The Abstract Elephant Magazine publishes a wide range of disciplines and topics, as it is our basic belief that greater understanding comes from the integration of a variety of topics and disciplines. This interdisciplinary method will serve to place disparate pieces in conversation with each other, encouraging questions and sparking debate. Not only are we interested in exploring as many disciplines as possible, we are interested in exploring as many perspectives as possible. By promoting viewpoint diversity, we can tackle the entire gamut of what it means to be human.
Every discipline and topic shown on TAEM is intrinsically tied up with the human condition: each act as a small lens through which one very specific aspect of the human condition is analyzed, studied, and understood. Though each have merit individually, it is our belief that more truths regarding the vague “human condition” can be illuminated when very disparate genres, formats, or fields of study are analyzed together. As Hegel (and many others) have said, “it is impossible that one man can see everything.”
Some of these disciplines or fields seem to be more directly related to understanding the human condition than others. For instance, the academic disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and human development appear, on the outset, to be more intrinsically related to answering overarching questions of humanity than, say, mathematics or computer science. Others, like performative art or fiction writing are related in that they seek to illuminate truths about humanity, but through story-telling and creative expression, rather than direct academic analysis.
Each individual discipline is the theoretical lens used to analyze the human condition. For example, the discipline of biology claims that the human condition is best understood via genetics and evolution, which are biologically-driven features of life. On the other hand, the discipline of anthropology claims that the human condition is best understood via cultural mechanisms, since humans are primarily organized by culture.
Within educational institutions, academic disciplines are distinct for a reason: the more niche your intellectual curiosities, the more intimate your knowledge will be and, thus, the more you can affect change. However, The Abstract Elephant Magazine intends to take disparate disciplines, formats, genres, and mediums and force them to coexist side by side with the hope that we might advance the understanding of what it is to be human. We intend to facilitate the flow of ideas between different fields of study so that new discoveries can be made.
Although much of our understanding of the human condition comes from written documents, creative artifacts make significant contributions to how we view human nature and the human condition. A main purpose of artistic endeavors is to connect with and reflect on the human condition. While humans are capable of wonderful acts of altruism and service to others, there exists an equally compelling side that can commit horrific acts of violence and insensitivity to others. This dual nature of humans is expressed in many facets of art with an underlying assumption that the human condition reflects a human nature that acts from conscious and unconscious motives.
In providing various types of information on a given topic, we hope to encourage a sudden awareness similar to the “Aha!” moment: that moment of insight one experiences when the answer to a difficult question has been found. Recent research at Columbia University suggests that the relationship of the conscious and unconscious mind is similar to the ‘Aha!’ moment in that much of what is taking place in the brain is below consciousness. When this unconscious processing has reached a critical level, it bursts into consciousness with the overwhelming feeling that one has figured out the problem and now has greater understanding. This moment takes place because the unconscious mind continues to process the information, although there is no conscious awareness. The brain stops processing the information when it feels it has enough information. It is hoped that our interdisciplinary methodology will allow the brain to do what it does best.
Below, we’ll provide an example of our interdisciplinary methodology by introducing historically relevant writers, artists, and thinkers from our disciplines. TAEM‘s interdisciplinary approach intends to address the broad categories defined below, and everything included.
Human nature includes the fundamental dispositions, traits and characteristics (including ways of thinking, feeling and acting), which exist naturally in humans.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines human nature as theories about the nature of humankind, which arise in every culture. Theories on human nature deal with the intrinsically selfish or altruistic ways of humans, as well as with the problem of nature versus nurture: “which ostensibly fundamental human dispositions and traits are natural and which are the result of some form of learning or socialization? ” Human nature also addresses shared traits with other primates, regarding food, sex, security, play and social status. Language is understood to be “genetically enabled, though the acquisition of any specific language also requires appropriate environmental stimuli. ” Lastly, human nature touches on the behavioral differences between the sexes, noting that some of these seem to have a genetic basis (e.g. regarding aggression).
Human behavior is the response of individuals or of groups of people to both internal and external stimuli. Human behavior is a term that refers to the vast array of physical actions, as well as observable emotion reactions, that occurs in individuals and throughout the human race.
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines human behavior as, “the potential and expressed capacity for physical, mental, and social activity during the phases of human life.”
Humanity is defined as including all of the human race; all human beings collectively; or the quality or state of being human.
The phrase “human condition” is broad, vague, and is commonly used interchangeably with “human nature, ” “human behavior,” and “humanity” in popular discourse as well as in academic literature.
The human condition is an overarching concept that includes anything and everything pertaining to human nature, human behavior, and any and all features or characteristics of humanity. The human condition is commonly defined as, “the characteristics, experiences, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality. ” The human condition is, at its core, the state(s) that we find ourselves in, both individually and as a species.
TAEM‘s Interdisciplinary Methodology
All individuals discussed below have impactfully contributed to understanding the issues of the human condition.
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)
A well-known science fiction writer, Le Guin commonly incorporated the question of defining humanity as a primary theme in her writings. Her novels frequently challenged conventional modes of thinking. In “The Left Hand of Darkness,” published in 1969, she eliminated gender as a “thought experiment” intending to tackle the nature of modern human societies.
Often, Le Guin’s stories are organized around a search for balance between opposing forces. In “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia” (1974), two competing social organizations (i.e. a capitalist society that oppresses the underclass and a classless “utopia,” which is equally oppressive) are presented to the reader with the challenge of determining how to balance the pros and cons of each.
In “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Le Guin writes: “I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality….I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination….
“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.”
Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975)
Hannah Arendt is most famously known for her work, The Human Condition, a phenomenological analysis of three kinds of activity, which are fundamental to the human condition: labor, “which corresponds to the biological life of man as an animal; ” work, “which corresponds to the artificial world of objects that human beings build upon the earth; ” and action, “which corresponds to our plurality as distinct individuals ” (Arendt, The Human Condition, Second Edition, pg xxi).
On the one hand, Arendt’s work is one of modern political theory critiquing “traditional political philosophy’s misrepresentation of human activity.” On the other, it extends beyond that to address a dialectical contrast between the belief that — with the dawn of the space age and human beings’ ability to transcend nature — “everything is possible, ” and the fear that automated technologies and “ever more efficient production and consumption ” encourage us to think of ourselves as “merely an animal species governed by laws of nature of history, in the service of which individuals are entirely dispensable” (xxiii). According to Arendt, our use of technology and our political prowess make us both untouchable as a species and unessential as individuals.
Rene Magritte (1898 – 1967)
The art of Rene Magritte is extremely important in the genre of surrealism. One of his most noted works is titled “The Human Condition ” depicting a painting set in front of a window. The painting blends into the scene outside the window with such precision that at first notice one might miss it. This painting, like so many of Magritte paintings, requires that the observer must come to a new awareness of what is being observed. Since the painting and the scene beyond the window merge completely there is no sense of what is real from what is not. Viewing the painting and the scene from the window as the same yet not the same, symbolizes how one might disguise his true real self from an unconscious self of his own creation.
Another of Magritte’s well-known paintings reflects a similar view of reality that at first appears simple and direct, but on further scrutiny represents a profound perceptual conflict, namely the brown and black tobacco pipe with the inscription “Ceci n’est pas une pipe. ” The meaning is that one is not looking at a pipe, but the picture of a pipe. A major human problem is lacking the ability to understand what one observes from what is, in fact, real.
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
Called “the Picasso of our profession” by Jerry Seinfeld, Pryor was an American stand-up comedian, actor, and writer who revolutionized the genre of comedic performing art. Born in the pre-civil rights era and to a troubled childhood, Pryor faced racism on a daily basis in his hometown of Peroria, Illinois, as well as bullying and molestation. Later on in life, drug and women problems emerged as a consequence of his search for happiness. Pryor stated, “In the world in which I grew up, happiness was a moment rather than a state of being. It buzzed around, just out of reach… It never stayed long enough for you to get to know it good.”
Despite his pain (and because of it), Pryor transformed his negative life experiences into a body of work that opened the eyes of millions to issues of sexuality, economic class, racism, and social injustice. His work symbolizes the beauty and tragedy of the human condition as a specific individual well-versed in intolerance. “People can’t always handle it,” he wrote. “But I knew that if you tell the truth, it’s going to be funny.”
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
Beginning his career as a journalist in the UK, Hitchens was an English-American polemicist, socio-political critic, and anti-theist. Despite his strong convictions, his willingness to change his mind with new information gives credence to his positions — once a Marxist, Hitchens later shirked away from supporting his leftist colleagues in his support for the Iraq War. For someone so easily categorized as a misanthrope, he believed strongly in humankind and the Enlightenment belief that individuals have the ability to discern right from wrong void of religion.
In The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, Hitchens writes: “A saving grace of the human condition (if I may phrase it like that) is a sense of humor. Many writers and witnesses, guessing the connection between sexual repression and religious fervor, have managed to rescue themselves and others from its deadly grip by the exercise of wit. And much of religion is so laughable on its face that writers from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell to Chapman Cohen have had great fun at its expense. In our own day, the humor of scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan has ridiculed the apparent inability of the creator to know, let alone to understand, what he has created. Gods seem not to know of any animals except the ones tended by their immediate worshippers and seem to be ignorant as well of microbes and the laws of physics. The self-evident man-madeness of religion, as well as its masculine-madeness in respect of religion’s universal commitment to male domination, is one of the first things to strike the eye.”
Wolfgang Mozart (1756–1791)
A prolific composer and artist, Austrian Mozart significantly impacted classical music with his numerous operas, concertos, symphonies, and sonatas. Blending traditional and contemporary music, Mozart created his own unique style that impacted musical composition thereafter. He created 24 operas, 17 masses, and over 50 symphonies; in total, he composed over 600 works. His distinctive compositions are marked by melodic, rhythmic, and dynamic contrasts.
Mozart’s Requiem, though it was unfinished at the time of his death, was written as a tribute to himself and as a mass for the dead, as he believed he was poisoned with Aqua Tofana, which was killing him slowly. Amidst the soothing and melancholic melodies of Requiem, the French Revolution began and the lack of desire to attend cultural events, such as his concerts, thrust Mozart into debt. Four years before he began Requiem, Mozart wrote to his father, “As death […] is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relationships with this best and truest friend of mankind that death’s image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling.”
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
For Whitman, poetry was a method for expressing political grievances as well as “a political force in itself.” Whitman believed that both democracy and poetry had the ability to create a unified whole from disjointed parts: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
As a democratic poet, Whitman’s free verse and accessible poetry showcase how his themes mirror America’s founding values: namely, the body, the soul, the individual, the nation, and work. Celebrated as one of America’s greatest poets with his “Leaves of Grass” taught in many universities, Whitman revolutionized the genre of poetry, both in structure and in style. He believed poetry should be accessible to the common man and that all humans should connect to the world around them.
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Dorothea Lange said: “A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.”
Documenting the Great Depression through photography, Lange revealed the struggles of displaced farmers, migrant laborers, and sharecroppers in the American farming industry throughout the 1930s. Regarding her most famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” Lange wrote in her notes the mother and her kids “had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.” As Lange’s images became more widely distributed, they were often published without her notes, despite her protests — her poignant photographs were powerful enough on their own to tell a story. As she later said: “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually…I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves.”
Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
Hawking is well-known for his research on black holes and the theory of relativity, which, by itself, are huge contributions to understanding our human condition. His research transcends these topics to reveal “strange properties of space, time and gravity in a quantum universe that have thrilled, fascinated and frustrated physicists for more than 40 years.”
Hawking predicted that, by 2600, the earth would transform into a ball of fire causing humans to colonize another planet or face extinction. Additionally, the scientist argued the advent of artificial intelligence could be the “worst event in the history of our civilization.” Through dedicated research, Hawking reminds us what it means to be human: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
Joan Didion (1934- )
Didion’s memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” addresses the universal human experiences of mortality, loss, and grief. When Didion lost her husband John Gregory Dunne in 2003, she utilized her journalistic observations, psychological observations of family life, and humor to transform her grief into a best-selling classic.
Through introspection and intellectual curiosity, Didion not only tackled her personal experience with grief, but human nature’s ability (or inability) to deal with loss. She became part of the group of “people who have lost someone [and] look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal. I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved….” “The Year of Magical Thinking” deals with the mind games of denial none of us are immune to.
Pearl Primus (1919-1994)
Primus was an American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist whose performance art expressed African dance to American audiences. As an anthropologist and choreographer, Primus “brought the spirituality of African dance to the stage.” She utilized African literature, poetry, and traditions in her dance performances.
In 1948, Primus received a grant to study dance, which she used to travel around Africa and the Caribbean, learning styles of native dance. Bringing these back to the U.S., Primus choreographed impactful dances containing messages of racism, discrimination, and prejudice. Throughout her lifetime, Primus continued to study, teach, and choreograph dances that highlighted human struggles.
Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)
Heidegger’s contribution to the evolution of thought regarding the human condition is the re-awakening of the question, “what is meant by ‘Being?’”
“According to Heidegger, the concept of ‘Being’ is the most universal one, as was also realized by Aristotle, Thomas and Hegel; and its universality goes beyond that of any ‘genus.’ At the same time it is obscure and indefinable; ‘Being’ cannot be comprehended as anything that is (Seiendas); it cannot be deduced from any higher concepts and it cannot be represented by any lower ones; ‘Being’ is not something like a being, a stone, a plant, a table, a man. Yet ‘Being’ seems somehow an evident concept. We make use of it in all knowledge, in all our statements, in all our behavior towards anything that ‘is,’ in our attitude towards ourselves. We are used to living in an ‘understanding of Being’ (Seinsverstandnis), but hand in hand with it goes the incomprehensibility of what is meant by ‘Being.’”
Salvador Dali, or Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali y Domenech, was born and died in Figueras, Spain. He is noted for his paintings that depict subconscious imagery. The two major influences on his painting style and content was Freud’s writings on the unconscious and the surrealist artistic community in Paris, who wanted to show the power of the unconscious over the rational “real ” world. Through a process of “paranoiac critical, ” Dali was able to induce a state of mind in which the unconscious could be expressed.
In the 1920s, his art became the centerpiece of the surrealist movement. He painted a world in which every day events and objects are distorted and depicted in a strange and confusing way. His paintings were in a realistic detailed style that not only caught one’s attention, but demanded that the observer spend some time in contemplation. He also made several surrealistic movie films which used similar bizarre and exaggerated imagery. One of his most famous paintings was titled “The Flight of a Bee, ” which depicts Dali’s wife asleep and dreaming about various animals seemingly ready to attack her when they actually symbolize her unconscious desires.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935)
Perkins was an American feminist, lecturer, writer, and publisher “who was a leading theorist of the women’s movement in the United States.” Perkins published poems and short stories, and also became an influential lecturer on topics such as labour, ethics, and feminism. In 1898, Perkins published Women and Economics, which called for economic independence of women, a redefining of the domestic and child-care chores as social responsibilities, and a new understanding of contemporary ideas of womanhood and motherhood.
Perkins is most well-known for her short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which portrays one woman’s realistic mental breakdown as a psychological horror tale. While most readers initially interrupted the story as a disturbing tale about one woman’s battle with consciousness, it can also be read as a critique of the institution of marriage and the common gender division that kept women from reaching their full potential. Without autonomy, the narrator retreats to her obsessive fantasy, the only place she can exercise control.
From “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “It does not do to trust people too much.”
Yayoi Kusama (1929- )
Kusama is a Japanese contemporary artist who primarily works in sculptures and installations. Acknowledged as one of the most important living artists, Kusama’s work features feminism, minimalism, surrealism, Art Brut, pop art, and abstract expressionism, as well as autobiographical, psychological, and sexual content. “One of the first artists to experiment with performance and action art,” Kusama has also experimented with music, design, writing and fashion, and is considered an “art pioneer.”
Kusama’s art is a testament to artistic expression’s healing powers, as well as to humans’ resiliency. As someone who struggled with mental health issues and was raised by an abusive mother, Kusama utilized the artistic world to deal with her hallucinations and personal obsessions.
Regarding the use of polka-dots in her work, Kusama said: “Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”
Caetano Veloso (1942- )
Veloso is a Brazilian composer, singer, guitarist, writer, and political activist. Known for his involvement in Brazil’s Tropicália movement, which involved theatre, poetry, and music, Veloso was viewed by the Brazilian government as a threat and was arrested for his music and political action. Exiled from Brazil, he lived in London for two years and eventually returned to his home country in 1972.
In his poetic memoir, Tropical Truth, Veloso describes tropicalia as a music “made of happenstance and misunderstandings” designed to “destroy the Brazil of the nationalists.” Thus, Veloso and other tropicalistas incorporated a variety of influences (e.g. bossa nova, the Beatles, Andy Warhol) into their work with the primary goal of radiant optimism. Making music in the ‘60’s was, for Veloso “the right to imagine an ambitious intervention in the future of the world, a right that immediately begins to be lived as duty.” The whimsical and hallucinogenic sensuality in his music served as a rebellion against the throes of authoritarianism — with his musical compositions, Veloso fought for art and intellectualism.