Friday, 11 February 2011

Failure is an event, not a person.

Interesting isn’t it, how we confuse what people do for what they are? I mean by this the way we describe someone as being, for example, original: an original thinker, an original artist or an original writer rather than simply describing what they actually do as being original. Clearly this is completely inaccurate. No one is more original than anyone else.

This kind of subtle misattribution might be ok when we’re dealing with job titles: secretary, waiter, artist etc. but the real problems start when we begin to internalize negatively weighted attributions: “I’m unoriginal”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m no good at that.” Such self-perceptions are only ever something we resign ourselves to: they’re a declaration that we’ve given up trying and that we’ve come to the conclusion that further effort is futile. Indeed, further effort would simply reinforce the negative perception. It’s not surprising therefore that people avoid putting themselves in such circumstances and consequently avoid the kinds of risks that might lead, not just to disappointment, but to growth.

The problem, of course, is thinking that a failed thing, of our own making, is representative of who we are and – crucially - who we might become: that creations define not just internal states but potentialities. We can see this same deception in education, in which students are constantly under the critical eye of evaluation and assessment. What better way to encourage self-criticism and crippling self-consciousness?

In education there’s a widely held assumption that we assess learning. In fact we don’t assess learning at all. What we asses are the products of study, which we take as proof of learning. Assessment, and grades in particular, perpetuate the notion that what defines people is that which is created by them but which is external to them. Whilst this may necessarily be true within the view of others, it also, arguably, has the side effect of turning individuals into observers of their own performance when what education should be trying to foster is unselfconscious critical engagement with the objects of study at the very deepest level.


Anonymous said...

Might be true of art, but in most professions, performance is everything.

J. Hamlyn said...

So glad you said that Sean - I've been mulling this over since I wrote this post and I'm coming to the increasingly firm conclusion that "performance" is, at best, only ever second best:
"It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of "culture." -John Cage

Anonymous said...

If you are referring to performance art, I'm with you 100%.

J. Hamlyn said...

I know where you're coming from Sean but my thinking is that this issue is endemic throughout contemporary society. This demands a new post of its own I think. "I'll be back" as a performer turned politician cum simulacrum once said.

Tamsin said...

I love this quote about originality. Brilliant. Going on my wall today.

I guess you know that NLP thing, 'there's no failure, only feedback'? Perhaps it's a cliche now, but what a difference it would make if we could see 'our' failures this way.

...what defines people is that which is created by them but which is external to them.... I'm not completely sure what you meant by this, but it made me think of how university assessments take the externalisation of things (ie. making the student stand back and look critically)as their bottom line. Woe betide you if you put something too 'internal' into your essay. Now, I actually think that this practice is a very important thing to learn. The problem is, as you say, that it turns people not only into hopefully more balanced observers, but also into self-critics who risk losing sight of any faith in whatever they find themselves to be. I've become a huge fan of the notion of authenticity recently. And yet I can scarcely dream it without feeling I have to put it in scare quotes.

Last thought - can 'unselfconscious' and 'critical engagement' co-exist at the same time?

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes - there's a term for that: 'self-awareness', though even this is in danger of crumbling into meaninglessness.
I know what you mean about the "standing back" thing (interesting that we use an embodied metaphor which probably comes from painting originally) and agree that it's a vitally important thing to learn to do both in writing as well as in the studio. However, this need not preclude being immersed in the event of production such that all the external expectations and pressures are momentarily suspended. Everyone who has ever had a creative moment, or even a moment (I mean this in the extended sense) of intense concentration knows what this feels like. Not even self awareness touches it since it’s utterly without consciousness of the self. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”, though he loads it with too much mystical nonsense for my liking.
It seems to me that the centrality of this type of experience is being forgotten under a mountain of audit, accountability, performance quotas, targets, goals, learning outcomes, competitiveness, incentives, rewards, critical awareness and risk assessments... you name it.

Anonymous said...

The flow state is at the heart of Zen cookery, but I doubt very much that the majority of people in HE or outside of it have any experience of it whatsoever. To take this as the sole point of the Tenzo's job is however one-sided, as I discussed here:

J. Hamlyn said...

Sure, but you can't bake a bagel without a little immersion!

Anonymous said...

I dunno-Zen has immersive ways of doing everything from flower arranging to chopping people to bits with a sword, but is my bread consistently objectively better than Warburton's? Can you taste love?

I can easily believe that some artists might be very familiar with flow states. They are commonplace experiences amongst skilled artisans, long distance runners and so on.

I would suspect that the more intellectual/academic an artist is, the less likely they are to have experienced flow. You have to bring the body's wisdom in to get a flow state.

This issue touches upon a thing I have noticed about academics - can you teach something as visceral as flow, or use psychotherapeutic principles in your practice if you haven't had the primary experience?

Reading about flow for example gives people as much real knowledge of it as a blind person might have of colour. Descriptions are necessarily inexact, and readily fall into mystical language.

In one commentary on the Tenzo Kyokun, a master said it is like showing a blind person what the sun is like by handing him a pan to demonstrate its roundness. He hits it and says "the sun makes a fine sound"...

In the least mystical terms possible, "you had to be there"

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Sean,
"Brazen Teacher", who I know you have encountered already through this blog, has a nice post on the subject of love, art and cooking entitled "Art and Spaghetti." She writes: "Love affects matter." Both you and I 'know' that's not true, but as she also says: "I’m not making a scientific argument I’m unqualified to make. Discourse yes, argument… in time." I'd certainly be very keen to hear the argument, but on the other hand I know already that if it came to a choice between two equally qualified doctors I'd always choose the one who loves her job over the one who was simply 'performing' the motions.
I'm also a little doubtful about your suggestion that "You have to bring the body's wisdom in to get a flow state." is this objectively true I wonder? And if so what might it suggest about poets? If academics are indeed bereft of an understanding of flow then I'd suggest that this has more to do with suspicions about the 'internal' as Tamsin has already noted above. Either way, it seems to me that the phenomenon of flow as a vital component of learning is thoroughly misunderstood and neglected in education. Certainly we can't teach it (much like play or creativity) but we could do a much better job of encouraging and enabling it.

Anonymous said...

If you want to experience it, I can point you in the right direction to have a good chance of doing so-then there will be nothing to discuss, just as there is now. Like I said, you had to be there.

It seems that academics complain that artists are too subjective, and engineers too objective. Maybe they are more interested in everlasting discussions than discovering either sort of truth.

Tamsin said...

I've thought a lot about flow in the last year or so. It seemed to me that I quite regularly got into that kind of state when I was writing, even though what I was writing was constrained by academic conventions. The feeling of it, I THINK, was pretty much the same as the feeling when immersed in playing music, or drawing. What someone has called the state 'when the room disappears'.... And yet I keep asking myself, was it, was it really the same? One answer to myself was that that state was partly created by a looming deadline - I was entranced by trying to sort out difficult ideas, and just kept on and on playing with them, trying to find a way through the murk. It felt like flow, but I suspect something slightly different, partly because of how I felt when I finally stopped (something to do with computer screens and deadlines). Whereas, if I'm doing art/visual/creative stuff on the computer, the state of absorbtion is naturally self-limiting, and never results in feeling bad. Is this too subtle a distinction to be worth considering??

What about you folk who do art for a living - does this distinction mean anything to you?

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