Philosophy  •  February 18, 2003

Illusion of Stability

To unite is to stabilize. To divide is to destabilize. But these forces are one and the same. Because every unity is artificial, it necessitates division whenever the artificial imposition of unity contradicts reality.

A unity is formed for the sake of presumed similarities. Religion, for instance, is a constant force that unites and divides. Initially Christians were able to stay united as one, but the forces of differences within, divided them. Today we have countless divisions within Christianity. Even if we took a small church as an example, we would find divisions within it as well. Eventually we find that each individual is unique, that any similarities we see are illusionary, and that the way they are divided is constantly shifting. In the end, the act of defining differences and similarities become futile because differences cannot be defined without similarities, and vice versa.

Thus, unity is a product of practicality, not of reality. In other words, it is nothing more than a practical compromise. When this product of practically is imposed on reality as if these presumed similarities exist inherently in reality, the counter forces arise to address the discrepancies between the forced similarities and the reality. In this manner, the forces of unity and division are constantly at play. When you criticize division, you are inherently criticizing unity, and vice versa.

To unite, we need to find a fixed center. This fixed center is imaginary. A variety of things can be a center: an ideal such as Christianity, Judaism, communism, and democracy, or a person such as a politician, a spiritual guru, a rock star, and a philosopher, or an institution such as Academy Awards, Museum of Modern Art, New York Times, and MTV. These centers and their elements together form a unity of stability.

The job of an art director in an advertising agency, for instance, is not so much about knowing what is good and bad, as it is about acting as a center to stabilize the otherwise chaotic world of subjectivity. If someone can confidently say something is good, that confidence alone has value regardless of his correctness, because it has the practical purpose of stabilizing the situation. Imagine a situation where everyone says, “I don’t know about you, but I personally like it.” Nothing will ever be resolved. If someone has a certain credential (It doesn’t even matter if it means anything.), and is willing to state in absolute terms whether it is good or bad, then others can stabilize the situation by fixing him as the center. The value lies in the fact that the issue was resolved, rather than in whether it was right or wrong.

Museum of Modern Art plays a significant role as a stabilizer in the art world. Contemporary art is especially elusive and subjective, and it craves for a fixed center. The more elusive and subjective a field is, the more it needs a fixed center to stabilize. Art criticism flourished in the 20th century because of its power as a stabilizing center. Most modern artists play within this structure of a center and its elements.

For our spiritual stability we seek a center in gurus, counselors, teachers, religious figures, or even rock stars. When we are unstable spiritually, we feel like a floating cork in the ocean, aimlessly getting pushed around by the waves. We despair over our failure to impose our own will on reality. We want to control where we are going and ultimately where we are staying. When we see a buoy, we are instantly attracted to its apparent stability. We want to use it as a fixed center to stabilize ourselves. So we hold on to it. Sadly, sooner or later, we realize that the buoy is not anchored to anything either. We then look for some other buoy that seems to be more stable, only to find that it too is floating like everything else.

Whether it is between art director and designers, New York Times and its readers, or Museum of Modern Art and fine artists, this imaginary structure of a center and its elements is mutually dependent. We commonly perceive the center to be the stabilizing force for its elements, but it goes the other way around as well; the center too depend on its elements for its stability. A spiritual guru needs his followers. MoMA needs artists to give it a certain amount of authority by being its elements. New York Times needs its readers to give it a certain amount of credibility to be successful.

Ultimately this imaginary structure stems from the schism of our perception between the world and the “I”. This schism is what allows all differences and similarities to be perceived. It seduces us to define what this “I” is, but it is impossible to define what it is without defining what the world is. That is, the “I” is what the world is not. Every time our definition of the world changes, our conceptions of who we are change, and vice versa. This schism is, like everything else, a binary pair that is dynamically and constantly shifting like a yin and yang symbol. It makes us play the game of stabilizing and destabilizing. And, it unnecessarily causes us to struggle and suffer.

In order to stabilize the “I”, we must stabilize the world, but this battle is destined to fail. The problem lies not in the instability of the relationship between the world and the “I”, but in the schism itself. Since one can be defined only by the mutual exclusivity of the other, the difference exists and does not exist at the same time. The Zen expression, “All is one,” is quite true in this sense.