Friday, 19 October 2012

'Consciousness and Revolt' and Transformatiave Art, Work and Practices

'Consciousness and Revolt: an exploration toward reconciliation, Book 1' by Robert C. Smith, Heathwood Press: Holt, Norfolk, 2011, £14.99 ISBN: 9780957096103

Further details on Consciousness and Revolt:
Heathwood Press:

Building on our recent connection with Robert Smith and Heathwood Press (see my newsletter, No. 51, item 1 -, I decided to read Smith's recently published book, 'Consciousness and Revolt' (2011).

As I read, I found it a very interesting, albeit unusual book. However, also as I read, I was not sure where the book was going and it seemed to be rather repeating itself. But towards the end of the book, I realised what the aim of the author was - and the repeating (such as there was) was being done for good effect. It was done in order to try to convince the reader of Smith’s overwhelming powerful argument - which I am now sure is right. This is about transformative ways of being and operating, living transformatively and where experiential life is all important. And within this, transformative art is key. This is where it is at.

Robert Smith's basic position is that we need to abandon searches for the absolute and for objectivity, and not follow any particular ideology or idol. People's desire for the absolute arises from their need for security, argues Smith, but he says that this is a false sense of security. Also, that it is a form of self-deception, evasion and distortion. Instead, we need to focus on experiential life - and that this is what is meaningful and the way in which we should make sense of the world.

Smith says that what his critique:

"...pertains to is the question of distorted experience, of absolutizing and objectifying, which, in turn, amounts to the distortion of life...For if, when the means of my life, when the very way in which I both approach and experience the phenomenal world, becomes subservient to ideology - to the kind of 'objectifying' and absolutizing processes that deform my very intersubjective relation with the phenomenal world; it is from this point that, as a collective illness, needless social suffering and 'increasing unfreedom' originates." (p. 17)

In regard to security, Smith argues that:

"...the absolute...breathes security into the most uncertain realities of our everyday lives." (p. 47)


"Evasion...represents the human desire to make absolute the inherently diverse and multidimensional stuff of experience." (p. 49)

Instead, Smith says that Philosophy needs to be grounded in experience:

"Philosophy is relevant today so long as it invests itself on the concrete grounds of experience." (p.37) But that much Philosophy today is "disengaged with everyday living" and "lacks concrete normativity". (p. 40)

Smith also talks about the deifying of the market economy and the absolutism and rationalism that pervades global capitalism. He talks about the:

"...deifying of the market economy and the very functionalizing, legitimatizing, and instrumentalizing of abstract reason, scientism and technicism..." (p. 65)

Also, that:

"Global capitalism, which is the head of today's warped Trinity is not only conceptually, but also experientially dependent on abstract reasoning, scientism and technicism." (p. 66)
Smith is against such abstract reasoning, which he argues is subservient to the global capitalist ideology.

Returning to evasion, self-deception and distortion, Smith says that

"Every ideology, every absolute principle, every totalized 'method of life', is built on the spirit of evasion." (p. 92)

Also that:

"Experiential evasion discloses how we consciously choose to self-deceivingly evade our experiences." (p. 139)

And that:

" 'Objectivity' is consequential to experiential distortion, to the wrenching apart of multidimensional experience." (p. 219)

Whilst for him:

"Once I have adapted to being in the service of some absolute thing I cease to critically or coherently dialogue with the world..." (p. 225)

All this is a very unusual perspective, I think, and not one that I have thought about much before. Neither was I sure that I quite agreed with it at first. Some years ago, I would not have agreed with it, arguing that relativism led to stale-mate, where the development of real truth and knowledge became virtually impossible. But times changes and life moves on and in some ways my thoughts have come full circle, but now with another whole layer of complexity, knowledge, understanding and experience.

Anyway, ‘Consciousness and Revolt’ was interesting, and quite persuasive, although, as said before, as I was reading I thought the basic argument was repeated rather too many times. Also, that the author might have be better off actually 'going for the life' (as D.H. Lawrence did - see my previous blog) and recording the experiential experiences, rather than just talking about them.

And as I say, historically, I have been quite cynical about relativism, thinking that it leads one to not being able to say anything much; and not being possible to develop theories, truth and knowledge in any meaningful way. But reading some D.H. Lawrence essays this summer I questionned this a little, as he was also very much against the absolute and 'for' relativism. Lawrence expresses his view about the Absolute in his essay 'Why the Novel Matters', which he wrote in 1925, saying:

“We should ask for no absolutes, or absolute. Once and for all and forever, let us have done with the ugly imperialism of any absolute. There is no absolute good, there is nothing absolutely right. All things flow and change, and even change is not absolute. The whole is a strange assembly of apparently incongruous parts, slipping past one another.” (‘Why the Novel Matters’ in 'Study of Thomas Hardy and other essays’, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 196)

I now think that it is probably more related to one’s depth of thought on these matters and is not a simple either/or between the 'Absolute' and the 'Relative'. Also, interestingly, when D. H. Lawrence was younger, he held a different view about the absolute. That, in itself, can be the power of the writer of fiction – one does not feel obliged to have a fixed position.

So, anyway, this made me more sympathetic to Smith's position. But at the same time, as I say, whilst I was reading it seemed to me that Smith was spending his time talking about this, rather than actually living the life. So, then I thought that he had probably been very deeply effected by some overpowering ideology in his past, that he was still trying to shake off and overcome, in one way or another. That was the only thing that was making sense to me.

However, all became crystal clear to me in the final pages - I had got it wrong; I had been unfair on Smith. His project is very grand and very worthy. It is about convincing people about the need for transformative work. Within this, and in order to be effective, he needed to have powerful arguments, and to develop the arguments slowly and carefully. It is about the power and value of transformative art in particular, and about inserting experiential life into works of transformative art. That in actual fact the whole of life should be looked at in this transformative way, he says. Wow - how incredible. I was very moved.
All of this is only revealed in the very final pages of the book. But this is only ‘Book 1’ of a series of books, so this is clearly something that Smith will be developing further in future works.

Smith talks, in particular, about the value of the novel and its transformative potential - I was transfixed. He says:

"When it comes to an experientially coherent philosophy; it is applied only through the basic form of the novel, which has long been a historical declaration of life and experience. In a practical sense, human beings do not learn by being told what they should learn. Knowledge is born from out of self-realization, through our experiencing and reflecting on a subject. This is the ultimate goal of the transformative work: to therefore assist or even guide the reader toward meanings and realizations that are self-actualized and not coercive. One is not told what to think; for to propagate or coerce the reader is to defeat the very potential of humanity as a researcher. To put it in another light, an experientially coherent work wants to be as sensitively aware and intersubjective as possible....The basic form and expression of a novel is therefore the closest that we have come to realizing transformative work in the name of academic thought: because the transformative work, which has long been subject to the form of the novel, is necessarily created to be an experience for the reader. The author, in other words, creates an experience just as much as he or she expresses a perspective on life." (p. 389)

Agreeing with Camus, Smith says that the novel is philosophy 'expressed in images'. He says:

"...just as philosophy disappears into the images of a transformative novel, which are themselves expressions of some aspect of our experience, and ultimately, our 'concrete existences'; in a coherent philosophy the images of the novel disappear into the concepts. That is to say that, if philosophy is to be coherent, it must only be born from out of experiential experience - much like a work of art; it expresses concrete experience and does not abstract from, distort or evade that experience....The transformative work, in this way, wants to do away with things like rational objectivity, and overly systematic and technical language." (p. 390)

In addition, he says that philosophy needs to be genuine, and that:

" a genuine philosophy, the novel becomes the format for its being and disappears into the concepts." (p. 390)

Smith continues:

"...if transformative literature is, as I claim, a philosophical tool at its best; it requires that the writer as an artist be conscious of his or her own limitations and in exercise of an art in which the concrete signifies nothing more than a mediation of lived experience and reflection. But never can a transformative work be the end, the meaning, and the consolation of life." (pp. 391-2)

Smith then broadens this out to transformative art in general. This includes music of course, and he says of music that:

"The phenomenon of music makes itself known to us as discernable; knowable; sensorially pleasing and cognitively provoking. When we are totally in tune with a piece of music, the phenomenon of the music calls to us and reveals to us an overwhelming intersubjective richness. The same can be said toward all transformative art. Art, in this case, a piece of music, has the ability to simultaneously free us from the objectifications we have absorbed and simultaneously re-establish a connection with our immediate existences." (p. 396)

Smith concludes his book, saying:

"Social transformation, I should like to point out in closing, does not lie in some theoretical concept of social change; nor does it lie in some grand Ideal of a historical revolution of almighty proportions. If what history teaches us is true, then upon the collapse of one Idol a new Idol tends to be born of its ashes - that is, as humanity tears down one Idol it simultaneously erects another. But as we have seen, absolutes as functioning Fascism or as radical alternatives are nevertheless both just as corrupt. Lest we forget history's lessons, genuine transformation must begin with an alternative approach to how we experience not only the world of things, but also ourselves and each other. It is in a coherent approach to experience, rather than in any greater concept of social change, which lies the only hope of a better future. (pp. 405-6)

Now, all this was quite astonishing to me and very exciting, because my own thoughts have been going down this path more and more of late. And reading more about D. H. Lawrence the person this summer, as well as his essays on the novel just confirmed this even more for me.

Basically, D.H. Lawrence saw the novel as being the best and most powerful of all types of books. In his essay ‘Why the Novel Matters’, Lawrence said:

"The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man-alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science or any other book-tremulation can do." (Lawrence in 'Study of Thomas Hardy and other essays', Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 195)


He continues the theme in his essay 'Why the Novel Matters' (also written in 1925), saying:

“Let us learn from the novel. In the novel, the characters can do nothing but live. If they keep on being good, according to pattern, or bad, according to pattern, or even volatile, according to pattern, they cease to live, and the novel falls dead. A character in a novel has got to live, or it is nothing. We, likewise, in life have to live, or we are nothing.” (Lawrence in ‘Why the Novel Matters’ in ‘Study of Thomas Hardy and other essays’, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 197)

In addition, in his essay ‘The Novel’ (also written in 1925), he said:

“Everything is relative…And this is the beauty of the novel; everything is true in its own relationship, and no further. For the relatedness and interrelatedness of all things flows and changes and trembles like a stream, and like a fish in the stream the characters in the novel swim and drift and float and turn belly-up when they’re dead.” (Lawrence in ‘The Novel’ in ‘Study of Thomas Hardy and other essays’, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 185)

Lawrence also thought (like Smith) that all good novels had philosophy in them:

“…since every novelist who amounts to anything has a philosophy – even Balzac – any novel of importance has a purpose.” (Lawrence in ‘The Novel’, in ‘Study of Thomas Hardy and other essays’, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 179)

And interestingly, Richard Aldington in the Introduction to Lawrence's ‘Acopalypse’ said that:

“From the point of view of the intellectuals (and this is the reason why they treated him either with coldness or hostility) Lawrence’s fundamental heresy was simply that he placed quality of feelings, intensity of sensations and passion before intellect.” (Aldington in Introduction to ‘Apocalypse’, Penguin, 1974, p. xv - first pub 1931)

So, Lawrence focused on feelings, sensations, emotions, passions - i.e. on experiential living! Thus, all this also ties up very much with Smith's ideas. I was surprised, though, that Smith did not reference Lawrence at all in his book. Rather, he has been very influenced by Camus, Adorno and Sartre. But for me, Lawrence is where it is really at. But anyway, we all travel down different paths, but if like-minded people can arrive at the same meeting point in the end, no matter where they come from, then that is probably the most important thing, and that is great! And those of us that want to live real, genuine and meaningful lives should try to come together in one way or another, I think, and appreciate the value of each other.

Thus, to sum up here, people should put their experiences into transformative work and art and the whole of life can then be recrafted in this way. This is the basic message.

So, we move on; we think; we rethink; we craft life; we recraft life; we live; we experience; we experience the wonders of life; we search for the truth; we search for the meaning of life; we live; we breathe; we be; we exist; we embrace.

Life is a journey, a process of discovery - let us use it as powerfully, joyfully and productively as we can. Let us learn to rejoice and celebrate life; to liberate ourselves and others; to help to bring fulfilment to ourselves and others; and not to control and dominate each other. So, within this framework, I am starting to be more and more of the opinion that ‘transformative work’ and 'transformative art' is, indeed, where it is at. Folks should be really brave; they should make their real experiences really work for them and take the necessary risks - but not in a fake way (such as was presented to me whilst studying for my teaching certificate).

In conclusion, I think that Smith is saying something that is incredibly important - indeed transformative! This brings us back full circle to the power and beauty of the novel - my first love! I very much agree with Smith that “The basic form and expression of the novel…is the closest that we have come to realizing transformative work…” (p.389) Yes, the worthy novel is, in many ways, where it is at. Although, of course, we must clearly differentiate here between the worthy novel and the trash novel (easier said than done, but I can’t go into that one right now) – but yes, the worthy novel is very much where it is at. People can abstractedly theorise and it can be and indeed, is very useful, but on its own it is not going to get to the core, to something basic and of fundamental importance in ourselves as humans. So much will be missed out.

Take Andrea Micocci and dialectics, for example. Does dialectical thinking help to get us beyond capitalism? This is the big question that he poses in his book ‘The Metaphysics of Capitalism’, (Lexington Books, Maryland: USA, 2009) – a book that we have both been reading recently. Micocci argues that dialectical Marxism, rather then helping to end capitalism, helps to sustain it and is actually functionalist in this regard. So, then what do we do? Abandon all dialectical thinking, to arrive at some higher level of purity of thought? Well, that won't be possible anyway, because we live in this capitalist world and have to experience it. Unless, of course, one decides to live differently, such as a Monk’s or a Buddhist way of life, but then one would not be writing this type of stuff anyway, so the argument is redundant. Thus, we are tied up with this way of life. Rather, what we need is 'transformative thinking'. With such thinking we can embrace dialectics (and not offend the many Marxists out there), see it as a vehicle for helping us to get beyond capitalism, whilst also recognising and appreciating that it also enables us to understand and function in capitalism at the same time. So, it is not an either/or. Thus, we have 2 not either/ors in this piece! Well, we need a little light relief, now and then!

Anyway, I am very excited about all this, and now feel very sure that I am on the right path. My future works will become more and more transformative, particularly through the vehicle of the novel, the transformative novel, building on and refining experiential life. In this way, I aim to move things forward, and hopefully bring about a little social transformation on the way.

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