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COPY FOR: RealTime

Agents of Uncertainty – Mysticism, Scepticism, Buddhism, Art and Poetry

by John Danvers
Rodopi, Amsterdam, NK, 2012
220 pp., illus b/w Paper, $US55.00
ISBN: 978-90-420-3512-6 (pb); ISBN 978+94-012-0787-4 (E-Book); ISSN 1573-2193.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, NSW.


The book, (number 31 in the Consciousness, Literature and the Arts series), forms a distillation of the experiences, thoughts, and encounters with a myriad of texts by the author, a practicing visual artist. There is extensive discussion of the ideas and beliefs expounded by 'the holy men' of the past and the scholars of the near past, but the thrust of the book’s mission addresses the reader to make an assessment of the experience of 'being here' in this era, at this point in time and space.

These bounds are clearly stated in an establishing NB, where the term 'self' is bifurcated between the Cartesian, unified, ego-centred soulful self; and the relational self “an alternative view of the self as a porous, permeable process – open to continual change, construction and revision”. The core of this enquiry, delivered almost as an appeal to each reader, illuminates the contingencies of this approach.

Many in the scientific community, would recognise being 'open-minded' as being the basis of their research. Other objective-vectored communities – the manipulators of the material world seeking certainty and investment potential –will have difficulty in connecting with the ideas and attitudes surveyed here. The real investment is in the time given to reflection and the relishing of 'dasein', Heidegger's rubric for 'being here / there' as an expression of the continuum of the state of being human. Though 'dasein' is the subject of much commentary in the contemporary field of 'presence studies', there is little here that engages with the considerable impact electronic mediation between dispersed consciousnesses has had. But the implication in the survey of the more recent past is that the careful study of precursors will be useful in assessing and developing more meaningful approaches to remote communication. The survey is not comparative religion but compares belief, or systems of consciousness, from the inside, by an author for whom understanding and positioning of selfhood is a very important part of the daily round.

The apparent diversity is organised into five parts that investigate mysticism, language, postmodernism, scepticism, Buddhism, Daoism and (unsurprisingly) 'the contrarium, a dialectical seesaw'. A final two sections are reflections on a selection of international artists whose practice exemplifies 'living with uncertainty', and the author's 'drawing together' of the experiential enquiry shared by artists, poets, mystics and skeptics. Their contribution within the contrarium can be considered totally at odds with dogmatism and certainty, together exemplified as constructs shakily assembled to keep our world in physical and psychic order.

This artist's book – a continuation of a long tradition – mixes its media and varies its modes of address. My personal recollections of the artist's work goes back 40 years to his extended temporal performances lasting whole days and involving physically measured patterns of movement. In retrospect this performance practice were clearly linked to his subsequent series of enquiries, across media, across cultures, and across countries. Perhaps the tradition of academe and its approach to the design of journal-type publications has not been the best showcase for Danver's talents as a visual artist, particularly one attempting to provide porosity to this range of material. The rigidity of the justified column, the paucity of tonal range in the illustrations, the lack of typographical variation, these conspire to prevent an enlightened opening up of the field as experience. The Observation sections that occur at intervals throughout the substantive text somehow sink beneath the earnest demands of the competing philosophy’s and thereby fail as a strategy to refloat the reader's enthusiasm to persevere. The monograph would, however, be admirable as a kind of 'field-guide' to an exhibition of the works glimpsed here – perhaps a website could have helped? The bibliography is substantial, though few from the provisional areas of conference and journal, a source I would have expected more suited to the ideas of contingency advanced here.

The photographs of drawings, visual constructions and found objects are artworks that like the Observations, act as counterpoint to the justified text. They (naturally) remain enigmatic: the farm gate – is it symbolic of the act of opening and passing through? Or does the image recall our moments of heightened awareness, triggered by encountering a man-made object 'in the wild'? Either will do. Or maybe it's simply non-linguistic, ineffable.

Last Updated 1st April 2013

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