The edges in the middle
In many non-western indigenous settings, the shaman’s home sits at the edge of all things, just on the periphery of the village – in the shushed distance. Children pick up their paces when they come close, and their parents scold them rudely if they look too long. You might suppose that such an important place, the wellspring of the community, critical to the wellbeing and generativity of its people, would be situated at the centre…for easier access, but there are reasons the healer’s home sits at the edge. For one, the healer is only to be visited with a studious reverence. Approach is never a trivial matter. One does not simply up and go to prattle about inconsequential matters. Perhaps this is the reason the Polynesian word ‘ta pu’ – the etymological root of the English ‘taboo’ – cautions the concerned to ‘approach with hesitation’. Secondly, the healer’s divinatory work is mediatory; s/he ministers to nonhuman communities that haunt the living. Balance is thought to be important to healthy living and prosperity, and balance can only be achieved where both the human and the nonhuman are in constant conversation. As such listening is a key component of the healer’s work, and the edges are the right aesthetic and figurative conditions for the keener kinds of listening required.
There is yet another reason or notion that could explain this socio-architectural preference for the edge of the village. It is common – especially in ‘rectilinear’ cultures – to think of the edge as the place where things get quirky, where things stop abruptly – delineating the boundary between the inside and the outside, the difference between ‘A’ and ‘not-A’. Death is an edge – it is where life stops. Light is the edge of darkness. And the truth is the edge of heresy. In ‘curvilinear cultures’, or communities given to the exploration and representation of circles, the edge is indistinguishable from the centre. Because the world is connected in a dense web of co-becoming, in a circle of living and dying, one cannot speak with any form of exactitude about where the beginning or end is, any more than one can identify the originary point of a sphere. In a sense, we are always in the middle – in the thickness of many intra-acting agencies, on a pilgrimage that troubles the convenience of starting lines and final destinations. We are a palimpsest of many scripts, owing our continuity to dramatic abortions and new alliances, traces of which are the very conditions for our embodiment. Every small gesture is already a matter of immense consequence, tugging at historical and social ties, excluding others from being meaningful. Within this world of ravishing entanglements, of queer encounters with beginnings that are not quite so – the healer’s world – the edge is not where things stop, the edge is where things congeal and get thicker. Death is not life’s other, neither is light the benevolent twin to its more evil counterpart, darkness. Scratch the ground a little, and you will unearth a little more sky.
This is what it means to be entangled: it is to see that we are not complete, removed, or boundaried. We are not independent. To speak from a place of manicured morality, to attempt to stand outside the mess of it all, to try to be sincere, is to be blind to our rapturous entanglement with the multiple. A ‘flower’ doesn’t ‘begin’ at its roots and terminate abruptly at its petals; it is the ongoing intra-activity (notice I do not say ‘inter-activity’, for this would suggest that ‘things’ pre-exist relationships) of clouds, rain, sunlight, swirling dust, the keen attention of the gardener, and a cocktail of colourful critters and ecosystems of organisms. One might say that there are no ‘things’ at all. To come to the edge is thus to come to the curdling middle, where wild meets wild, where we meet the universe halfway in acknowledgement of our intra-dependence and co-emergence with ‘movements’ we cannot control or assuage.
Perhaps in situating his home at the edge of the village, the indigenous healer reminds himself and everyone else that we are not the central concern of an unspeakable universe. We are reminded of the ineffable, that words are not little epistemological mirrors that can reflect the state of things. We are part of the world’s ongoing complexity, yes, but not its prime movers, sole actors or longed-for apotheoses. As such, all the qualities we think of as unique to humans – thought, agency, will, intentionality, creativity, subjectivity – are performative qualities of a larger field in constant flux. Thus in order to really account for ourselves, in order to tell the stories of what is happening, we must come to the ends of ourselves, we must gravitate towards the edges in the middle…towards the incomprehensible, where wholly new ways of thinking are gestating in puddles of the forgotten.
Does any of this matter? If you are reading this, you most probably live in a neighbourhood, labelled with street names. In the city – if that’s where you live – there are no clear ‘edges’, and functions are distilled into commercial units that downplay or deny the significance of the kinds of intimate relationships necessary for deep listening. You have no shaman, no cosmic mediator that helps argue your case with a jury of nonhumans. So, why do we need to learn about edges – or better still, edges in the middle? I propose this: because it changes everything. It changes how we think about social justice, how we imagine our relations to the most critical ecological challenges of our time, how we craft our educational systems and what we expect them to do, how we perform being human. It changes how we see things.
And seeing is such a risky investment of energies. We may not notice it or think of it that way, but seeing is profusely political. There is nothing innocent or given about visuality, which is why many authors have written about ‘regimes of visuality’ – about the frames that both govern what is meaningful and produce what is to be deemed as nonsensical. Seeing – both ‘seeing with eyes’ and its discursive connotations – is a matter of power relations and giant social projects and the dispersion of agency. How we see the world co-creates the world. Seeing is worlding – simultaneously a practice of disclosure and enclosure. To an ethnographic researcher seeking to explore a strange community, a mountain might be an obstacle to traverse – a dead thing that stands in the way – while, to that very community, the mountain is a powerful spirit, whose test the researcher must pass before he gains access.
Many of us are part of systems that teach us to look away from the very things calling for our attention. We are constantly stimulated to turn to the centre – whether it be governmental structures, legacy institutions, and big corporate funders – in order to craft new iterations of hope. At the corners of our eyes the edges languish in abandoned fields of unending desolation. Newer technologies encourage us to insist on being stable participants in a world that resists stability. The coordinated tango of thumbs and forefingers on square smooth screens grants us the previously unimaginable power to zoom in and zoom out; these practices of adjusting focal depth are, in my opinion, how the illusion of entrenchment is perpetuated. We paint fanciful visions of hoped for futures from the luxurious convenience of our user-friendly couches. And when these futures do not show up, we fall into Sisyphean cycles of despair and renewed political will and despair.
The healer knows that hope means displacement. To touch the universe is to lose one’s ground. To arrive is to be dismembered. To be born is to be reborn – and not in a neat way. I like to say that “we are coming down to earth, and we will not arrive intact”. In saying this, I lunge at different expressions of hope that embrace shadows and the promiscuity of the world. A hope that situates us as part of a tapestry of sympoietic emergence, whose logic is always in the making. A hope that troubles and redeems all at once.
Sitting with this kind of hope is sitting at the edges. The edges of all things. This is claiming sanctuary in a world where the sacred seems in startlingly short supply. The more palpable consequence of this kind of troublesome behaviour is that we come to touch the carnality of our seeing, and we are encouraged to notice things we otherwise wouldn’t give much attention to. We become weird, as insane and elderly as the world is. We meet the world-making activities of wind and termite, the sacred poetry of bee and starlings in murmuration, the courage of a mountain and the teenage earnestness of the sea. The world becomes rich. Alive and vibrant. No longer do we have to situate action and learning and wisdom as something ‘apart’, a series of gold nuggets that are few and far between (a fact that inspires ‘new’ collective explorations of non-schooling ‘education’ societies and re-indigenized platforms of co-explorative, playful co-learning).
In these times of weaponized fundamentalisms, depleted philanthropic coffers, tired policy-makers and exhausted policies, waning trust in establishment politics, colonial knowledges and painful interpellations, touchy skins and prickly attitudes, it’s probably wise to retreat. To seek sanctuary. To heed the call of the edges. The edges in the middle.
[Join Manish Jain, Charles Eisenstein and me as we grapple with the edges during our Schumacher Course: Entangled With The World – Radical Activism, Education and Emergence, from March 13-17, 2017.]