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Appreciation of Anything Lies Mostly in its Context

Readers should never trust a blogger who might be on a drug trip. I'm afraid that I was. Normally a really steep mountain bike ride reaches a point where your traction fails before your aerobic capability does. This ride (Saguache, CO) was peculiar in offering such good traction that I could keep going until 'the snot comes out your eyeballs,' as a cycling friend once put it. Hence the psychotropic endorphin drug trip.

Believe it or not, the whole way up (to a radio tower of course) I was rhapsodizing how 'metal detectors are the perfect outdoor sport.' This is not facetious, but it seems like it would be. Metal detectors -- those things that geezers buy from television commercials scheduled at the low-rent-district of the programming day. These are the times when only retirees are watching television. You know, handy-dandy kitchen gadgets and cubic zirconia jewelry. It's really 'Mildred' who was in favor of buying the metal detector. She thought it would be good for old 'Fred,' or at least get him out of the house, where he is in the way of her incessant cleaning.

Of course, the virtues of the metal detector are too numerous to go into (eye-rolling emoticon). But one is very important: the preciousness of the rusted can or bottle cap that are discovered must be seen in the context of what is nearby. That sums up so many types of value, beauty, humor, pleasure, etc. The context provides a comparison, and it is in the comparison where value really lies.

Perhaps this obsession started a couple days earlier when I had been "dumpster diving" in the $5 DVD movie bin at Walmart. What trash most of it was! Then I found Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray. Better yet it had a wonderful musical score by Adolf Deutsch. How could such a classic movie coexist in the same garbage dump as the average movie? This torched off an explosion of appreciation in me.

There are two main categories of contrast-with-the-context. We could invoke the language of electrical circuits and call them:

1) Series. A sequence of observations about different things or even the same thing, or 
2) Parallel. Observations are made of different things at the same time.

Playwrights and movie screen writers are good at using type #1 comparisons, in order to make a big impact on the audience. The pleasure of catching a fish is a Type #1 experience. Any kind of outdoorsman or traveler can become quite expert at learning to tolerate temporary unpleasantness in order to intensify the following pleasure. Reaching this stage of "evolution" is necessary if the traveler is ever going to be anything other than a common tourist.

Type #2 comparisons are used by our metal-detecting jock, and by rock-hounds. Somebody walking along a shoreline or a dry-land boundary of any kind experiences the pleasure of Type #2. For instance, I am presently in the rain shadow of the San Juan Mountains. When much of the state was having heavy and deadly rains, I wasn't too bothered by rain.


Recently America became closer than it has in a long time to experiencing a constitutional crisis, if Congress had voted down authorizing the next Middle Eastern War, and if the Executive branch of government had proceeded in defiance of Congress. And then that damn Russky, Putin, came along and ruined the fun.

Under any circumstances, this would have been an interesting confrontation, perhaps of great and lasting historical significance. By pure luck I had been reading some excellent books on the French Revolution.  With this as a context, the possibility of a constitutional crisis seemed real and five times more interesting to me, even though I wasn't carried away with analogies. Conversely the books were made drastically more interesting because of political events.

What matters is that reading those books on the French Revolution awakened me from the slumber of assuming that nothing ever much changes. Oh sure there's a new "crisis" everyday, the gloom-and-doomers lick their chops, and the media sensationalizes the problem. But most of the time, the world muddles through somehow. Things might change, but usually the world pretty much goes on as before.

Since this is the usual course of human events, we forget that every now and then there are big changes -- discontinuities in the flow of history.


Michael said…
I think I wrote about what you're saying in a different way. Here's the text. I also sketched an illustration of the idea but never fully developed it.

Understanding in Four Dimensions
Copyright 2006

Understanding can be likened to going on Google Earth and looking at a mountain. You have to keep circling around it to get a sense of what it is. As soon as you stop and or look away it flattens out and blends into the background.

U4D 1st Postulate:
Constantly corroborating evidence is the same as flying in circles in Google Earth.

U4D 2nd Postulate:
Holding one position and looking at the Google Earth object rather than constantly obtaining new views can be likened to prejudiced views regarding understanding.

U4D 3rd Postulate:
Zooming in on the Z axis to focus in on one area can be likened to the use of logical reasoning or scientific experimentation to understand an aspect more thoroughly. It is accurate to a higher resolution but it is a focused narrow view.

U4D 4th Postulate:
To obtain a new view rather than focused examination feels like more work because it is. It requires two steps. First a new position must be obtained, then we must reorient ourselves to again be refocused on the original object. Try this with your own body. Put a chair in the middle of the room and study it from different angles. You may soon become temporarily disoriented and/or tired but you will have a greater understanding of the object of focus.

U4D 5th Postulate:
Knowledge can be defined as the level of understanding attained to accomplish a desired task. To say it a different way, knowledge is enough understanding to be applicable to a specific task, but understanding in and of itself is an ongoing and never ending journey around a given object. A constant process of gaining new views of a changing object from a changing position taken in by an ever changing viewer.


This is part of a series where I use nature to illustrate information processing. Much like the last one I share in your comments:
XXXXX said…
In terms of your first subject, it does seem that this is the way that animal experience/consciousness is set up and it makes evolutionary sense. We notice what doesn't seem to fit with what is around it (contrast), something worthy of further analysis. Think of the many animals in this world whose color/skins blend into their surroundings in order to not stand out in contrast to their predators, and amazingly, there are those who can change color as well for this same purpose.
In terms of the meaning things have, I think we are capable of many multiple and contrasting meanings given to anything. Contrast makes it stand out for sure; From there the mystery begins.

In response to your second point, politics is a big chess game. Winning, not morality, is the goal and there is plenty of posturing. I don't think that ever changes. I don't believe we have been true to the Constitution for a long time, in many ways, but interpreting the Constitution seems to be a fluctuating phenomena as well. I'm thinking of Supreme Court rulings that are overturned by this same body years later. It always reflects popular opinion to a degree.
In terms of social changes, someone once said this to step ahead of the masses makes a leader; ten steps makes a target.
There are big changes that occur through war or social revolution but over time we have a way of going back to center.....regression to the mean. Two steps forward; one step back.
I for one am just grateful that I'm living at a time which favors greater personal freedoms as compared to many previous societies/governments. I don't believe it can last.
The biological analogy is excellent, George. Wish I'd thought of it!

The second half of this post really has the same theme as the first half. History always provides a context for current events. The latter cannot be seen all by themselves.
XXXXX said…
The difficulty with history being the context from which current events get their meaning is that the recording of all history is distorted. The winners write history and what is recorded is very selective and biased.
But you're right in the sense that it is what we are taught in school and has a definite impact on our attitudes, prejudices, fears, etc.
You sure make a good case to try to shake off old imbedded beliefs, given to us as innocent children who trusted what we were learning but it may not at all be accurate.

XXXXX said…
If I may add a few more thoughts....
I like the thought of current event standing in front of history. It is how we work....something is figural against the background.
Something emerges as significant and thus, the contrast you mentioned takes place.
However, if we keep on doing things the way we have always done them, we will keep on getting the same results.
I'm trying to make a point that the background would perhaps be better served if it was something other than recorded history.
Even contemporary works of historical significance still are limited because the actual recording of history at the time it took place was not likely truly accurate.
So, for example, the Middle East. Christians have hated Muslims and vice versa since near the beginning of Islam. In our movies, for a long time, the Arab was a bad guy. Subtle things like that lay distrust without one even realizing where the feeling came.
Did we learn about this culture in a fair way in our past? Most likely, we didn't learn much about them at all as compared to our own history, deemed much more important.
If our background for determining our best position in the Middle East is history, we will surely continue our distrust but if we try to understand their culture, etc. from their perspective, perhaps we can find more peaceful solutions. And the reason I say this is that I recently took a class to educate myself better in terms of Islam and believe those who we call terrorists have hijacked their religion. We have our own share of religious crazies as well.
I am not on their side, nor do I believe we have behaved well. To change this, I believe we need a new background other than history.
I don't know what the best background is. I suppose we are struggling with this very issue through this whole thing.
Yes, history is full of flaws and biases. I appreciate your "we need a new background other than history." Perhaps less-biased history?