Monday, November 9, 2009

The Eye and the Beholder

Many years ago now, engaged in a study of packaging on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, I got involved with bottles-and-cans. That phrase became shorthand, later, for a significant uproar across the environmental community dealing with beverage containers, their discard as litter, and efforts to force industry to reclaim and to recycle them. In studying this matter I visited Coca Cola in order to understand better how this aspect of packaging worked. In that process I came to marvel. The more I learned about the subject, the more it expanded. An empty, bent, carelessly discarded small container along the roadside—barely seen as we drive by it—morphed into a vast commercial, engineering, and manufacturing colossus which was the central concern, indeed the living, of thousands of people across the United States. I came to think of these containers as the uniformed armies of the two great competing empires of Sugar-Water, and, indeed, later on, having visited the one in Atlanta I also traveled to upstate New York, and there I was appropriately awed by the glorious glass palace that housed Pepsi, the other.

Who says that life in business is a dull affair? You drive away from such a setting in the green-gold countryside at the wheel of your red Avis on a brilliant fall day, having admired very fine art on display in a vast building-circumambulating lobby, and you think yourself magically transported into another medieval time of duchies and princedoms, the dukes and princes of whom are powerful figures who visit—or are visited by—senators and presidential aides, and in your thoughts, as the palace falls behind you and the black ribbon of the road bisects breathtaking woods, you wonder what a strange thing it might be to expend your efforts serving Sugar Water, travelling over oceans in shiny airplanes on its behalf…and realizing that this strange notion may never ever occur to Sugar Water’s actual minions who, bless them, just think of what they do as the same-old-same-old-same-old job.

I was reminded of the strange, lens-like character of attention in the context of yesterday’s post about living in multiple mental worlds. Our ability to pay attention to many quite different realities would seem to have a scattering, a centrifugal force. Here is time spent on complex technical problems (at work), the right wine for the chosen meat (shopping), the matter-form duality underlying Aristotle’s concept of substance and the peculiar habitation of unformed matter and immaterial form (reading), and then (Saturday night) immersed in experience of the music and the husky words of the creator of Thunder Road. Oh my. Yes, indeed. And the loom to weave all this into a fabric?

As the world infinitely expands, proliferates, and complexifies the more we stare at it, as at every blink that gets us closer it only unfurls yet another even greater fractal layer of yet another depth of intricacy—or as this same complexity curls up into a simple object, then shrinks into a token, then turns into a concept, and then may actually disappear as we withdraw our attention—all this while that which is behind the attention remains the only fixed and immutable point. And that point—we can’t actually get at it at all—is ourselves. It does the weaving. How we do it, how well we do it, that is the crux of the matter.

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Thunder Road bring memories? A puzzlement? To hear the song, click here. To read the lyrics, here. The combined effect of words and music will not be revealed, I don’t think, by close study, however intense, of either one or the other, no matter how well conducted.

1 comment:

  1. True indeed.

    I find it interesting too that you speak here of the increasing complexity of the world and in an earlier post (A Time of Shatter) about the decline in complexity.

    Another interesting thought, that both of these observations are true... Levels, all depends on the level you're looking at.

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