CONVERGING LINES, March in the South Wallowas, Oregon . . .
On the road in the American Northwest. [ click photo for next . . . ]
ON THE TEMPO OF PERCEPTION
Human perception, it seems to me, is inextricably
intertwined with the speed or tempo of the human
heart beat or pulse. In turn, the pulse conditions our
sense of motion in bipedal movement or walking. If we
take 60 beats per minute as the mean, or center, or
reference point, then its doubling of 120 is fast, while
its halving of 30 is slow.
So there are but two central octaves or doublings
of tempo: 30 to 60, and 60 to 120.* These together
form what we might think of as a kind of perceptual
Of great significance in human creative endeavor is
the manner in which this basic framework or temporal
measure is then further subdivided and refined, yielding
a richness and subtlety without limit. For example, the
classical musics of every world culture have all developed
and explored this same, common, temporal tree, each
in their own unique but at the same time interrelated way.
So what I'm suggesting is in a way, up to this point,
self-evident and obvious: that the roots of this great
temporal tree are found in the tempo of the pulse, the
natural speed or tempo of walking, and, indeed, other
human movement of every description and kind. Taken
together, they form a kind of central measure of
My next contention, however, is less obvious: that this
center of perception has been shattered or corrupted by
the very different pulse of machines. In other words, as
you step behind the wheel of your admittedly in some
ways sophisticated automobile, I'm saying that, instead
of the car giving you vastly stronger and faster feet
and legs, it is really the other way around: you are
providing the car with eyes. What you see is what the
car would see and not a normal, sensitive, intelligent,
aware of his or her environment, human being.
My argument in its simplest form is this: each species
of machine has its own characteristic measure. This
measure is then superimposed by force on the very
different measure of human perception. The mechanism
involved is not complicated. We become conditioned
and habituated to the imposed mechanical measure.
We also come very quickly to tacitly assume that it is
not just the only natural way of seeing things, but what
is more, we actually come to crave it. This is because
of the way, especially as in the case of the automobile,
it has not only been culturally sanctioned but also held
up as a universally understood symbol of social status
and power. In other words, the car has become an end
in itself, and embodies, as it were, through us. With time,
we are no longer aware of any difference. So the 'seeing'
or timeframe or measure of the machine comes to in a
large part replace our own.
Let me conclude my argument with the question: how
might we test what I am saying? That presents us with
something of a conundrum. There is the logic of it, of
course, which admittedly may or may not be sound.
But just as importantly, there is the experiential aspect.
One has to make the test of giving up mechanized
movement, at least for a while, simply to see what
happens. I have come to think of this as the "What if?"
of doing without. What will happen if I don't drive?
The first logical inspection is very much a part of our
great Socratic tradition in the West. The second
experiential part is not. That might just be why we
are, I think, stuck in a self-destructive view of the
world, the workings of which remain unintentionally
largely outside of our field of critical vision.
* Obviously, the absolute number of 60 beats per minute should
be seen as a relative approximation chosen for the sake of clarity;
it can easily slide up or down. Also, the two primary octaves have
their implied extensional extremes of 15 to 30, and 120 to 240,
representing respectively very fast and very slow.
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Little Eagle Meadows,
Eagle Cap Wilderness
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