The 5&1 Step-back

On the Japanese island of Okinawa people start a meal by offering a piece of advice: hara hachi bu. It means eat until you’re 80% full. Don’t eat until you can eat no more, but eat until you’re not hungry. The Incredible Shrinking Man understands this advice as relevant cultural heritage to be be practised not only in how we eat but in how we live.

To transform what is principally eating-habit related advice to a more general spatial outlook on life, we created a small exercise. The 5&1 Step-back is a simple choreography to inspire the hara hachi bu mindset. To execute, place both feet next to each other and take 5 steps forward. Stand still, observe the space, then take one step back. Observe. Now you have executed the basic one-dimensional lineair movement. It is possible to extent the exercise to explore the space in a second dimension. For this you turn to your left, take 5 steps, observe. Take one step back, observe. Turn to your left again, repeat. Turn to your left again, repeat. Turn to your left one more time. You should now be back in the original starting position. Although it is possible to add the third dimension by bringing a 5 step ladder into the exercise allowing you to move upward, we prefer to focus on the fourth dimension, time. To do so we slow down the entire proces. Where the linear act of taking 5 steps forward would normally only take a few seconds we now slow it down considerably by a factor 5 or 10. The slower you do it the more it will influence how you experience space.

The exercise can be adapted to fit the available space. If you are in an apartment with furniture the square might not work. If you have just a little space, take little steps. However the 5 to 1 steps ratio should be maintained as it represents the 80% Hara Hachi Bu principle and allows us to experience the 20% space it gives.

Trunkism

The growth of a tree trunk demands considerable investment and focus of resources. The competition for sunlight can lead to very differently formed trunks within the same species of tree.

A comparison of two white oaks tells the story. The broad-crowned shorter oak grew as a free-standing tree at the edge of a pasture. As a young tree it had no neighbouring trees growing close by. As is typical for a relatively solitary tree, the crown gradually spread out broadly in all directions, attaining a relatively spherical shape. Branches grew outward and ramified into the space of greater brightness surrounding them. The crown as a whole didn’t just grow towards the sun but towards the brightness of the surrounding atmosphere.

In contrast the small-crowned white oak developed a long, upward-soaring trunk as it grew up in the woods surrounded on all sides by trees of similar height, producing shade for each other. As a result of this competition for light the dominant growth direction is upward into the light-filled space above. The lower branches, which never grew to great size, died off in the increasingly shady environment of the upward-shooting trees.

Bigorexia (DFM)

Bigorexia is a subtype of the obsessive mental disorder muscle dysmorphic disorder. The (mostly) men suffering from it have a delusional sense of being too smal and insufficiently muscular, despite often already having exceptionally big and muscular bodies. Bigorexians spend inordinate time, attention and resources to gain strength as in exercise routines, dietary regimens, and nutritional supplementation, while use of anabolic steroids is also common.

The circumstances that lead to this self-destructive mental and physical state often involve sustained traumatic events at a young age like bullying and ridicule for perceived deficiencies as well as domestic violence. Simultaneously subjects were exposed to dominant social narratives of (toxic) masculinity. As a result they may have come to believe they lacked masculine capital and tried to increase this through engagement with traditional masculine activities such as building greater muscular strength. This drive for masculinity (DFM) may lead to bigorexia as increased body mass may seem to reduce the threat of further mistreatment.

The tragedy is that no size will ever be big enough to overcome the anxiety at the core of this sense of inferiority if the source is not addressed. No amount of growth will ever cure the misunderstanding that this is not about bigger or more but about being satisfied with who we are and what we have.

The Dwarf and the Giant

Between 1896 and 1913 French film pioneer and illusionist Georges Méliès directed over 500 films. Most of them were very short experiments exploring the possibilities of special effects inspired by the tradition of stage magic. As such the appearance and disappearance of objects and people features very heavily in his work. But the medium of film also created new possibilities to trick the eye: most importantly the ability to change size.

‘The dwarf and the giant’ (1901) is the earliest known film showing a shrinking person. It laid the foundation for a rich body of films that play with the fantasy of becoming smaller and how it changes relationships between people and their environment. Méliès use of the camera shows the early days of wonder about the effect of changing perspective. Yet in all its simple curiosity it still shows some of humanity’s confused relationship with human height as the giant seems to ridicule (or is it celebrate?) the small size of the other as he showers him with confetti. Confetti is about celebration and adding effect. Like magic its intention is to blur the senses. Smallness then and now relates to this magic: The magic of pint-sized mythological characters, the magic of the unknown, the magic of smallness as a way to disrupt current affairs. ‘The dwarf and the giant’ should be celebrated as a pivotal point not just in the cinematographic history of shrink films but in the awakening of the human desire to shrink to better fit the Earth.

Tsimtsum

Tsimtsum is a Hebrew term meaning contraction, constriction or condensation. In the Kabbalah it is used to explain how God initiated the Creation by a process of contracting from his infinite omnipresence. Within the resulting space mankind could come into existence. So basically God actively shrunk for others to exist. The first creative act was the act of making space, without which it is impossible to be creative.

The details of tsimtsum and how it relates to the other themes in kabbalistic thought are complex and actively debated among scholars. Yet the central premise of space-making stands and has inspired The Incredible Shrinking Man since its early days. The notion that the creation of space is the first creative act in regards to change, and that it is impossible for anything new to come into existence without an act of retraction, is fundamental to shrink thinking. And if God is willing to make space for the other then who are we to deny it? The Incredible Shrinking Man proposes to man to shrink both literally and metaphorically in order to create the possibility of positive transformation. We should invite ourselves to embrace a desire for less and a curiosity for what will come into being in the space we’ll vacate. We should invite ourselves to the very real space within ourselves and within the world as we shrink away from bankrupt ideas such as always having to reach full potential, continuous growth and man’s dominance over other forms of life.

Hara hachi bu.

Abundance Fantasies: Friedeberg’s Hand Chair

In Abundance Fantasies we explore how a desire for abundance is sometimes found in unsuspected places, practices and objects. Perhaps such encounters can be reinforced to stimulate a desire to shrink.

In “The Art of small things” John Mack writes: “In literature, as much as in lived experience, the hand is, in fact, often at once the measure and the container of the miniature. Things that ‘would fit into the palm of your hands’ are, by definition small.” The iconic Hand-chair (1962) by the Mexican artist/designer Pedro Friedeberg both defies and defines this observation allowing us a confused ‘Alice in Wonderland’- experience of simultaneous largeness and smallness balled into one. One feels small while at the same experiencing some form of dominance through the act of sitting on top of an abundance of power.

Rafting Monkeys

We know of only three species of pre-historic mammals that managed to cross the Atlantic ocean between Africa and South-America. One of them was the now extinct Ucayalipithecus monkey about 35 million years ago. The other species of “immigrant” mammals were New World Monkeys, flat-nosed primates that are found in south and central America today. The third was a caviomorph, the ancestor of creatures like the capybara.

How they managed to survive the cross-over has long been a topic of heated discussion but it is now presumed that these animals made the journey on floating islands of vegetation that broke off from coastlines. Some of these island rafts were relatively big and may have included shrubs and small fruit trees that provided the intercontinental travellers with the means to survive. According to Erik Seiffert, professor of clinical integrative anatomical sciences at Keck School of Medicine: “It would have been extremely difficult, though very small animals the size of Ucayalipithecus would be at an advantage over larger mammals in such a situation, because they would have needed less of the food and water that their raft of vegetation could have provided. This is presumably why most of these overwater dispersal events that we know of in the fossil record involve very small animals”

The image is a still from the acclaimed Werner Herzog film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”, which tells the tale about a 16th century search for El Dorado in the Peruvian Jungle. In the surreal final scene of the movie its main character Aguirre, played by Klaus Kinski, finds himself on a raft overrun by small monkeys. What better way to illustrate that in the end it is not the big-headed but the small that shall inherit the Earth.

The Peruvian Variant

Nearly 4,000 common variations in DNA are known to affect stature. Each variant nudges your height up, or down, with one millimeter or so. But now researchers have identified the single largest genetic contributor to human height known to date. The sensational findings of the effects of the previously unknown variant (E1297G) of the FBN1 gene are based on an analysis of samples from ethnically diverse Peruvians, a population known to have some of the shortest stature in the world. The variant was associated with an average of 2.2 centimeters in height reduction. People with two copies of the gene variant were even a whopping 4.4 centimeters shorter.

Meta analyses of genetic studies of height include more than 700,000 individuals but have been predominately conducted on European populations. The new variant was not present in any of these large genetic studies simply because Peruvians had never been included in genomic studies of height. According to researcher Soumya Raychaudhuri “Just amassing and amassing data isn’t the answer. If you’re not looking at different populations, you’re going to miss really important stuff.” Eurocentrism creates blindness to important wisdom. Like how we could shrink towards abundance rather than grow towards scarcity. Quite tellingly the Peruvian flag features a horn of plenty overflowing with produce. Small people need less and therefor have more. The Peruvian variant E1297G might just show us the way.

David and Goliath

It’s interesting to listen to Malcolm Gladwell as he deconstructs the presumptions behind the story of David and Goliath. Rather than presenting it as one of our best known underdog stories he suggests that Goliath in fact never stood a chance. According to Gladwell this was never a fight between a very tall and mighty warrior and a small and therefor weak shepherd boy. Rather he presents it as the story of an immobile and almost blind giant suffering from acromegaly against an agile, well-equipped and healthy young man. Goliath was nothing but a very large sitting duck. Before he could engage David in hand to hand combat he was hit between his eyes by David’s slingshot.

Gladwell: “What they didn’t understand was that the very thing that was the source of Goliath’s apparent strength was also the source of his greatest weakness. And there is, I think, in that a very important lesson for all of us. Giants are not as strong and powerful as they seem and sometimes the shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.”

Kohrisms

The Austrian economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr opposed the “cult of bigness” in social organization. He inspired the movement for a human scale and the Small Is Beautiful movement. His most influential work was The Breakdown of Nations. In 1983, he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. In the series Kohrisms we want to give attention to some of his precise insights in the nature of big and small.

In The breakdown of Nations he writes: …smallness is not only a convenience. It is the design of God. The entire universe is built on it. We live in a microcosmos. Perfection has been granted only to the little. Only in the direction of the minuscule do we ever come to an end, to a finite, a boundary, where we can conceive the ultimate mystery of existence. In the direction of the colossal we arrive nowhere. We may add and multiply, and produce increasingly vaster figures and substances. But never an end, as there is nothing that cannot always again be doubled, though doubling in the physical sense soon means collapse, disintegration, catastrophe.