Figure and ground

Our culture is obsessed with content, the words and pictures that form the narrative of most thought, conversation and daily life. Argument, rhetoric, reports, articles, columns, news, blogs, tweets and posts are all part of our obsession with content, an endless stream of abstracted opinion with which to agree, disagree or to ignore.

Overall, this content forms the “figure,” or what we might call the identity of social reality; it is analogous to ego-self, the story line that the identity of “who we are” is a continuous “solid” entity moment to moment. Our obsession with content reflects our obsession with ego-self.

At the same time, all this “figuring” of self and content occurs within a larger environment, the forces and social forms within which we work and interact, namely the “ground.” Ground is context, both visible and hidden. It is comprised of both the physical world and the metaphysical world, respectively Laws of Nature and Laws of Culture, neither of which can we escape. Notably, the very concept of the figure/ground dynamic is a product of our dualistic human mind-of-separation; in nature, there is no figure, only ground.

Laws of Nature can be seen, felt and understood; gravity, sunlight, heat, cold, wet, dry and so forth. We arose as beings within the Laws of Nature, and they comprise the physical ground upon which we stand. Laws of Culture, products of our symbolic imagination, are more difficult to see and understand and include complicated and varied rules of conduct, subconscious drives and impulses, social systems of hierarchal control and so forth. Laws of Culture ground our thoughts and actions as substantially as Laws of Nature; we regard them as completely real and live and work within and upon them.

We speak of the need to be “grounded” in recognition that the dualistically split-off figure of ego-self is capable of losing connection to ground, and will even go so far as to attempt to establish itself as “ground.” This behavior is what we diagnose as narcissistic personality disorder and socio-pathology. When most extreme, the complete psychological reversal of figure/ground is called insanity. Yet the exploration and tension of the relationship of ego-self and society – the figure/ground dynamic – fuels all creative expression. Within our dualistic framework, figural freedom of autonomous ego-self and the constraining bound quality of ground together comprise actor and stage in the non-stop fluctuating performance of life itself.

Despite our obsession with figure/content, ground/context is the key to understanding; ground is the “under” upon which we “stand.” To “under-stand,” we must employ ego-self and intentionally “step out” of ego-self to reestablish awareness of ground, acknowledge underlying context and retrieve the dynamic unity of figure/ground. In a natural disaster this process is a function of percept rather than concept; as water rises we automatically seek refuge on higher ground, leaving the unnecessary artifacts of accumulated ego-self, like vanity, behind. However, within the Laws of Culture, situations get complicated quickly, and staying grounded – which is to say maintaining contextual understanding – is not so easy. It’s easier to argue and hold opinions.

Given the reality-splitting imaginative power of ego-self it figures that content gets all the airtime and attention, but when it comes to staying grounded, understanding context is king.

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