A Conversation with Richard Whittaker: Future Department of Authentic Self
by Syed Shariq, Oct 25, 2014
Syed Shariq and I met at a ServiceSpace gathering one evening. Shariq, as everyone calls him, emanates a compassionate intelligence that made an immediate impression. Learning that he taught at Stanford only heightened this impression. Who was this man, I wondered. This first meeting led to further contact and he became acquainted with works & conversations. Eventually Professor Shariq invited me to visit one of his university classes where we had a conversation. In addition to what’s captured here, much more went unrecorded adding depth to my already keen interest in learning more about Shariq’s work.
Dr. Shariq is the founding co-chair of the Kozmetsky Global Collaboratory. Quoting from its website, he writes, “Meeting George Kozmetsky—co-founder of Teledyne—over twenty-five years ago at NASA was a life changing experience. As our hour-long appointment, which stretched out for four hours, ended George gave me a hug and said knowingly, as only he could, ‘We will work together for the rest of our lives.’ I did not know how prescient this statement was! This journey continues today, well after George's departure in 2003, as I carry forward the vision that George and Ronya Kozmestsky helped establish in 2003—a research endeavor for accelerating the achievement of sustainable shared prosperity for the people across the world and for the generations to come.”
This is not the place to trace Professor Shariq’s impressive career at NASA or how Stanford University established a place for him to pursue the visionary mission of George Kozmetsky. At his passing in 2003, Shariq accepted the role of advancing Kozmetsky’s vision of accelerating the creation of shareable global prosperity through collaborative interdisciplinary field-based scholarship. There is so much more to say about this work now anchored at Stanford University and guided by Professor Shariq’s vision of how this vision might be implemented. It is a work in progress.
In the conversation that follows, Shariq begins by asking about my own work in publishing.—RW
Syed Shariq: If I may ask you to begin with sharing a bit about your own background, and what you have been up to from your own journey, and especially your work of publishing over so many years.
Richard Whittaker: I think a basic part goes back to certain vivid experiences of being alive. We're not told that such experiences are important. They're hard to articulate and don't fit into any particular category. So most of us tend to forget these powerful moments.
In college I tried out various majors and eventually, I got an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I was also engaged in creative things, but mostly outside of a school context. I did take a few art courses, some painting and ceramics and I got very interested in writing and poetry.
After graduating I came up to San Francisco from Southern California in 1966 and landed near the Haight-Ashbury. It was quite extraordinary, the hippie revolution with people like Alan Watts, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who became Ram Das, and many others. And thanks to the spread of LSD and other psychotropic drugs, lots of people had a direct experience of other realities. That continues to echo today in ways that are impossible to quantify.
And like so many others, I was searching for something that would make life meaningful. As my friend Jacob Needleman says, in those days if you threw a brick out a window, it would hit a guru. So this is turning into a long story. Should I continue?
Shariq: We would be delighted.
Richard: Okay. Thanks to D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University Zen was being introduced to America and popularized in the 50s through his books and the books of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Aldous Huxley was also an important figure with his books like The Doors of Perception. And everybody was reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead translated by Evans-Wentz. I was interested in all these things. So let's see. I didn't start the magazine until 1991. So that's 25 years from when I arrived in SF. I’ll have to skip past all that. I’ll just say that I continued my search and later in my wanderings, I ended up getting a Master's in clinical psychology. By then I was forty-seven. That was a turning point. Was I going to become a psychotherapist or what about the art side of my life that had been there all along, but which I’d never been able to turn toward whole-heartedly? In front of this moment, I decided to commit myself to my creative life as much as I could. Looking back, I’d say this was the part of myself connected with those early vivid experiences I mentioned. And after this decision, one thing led to another.
A year later, I started a magazine. The first one was a little xeroxed affair. I started it with a lot of trepidation, but also with high ambitions. Who did I think I was? But sometimes with a choice you make, the world seems to go along with it. That happened for me with the magazine. And it’s only continued to evolve. It was not an easy path to find.
Shariq: Yes. If I can ask you about the magazine itself? —because that's how I got to know your work and —you’ve gone on to interview artists and bring their stories, so many in California and some beyond California also. Right?
Shariq: Is there some particular sense that has drawn you to this community of people around the Bay Area, or in California?
Richard: Yes, I think so. The simplest way I can describe why I started the magazine is because of my experience with photography. I never dreamed I would be doing photography. But one day a long time ago, the question arose, what if I took a photograph of what I was seeing? Would the same feeling of something like joy that I was feeling come back when I looked at the photo later on? It was a spontaneous question.
And I went out and got a camera and started taking photos. And before long, I began to have profound experiences of what I can only call beauty.
I was hesitant to declare myself an artist. What was important was my experience and what I did with it. As I said, I’d gotten deeply involved in poetry earlier. And photography, I discovered, was also poetry.
In any case, I began to get acquainted with the art world and was soon disappointed. A small number of artists get celebrated and provide material for all the associated people involved in the museums, in publishing, in funding organizations, big galleries and so on.
Richard: On the other hand, there’s the experience of what ordinary people call art. It’s often related to an experience of beauty or to the experience of the creative process in making a watercolor or carving a bird, or whatever it might be. People have wonderful experiences making these things that ordinary people are happy to call art, but that’s not what the art world is interested in. There’s an interesting question in there.
Anyway, because of what I was experiencing, I wanted to join the art world and I was dismayed by what I ran into. This was around 1980. So ten years later, starting a magazine was my response to what I found missing in the art world.
The problem is, I look at a lot of stuff that people will call art and it doesn’t touch me. Then sometimes something does touch me and reminds me there’s a hidden reality we’re mostly out of touch with. And I didn’t find anyone really writing about it. For instance, in 1980 beauty, as a serious subject in the art world had long ago been dismissed. How could beauty be talked about today in any serious way? It’s just about impossible. It sounds fluffy or simple-minded. But in a way, that's what I've been trying to do. But through all this, and especially in talking with artists, I’ve discovered I’m part of that tribe, so to speak. And that tribe is not defined by the art world.
Shariq: I think it resonates in the interviews that you have done, looking for that connection with art and beauty in a beautiful way in your publications. It's very visual and sometimes there's a guest author and a guest interviewer, too.
Shariq: In some ways, with our own information of the world from an economic perspective, we see how our prosperity has emerged through the commercialization of things, of artifacts—we buy and sell these things. Do you have a sense from your interviews over the years of what has caused us to lose touch with beauty in this way that’s obvious? You took the time for it and had to cultivate that openness and awareness. Do you have a sense of what happened to us that we would rather not do that, but simply substitute for it?
Richard: That's such a big question. First of all, when I speak of the art world, I'm speaking mostly of the visual arts.
Richard: Because in music you really don't have the problem so much. Music is a different situation, in a way. I'm not a deep student of art history, but I think that early in the 20th century, with people like Kandinsky and Malevich and some others, a great hope sprung up around art’s possibility in a spiritual sense. In leaving the figurative or representational arts behind and moving towards abstraction in art it was imagined there was the possibility of connecting with something like universal spiritual realities. Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art was trying to speak to the possible role of art as an avenue to some kind of spiritual meaning and experience. Then World War I happened, which was very destructive, obviously, but also in terms of hope or faith in humanity. The Dada Movement appeared soon after that. And the Dadaists’ work featured absurdity very prominently. Dada’s absurdity was a reaction to the absurdity of World War I. And they got a lot of attention.
In the art world, up into the 1950s, it was still possible to think that art properly fit into the phrase, "Art, Philosophy, and Religion." In Abstract Expressionism with artists like Ad Rhinehardt and Mark Rothko and others, painting still aimed to touch something profound in us as humans. In certain circumstances even the word prayer might have been uttered without irony. Even in the 60s some of this was still alive, but it was changing. Something happened around the time that Pop art came in. Andy Warhol exemplified a response to the ascendency of commercialized life, advertising and the enshrinement of commodities and that whole thing, as you mentioned. Andy Warhol just basically said, “Okay. Packaging. Advertising. Commodities. Here are the new Gods.” I think of him as a tragic poet, in a way.
Then Postmodernism came in with Derrida, Foucault and all the others. Truth became relative, culturally bound, subject to political power and so on. And with Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Death of the Author” writers and artists themselves lost any privileged standing for possessing insight into their own work.
There was a big shift toward the expert who could direct you through this new house of mirrors, so to speak. Only the trained expert could translate what a work of art was saying, and art theorists and critics became more central in the academic and fine art world. Anyway, I think that’s fairly accurate.
So what happened to an important idea like Beauty—Plato could propose Beauty as one of the three faces of the Divine—what happened? That was done with. It was part of a “grand narrative” — and “grand narrative” was synonymous with discredited and old-fashioned.
Today, if you're going to ask art students to pay $50,000 or something like that for an MFA, what are you going to give them in return? As far as I can tell, what you offer them is expertise. You teach them semiotics, gender politics and so on.
This is like a lecture, isn’t it? Should I continue?
Shariq: Absolutely. Yes, of course.
Richard: Science and the power of technology is so dazzling we have to bow before it. But science has a way of looking at the world, compared to which, the interiority of our lives has lost its standing. That has affected every other field of endeavor, too. So in the mainstream art world, the spiritual, romantic or metaphysical aspects of art have kind of disappeared.” This advent of the expert, and I don’t mean art-historians particularly, strikes me as an adjustment to the closure of the possibility of authentic knowledge coming from some source in the life of interiority.
Shariq: I think the question of power that you spoke of that Foucault wrote about, continues to be true. Its proportions may have changed—where it is and how it’s practiced. The human struggle remains defined in the balance of power outside and power within. Right? So in your interviews with the artists that you’ve found, at least I can sense that in spite of all this power alignment in the world, they still find time and energy and resources to express themselves more in the way that beauty is beauty. Right?
Richard: Yes. At least, I think there’s often still a sense of connection with that realm of experience.
Shariq: So, is that simply hidden and people only hear about what is powerful, what is expert, and therefore, they think that's all there is? But your magazine, for me, shows that in spite of the expertise and the power—and all the things you’ve spoken of, which is quite disproportionate in maybe commoditizing the essence of what the life in esthetics is about—that actually, at an everyday level, there are far more examples of individuals who are living and practicing healing art. As you say, it's healing yourself.
Richard: Yes. I think people go on making art because it makes them feel good; it is healing. And everyday people don't read Foucault, Derrida and so on. They don't care about deconstruction. “I make my painting. I love it. I had a great time. I made this garden and I loved it.” So people are going ahead, as you say. They’re still able to value what they can feel.
One thing I discovered is that a good interview can carry an amazing amount of deep content. A good poem is the most compact, okay—and one can write a powerful essay. But with academic writing, for instance—the content has to be completely defended and it gets bogged down in all that.
With an interview, on the other hand, there’s no barrier to having deep content. People accept an interview as a conversation. No peer review is needed. It’s just what a person is saying. So if the questions are good, that allows for a lot of wonderful things, profound things, to be said. I find it’s kind of a thrill when that happens, especially given how difficult I find it is it to write such things myself in some acceptable way.
I found it’s easier to be careful with who I interview. And you have to ask the right questions, to make the space when you're getting close—sometimes you have to dig a little. And nowadays everybody has discovered how wonderful stories can be. Programs like “This American life” and “The Moth” are burgeoning. I think the popularity of real stories is a reaction to what’s been missing. It's so refreshing to hear an authentic story. And a good interview is like that.
Shariq: I think you're right. A good interview or a good meeting, or a good circle of people coming together creates the kind of environment that can open us to be truly sharing without the filters or some of the gradients that we are used to in the outside world. It's the creation of such places, such environments, such interviews—and the radio programs you talked about—that are so much a part of how we’re addressing the conditions we’re in.
Richard: Yes. You know, with the postmodern critiques there’s also been a radical kind of leveling. There seems to be an idea that what's true in one culture may not be true in another culture—and that’s obvious, in a way. But does that mean there aren’t any essential things that are true across cultures? I think today something is happening that may allow an opening for looking for deeply shared truths among us. Certainly the environment comes up. We’re all connected on spaceship earth; we all breathe the same air and biologically we’re very much alike. We’re subject to gravity and the physical laws are the same, no matter what the culture is. So maybe there can be an opening toward the establishment of some truths and connecting principles among us.
Shariq: The truth, universal truths—there are also particulars there as well.
Richard: Yes. Certainly.
Shariq: Let me ask all of you if you have any questions for Richard, any thoughts with his reflections of what he's done in his life, and his sense of the position of beauty and looking at the world, how it's changed. I also gather from Richard that in his life, in the way he has pursued it, he’s found, as he said, a calling. And some of us are also looking at how to get in touch with our own callings, gifts, and pursue them—even if we do it through professional means, traditional means.It's hard. Part of the challenge we face here in exploring that is how do you do it—while still being in the mainstream of the Academy, or the professional world? Can it be done sustainably? We have some experience in how to learn about that so far. We haven't found the magic answer yet, but I think we’re in the process of learning that here. We can share some of those things with you, Richard, but before we do that perhaps there are some questions?
Grad student: I don't have any questions, but the comments on how the art world seems to have this whole thing about expertise. I thought it was kind of interesting, because I took a drawing class earlier this year, and one of the main ideas that my professor kept talking about was how you don't want your artwork to be too academic. You want to be more expressive. You don't want to necessarily limit yourself to these rules that, I guess, are put in place by the art world.
Richard: All that is wide open nowadays. But I know what your professor is probably talking about. The idea of an “art world” is slippery. Is it anything, really? —because you can find people doing almost anything. There are people making art that's aggressively weak and uninteresting because there’s a fashion for that in some places. There are rationales behind that work, you see. And there are people who can draw exquisitely, but then they might lose standing because their work is just “illustration.” On the other hand, you have naïve artists, people never trained, and their work can be accepted for its authenticity, and then there are trained people imitating naïve artists.
The big thing about the value of a work of art as a commodity has to do with what’s fashionable. That’s a reality. I mean, trends seem to exist across every field. And there are probably a lot of art professors who are caught in the middle. They have to profess and teach, and at the same time they're trying to make way in their own careers as artists. A very small percentage of artists actually make a living from the sale of their art. The artists who make a living are those who can get a job teaching and the competition has gotten tougher and tougher.
Then a few artists make a living from the sale of their work. But what exactly is the value of the art behind that money? That's an interesting question. I mean, take a painting that’s a forgery, a Rembrandt, say—it sells for millions of dollars and then someone discovers it’s a fake. Suddenly it’s not worth much. So what happened there? Or the work of some artists brings in a lot of money and after several decades, fashions change and the value of their work plummets.
Richard: I know a wonderful young man, an artist, Alex Rohrig, who is an assistant to a friend of mine, Jane Rosen, a successful artist who actually taught here at Stanford for a while and at UCB for several years. Alex is a skilled draughtsman. I’d seen many of his skillful drawings and several others that appeared to be kind of primitive. The successful artist he works for, who taught here at Stanford for a while, said it took the young man a lot of work to become a skilled draughtsman before he could make the little sketches that appear to be clumsy and primitive.
But being able to draw in a way that's primitive and yet captures something, is not necessarily so easy. And inwardly, the artist is allowing himself to get free from a certain kind of training to really explore somehow, what’s beyond the training. So these things can be very interesting, in terms of an inner practice. But in the West, we don’t have any established foundation for an inner practice like you might find if you were studying Zen and doing brush painting.
Question: I had a question for you about the way you conduct the interviews. So when you say you can ask questions that then allow people to say the kinds of things that they won't maybe normally do, what is your practice? How do you really get them to open up and share what they need to say?
Richard: Well, I think we know something about this, actually, since we all have conversations. If you’re with a friend and you're interested in hearing about something, you ask a question and then you listen, you allow space for an answer. You pay attention and see how that friend is. Maybe you see she’s got her mind on something else. So you decide maybe I shouldn't bother her. On the other hand, you want to get back to your question and you really want her to answer. So you speak to where she is, “You seem to be preoccupied.” You want to make contact and to reconnect. Then you can continue. You know, it's like this in art.
Same questioner: Right.
Richard: But it's an art that we all know, to greater and lesser degrees. In my case, I'm interviewing someone. So we've already agreed that it's on purpose. For me, an interview is an improvisation. I try to be present and not to let my own anxieties run away with me—that closes a person down, you know. Every interview is like an adventure. You open a space through the reality of giving your attention—of listening. People feel that. And if you're tense, they'll feel that, too.
I mean, you're asking beautiful questions. I'm sitting here thinking you’re good! And you have a teacher who's a great example right here, too.
Shariq: I really enjoy talking to people, just allowing relationship and curiosity and deeper interest. That’s true with all of my students and colleagues, too. So we do that—to really see how to share.
Richard: If you give someone that kind of attention, and really show interest and draw them out, it’s kind of a gift to that person.
Shariq: As Anna brought up, sometimes it’s not only something that you experience in a group setting, a good relationship, the convening of people who care and who are present, but this form of getting and sharing is not part of traditional teachings that we learn. We know how to be a team, how to be a project, how to be a product developer, or whatever. Right?
Shariq: But this way of being, this context, isn't very common. It happens some place, some time, among some people, but I don’t think it’s something that is practiced as a part of teaching and learning. Maybe it's done in a psychology department, or religion, or art, or performing art. I'm not sure. Perhaps in performing art where you have to do something with your body about who you are, because body is absent in most of education.
Richard: Did you say body?
Shariq: Body is absent.
Richard: I think that's important what you just said there.
Shariq: Part of our theme here is knowing how important the body is, and—as you said—listening with all the senses; being present means with the whole body, and more. But in our Academy, we're not treated as bodies at all.
Richard: That's a major observation.
Shariq: [to the group] What do you think? We can answer questions and examine query. We can watch the lecture and things like that. It isn't about the whole of us. What do you think?
Student: I feel like it's very separated. Like the dorms care a lot about your emotional and mental well-being. The classes care a lot about your learning, but it's not as cohesive.
Student: I think it's interesting, particularly in this class, since so much of our work is very cross-cultural and not everybody speaks the other’s language all of the time. And you're going to be meeting people with whom you share very little context. If somebody has grown up in a slum in India, or a rural village in Nigeria, there’s very little context that you'll actually share. You can stand there and say, “Where are you from?” Or if you can all speak English, you have certain things that you can talk about. You can say, “Did you hear about this latest thing?” But when you have nothing at all that translates, where you begin is literally in terms of how you approach physically. So do you smile? Do you make eye contact? Do you bow to them? Like what do you do?
Richard: Right. That’s a good point.
Student: You know, where do your hands go? How do you stand? Those are the kinds of things that become, in some sense, precursors to the conversation—which can happen through some level of translation and so on. But in many ways, the "interview," begins in silence. You're already in conversation, but without any words. And it's amazing.
The first example of fieldwork I did was in places where I didn't speak the language. So I sat there like three hours in discussion, but I didn't speak a word of what they were saying. But understanding was going on there simply through observing the people in the room, or like you said, sensing the atmosphere. You could feel people getting tense; the body languages would shift, or people would sit straighter, or shift around. Then you would hear raised voices or other people saying, “Calm down,” or something. There were universalities in that sense, about the human experience that you don't fake. Is it something you engage with?
Richard: Yes. And I can relate to what you’re saying.
Student: I think that’s true. In the kind of education that we have, there's been the separation of these things that are intellectual pursuits, just like you were saying. It's like, okay, let's just sit and figure this out. You learn how to do it cognitively. Then there's another part, which is, “Okay, are you doing well?”
It's almost like, “Are you sleeping four hours?” So there are sleep classes, but what’s really amazing is how much data they come up with. We learn all the facts of how much they should sleep, but the discussion after class is about the things they do to make sure they don't sleep that long. They really don't have the time to get enough sleep.
So it's an interesting set of quandaries. Physicality is becoming intellectualized more than being included in the sense that your body really goes through all of these things. And there are days when you're just tired. You can't do anything about it.
Richard: I'm just so interested to be hearing this, because one of the things that I was kind of thinking about before coming down here today has to do with the tendency, probably widespread in the Academy, to regard intelligence in a narrow or pretty restricted way.
Richard: And certainly, what is completely missing is the world of the body—and also the world of the feeling pretty much gets left out, too, it seems to me. There’s something called “somatics.” I think it’s part of psychology, but I don’t know much about what’s included there. It seems it would be an important thing for the Academy to look more closely at this broader base of our being. You all would know more about this than I would, probably. But I find the fact that you brought it up really interesting.
Shariq: I think when we started working together, we looked at somatics—and a few people in Berkeley, a few in linguistics, would look at it. Some in psychology look at emotion. But the tendency there is to go for abstractions, or to understand the grammar. It isn't the aesthetics always. It's really been on making it operational, applicable, scalable. Even individually, I'm sure that many professors and students appreciate the need for the experience not to be focused just on abstractions. You talk about $50,000 and an MFA, and then there is no data there. If you just do that which, really, you love to do, that quandary is everywhere. It's of course here, too. Because here you're getting trained to do well and that often means financially well.
Shariq: And in that case, your employers will decide what you're going to do when you work with them.
Shariq: So one of the questions that comes up is where is a place to create a new economy—to live sufficiently well, to do what you love to do? Is there a new way of sharing prosperity wherever it’s possible? That's decreasing now rather than increasing as we go towards how the world is changing—especially in the U.S. since 2008. So that’s a big puzzle.
I think it's perhaps possible to get in touch with one’s calling. Even though that's not a given, can it be? We have some sense of it—of how you pursue a life, how you could truly stay with your calling and contribute, and be part of society, and be able to meet your necessities every day, take care of your family. That's the real thing.
Most of the spaces where we work are away from home; we don't have a farm or schools any more where we can go and observe. We're all working for somebody else.
Richard: Right. That's a key. This is a question that you’re pursuing here?
Shariq: That's one of the questions that has come up in every single case, not as an individual, but as an institution as a whole. So we have learned particularly to pursue things that matter to us. But then, if you pursue that path, if it's a nontraditional path, how you continue beyond the gift of what we’ve been able to do so far?
Shariq: First we have to receive a gift from a donor, you know? But that depends on their values and whether they appreciate the kind of opening in the world that we’re seeking. So this is a big challenge, and that itself is a research question in our own inquiry in how to be sustainable. Getting an MFA is fine, as far as getting degrees, but it does not have the inquiry side-by-side of how to live a good life.
Richard: I agree. That's why I say I feel fortunate to be where I am. It's come with a lot of help—with a mixture of good fortune and persistence. And the persistence itself is probably a gift, too. I mean, I’m starting to realize that I’m always making the unconscious mistake of thinking that who I am is all my own, and my own doing. What's the difference between that which was given and that which came from my efforts, so to speak?
I was reading this little book by A.K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. In one essay, he claims this that in traditional cultures, everybody finds a vocation—that is, in terms of “a calling.” He says that in traditional societies there could never be a TGIF, “Thank God It's Friday”—because everyone loves what they’re doing. They’re not glad about stopping their work.
And in our culture, I suspect that with those who pursue being an artist there’s some kind of wish to find a real life. There's no profession in this culture, no training, that points us toward becoming a real self, no Department of Authentic Selfhood, you know, where once you become an authentic self, we've got a job for you. And I feel that people who go into art, in some inarticulate way, have this wish to a real self. And of course, the art world could care less.
Shariq: But if I may— you know, that’s true of all work. If you speak to a group like this or others, they are struggling in their own way, as artists are.
Richard: Yes. I appreciate what you're saying there.
Shariq: The human need to be who you are, isn't limited to artists. And the Department of Authentic Self, how can you create it? Can you do that? Where do you begin? Do you need Stanford to do it?
Richard: And so there's something similar going on here. Right? Like you have the first Department of Authentic Self.
Shariq: We are trying to figure out what that means and how to do it.
Richard: That's an immensely hopeful thing you're trying to do.
Shariq: Let me take this further for a few more minutes, and see if we can introduce you to a case study; becoming an authentic self in the Department of Authentic Self, or the future Department of Authentic Self.
Grad student: Coming soon. We'll try our best.
Shariq: So when you begin, where do you begin in engagement with the world with authentic self? That’s the first question. Ultimately, that's the journey. So we have a project that Anna and I and our colleagues started here many years ago. It's called Sustainability of the Future Self.
Shariq: Okay? It's been going on for four years, formally, but maybe seven years informally; it includes travel, maybe ten years, very informally. So some other time we can talk about this story and the history of it.