Lacking “a critical dimension” of potentialities to transcend their existing state, everything has its place. Here even choices (of which there are seemingly many), are predefined. Forgotten is the wonder of what might be, in its place a single chorus… This is how it is.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening
Distracted states are states in which a new open mind is possible.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity
We encourage you to create the space for stillness, inquiry and reflection; to further build your capacity to become more present in the uncertainties and doubts that face you in your life and work; to build your tolerance to the uncomfortable feelings that arise at the edge of your competence; to create a new way, your way, of positively engaging with Not Knowing.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing
In 1995, deep into the research for my PhD thesis, I found myself at an impasse. It stemmed in part from my own curiosity, following new leads, new areas of interest. At some point the subject of exploration and analysis – the evolution of American film noir in the context of industrial, sociopolitical and cultural change – had developed too many tributaries.
I had lost my way, following the lure of too many loosely connected interests. This made it difficult to shape a coherent argument. I needed to take a step back. Fortuitously, a September vacation allowed me to pause for a couple of weeks, to turn away from academic preoccupations. It was time to lose myself in the beauty of the Californian landscape, and enjoy the company of friends and family.
Which is not to say that I stopped thinking about the project. Rather the thinking was happening subconsciously, shunted to a slower more reflective part of my self. Sense-making never really stops. Towards the end of our Californian sojourn, we went to see the newly released The Usual Suspects. The combination of this film, which was so pertinent to the case I was trying to make about noir in the modern age, and the much needed pause in work were catalytic.
Returning to the UK, all the puzzle pieces I had been grappling with suddenly fell into place. There was now a clear path through the once-confusing landscape. I knew which tributaries to navigate and which to ignore. By the start of December, I had submitted a completed thesis, including as close an analysis as I could muster of The Usual Suspects based on that singular viewing. Everything that had been percolating in my head had suddenly been brought into sharp focus. The time taken to pause and reflect had been crucial.
That thesis eventually became my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls. Now, 19 years after its initial publication, I have just published my second: The Neo-Generalist, co-authored with Kenneth Mikkelsen. As with the first, a deliberate decision has been taken to offer no definitive conclusion. The reader has to do some of the lifting, address many of the questions the book raises.
One of the points Kenneth and I make is that we see a book as an invitation to converse. It does not mark an ending but a beginning or even a continuation of existing discussions. One book bridges and connects to many others. Books converse. One book synthesises and introduces ideas from other people, opening the door for yet more to join in. But a single book can only offer a snapshot in time. It is a collection of thoughts and ideas that may evolve, possibly be expanded upon, and almost certainly be usurped with the passage of time and the acquisition of new knowledge.
Julie Drybrough sagely advised me earlier this year that once the ideas are ‘out there’ they are no longer yours. You cannot control the conversation. You join in and learn from other people’s points of view. I could not agree more. It has been wonderful to read initial responses to The Neo-Generalist from the likes of Harold Jarche, Tanmay Vora and Mark Storm; to witness the conversational flames fanned by others, prompting further exchanges on social media.
Mark helpfully challenges our use of ‘Fade Out’ as the title for our last chapter. Does it fit with our notion of continuing the conversation, of raising awareness and asking questions? The words are one of several cinematic allusions that frame the book, including the use of a cast list and a visual reliance on the work of Saul Bass. In the cinema, when the screen fades out, the film then cuts to the closing credits. It lists those to whom its very creation is indebted. In our book, we fade out and cut to a lengthy bibliography. Our work stands on the shoulders of giants.
With a good film, though, something else happens as the fictional or documentary images fade out and the credits roll. The viewer takes over. The synapses are crackling. They are reflecting, establishing connections, making their own meaning. They participate in the creation, prolonging the film’s effects long after they have walked away from the theatre. They may talk about it with others, prompting interest, opening up conversations.
It is aspirational on our part, but we can but hope that this is what happens when people close the covers of our book. Long may the conversations continue. With and without us.
The very word “patience” originally implied a kind of suffering or forbearance, implying the time it would take to do something. Implied too was the idea of fortitude and endurance, a nod to an implicit kind of stamina, personal strength, and capacity to self-regulate. At the core of this essential human practice, quite simply, lay the act of waiting.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire
Meaning is created through a craft approach to life.
— Alan Moore, Do Design
Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything.
— Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers