We currently live in a world which is – from one direction – nothing other than an expression of the difficulties associated with approaching a certain mystery. And the mystery is this: How are we, as individual human beings aspiring towards freedom, supposed to live in community with other, individual human beings?
Wherever we turn – on whatever social level we choose – we can see the consequences of our struggle (conscious or otherwise) to find an appropriate way of dealing with this question, this mystery. At the same time, we can see, on the one hand, existing power structures which are attempting to carry on with business as usual, as if this question was not alive within social life or the human beings who comprise it. On the other hand we are seeing the beginning of numerous uprisings of human beings attempting, out of an inner necessity, to change the existing social climate into ‘something else’. But what, in reality, could this something else be? And what is this something else asking from us?
What has carried human beings for millennia – namely, the given community – has been a kind of community which has flowed through the arteries and veins of human beings and of different groups. It has been a kind of community which has flowed through the blood (families etc.). At the same time, it has also flowed through language (races, nationalities etc.). Up until relatively recently, all that has lived in the bloodlines and in the ‘language-lines’ of human beings has provided a given community life. This situation has now, however – on the whole – run its course.
Joseph Beuys has, famously, said that every human being is an artist. (If so, we must add to this, as we shall see, that every human being is also a community being.) In Beuys’ sense, artistry can be seen as the individual, creative and, indeed, spiritual capacity of human beings, no matter where it is directed. It is not limited to art in a narrow or traditional sense, but includes anything humans turn their hands and minds to, including social life.
Artistic capacity, in this sense, can be seen as a given. Its realisation is, however, not given. We all have it as potential within us, but it requires us to awaken it if it is to be realised. So it is today with community. All that has lived in the blood has run dry. Language too has run dry. Community is no longer provided for us in the same way as it once was. So then, how are we to re-enliven social life – how are we to realise and create any art of ‘we’ – based upon the current reality we find today?
It is all too easy to see the consequence of falling too much to the extreme of one-sided individualism cut off from community life. This manifests in the kind of extreme capitalism currently ravaging the world. It manifests in families and marriages falling apart. It manifests in the breakdown of communities, drug and alcohol addiction, and the exploitation of human beings. At the same time, we have also seen the effects of a kind of enforced community life that negates the free, individual, creative, spiritual capacities of the human being. Communism, for instance (as well as a dictatorship, for that matter), rather than creating community, has the actual effect of hindering true art and, thereby, true community.
All of these symptoms – on either end of the spectrum – represent a kind of ‘speaking’. They represent a kind of language. They speak of the un-health – the cancerous disease – that has spread throughout social life in our time. The revolutions we have observed in recent years are an acting out – a speaking out – against this, though they too are at risk in any moment of falling into old habits.
For this article I was asked to say something of the power of writing to create the ‘we’. In considering this, I had to consider the power of the word itself. Though the power of language and of words have, of themselves, grown weak in our own time, this has not always been the case. Indeed, it is hard to move far in an exploration of the word without calling to mind one of the most poetic of all texts – whatever one’s religious persuasion – the Gospel of St John. Here the creative power of the Word is both the subject and the activity required to grasp it. “In the beginning was the Word”. The Word – the Logos – can be found in the beginning of all things. And yet, if we are to follow the trajectory of the Word, we must also come to observe, as St John did, that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”. What does this say, then, about the significance of language and of ‘writing’, of community life and creativity in our time?
The creative power – art, as Beuys would have it – dwelt (i.e. was) in the beginning as the all-pervasive, creative power of the world. In becoming flesh, this creative power has made its way into the hands of individual human beings (indeed, it is itself the individualising force). The Word, the Logos capacity, became flesh. Every individual human being now has the possibility to create, to be artistic, to shape community and social life as a whole. And yet, in order to realise this possibility, we must add another step to the path outlined in St John’s work. And if we are to do this without prejudice, looking at the situation of the world today and all we have so far been observing, we can say that to “In the beginning was the Word” and “The Word became flesh”, we must now also add, “And the flesh becomes Word”.
To do so, however, we must, again, see the situation in the right light. We are not referring here to a return to “the beginning” – to a time of all-pervasive communal life – communal Wording – void of the individual and free nature of the human being. The individualised nature we currently possess is the consequence of a long journey of this creative element – this Logos activity – becoming earthly – becoming flesh. We ourselves, as free individuals, now contain within us the creative power of all that lived in the beginning as the creative Word. To turn back to some previous time when individual freedom was not possible for the human being would be to run counter to the whole course of the evolution of human consciousness and world becoming itself. This kind of thinking runs into the dead-end of communism or, essentially, any form of social life which does not respect individual, creative freedom.
We cannot turn back. We must instead, step forward on the path. And to step forward means to realise our own creative capacities, and offer the opportunity for others to realise theirs. The capacity we have within us must be realised – must be actualised – the flesh must begin to become Word – if we are to have any art, any community, any future worth speaking of.
And yet, as we have seen, the pitfalls on this path are significant. On the one side the temptation to turn back appears as a kind of pink, warm cloud. It tempts us to forgo our own individualised nature and surrender to the whole. It is a cloud that would take us away from the earth, back to the beginning. On the other side of us on the path there appears, out of a murky abyss, a kind of cold, bony hand that would pull us even further down – even further into the flesh. It would, in a way, project us too far into the future, individualising us even further and completely cutting us off from our fellow human beings. We would become completely isolated.
Each of us imaginatively walks this path today. We walk between, in a real way, two evils. It can be observed everywhere – and perhaps nowhere more obviously than in technology. In using the internet, for example, we can find that, at one extreme, we are pulled further into the flesh – pulled down into a kind of mechanical-computational thinking, a mechanical ‘flesh’ – where it is quite possible to experience ourselves as mechanical, computational beings. Within this one-sided extreme, the proponents of technological singularity and artificial intelligence, including Ray Kurzweil, are quite correct – that the human being is a kind of machine, and that in the future the best that we can hope for is that human beings merge with machines, and that machines merge with human beings.
On the other side we are tempted, constantly, by a kind of thinking that would take us away from ourselves. Our attention while ‘surfing’ the internet can flit about wherever it is taken – our thinking floats, in a way, on a cloud of interaction wherever it is drawn next. Countless advertising, scams, pornographic content and predatory activity can take place in this realm, preying upon, at times, people’s earnest desire for community itself. Wherever we turn on the internet, our thinking is confronted with the tempting and warm cloud that life can somehow be better here – that we will find here all the community we ever need.
Here, it is all too possible to see the bony hand of a kind of mechanical individualism wrapped up together with the cloud of communal temptation – they weave together. And yet, where is the space for the human being? Again, the internet is only one such place where we can observe this activity – it can be seen everywhere. The only remedy available is to create for one’s-self the necessary path through these two forces which, though having their role, become evil when we stray too far to one extreme. The creative Logos – the Creative Word – as we have been describing it here, is the only sure path through the centre of these two evils, holding them in a kind of balance.
We can ask ourselves, What was our experience during the most creative experience of our lives? It is worthwhile taking a moment to consider this. If we do so seriously, it is possible to observe that during such moments it is not only us who is active or creative, but that something other than us is creative in us. We are active, and then it is as if something creative comes to our aid in the creative deed. Creativity itself – in the sense we have been talking of it here; the creative Logos – allows a kind of speaking in which we are ‘inspired’ (as Greek writers called upon and were inspired by their muses – though now it is not so much that we need to ‘call down’ the muse, as we need to ‘step up’ to it, as individuals as well as in community) in our act of creativity. We may wonder, then, if in this moment we lose any of our individuality, any of our freedom. In such moments, it is possible to observe that rather than losing any of our individual human freedom, we actually feel the most free, the most individual, the most human. That which makes us human is of the same substance as that which comes to our aid in moments of true creativity, true artistry, and yes, true community. We here realise the Logos – the creative Word – within us, and we are able to make a space for the same in others. We thereby overcome the experience that we are simply mechanical objects – mere machines – but are, rather, human beings; that we are communal beings related to all the creative beings of the world; that our very nature is that of creativity, of artistry, of spiritual activity, and that we can create community/communion with other creative, spiritual beings.
In realising this in any moment, we are able to hold the two evils of the world in their rightful places, whether we are using the internet or anything else (for we cannot turn away from the world, we must engage with it). We are able to move from the i-cloud (or i-life, i-pod, i-pad etc.) to a true community with other I beings. The i-cloud then becomes a kind of capital ‘I’ I-cloud; we move from a little ‘i’-life to a capital ‘I’-life. We become more fully human in a human community of other I-beings, and more fully ourselves. We are thereby able to work with the internet (which, as we well know, is possible), or anything in social life, in a way that is artistic, creative, human and based upon true community because the Logos is there present.
In doing so we can become co-writers, co-authors, co-poets with the creative powers of the universe – with the Logos – with the Word. We move from an original, unconscious/un-individualised presence in creative activity (“the beginning” Word), to holding unrealised potential, to an active participation in shaping the world as individual, creative, spiritual beings. The small ‘i’ becomes, and then becomes capital ‘I’. (In an interesting word-connection, for Beuys, Capital = Creativity / Capital = Art. The new world must be built on such capital(s) – on such pillars – as this.)
At the same time, our artistry must be turned also to the organisation – to the artwork, to the poem – of social life as a whole. The imagination of the way in which social life needs to be structured is the true – i.e. artistic – human being. The human being is how we must picture society as a whole. In this way can we understand Plato’s idea that the state is the soul “writ large” – except now we expand the state to encompass all social life, or rather, place the state in its rightful place within society as a whole. Only in this way will we create a social life in which it is possible to find the human being as human being.
And in order to shape the social organism in the direction of health, we must have the courage to again and again come to the wellspring – to the source – of the Logos. We must come again and again with our individual, fellow human beings not to an un-free “beginning” but in freedom to the ‘ever-present future’ – to the fountainhead of the Word. Here we can find one another as human beings. Here we can find the field of pre-linguistic Wording – the place from which all words (i.e. deeds) flow. And they must flow. For if we do not provide very real and practical avenues and applications for this wellspring to flow into, it will float away – it will waft away with the clouds. At the same time, we cannot ‘dam’ the flow of the Word – we cannot dam the creative, artistic and spiritual capacity of each one of us as human beings. For if we do, more and more illness will occur, both for individuals and for society as a whole. Instead, we must create the right kind of channels, the right kind of vessels for the creative Word to flow into the world. And these right kind of vessels are artistic, creative, human beings. And when these human beings turn their attention to the social organism on whatever level, they will see that it needs to be organised in a way that is fit for artistic, creative, human beings – that is, for the whole – not just mechanical – human being. In so doing can the creative Word flow, as it longs to do, through the previously dry arteries and veins of the human being, as well as through the arteries and veins of the world itself. In so doing can the organisms of the human being and society grow towards health. In so doing can language and words find new life among human beings, so that each one of us may take up our rightful place as co-authors and co-poets of the future of the world, in service of and in accordance with the creative speaking of the cosmos. In so doing may the human being and the world realise their free, artistic, spiritual and communal capacities. In so doing, may the flesh become Word.
This article has also been published in Volume 7 of We-Magazine: “We and the Arts”.
Wonderful article – thank you. “We become more fully human in a human community of other I-beings, and more fully ourselves.” Indeed!