Poise, Part 2

Franz Marc's Yellow Cow, beautifully poised.

Ever so slowly getting to the point about poise.

So if all learning and knowledge is actually a set of practical skills, so that there is never knowledge 'about' something, how do you decide what people should learn? Given that there is no set of ideas or tools you can actually equip them with which are fully generalisable in life. Every single piece of 'knowledge' and learning is actually a set of practical skills, just as much as bootmaking used to be, or plumbing a toilet or wiring a house are today. We like to talk about things like maths or physics or computer science as somehow 'higher-level' learnings, more 'abstract' than laying bricks for example. But there are no levels. Again each of these professions or activities does completely practical things, but with bits of papers and computers rather than with cement and trowels. If you haven't been part of the long training in those particular skills, then it will seem very abstract and complex to you. But a knitting pattern looks abstract to me, and to many others I'm sure.

Part of the problem here is that together with this idea that knowledge can be more or less abstract or general, is the idea that more abstract knowledge is also closer to the foundation of how things are. Brickies 'just' throw up bricks in layer upon layer, but physicists get to the 'fundamental' nature of reality itself. That's what all their hieroglyphs apparently are, the language of nature itself, revealed a piece at a time. God is a mathematician, if you please. It's all self-serving horse shit. Knowledge is always added to the world, it's not at a meta level 'about' the world. This bypasses the lunatic objectivist ideas about there being a world 'out there' (where?) which we more or less get a true picture about with our ideas. And it also bypasses the lunatic relativisms where everything is just what we say it is. Knowledge is relational. Meaning that it's always contextual, related to the specific instruments you're using, which don't 'reveal' phenomena but instead produce them.

If I jab a probe up a frog's arse and fire a current into it and measure how much the frog jumps, I haven't discovered 'how the frog really works, in reality'. I've discovered how a frog works with a probe stuck up its arse and current flowing through it. If I look through a microsocope and see little wriggly critters at work in some tap water, I haven't seen how water really is - the microscope hasn't peeled away any sort of veil hiding truth from me - I've seen what you see if you point a microscope at water. If I changed the scale and looked at the same water with a telescope, or with the naked eye, or from across the room in green glasses, I'm not moving closer or further away from 'how things are', I'm just seeing things, at different (all equally valid) scales and perspectives. If I write a novel about relationships, I won't be getting to what relationships are really all about, I'll be inflecting or refracting them through language, even creating a whole series of new phenomena, which then might even translate back into the world of the reader (as Shakespeare actually invented many ways to be human, as Harold Bloom always says).

The world isn't this one thing, waiting to be found out or at least approximated to as best we can. When we went from microscopes to atom smashers we didn't get closer to the fundamental building blocks of matter, we just started doing different things with matter. The world is many things - as the Greeks used to say, the world is an always-changing flux. That's why skilled analysts even today will always want to know how figures have been arrived at, for example - what technqiues and instruments were used, what sampling method, etc. They know that without those contextual details the data is meaningless. But it also applies to our bodies, our seeing and hearing and smelling and moving and whatever else are not purities, they're all utterly dependent on the various ways our bodies manage these things. There are other (non-human) ways to 'see', for example - seeing is completely tied up with the actual apparatus being used. When an animal or instrument views the world using the UV part of the spectrum, are they seeing a more (or less) correct reality than we are? Or in each case is knowledge and perception an outcome of a set of relations between things, including eyes and microscopes, and whatever?

Now back to poise. There is probably one generalisable thing a person can learn, and that is poise. Poise as a concept encompasses everything from movement to thought. It means to be between things, to be always-ready for what's about to happen, rather than to have settled into any sort of rut of 'this is how things are'. To be a soccer goalie and be poised before the goal, equally able to move in any direction as the ball approaches you (the best sportspeople always have poise, like the tennis player who can always move quickly to anywhere on the court in response to an opponent's shot). To be a musician and be able to improvise, in response to changes as they pop up. To be able to think about a topic without having to ever solidify into a 'position'.

Poise is not to be confused with taking a superior vantage point from which to evaluate things equally and fairly, it's about plunging into things themselves and letting yourself be jostled and prodded by them, and to let yourself learn to respond rather than to try and react. Any activity can be carried out with poise. Increasingly in schools in particular there's not even the faintest hint of it. A kid who slouches but does brilliantly in maths is apparently OK, what they do with their body is their own business. As Lawrence said, whip the little bugger and get some pride up its backbone, into its bearing. We are whole creatures, education shouldn't produce brilliant slobs. Kids lapse early on into rigid ideas and causes, as they always have done, as young minds grapple with new realities - just as all of us will tend to grip a golf club or tennis racket or knitting needles as we learn those things. Education should be about helping them to release that grip, to hold ideas and tennis rackets and whatever else gently but firmly, poised and able to change at a moment's notice.

Personally as a teacher I came to feel that it didn't matter 'what' you taught kids, provided they learned poise, in what you taught them. The ability to be present to what they were doing, paying proper attention to it for what it really is, and responding with increasing sophistication to their interaction with it. But pedagogy these days is nearly all cognitivist, it's all about content, the big myth. Primary and secondary school educators retain some sense of the need for a balance, with sport and art and maths and science etc., but increasingly the 3 Rs and 'standards' (none of which would care about slouching) are back in vogue outside, so the pressure is on. Universities arguably never really understood about educating the whole person, and were proud of it.

No matter what you teach people, make sure they learn poise in the doing of it. Which in every case will mostly involve helping them get out of their own way, including getting you out of their way as well.

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