cultural criticism | photography | place & space

lentis | レンズ | Optik | линза | lens | φακός | 名 | objectif | lente

No matter how you spell it, we all have one. Actually, we all have many lenses and each of them undergo changes over time…retooling. Now I really often despise putting ideas into words, not because many ideas are all that complicated, but because they are often so simple and the hearer of such an idea wants to attach all manner irrelevant or incorrect meaning to the idea from the vaults of their own beliefs.

This results for me in complete frustration. It’s like Cinderella’s stepsisters when they tried to fit their feet into the rigid confines of the glass slipper. They had to cut away parts and still their feet didn’t fit right. What they ended up with was a painful, bloody mess. Yes, that’s it. My ideas are like the pudgy feet of greedy young women. Well, not really, but it brings into better view the concept that some ideas that may seem rigid may not necessarily be so. Maybe it is our (in)ability to express and to hear those ideas and the confines of our languages that are rigid.

There are two points in this that we should remain conscious of. The first is that of the habit of listening where we add to what is being said and thereby change the meaning of what is being said. We add from the deep wells of our fundamental assumptions and from our moods. The other is when we remove essential parts of the idea. Usually what gets tossed out or neglected is that part of nuance that is hardest to put into words but is critical to bringing the idea into sharpest focus, but most shamefully, nowadays what is eliminated is usually done for political reasons whether consciously or not.

Now Where am I Going with This

Good question. Let’s find out together. I should start with why I’m presenting the principle of the lens, as it really should be a fairly self-evident idea, and why I think that it is important that I should do this. I begin with the recognition of the tension between philosophical paradigms…namely that of absolutism and relativism. The tension between these two paradigms is increasing, and even though it may sound rather abstract and of little practical importance, I believe that it is this tension (as well as the very nature of definition itself) that is one of the primary roots of our most divisive and intractable societal issues today, and this is most important in understandings and discussions of what is intrinsically true and what is false, and the increasing tension in our society is not simply an academic matter.

Absolutism has been the paradigm in the western philosophical tradition ever since the ancient Greeks determined that, yes, reality is indeed real. Absolutism doesn’t maintain that everything is known or that everything is necessarily knowable, but it does maintain that truth in the matter of ethics (and subsequently law) that is objective and universal does exist. This was a rather unchallenged position until the mid twentieth century when a whole host of factors such as agnosticism, nihilism, post-war ennui, over reliance and faith in science with its subsequent disillusionment, cultural difference apparent in a shrinking world, academic inbreeding, the devil in a blue dress…Who knows for sure…resulted in postmodernism, where ethics and therefore law are entirely situational and subjectively determined.

Sweet, sweet relativism was always a pipe-dream, because absolute relativism is, well, an absolute. What really happened was the trading in of all of the old Sacred Cows for new and diametrically opposed ones, yet coo-coo-cooing relativism is still trotted out to dull the mind and breed cultural schizophrenia. This is the heart of the paradigmatic tension. One lexicon that illustrates this states:

war is peace
freedom is slavery
ignorance is strength

The updated lexicon would add:

intolerance is tolerance
pride is liberation
subjectivity is objectivity

Anyway, the principle of the lens is a useful alternative to relativism in reconciling obvious interpersonal and intercultural difference with ethical absolutism, while still maintaining that ethical truth is objective and universal. A lens is a device through which an individual views objective reality, and while more than one can be used simultaneously, the lens will color, inform, distort, nuance, sharpen, etc. that individual’s view of reality, but as always, reality and truth are independent of how and by whom they are viewed.

And so Without Beating a Horse

The basis of the lens is perception. At the lowest level the five sensory input modes along with the brain use physiologic matter to input raw (objective) information into human consciousness. This concept is readily recognizable to anyone who didn’t sleep through Psych 101 so I won’t go into any detail, but it is very important to keep in mind that the individual’s cognitive abilities as well as their affective state places limits and erects filters in what each person perceives and how those perceptions are processed. Such is the foundation, but I am really interested in the transpersonal…whether in psychology or anthropology (mythology, social systems, arts & literature, and finally pop culture).

In some circles, cultural conditioning and social constructs are looked upon as bogeymen. This is usually by those who frequently brandish terms such as hegemony and patriarchy. It seems that the complaint goes like this: all cultural knowledge (conditioning and constructs, practices and traditions) pollutes and prevents the individual from being who he is truly meant to be. Yikes, but what is a human void of cultural information? He is either a blank and blinking empty computer ripe for their programming or an animal that has had no interaction with any other human. Its seems to me that the secularist view of who a person truly is (that is existing in a world without universal boundaries) is a disturbing world of machines and beasts…such then will be our fates in this worldview, that is a view that lacks a transcendent purpose for individuals, a view that lacks objective truth, a view that lacks God.

Now that we have passed through that tangent, let’s look at conditioning, because it is an essential fashioner of many lenses. Basically it is instruction and repetition. For example, if peasants introduced to the modern world are told enough times that a toilette is used to relieve themselves in, hopefully, soon enough they will stop washing their olives in it. Likewise, if a particular behavior repulses a person, but they are told many times a day for several years that that behavior is instead beautiful and good, they will likely become conditioned. So when someone comes along and tells them once again that it is repulsive, they will likely think that person wrong, crazy, or that modern buzzword, unenlightened. Their response might even be hostile or threatened. Conditioning doesn’t need to answer to objectivity.

Selected Lenses

Physio-psychological makeup, affective state, and cultural conditioning are more or less all Built-in Lenses, because either we cannot change them, we are unaware of them, or they are part of taken for granted belief systems. Yes, even the most hardened atheist or that hugely common group of people who say that they are “spiritual but not religious” have a belief system with many hard and fast conditioned rules and beliefs as dogmatic as any fundamentalist. You see, if it is true that nature abhors a vacuum as the physicists inform us, then is it even more true that super-nature abhors a super-vacuum?

Selected Lenses on the other hand, are largely chosen, although they may be informed by those that are built in. These are the subjects that we chose to learn or the methods that we chose to employ, and through which we begin our understanding the world around us in a systematic way. I chose to study, architecture & urban design, geography, art & history, anthropology, archaeology, and belief systems. I have also come to understand that pop culture (in spite of much of its trashy low-browness) is a rich source of information. I can use each of these to study any of the others or anything else that comes across my path. Awareness of what we do, why and how we do it is as essential to scraping away the layers of subjectivity and misinformation that obscure our view of truth as is availing ourselves to those best sources.

Everything that I have been exposed to is retained within deep vaults…all of my personal experiences, everything that I have read, all the music I have heard, and all of the films and television that I have seen. These things form who I am in the sense of my history, and they are also lenses, but more than that, they are a palette through which I express my thoughts…at times in the manner of a collage of samples that is likely to be meaningless to those uninitiated in the references used.

I disagree that it’s all relative, but I do believe that it’s all referential.