THE REALISTIC MANIFESTO

It’s 1920. The glow of the Russian Revolution is everywhere and dialectical materialism is the philosophy de jour. Every aspect of life in Russian society is undergoing radical transformation. Avant-garde Russian artists are re-evaluating their heritage, their values, even their chosen careers. How can a function like art, that served so well the age of the Bourgeoisie, regain vitality and relevance in the era of Proletariat?

In the midst of all this, Naum Gabo stepped forward with his truly revolutionary manifesto. Its opening words make clear to the reader that he is in for a wild ride:

“Above the tempest of our weekdays/Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past/Before the gates of the vacant future/We proclaim…”

In less than a sentence, Gabo has stripped past, present and future of all content. He is preparing to introduce a radical new ontology, an ontology which turns out to be just as relevant today as it was revolutionary in 1920.

First however, he must deal with the artistic tradition. Beginning with a dismissal of Naturalism, Symbolism, Romanticism and Mysticism, Gabo goes on to reject recent efforts to free art from its past. Impressionism, Cubism and Futurism, he denounces by name. Then Gabo goes on to propose an Existentialist ethic:

“Everything is false – only life and its laws are real/And in life only the active is beautiful and strong, and wise, and right…/The deed is the highest and surest truth.”

That ethic turns out to be the foundation of his ontology. “Today is the deed.” Gabo does not deny the reality of past, present or future; nor does he deny the continuity of time. But the content of these categories is nothing but ashes, chaos (“tempest”) and void.

In Gabo’s ontology, there is only one class of actual entity: Deeds (or acts). Act does not take place within a pre-existent spatio-temporal continuum (Newton); act creates the spatio-temporal continuum. The Present is brought into being by the Deed and the Deed constitutes the content of the Present.

“Space and time were born for us today.” (We are reminded of Heraclitus: “The sun is new every day.”) And today is the deed! So it is the Deed that brings space and time into being. But the Deed exists only in the Present (past is ashes and future is vacant). So space and time exist only in the Present. Space and time have no independent existence of their own; they as aspects of the Present, created by the Deed.

But what does this have to do with Art?

“Space and time are the only forms…on which art must be constructed…/The realization of our perceptions of the world in the forms of space and time is the only aim of our…art.”

Art is Act (Deed); it creates its own Present. That Present in turn creates space and time which are the forms on which Art is constructed.

According to Gabo’s vision, Art can no longer be seen as something that occurs within space and time. Space and time now constitute the work itself; they themselves are its medium, the raw material of artistic creation. Each of Gabo’s works presents space-time in the eternal Present of the work itself.

Gabo’s ideas are so extreme that there is a natural tendency to want to minimize them. “Perhaps that is not really what he meant,” or “Perhaps he meant his ideas to be understood in the narrow context of artists’ shop talk.”

Fortunately for us, throughout his life, Gabo returned to the themes of the Realistic Manifesto, reasserting them and, when necessary, clarifying them. In 1939, he wrote, “Space and time are the two exclusive elements of real life; therefore to correspond to real life, art must be based on these two elements.” And as late as 1966, he wrote, “Space is really my material. The sculpture is there to act on it, to make it reveal itself.”

In 1937, he clarified the context in which the Realistic Manifesto should be understood. “The Constructive idea is not a programmatic one. It is not a technical scheme for an artistic manner…it is a general concept of the world…”

What is that “general concept of the world” and how is it manifest in works of Art?

The Realistic Manifesto spells that out too: “We reject…color…line…volume…mass.”

Color is characteristic of a surface; line, qua outline, is a one dimensional surface. The surfaces of massive objects cut off interior spaces from the rest of the world. Volume is characteristic of “a space” (e.g. an object’s interior space) rather than space itself.

What Gabo rejects is the notion of surfaces. Surfaces divide, and they hide. They transform the Heraclitean flow into the Cartesian grid. They are a symptomatic of a bourgeois world view, a rigid class society, ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’.

In place of a geometry of lines, surfaces and volumes and a physics of mass and duration, Gabo presents a unified model based on vector, depth, tension and rhythm.

  • Gabo redefines line as “a direction of the static forces and their rhythm in objects”.
  • In place of volume, he substitutes depth: “look at our space…what is it if not one continuous depth?”
  • Instead of mass, he talks about “the static forces of a solid body” (today we might use the word “tension”).
  • Finally, he redefines time as “Kinetic Rhythms” (which he describes as “the basic forms of our perception of real time”).

Gabo’s world consists of a single extensive dimension (depth) and two forms of movement: directional “space like” movement (vector) and oscillatory “time like” movement (rhythm).

But can so spare a model really account for the variety of experience we enjoy?

Gabo is not content to hypothesize and run. He devotes the rest of his career to creating sculptures, models, to demonstrate the viability and completeness of this vision. All of his works are really efforts to show that such a sparce inventory of elements is both necessary and sufficient to account for the phenomena of “real life”.

HENRY MOORE AT ST. PAUL’S

If you want to understand what’s special about the Christian world view, travel to London and visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. Just to the left of the high altar stands one of Henry Moore’s final works, Mother and Child. One of the 20th century’s greatest sculptors and a self-professed non-believer, Moore has delivered a statement of Christian theology every bit as powerful and unambiguous as the Nicene Creed.

In Moore’s work, mother and child emerge together from a single, undifferentiated block of marble. It is the emergence of the child that allows the mother’s form to appear and the emergence of the mother that allows the child’s form to appear. Neither can emerge from the block without the other. No child no mother, no mother no child. Neither pre-exists; they are simultaneous products of a process of mutually causation sometimes referred to a “bootstrapping”.

Moore also makes it clear that this mutual causation is not a matter of passive co-existence. The marble speaks of an almost violent process through which the undifferentiated potentiality of mass unwinds as mother and child come to be.

To explore this process further, walk across the Thames and visit the Tate Modern. Take a look at Naum Gabo’s Stone with a Collar. Gabo, a contemporary of Moore’s, shows us the same process but at a much earlier stage. In Gabo’s work, mass is just beginning to unravel, its ultimate content has not yet begun to take shape.

We are all familiar with Efficient Causation (one billiard ball strikes another causing the second ball to move) and Final Causation (I studied in order to graduate, graduation being studying’s final cause). In theology, we speak of another type of causation, Causa Sui (self-causation), most often in the context of God (who is presumed to be the cause of his own being). But we have no simple, universally recognized term for the notion of Mutual Causation.

Yet Moore’s sculpture expresses this idea clearly and instantaneously. Why can’t we express this vision of reality in verbal language? It turns out we could…once. Earlier versions of some Indo-European languages included true second person pronouns and middle voice verbs.

A true second person pronoun, Martin Buber’s “Du”, suggests a situation of intimate mutuality. It is the syntax of love. There is no subjectivity or objectivity; only mutuality and instantaneous reciprocity. This is the relationship of mother and child in Moore’s sculpture.

Of course, our contemporary languages do sport second person pronouns (“you”) but these forms have lost their distinctive meaning. Our “you” is simply another version of he/she/it. It identifies a particular referent but, unlike the first person pronoun (“I/we”), it says nothing distinctive about the relationship between that referent and the referrer.

Diagramming a relationship in the second person (du-du) would not result in two arrows pointing in opposite directions, suggesting two reciprocating actors. The diagram would consist of a single arrow with two heads pointing in opposite directions, suggesting that it is the relationship itself that has ontologically priority.

“At the foundation is relationship” – Martin Buber, I and Thou.

The middle voice expresses this same reality on the predicate side. A middle voice verb suggests two “subjects” (or you might just as well say two objects) engaged in a continuous process of mutually modification. There is no modifier, no modified, just process. While the subjects of love live in the 2nd person, the process of love lives in the middle voice. Love indeed is the archetypical middle voice activity.

Gabo gives us no hint of what may be emerging from his “stone”. To do so would violate his aesthetic. But if we are to believe Henry Moore, we must assume that Gabo’s emerging forms would also enjoy a 2nd person, middle voice relationship.

The Christian world view is entirely concerned with second person relationships and middle voice processes and it understands cosmos strictly in those terms. The simple commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” exemplifies this. The lover and the loved are one. The lover sees himself in his neighbor. Lover and neighbor form an insoluble dyad. There is no lover without neighbor; it is through the neighbor that the lover emerges. But it is through the lover that the neighbor assumes the role of co-subject (du-du) in a second person, middle voice relationship. In the words of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, “they give each other reck” and therefore have being…just like the mother and child in Moore’s masterpiece.

Perhaps the reason that Christianity has fallen out of popular favor as an ontological model is that Christianity’s second person/middle voice ontology cannot be readily expressed in contemporary language. Language and philosophy are intimately related. We have turned our language into a tool to help us organize collective action, develop and deploy technology, and erect structures (think “Tower of Babel”). In the course of this transformation, our language has lost its ability to talk about ultimate things in a way that resonates with our deepest experience.

Perhaps this is why it is more often in paintings, sculptures, musical compositions and poems that we recognize our spiritual intuitions. Gabo, a Russian born sculptor and a leader among artists seeking to found a new aesthetic consistent with the values and perspectives of the Russian Revolution, writes, “I believe art to be the most immediate and most effective of all means of communication between human beings…it is verity itself.”

Let’s explore the theology more deeply. The mother and child theme is a visual expression of Mary’s epithet, “Mother of God”. We have heard this epithet so often that we often fail to grasp the incredible import of these three simple words. Mother of God. If God is “maker of…all things visible and invisible” (as the Nicene Creed tells us), then how could God have a mother? Clearly Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a product of God’s created world (and a rather recent product at that); how could she therefore be God’s mother?

In the language of first and third person pronouns, subjective and objective cases, active and passive voices, efficient and final causes, she could not! But that is not the syntax of Christianity.

In the Christian world view, God stands outside of space and time. Eternal, God is both the origin of all that will ever be (“Alpha”) and summation of all that has ever been (“Omega”). But even more astoundingly, God is also a minimal element, a quanta, in the world itself. Through Incarnation, God enters the space-time continuum, the historical universe, between the Alpha and the Omega…but already containing the Alpha and the Omega within him. In Christian topology, it is just as true to say that the part contains the whole as it is to say that the whole contains the part.

Metaphorically, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed (the smallest of all seeds known to his followers at that time); historically, Jesus enters the world as a baby, the child of poor parents, in the midst of political upheaval. At the time of his birth, and perhaps throughout his early years, he is literally homeless. He is a most unlikely candidate for secular kingship, much less cosmic sovereignty. But just as the mustard seed grows into a tree that shelters all birds, so the baby Jesus “grows” into the parousia which is the ultimate unification of all Being.

In such a world, temporal priority is fundamentally meaningless. Outside of space and time, God and the World are engaged in the process of mutual causation. God supplies the values and the synthetic power; world supplies the concrete content, including extensive relations like space and time.

Therefore, there is no contradiction in the assertion that Mary is both creature of God and mother of God. Indeed, the Mother of God epithet beautifully exemplifies the process of mutual causation and that is the cosmological reality that Henry Moore captures in Mother and Child.

One glace at Mother and Child and you’ve got it. No need to study theology at University; no need to go to Sunday school. It’s all right there in front of you to do with as you choose: Christianity!

LOVE…ACTUALLY!*

“I love you,” perhaps the most famous phrase in all of human speech. But what does it mean? I love many things: my wife and children, a fine bottle of wine, foie gras, London, to name a very few. “I love” tells you something about my state of mind…and that’s an end to it.

But surely this is not what we mean when we speak of Love! Love in the true sense is not just an emotion. It is something real, something fundamental. Anaximander, arguably the father of Western philosophy, is quoted as saying that the phenomenon of Presence (Being itself) arises when two potential relata “give each other reck.”

The existentialist Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, writes, “In the beginning is the relation;” and according to St. Paul only three things endure ”and the greatest of these is Love”.

So what do we need to create a model of this phenomenon that “makes the world go round” and yet makes “time stand still”?

I propose that Love (capital L) occurs when and only when these four propositions are simultaneously true:

(1)I love you
(2)You love me
(3)I feel loved by you
(4)You feel loved by me.

Only when all four of these conditions are met can we properly speak of Love. For “I love you” to be more than just an ejaculation of emotion, I must recognize you as my ontological equal, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”, because to love is to recognize yourself in the other (“love your neighbor as yourself”).

(Note: the term “ontological equal” will remain undefined in this essay. It does not necessarily imply “identical”. It may perhaps have more the sense of “congruent”. Perhaps an ontological equal is any entity we refer to as “whom” rather than as “which”. In another essay in this collection, Mary Poppins, Sufi Master,  we meet a character who asserts that absolutely all entities are ontologically equal in the strongest possible sense. But for our purposes in this essay, we will leave the term undefined.)

The account of Love found in Genesis is telling: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one body.” I am incomplete, something is missing, and I discover that in you. A primal unity is reestablished.

For Love to be more than a state of mind, for it to denote an Actual Entity, I must not only love you, but you also must love me. For you to love me, you must recognize me as your ontological equal. You must see yourself in me and you must feel that I complete you and make you whole just as I see myself in you and feel that you complete me and make me whole.

If this is not the case, then any ontological reciprocity I seem to experience is mere mirage. When I look at you, I would not be seeing myself in you; I would just be seeing my own reflection. I would, in fact, be Narcissus.

Love denotes Relation and so it is still not enough for me to love you and you to love me. These two propositions are entirely independent of one another; the subjective realities they describe are disconnected. We have not yet established the existence of Relation.

Love requires not only that I love you but also that I feel loved by you. When I feel loved by you, I feel you and when I feel you, I feel you in me. You may love me but if I do not feel that love, for whatever reason, then we are not talking about Love. Love requires that the primal body, torn apart (per Genesis), be reunited; and that only happens when I feel your love in me.

Likewise, of course, Love also requires that you feel loved by me. There can be no Love without total reciprocity.

Let’s rephrase our four initial propositions in light of these reflections. What we are really saying is this:

(1) I see myself in you.
(2) You see yourself in me.
(3) I feel you in me.
(4) You feel me in you.

Of course, we are using “see” and “feel” metaphorically. I don’t need the sense of sight to see myself in you nor do I need the sense of touch to feel you in me. Metaphorically speaking, “seeing” is how we relate to that which transcends us while “feeling” is how we relate to that which is immanent in us. So rephrasing again,

(1) You transcend me.
(2) I transcend you.
(3) You are immanent in me.
(4) I am immanent in you.

These are the necessary and sufficient conditions for Love. For Love to exist, the transcendent must be immanent and the immanent transcendent.

But when I love you and you love me and when I feel you, your love, in me and you feel me, my love, in you, we discover together that the I’s we believed we were are in fact only fragments of who we truly are. Like shards of pottery that thought themselves complete, albeit strangely rough edged, we now find our real identities as parts of a smooth, curvaceous vase.

The things we thought of as subjects, building blocks of our world, turn out not to be Actual Entities at all. It turns out that the foundational building blocks of Universe are not subjects (or objects) but dynamic relations.

Love is Relation, and therefore always personal and binary, but never exclusive. We may in fact love many people, even simultaneously, in the course of our lives. While love between me and one other ontological equal is sufficient to reconstitute primal unity, that particular relation is neither exclusive nor unique.

In response to the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus was asked, “And who is my neighbor?” He responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. The point of that story is that every ontological equal is my neighbor and therefore in some sense myself. Potentially at least, and perhaps ideally so, a relation of love can exist between me and every ontological equal I encounter.

Of course, it turns out that I am surrounded by ontological equals, every one of whom has the potential to enter into a relationship with me, every one of whom is at least theoretically capable of completing me and being completed by me, of forming an actual entity.

Yet every one of these persons is unique. Everyone is capable of completing me, but each in a different way. To return to the analogy of the vase, I am confronted with a myriad of broken shards, each one uniquely shaped, and yet each shard fits together perfectly with my jagged edges to constitute a perfect piece of pottery, a whole. By extension, we must assume that every shard in the heap will fit together with every other shard in the heap and that each such relation will constitute a whole, an Actual Entity. It is the phenomenon of relation that constitutes actuality, not the mere existence of relata.

This result is radically different from what we imagine from our everyday lives. When we shatter a vase, we need to reunite each and every shard to recreate the whole and no random combination of fewer pieces is at all likely to form a whole vase. We call that entropy. But in the sphere of ontology, any two pieces can come together to recreate a whole. The domain of Love is the domain of perfect, eternal order with zero entropy.

In the world we seem (doxa) to live in, identity is mercilessly conserved, events are drearily orientable, and relations are both transitive and commutative. Any one “shard” can only fit together with a handful of adjacent shards and only when all the shards fit together, when every shard in the pile is accounted for, do you have an Actual Entity. It’s no wonder we’re all on Prozac®.

In the world we actually (aletheia) live in, the world of Love, identity is indefinitely plastic, events are non-orientable and relations are neither transitive nor commutative. Every shard is absolutely unique, but any two shards can relate to one another and each such relationship constitutes a whole. This is a world of exuberant joy and endless creativity.

Let’s take a trivially simple example. In the world we seem to live in, if a > b and b > c, we are entitled to conclude that a > c. But in the world we actually live in, knowing that a > b and b > c tells me nothing at all about the relationship between a and c.

The essential identity of b in a > b is not necessarily conserved in b > c. The identity of b is as much a function of its relation as its relation is a function of its identity. Again, in Mary Poppins, Sufi Master, we encounter the notion that identity is an artifical construct and that function is the only reality. (“What’s in a name?” For us, names convey identity; but in earlier times and less literate cultures, names convey function.)

Surprisingly, the famous British realist, Bertrand Russell, once held a view very close to this. He asserted that only universals really existed and that the phenomena of substance, structure and materiality were simply products of the intersections of universals…but I digress.

It turns out that the solitary unit I thought I was is not who I am at all. I am rather potential for the emergence of Actual Entities though relations with others but I am not myself an Actual Entity. “I am a rock, I am an island” turns out not only to be false but oxymoronic. There is no I, no self, in isolation from other, apart from relation.

The fact that I can enter into relation with any “other” to form an Actual Entity gives new meaning to the existentialist mantra, “I know who I am and I know that I can be whoever I want to be.” It also resonates with John Paul Sartre’s famous rubric, “I am not what I am and I am what I am not.”

Can we take this reflection further? If Love is the paradigmatic and defining human experience, if it reveals our true identities, why should we be content to treat it as some sort of exceptional phenomenon? Why shouldn’t it be the cornerstone of an all-embracing ontological model?

Of course, there is an obvious problem with such an undertaking. The language we have been using up to now (Love, Self, Other, Relation, etc…) seems peculiar to human experience. Can we somehow generalize the dynamics we have been discussing so that they apply more comfortably to the full spectrum of events and entities in our world?

Returning to our four original propositions, we note that there was no explicit requirement that the subjects be human. The only requirement was that they be ontological equals and that they have the capacity to enter into a certain type of dynamic relationship.

If we are to go further along this line of reasoning, we will need to define our terms much more closely.

Since we are seeking to generalize beyond mere human experience, we will no longer speak of Love; moving forward, we will confine ourselves to the more antiseptic term, “Relation”. Likewise, where we have been speaking of Self and Other, we will now speak only of Relata.

But we still face one more difficulty. We are using the word “relation” in two different ways. Like Buber, we are using it to denote Actual Entities, the building blocks of universe. But we are also using it to denote the bond that exists between two “relata”. In other words, we are using “relation” to describe one of the components of a relationship as well as the relationship itself. Surely, we need to fix that, no?

Actually, we don’t…and we can’t. One of the many peculiar features of our newly discovered ontological landscape is the fact that wholes reside totally in each of their parts. “Relation” (qua Actual Entity) resides equally and totally in “relation” (qua bond) and in each “relatum”.

In fact, the whole terminology of “parts and wholes” is misleading. It is an artifact of the orientable, transitive and commutative world view. In fact, Actual Entities, wholes, do not consist of “parts” at all. Rather they consist of “functions” (as above). Each of the relata and their relationship represents the entire entity but each represents that entirety in a different dynamic role.

It may help clarify things if we refer to relata and relation (qua bond) as the “personae” of the relation (qua actual entity)…or as “persons”. This is tricky because “persona” has the connotation of “mask” while “person” threatens to bring back anthropomorphism.

But when we speak of personae or persons in this context, we are not talking about masks or about human individuals. We are talking about “manifestations”. Relation (qua actual entity) manifests itself in each of its two relata and in the relation (qua bond) between them.

Now at last we are able to move beyond the sphere of human relationships and speak of the phenomenon of relationship more generally. We can finally ask, “What dynamic conditions are required for the constitution of a Relation…of an Actual Entity?”

The answer, of course, is “two relata, each transcendent of the other according to the modality of ‘sight’, each immanent in the other according to the modality of ‘touch’, and the relation between them.”

Each of the relata, and the relation between them, retains an indispensably unique role in the ontological dance. Seeing and feeling are not commutative. I cannot feel myself in you nor see you in me; nor can you feel yourself in me or see me in you. Because of this, relata and relation do not collapse into a single, undifferentiated being. Relation remains irreducibly, and incurably, dynamic. The three persons of an Actual Entity retain ontologically distinct roles in the eternal dynamic of Universe.

Eternal? Indeed so, because if Relation occurs, it occurs outside of time.

According to the hyper-linear perspective (doxa), relations spring up out of a pre-existent space-time ground and then inevitably wither back into that ground (“dust to dust”). But from the non-linear perspective (aletheia) of this essay, patches of space-time spring into being as Relations occur. What seems to be a single, all encompassing, space-time is merely an abstraction from and a generalization of the unique space-times that are proper to each Relation. “Love springs eternal” after all!

What has emerged here is a Trinitarian model of reality. This concept has previously appeared only in the context of the Christian notion of God. Our reflections, however, suggest that we have been much too narrow in our application of this idea.

When speaking in terms of God, Christian theologians typically label the concept of Trinity as a “mystery”, something alien from, and inaccessible to, human reason. We are suggesting that that notion is radically wrong!

Instead, our model suggests that the entire universe is made up of Trinitarian entities…and nothing but Trinitarian entities. To quote Stephen Hawking (totally out of context), “It’s turtles, all the way down!” Far from being alien and inaccessible, Trinity is the ontological foundation and empirical essence of our every experience! Without Trinity, there is no actuality. Trinity is not just a model for God, it is a model for all Being. It is nothing less than the structure and shape of Love.

*Apologies to Hugh Grant et al.