illustrated talk by Alan Rayner
For all our technological and medical advances, we human beings continue to live uneasily with one another, other life forms and our surroundings. The symptoms of this human DIS-EASE are all too obvious – huge disparities between rich and poor, well-nourished and malnourished; environmental destruction, pollution and change; adversarial politics in which winner must take all, no matter how small the margin of difference; big and small wars; stress, anxiety and depression; road rage; pressure groups; BSE; controversies over genetic manipulation and cloning etc, etc.
CONFLICT ABOUNDS, both within and between our PSYCHES. And, since conflict results from a breakdown of communication and consequent loss of relationship, the inference is that something is getting in the way, estranging us from our neighbours and surroundings. I increasingly have come to believe that this something, this barrier, is an ATTITUDE PROBLEM which arises from the way we are perceptually and cognitively pre-disposed to view the world, and reinforce this view in our philosophical and scientific paradigms. The problem resides in our very own, much vaunted RATIONALITY – our focus within fixed frames of reference on discrete, explicit things, regardless of their context, and consequent separation of subjects from objects, insides from outsides and self from other.
unconsciously represented my feelings about this attitude problem over 25
years ago, in two paintings.
See Alan's 'Bio-Art' Webpages at http://www.bath.ac.uk/~bssadmr/bioart.htm
Alan Rayner, Oil on Board, 1972
painting, made after my final examinations, depicts the dynamic complexity of
living systems. A turbulent river rushes between rock-lined banks from fiery,
tiger-striped sunset towards unexpected tranquility where it allows a daffodil
to emerge from its shallows. A night-bird follows the stream past intricately
interwoven forest towards darkness. A dragonfly luxuriates below a fruit-laden
tree, bereft of leaves. Life is wild, wet and full of surprises.
Alan Rayner, Oil on Board, 1973
painting, made after a year of postgraduate research, depicts the limitations
of unempathic, analytical
methodology. At the end of a long pilgrimage, access to life is barred from
the objective stare by the rigidity of artificial boundaries. A sun composed
of semicircle and triangles is caught between straight lines and weeps
sundrops into a canalized watercourse. Moonlight, transformed into penetrating
shafts of fear encroaches across the night sky above a plain of desolation.
Life is withdrawn behind closed doors.
rationalistic outlook causes us to exclude from consideration all outside our
immediate focus, and so to IGNORE context, leaving us out of touch and
undernourished in an intellectual and emotional desert of our own making. We
regard life and the universe like a box of Lego blocks that can be sorted,
assembled and disassembled: a fixed Euclidian reference frame of empty
Cartesian space and absolute time in which independent objects collide,
compete and stick together, but can’t relate. It all seems so alluringly
simple and logical – the only uncertainties lie in the randomness of
independent events, but statistics and risk analyses can help us to account
for those. Moreover, this alluring simplicity fits in extremely well with our
predatory and discriminatory pre-disposition to single things out from their
context. Analytical left brain hemisphere at the ready, eyes facing forward on
the front of our faces, giving us binocular vision and depth of field but
little or no view to side or rear, we are great SORTER-OUTERS. And that is how
we’re prone to think the world works – by sorting things out – viewing
like some self-centred voyeuristic outsider through a window pane and making
discriminatory choices, but without ourselves being involved or included in
the picture. Herein lies our devotion to quantification, embedded in the
discreteness of our number system and units of measurement as well as in
seemingly great ideas like natural selection and genetic determinism.
the simplicity is an illusion, because, as is obvious to everybody, but which
many prefer to remain blind to, in reality no thing occurs in complete
isolation. The discrete boundaries assumed or imposed by rational inquiry to
keep things ‘pure’ and ‘simple’, free from contaminating subjectivity
and environmental noise, are artefacts. And these artefacts may actually
complicate and ration our understanding by starving us of what we need to
know. Real boundaries are dynamic interfaces, places of opportunity for
reciprocal transformation between inter-communicating insides and outsides
over nested scales from sub-atomic to universal. They are not fully discrete
limits. Features arise dynamically, through the inductive coupling of explicit
contents with their larger implicit context, which, like a hologram, can only
be seen partially and in unique aspect from any one fixed viewpoint.
the same token, we humans are as immersed in and inseparable from our living
space as a whirlpool in a water flow: our every explicit action implicitly
depends upon and reciprocally induces transformation of our environment. When
I unfold my fingers, space-time reciprocally invaginates. Our environment
becomes us as we become it – as much our inheritance as our genes. By taking
self-centred action, regardless of context, we put that inheritance at risk
and ultimately conflict with ourselves, driven on by the rationalism that
continues to underpin much purely analytical science and legalistic thinking.
what can we do about this attitude problem of ours, and the conceptual trap
that holds us in thrall?
first thing is to acknowledge that it really is a problem, and it really is a
trap. Then we need to know just how big a problem it is, and how unforgiving a
trap. Then we have to find an imaginative way out of the trap.
suggest that the problem is biggest when we are trying to view the larger
picture and longer-term consequences of our environmental relationships. For
then the crucial uncertainty that we face is not randomness, but implications
– how the future will unfold as neglected outside influences come to bear
and one thing induces another. And part of the trap lies in the fact that
these influences SEEM NEGLIGIBLE from the perspective of the smaller picture
and short-term. This encourages us to carry on regardless, thinking we can
build from the small to the large, from the short to the long, which is
impossible when the small and short has already excluded vital contextual
potential enormity of the damage caused by small, short-term thinking is
evident in numerous tales of the hugely unexpected actually happening, from
disease epidemics in crop monocultures changed at just a single gene, to
global warming manifestations of the so-called butterfly effect.
think we can only begin to come to terms with these potentially enormous
implications of our actions by shifting intellectually, emotionally and
practically, as deep ecologists urge, from egocentricity to ecocentricity,
putting rationality in its place and giving precedence to our living space. To
do this, we will need to develop different metaphors, language and
philosophical and practical approaches from those that currently dominate
participatory philosophy of inclusionality, which I am currently working on
with others, is a response to these needs.
This philosophy effectively views all things as dynamic contextual inclusions that both include and are included in space-time. The dualistic or discretist separation between insides and outsides, explicit contents and implicit context is subsumed within a reciprocally transforming dialogue, mediated across dynamic boundary interfaces transcending all scales of organization.
me, a wonderful metaphor for understanding the reciprocal relationship between
explicit contents and actions, and implicit contextual containing space, can
be found in river systems that both shape and are shaped by the landscape they
taking substance out from their catchment, rivers effectively MAKE THEIR OWN
SPACE – they both create and follow paths of least resistance. The same is
true of all organic life forms and perhaps even all universal features that
emerge and dissipate through the reciprocal dynamic relationship between inner
and outer inductive holes – spelled H.O.L.E.S. If holism was about holes,
incompleteness and the inductive influence of emptiness, rather than about
wholes as entireties made up of more than the sum of their component parts,
then I’d be all for it. It’s INCOMPLETENESS, not COMPLETENESS, which
SUSTAINS universal dynamics and our empathy for one another and our living
space. There is no thing more repellent, more isolating, than
organic life forms, as we know them here on earth, the MEDIUM through which
this RECIPROCAL INDUCTIVE RELATIONSHIP between inner and outer holes, inner
and outer space occurs, is none other than WATER. And indeed I think much of
the LANGUAGE OF INCLUSIONALITY can be framed in terms of THE LANGUAGE OF
way that water is channelled within dynamic living system boundaries to yield
diverse patterns of environmental relationship is evident in the river-like
pathways formed by these systems whenever they are observed IN CONTEXT rather
than in INDIVIDUAL SNAPSHOTS OF SPACE AND TIME. This is easiest with life
forms that GROW rather than MOVE BODILY from place to place and so have
INDETERMINATE BODY BOUNDARIES that MAP their own life history. But it is also
possible, given the appropriate imaging or imaginative processes, with those
many animals that appear superficially to spend their lives as discrete
I can demonstrate these points with some examples: firstly, some of these
examples concern the way fungal mycelia grow and interact with one another and
and war amongst Ukrainian sisters of Stereum
So, we can see that fungal mycelia are dynamically bounded, indeterminate rather than fixed entities, capable of versatile responses to their neighbours and surroundings.
the patterns they express are by no means unique.
in water crowfoot
I try to represent this relationship between life forms and flowing water forms in many of my paintings: e.g.
Alan Rayner, Oil on Board, 1997
ivy river sweeps down from its collecting tributaries in steep-sided, lobed
valley systems in high mountains, through dark forest and out across a sunlit,
starkly agri-cultured, flood plain. Thence it delivers its watery harvest
through deltas of leaves and fruits to a sea filled with the reflection of
sunset. The fruits and leaves of a real ivy plant fringe the view of the
distant river. The erratic pattern of veins in the lobed leaves contrasts with
the focused pattern in the unlobed leaves and reflects the difference between
the energy-gathering and energy-distributing parts of the river.
Alan Rayner, Oil on Board, 1998
This painting illustrates the dynamic interplay between differentiation and integration, irregularity ("error") and regularity, and negative draining and positive outpouring that is embedded in living system boundaries. The erratic fire in the venation of a lobed ivy leaf is bathed in the integrating embrace of a heart-shaped leaf which converts negative blue and mauve into positive scarlet and crimson. The midrib of the heart-shaped leaf emerges as a bindweed which communicates between extremes of coldness and dryness.
Alan Rayner, Oil on Board, 1998
This was painted for the British Mycological Society, in my year as its President, to depict the interconnectedness of trees and fungi. Within and upon the branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of forest trees¾and reaching out from there into air and soil¾are branching, enfolding, water-containing surfaces of finer scale, the mycelial networks of fungi. These networks provide a communications interface for energy transfer from neighbour to neighbour, from living to dead and from dead to living. They maintain the forest in a state of flux as they gather, conserve, explore for and recycle supplies of chemical fuel originating from photosynthesis. So, the fountains of the forest trees are connected and tapped into by the fountains of fungal networks in a moving circulation: an evolutionary spiral of differentiation and integration from past through to unpredictable future; a water delivery from the fire of the sun, through the fire of respiration, and back again to sky, contained within the contextual boundaries of a wood-wide web.
So, now I’d like to reflect a bit more on what WATER as an INCLUSIONAL CONTEXT means to life.
Water is, and always has been, the receptive medium into and through which life forms gather and distribute the sources of energy that puts them in motion via processes of photosynthesis, chemosynthesis, digestion, respiration, transport and translocation. It provides the continuity between generations through and in which genetic information can flow and be exchanged and expressed in endlessly diverse forms.
The way in which water is arrayed and re-arrayed in living systems depends both on its own physical properties and those of the dynamic living system boundaries that retain it, and which change in versatile response to differing phases and circumstances of life, notably DEFORMABILITY, PERMEABILITY AND CONTINUITY.
Slides: 4 fundamental processes
In the dynamic context of these changeable, water-retaining boundaries, life histories are not homogeneous story-lines with discrete beginnings and endings, or even forever-closed life cycle circuits, but rather spiral trajectories wound around axes of time. Each turn of the spirals opens out from and then returns to a condensed, coherent, totipotent state in which all the creative possibilities of past, present and future are contained, in effect, through the dynamic relation between oxygen and fuel supply.
Responses to oxygen threat and promise
It is in this dynamic, watery, airy and fiery context, with which they co-evolve in reciprocal inductive relationship, that I think the true importance and meaning of genes can be fully appreciated. The occurrence and expression of genes both influences and is influenced by the dynamic properties of this context, much as the ingredients of a river both influence and are influenced by the river's course through its containing landscape.
So, what does all this mean for rationality and the way we should set about understanding how the world works and our own relationship to it? My conclusion is that we should not discard, indeed we should VALUE the explicit, laser-like focus of rational inquiry not as ‘all there is’, but, rather as a high resolution tool. This tool, when complemented, through DIALOGUE, by the collective imagination and insights arising from many, diverse perspectives, can help illuminate implicit, holographic reality. In this way we can stay attuned to the implications of our dynamic living space, rather than continue to create dissonance by assuming control over what our restrictive analytical vision prevents us from seeing.
Transparency – Relatavistic Sharing Inquiry, a la Ted Lumley
I’d like to conclude with two more paintings:
Alan Rayner, Oil on Board, 1998
Painted to depict the vitality and
unpredictability of the partnership between DNA and water, the informational
traffic and the contextual waterways, of living systems. A riverine snake,
with DNA markings, guards a water-hole in a desert of sand particles blown
into waves. Pebbles at the edge of the water, modelled on the “stone
cells” (“sclereids”) that make pears gritty, are separate, yet
interconnected via their cores. A goat skull and a fish out of water show the
effect of exposure to dryness. How do
we relate to the snake? Do we attempt to confront and control it, or do we
seek rapport and understanding? Wherein lies the greater risk and promise?
Alan Rayner, Oil on Canvas, 1999/2000
The gift of life lies in the creative infancy of the present, whence its message from past to future is relayed through watery channels that spill out and recombine outside the box, re-iterating and amplifying patterns over scales from microscopic to universal.
MAYBE IT’S TIME FOR US TO GET OUT OF THE BOX AND WET OUR GENES!
For centuries, our understanding of how we relate to our environment has been impeded by the deliberate ignorance of context which comes from rationalistic modes of enquiry that place unrealistically discrete boundaries between ‘insides’ and ‘outsides’, ‘subjects and objects’ and ‘self’ and ‘other’. Now that the global impact of human technology has reached unprecedented scales, there is an urgent need to appreciate the sources and implications of this ignorance, which continues to underpin much mainstream analytical science. We also need to develop a philosophical framework that enables us to attune to our living space rather than create dissonance by assuming control over what our restrictive vision prevents us from seeing. The participatory philosophy of ‘inclusionality’ I am currently working on with others, in which all things are viewed as dynamic contextual inclusions, may help by enabling us to value the explicit focus of rational inquiry not as ‘all there is’, but rather as a powerful, high resolution tool. This tool, when complemented by the collective imagination and insights arising from many, diverse perspectives, can help clarify implicit, holographic reality and, amongst other things, put genes in their watery, airy and fiery context.
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