Alan Kirker

Metaphor and Myth

May 26th, 2020 by

Eloquent big thinker and scholar of comparative religion Joseph Campbell wrote and lectured extensively on the subjects of metaphor as myth, and myth as metaphor. According to Wikipedia, “Myth is a folklore genre consisting of narratives or stories that play a fundamental role in a society, such as foundational tales or origin myths”. Dr. Campbell spoke of the great value of having a myth, not only from the perspective of a group, but also from the perspective of an individual.

Having a mythological story, hero, or heroine to identify with can provide a narrative seen to run nearly parallel, at least in certain regards, to one’s personal experience. Such stories thus provide a sort of sounding board and the requisite psychological balm for the current cause of one’s suffering or state of mental anxiety, or for example, the cognitive dissonance felt when several misaligned views are firmly held on to.

A myth may also provide a path forward for a person. One of Campbell’s popular mythological themes was that of the Hero’s Journey. Poignantly illustrated in Star Wars’ opening scenes when we find the conflicted young Luke Skywalker struggling to choose between a life of filial piety on a prisoner planet, or a life of mystery and intrigue abroad, finally choosing the latter. Apart from classic displays of good versus evil myths in Star Wars, this particular variety becomes a narrative with which we can each identify at separate points in our lives; having to move to another place, change jobs, or depart on an adventure. The aim is to ease suffering yes, but through making a choice, making a change, or embarking on a journey and accepting its risks in the interest of searching for, or finding meaning. The journey may only be in one’s own mind, and it may simply involve breaking a bad habit and charting a new course in life. As Joseph Campbell frequently underscored, we each choose our own spot along the dark forest edge through which to enter.

Myths can span cultures, however, certain cultures exhibit their own specific and particular myths. According to Campbell, aboriginal cultures, whose nature-bound traditions are broadly regarded as precursors to more modern tribal rituals, place less emphasis on heroic figures and their journeys. Rather, in a manner holier in the truest sense of the word; their beliefs…

“… while unexceptionally ethnocentric, do not anywhere exhibit such an exclusive fascination with the people themselves; for every feature of the landscape, the whole world of nature and everything around them, is encompassed in their regard” (p.33).

Campbell, J. (1986) The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York, United States: Harper & Row

Symbol and Representation

May 12th, 2020 by

Elemental to art are notions of symbol and representation. “Representation is the use of signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation that people organize the world and reality through the act of naming its elements” (Wikipedia, retrieved May 2020).

Symbols such as images can often be simplifications of broader concepts, and as author of An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper states, “constitute an international language transcending normal limits of communication” (p. 7). In a graphic arts example of deep design, a symbol or logo that is created to represent an organization may seek to embody some key emblematic aspect and become its recognized brand. Perhaps its presentation echos values that accord with what is socio-culturally relevant to the organization’s self-perception. Straight lines, and bold, sans-serif typefaces tend to project a sense of cleanliness, order, and stability. Lower-case, or upper-and-lower case typesetting can tend to soften and humanize a name. Often, these sorts of decisions are made with great thought; not only applied to what is being represented, but at to whom it is aimed. Layers of meaning are thus distilled into, and projected by otherwise simple symbols. Some treatments have benefited from creative and serendipitous design: The bold, right-pointing arrow formed in the negative space of the FedEx logo, even if not consciously perceived, works to reinforce an image of movement, direction, and when coupled with the bold, colourful, sans-serif type, projects the logistics company with an air of modern, unbridled efficiency.

Certain symbols become so recognized, so popular, so important as to practically supersede in some deep manner, that which they represent. Consider in this light the many traditional symbols that form the broad pantheon of religious iconography. Or more recent graphic design examples in the case of the Nike “swoosh” and Michael Jordan logos; two popular symbols that on a practical level became more valuable than the products they represent. While in design school, there circulated a cautionary tale on the topic of attaching maximal value to the creation of these important little symbols. Evidently, the designer who created the Nike swoosh only got paid several hundred dollars for his work; at the time neither he nor his client could have foreseen it coming to represent a multi-billion dollar company.

One spoken or written representational equivalent of the symbol is referred to as a metaphor;a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning another”. Noted author and scholar of comparative religion credited with inspiring George Lucas to create the movie Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, wrote and spoke at great length about the importance of symbol, metaphor, and myth across both time and culture. He declared that God is not some entity or being, but rather a metaphor for the mystery of life that transcends all human cogitation. If we are to try and update his definition with more contemporary language, could it read; God is a metaphor for the serendipitous, synchronous, and otherwise inexplicable but somehow intrinsically relevant phenomena, which emerge from complexity and complex systems? Or, does updating an interpretation in such a manner leave out important aspects of what is being represented? As J. C. Cooper, states, “A symbol can never be a mere form, as is the sign, nor can it be understood except in the context of its religious, cultural, or metaphysical background, the soil from which it grew. The symbol is a key to a realm greater than itself” (p.7).

Hallucination 2

April 23rd, 2020 by

There are many different types of hallucinations relating to our senses and perceptions that can provide interesting insights into how the mind works.

Auditory hallucinations are the most common form. Two main types exist; elementary, such as persistent sounds in the case of tinnitus, and complex. This latter group further divides into two subcategories. The first encompasses hallucinations that include the auditory equivalent of Charles Bonnet syndrome known as Musical Ear syndrome, where fragments of music manifest without any external source. The second involves the hearing of goading or malicious voices and is most often correlated with diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia.

Apart from hallucinations that owe their appearance to natural causes such as illness or neurochemical misfiring, some arise as a result of physical injury or amputation. Phantom Limb syndrome hallucinations can include sensations, sometimes painful, that are felt as though real despite no longer having a physical location in the body.

The accidental discovery of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1943, and subsequent counter-cultural exposition of psychedelic drugs beginning in the 1960s that continues to this day has brought the notion of hallucination more generally into the collective awareness. Psychedelic drugs, both naturally-occurring and laboratory-synthesized, are a means by which human consciousness can be perturbed at will through ingesting a substance, often with unpredictable, hallucinatory results. The book Poisoner in Chief by Stephen Kinzer reveals how the US government conducted its notorious CIA mind control research program, MK-ULTRA, under Sydney Gottleib, which administered LSD to many unwitting subjects. In popular culture, people who read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception became entranced by his vivid elucidations of hallucinations, notably the perception of colour, and sought to similarly explore the numinous realms he described. Consider his mescalin-induced observations of the books on his bookshelf:

“Like flowers, they glowed, when I looked at them, with brighter colors, a profounder significance. Red books, like rubies; emerald books; books bound in white jade; books of agate; of aquamarine; of yellow topaz; lapis lazuli books whose color was so intense, so instrinsically meaningful, that they seemed on the point of leaving the shelves to thrust themselves more insistently on my attention” (p. 19).

It should be no wonder too, that with the help of ebullient characters including Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and his “Band of Merry Pranksters”, not to mention use by countless artists and musicians, why LSD and its psychedelic counterparts were instrumental in the 1960s counter-cultural revolution.

In addition to enabling the perception of colour as hyper-saturated, sometimes even with meaning, facets of the psychedelic experience commonly include changes to how time and space are felt. For instance, three-dimensional reality can have the appearance of being reduced down to flat, two-dimensional planes. In cases where sufficient quantity of a drug, for example psilocybin – the active ingredient in magic mushrooms – is ingested, one may even feel part of a projection of the physical surroundings oneself, or sense the presence of some other entity. Popular psychonaut and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, who described encounters with extraterrestrial  “machine elves” after ingesting a “heroic dose” of five dried grams of psilocybe cubensis in silent darkness, argued that the discovery of this hallucinogen by our ancestors on the African savanna was antecedent to the development of advanced human consciousness.

With magic mushrooms and other psychedelic drugs such as DMT, the experimenter can experience being transported to celestial worlds, encounter alien and animistic life forms, or arrive at colossal, transcendental insights about life and the universe, far beyond ordinary imagination. Often, experiences in this vein leave people feeling irrevocably changed for the better; suddenly at peace with themselves and the world. Under recent medically well-documented circumstances, psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin have been used in controlled settings to help treat the symptoms of trauma, and issues along the anxiety spectrum. In some cases, people have garnered keen insight into the ultimate effects of their behaviour, and have wound up completely changing course in life, or miraculously recovering from a substance addiction. Psychedelic experiences can, however, be frightening for some, and in a very few cases permanent psychiatric damage has been reported, perhaps as a result of not paying important attention to “set” and “setting” when taking the drug.

The experiences of hallucinations, from the extreme mind-boggling, never-seen-before imagery and landscapes, to ones caused by injury, disease, or neurological misfiring, all point to the fact that the human mind is a truly complex organ. An antennae-like perceptual device itself that is charged with managing the sense gate data of its several constituent inputs and making it all cohere for us. The signals are many and come from deep within as well as out beyond. Like dreams, hallucinations force us to suspend beliefs about the mind as an isolated, independently-operating black box. If we can expand our definition of its throughput to include all of the data crossing its sense thresholds, beyond even what can be consciously perceived, is it that far a stretch to suggest that our minds themselves extend well beyond their apparent cranial capacities?

Implication

February 24th, 2020 by

How would one witness or experience the effects of Bohm’s underlying implicate order? If such a realm – invisible, underlying, but integral to that which we know as reality – really exists, and if it is as pervasive as he would like us to believe, should we not see or otherwise be more aware of it? Beyond analyses of subatomic particle behaviour, some imprint of the implicate order must be available to us in the explicate; in our manifest perception of reality. Or so one would think.

Because of how we perceive, there is a correspondingly incomplete recognition and defining of the substrate in which, as constituent beings, we are enmeshed. As humans, we certainly seem to be aware of, if not connected to, our physical surroundings, not to mention our connections to each other. We often experience inexplicable serendipitous, synchronous phenomena which underscore these relationships. Despite this, however, there can be a feeling of separation; a strong sense that we are distinct, autonomous entities scrabbling about on nature’s stage. Does our orientation, however conditioned, prevent us from truly recognizing the appearance of some underlying invisible source? And, if this is the case, how do we change our perspective?

According to physicist Brian Greene, the main reason why we have such a difficult time wrapping our heads around any broader view of reality is due to our brains having evolved to think in an environment that necessitated, for example, the throwing of spears, in order to survive. As a species, we have adapted to thinking in the unfolded, cartesian space-time world of Newtonian physics, not in the enfolded pre-space realm of quantum mechanics, nor the enfolded pre-thought realm of the human mind. Even beyond such leaps of understanding, is the question of how do we reconcile this world that we are most familiar with an underlying implicate order, which for all intents and purposes remains invisible to us? Moreover, why even consider the existence of such an order?

Enfoldment

February 10th, 2020 by

Dr. Carl Jung, proponent of the concept of synchronicity which hints at some deeper, interconnected realm, recognized that much of what went on in the human subconscious was invisible to any form of direct observation; not only by outside observers, but often also invisible to the subjects themselves. Nowadays, imaging technology has changed some of this, and is opening all kinds of interesting scientific research doors.

Jung’s study of patients’ dream states demonstrated that a whole other world was perceived by them under certain conditions. It could be said that these dreams were buried or enfolded within their subconscious minds. Jung encouraged his patients to illustrate their visions through art and narrative. Often, strikingly common themes and motifs would emerge from such recollections, despite there being any rational, earthly connection to account for them. He called these recurrent phenomena archetypes and they could, for example, be roles assumed by the dreamer or actors within the dream such as that of a hero or heroine, or objects, such as totems or icons, which themselves became symbols for something metaphysically salient. When studied in this light, recurrent phenomena within stories from dreams become connecting threads of similarity across both time and space. These raise the potential for some deeper interconnecting fabric; invisible, but underlying and intrinsically woven with that which we know as reality.

Jung, despite the acclaim with which he and his work are now held, was perhaps regarded as being on the fringe of science by many of his contemporaries. Another favourite big thinker is David Bohm, who was similarly on the fringe during his time, and whom I will be continuing to write more about in future posts.

Dr. David Bohm was a theoretical physicist who became disillusioned and was eventually exiled as a result of McCarthyism during the U.S. postwar era following his work on the Manhattan project. Living abroad, he delved deeply into quantum mechanics; the study of the smallest particles and their fascinating behaviour. This began as an effort to reconcile some of the questions he felt had not been adequately addressed by his peers and colleagues, namely on the topic of the wave-particle duality. Particularly, how tiny photons, the constituents of light, behave as though they are particles under some conditions, while also behaving as though they are waves under other conditions. This apparent conundrum continues to lie at the heart of much of particle physics to this day. Bohm wanted to reconcile commonly held views by offering a new interpretation.

Bohm worked on developing a theory of an implicate, or enfolded order. Particles, and how we perceive them, may be regarded as an unfolding (an ongoing process), or an unfoldment and their attributes in the unfolded state are indicative of activity that is, or has taken place, on some deeper, enfolded level. To illustrate this notion in the simplest of fashions, he described folding a piece of paper up, taking a pair of scissors and making some arbitrary cuts in it, and then unfolding it to reveal the pattern created by the cuts. This revealed pattern is said to be enfolded; bound up, or implied within the higher implicate order of the folded-up piece of paper, and despite its invisibility to us whilst in the folded-up state, the pattern is nonetheless there. Thus, in reality, what we perceive through our various sense gates, and oftentimes instruments, is merely the explicate order (from ‘to explicate’, ‘explain’, reveal, unravel, etc.) or unfoldment that has derived from the invisible, enfolded, implicate one.

Bohm was not satisfied with the prevailing reductionist scientific approach to further develop his theory of the implicate order, and instead sought to apply his insights on a more tangible, macroscopic level. Rather than study individual particles, he wondered instead about the very nature of perception, reality, and consciousness itself. From this, he went on to develop a format of public dialogue which explored new approaches to communication in order to make the best use of both it and thought, particularly within interpersonal and group contexts. This was an effort aimed at helping lay the groundwork needed to address some of humankind’s most pressing challenges, at whose roots are often issues of incoherent thought and communication.

Interestingly, over just the past few years, David Bohm’s insights in the study of particle physics are seeing a resurgence of attention within the recent work of several of the world’s top physicists, including Lee Smolin, who references him in his book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution. Perhaps a renewal of interest in Bohm’s approaches overall will herald a more thorough re-examination and re-evaluation of this important thinker.

Synchronicity

January 28th, 2020 by

Serendipity may be considered an analogue of synchronicity, a term used by analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who described it as events that are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related to one another. If one is open to such concepts on a broader level, it is not a far stretch to then consider the possibility of some underlying fabric that provides a source from which all phenomena arise. Perhaps what sometimes appear to be unique phenomena are in fact snapshots from such a deeper, invisible realm. As an artist, part of the exercise must therefore be to turn oneself into an antenna of sorts, so that as much of this realm as possible can be apprehended.

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