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The Path of Wisdom/the Path to Wisdom.

(Lantau Island, Hong Kong, the ‘Wisdom Path’)





       (For Mariske Westerndorp)





Few public sculptures are meaningful, let alone productive… inspiring to thought, to reflection… This one is: it manifests philosophical presence, in part from its material and situation, which trigger a set of associations on the theme of understanding and its limitations; epistemology, in short (and logic too, as it would map the boundary-line of meaning, and in turn, be brought to face its own limitations). It is if we stand before a ‘course’ encompassing the problems of epistemology in modern thought, laid out on a mountain side, overseen by a giant Buddha, and overlooking, what else… the vast expanse of the sea.


Geographical meta-frame. Between a mountain and the sea, between two significant, meaning-provoking, types of space… both open (not ‘room’ like, enclosed). Both with particular relationships to the infinite: the mountain through its deixis, its pointing, which we witness, and its performative invitation, its ascent, which we may do. The sea through its expanse… one which (we know but can not see) extends beyond the horizon. And which reflects, borrows its surface, that which we see, from the sky, its gold of the sun on the waves or its silver from the moon, its grey of the clouds or its blue from the mood of the heavens. However, by contrast, the experience of the ‘loop’, the ‘path’, does not carry this feel, the sense of infinite openness, but rather the feel of a ‘room’, of a sense of containment, of being enveloped; occupying a ‘room’ or ‘home’ in Nature - one in which, moreover, the walls (imaginary) fold back and return, repeat. A contrast of space, types of space… or place. And ‘place’, as we know, but often forget, is the human gift to space…


Mountain… and sea. Infinitely more place than space, and even without the personification of genius loci, provoking feelings which, in turn, provoke meditative thought… The thought of sacrality, a sense of the sacred, of first and last things, and so a sense of the sublime (which is the secular term for such feelings). In turn provoking further thought in those that are read in any relevant commentaries or traditions…


Description. Etched, carved, incised, but also grown (‘horti-cultured’) and even inserted into the landscape; taken together -‘as a whole’- a sign, a symbol, a ‘picture’, or better, a sculptural construction representing, forming, suggesting (as such a thing can not be shown) an ‘infinite’ loop. Made from; trunks of wood, each sliced in half, lengthwise, positioned to offer the shape of a double, or ‘infinite’, loop on the side of a hill (a ‘figure of eight’). So discontinuous, unlike the path that accompanies these ‘pillars of wisdom’. A path which follows, traces out, the loop design in full. Continuous, a horizontal path joining together the discontinuous, vertically-pointing, trunks of the sculpture. One the prosaic, connected, sense -making path we tread, step by step: the other proceeding by leaps, leaps of inspiration, the leaps of thought (the trunks point to the heavens) that support and inspire the connected, logical thought that results (here down below the infinitely displaced vanishing point that is the deictic end of the up-ward pointing trunks…).


Levels: of interpretation…

Hermeneutics (it has often been observed) requires a loop structure which includes repetition, the re-travelling of the same ground; but with a different experience… with a changing result. The repeating loop that is not the same (if it was the same it would be represented by a circle, as the process of hermeneutics often is…) is a picture of this process… A double loop offers a more accurate picture (although an (endless) spiral would be more accurate still…). The two ‘wings’ of the loop may be read as offering, respectively, A and not-A, perhaps as A and A1, if the emphasis is on a variation on a theme (or perhaps even stretching as far as A and B, as variation breaks into qualitative change and a new concept is required). So each new traversal, each new loop, offers an accretion of meaning, a change, the growth of knowledge… of wisdom. In this way the double, or ‘infinite’, loop offers us a physical, material Allegory; an allegorical model of the progress of the understanding, but also of the problems of thought; of thought ‘at thought’ on its problems; the problems of thinking when thinking is the problem. Simply put: of inside and outside (the view from within, the view from without); of repetition, conscious and unconscious; of self-contradiction as the condition (as well as result) of self-reflexivity. So also represented (or suggested) is the relationship of levels, of the place we are at, and those we are not, (may have been to, or may be about to enter): such that: the upper level absorbs, explains the lower, but is still the product of the lower… supported, so to speak, by the lower - so no total supersession. Also there is the view from every level; for every level, there is an implied point of view… such that it finds itself as the centre of things, the beginning of something, including the reappraisal of the previous level (perhaps this is what defines being on a level).





(The Loop)


In the beginning (outside). The whole is visible. We occupy the eternal present with anticipation; we want to know what lies before us…


Beginning point (inside, on the line). At the beginning we see the loop spread out before us, extending from us, from our position, in two directions; map and physical geography as one. The way there and the way back, clearly marked…


Metaphysics I. Meta-physical. The reference to infinity is visual, via a double loop, actually a folded loop, so implying a repetition… and then a return… suggesting problems of interpretations and knowledge (the theory of) as (i) involving repetition, and (ii) implying a kind of ‘inside/outside’ configuration (as we ‘picture’ the ‘whole’ but tread the path ‘inside’). Offering two kinds of repetition, such that; it is unconscious, we do not know we repeat, but believe we do not, believe or feel that we go elsewhere, go ‘on’… and by so-doing, access the ‘outside’, and so may make use of its claim of extra-contingent permanence (if no contingency, so universal); to truth, with a capital ‘T’… (the path of belief, of faith and fundamentalism, secular and sacred). We believe we are walking out, and on… but are walking back, retracing our steps returning to where we came from… Otherwise there is conscious recognition. In narrative and especially drama, we inherit (from classical aesthetics) the terms, anagnorisis, for discovery or recognition, peripety for reversal of fortunes and cognito for recognition of ones changed situation. In general we are offered a recognition of the forces which guide or restrict us. This is a recognition (of our limitations, of our limitation to an ‘inside’) which is conscious and which increases consciousness, increases the sum total of knowledge of our situation. Such a situation is often configured as a tragi-comedy of repetitions (so implying an ironic self-awareness). And as we become aware that there is no ‘outside’ (or none that we can access), we also realise that is ‘we’ who construct ‘it’. So the repetition is not backwards, that of being unconsciously stuck in a groove, doomed forever to repeat; but repetition, specially if or because, unavoidable, as forwards; as consciously appropriated - as in ‘Post-ism’ forms of thought (our ‘latest’ forms of thought). Appropriation as ‘pastiche’, a recycling and creative appropriation at once ‘new’ (gift of the later twentieth century) and as old as describing the history of culture – (except Modernism, together with its allied ideologies, rational and irrational, of blind progress as proceeding from a tabula rasa). Our awareness of limits; our awareness of the necessity of retreading the path of the past (as in changing the tread, providing a re-tread as well as re-traversing). The post-modern path to (limited) wisdom begins here…


Contrast I. Are there other such ‘metaphysical’ parks and spaces? To what might we compare the ‘Wisdom Path’? Perhaps not to a, would be, epitaph to High Modernism, the Park de la Villette in Paris… (‘poor’, tendentious; requiring, like its inspiration, those who tell us what to think, for explication). This structure tries to do ‘physical’ philosophy and memory; but…rusting ‘late-modern’ structures only succeed in signaling the demise of the thought that inspired them (Adorno would have been happy with what turns out to be the dialectic out on yet another of its negative jaunts).


Geography I. Space/place. The physical performs the idea: but... the idea (signified) follows the physical (signifier), and so exists as interpretation. Before and after is the idea, the Word, in the middle is the thing… Prefigured by the Concept or Will: re-configured, read, as interpretation, a reading. As in the reading of a sacred text. Rendering Space as Place (all place is sacred space). Place as art… sacred art. Part of a Buddhist area.


History I. Part of the Buddhist era. A giant statue of the Buddha (in a material hyperbole beloved of rulers and religion alike) dominates the horizon; a Buddhist monastery provides a further context. A modern day pilgrimage route, a place for religious tourism… (as with sites dedicated to Guanyin, goddess of mercy –otherwise known as Avalokitesvara- whose giant incarnations can be found on Putuoshan Dao and Hainan - also both islands off the Chinese coast). The texts on the wooden trunks, sliced down the middle to provide an even surface for writing, are also historical… a sutra taken from the Buddhist canon.


Fulcrum (midpoint, at once midday and midnight - midpoint of the gyre’s turning). The other way to conceptualise this kind of physical and cultural event, art object or sculpture, is as ritual (ritual equivalent or form of rituality): matter configured for ritual (use), symbolising ritual; performing, with the catalyst of our participation, ritual. So we may speak of a ritual space; demarked and suggestive; suggestive of meditation as meditation on, or ‘in’ another time… (as ritual always involves some degree of reference to an ‘outside time’, from the implied ‘universal’ of a greeting (on repetition this is what is always done) to invoking myth-time or eternity in the performance of a ritual ‘proper’). ‘As if’ the participants were (simultaneously) in another time/space. Another place (or is place the result of the superimposition of the other time and space on this one)? Either way what we see, experience, is… ‘Inside’ and ‘Outside’: performed. The external view, being outside, gives a different meaning (part, image, distance, seeable as a whole) to the view from within, from being inside… (surrounding one, not seeable as (a) whole; so allegory of all manner of ‘invisibles’ that are such ; language, culture, community, identity, the Social…). Ritual effect of the new space-time, as somewhere we can enter and leave as definition of a spatial ‘inside’, the place of the ‘loop’ (an inside which is outside, is ‘elsewhere’ to everyday or initial, everyday space-time.) Allegory of the eternal present as eternity. And (actual) place of the second stage of the eternal present, now facing, Janus-like, both past and future; all (both) contained in the ‘now’ moment, the view back over what-has-been, the first loop; the path forwards, to what-is-to-come, the loop before one…). But where is the fulcrum: there (as seen from the outside) it seemed to be the physical crossroads, the point of the intersection of the two lines, symbol of repetition in the loop: here (from within, from on the line) it seems to be at the topmost end, the further-est point away (from the place we began) – before we begin to go back, to go down, to return… to repeat …to perform the mirror image of what we have done…place of the actual beginning of repetition: repetition, essence of ritual.


History II. The content of the texts inscribed on the flat surface of the semi-circular (in cross section) trunks that constitute the loop, as … emptiness. The ‘Nothingness Sutra’, as of much of Buddhism’s basic writings and the concepts they seek to explicate, is open to a number of possible readings, from the nihilism generally attributed to the Zen/Chan-reading of Nirvana or Enlightenment (or my reading of their reading…), to the more traditional reading of ‘non-attachment’. As in Western philosophy, the concept, or the sense, of ‘nothingness’ is subject to debate… producing differing versions of religion and an overlap with philosophy… Certainly the most nihilistic of readings dispenses with much that reason can not stomach (whilst chiming with Western ‘Existentialism’ and Phenomenology); product of the suspicion of the intellectual or educated regarding the structures and practices of organised religion, the matter of much religious belief and custom as popular superstition and the behaviour of the ‘teachers’ or ‘gurus’… the ‘priestly caste’. Certainly the gap between the philosophy of a given religion (for example associated with Buddhism and Hinduism) and the customs and practices of belief often feels impossibly and irreparably wide.


Geography II. Public sculpture. The ‘Wisdom Path’ may be classified as a Land Art type of sculpture, a form which works better (is more popular) than other form of public) sculpture. ‘Site-specific’ works, where the context is the key, naturally leads to suitability… How one wishes architects would exercise the same approach to their constructions, and not the aggressive, insertive, pushing of the eyesore, an attempt at outstandingness (sic). Subjunctive perhaps (an ego-crutch or phallic gesture); the sacrifice due to assertiveness. A manner of visual bullying that is, regrettably, such a key aspect of modern architecture. Another geography (another form of attention to geography) offers art and thought, their balance; feeling and thinking; conceptual weight and aesthetic appeal. The participatory element also reinforces the performative or ritual aspect of the work.


Contrast II. Another geography; another metaphysical landscape: another ‘forest’; the ‘forest’ of memory in the Jewish Museum, Berlin (good, meaningful; suggesting recall, the showing of a past (traced inside) not the gnosis of an elite vision of a future (de la Villette) that could not be. So through Proper Name and context, every detail, every ‘defamiliarised’ line and point, every ‘unnatural’ angle, all work to evoke the mourning for a lost culture. (And not accidentally (and indirectly) invoking, in works of commentary (so not evoking) directly, the memory of what had been before…what has been lost). Both the Jewish Museum (especially the ‘forest’) and the Wisdom Path offer their meanings unmediated by specialist commentary (our thought does not require extra, ‘expert’, guidance to arrive at the required memory, insight or allegory).


Metaphysics II. Meta-set. Meta-sets may also be incarnated, be made physical (so loosing their claim to be such, of being the ‘last word’; but then the concept too looses this status, even as it is formulated, as it foolishly claims this status…). Meta as physical (not as matter, meta-set of a materialism that must forget that it too is a concept, if it is to be thought, to be useful, and not inert, unconscious… a statement about the priority of the pre-conscious by the conscious…). So giving us an incarnation of the meta-physical as metaphysical (in its thought, we thinking about it, ‘it’ thinking about itself, not as matter as such). Both as necessity and as impossibility: as our thinking about it; as the contradictions that arise from doing so (logically speaking the contradictions resulting from self-reference and reference to a meta-set may be repeated to infinity… from inside we fall into the ‘black hole’ of self-reference, from outside we jump from meta-set to meta-set). Incarnated, impossibly, as a physical place or site of another (‘quite other’) point of view (inside we can only repeat…). Yet in moving away to get an overview… (stepping outside we also step up to a meta-set). In reality, in the physical world, we can see outside or take in whole objects, but in thought… (as we have seen, fundamental schools of philosophy evolve from here…). From outside to see meaning… to see the loop from without is meaningful and thought-provoking, like a piece of writing on the landscape: but more meaningful is the view from within… (as seen from within, or as realized that all such visions are made from within, their ‘condition of enunciation’, in another school of philosophy’s apt jargon). Immanent criticism (the view from within the loop) would appear to be more worthy than the transcendental (the view from without) - is there a point where these two (paradoxical) styles of thought (because both finally generate paradox) change places (as in the ‘turning point’ of the loop)? Physically, as we have seen, to find the outside, external position, requires that we leave the loop, leave the path; but in reality, that is in thought (sic), we have no place to run to, nowhere to stand… and worse, if we construct such, then we find that we never did take the heroic step beyond, but only stepped back into the self-same river… to repeat our previous move… (in science only may we do this, as when we imagine an externality on the basis of quantitative extension, mathematical space, down on which we can ‘look’; or when we imagine ourselves as another, this latter being perhaps a half-way point, or necessary fiction…we may likewise imagine ourselves as ‘out of history’ looking down on the process that should be ‘behind us’, not ‘below us’ – for, in actuality, our time, like our history, is something we can not leave).


End point. At the end, we are at the beginning (again)). Repeating (again). (But how many times have we repeated?) Ritual place of knowledge making, identity making, (we) as the ones who think about things… to reflect on those remains, to make those meanings, to reflect on their repetitions. To repeat, to hermeneuticise… On the spiral ‘upwards’, self-reflexive. A kind of an ascent, spiritual. 


Ends and endings too are folded into time, into the eternal present (unless apocalyptic, and infinity always suggests the end of time, after which eternity begins…). In the end one looks back over what one has done, where one has been. The same ‘one’, even thought we have travelled a certain (intellectual and geographical) distance. We occupy the eternal present and gaze at the past, reviewing, remembering … and then, spurred on by the catalyst of infinity, the illusion of ‘seeing’ infinity before us, we jump (the ‘Zen/Chan’ moment, the moment of the ‘break’) into Eternity. The view back as remembering, and so thinking afresh, learning and positing, then envisaging the whole; so suggesting a new realm, also infinite like the eternal present, but not the same: on another plane… elsewhere… outside time (outside of the eternal present, outside of history). Not a frame, but another level, eternity as the ‘higher’ image of the intuited, eternal present… (a projection, an ‘out’ that we need, must make, but that ‘is not’…).The thought of which, however, takes place on the same level, in the, our, Eternal Present…  (Capitalized now for there is no other place, no other level, no ‘larger set’, no meta-set, as in reality (in our experience), it is our final Meta-set). Starting and finishing point for all thought, all experience.


Actually the fulcrum –the place of the ‘cross’ on the map, the cross-over on the loop- was where we should have started (logically, but not geographically). In Medias Res. Point through which we (should have) passed three times… (‘negation of the negation’, negated…) But this awareness comes only at the end. As we place the mental map we have gained through reflection over the physical map we have pursued.




However, (last word) the loop is infinite… it keeps going, we keep repeating, trapped in our present (and identity constituting) rituals of life and thought… so the levels of the loop accrete, meta-set and self-reference as their upper and lower infinite displacements (depending on where and how we think each level is added: as above, as encompassing; or below, as referring back to itself in contradictory fashion; going ‘up’ or ‘down’, ‘outside’ or ‘inside’…). And their potentially endless repetition to infinity (well, if we were immortal…). 


As the comparison to logic has been made… so the limitations of logic these display foreshadow the limitations of knowledge, the limitations of the human point of view (which, however, we can not escape… (only retrace, in an infinite loop…)). Wittgenstein suggests that we can employ a faultless, tautological, logic; but one that is incapable of addressing any worthwhile issues: Gödel and the relationship of logic to natural language suggest that even the best of second order languages is dependant and so ‘leaks’… So showing that a tool that was to be ‘infinite’ (universal) in its application is (like all tools) finite in its usefulness, its reliability…


Last, last word? Irony as the last word? Ironic self-awareness as the best result of the accumulation of knowledge, or experience…? But then the next step on the loop is taken and a ‘broader view’ (encompassing ours) results… and so on.


Irony born of self-reflexivity as the conscious knowledge of the infinity of self-contradiction that results; this conscious knowledge, or overview, as giving birth to the irony of the infinity of meta-sets (infinite potential overviews) that then results. Therefore irony as the ‘final’ state of such self-consciousness. Limit state of self-knowledge as of universal knowledge…


The power of the loop is that it is not so much constructed from linear propositions, narrative-like, like our passage through time as we walk it (although, of course, we begin by interpreting it this way): but from levels… not so much ‘horizontal’ as ‘vertical’; so equally the Stairway to Heaven (advance by meta-set accumulation) or to Descent into Hell (advance by accumulation (or alternation) of logical self-contradictions). The ‘repeat’ moment of the loop, of course, combines both these, a picture of a repetition of a thought-move (like logical self-reference) AND a picture of a ‘higher’ encompassing motion or thought phase (move to a meta-set). While the latter is the home to traditional interpretations as the path to a ‘higher’ wisdom, who is to say it is not the former, its ‘polar’ opposite… self-delusion, based upon repetitive self-contradiction… that is not more productive (as the repetition of self-contradictions are under-taken consciously, as… ironic - this degree of recognition being the best we can do…). Or with A AND B true together… but only by way of negation; both as on the path of illusion, the ‘path of Maya’. But also the ‘Wisdom Path’. The path to wisdom (small case).


‘Upper case’, universals, we are already skeptical about; their ‘true’ existence has been put into doubt, we use them, as we must… with the ironic knowledge of their limitation (or downright fictionality). A new order of concept, of ‘knowledge’: the (empirically) untrue, but necessary?





Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013