The Annunciation

You can’t tell, when you look at me looking at something, what it is that I am noticing.  Even if you could list all the material features of my sensory field, you wouldn’t know whether I’m noticing the cup, or the room, or the fact that I’m in a city, or the unpleasant manner of that man’s behaviour, or my own insecurity in your company.

Our perception has this interesting feature, that our object is perceived through the specifics of our experiential field.  I see the meeting through the chairs and the people, I see the city through the buildings and the traffic, I see his obnoxious character through his behaviour, I see myself through my experiences.

So many different sorts of things appear!  Most obviously, things appear, but, through and beyond them, a world appears.   And through your body–a “thing”–you appear.  Your kindness can appear–and of course your beauty–and, saddest of all, your absence can be what appears through everything in my room when you are away.

Typically, we think of things as where our perception stops: indeed, the body that rises in front of me blocks my vision of what is on its other side.  But what we should notice instead is that things are where our perception starts!  Rather than blocking our vision, things are what allow deeper realities to appear.

The artwork is a special instance of a thing.  Like any thing, it is a window on deeper realities, but, most basically, the deeper reality it reveals is this very nature of things.  In the artwork, it is precisely this “see-through” character of things that is made thematic.  The artwork is the annunciation of the metaphysical transparency of things.

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One Comment

  1. Kirsten
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    This post is so important. It seems so often we get caught up in things as “that stuff,” when, as you note, things are really about how things matter to us. If we lose something, it tends, as you again suggest, to be the loss of a way of being that is really at issue. Your point about art at the end reminds me of certain things that Collingwood argues in _The Principles of Art_, especially his point that we often mistake the artwork for the thing on the wall or the movement of the bodies on the stage, when in truth art is the movement within us that allows us to move toward the articulation of new meaning (the articulation of an emotion that had previously been opaque to us, he specifically argues). Perception, you both argue, is about grasping and even developing meaning, not about being bombarded by matter. Yes. I agree. It’s remarkable, too, how loudly “stuff” seems to announce itself as what matters. (I feel like I’m in a course on Derrida again with you now!)

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).