At the end of a meal in a Pakistani Restaurant in Washington, D.C. with two of my oldest friends, our server flipped my empty coffee cup over to coax impressions of my future from the lingering grounds. When she returned a few minutes later and righted the cup, I saw that the dark flecks rose up the side of the cup in a steep parabola from a fecund layer at the bottom, similar to the shadow water might cast when interrupted by a drop. Turning the cup to catch the dim house lights, the server claimed that she saw “a wolf; look here,” she pointed, “a wolf’s ears and teeth, under this, which might be the moon.” Satisfied with her performance, she set the cup down and brought us our check
I had little doubt that her theatrics were intended to encourage a friendly tip from one as clearly parsimonious as I, and maybe titillate us with the hint of a Roma mysticism carried quietly from the high, mountain passes of human memory where time intersects both the sky and the liminality of political hegemony—India melting like wet tea into the guise of Pakistan and Pakistan wafting through colored cornmeal into the tint of India. The difference, or the bhedabhav, is revealed in subtle inflections that define the slightest lilt in ancient traditions, traditions that have become the foundation for decades of divisiveness. And such difference, in the case of the server’s decision to read my future in the wet, shattered beans, creates the tension—the cognitive dissonance—out of which meaning is made: my inner sense has only a fleeting relationship to the sense others have of me and a purely mystico-mathematical relationship to the emotional nexus that will define my future consciousness. Without wading too deeply into this conundrum, our constant effort to define ourselves into a relation with reality and some comforting truth is exhausting and likely one of the main reasons our brains, by simply being “turned on,” use so many calories.
While I was struck by the good nature of our server’s performance, I was also drawn to her impulse , which I assume rumbles around in most of us, to pull meaning from the apparently meaningless, find purpose in the non-mimetic, and joy in the wreckage of social associations. The open field engages the imagination, having no clear boundary or imposed framework to either confuse or impose. Our reaction to the blank page or empty canvas is in part a response to our need to stifle the anxiety such uncertainty can cause. In negotiation the discomfort caused by this unresolved tension, we construct boundaries complete with border guards and related defense mechanisms creating a region that we can reasonably control. Few, if we are honest, can abide what Keats referred to as the “negative capability,” which in general denotes an ability to accept and appreciate uncertainty without always, as he says, “reaching after fact and reason.” This capability is illustrated in a child’s behavior, as she transforms her stuffed animals into a chorus participating in her performance or draws a scene in which she freely associating disparate images, creating, for her at least, a coherent narrative. She simply does not feel compelled to explain her story in what adults assume are reasonable terms.
In an effort to open the field and engage my imagination, and perhaps uncover the insight reflected in a child’s play, I took the coffee grounds remaining at the bottom of my French press and dumped them on a canvas board. After letting the mess dry (see figure 1), I used chalk pastels to encourage an image from the (let’s call it) cosmic accident (see figure 2).
As one of my employees noted, the raw grounds resemble fallopian tubes with the offal attached to them. Unlike her, my initial impression was that the dollop resembled a chain of islands with a series of coves and a boundary of coral reefs. The problem with these initial impressions is that they are attempts to create meaning, to make sense out of the senseless. What I sought, however, in the pastel reconstruction of the image was to innervate, if you will, the meaninglessness of the image. Yet what some claim when viewing modernist paintings, such as cubist works, might relate here: colors and shapes are words that when combined create a discernible syntax, even if that syntax does not describe an actual image. Because of this syntax, the painting can be read, deconstructed, and enjoyed as a cultural artifact. However, that reading experience might be analogous to the feeling one has reading Gertrude Stein, who believed words were objects and need not convey conventional meaning to remain meaning-ful. Her book Tender Buttons, a collection of prose pieces divided into “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms,” illustrates her cubist sensibility:
CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Stein’s “Carafe” cannot, or probably should not, be explained, but it can be interpreted, just as a cubist painting can. The distinction relates to that Bruno Latour makes in his analysis of how we might “reassemble the social.” In his explanation, he claims that the term “social” loses its usefulness when it becomes an institution use to identify static relationships. For example, for centuries the idea of the family has remained seeming static; however, upon closer observation, we see that the concept has always been in flux. Everyone who cares enough to think about this shrugs at this obvious observation. Yet what it reveals is that each time we identify a social category we “always already” know the category contains no content, has no source. For this reason, Latour argues that it is better to forgo this misguided process and examine social structures as a set of shifting negations conducted in time and space, which may or may not designate a social structure.
I understand the distinction between an explanation and an interpretation in similar terms. An explanation often relies on an established understanding. A family is a “family” because it fits a predetermined framework that object social meaning. Conversely, an interpretation requires one to draw connections between moments in experience. In this case, the family is defined by those moments that can be connected, and reconnected, to create the object, really a cubist image, that transforms over time. The process of transformation is, in my way of thinking, how the social Latour discusses related to the traditions, to be brief, that help define a culture. In Stein’s case, then, Tender Buttons frustrates assertions about meaning yet remains emotionally satisfying. In particular, as you read “Carafe” certain phrases erupt from the text, such as “a system to pointing” or “a single hurt color,” conveying the potentiality of experience and the emotional realities associated with it. In other words, readers can suspend Stein’s phrases and observe them as we might an experience, becoming meaningful as we associate them with our own patterns of experience. These phrases are objects, satisfying in their own materiality, which seems more organic because the meaning is not and need not be settled.
In creating the pastel, I sought to make associations, denying the urge to make something, allowing one impression to carry me from line to shape with the hope that I might feel something about the piece when finished. However, unlike mere decorative art, circles and squares used to supplement the color of furniture and upholstery, I wanted to encourage the hybrid, pulling something from the world, the coffee grounds, and using their application in space to drive the creation of an image that is not, necessarily, purposeful or associative.
I found the result, while no doubt amateurish, satisfying. Standing it on the edge of my kitchen table, some tableau in that, I feel a tension in the relation of complementing hues and butting shapes. The inherent motion suggests a process as one instance of image, a circle or curve, engages with another. I am not sure about the overall effect of this beyond an apparent theme of engagement, which I think is encouraging. Examining the piece, I really have no desire to know it—the way one ex-girlfriend use to claim she “knew” Beethoven. The posturing toward sense is relieved and this piece can be as little or as much as my imagination or that of other viewers will allow. The curiosity is that accepting this ambiguity actually reduces my anxiety; I am fine letting the work wander.
 If you teach, try this experiment. On the first day of class give every student a blank sheet of paper and tell them to write something, then either sit down or leave the room (you could also do the exercise with your students; however, part of the point of the exercise is to avoid providing an external framework). After 15 to 30 minutes return and ask the students to share what they wrote. You may find that many of the responses reflect expectations students have about higher education: they feel compelled to write something that sounds academic. Others, who have come to believe that education is some type of put-on, will dissent from what they perceive as the dominate ideology of the institution: “If you think I care about you or writing, let me show you that I don’t.” In these cases, I find it interesting to consider what the responses suggest about student interests. Thirdly, to succumb to that Western impulse for threes, students may respond to the open field aesthetically, addressing figuratively either of the other response.