Jessica Helfand | Essays

Mind the Light, Light the Mind

I was driving in the car recently when one of my children asked me to explain Quakerism. (A propos of what, now, I can't recall, though a similarly unprovoked opening conversational gambit came several days earlier, when the same child asked me to explain capital punishment.) And so I began, primer-style, to describe the basic rudiments of the Quaker belief system: a commitment to community service, a shared sense of pacifism and religious tolerance, and a culture that supports what I, personally, have always felt to be a quintessentially democratic form of worship.

As I began to describe Meeting for Worship — where one sits in silence for some period of time, in a large room with any number of other congregants, and where one stands to speak, on virtually any topic, when moved to do so — I realized that this presented a compelling metaphor for blogging.

A stretch, perhaps, but bear with me. There is, of course, a "when a tree falls in the forest" feeling to all web activity. (Quite simply, if you never turn the computer on, you'll never know what's waiting there for you to read or respond to.) A weblog is a destination for shared interests, which largely exists in silence but which is activated by posts: the online equivalent of a congregant standing and speaking on the topic of his or her choice. Bloggers can express themselves in a number of ways: from contrary to confessional, indifferent to impassioned. (In Meeting I have see participants laugh, cry, yell, recite poetry, share intimacies and recall the loopy logic of prescient dreams.)

James Turrell's Meetinghouse in Houston, Texas, followed a piece he did at PS1 called "Meeting" which was a sort of schematic sculpture — a four-square seating arrangement recalling the "open square" seating plan of most Meetinghouses, a space which creates a kind of shared silence. For Turrell, as in much of his work, it is all about light. But this is not mere coincidence: if his Meetinghouse celebrates the intersection between the light of the space you're in with the light of the sky above, it is really an extension of a much more critical intersection between inside and outside. Seen literally, it is all about light and space. Seen figuratively, it is all about mind and matter: in an interview with Turrell, himself a Quaker, he recalls his first experiences going to Meeting and quotes George Fox, the seventeenth-century founder of Quakerism, who resisted the hierarchical strictures of formal religion believing, instead, that God resided in everyone. "Mind the light," Fox's famous adage, might be said to characterize all of Turrell's work.

Blogging is, by all indications, a more provocative venue for expression, and I am not suggesting that our worship of technology has replaced a deeper, more abiding God. Indeed, I am not talking about God at all, but rather, the similarity in behavior between blogging and Meeting, between democratic forms of expression and the self-reflection which invariably accompanies them. Just that as we sit, in virtual congregation, illuminated by the back-lit monitors that constitute our own open-square communities, the pacifism and tolerance and freedoms of expression espoused by Fox and his descendants might be worth keeping in mind.

In the meantime, those of us who feel moved to stand and speak, or post and blog, might consider doing both. Blogging's not a religion, but as a community-building forum for expression and reflection, Turrell's "skyspace" in Houston offers a compelling model for rethinking inside versus outside, discussion versus dissent, me versus you.

Mind the light. And while we're at it, let's light the mind.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Technology

Comments [5]

So it's been said.

Thank you for sharing this, and I hope readers will hop over to the peterme archives and read some of what others have written, reflecting upon this idea of silence as it relates to the culture of blogging.
Jessica Helfand

Or, as George Simpson put it in his New Year's Eve predictions for 2004 on the MediaPost website, "At 3:09 (EST) on June 14th, blogging comes to an abrupt end when the last person writes the last thing they can think of. The sun comes up as usual on June 15th."
Michael Bierut

No worries.

In particular, I'm partial to Adam Greenfield's response.

Thanks for posting this... I'm another zen practitioner checking in on silence. My first teacher practiced for a long time with Quakers because they were the only group in her area that found the same value in sitting still and contemplating.

Do you see other connections within the arena of design? (I'm loosely including blogs in design since they are a medium visually organized for immediate communication.)

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