25 February 2007

Morphological Analysis

Earthen-Oven Pita and Sliced Supermarket Bread

In 1969, I submitted my research on the psychology of aesthetic experience in art and science to my interdisciplinary doctoral committee at NYU: Prabha Sahasrabudhe, art education professor, Janice Gorn, psychology professor, and Morris Shamos, physics professor and president of the National Academy of Sciences. A week after having earned my doctorate, I was on an El Al plane to Israel with my wife and our three children to accept a teaching and research position at Tel Aviv University. Except for a week in Holland two years earlier, this was my first trip abroad.

We rented a cottage set in an orange grove in a small town north of Tel Aviv. Our new neighbor’s young daughter, Zahava, came to our door welcoming us with two large pita-like breads, one in each hand. They were still warm and surrounded by the welcoming aroma of fresh-baked bread. Our neighbors were Yemenite Jews who had ascended to Israel from the tip of the Arabian Peninsula a decade earlier. Having returned to their biblical homeland, they continued to bake flat round bread in a wood-burning, underground oven dug in their back yard as they had done in Yemen. Jews had lived in Yemen for nearly two thousand years in a style of life that changed little from biblical times.

I was struck by the contrast between the whole, two-dimensional, circular breads that Zahava brought us, and the supermarket bread that I had been used to buying on Long Island. Supermarket bread is a three-dimensional, rectilinear, cold, white loaf fragmented into slices and kept at a distance from the consumer by a sealed plastic wrapper that cuts off olfactory and tactile contact. This quick lesson in the morphological analysis of visual culture became the core of my research, curriculum development, and teaching at Tel Aviv University. I realized that the morphology of pre-industrial mythological cultures is shaped by two-dimensional, undifferentiated, circular space, and cyclical time as symbolized by pita-like breads. On the other hand, three-dimensional rectilinear space and linear time sliced into discrete units is symbolized by the supermarket bread of industrial logical culture.

I asked myself, “How will my children, fourth-generation American Jews of European background, and Zahava’s siblings build a common future?” In studying the Israeli educational system and visiting schools throughout the country, I learned of the significant gap in achievement between children from European backgrounds and those from Islamic lands. The school system was created by educators from industrial Europe to develop a logical structure of consciousness which was alien to children from pre-industrial lands with a mythological structure of consciousness. It was easy to understand the failure of those children in an unfamiliar, foreign learning environment. It was made ever easier to understand this problem when I passed by my neighbor’s house coming home from my day at the university. Zahava’s father was sitting on his porch reading a newspaper that he was holding upside-down. “Shmuel,” I asked, “why are you reading upside-down?” “It’s more comfortable for me that way,” answered Shmuel who went on to explain how he had learned to read sitting on carpets with other children around a hand-written scroll. His regular place was sitting at the top of the scroll. Therefore, he learned to read upside-down. When I joined him in his synagogue on the Sabbath, some men sat around the room against the four walls while others sat around the reader’s platform with their backs to him as he chanted words that he read from a scroll. In sharp contrast, the typical American synagogue that I knew had seating in rows all facing in the same direction like the classrooms in Israeli schools.

In Shmuel’s world of mythological perspective, people experience an auditory world listening to the retelling of the oral tradition – their communal mythology as handed down to them by word of mouth. They sit as a community surrounded by a sphere of sound. The auditory experience of space is encircling, involving, and soft-edged. Time is felt as cyclical and pulsating. The nature of the auditory experience is derived from the physics of sound. Sound generated in air produces spherical waves that surround the point of origin and engulf anyone within its sphere. A cross-section of a sound-sphere would appear like the concentric circles that surround a pebble when it is tossed in a pond. When people sit within a sound-sphere of pulsating air, they cannot help hearing the message. They feel that sound surrounds them and involves them. They can neither turn away from it nor close their ears to it. Ears have no anatomical analogues to eyelids. Unlike the visual world where light sources can be accurately pinpointed, the auditory world is soft and fuzzy at both its core and edges. In the logical world of European culture shaped by the single-point Hellenistic perspective revived in the Renaissance, one gets to know the world visually, from rays of light traveling to one’s eyes in straight lines from definite points in Euclidean space. Ecological perspective derives from a kinesthetic integration of auditory and visual senses in experiencing dynamic interrelationships between parts of a whole that are more than the sum of its parts. Space and time are unified in a four-dimensional world of events experienced through movement and interaction expressed in art through lively narratives.

I realized that the attempts to acculturate the mythological Jews in schools whose aim was to develop a logical structure of consciousness was foolhardy at a time when the logical structure of the industrial age had no future. I proposed that both the auditory mythological and visual logical minds can meet in a new shared multi-sense ecological structure evolving in a post-industrial electronic era. My research revealed that not only did both the mythological and logical Jews need to develop an ecological perspective to succeed in the electronic future together, but they also shared a past with a common deep structure of Jewish consciousness which is an ecological structure that creates an integral worldview. The ecological structure of Jewish consciousness remained embedded as a deep structure during the Jews’ centuries in Islamic lands when a mythological perspective was plastered on. European Jews, too, had their ecological structure of consciousness and integral worldview distorted by the overpowering logical perspective of a Western culture shaped by Hellenism.

My research on the morphologies of mythological, logical, and ecological structures of consciousness that are revealed through space-time structures of visual culture formed the theoretical basis for my curriculum project, “From Science to Art.” Beyond the theoretic underpinnings of the project, morphological analysis of natural and cultural systems became the subject matter of the curriculum aimed at bridging the gap between mythological and logical youth by stimulating their interdisciplinary imagination and developing their ecological perspective. The “From Science to Art” curriculum project had parallel explicit and implicit morphological aims.

Although I began this curriculum project in 1969, it is even more vital today in our era of globalization and intercultural conflict to educate artists in morphological analysis of visual culture. After all, artists have always shaped worldview by their perspective inventions. Renaissance artists renewed the Greek logical perspective by visually representing three-dimensional space from a single point of view and time as a cross-section of a one-way linear path. Most people in the industrialized world continue to see the world through the eyes of these Renaissance artists. Most third world people, however, continue to see their world through a mythological perspective of two-dimensional space and cyclical time. Artists today are once again reshaping humanity’s worldview by inventing art of ecological perspective and integral consciousness in a multi-dimensional space-time continuum.

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