Holistic Fracturing: Artistry, Academia, & Gut Intellect

“He knew, from experience, though he didn’t know from where the experience had come, that he was about to no longer know where he was.”  (Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless, 1988, 137)

INTRODUCTION: Feeling fractured

The sensation of having your mind blown apart is equal only to the sensation of feeling whole. Human thought is a continuous process of wholeness disintegrating and reforming into a new whole, only to disintegrate again.  This might sound bleak at first blush, but this process, which I name ‘holistic fracturing’, is actually full of vitality and hope.  Or, rather, sometimes it is bleak to be whole and joyous to be fractured.

When one hangs a brightly coloured canvas on an otherwise bare wall, the whole room seems both bigger and smaller; holistic fracturing is simply the intelligence equivalent of this.  One action, or one thought, is not an island unto itself.  In the same moment, “the many-sided nature of the mind enables it to hold conflicting opinions”  (Hughes, 1999, 9).  The complexity of thought is often limited by our very human tendency to understand, and because we do not challenge ourselves to accept fractures as wholes of a whole, we require definition, finality and cohesion.  Embracing this anguish is what holistic fracturing is all about – realising that all thought is both a solid mirror as well as a million shards of glass.

In my MA thesis, I call this philosophy ‘understanding in context’…which it is; it accepts that there are confines in our world, limits to our learning, and it accepts that we must make the most robust and creative decisions within those confines as we can.  I think we can all agree that education does this, but that it could do it more and better, and at our hands.  In this understanding, creativity is the conscious urge and action to digest external information with our internal gifts of insight (sensory to cerebral). The process involves an earnest attempt to objectify the world as if it simultaneously has everything and nothing to do with each and every individual (Hemsing, 2008, 5). ‘Understanding in context’ is a complex, existentialist search for what things mean to us as well as what we mean to them.

Now that I am a bit wiser (or, my mind has simply been blown apart and made whole more often), I think ‘understanding in context’ is too linear to fully explain what I mean.  I now use ‘holistic fracturing’ to symbolize the dynamic, concurrent, and multifarious processes that happen when we think or act (as if they are different things!).  Holistic fracturing is part of the burgeoning tendency in contemporary education to consider critical thinking as not only a skill, but as a value.  It names the way in which learners can posture themselves to deal with both their personal (and academic) imperatives and their increasingly globalised futures.

Understanding, in its common conception, displaces the involvement of the individual relative to what is being understood  (and back again). This can be likened to Paulo Freire’s concept of ‘decoding’, which “requires moving from the abstract to the concrete…moving from the parts to the whole and then returning to the parts” (2007, 105). His insight into how problems must be analysed both holistically and in fractured pieces informs my thesis that learning is not linear.

Other ways to describe the same thing also includes ‘divergent thinking’ which is a “doubleminded transitory state of unstable equilibrium where the balance of both emotion and thought is disturbed” (Hughes, 1999, 10). This explains how creativity, an everyday occurrence, is used to solve problems.  It provides a springboard for creative educators to bring the science and emotion of thinking to use the imagination to “transmute the inner world into external reality” (Hughes, 10) and unshackle our students’ private thoughts into possibilities for public actions.

The brain, competing between various demands, can often become overwhelmed and necessarily obfuscate the true power of reflection.  Aldous Huxley addresses this tension in his mescalin-induced treatise Doors of Perception when he brings up his notion of the Mind at Large.  Huxley believes the brain is capable of remembering everything that has ever happened to a person, as well as simultaneously imagine everything that could be happening to every other person.  Because this capacity is debilitating, necessary inhibitors act to drown out much of these memories and imaginings. We have to act at some point – endless reflection will only drive us mad.  On the other hand, we must chip away at old habits of defeat.  When familiarity begins to breed contempt, survival becomes “a problem, ranging in urgency from the chronically tedious to the excruciating”  (Huxley, 1959, 39).   Nurturing the Mind at Large (which can be done through Huxley’s preference for mescalin or through holistic fracturing) allows us to overcome both the tedium and mind-blowing.  At this point, when we accept the brain for what it is designed to do, we can begin to be creative, unshackled, and productive.

Fractures, little or big, are not defects in our learning.  They are not mistakes to be fixed, but splinters to be smoothed.  Fractures are a method of casting off assumptions, exploring tangents, and gaining insights into a wider whole.  Holistic fracturing goes beyond mere critical thinking, which is often posited as counter-acceptance, a contrarian view of what is assumed.  Certainly, this approach to critical thinking is essential in any learning; as complex creatures, we must question in opposition in order to make sense of anything.  However, we must also be critical of the critical.  Genuine learning does not take sides because the search for truth is so rarely ever final.  When we learn, we decode messages from different angles until we eventually reform the problem into a whole thought that can be immediately understood and stored for future fracturing.

Learning occurs in spiral-shaped patterns.  It is not necessarily evenly incremental but there is a progression and we often get very close to things we have learned before; sometimes even, the connections psychologically touch (as in déjà-vu). Learning (in and out of the classroom) engages both whole-brain processes and thousands of (perhaps) random, tiny connections.  The brain is, in fact, a perfect example of holistic fracturing; it has to quickly blow apart, disseminate, and fracture incoming information and, just as quickly, rebuild and holisticise.

Undoubtedly, brain processes impact our expressions of thoughts.  Without getting into the science behind this (because I don’t know it!), I propose that holistic fracturing can be understood as a measure of thought that absorbs both the forest and the trees in its interpretation of reality. As someone who does know about the brain, Gerald Edelman, states in Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge, “the constraints that are applied through experience and convention prompt various internal experiments to emerge, involving order and disorder, tension and relaxation, and the play between the core and non-conscious portions of the brain” (2006, 104). Holistic fracturing accepts that we often have to act on limited information and that thought, without action, is short-shelf life nourishment. Education and learning requires two distinct modes of thought: the immediate absorption — or at least reaction (however insignificant it may measure) — and long-term future-oriented preparation.  If we can picture the brain’s inputs and outputs as a tandem bicycle, we can start to imagine the impact of such simple yet complex mechanics on our ability to educate.

Education serves two main purposes, which in turn serve each other.  On an abstract level, it provides a space in which to think.  Practically, it streamlines thoughts towards preparation for the adult work world (whereby actions are committed for the social good[1]).  Each of these purposes is concerned with progress, with advancing potential to grow greater possibilities of what mankind, and what each thinker, is capable of achieving.  I believe that we enter the world equipped with all its knowledge. Learning, therefore, is not a process of acquiring; it is a process of revealing (Hemsing, 13).  Creativity is the primary method in which we are able to release our knowledge reservoirs. Education liberates thinkers from the imprisonment of others’ previous thoughts. It explodes the future (in fits and starts, in wholes and in fractures).

Simply, we are thinkers.  We act in very small moments with very big impacts.  We fracture our thoughts into very small synaptic moments, which have larger impacts on our whole (that which is outside ourselves).  The quest for ultimate freedom on all scales is met through self-solicited internal comprehension of external factors.  As Michel Foucault explains it,

Thought is no longer theoretical. As soon as it functions, it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites, or reunites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave. Even before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must be done, even before exhorting or merely sounding an alarm, thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action – a perilous act (1980, 39).

By its very name, holistic fracturing suggests that thinking makes itself whole, complete, and final or broken, frayed, stunted.  To address these (seeming) dichotomies, I use the following comparisons from Jean-Paul Sartre and an adolescent girl. Sartre highlights the beauty of thought vis-à-vis inter- and intra- personal development: “with every word I utter, I involve myself a little more in the world, and by the same token I emerge from it a little more, since I go beyond it toward the future” (Sartre, 1993, 320). This deepening of understanding is precisely how we move our whole selves in and out of thought, aligning ourselves, and propelling our aims towards further cohesion.  Put another way, each human moment is determined by understanding, which is both whole and fractured.  The agony of reconciling these two complementary modes is illustrated very nicely in a diary excerpt from a teenage girl, first recorded in Ernest Jones’ Some Problems of Adolescence. After revealing, “I feel I am beginning to be one individual leading one life, instead of different sets of behaviour in different compartments [and I am] more sure of my own personality and less dependent on my environment” (Britton, 1970, 229), the author addresses the metaphysical sublimation of adolescence:

The problem with being an adolescent is that they don’t really exist; I am made up of a woman and a child in varying proportions, so that at one time I am full of desire and compassion and at another I feel as futile and helpless as a child. Nevertheless, there is something; the power and joy of youth, which on occasion sweeps through me like an electric current – a lyrical happiness and clarity, a sort of general feeling of love…. My future is in this force, because it is pure and strong and complete, and if I lose it I will disintegrate (Britton, 229).

The ambiguous context of adolescence is a gift because it is a time for exploration, when a teen formulates their natural cues in response to their environment.   During puberty, hormones have an increasingly profound effect on the brain.  The body begins to morph from child to adult – a wildly creative process.  It is also the time when imagination can be unleashed into creative production, or arrested altogether. As adolescence is primarily a biological phase, its deficiencies will more or less be transcended by the time puberty has completed its ravage. Hormones resettle into normalcy and the teenager starts to feel comfortable in his own skin, and excited for the future.

Practical Considerations: Using wholes and fractures

Using art to further the aims of education (both to inspire and to prepare) is accessible, and boundless. Art reflects how humans respond to each other and to their circumstances. It also offers grand hope for what lies beyond our immediate reality. The gift of imagination is granted so that we can confront and solve problems.  Put simply, “the artist works toward clarification, toward consciousness.  He or she prepares the ground in which the germinative [sic] impulse from the unconscious can sprout, flourish, and give fruit” (Hughes, 70). Critical thinking emerges naturally; when presented with art, one always evaluates whether it is good or bad, whether they enjoyed it as entertainment or not (a feat rarely undertaken when reading a textbook), and so, learners get into the habit of critically valuing the knowledge they are expected to showcase and the world in which they live.

Critical pedagogue, Maxine Greene, a loud and esteemed proponent of using art to incite learning, views the role of art in exploring reality as: “orienting the self to the surround”; a “deepening and expanding mode of tuning in”; “shocks of awareness”; “shatter[ing] the silences”; “critical transactions that empower students to resist both elitism and objectivism”; and, above all, a delightful subversion with the “capacity continually to frustrate readers’ expectations of some final harmony or coherence” (1995, 53; 104; 151; 108; 96; 96). Echoing this assertion that art is action is James Hughes, who says that “artists use fantasy not merely as a form of escapism, a turning away from reality, but also as a preliminary to altering reality in the desired direction” (74).

Using art in the classroom is not only a matter of looking at pretty pictures; it also requires a dedication to creation, to using others’ previous thoughts as triggers to explore one’s own capabilities.  As so eloquently stated by Jeffrey Deitch, director and exhibition curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, in the film Outside In (a documentary about the evolution of street art all the way to the cherished museum exhibit), “one of the great things about art is that it builds on itself…. You make progress by actually doing it” (2011). The more creativity is encouraged and practised in a classroom, the more brainpower is asserted, which means more production. The artist selects specific media and tools of expression to question struggle and posit solutions for freedom. Unencumbered by objective morality, every creation is able to fulfill a world that draws on the habits and memories of participants – and solicit comprehension for the future – while merely understanding itself in its own determined context. Holistic fracturing, therefore, is not only the study, but also the creation.  This is not a concern only for the humanities, but even for the natural sciences and mathematics.  After all, “science is imagination in the service of a verifiable truth”  (Edelman, 8).

There is no fixed list of activities that expand thinking, but integrating holistic fracturing in the classroom is not as abstract as it sounds.  A simple colouring exercise (‘colour a yellow moon in a black sky’) shows how students must do a little mental planning to separate and marry their thoughts before completing a task.  Simulations and role-play activities are also fantastic ways of getting students out of their own heads enough to imagine and create until the role is not so distinguishable from their own mind.  Why this tactic is not more widely practised in all disciplines is beyond me.  Why shouldn’t da Vinci be a common launching pad across subjects to understand art, science, and philosophy as they work in tandem?

A bit more unobvious of an example is the movie Pi.  It did more for me to understand mathematics than any class (which is not to say I understand it at all, but that film at least made me appreciate that math is a deeply intellectual process).  Its surreal tale of a man obsessed with using numerical sequences to unlock the secrets of the Torah shows how tiny little numbers that appear innocuous have mystical ramifications, down to the backbone of an entire faith.  Pi is really the story of a mind deteriorating from its immense propensity to think.  From its interesting storytelling tactics to its obvious math-theme, it’s an excellent example of bringing something into the classroom that is bound to produce more questions than answers.

Perhaps the greatest, and most accessible, way into the holistically fractured brain is through examinations of street art.  Street art, in my opinion, is the highest, the most pure form of art because it is not created in such a way as to be removed from everyday experience.  It is less about concrete and spray paint and more about noticing the arrangements of creations around us to provide insights into our own problems.  For example, when I began to see nature as everlasting yet primordial street art, I began to understand what years of science teachers had attempted to get me to appreciate.  There are so many incredible benefits of street art that can serve to provide prompts for learners to unpack big issues.  Street art is highly creative, stripped of elitism with no regard for profit.  It offers possibilities, not finalities (the latter would fall under propaganda). It is orchestrated by artists who (largely due to legal ramifications) are invisible to the viewer. Because it is not separated into galleries, it could easily (and often does) go unnoticed in our everyday lives.  Street art is accessible and equalising; it does not require entry fees or background knowledge. Its appeal and exposure are immeasurable. Street art is about aesthetics, rebellion, everything that thought should be.

The emphasis of using holistic fracturing  – of looking at our world through the lens of artistic representation, of unpacking the details and naming the whole – is not on creating the most beautiful or even the most technically correct.  It is about freedom and interpretation.   As educators, we shouldn’t worry too much about where this art comes from.  Even vacuous art done by a vacuous mind never allows a vacuous understanding of the propensity of its elements to transcend and become sublime when encountered by a creative mind (Hemsing, 29).  What makes art anyway?  Perhaps it is the elements, the details, the trees of the forest. Perfect unto themselves, they come together and we define the whole thing as better.  Or perhaps it is the whole, the details a bit muddy as in a Monet painting, but they somehow work.  Is it the holistic view or the fractured view one adopts when evaluating art (and, indeed, reality)?

CONCLUSION: Feeling whole

In Walden, Henry Thoreau writes, “the intellect is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things” and that ultimately “my head is an organ for burrowing”  (1854). Thoreau’s astute insight into how the mind approaches morality has great ramifications for those of us interested in thoughtfully approaching education. The duty of education is to “interrupt entrenched patterns and present viable alternatives to existing habits” (Davis, Sumara, Luce-Kapler, 2008, 108-109).  To do this, we must be aware of how our thoughts cleave, and encourage our heads to burrow deeper into whatever we study.  We have to create contexts wherein we notice and expand moments of surprise, glimpses of breakdown, cracks in curricula to allow for revelatory, rather than rote, learning (Davis et al). By noticing how the brain works when we do things (parenting, daydreaming, travelling, sex, teaching, etc.), holistic fracturing seeks to excavate precious gems of thought by relying on gut intellect.

The brain is designed to be a Mind at Large, to remember and imagine with all the capacity we can to creatively produce.  It’s high time we let the brain do what it does and love it for that.  Huxley speaks briefly about “adoring terror” (25), which strikes a strong chord with me.  I am terrified when my mind is blown apart trying to tackle large problems, but because I become whole again, I adore the splinters.

References

Britton, J. (1970). Language and Learning. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, Ltd.

Davis, B., Sumara, D. & Luce-Kapler, R. (2008). Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times. (2nd ed.). NY: Routledge.

Edelman, G. M.  (2006) Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Foucault, M. (1980) Language, Counter-memory, Practice. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publications.

Hemsing, C. (2008). Understanding in Context: Nihilism in the English Literature Classroom (Masters dissertation, European Peace University, Jan., 2008). Accessible at http://epu.ac.at/fileadmin/downloads/research/Hemsing.pdf

Hinde, D. (Producer) & Stapleton, A. (Director). (2011) Outside In: The Story of Art in the Streets. [Motion picture] USA: Doomsday Entertainment.

Hughes, J. (1999). Altered States: Creativity Under the Influence. NY: Watson-Guptill Publications.

Huxley, A. (1959). The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.

Jackson, P. W. (2009). The Daily Grind. In D. J. Finders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (p. 114-122). New York, NY: Routledge.

Sartre, J. (1993). Essays in Existentialism. NY: Citadel Press.

Thoreau, H. (1854). Retrieved from http://www.transcendentalists.com/ walden_where_i_lived.htm (10 February 2012)

Trilling, L. (2008). ‘Mind in the Modern World.’ In The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.


[1] As Hughes states, “to be complete, the creative act needs the approval of others.  Creativity is achieved when possibilities, problems, skills, personalities, and the social milieu come together.” (91)

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