it doesn't help that I'm looking forward to the onset of spring (which is not yet here), and was on campus (I say 'campus', as if there was only one):
for a moment, earlier today, I felt fully that sensation of high windows, of a high sky, of a space in which thought can stretch forever, in which what's at stake is the possibility of minds completely flipped over, arguments played out, every text a potential cataclysm, avalanche, goldmine all wrapped into one. the caring gesture of a temporarily voided space in which you push, play, exert, emote. I mean: this is less about the loving arms of a caring institution, and more about the fire escape that you make yours, the city you claim for yourself with friends, a building with eons of history that you jettison with a fresh irreverence, with all the idealism and burning statement that can only be had in playful delight.
one thing I notice acutely is the hallway, the space of the plenum, the sideways pause in which everything happens, temporarily, between program. in 'circulation space', sure, but more than that; when circulation space becomes so tangible, so pregnant with important moments of realization, when playful gesture and suggestion and passing statements ripen into a cluster of ideas, when chalkboards are written on, and--
here, I'll leave this paragraph unfinished.
earlier, I say to D, "I miss being wrong," but if I recall now I think what I mean is more along the lines of: "I miss the feeling of having thoughts at stake", I miss the way in ideas can bulge and grow and become nearly corporeal, tangible, like a taut bow stretched by an arrow; I miss the joy at pushing against minds other than mine that push back, that arrest me momentarily; I miss the world outside that fades into an ambient time-lapse while one's focus lies entirely on the work.
Largely, this past year has been about value of theory -- all theories in general, all models in general, all linguistic/discursive processes of understanding the world. I think it's important to understand this as fundamentally a shock reaction at being not-even-wrong about certain things -- structurally misaligned and misunderstanding of a series of phenomena. (Nothing more groundbreaking and earthshattering than having to change your worldview.) There's a freshness in that, yes, but it came along with all these questions like: "How do you know that you know something?" "What is knowledge?" "How do you acquire knowledge?" "How does theory ever exert itself into practice?" "How is should it not always be the primacy of practice over theory, that theories are these weak limpid things designed to fail, that the knowledge understood in the doing is so primary to the act of doing, while the knowledge understood in the doing is so limited to the act of thinking, so that, ethically speaking, it is important to understand that the act of thought becomes separated from the act of doing and wraps in on itself like the tautological ouroboros, goes nowhere?"
Maybe, right now, if I have an inkling of any answer, it's to apply the same undoing of the social vs. technological dichotomy to the terms theory and practice, or to understand the problem in a different way. What my body and my mind feels, to extent, is the practice of adjusting, getting-used-to, acclimation. Body and thought processes that were previously alien now happen much more smoothly. Understanding becomes a little bit like muscle memory (quite literally, if you think about neuroplasticity, of the mind as an FPGA), in which muscle memory builds on top of muscle memory to act. The question of "what is your mental model of how to land a punch?" has to transform in the face of trained movement, becomes nullified a little bit, because this idea of a model as distinct from movement is perhaps nullified as well. Are two interlocking gears a model, or movement? Is the loop-de-loop track of the rollercoaster a 'theory', or a 'practice'?
If I now know how to walk, is that muscle memory? A mental model? If I can spit out the answer to the square root of 144 in my head, where does that come from? Have I 'done the calculations'? If I multiply seven times 9, have I done the calculations there?
Here's a brief thought-metaphor:
What if the distinction between T and P is erased in favor for a theory of reaction speeds, of embodied knowledge, of the temporal distinction between reflexes and reflection? What if I say: "Riding a bicycle comes 'naturally', without thinking about it." "Facilitating a meeting comes 'effortlessly'". Or: "Flying a helicopter takes a great deal of concentration", "Performing on a stadium stage requires me to really keep my wits about me".
Any process can become embodied, over time. Usually, positive feedback loops are necessary for embodiment - what worked has to have worked before. Initially, an action is undertaken, and then feedback is provided, then the action enacted again, and then positive feedback starts to loop with increasing frequency, until at one point, the action becomes very easy to 'play back'.
The question of feedback is then of 'knowing when it worked'. This can take many forms, depending on how you 'verify' the processes of your action. The verification process of 'riding a bicycle' is 'not falling down'; making enough actions that lead to 'not falling down' starts to "bake" or ingrain those actions into one's being, starting to turn it it into something more faster and 'instinctive' or 'intuitive' that becomes summoned more and more quickly.
Soon, you can grasp a bicycle, hop on, and like a flash start heading somewhere else. The gap between the object and doing-something-with-the-object becomes minuscule, nearly infinitesimal. Sometimes, when that gap narrows with some parts of an object but not other parts of an object, or when the 'doing-something-with-the-object' is complex enough, you start to wonder at how you can quickly-do-something-with-an-object, and simultaneously not fully understand how it works. You start ascribing 'abilities' to the object: the object has the 'power' to do something, because you cease to see how your actions themselves are always in engagement with the object itself, yet you are in still wonder of the object. Do you remember having to learn how scissors worked? How to flush a toilet? Do you know how computers work, even as you "use" one right now?
Sometimes, your doing-something-with-the-thing becomes something you can build upon. So because you can do-something-quickly, you can do something else quickly. Because you know how to drive a car, you know how to deliver pizzas.
To clarify, knowing-the-thing is always a chunking/clustering operation, always a pattern recognition ability to group similar operations together. "I know how to drive a car" is really a scattered series of individual operations (pushing the pedal, moving the wheel, checking your rearview mirror) that you are performant enough at enough to become procedural memory. "I know programming" similarly being a very dangerous (and typical) statement indeed.
When you don't know math that well, you do it very slowly. Either there are slow feedback loops, or no feedback loops. And let's say - the thing about procedural memory or quickly-doing-something is that it's much less error prone, much more controlled. The doing something slowly is full of errors, instabilities, variances. And when you have complex processes (math building on math building on math), then the errors pile up, and you have a even hard time processing what to do and what you're encountering.
This is important - even if someone tells you exactly what to do, the speed at which you enact these things leads to these instabilities. (Knowing what to do and being able to do it is separate) What's most important is your relationship to these doing-things, and how fast you can be, and how much procedural memory you hold.
Gaining procedural memory is about doing, but the doing isn't just in the material realm; it is in the external outside-the-self realm, so you have to explain it, transform it to and from language, etc.
So then, the question. How do you make new things happen?
Well, you might ask other people how they do it. Sometimes, some people skip steps, because it's nearly invisible to them, because these feedback loops have condensed into nearly non-existent speeds, hyper low-latency. So sometimes, people describe the steps in a sequence that's missing a bunch of steps. Other times, you learn the full series of steps. Then, as you try to enact the steps, you painstakingly step through and make a series of mistakes. As you keep on trying the steps, you embody and absorb the earlier ones first, and the later ones later. (Slowly, you gain 'knowledge').
You might also try it out. You could imagine a way in which it's possible, or imagine that you already know how it's possible. So you try it out, and then you fail. Since it's a new process, unsure of whether or not it's due to your mistakes or the process itself, you try it again, and fail. Slowly, you start to embody the early processes, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a working final process. But a) other mistakes made might seem like they're getting closer, so you start adopting those processes, and b)
in the process of being wrong, you've gained a little bit more of the initial-steps-knowledge.
One day you are reading a book of these processes; some are familiar to you, some are alien, and all are not embodied by you. A kid comes by who is highly skeptical of that book, and says it is all meaningless. What do you mean, you ask? Well, he says, how do I do something with it? How do you make change? How do I know that the book is accurate? What is done with that book?
Patiently, you place the book down, and explain:
Sometimes, sometimes, people try out processes and accidentally succeed; others have known to like unsuccessful processes. So sometimes it's entirely possible that you're reading a compendium of unsuccessful processes, or processes that don't quite fit together, or processes that only fit together once in a while, or processes that only fit together after immense amount of absorption. Or: sometimes certain processes only work for certain people, or in certain situations. In addition, certain processes can be absorbed that are indirectly applied later, in other situations.
What's clear, though, is that the book is only a recipe, and the larger transformation happens between you and the world. The book is like a map for a mountain. The book is a proposal. The book is a treasure map, a set of instructions, a series of guidelines, a set of prohibitions.
The book is not meant to replace the things that you absorb. The intent is always to guide you towards absorbing things and trying out new chains of processes - at first, with little stability, and in time, growing confidence.
Questions to ask further:
"Doesn't the world work a certain way?"