Evolving the image of the in-between

As a species, we are obsessed with means – not means to ends, but means to other means. We desire to possess that new thing – the latest phone, the shiny new car, the means to get to where we want to be, mentally, physically, as fast as humanly possible. In the back of our minds we believe that to reach this end will somehow complete us; that everything in our lives will converge upon a single sublime event in the not-so-distant future. But when arrival is near and victory is a hair’s breadth within our grasp, the end transforms before our eyes into yet another means – a means to yet another end. We never quite reach the endpoint.

In anthropology, it is the defining habit of homo faber – the creator of tools that spawn more tools that never quite finish the job. What is the job? It is quite simply the dis-ease of our age, that lurching sense of lack in the pit of our stomachs which subconsciously equates action with life and passivity with non-existence.

In philosophy, it is the division of being and nonbeing, a dialectic of formal opposition that possesses an implicit geometry. It invokes an inside and an outside, an architecture of thought whose shadow is alienation and whose face is hostility. The inside is of course sovereign – it represents the interior, being, the centre, the self, the here as opposed to there. There on the other hand is infinitely open; it is the outside, the vacuity of nonbeing, the space where any ‘thing’ is nothing but a point in its movement, and where its stability is just movement indefinitely slowed down.

But just as too many degrees of freedom can prove stifling, too much space smothers us more than if there was not enough. We feel a sudden uneasiness. Like the kissing faces that form the outline of a chalice, we experience the flicker of a gestalt switch and an inability to distinguish between inside and outside. Caught in a Möbius strip, we ask, is the inside outside? Open or closed? Am I here or there? The centre wavers and trembles. We have crossed into the realm of the half-open, the threshold of a two-way dream.

A threshold, said Porphyry, is a sacred thing. Perhaps what the ancient Greek philosopher considered sacred is something sub-liminal, below the threshold of consciousness. Like the lower part of a doorway (in Latin, ‘limen’) a threshold is a midpoint, a transitional in-between place conjoining two positions that is itself neither inside nor outside. Its potential is predicated on its very uncertainty: are we coming or are we going? Regardless, we have advanced. We have touched on the genesis of change in the liminal.

In the Middle Ages, men seeking the noble life entered the forests of Caledonia to eat the raw meat of animals and ‘become mad’ in the wilderness, for only after having been wild could they rise to the rank of knight. In Eastern Siberia, the Tungus shaman cannot consider himself a true medicine man until he has come face to face with his wild animal aspect in the depths of an initiation rite. In the African Ndembu tribe, adolescent boys are removed from their everyday reality to live out a period of days in silence and seclusion. They become dark or even invisible, like the moon between phases, stripped of name and clothing and smeared with earth so that they are indistinguishable from the animals. Eventually they return to the tribe, not as children, but as adults with a new role and a newfound purpose in society.

Such liminal passages represent the ‘little death’ – a transition from one life stage to another by a process of dissolving identity. It is a return from chaos out of which new order is constituted. This idea strikes us as odd, because we think of chaos as negative, as destructive rather than creative. What we don’t realise is that the chaos we are thinking of is simply an order that we were not expecting. We overlook the fact that there is not less, but indeed more in disorder than there is in order, since chaos contains the idea of order along with its denial, not to mention our very motivation for seeking it. The liminal, then, is the moment of pure change, of anti-structure, a zone of chaos out of which structure and order is born.

To what extent can we inhabit the liminal? Must we become neo-shamans, post-industrial intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds? Must we undertake our own personal vision quest? Such questions ride on a retarded concept of liminality that fails to recognise the standing wave of transformation which characterises the evolution of human societies as a whole. From the Beat Generation to the Occupy Movement, social breaks and irruptions spontaneously emerge as local communities opt out of the prevailing structure and signal a qualitative change to come. Such permanently ‘liminal’ outsiders reflect our deeper need to cast off everyday roles that grow constricting in their familiarity – the same need that drives pilgrimages and festivals in which feelings of individuality give way to a dissolving sense of community.

From the communal to the pre-personal, we inhabit it; in the transition between sleeping and waking, in the ambient sounds that infiltrate our dreams. It is the incubation period of every creative breakthrough, actualised by the liminal organ we call the brain, operating somewhere between the genetically fixed and the radically free. It is in every micro death-rebirth that we discover the impulse to create new forms, new patterns and new combinations which cannot be determined in advance. It is the autotelic sound of Ersatz, that self-produced event we call ‘a performance’, where homo faber becomes homo ludens – the ‘playing man’ whose music is not a means to an end, but an end in itself.

Art, said Aldous Huxley, is only for beginners – resolute dead-enders who are content with the ersatz of reality, with symbols rather than what they signify, with the recipe in lieu of the actual dinner. This way of speaking reduces ersatz to a replacement of the real, a substitute of inferior quality. In light of this music called Ersatz, it is enlightening to ask why.

Plato believed that every thing we perceive and interact with is an imperfect copy of a perfect idea. Inspired by the pure mathematics of the Pythagoreans, his Theory of Forms held that every circle imitates The Circle, every horse resembles The Horse. Each form was believed to be a ‘mimesis’, a degraded version of an archetypal ideal that exists in a timeless, transcendent world which our souls remember only dimly, prior to birth on this earth. It is the tale told in the allegory of the cave, in which shackled prisoners stare at its walls and see only flickering shadows cast by the light of the fire, unable to witness their source.

If art imitates life, which in turn imitates the Forms, then art is always a copy of a copy, leading us further from truth and closer to illusion. Thus works of art are seen at best as a form of distracting entertainment, and at worst a devilish delusion. Plato banned painters and poets from his republic, branding them ‘imitators’ who, ‘being the creators of phantoms, know nothing of reality’. Art was framed as a degraded image for centuries thereafter, relegated to the level of second-order representation. Even when the Renaissance artist and historian Vasari called art ‘just the imitation of all the living things of nature’, the natural world was still considered a degraded emanation of the Real in the Neoplatonic outlook of the time.

Plato’s classic theory of Forms later waned, but the notion of a picture as a picture of something, and of the artist as someone who can make a picture that ‘looks just like the real thing’ steadfastly remained. The 1884 novel Against Nature recounts the life of an eccentric nobleman with a distaste for bourgeois society who retreats into a world of his own making, filling his home with a tableau of images and sating his desires with a bricolage of the wonders of the world at close proximity. Ironically, its author was being critical of a continuing trend towards idealistic, Platonic art, and instead championed the representation of reality in all its squirming detail and stubborn particularity.

Not until very late in the nineteenth century did the idea of art as imitation begin to weaken, as theories of art as expression, as communication, as pure form, or whatever elicits an ‘aesthetic’ response gained acceptance. Recently however, a general wariness of the ‘reality’ of the image has emerged. Indeed, the word ‘image’ shares its etymology with ‘imitation’, and sometimes the two do seem synonymous. We play out our existence through images, via touchscreen and camera lens, our empathic responses blunted by surrogate interactions and haptic feedback. We live in an age where almost every encounter is displaced by on-screen simulacra, where every presence is an absence, where everything is recorded, uploaded and disseminated in a digital-binary ylem. Our tendency to efface the immediacy of felt experience is worsened by the attentional deficit of a fragmented ego, while big data and predictive analytics filter our choices in advance and reduce our futures to stillborn avatars, starved of intimacy and sensation.

This relationship with the image is the result of a technologically driven fugue state, not an aspect of any image in itself. Images can just as easily awaken us to transformations in ourselves and in the world around us. They can impel us to act and open us to change. Be that as it may, a distinction between the real and the copy remains in our thinking – a distinction that exists in a far more pervasive and insidious way than we might commonly assume.

We live our lives in search of novelty, but get caught in the narrative web we construct around it so that we end up repeating ourselves in an interminable commentary. This rationalisation relegates novelty to a repetition of the same, since for every new encounter we substitute a fixed image – a symbolic representation – for a fluid reality. Every particular and varying leaf is categorised under the label ‘leaf’, a shorthand for ‘leafness’, and suddenly we are back under the spell of Platonic forms. Our concepts deceive us into thinking that there is indeed an ideal world behind appearances, when really there are only chaotic, free-roaming fluxes, and it is our concepts alone that dictate what we take note of (or what we notate).

But our concepts are not images or copies of a pre-given world. They are abstractions of mobile experiences that have turned into ingrained habits. Properly speaking, they are post-mortem preparations, sufficient only for reflection after the fact; a series of static snapshots that fail to capture the felt presence of our moment-to-moment experience. Neither is our stream of consciousness composed of discrete bits of information – this is another subtle form of our cherished Platonic fantasy. In that case, what is consciousness? What is my experience? The more we look into it, the more it appears to be a living paradox. The snapshot view makes us believe we live in an isolated moment between the past and the future, as if we inhabited a discrete point in a time-series that we could plot on a line: past-present-future. Conscious attention, however, feels differently. To be sure, all it feels is difference.

The present as such is not a mathematical point or a ‘sheer instant’. We might say that the present has a certain width, but all we mean is that the past and the future in a very real sense co-exist with it. The present is both singular and multiple – it is struck through with a past that continually encroaches upon it and presses it into a novel synthesis. The German speaker places the verb tense at the end of a sentence and thereby changes its entire meaning. Is this proof of backward causation in time? It sounds impossible only because of the way that we re-present the flow of our awareness, which is really a pure movement, not laid out in a static timeline, but always in motion and completely indivisible.

If anything, music is this. It effortlessly retains its flow within itself as every past-sounding tone exists as a virtual dimension of the present intoning tone. The present differs with itself first, always, immediately. Music theorists can analyse the melody and focus on pitch changes, rhythm and harmonic progressions; they may analyse musical scores (and notated music very usefully transmits a crude choreography from one performance to another). But the medium of the score, the linear notation of representative symbols, too easily dismisses the experience of music and distorts our thinking about how music actually works.

A composition is inscribed in the structural relation of notes, sounds that can be reproduced using the same note-sounds in the same order. Each note has an identity that can be referred back to endlessly, etched in the static discontinuity of number, a ream of co-ordinated parts fixed in changeless relationships. This way of thinking sets up a split between an eternal composition on the one hand, and innumerable experiences of it on the other. Ersatz’s music, on the other hand, is an acknowledgement that we hear more virtually in every moment than is sounding actually. It confirms to us that while the virtual may not be actual, it is real – it has real effects. Ersatz do not know where a performance will lead, for they do not play the present note as if it followed the past note. Ersatz notes exist if at all in a novel, ever-evolving and crystal-like configuration of pure sound.

Ersatz music is not a substituting image; it is a real image. But it is also a virtual image – a fracturing image in a mirror of time that is continually splitting into something new. This, then, is the phenomenal sound of our liminal experience. Let us therefore call it ‘the limit case of liminality’, and name Ersatz as its pure form.