Oct 1, 2011
Check Out the Levels
I have a friend who, when I first met him, spent a lot of time making trompe l’oeil drawings (well, really doodles in the margins of lecture notes he was taking).
One night he was showing us some of these and every now and again, impressed by his own ability to conjure faux three dimensionality from two dimensional lines on paper, he would exclaim, in a kind of wonder, “Check out the levels!”
Now, if you teach anything like literary theory or film studies or music appreciation or what have you, this imperative sums up your endeavor. In fact, what you quickly find is that, for many students, the fact that there are levels at all, and not just the plot and the characters, is a kind of revelation.
This revelation can quickly spread into all aspects of life and is part of the natural, cognitive maturing process, I believe. When we make the transition from childhood proper to adolescence and adulthood after, for example, a big part of that proces is the realization that our childish worldview, as complete and self-sufficient as it seems to us while we are living in it, is limited, circumscribed by our ignorance, experience (or lack thereof), and the information that our environmental wardens have deigned (or not) to pass along to us. You can see this most obviously when speaking with teens who have become aware of things that their younger siblings just obviously don’t get.
Being able to recognize the many levels of a work of art or a political statement or even physical reality becomes a kind of badge of honor and even a mark of intelligence. But it can also become a kind of fetish. Why? Because, conceptual space, like physical space, is basically infinitely divisible (I say “physical space” guardedly because it does seem to have a limit of divisibility, though the exact nature of the smallest unit of reality is still in dispute), which means that there is always another level. Conceiving of these levels, describing them, sketching out there relationship with other existing or possible levels requires sophistication, insight, and artistry, but it can also take you down a rabbit hole marked in equal parts by vanity and futility.
I say this because, while being able to recognize that there are other levels, that there’s more than meets the eye, that appearances can be deceiving and that causes or root causes may be obscure or even intentionally obscured (as is the case with many political realities), it is actually more important to realize which levels really matter and which may be fascinating or strange but, in the end, trivial.
Recognizing the critical level, however, means turning our backs on the giddy, at times vertiginous, allure of perpetual discovery. You have to stop looking for new levels and relinquish the relativism that powers your search. To do so, you must have a firm ground, a point of reference, a benchmark, that allows you to judge the import of this or that level. Claiming that ground, though, means forgetting an essential truth: there’s always another level.
Refusal to give up on that insight and pursue the next level, the determining factor and its determining factors, the defining context, means, ultimately, surrendering yourself to the rabbit hole and forswearing what Bataille called the “world of project” — the world of action, doing, and accomplishment.
Willingness to plant a stake and turn your attention away from the phantasmagoria of levels to the achievement of a specific goal, using your knowledge and understanding of the levels to “make it so,” means actually making the difference that you are otherwise content to merely acknowledge and thus foregoing the conceptual plenitude of mysticism for the gritty and resistant tangibility of the material world (level).
So, yes, “check out the levels,” but don’t “check out” of reality by forgetting the meta-level that lends your investigations a purpose and a reason. And if you don’t have a “meta-level,” you might want to look into getting one.
Image Source: Hive.
[…] when people are looking to learn something from you, they don’t want context, history, or meta-level musings; they really prefer that you just tell them what to […]