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Trail: flow




A philosophical tale about our time

Patricia de Martelaere

First, speaking about flow, let us go back to the beginning of Western philosophy.
“Everything flows”, said Heraclitus. He was depicted as the “crying philosopher” probably because he appeared to be incapable of stepping twice into the same river. But then, neither could any other man. On second thought things were even worse: Heraclitus was even incapable of stepping into the same river only once – because in the very process of stepping into it the river would inevitably change, and so would he himself. The river is not the river, and we are not who we are. The universe is perpetual change. Things are ephemeral and ungraspable. We want to get hold of them but they escape through our fingers like grains of sand or running water – and so do we ourselves and the very hands that are grasping. Living reality seems to be utterly beyond our control. Reasons enough to cry.

Parmenides, on the other hand, defended the opposite point of view: change is only superficial and illusive; real reality consists of unchanging states of being that can perfectly well be grasped by the analyzing thinking mind. The arrow that has been shot and moves swiftly through the sky does not really move at all. At each indivisible moment it is at one and only one place. Movement is an illusion created by the senses. Parmenides must have looked at the world in a digital and mathematical way, roughly the way we look at video films nowadays: we can make every image stop at out own will.
The opposition between Heraclitus and Parmenides is that between the world of living organic experience and that of abstract calculating thought. What is at issue here is the idea of control, and the sense of losing it as soon as changes are allowed to interfere with perfectly static images. People seem to always have disliked change in a very profound sense – instead they wanted security, knowledge, control and predictability. This is because people dislike dying. Death is the ultimate change beyond control.

Plato’s solution has become famous: he created a higher world of absolute Being which was more original than the contingent world we live in and which could be grasped by the contemplative power of specially gifted human individuals. Not only philosophy continued to follow this platonic focusing on being for ages, so did modern science from its very beginning, and so did christian religion even to the highest degree. What all were after was something eternal and unchangeable, whether it be an idea, a law of nature or a godlike entity. This went on untill the beginning of the twentieth century. Then, due to a lot of simultaneously operating factors (darwinism, the rise of atheism, new developments in science) our picture of the world changed rather radically.

At least, part of it changed radically – the other part did not change at all. We gave up the idea of being, but not at all the desire for control.

Contemporary society tries to live with the fact that “being”, in all its aspects – religious, scientific, moral – is irrevocably lost. Instead, we have become obsessed by changes and by the challenge of representing patterns of changes. A representation of change is what comes closest to a static picture without becoming it entirely. But change as such can not be represented, maybe not even thought. Changes can only be lived and organically experienced. As a consequence, a real-time representation of wordwide on-going “flows” will only be an illusion of perception, a simulation and never a real perception. It does not bring us closer to whatever we could want to be closer to, it rather shows how far we are separated and alienated from direct experience of the world or even of ourselves. It offers us an artificial directness. For the sake of enhanced control we seem to be prepared to make our entire world artificial and to reverse real-life priorities: simulated and quantifiable data are presented to us as “direct knowledge” , whereas the intimate and subjective access we have to the world is called illusive, unreliable and valueless.

“How am I doing?”, we already ask the specialist behind his desk. He will look through all the graphic representations he has of our body and then tell us how we are doing, better than we could possibly tell by ourselves. In ancient times people used to ask “How are you doing?” – but we pride ourselves on having found out that nobody is really qualified to answer this question.

Moreover: what is “real” time after all, and what exactly is given “here” and “now”? It requires only little reflection to conclude that it is ultimately nothing. The very moment of the “given” can be divided into tenths and hundreths and thousanths of never ending moments and vanishes away into a limit function, mere nothingness. Even science had to realize that time has no reality. There is no present to present.

Yet there is life to be lived. The “moment” that thought is after and is incapable to catch is perfectly accessible to the living organism. Time is what we are, though we cannot think it.

Instead of simply enjoying this mysterious “moment” we will be wasting our lives by continuously watching images of world-processes or processes of our own body and desperately trying to interfere, so to speak be quicker than time, like a man chasing his own shadow. Together with the disappearing computer we will disappear ourselves.

The kind of “flow” we are after will not be a “natural” flow at all. The type we want is the water-tap-type, with the water running smoothly and endlessly and the plumber at hand as soon as anything threatens to go wrong: a new image of eternity and god-like perfection (all-seeing and omnipresent eye included). The way water actually flows in its natural environment is nothing like this: its course is full of obstructions and accelerations, it merges with other flows or ends in a lake - and eventually all rivers will end in the sea, where flowing stops or transforms into other processes, like waves or evaporation.

What we like so very much about nature is the idea of an “ecosystem”, in which things are running smoothly and apparently “all by themselves” for a certain time. What we prefer to forget is that nature is struggle and catastrophe too, and that “to flow” for all that lives inevitably also means to stop flowing and to die. Death cannot be represented. Or are we going to make an artificial experience of that too? People already start filming or staging their own death. And how often don’t we hear gameboy-children exclaim: “I am dead” or, less dramatic: “I have got only two more lives ”.
Imagine the all-recording body-computer-watch reporting at a given time: “You’d better start breathing more slowly, you have only ten more breaths to breathe”. I’d feel like my own Tamagoshi.

Additional thoughts on “control”.
It is not as if wanting control as such is wrong. The desire for control probably belongs to the human being as he is. The same could even be said about all living beings: they seek control in their environment with all the means they have. The human being just happens to have increased his means of control in a spectacular way.

Control can, however, be sought either internally or externally. The East (if we can generalize for the sake of argument) is not at all free of the desire to control – quite to the contrary, what it is after is supreme control, just as we are in the West. But the direction in which it has traditionally sought control is the inward one. Starting from the assumption that outer circumstances were beyond control anyway and could only make us unhappy by changing unpredictably, the eastern sage has always strived to be independent of the outer world by optimizing the control of his own inner energy. No matter how disappointing the world, he could always be and remain imperturbably “happy”. We in the west have proven that we can indeed interfere to a large extent with outer circumstances – a feat which is not to be underestimated. Our welfare, food, warmth, clothing, hygiene, technical innovations... are not just immaterial (though very material) accidents of our society.

The danger with external control is not that it is control nor that it is external as such – the danger is when it becomes exclusively externally focused , to the neglect of all inner control. The final risk is that we will end up in the opposite state as the eastern sage’s: we will have all kinds of outer accomodation imaginable and yet never be “happy”. And we will not even find the slightest reason why not – since all possible reasons will be thought of as external reasons.

Patricia de Martelaere