For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:
Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now? Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.
Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.
Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.
Here home is where people ordinarily (but not always) start out — a space defined by intimacy, privacy, domesticity, and safety. At home you’re in something of what Hannah Arendt calls an animal laborans condition: entirely defined by biological necessities; not quite human.
To become fully human, you have to head out of home, and you have two choices about where to head, defined by the Boydian admonition to choose between being somebody, and doing something.
The public — in the Arendtian sense of a space where you appear in society and have your free humanity recognized by other free humans — is where you head if you navigate life primarily by a be somebody heuristic. A space defined by what Martin Buber called an I-thou dominant mode of relating to reality. We know a great deal about this process. About 99% of everything ever written about sociology, psychology, and anthropology deals with the space between home and public, about the process of becoming somebody by navigating I-thou relationships successfully, without getting terminally trapped in some identity subculture or other.
The frontier is wherever you head if you navigate life primarily by a do something heuristic. A space defined by Buber’s I-it mode of relating. We know very little about this direction. Only about 1% of the humanities and social sciences are about exploratory cognition and identity formation.
Thingness is the essence of consensus. It is a thing if enough people believe it is a thing. The phenomenology of thingness may or may not turn out to be illusory, but its essence is social proof. Thingness is heavily studied. It is the raw material of almost all attempts at meaning-making. These attempts almost always fail.
Thereness is the essence of substance. It doesn’t matter how many people believe or disbelieve that there’s a there there. The phenomenology of something has a thereness to it if and only if there is a non-social core of novelty to it. Something even a single person exploring alone can see for themselves, simply by going there, whether or not they are able to share it. Thereness is very poorly studied. It is the raw material of a small minority of attempts at meaning making, but these enjoy a disproportionate amount of success. If there’s a there there, and you find it, it can become a thing, but thingness does not seem to be a good indicator of thereness.
There’s nothing there, we say, when we dismiss subcultures of being while located in subcultures of doing.
It’s a thing, tastemakers insist, in resisting the dismissals of thereness-seeking doers.
Thingness and thereness are certainly correlated, and definitely not mutually exclusive, but the distinction is real and meaningful. There’s a there there. The fable of the Emperor’s new clothes is about thingness versus thereness. It’s the cliched style-substance distinction. Perhaps there is, as Virginia Postrel argues, substance to style, but either way, the answer is not trivial. It takes exploration to discover something about the answer, and you never exhaust the question.
The visualization is a Penrose triangle because there’s an element of impossibility to the idea of continuous connectivity among the three loci. Only from one very specific perspective does the illusion hold. The socialization of humans in any society tends to revolve around making this specific perspective ingrained for all. You might say the essence of a false consciousness is the limiting of a perspective to make a particular Penrose-triangle illusion seem real.
Shift perspectives a little, and one of the apparent vertices of connection reveals itself to have a liminal gap to it. Where the gap is depends on your particular pattern of screwed-upness. The particular gap in your psyche papered over by your socialization. It is the gap you must navigate in order to reconstitute yourself as a new person. To become whole, you must break your perspective of social reality to introduce a liminal gap.
I’d say my life has been defined by a disconnect at the frontier, which I call goatspace (it’s a private joke I’m still trying to turn into a coherent post). Goatspace is defined by the breakdown of the illusion that you can head to the frontier via a do something adventure, and then turn a corner smoothly to stylishly enter a public space where you’ll be rewarded with recognition as being somebody, a person of substance. If goatspace turns out to be treacherous and unnavigable for you, you’ll have to head back home with your tail between your legs, and try sheepishly to be somebody more directly, by navigating worlds of thingness.
In social terms, goatspace is the liminal gap between sovereignty, a condition which can apply to individuals in isolation,and freedom, which is a condition that only applies to humans appearing among other humans. In private terms, goatspace is a resurrection experience. To traverse goatspace is to be born again.
If there is no goatspace gap for you, there is necessarily a gap at one of the other vertices. If the gap is at the public vertex, I call it crowspace. If it is at the home vertex, I call it ratspace. I have a whole messy theory of these three liminal disconnection spaces that I hope to coherently write up one day. Maybe I should call my triangle the goat-crow-rat triangle.
But for now, I’ll just leave you with one of the uglier working sketches I made while figuring this out. I have a long way to go still. I don’t usually share work-in-progress studio crud like this, but since we’re about to do the longform blogging course starting next week, I figured I should do a post with some of the sausage factory visible through a transparent wall.