Shelley’s Notebooks And Why You Should Keep Your Pen Moving

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It’s been such a deep and amazing journey for me, getting close to John Keats, and also I love Shelley and Byron. I mean, the thing about the Romantic poets is that they’ve got the epitaph of romantic posthumously. They all died really young, and Keats, the youngest of them all. – Jane Campion

Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792-1822) was an English Romantic poet, part of a group of poets that came up with an innovative way of writing poetry that distilled emotion from reflecting how humans lived their lives. It came out of thought, out of a serious contemplation of lived experience poured into poetry to capture meaning.

In Allen (2021) we learn that a poet’s notebook is their workshop. When we look at these notebooks we are tempted to focus on the words, the text – because that’s what makes its way into print and a book of poetry. But in the poet’s workshop, in Shelley’s books we can see the sawdust and cutouts – doodles and sketches and scribbles that surround and intersperse the words that sometimes make their way into print.

These drawings and marks are not childish or simple – they are a way for someone that is thinking hard to keep their hand moving, “keep the ink flowing” as the head works out what it’s trying to say or do or write. The movement helps with the thinking because being still is hard, focusing on just one thing is difficult and maybe it’s easier to focus when you have something else to distract you.

Then again, when it’s hard to see something, to think your way to it, it’s useful to do something else, to have a distraction – to walk, to read or to draw. You do something simple in the foreground while your mind works away in the background and when it’s ready it lets you know what its found.

Sometimes a doodle is just a doodle – it doesn’t mean anything, but it acts as a bridge from one state of thinking to another. But it’s also tempting to pour meaning into it, see an image as suggesting something more than the thing it shows you. Is that picture at the top copied from the Bodelian Shelley Manuscripts a boat and boatman or is it the grim reaper heading towards a fallen soul and does it mean more or less than what you see on the page?

Drawings in notebooks can be surreal – they are not made to be looked at but made in the process of making something else and perhaps they just fill the time between one thing and another. Or they are glimpses into the state of the mind that has created the work, perhaps it shows you the mess in their mind that resulted in the poetry you love.

You can read too much into the marks on a page. The one thing that is certain, however, is that you cannot make your art without making marks. If you’re stuck, then, just keep your pen moving, draw something, anything, until you’re free again.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Allen, G (2021), “Shelley as visual artist: Doodles, sketches, ink blots and the critical reception of the visual”, /Studies in Romanticism”, Vol 60, No 3, pp 277-306

How Picasso Cuts Through The Clutter

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Tuesday, 7.04pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them. – Pablo Picasso

In my last post I decided to explore the work of people who use drawing as a part of their process.

I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport and 21 lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari and they both suggest that you stop looking on the web for information. That’s slightly ironic, as you’re reading this online, but their basic argument is that searching for information will present you with that which is popular. That, fortunately, is not a condition this blog suffers from. They suggest that instead of googling we should go and read peer-reviewed papers.

And that’s what I intend to do for these posts.

A good place to start, as good as any other anyway, is with the work of Pablo Picasso. Picasso said that it took him “four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He was trained in a formal academic style by his father but went on to create a number of new styles.

What is the essence of a thing – what can you reduce it to as you look at it and try to make sense of it? Picasso had a history with poultry – one story says that his father retired from drawing when he saw how well the young Picasso drew a pigeon’s feet. Spiller (2012) writes that “He didn’t just recreate, he stripped, lacerated, and re-presented.”

Take the images above, for example. These are birds drawn with a single line, reduced to their essentials. They are still recognizably birds, arguably even chickens – but it’s this idea that what you see comes down to a few lines, as few as you can, perhaps even just one line – which captures the essence of what’s in front of you.

Picasso’s work is supported by work in brain science – the line – the contour – is the at the heart of vision. We can recognize expressions with very few lines – just the elements that move on the face. It takes just a few lines to transform a scribble into a recognizable form. Sometimes there is so much out there that we need to start by reducing what we see to the essentials – to a single line that has all that is important in that situation.

So, the first lesson from Picasso is to ask yourself whether you can set down what you see in a single line, without lifting your pen from the paper.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Spiller, H (2012), “Cock-A-Doodle”, Gastronomica, Vol 12, No 1, pp 9-11.

How Do Diagrams Help Us Think Better?

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Monday, 7.03pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If I’m interviewing someone I need to know everything about them – I do these massive spider diagrams. Everything under different categories, and certain questions in other categories. – Cat Deeley

I’ve been thinking about how we use visual techniques to make sense of information. This is a rather wide topic and spans early work done sixty or so thousand years ago by an unknown Neanderthal on a wall to modern digital concepts. Why are diagrams so powerful and how have they changed over time?

Let’s use a visual technique to explore this question in a satisfyingly recursive way. Graph Theory is a mathematical technique that resulted from the study of a puzzle. The prolific mathematician Leonhard Euler was working on a puzzle that involved the now Russian village of K√∂nigsberg – a place with seven bridges connecting two islands to the mainland. People wondered whether it was possible to find a walking route that would cross each bridge exactly once. Euler proved that such a route existed and invented graph theory along the way.

Graphs are hugely useful – circuit diagrams and chemical compound models are essentially graphs. But nodes and edges can do more than represent mathematical elements. They can also be used as a form of knowledge representation as you can see in the picture above.

For example, diagramming techniques including Tony Buzan’s Mind Maps, Novak and Gowin’s Concept Maps and the Open University’s Spray Diagrams can all be used to represent data and the connections between data. These are not templates that are filled with information like graphical organizers but rather containers for information and relationships that help us navigate from idea to idea.

And that’s interesting because so much of what makes the modern world work is the ability to share and connect ideas. It’s the basis of the world-wide web and websites like Wikipedia. If we want to make sense of the world it might be a good idea to see if these kinds of tools can help.

Over the next few posts I might follow the trail of some of these ideas and see what’s out there about how scientists and writers have used drawing in their work.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

Notes From Yuval Noah Harari’s “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”

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Sunday 8.01pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

I’ve finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Here’s a summary of the main points for me. They are mostly questions.

  1. It’s hard to think clearly in our increasingly complicated world.
  2. We need a new story for humanity. Fascism lost. Communism depends on the workers – who are these now? Liberalism limps on but its promises ring hollow.
  3. An age of smart machines will not need workers. What will humans do?
  4. Will those that control the algorithms have wealth and power? Will the rest of us be irrelevant? Obsolete?
  5. Who owns your data? Do they know you better than you know yourself?
  6. What is going to happen to online and offline communities?
  7. We are increasingly connected as part of a global civilization.
  8. Nationalism cannot resolve problems of nuclear war, ecological collapse, information technology and AI or bioengineering.
  9. Religion won’t either.
  10. Immigration is a deal. Resolving cultural conflicts is a challenge.
  11. We should not let terrorism win.
  12. Waging war is no longer a profitable exercise. Wealth is in minds, not in treasure or oil fields.
  13. You have to realize that you are less important than you might think.
  14. God’s existence or not is not that important.
  15. Secular values: truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility are perhaps what we need now.
  16. We don’t know that much any more, acknowledging our ignorance is important to examine big issues.
  17. Is there justice in the world? Have we failed?
  18. ‘A lie once told remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.’ Humans have always been suckered by liars seeking power.
  19. Stories and science fiction in particular help us understand our world.
  20. Learn how to learn – your education is your defence.
  21. We think and believe and live by stories. Stories make us feel better. But they are fictions. The only real thing is suffering.
  22. Watch yourself. Know who you are. Learn about your mind.

When I list the questions and statements like this, they’re not actually that easy to follow. Read the book, it’s worth ploughing through, but if you have to just take two takeaways from it, it’s these.

First, watch and read more science fiction and fantasy. They can be surprisingly insightful.

Second, if you’re looking for a way to contribute to the world, work to alleviate suffering. That’s the most real thing you can do.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

How To Understand The Ways In Which We Can Think About The World

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Wednesday, 9.56pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. – Soren Kierkegaard

I need to understand the basics of scientific thinking so it’s useful to start at the beginning. What do we know and how do we know it?

A theory is an explanation you have about something in the world – why something works the way it does.

For example, one particular theory says that the reason we have day and night is because we live on a flat world and the sun goes around the Earth. Day is when we can see the sun and night is when it’s below us.

This theory makes sense on the basis of the data you have – the empirical evidence. Empirical means the stuff you can see and try for yourself – not stuff that’s just made up. And if you look around it’s clear that the world is flat and day follows night so this theory explains what you see.

But the theory we’ve put forward doesn’t explain everything – it doesn’t explain why ships out at sea seem to slowly vanish below the horizon, their masts being the last to go. It doesn’t explain the behaviour of the stars. And eventually the theory is found wanting and we get a new one – the Earth is round, someone says. That explains everything we see and makes sense.

This dance, theory as an explanation and the evidence of your eyes as support, is the basis of the scientific approach. It’s a very powerful way of thinking and has achieved more than all the other ways that came before it.

So that’s theory and empirical work – but there’s also this idea of “meta-theory”, something that sits outside these. Meta-theory has to do with us and the nature of our relationship with the world – who are we in relation to the world around us. And there are two main meta-theories and one that’s come along more recently that looks interesting.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is positivism. Positivism says there is a real world out there – trees and comets and giraffes – the objective world. This world can be studied and measured and you can come up with cause and effect explanations of why things are the way they are. That’s all that matters. Anything that’s just in your mind can be ignored.

In reaction to this interpretivism says that what’s in your mind matters. In fact, your mind might be all there is. It might not, of course, but how can you tell? Reality is something you construct in your mind – you see a rock but do you really see it or is it something your brain conjures up based on light signals hitting your eyes. Is the rock out there really brown or is your brain making things up. What you’re seeing might be what’s there but how can you tell?

Both these meta-theories have problems and advocates and critics. Critical Realism, developed by Roy Bhasker in the 1970s, takes a middle way. It accepts that there is a reality out there, and there are things and there are flows of information and communication. But it also says that the way in which we make sense of what’s going on in our minds. And when it comes to social situations in particular we have to understand that people are different, they are the only creatures that can exist in reality and at the same time think about their place in reality – so that means what’s in their minds matters.

It turns out that all these meta-theories are nice ideas but doing them in practice is harder. Positivism is the easiest when it comes to the hard sciences. It works great there but it’s much less helpful when it comes to social situations. Interpretivism recognises that what’s in the mind is important but can struggle when it comes to making things happen. Critical Realism is perhaps a middle ground, a way of taking reality at face value and working on improving the way you think about it.

The takeaway is that we think in the ways we think but we don’t always ask why we think that way. Your thinking preferences are influenced by the way you’ve been taught and the culture you grew up in. It might be a good idea to check out what other approaches are being used out there.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

References

Hoddy, E.T. (2019)r. Critical realism in empirical research: employing techniques from grounded theory methodology. /International Journal of Social Research Methodology. 22:1, pp 111-124

Why Watching TV May Be Good For Us In The 21st Century

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Tuesday, 9.46pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands. – Plato

I haven’t written much in the last few weeks – a result of first getting Covid and then going on holiday – but that gave me some time to watch more TV and I came across a series on Netflix called “The Good Place.”

Before I get into that I was also reading Yuval Noah Hariri’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and found it tough going after around 50 pages as it delved into the increasing danger posed by algorithms that learn everything about you and your world.

The Good Place is a comedy series. So far so good. It’s also about philosophy. At this point, someone probably says “Oh.” when they mean “Why?” – the kind of reaction we once got when we said to a friend that we were watching the series “Borgen” – a Danish political drama series in Danish. It just doesn’t sound that exciting – but it draws you in.

The Good Place, then, drew me into the world of philosophical thought and introduced ideas such as the three main strands of Western philosophical thought, as shown in the image above. And the big question is how should you live your life?

One answer is to look to virtue ethics – the idea that there is a “good” way to live. The ancients, for example thought you should show temperance, justice, courage and practical wisdom.

Another way to look at the world is through the lens of consequentialism. Whether an action is right or wrong depends on its consequences. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that says you should make decisions that maximise your pleasure or happiness.

The third approach is deontological ethics which says there are rules – something things are right and some things are wrong and there is never a reason to break these rules. Lying is wrong, for example. Period.

I am almost certainly misrepresenting these ideas but the big idea – that there are three main ways of thinking and they’re called what they are comes from watching The Good Place and the snippets of philosophy that are woven into the story. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy which I have on my desk right now is a harder read and each of these ideas require more study to really understand them. However I might never have come across them in the first place had I not decided to watch a random TV programme that uses these ideas to set up conflict and drama with a group of characters.

When I finished the series I returned to Harari’s book and suddenly that made more sense. The point at which I had stopped had to do with algorithms and decision making and the argument Harari goes on to make is that we will increasingly ask algorithms to make decisions for us and the kinds of decisions they make will depend on the philosophical position we take.

Take for example the self-driving car issue. If you are in your car and you are suddenly in a situation where there are people in the road in front of you should the car swerve to avoid them but kill you in the process or drive into them and keep you alive? The answer will differ based on whether you are a consequentialist or a deontologist. Perhaps you believe there is an absolute rule – you shall not kill, it is your car and you should be prepared to die rather than kill another. Or does it depend on the consequences – maybe you’re a pillar of the community and the person in the road is a convicted murderer who has escaped prison. What if the person is a child with a life ahead of her or an old person with not long to live? How do you get the car to make these choices without knowing what your philosophy is?

Now the rest of Harari’s book is much more accessible and more TV and movies help. You can understand the section on terrorism much better if you watch RoboCop. If you are a power threatened by a smaller, weaker group and you have the ability to deploy killer robots to control their cities would you? Later on Harari points to the value of media using examples like The Matrix to make his points.

If you have an engineering or STEM background it’s possible that many of these questions have never occurred to you but once you see that they exist you also notice that modern media and films ask them all the time. So you have feminism and gender identity in stories of young professionals and their jobs and racial tensions in any show that has fantasy involved. Harari points out that most of us don’t read scientific papers to get our knowledge – we get our values and ideas from what we watch and that’s why it’s so important that what we watch is good – because that’s what we use to learn about how to live a good life these days.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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