stages. It is the same with someone born blind who is then operated upon. The world is not just there the moment he opens his eyes.  He has to learn to adjust his newfound visual perceptions with the concepts at his disposal. It takes time to match inner and outer. In some cases this new world proves threatening. The mind withdraws its activity and the person reverts to blindness, although his visual organs work.

This shows how much we shape what we see. What we take as matter of fact, as unshakeable reality, is an acquired response. Reality is a culturally sanctified and continuously reinforced interpretation.

Even something as commonplace as spatial perspective with its here and there, front and back, is construed in this way. The child and the born-blind acquire it in stages, as did our culture. Perspective emerged at the end of the middle ages. Giotto was the first painter to place his figures into the emerging three-dimensional architecture of space. When Renaissance artists brought his innovations into line, perspective fell in place. The world was spatial thereafter and has remained so since; at least to European eyes informed by a European mind.

Such set ways of seeing are culture-specific and not easily changed. Early Australian artists painted the Australian landscape with a decisively European brush. Eucalypts looked like oaks and the outback resembled English parks. Only later did painters begin to see the landscape in new terms: the scenery becomes Australian and colours pale in southern light. At last eucalypts look like themselves. That is, to us, to the western eye, the European mind, to a culture habituated to a particular kind of perception.

Aboriginal dot paintings prove that there are very different ways of seeing the same thing. They too are portraits of landscape. But nothing even remotely resembles anything we would expect. These art works take the pulse of the land, capture the scintillating currents of life, mark the acupuncture points of the earth. Landscape, ecology, maps, directives, story and history coincide on these dazzling tattoos. Nothing is external. Every mound is understood, every feature read like a book. Time is not linear and space not abstracted.

These artworks are furthest from the habitual perceptions of western civilisation and therefore uniquely healing for the cultural bias associated with it: the assumption that reality coincides with the way this civilisation has come to interpret it. Indigenous artefacts are declarations of independence against western imperialism in its most pervasive form: that is, against the worldwide acceptance of reality in its present state and all the rights and conclusions derived from it.

The true paradigm of today is the reality we accept. And the real paradigm shift the realisation that this reality is not fixed.


emily said...

Hopefully we can unlearn our habits of perception, as least a little bit!

Iris Lavell said...

Beautiful post. I was amazed when I was flying up to Broome many years ago in clear weather, how like some of the traditional art of Aboriginal Australia had captured an aerial view of the landscape - and long before human beings took to the air! It is truly mysterious and just one indication of how much we have to learn from this ancient and highly sophisticated culture.