Attending to the world is an embodied practice involving our senses, and how we experience our senses has a history. The upshot is that we might be able to meet the some of the challenges of the age by cultivating an askesis of perception.
As always, you set so many hares running, it’s hard to pick one to chase. I find meditation, or mindfulness, a very powerful exercise in aksesis - and of being in the body. It’s greatest benefit is how, when moving around in the world, I am made so aware of the granularity, the sheer richness of sense experience, sound particularly. And Weil is absolutely right - really learning to pay attention is the fundamental, if not the whole, point of education. Thanks as always.
Thank you, Michael, for this wonderfully provocative piece. I am new to this society and new to the thinking of Illich, which through your exegesis I am understanding to hold critical insights into the condition we find ourselves in. (I find Illich’s prose practically inscrutable, so my current plan is to stick with your interpretations.) Critical, for finding the way out and beyond. I was wondering if we might take the evocative idea of “the show” out of context a little bit (or maybe those of you who know Illich will think that this isn’t out of context at all. I will be so curious to hear back).
I have been thinking about patterns of thought that we hold jointly that hold us captive, and beyond which we often dare not think. (The international health situation we currently face is a case in point, I believe.) To more efficiently ask my question, I want to use as an example the theoretical physicist David Bohm, whom Einstein referred to as his intellectual son. Bohm seemed practically repelled by the predominating thought patterns of his field. He didn’t trouble himself very much to keep up with the scholarly journals of physics. Instead, he went on hours-long walks (often in nature—very striking vis a vis this article) every day and seemed to have derived his scientific inspiration largely from those, as well as from brainstorming sessions with all kinds of people from a variety of fields. He suffered greatly in his professional life for some of his contrarian and noble choices, but his work earned him consideration for the Nobel Prize, several times. He was well aware of entrenched thought patterns in his field, they exasperated him and he was passionate to avoid their traps. I would say, he had a deep connection with a font of creativity of such value that he accepted the prices of nonconformity, which were steep.
So I am wondering what this group thinks. No doubt the current media environment drives the priorities of science and the development of technology. (Individual professional subcultures think in tandem and similarly discourage alternative thinking, I would also say). But as that train has left the station, maybe it’s not completely of the essence to separate ourselves from the technologies that have so influenced the thought patterns of most fields of endeavor that I can think of. If the sciences have a “show” of their own (history shows that it does), and the arts and humanities fawningly line up to the masters of our current patterns of thought—then the problem is not so much to be more mindful about using technology (as critical as that would be). The problem involves each individual person’s entire relationship with what he/she does (for a living, for example), hears, intuitively senses. Probably, these are problems of being in one’s own body and reading its signals in relation to an environment and a moral vision. They are problems of finding the font of one’s own self through all the noise of an out-of-control, noisy show. ( In this environment I am indebted to anyone pointing out the obvious--that this is a moral problem.) But hasn’t the show escaped technology?
No doubt I am showing my ignorance but I am eager to learn. I am wondering about personal creativity like what Bohm demonstrated as a beacon for getting beyond "the show." With my comments I would love to keep the ball in the air.
Thanks for this, sometimes I nearly grasp the distinctions—critical vs ascetic, right vs left, image vs show—but for this untrained mind they remain dauntingly abstract. Perhaps they could be illustrated by crudely chosen instances or examples? I’d dearly like to follow some of Illich’s ideas and their relevance today.
I read Illich’s paper on aksesis in the academy- delightfully raw and typo ridden. I guess when he talks about left and right he’s referring to McGilchrist’s idea of the left being rational and the right holistic or heart (crudely). But he’s frustratingly vague about the heart would be about in the academy!
Terrific piece, Michael. The main thing this article set me thinking about is this: what kind of practices would an "ocular askesis" involve? Some that come to mind: painting or drawing; taking time to notice; leaving our phones or mediating devices behind for certain activities, especially conversation; reducing our exposure to "the show", though I'm not sure what means. Do you have practices you suggest?
I do wish that I could find a list of the 158 words for smell the Germans had. It'd be neat to rediscover and expand our vocabularies for these perceptions; perhaps that's another "practice". For example, I remember reading Tolkein and being so amazed by the variety of words he used to describe the landscapes. I wonder if learning these words can help us see, a kind of "Sapir-Whorf" practice for sight.
Oh, and I don't know if you've seen this, but Rob Walker has a substack called "The Art of Noticing" which is great, and dovetails nicely with the "touching and embracing reality" line since it's all about ways of practicing perception. You might enjoy it! He even has a recent post on smell: https://robwalker.substack.com/p/olfactory-work