30 December 2006

Three Supplanters, or Heirs Apparent?

It has only been recently that I have come across texts containing theories bold enough to assert their ascendancy over Postmodernism (due more to a two year bout of oblomovitis on my part rather than their actual scarcity). Being an artist raised by Modernists into Postmodernism, this putative ascendancy is certainly noteworthy. The first text I encountered was Raoul Eshelman’s essay “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism,” then Ken Wilber’s A Theory of Everything, and finally, though I say “finally” with a caveat, Christopher Alexander’s four volume series The Nature of Order. I have been reading Alexander for two years now. Making epochal claims about having surpassed either Modernism or Postmodernism is not his concern, he merely sites specific problems with the movements as they relate to his own ideas, ideas that bear a certain family resemblance to those of Eshelman and Wilber.

Key to each of the post-Postmodernist approaches (and thus we see the absurd depths to which vocabulary regarding the subject can descend) is some sort of idea of wholeness. For Eshelman it is the wholeness of the ostensive, or originary scene, and, likewise, the restored wholeness of the subject. Wholeness and integration are evidences of psychological/spiritual maturity for Wilber, and the holons and holarchies of Arthur Koestler's version of systems theory are an important part of his vocabulary. Alexander lays the groundwork for a mathematical definition of “the wholeness,” that is, an identifiable system of centers. His conception of wholeness is somewhat analogous to a holarchy, but only superficially.

In his essays “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism,” and “Performatism in Architecture, On Framing and the Spatial Realization of Ostensivity,” Eshelman relies heavily on Eric Gans’s concepts of the ostensive and the originary scene. According to Gans’s theory, as hominid, or "proto-human" groups became increasingly social they began to engage in mimesis to an ever-greater degree. This is borne out in brain research, with higher primates having a larger number of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons, at least as far as I have been led to understand, fire in response to the observation of another’s actions. That is to say, as you pick up a cup, a number of neurons will fire while you are having the experience of picking up the cup. If you watch me pick up a cup the same group of neurons will fire. You will have the experience of having picked up the cup vicariously through me, your mirror neurons mirroring, or mimicking my actions. In Gans’s theory this tendency to mimesis among early hominids began to lead to what he and Rene Girard call mimetic desire, something every parent is familiar with as children fight over the same toy, or dinner goers to whom their companion’s meal always looks more appetizing. This mimetic desire eventually (probably quite often) culminated in a scene of mimetic violence, until one fine day in the Great Rift Valley in Eastern Africa a troop of hairy, hungry hominids was gathered around a prey item. They were all hungry, of course, and all desired to eat said prey item. As they observed the desire of their comrades, their mirror neurons began to fire. They desired, and saw each other desiring, and saw that the other also saw one’s own desiring. Whoever made the first move would probably get killed. No one wanted to die, just to eat, and as each one looked around they saw that the others likewise did not wish to die. Suddenly one of these hungry proto-humans made a sign, a gesture, a vocalization, who knows, but a sign nonetheless designating the prey item with a “deferred gesture of appropriation,” according to Gans. This action, understood and accepted by the rest of the group, became the first ostensive sign, and violence was thereby deferred. Meanwhile, the sign and its thing, the prey item, became inextricably bound, and together took on the aura of the sacred, as the first humans, proto no longer, stood in awe of its power. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” writes John. The original, ostensive sign was fetsihized, was designated the “name-of-God,” and its thing, devoured in an act of sparagmos, became the first sacrifice to God. Thus the groundwork was laid for all the rest of human culture.

Performatism, Eshelman’s term for the post-Postmodern epoch, returns the sign and its thing to the wholeness of the originary scene through evocation of the ostensive. When the first sign was born it was bound inextricably to the thing it designated, and both were locked inside the frame of the human. This does not mean the human frame/human body, but a conceptual frame encompassing what is required for a proto-human to be human. As layers of culture have been built upon this original sign/thing ostensive event the relation of signifier to signified has become less clear. Why else would I have to clarify that “the frame of the human” does not mean “the human frame?” There is a sign for almost everything known to man, and more for some. There are signs for things that are not or cannot be. Some signs do double, triple, even quadruple duty and more as languages change and flow and meanings get stuck in little eddies as their words continue to rush toward future meanings. This situation has lead some theorists to assert that signs have no meaning, that indeed “meaning is fascist.” I oversimplify, but my point here is not to explain Postmodernism, and DeMan's students serve adequately as an illustrative extreme. As Eshelman explains it, during the Postmodern epoch the frame in which sign and thing are bound was ignored or discarded altogether, allowing both to fly free. Performatism intends to restore the frame. Eshelman claims that this is not an act of restorative nostalgia, the originary scene is lost to history and it is impossible to return to it.

In “Performatism and Architecture,” Performatism is defined as an “epoch in which subject, sign, and thing come together in ways that create an aesthetic experience of transcendency.” This is achieved, primarily, through two means: framing, and the reduction of subjectivity. In the performatist act a secondary yet imperfect frame is established within the bounds of the human. This secondary frame isolates an ostensive, or “idiotic” sign-frame, practically devoid of content, a stand-in for the original prey item and its designating sign. This framing and reduction of subjectivity by emptying the sign-frame of content enables transcendency, which Eshelman defines as two things: “the fictional representation of successful performances, on the one hand, and a phenomenology, an act of experiencing on the other.” Thus, when Ricky Fitts in American Beauty (Eshelman’s favorite example, and a movie Ken Wilber would no doubt appreciate for its Buddhist subtext, as dicussed in Alan Ball's 14 December 1999 interview with Terry Gross) videotapes a white plastic bag dancing in the wind we feel along with him that there really is a benevolent force behind it all. Or at least we feel that he feels it, experiencing, as we do “belief as an aesthetic fact.” We do not have to believe as he believes, but we do need to know that he believes, that God or something of that nature speaks from twirling bags, or bushes that burn and are not consumed. We see the act of transcendency performed successfully, and our mirror neurons fire in response.

The magic here, at least in regards to Postmodernism, is not so much the quasi-mystical experience of transcendency, but the healing of the sign and its thing. It is a bit of a leap at this point, but suffice it to say this arrangement embodies many of the principals Christopher Alexander regards as necessary for a living system: levels of scale, strong centers, boundaries, alternating repetition, positive space, local symmetries, deep interlock and ambiguity, contrast, roughness, echoes, the void, simplicity and inner calm, and not-separateness. For example, Alexander’s definition for the void reads, “the intensity of every center depends on the existence of a still place—an empty center somewhere in its field.” This corresponds nicely to the kenosis of the “idiotic” sign-frame during the ostensive performatist act. A point by point correspondence between the performatist act and Alexander’s fifteen properties of living systems will be given later, once his unique vocabulary has been discussed to the extent possible in what is supposed to be a short essay.


A Theory of Everything is a brief introductory tract to Ken Wilber’s eclectic synthesis of systems theory, spiral dynamics, evolutionary psychology, and Madhyamaka Buddhism. Others, better informed and more qualified than I, have assessed and critiqued Wilber’s project (he famously told one such critic to “simply suck [his] dick”), so I will limit myself here to his claims as they relate to Postmodernism. The bulk of the text relies on Donald Beck and Chris Cowan’s psychological theory of Spiral Dynamics, which builds upon the work of psychologist Clare Graves, with Wilber’s own four-quadrant system superimposed on top. Spiral Dynamics divides human psychological development into several color-coded stages or memes (an unfortunate misuse of Richard Dawkins's term). Each of these memes is a necessary stage through which a person must pass in order to progress to the next. Briefly they are: Beige, corresponding to the most basic level of psychological development necessary for survival of the organism, which they term Instinctual-Archaic; Purple, or Animistic-Tribal, this is the magic world view, and is the necessary minimum for primitive human society; Red, or Egocentric-Dominionist, corresponding to the rise of nations, and ethnicities, and the terrible-twos; Blue, or Absolutistic, this is the stage in which adherents to fundamentalist religious convictions find themselves, also most teens and preteens; Orange, Multiplistic-Scientific-Rationalist, this is the stage that corresponds to the Enlightenment, positivism, Modernism, the rise of human rights, atheism, capitalism, a number of healthy and unhealthy expressions; Green, or Relativistic-Personalistic, this is the meme responsible for cultural relativism, Postmodernism, and the fierce egalitarianism that has brought us political-correctness; Yellow, Systemic-Integrative, the first of what are called the second-tier memes, yellow is quite rare, and is characterized by a realization that the world is made of many intimately linked and balanced systems, both vertically and laterally; Turquoise, or Holistic brings emotional depth to the realizations of Yellow; Coral is so rare that there are too few individuals in that stage to study it in depth, Wilber is fond of calling it Psychic. On top of this system of Spiral Dynamic memes Wilber has superimposed a four-quadrant system of I, We, and the two Its (lead vocals, lead guitar, bassist/drummer). In the upper left quadrant is the I, meaning the self and consciousness. In the upper right is the I’s It, or the brain and body. The lower left quadrant is We, meaning a culture and its world view. The lower right is Our It, or social systems and environment. To top it all off this system is conceived in terms of Arthur Koestler's version of systems theory including his own special, greeky vocabulary. The entire developmental spiral is a holarchy, or a hierarchy composed of holons. A holon, as Wilber defines it, “is a whole that is a part of other wholes.” His favorite example would be a molecule and its atoms. Atoms, holons in their own right, compose molecules. Atoms could exist without molecules, but never molecules without atoms. Likewise cells could not exist without molecules, and onwards and upwards, each unit being a part within a greater whole. In terms of Spiral Dynamics each meme, divided into subjective, physiological, social, and material quadrants (I, We and the two Its), comprises a holon without which the next step up could not exist. If none of this makes any sense, well, you should really read the book. And if it still doesn’t make sense then you are obviously entrenched in a lower level meme, and you should join Ken Wilber’s Integral-Institute (complete with a nifty flash intro) for only $20 dollars a month and get the help you need. If you still aren’t fixed after all that, then maybe the Scientologists can help keep the ghosts of dead aliens from haunting you, though I think that the Integral-Institute might be a better value (Hmmm, but wait, doesn’t that sound an awful lot like a book by Lemony Snicket? Could Ken Wilber in fact be Count Olaf? Please, help us rescue the Baudelaire children from the dungeons of the Integral-Institute!).

One never knows . . .

All facetiousness aside, Wilber argues that Postmodernism is symptomatic of a sick version of the Green meme. Whereas a healthy version would promote plurality, equality, and harmony in diversity, spread across all four quadrants, the unhealthy version denies meaning and the possibility of discourse thanks to cultural relativism, deconstruction, and other constructivist philosophies. This sick Green meme is essentially antagonistic to the Blue meme, as may be evidenced by the culture wars playing out in the US today, with pluralists and secularists fighting fundamentalists for control of government and social institutions. Because this is an “evolutionary” process (not in the strict, scientific sense of the term, but in the more popular sense of “developmental”) each stage relies on those before it for its own success. By attempting to root out fundamentalism, Wilber insists, the Green meme and its Postmodernist manifestations have placed the health of the entire spiral in jeopardy. Ethnic allegiance must be allowed to develop into institutional obedience before it can advance to rationalism and pluralism. The only hope, it seems, is for a critical mass of individuals entrenched in the Green meme to make the leap up to Yellow, and integral, second-tier thinking. This is accomplished, presumably, through meditation, reading Ken Wilber’s other books, and joining the Integral-Institute.

While I do feel that whatever comes after Postmodernism will be revealed through an “evolutionary” process, the specific track Wilber has laid out for humanity is likely to be derailed by unforeseen effects of technology, new social systems, and world events as yet unresolved. Just as Postmodernism in part built upon and reacted against the attitudes and institutions of Modernism, the new epoch will deny, transform and develop the old. It is therefore interesting that Wilber couples wholeness with plurality, the ability to reach back to the hierarchies and ratio of Modernism and the Enlightenment before it, while still valuing the diversity of the present.


In The Nature of Order Book One: The Phenomenon of Life Christopher Alexander lays the foundation for what he believes is an entirely new way of thinking about life. Life, as he defines it, is not limited to the strictly biological sense, but is a quality present to a greater or lesser degree throughout all configurations of matter in space. For nearly a decade Alexander spent three hours a day comparing photographs of objects, or scenes, or buildings, and asking himself which of any two photographs had more life. He also, to make sure it wasn’t all in his head I suppose, subjected his students and others to the same thing, and came up with similar results—actually, exactly the same results on most accounts. Despite the fact that it is extremely difficult to give an adequate definition of “life” in the sense that Alexander uses the term, most people know what it is when confronted with two objects and asked which one has more. This isn’t exactly empirical in any classical sense, but when most people give the same answer regardless of taste or personal preference, there must be something to it. For example, I absolutely love the little modernist studio with a cantilevered balcony near the Boy Scout camp behind our house, but I know that the little brick outbuilding down the hill from it has more life.

In order to more adequately define the field in which this quality of life operates Alexander has developed two unique concepts of wholeness and centers. These ideas bear a superficial resemblance to the holarchies and holons of systems theory, but I believe they are actually an evolution and refinement of the concept of patterns as laid out in The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language (a concept that proved to be rather influential in the world of programing, thought they can't seem to recruit a decent designer to work on their websites). They are also much more subtle, complex, and dynamic (it may also help his street cred to steer clear of Arthur Koestler). As best I can summarize--and keeping in mind the fact that Alexander’s definition of wholeness and centers is essentially all of chapter three in The Phenomenon of Life--the wholeness is an emergent structure induced as a field-like effect from the details of its configuration. Centers are the entities that both create and are created by this emergent structure. Every part of the material world is composed of centers and is part of a wholeness, what differs from one region to the next is the amount of life. In one of the simplest examples possible, a piece of paper with a dot drawn on it, Alexander finds no less than twenty distinct centers. The sheet of paper and the dot are the two centers that are manipulated to help create the wholeness in this example, the other eighteen (a “halo” around the dot, two rectangles to the left and right of the dot, two rectangles above and below the dot, four quadrants created by the overlapping of the other four rectangles, four rays extending from the dot to the edges of the paper, and four rays extending from the dot to the corners of the paper) are generated by the wholeness that emerges. Alexander, who has a background in both math and physics, believes that wholeness can be defined mathematically (he attempts this in appendices 1-3), and that it would comprise a field closely related to topology; however, as the field of topology stands today it is not yet adequate to address the “fuzziness” of wholeness and centers.

Having defined his terms Alexander then goes on to explain how the quality of life is manifest in this emergent structure of wholeness. There are fifteen properties that must be present, he asserts, for one region to have more life than another, or for a center or group of centers to have more life than another, to generate what he calls a living system. What follows is the list of properties in the order he gives, with the most concise definition provided in the text.

1. LEVELS OF SCALE is the way that a strong center is made stronger partly by smaller strong centers contained in it, and partly by its larger strong centers which contain it.

2. STRONG CENTERS defines the way that a strong center requires a special field-like effect, created by other centers, as the primary source of its strength.

3. BOUNDARIES is the way in which the field-like effect of a center is strengthened by the creation of a ring-like center, made of smaller centers which surround and intensify the first. The boundary also unites the center with the centers beyond it, thus strengthening it further.

4. ALTERNATING REPETITION is the way in which centers are strengthened when they repeat, by the insertion of other centers between the repeating ones.

5. POSITIVE SPACE is the way that a given center must draw its strength, in part, from the strength of other centers immediately adjacent to it in space.

6. GOOD SHAPE is the way that the strength of a given center depends on its actual shape, and the way this effect requires that even the shape, its boundary, and the space around it are made up of strong centers.

7. LOCAL SYMETRIES is the way that the intensity of a given center is increased by the extent to which other smaller centers which it contains are arranged in locally symmetrical groups.

8. DEEP INTERLOCK AND AMBIGUITY is the way in which the intensity of a given center can be increased when it is attached to nearby strong centers, through a third set of strong centers that ambiguously belong to both.

9. CONTRAST is the way that a center is strengthened by the sharpness of the distinction between its character and the character of surrounding centers.

10. GRADIENTS is the way in which a center is strengthened by a graded series of different sized centers which then “point” to the new center and intensify its field effect.

11. ROUGHNESS is the way that the field-effect of a given center draws its strength, necessarily, from irregularities in the sizes, shapes and arrangements of other nearby centers.

12. ECHOES is the way that the strength of a given center depends on similarities of angle and orientation and systems of centers forming larger centers, among the centers it contains.

13. THE VOID is the way that the intensity of every center depends on the existence of a still place—an empty center—somewhere in its field.

14. SIMPLICITY AND INNER CALM is the way the strength of a center depends on its simplicity—on the process of reducing the number of different centers which exist in it, while increasing the strength of these centers to make them weigh more.

15. NOT-SEPARATENESS is the way the life and strength of a center depends on the extent to which that center is merged smoothly—sometimes even indistinguishably—with the centers that form its surroundings.

Assuming that this is all as clear as mud by now I would like to demonstrate how these properties operate in a linguistic context, namely the ostensive perfomatist act as laid out by Raoul Eshelman. As an aside, I feel that these properties are best understood when Alexander discusses their operation in natural systems. So one would do well to refer to chapter six of The Phenomenon of Life.

As Eshelman describes the performatist act, its essential function is to cut through the muck of cultural accruement, and to isolate within a linguistic frame, or insulate from the surrounding cultural noise, an ostensive event resembling the originary scene. This act of framing creates a number of centers of varying sizes, the primary ones being those laid out by Eshelman in his diagram (shown above) describing a performatist event. In the center is the “innermost, irreducible sign-frame,” which we can think of as being conceptually fairly large and strong (Eshelman certainly draws it that way) relative to the components of the “intermediate frame,” which is larger, but composed of smaller centers. The “outermost frame,” larger still than the other frames, “delimit[s] common humanness,” and is a large and heterogeneous affair, comprising, as it does, the rest of human culture. It also contains a “reference to [a] higher frame,” an unknown, perhaps infinite beyond--the rest of the wholeness which lies beyond our purview.

Levels of scale is manifest in the relative importance of the various centers, the fact that one contains the others, and that each is in turn made of smaller centers. The intermediate frame, for example, is made of words and actions. Not all of the centers/words are of equal importance, weight, or even size when seen in a text or heard in speech, for example.

Strong centers (a property for which Alexander gives one of the most circular definitions I’ve ever read) can be seen in the way the intermediate frame (which is a carefully constructed semiotic event) isolates and strengthens the innermost sign-frame, which would otherwise be indistinguishable from any other. How else could Ricky Fitts’s bag be anything more than just a bag were it not isolated by the compound frame of his attention, his lens, and his subsequent explanation of the event (and further, for us, the attention, lens and language of the actors, the director, and the writer of the film).

Boundaries couldn’t be more obvious. The entirety of the performatist act is dependant upon the successful establishing of boundaries. The boundary of the primitive sign-frame must be viewed as impenetrable and whole, whereas postmodern strategies would separate sign from thing. The intermediate frame forms a boundary within the vastness of culture, and around the intimacy of an ostensive act.

Alternating repetition could be viewed in several ways. Most simply it is the alternation and repetition of sign and thing. All of human language is composed of signs and things (objects, actions, ideas), and as the intermediate frame is at its most basic a linguistic event, it is composed of pairs of signs and things, alternating as they bloom in a line, spilling from a mouth or pen (or keyboard). Alternately, we have an example of the alternating repetition of three elements (attention, lens and language) in the example given for strong centers.

Positive space, which I believe is a rather slippery idea, can also be seen in the example used for strong centers. When Ricky Fitts, a strong center in and of himself, takes up his camera, he, in effect, gives shape to its use. In The Nature of Order Book Two: The Process of Creating Life Alexander states, “Our understanding of process, like our understanding or order, has been severely compromised by the value-neutral Cartesian picture, and in a similar fashion. In the case of static order a least, everyone knows that things have value; the mistake has been in the fact that we have been encouraged to think that the value of an object is subjective.” I take this to mean that the value of an object, a video camera for example, is absolute, but the value of the processes applied to it may be greater or lesser. By picking up his camera and filming a white bag blowing against a red wall Ricky applies processes of greater value to the centers he finds in around him, thereby creating positive space by positively effecting the use of those centers (himself, the camera, the wind, the wall, the bag).

Good shape is particularly hard to ferret out when we are speaking in terms of language. However, we can suppose that the initial shape of the innermost sign-frame necessarily effects the terms/centers used in the intermediate frame (you don’t talk about a bag in quite the same terms you would use to discuss a leaf) which would then effect the “shape” of the frame itself. Assuming the initial seed, the innermost sign-frame has a good shape, the larger frame will also, if well built.

Local symmetries depends a great deal on how we imagine sign-frames to be shaped. Symmetries are certainly present in the shapes of the sounds of the spoken word. And a certain type of symmetry can be seen in the sign/thing pairing, two halves of one whole, both existing in the physical world as certain patterns of material (bags made of plastics, words made of sound waves and ink) and in the mind as patterns of symbols and ideas. In Eshelman’s diagram at least he draws them as symmetrical patterns of black and white, so we may conjecture that perhaps he thinks of them that way on some level.

Deep interlock and ambiguity perfectly describes the way the intermediate frame mediates between the realm of common humanness (from which it is forms a specialized subset of signs and things) and the ostensive sign (which it bounds and defines). Likewise, each and every sign-frame, binding inextricably a sign and thing, is governed in part by this same property.

Contrast is easily seen in the marked difference between a sign and its thing. In the case of discrete objects, to take an extreme example, one (the sign designating the object) is a cultural construct, while the other (the object) would continue to exist independently of its sign even if culture, and indeed all humanity, were to disappear this instant. We just couldn’t talk about it. Or to put it in Ken Wilber's Koestlerian terms, a thing is one of the holons from which sign is made. These two contrasting elements give shape to one another. The object defines the properties the sign refers to, while the sign facilitates the object’s entry into the commerce of human culture.

Gradients nicely describes the gradual sharpening of focus in the performatist act: from the ineffable boundlessness of the beyond, to the heterogeneous muddle of the human, to the clarifying demarcation of the intermediate frame, to the empty perfection of the ostensive or “idiotic” sign. Conversely, this same gradient of centers also points outward to the beyond, suggesting transcendence, according to Eshelman.

Roughness can be seen in the variety of centers/words used to form the intermediate frame. In Ricky Fitts’s description of his encounter with the bag he says, "And this bag was just dancing with me.” Not all of these words are necessary to convey his meaning. “And” and “just” could easily be dropped. “This” could be changed to “the,” “bag” to “sack,” and so on. Conceivably we could even reduce his message to some combination of “me, bag, dance,” and imagine a particularly sensitive interlocutor grasping his meaning nonetheless. Yet the particular words he uses, in their variety and roughness (note that the term as Alexander uses it is not synonymous with rustication or sloppiness), give nuance and shape to one another, and to the frame they help construct. Another possible example of roughness might be present in Eshelman’s assertion that the intermediate frame is incomplete, containing a “break or contradiction.” Though the definition of roughness required for this example may contradict the first.

Echoes may indicate the success and effectiveness of the performatist act, and may also be used as a device to unify the intermediate frame within an aesthetic whole. Rhyming and similar poetic devices are examples of echoes in a linguistic performance, though recent trends in literary taste have rendered them less effective. Also, the performatist act itself is an echo of the (most likely fictional) originary scene so long ago.

The void is easily recognized in the emptiness of the ostensive, or “idiotic,” sign. As Eshelman states, the innermost sign-frame binds an “ostensive sign or 'idiotic' signs with a referential tie but with little or no content.”

Simplicity and inner calm (related but not identical to the void) can be seen in the space cleared within human culture by the intermediate frame. By severely reducing the number of centers/sign-frames inside it, the intermediate frame strengthens those centers.

Lastly, not-separateness is certainly a property exhibited by the intermediate frame as it merges with the culture at large on its outer edge. It can also be seen in the impenetrability of the newly whole sign-frame, and the reduced subject of performatist praxis.

So what to do with all this? If Alexander is to be believed, and my analysis is correct, then Eshelman’s performatist act falls within the range of living systems. Are we to assume, however, that Postmodernism is automatically outside the range of living systems just because the performatist act is within it? A similar analysis would need to be done to a postmodernist equivalent to see if it too falls within that scope, or not. There is also the additional problem of disagreement in actual practice as far as performatism and Alexander’s living systems are concerned. Architecture is Alexander’s primary field of interest and expertise, and in “Performatism in Architecture” Eshelman cites a number of recent buildings in Berlin that he feels are examples of performatist architecture. Yet looking at the pictures of his examples, one wonders if they are quite what Alexander had in mind as an implementation of living systems in architecture. They are, for the most part, large public buildings that foreground some sort of theatrical device (theistic creation, transparency, triangulation, kinesis, impendency, wholeness, framing, centering + ostensivity, oneness), while exhibiting few of the properties outlined in Alexander’s The Nature of Order. In fact, Alexander would most likely dismiss them as mere offshoots of Postmodern architecture. Neither Alexander nor Eshelman are purely descriptive or purely prescriptive in the discussion of their particular subjects; so one is left to wonder if the remarkable correspondence of theory followed by a marked divergence in praxis is simply a matter of taste.

Both Eshelman and Alexander have precious little to say about contemporary visual art; as Eshelman concerns himself primarily with literature, film, and architecture (all either time-based, performative art-forms, or frames in which performances can take place), and Alexander with historical examples of his fifteen properties. However, their ways of thinking do have some promise for a visual artist, either as something to work against, or with, or both. If I think about Alexander’s fifteen properties while drawing, for example, I find it is a useful way to move beyond (or at least off to one side of), the basics of composition I learned sixteen years ago. At the same time, however, it’s a bit like making artwork inspired by Nabokov (a notorious curmudgeon when it came to modern art)--there’s no way you could have done it without him, but there’s no way in hell he’d ever like it (so Barbara Bloom and I can just quietly cry ourselves to sleep in the corner). In the end, that just may be the mark of a good theory: its useful application in places its author never intended.

As for Ken Wilber, poor Ken Wilber left out in the cold 3,000 words ago, we have only to look at the art of so-called Integral-Artists to immediately grasp the nature of the movement and the contingencies it represents. I could go on, but it would be a bit like fishing with dynamite. Far too easy, and far too many dead fish.

All three of the authors discussed here have placed the term “wholeness” at the center of their arguments. Both Eshelman and Wilber do so as a direct reaction against the irony, emptiness, and diffusion of Postmodernism. Alexander, like Eshelman, presents his project as a return, though not a restoration or regress, to a type of wholeness that existed before and once emerged spontaneously: living systems for Alexander, and the originary scene of Generative Anthropology for Eshelman. They all take a long view of their various subjects, citing examples in the recent, remote, and at times fictional past. Taking such a long view, one is almost tempted to conclude that the disjunction of the postmodern epoch is merely a blip, a pothole, on humanity’s path to wholeness and continuity. However, that may be an undue romanticizing of the past, which has certainly seen its fair share of discontinuity and disjunction.

I am not a scholar, and I cannot pass a scholar’s judgment on these putative successors to Postmodernism. As a practicing artist; however, I can recognize a larger, more complex version of what happens when an artist thrashes about for a new direction, though on a broader cultural stage, or in a larger studio as it were. When transitioning from one body of work to another, it is often the case that an artist reacts negatively to the former, just as these supplanters or heirs apparent react negatively to the epoch they claim to be closing. The advantage the artist might imagine himself to have is in being able to view the creation of an artwork or body of work from without. Because the product is external, artists make the mistake of externalizing the process as well. However, the artist cannot be separated from his practice, just as the ostensive sign-frame cannot be dismantled. We make the work, and the work makes us, in often unforeseen ways, like Alexander’s sheet of paper with a dot drawn on it, new centers creating and created by the wholeness that emerges. As with art[ist] making, what is culture then, but an autopoeitic process, praxis governing itself from within.

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