Elaine Mayes



Analysis by Christopher Frederick



Department Chair of the Tisch Photography Program and Executive Director of the American Photography Institute, Elaine Mayes, concluded the lecture series for the 1999 National Graduate Seminar. Mayes acknowledged the multitude of ideas and opinions offered throughout the seminar. In hopes of unifying or making sense of this multitude, she summarized ideas about postmodernity from Ken Wilber's One Taste. Mayes passed out a sheet of terms to each audience member which described Wilber's notion of postmodernity and his system of worldviews in which humans interpret the world. Both Mayes and Wilber seem critical of post modernity, yet hope to glean some positive concepts from its theory. Wilber notes that postmodern theorists emphasize the construct of culture, which alludes to our ability to shape culture rather than be its victim. He also credits postmodern theory with enforcing the notion of meaning being context dependent, without any one context having privilege over another. Despite these positives, Wilber tends to view post modernity as narcissistic nihilism trapped in an existential worldview, ‘headed eventually for self strangulation.’ Wilber offers a differing world-view that incorporates paradox and spirituality for a ‘transpersonal’ understanding of the world, which goes beyond the personal and the individual. While Wilber poignantly notes that Postmodern theory tends to eliminate all notion of universal truth except its own truth and that there is no singular truth, he fails to see the logic behind this paradox and instead creates yet another hierarchy of how to view the world.

When the audience questioned Mayes about Wilber's transpersonal world-view, she said that she couldn't explain it, that it was a leap of faith. The danger of presenting any cultural theory, spiritually based or not, as necessitating a leap of faith in order to understand it is that such a presentation generates elitism. Either the receiver of the theory gets the privilege of knowledge, or must suffer due to an inability to contrive faith. This leap of faith prerequisite contradicts Wilber's hopes of not privileging any one context for understanding over another. Those who have faith are deeper than those who do not. However, taking a leap of faith is no big deal. We do it every day. We have faith that the elevator cable won't snap, that our electricity will still be on, and if not, can be easily fixed. We even have faith that we are communicating. Such faith allows us to function in our world. The problem many of Mayes' audience members had in her request for a leap of faith, was that this leap was to fill in for insufficient explanation of Wilber's theories. While Mayes confronted the audience with the challenge to construct our culture rather than practice the intellectual skill of deconstruction, her spiritual bent put off those who were already critical about talk of spirituality filling in for thoroughness and detail in communication.


Elaine Mayes Responds:


Insofar as Christopher Frederick's position represents a logical outcome of reason as applied to our cultural situation, for the most part it indeed represents a valid analysis. However, to the extent that it denies the possibility of transcendent experience beyond the rational with charges of elitism, it in itself represents an elitist position.

To say that Wilber "fails to see the logic behind this paradox" misses the point: the extreme postmodern position is not paradoxical, it is self-contradictory. In being critical of the Postmodernists, Wilber is referring only to the extremists. It also is a misunderstanding to criticize Wilber for unwittingly establishing a hierarchy since Wilber argues over and over that hierarchic organization is unavoidable both in nature and in thought, and that it is important to distinguish between natural (objective) and pathological (arbitrary) hierarchies.

Wilber's idea does require a transrational experience for validation, and it is true that this validity can't be transmitted via logical discourse. However, in his writings he adheres to a logical form. Unfortunately, my presentation was to last just thirty minutes, and delving into Wilber more thoroughly would have taken more time. By 'leap of faith' I did not mean

to suggest an act of mystical acrobatics, just an imaginative effort to try on for size a worldview that isn't embraced by the currently fashionable philosophy. In objecting to the 'leap of faith' formulation (and construing it as elitist) Frederick is refusing to consider the possibility that there are indeed transrational and transpersonal perspectives.

Wilber suggests that all positions are exclusive, and therefore all are valid in a partial, particular way, that they all have a place within larger more inclusive systems. So, as I understand Wilber, recognizing the relative validity of worldviews that are different from one's own (without necessarily embracing them) is the logical thing to do.

The rational worldview is an indispensable part of our lives. However, it doesn't encompass our entire experience. The content of my presentation was chosen precisely because rationalism is such a dominant worldview and holds more power than others at this time in our culture. As an artist and teacher I find it crucial to challenge all assumptions. I wanted to communicate this idea to the seminar group as essential to attaining authenticity and fullness in each person's creative endeavors.