Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Defamiliarization of a Saturday Morning

This morning, with a brightening glow from my right I looked up from my newspaper to see a fog of falling snow across the yard, neighbouring street, and rooftops below. The unplanned and surprising sight had taken me back, contrasted all the more by the warm mug in my hand and the comfortable cozy temperature of the dining room I was sitting in. The snowflakes dominated the air, making it a mere medium for them to densely fill in.

I was struck by this awareness, not of the snow, but of the snow making what was previously ordinary into something extraordinary. Where when I woke up this morning the space around me and my home was nothing, that the few things that I considered as existing outside my door were the things I could see, from the grass to the concrete to the homes of neighbours. The unexpected arrival of snow did add to that list the falling particles of ice, but more importantly, in fluttering down to earth, moved by gravity and wind, the snow showed what was there all along, air.

The snow inspired a change of perception, it offered a difference which gave substance and importance  to something which I had gradually over time perceived to lack it. These snowflakes, and what they motivated within, reminded me of what a professor had once claimed to be the goal of poetry and indeed of all art; that the purpose is not to replicate reality, but to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way.

Whether it be subtle in a landscape portrait with slightly brighter hues on a lone tree far from the forest or more obvious in a poem that shines light on the pain of love, the defamiliarization, the taking of the familiar and making it unfamiliar allows the perceiver to understand the content better, or perhaps just to understand it at all.

And as I sat there looking at the cold delicate crystals give substance to the sky, I realized why defamiliarization, why looking at things differently is so important and that is because we make things important.

Without people, without humankind the world, the universe has no value, no importance within, as such attributes are created solely from our perspectives. With us placing importance on some things and placing less on others, we prosper individually, socially, and as a species. We do not merely react like a simple organism would but instead we pursue objects based on their value to our survival and success. Things that are less valuable are pushed to the side and ignored allowing us to focus on the things at hand, like innovation and advancement.

Without this ability to value things, to place importance on them, humans could not perform simple tasks and perhaps would be doomed as a species. If humans saw everything as equally valuable or equally valueless, we would have died long ago by eating rocks, or be less successful today by previous dedication completely to hunting and gathering.

Everything in the universe has no value, it is only us who impose value on that which is around us. This ability to differentiate between importance and non-importance, between things that are valuable and things that are less so, is what enables our species to act and to prosper.

Defamiliarization or looking at the familiar in an unfamiliar way is important because it inherently changes how we view the world,  and makes us reassess what is important or whether things are as important as they should be or shouldn't be.

Truly, defamiliarization is the success of our species, that it is one thing to hold values, another to be able to change them. Defamiliarization provides us with insight on whether we need to change our values, just as our values provide us insight on whether we need to change the world. Without defamiliarization, wthout our ability to see what we think is important and what isn't, our ability to value things would be as valueless as the world without us in it.

And all this from snowflakes.

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