Good-enough dreamers

The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone. In a sense the statue stood there from eternity. But there were a thousand different ones beside it, and the sculptor alone is to thank for having extricated one from the rest.
William James

–When the self comes as a version of the carver, Michelangelo famously put the task as liberating form from stone. The real self is the revealed form that already exists, when you chip away the surplusage.

Adrian Stokes, art critic and poet, took the distinction and extended it. For Stokes and in contrast to the carver, the modeler fashions the self. The modeler of clay has the more labile enterprise of molding, where the form is “not uncovered but created.” “The modeler realizes his design with clay. Unlike the carver, he does not envisage that the conception is enclosed in his raw material.” In comparison to stone, “the plastic material has no ‘rights’ of its own. It is a formless mud used, very likely, to make a model for bronze or brass. Modeling is a much more ‘free’ activity than carving”. (Think of “modeling” not as computer simulation but as Stokes did, molding).

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips returned to Stokes’s distinction as two distinct approaches to an individual’s selfhood and experience: “It is as though there are things that are always already there which we may or may not find; and there are things which we make, which we put there and by so doing add something to the world that wasn’t there previously”. What interests Phillips is that “[e]ach of these two versions involves us in telling a different kind of story about the self”. The modeler “uses his art to expose, to extend, to fashion himself”, while the carver abstains from promoting the self in favor of responding to the otherness of the object. Yet in both, a version of the self is operating—“the carver forgets himself…the modeler endorses himself”.

The difficulty with the carver is that, in seeing herself as releasing what is already there, she renders herself oddly immune to criticism by a world that responds nevertheless; it is as if she submerges her own egotism in the name of making what is revealed wholly visible as its own, regardless. The difficulty with the molder (our modeler) is the reverse. It is her hubris, her own truth that is imposed upon a seemingly labile reality. She acts as if reality knows it’s worse off for not having this truth. In such ways, while carver and modeler gravitate around different versions of the self, both have an acute sense of being better than just good enough. And these selves—the ones that are already there or must be created to be there—are increasingly appealed to in human rights and sustainable development.

–What works better, carving or modeling? It depends. It’s not one or the other; rather it is, “yes, but” or “yes, and.” It is premature to choose between the two versions of self when other selves exist from which to elect. To carving stone and modeling clay, we must at least add improvising the self from what is at hand, which involves something different—good-enough but in ways that matter better still than stone, clay and such, if you will.

What Phillips calls “the contingent self” is one who makes use of luck, accident, and coincidence—those surprises we have been discussing throughout the blog—that befall him or her. S/he improvises a life within a network of others that improvises them. (This, of course, is also a weak-spot of the contingent self who is always, if you will, being prepped for more surgery.) And what can be more good enough, for improvising humans, than “just at hand” contingency to be made use of?Bricolage and auto-pastiche blur into one another; something emerges, but more akin to William James’s sculptor in the epigraph.

–Carving, modeling, and now, good-enough improvising: Which works better overall? Or to put it from the other direction: What other self/selves are we missing? In answer, start by slotting carving, modeling and improvising into a two-by-two typology for versions of the self.  One dimension is the degree to which the external world resists your agency (that imposition of your version of the self onto the world); the other dimension is the degree to which your agency independently seeks to impose control on the external world:

In this way of thinking, the carver has no choice but to reveal the self that is already there even as the world resists this imposition. In contrast, the modeler actively molds his or her own image onto a world that seems to little resist this imposition. The improviser takes what the world throws forth and deliberately recasts it, if not audaciously then good enough as and when it matters.

–But what version of a self, if any, fills the fourth cell, one where there is low agency and little external resistance? I can think of several candidates but for our purposes here, think of that fourth cell as Dreaming.

The dreaming self, as I see it, differs orthogonally from the versions of carver, modeler and good-enough improviser. When one dreams, one’s selfhood “holds fast” without really seeming to try. Dreaming is not just there, it’s all that is there, or so it seems at the time. Dreaming is paradigmatically “low agency and little external resistance:” It is not being in full control internally while external factors are not in full control either.

–Now to blur the gridlines in order to see better. I want to suggest good enough is about good-enough improvisers and their dreams not being in complete control. This in turn contrasts with carvers or modelers with their sense of seeking better-than-just good enough.

Unlike progress or economic growth which promises a magic of rising tides and bigger pies, good enough works on the premise that if policy and management are about fulfilling our dreams, then it is far better to think of policy and management as that magic animal skin, which in the process of realizing each new wish, shrinks smaller and smaller—until nothing is left to realize what is wished for by way of policy or by way of management.

Each enacted wish—each dream-in-action—could turn against you, waylay and maroon you on the shoals of simplification or the overly complex, requiring all kinds of subsequent corrective wishes—and before you know it, you’ve run out of options.

But that’s the very point. To mindlessly lose options is: Just. Not. Good. Enough.

Principal sources.

Phillips, A. (1994). On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

————– (2004). On not making it up, Or the varieties of creative experience. Salmagundi, no. 143 (Summer): 56-75.

Stokes, A.  (1978). The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, Volume I: 1930-1937, Thames and Hudson: GB.

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