A Hierarchy of Contexts

We speak and act within a certain set of assumptions about the world. These contextual assumptions are usually not questioned, and within one context the possibility that there might be a greater one containing the present agreed conditions does not usually occur to us.

For example, in a football game, the context is winning the game. No other world view exists so far as players, their coaches, or the spectators are concerned. In fact, it is considered ill manners to call attention to anything outside this temporary bubble of shared experience. But if there is some event that people find more pressing, such as a heavy thunderstorm, the necessities and imperatives under which we live are shifted to conform to the new, superior context.

The greater issues of social injustice, organized crime and the survival of the human species — greater, at least, than a football game — are regarded as always having been there, and not changing very much, and being out of reach anyway for most people. Within the ordinary context of daily life, individuals conceive no responsibility for such matters; and only consider danger when some politician brings it up to blame on another politician or group in hopes of pitting constituencies against each other, in order to derive power while escaping culpability.

An interesting aspect of context is that it is elastic, and thus always appears full; but we think of it as a rigid container with fixed dimensions, a world constrained within hard boundaries. I have no time to spare from the endless series of emergencies I think of as “time”. If my work load threatens to increase I am alarmed, and if there is a lull I look around nervously to see what I’m neglecting. Most of this is for show, in case someone should be watching: will they see a person who is fully engaged, giving his all, or a slacker just putting in time? Yet, if something doubles my work load, a strange thing happens: the work I had before is now half its size — because proportionally it is half the work. In this we might see how delusional we are. Work expands to fill the time. As for how I feel, I persist in thinking this is related somehow to a fixed amount of work that must fit into a fixed amount of time, as if I had to put twelve pounds of shit in a five-pound bag. But language is the only reason it seems that way. There is no bag at all. Or as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in “Cat’s Cradle”: “No damn cat; no damn cradle.”

At a cultural level it could be useful, beneficial, even life-saving, to learn a new way to think about context. This has started in recent years, as reflected in slogans like, “Think Globally, Act Locally”; but as individuals we normally have no access to anything outside the prevailing context or world-view in which, though language, we immerse ourselves. We speak and act as if we are powerless over whatever we think of as “reality”. This can’t end well… but we do have a choice. We could admit that most of life as we experience it, is only exactly what we say it is.

Let me see if I can explain this…


©Copyright 2017 Peter Barus