Communitarians – Meaning Social

A reflection on “Communitarians” (57×29 cm, Oil on panel, 2018) by Zacheriah Kramer

Interview: Zacheriah Kramer & Tatjana Schnell

Your work “Communitarians” speaks to me about being and becoming, through others. In your painting, I see a person created by another person: someone whose ideas or actions have been formative, with whom significant encounters have happened? Is it through others that we become who we are?

Yes, it seems to me to be clearly true that it is at least to a large extent through others that we become who we are. To become who we are is something like reaching the full potential of the kind of thing that we are, and we are, uniquely in the animal kingdom, linguistic. So it is true in one respect simply by the fact that language is always already a communal activity. But it is also true that language allows us to share others’ experiences, along with hopes, fears, plans for the future, and so forth. I think that it is common to think of humans as highly individualistic compared with other animals, like deer in a herd. We are more unlike one another than they are. In one sense, this is true, but it is helpful for me to remember that though deer stand side by side and gain mutual benefit from their numbers, each member is locked into its own individual experience of the world. We on the other hand make stories of our experiences and tell them to one another, and in that way, pass those experiences on, so that others can in some sense partake of the experiences. We of course imagine new experiences through story, for planning for the future, for delight, and for many other reasons. Human life is so fundamentally composed of stories that every thoughtful action is the result of an effort to further some inhabited story or another. We inhabit many stories, both personal and collective, and it would be hard to overemphasize their importance for shaping our lives. These stories are most basically made of language. As such, they are always already composed of the lives of others who have shared and shaped both the languages that these stories exist in for us, and the content of the stories themselves. The lives of the users of language have collectively given the words weight and defined or blurred their edges, and these words and patterns of linguistic expression form us when we use them in our lives. It seems to me that by virtue of language we are fundamentally communal beings. This is as true for the socialite as it is for the hermit, as true for the one who prefers blending in with the crowd as it is for the one who strives to stand out as unique or different.

Also by being self-aware, we encounter ourselves. In the process of self-awareness, we observe ourselves – as the observing person. The person holding the brush might even be an alter ego. How does self-recognition differ, in your opinion, from what others see in us?

Wow, I don’t know. I think we try to understand ourselves by mirroring ourselves in others; judging our own life and actions analogically by how we experience the lives and actions of others. But how often do most of us slow down and look at a person to try to see them for the unfathomable mystery that they are? Or do we more often see them as simply discrete and often predictable objects that we have to navigate to make daily life work? Sometimes I look out over a great distance at a road at night and see two cars careening toward one another, and I think of those soft drivers wrapped in thin sheathes of steel and glass, with headlights forward like the sensors of a snail, and I’m struck by how tiny and fragile those people are. This somehow brings forth how enormous life surely feels for each of them, and I imagine it made visible, welling up behind them into the sky like giant snail shells, swelled with life’s weight. If our inner lives were made visible in this way, could we simply pass one another by? What if we used our faces only to reveal the inner life instead of also to hide it?

Would I recognize my own life if I could see it as a whole from a distance? Self knowledge is also surprisingly difficult, and even those who strive to achieve it in life find it an endless process. How shattered would my self-image be if I was forced to share a tiny space with my carbon copy for a week, or perhaps be a ”fly on the wall” in my own daily life, to see myself acting without being inside the mood in which the actions take place? I might gain life-changing insight about how others perceive me, but how far from my own ideal would I then judge myself to be?

Even that which I conceive of as my innermost self has the character of a fundamental mystery for me. It’s like a locked garden where my strongest and most unwavering longings grow. Fragrances and flashes of color can sometimes make it beyond the barrier, but even my most focused thought can never fully enter and explore the garden at will, and never give a tour to a guest. Maybe art is often an attempt to give outer form to something hidden and vaguely (though powerfully) perceived in this inner world; that it might be more fully revealed to ourselves and also be in some sense shared.

The concept of communitarianism has a much broader meaning, of course. It can take various forms, but at its core is the idea that we are living in excessive individualization and thus losing sight of the common good. From your perspective, how does communitarianism relate to creating a meaningful life?

Yes, I think our age is one of excessive individualization. But for reasons I tried to hint at in the first question, I think that this is the result of confusion. Again, by way of language, we are conglomerates of stories, ideas, relational experiences, and so forth, and so individuality comes to be by way of already existing communities. The linguistic experience transforms all other experiences by pulling them up so to speak into the realm of language (into the stories we tell ourselves about our life), and language is always already communal. When I first recognized this, the common good was suddenly revealed to be vastly more important than I had previously imagined. Suddenly the words ”I am you” and ”your brother is your life” became intelligible. I am made of others and they of me, as surely as my body is made of the soil and air where my lunch grew. Not poisoning that soil and not harming my neighbor are very closely related. Helping others to expand to their potential is also my own way forward to ”become what I am”. But this is not easy. It is hard to know how to act in each situation. I think the mood in the painting tries to convey the difficulty of this dynamic, even for people who are aware of it as an aspect of becoming (incidentally, both figures, though not intended as portraits of real people in this picture, are likenesses of people who appreciate Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and admire the thought of people like Alasdair MacIntyre). As rational beings, perhaps we can most basically be described as pursuers of the good. We can’t thoughtfully stir a finger without reaching beyond the thing at hand toward some ultimate good, though of course our ignorance of both the ultimate good and the consequences of our actions is often overwhelming, and despite our best intentions, we cause a lot of unintended harm. Seeing this opens up a moral landscape, setting us on a journey to discover how to better understand the good (striving to align our minds with the way things are; seeking truth), and to actively help each other thrive through humbly giving each other space to be, as well as through creating the potential for significant encounters, as you put it.

To what extent can art point to meaning? Or does the process of constructing meaning lie solely in reception?

This question has puzzled me for years, and I’m not sure I can contribute much. I wonder what is meant by meaning? Can it perhaps be thought of as that part of an inhabited story that gives weight, worth, and direction to life? The question then might be: how do reality and art relate to these stories? As with the previous question, I think part of what we most properly are is seekers of truth; we strive toward our potential by trying to align our minds with the way things are. We want to tell ourselves a true story about reality. For me then, one purpose for art might be to push toward uncovering or revealing something. Art can in that way be an attempt to seek truth. Art is perhaps best in my judgment when it succeeds in revealing something mysterious or hard to lay hold of, but that is nonetheless powerfully present to the imagination; an aspect of life that shimmers at the edges of understanding which, even when an artist tries to approach it as directly as possible, is never the less like a glimpse of a deer as it darts away in a forest. This much seems clear to me: when we involve art in our lives, we are partially formed by what art has to say to us. The best art speaks long and powerfully, and asks much of us. Sometimes it invites us to an inward struggle. It significantly adds to and changes the stories by which we live, sometimes immediately, sometimes over a long time. Maybe in this regard both the ”revealing” and the ”constructing by reception” elements of meaning come into play.

Thank you very much for your insights and reflection.

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