What We See and What We Know
In the end, the “thing-in-itself” is rarely what is most significant. Rather, it’s the connections and the in-betweens that make it all tangible.
How does one become who one is? According to Friedrich Nietzsche it’s the little things: nutrient, place, climate, recreation, “the whole casuistry of selfishness” that are among the elements of greatest importance when asking ourselves this question.
I was born in Finnish Lapland in 1995: a dry, arctic climate where the sun never sets during summer, and does not rise in winter. The air is always fresh, even through July’s heatwaves — and the ever-present vastness of nature is impossible to ignore. Growing up, I ate lots of potatoes, fish, reindeer, berries, and root vegetables — rarely ever in a restaurant, unless it was a burger! I liked to play and run outside, read, write, and daydream in places that I pretended were my very own.
In addition to the natural ecosystem in which I’ve taken part, a million different elements have played a role in shaping my existence. It would be an impossible task to trace back to all the micro-moments, conversations, thoughts, discoveries, and experiences that made me become who I am — and frankly it’s not something I’d be particularly interested in either. What matters more is how we relate with memory, that is to say how we look back to understand our history and retroactively give meaning and context to our lives.
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Take Proust’s madeleine. In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust paints a picture of memory and association early on in the book, when a mouthful of “those short, plump little cakes…which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell” unlocks the protagonist’s memory of his aunt Leonie who on Sunday mornings would feed him “a little crumb of madeleine… dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea.” It wasn’t the pastry that was significant per se, but the associations connected with it. Similarly, the isolated fact of any given element — the midnight sun beaming above the horizon — alone will be nothing more than a natural phenomenon. However, as a symbol of my childhood midsummers, carrying a world of involuntary memories and associations, that glimmer of light suddenly transforms into more than the sum of its parts. Both for me as the protagonist of my own life, but also given the right context, for the spectator looking in.
Because of my job, I am often asked to describe who I am and how I got here. This repeated dialogue has given me the opportunity to reflect properly on my “nodes”: the most significant “events” that have shaped me to become who I am. The (simplified) answer looks something more or less like this.
Of course this is a representation of ideas, experiences, and associations from a very specific point of view: me as an entrepreneur, building a knowledge technology company, with the objective to increase collective intelligence in order to mitigate existential risk. I am examining my life retroactively, looking through a very specific lens — retrieving memories and making connections based off of this particular perspective. Perhaps in a different context when asked the same question, say a writers’ residency in the south of Chile where I’ve decided to go and explore a more artistic side of myself, the map would appear differently. Instead of referencing so many professional events, maybe I would choose to include moments that made me feel the most alive — experiences that reached the essence of my being!
The way we see things is always affected by what we know or believe. Nietzsche said something else fitting to this: “Ultimately no one can extract from things, books included, more than he already knows. What one has no access through experience one has no ear for.” At first, this may sound counterintuitive with my argument, but I believe it is the opposite. We all live one-of-a-kind lives with a unique set of experiences, and therefore the way we interact with the world is always somewhat different. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a vast amount of overlap, and I think it is exactly this dichotomy that makes life so wonderful. When we expose more of the web (the connections, associations, and representations), we enable a greater amount of opportunities for people to relate and discover new perspectives.
Take my midnight sun as an example. For me, it’s associated with memories of Lapland, my adolescent years, Dan Brown’s Inferno, my grandfather, loneliness, existential reflection, motivation, hope. Perhaps there is nothing about the isolated idea of the midnight sun that strikes you in any way, but the subtle combination of all these elements makes something click. The context opens a spectator’s mind to discover the complexity behind what she is seeing. In the end, the “thing-in-itself” is rarely what is most significant. Rather, it’s the connections and the in-betweens that make it all tangible.
In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Berger describes the relation between what we see and what we know, more precisely arguing that what we know impacts what we see (and vice versa). Talking about the ubiquitous abundance of images and their increasingly ephemeral, insubstantial, and available meaning, he says, “If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.”
This new language of images could be thought of as not just the images themselves, but perhaps the medium in which they are displayed and arranged. Deliberately exposing the connections and associations can act as a catalyst for this ‘new kind of power’. And when we look back to answer the question, ‘how does one become who one is?’, we can be liberated from the limitations of isolated representations. Let the in-betweens, associations, and the whole web of complexity and connections do the talking.