Thursday, May 24, 2012

Discourse: Design, Physics, Surrealism & Zen

The four subjects in the title above may seem somewhat jarring. In some cases they may be utterly contradictory concepts. Though there is to be found a common strand that is of the utmost importance to their practitioners. Designers, physicists, surrealists and Zen Buddhists all engage in a very similar art, not knowing.

How I arrived at this conclusion is that at one time or another I have found myself propelled towards or because of these things in some way. It is only recently that I have discovered my fascination for these subjects lies in that similar ideological thread they share.

How, you may ask is physics about not knowing? In 1899, or so the story is told, the head of the US patents office said something along the lines of “everything that can be invented has been invented” (while this is a common misquotation and not based in fact it serves as an effective plot device here so I’m going to use it with creative license). A few years later in 1905 a German patent clerk (oh fictional irony!) by the name of Albert Einstein redefined the way we perceive time, matter and energy and how they interact by authoring a little thing we now call The Special Theory of Relativity. Skip ahead about 20 years and a young upstart named Werner Heisenberg decided to throw a spanner into the works. No ordinary spanner however, this was a quantum mechanical spanner, and his theory in the emerging field (heh, field) of quantum mechanics called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle again changed just about everything we know about how the world works.

The most shocking thing about Quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that it is so utterly strange, counter-intuitive and downright whacky that it is almost difficult to believe and, as many prominent physicists have pointed out, even more difficult to fully understand. Richard Feynman for example said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”, and he was a leading expert. Quantum mechanics basically says when you look at the details of the subatomic world things start to get “fuzzy”. It says that all atoms exist in all places in the universe simultaneously and we only observe them as being in their most probable state. The knock on effect of the fuzziness of the tiny little world of atoms and particles is that we can at no time know where anything actually is but we can at best gain the knowledge to tell us where it is roughly most likely to be.

This creates some very strange effects indeed, particles that move in more than one direction at a time, others that appear on the outside of impenetrable barriers, some that are in a constant state of self-annihilation and many other stranger-than fiction but experimentally proven facts that frankly make no sense at all. This is where not knowing comes into it. Heisenberg and the quantum mechanics (A thinking man’s rock band name if I ever heard one) had to come to terms with the fact that they could never precisely know the nature of all things, just distil the most likely outcome and quite often they were proven very right… or very wrong as the case may be. Heisenberg summed up this magnificent state of not knowing with one of my favourite quotes from physics “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress”, the very quotable and previously mentioned Richard Feynman similarly said “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress”. These people among uncountable others have profoundly deepened our knowledge of the fundamental nature of the fabric of existence basically by embracing the fact that we cannot know all things about the particulate world and thus the greater world with complete certainty but we must strive to unlearn our preconceptions of how we expect things to be.

So how on earth is that connected to surrealism? I hear you say. Surrealism is a difficult thing to precisely define as, by its nature, it is subversive. To understand surrealism we must first take a quick peek at Dadaism. Dadaism is an artistic and philosophical school of thought and practice that attempts to create abstractions of unconnected themes. What??? Indeed! Dadaism in basic terms was the attempt to create works of unspecific subject without references to existing paradigms. Again what??? Here goes, third times a charm. Essentially it boils down to creating meaningless things for no reason. Now why on earth would anyone want to do that? Well the more pertinent question is why would someone not do that?

If we view Dadaism as a rejection of existing ideas, then what we’re left with is that it must be about ideas that nobody has ever had right? It is indeed this, though not in such simple terms unfortunately. The goal of Dadaism was not the creation of new ideas but a challenge to people to question the nonsensical nature of Dadaism and thus evaluate the ideas they see as reasonable. If the only way we can impartially view things is from the outside then Dadaism is a window to the outside. Through this window we can see nothing of value, nothing of reason or logic, we can then look around ourselves again and see more clearly why the world is a meaningful, logical and valuable place. If Dadaism is a window to the outside, we can in a similar way call Surrealism a mirror. Surrealism maintains the idea of Dadaism in creating things without purpose and connection to reality, however it steps up the ante somewhat. Surrealism applies a veneer of reality to the works it creates and thus makes itself somewhat more believable.

Probably the most famous example of surrealism is Salvador Dali and his landscapes strewn with dripping clocks. The trick employed here is that while clocks are a thing we know, a thing we see all the time, we’ve never quite seen them behave as they do in Dali’s paintings. This is the subversion of surrealism, we’re confronted with a combination of the expected and the familiar, which lends an air of believability to what we see, though we are taken from that relative comfort and forced to imagine how they could now possibly exist in a different way. Dali himself summed up this effect when he said “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision”. Another great and very famous Dutch surrealist Rene Magritte supports the assumption that Surrealism is the suspension of reality for the sake of creating curiosity when he said “To be a surrealist... means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen, and being always on the lookout for what has never been”. In the same way Dadaism attempts to make us think about why we value things and perceive things surrealism attempts the same only it brings the challenge into our very real spaces or at the very least our clocks.

Rene Magritte in one of his most famous paintings creates a very realistic image of a pipe, underneath the pipe, which is mounted on a frame are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” This translates from his colloquial Belgian French to mean “This is not a pipe”. While the painting is indeed not a pipe, it is a painting, there is more at work than this simplification of the facts. Magritte is attempting to make people realise that the names of objects do not give them value it is the essence of the object that gives it value. He alludes to this when he said “An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable”. Again we’re asked to question not the ideas we hold about objects but the objects themselves and why we see value in them. This exact sentiment is eerily echoed in the words of that eminently quotable physicist Richard Feynman when he said “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something”. Both disciplines tell us to question that which we know and explore that which we don’t. Only then can we find something resembling the way things are. It is in this way that a surrealist mind set can be of great value to designers.

So Zen Buddhism you say? What could that possibly have in common with quantum physics and surrealism? Well… Zen Buddhism is the hocus pocus magic of becoming reincarnated as a reindeer or achieving enough enlightenment to charge up your arse-based float thrusters by crossing your legs and saying “ommmmmm” repeatedly. Though actually it’s really not, it couldn't be less about magical arse-powered reindeer… Though that would explain a great deal about Santa and why he gives away all his possessions once a year. No, Zen Buddhism has no floaty guru’s, no reincarnation, no enlightenment and no “ommmmmm”. There’s no Zen Buddhist god to give you special access to the VIP afterlife party, in fact there is no Zen Buddhist god. That Buddha guy you’ve probably heard about, it turns out he’s just a guy. Some people think he was a rather smart guy, though he’d probably question that assumption himself. So what the hell is Zen Buddhism then and who’s this Buddha?

First off the man in question’s name is not actually Buddha nor, for those of you who may be in China, was his name Śākyamuni, it was actually Siddhārtha Gautama and he was quite the odd fellow. Born into a royal family Siddhārtha (meaning “he who achieves his aim”) was a prince, however not necessarily as we might now perceive them. He was part of a possibly elected oligarchical structured society with very small amount of centralised power and an egalitarian focus (Eat your heart out Sweden!). At some stage the young siddhārtha went on a journey of discovery due to an overwhelming existential crisis regarding the human condition. We’ve all been there right? Being the type with great existential curiosity he searched for a long time to find answers on how best to live. During this time he pursued a number of state of the art meditation techniques even going so far as to almost starve to death on occasion (lest it be said he lacked dedication). Eventually however he found much of this to be mostly in vein and decided that really it was rather a lot of hokum. However in his existential blue-balls state he did decide that basically most things were pointless. They include but are not limited to thinking, doing, being and existing. Essentially our Indian friend boiled down his discoveries to everything is pointless, though that’s not where he stopped (one has to wonder if Descartes was a bit of an underachiever).

While he acknowledged the utter pointlessness of existence he didn’t just reject it as completely meaningless, he in fact turned the idea that there’s nothing more to life than being on its head and said simply being is the greatest thing we can possibly do, so why not do that. Zen meditation or “zazen” translates roughly as “just sitting” and that’s all you do. You sit down on a fluffy cushion stare at a wall and think about nothing, you just simply be. In doing this you can realise that at all times this is what you do in your normal everyday life, you just sit, or draw, or eat or make scones or juggle ice-picks. You just be, or to use a dirty word in zen, you live in a state of enlightenment. All the other material and existential concerns of life are just interruptions to being, so letting go of them and just being is the utmost achievement you can pursue. Enlightenment then is not some higher state of being in Zen Buddhism, it is simply being and simply doing.

On the subject of not knowing Siddhārtha was very vocal. One of his most famous quotes was “Unto yourself be a lantern” which in normal-speak basically means “find your own truth”. He even went so far as to say not to take his word on anything. A famous Zen master named Linji took this further to say “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”. Now if you’ve ever read a Zen koan (sound of one hand clapping, tree falling in a wood, etc…) you will know that most Zen masters say a lot of strange things quite often but this is a particularly odd one. The phrase does not literally advocate murdering our friend Siddhārtha but more means that in life you should destroy that which attempts to lead you, that which you assume to be true. I’ll give the final word on this confusing state of affairs to Siddhārtha once more “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”.

So all of these things in some way advocate accepting that there are things we do not know, sometimes even things we cannot know, though more importantly they all in some way say we should always question that which we think to be true or right. Sometimes this is the best approach a designer can take to create unique solutions even to the simplest challenges. It is not enough to just question the problem, we must also sometimes question the route to a solution and even question the value we place in those solutions that have come before us. Is a spoon a small concave shape with a handle or an object and method that enables you to eat ice-cream, if so then what is a spoon if you can’t move your hands? Human kind’s continued advancements in knowing is nicely stated in an ancient quote Isaac Newton once borrowed “If I can see further than you, it’s because I’m standing on the shoulders of Giants”. I would suggest however that sometimes it may not be better to see further, but to turn around and take a look in another direction, you might just find something new, possibly better, in the other direction.

Like physiscists designers should accept there are things we cannot know unless we experiment and should allow ourselves to accept and adapt to new ideas that come from this.

Like surrealists designers should look for that which has never been and constantly redetermine the value we place on objects.

Like Buddhists designers should not just rely on the truths of others but explore and discover their own way of seeing the world and in that way inform their work.

As a former student of physics, ocassional surrealist and casual Buddhist these are some lessons I have learnt which I hope will make me a better designer.

John O'Shea

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