Twenty feet in the air, I hang one-handed from a piece of scarlet fabric. I’m not thinking about the grading I should have finished yesterday, or the fact that the sink is full of dishes, nor even the fact that if I slipped I would fall twenty feet. Instead, my mind is consumed by the feeling of the fabric pressing on my palm, the tension on my arm-muscles, the control and movement I need to have for the next part in the pose sequence, and the spin from the swivel above me.
The piece of fabric I am hanging from is a type of circus apparatus called aerial silks. When I tell people I do aerial silks, I am often met with blank stares of confusion. Others are familiar with a related, yet dissimilar, practice called aerial yoga. However, aerial yoga has to do with using fabric to do yoga poses in the air. Aerial silks is generally higher up from the ground and a good deal more intense. Sometimes to explain what I do I tell them, “It’s the thing where people climb curtains in Cirque Du Soleil.” Sometimes they get it. Other times people are unfamiliar with the Cirque Du Soleil act as well. I often further explain, “Aerial silks is a type of circus act. I also take circus ring lessons.” Usually people know what a circus ring is. However, for those still unable to picture what aerial silks is, both aerial silks and hoop are classified under aerial arts. Aerial arts involve a combination of gymnastics, poses, climbing, and various feats of strength while in the air. When these skills are put to music to create a routine, it becomes a unique form of dance.
By now you might be wondering why a philosopher is participating in a sport/art-form such as aerial arts. The interesting thing is, when I consider the reasoning behind why I got into, and continue to participate in aerial arts, I find I had similar reasons when I choose to go into the field of philosophy. The processes for both of these seemingly opposite activities are founded upon wonder induced curiosity. For philosophy, the questions brought on by such curiosity are endless. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the many possible answers to such questions. For instance, one question I discuss possible answers to below is, “what makes something valuable?” Such a question doesn’t have an easy answer, and thus requires the examination of several possible answers. On the other hand, as I ventured into aerial arts, I had a single question, “Can I do it?” The answer, that I could do it, was readily available to me as soon as I took my first class. The instant availability of such a satisfying answer is a rare occurrence. Naturally, I was hooked.
However, the origin of my interest in philosophy and aerial arts is not the only commonality between the two activities. Reason and emotion play key roles in both philosophical thought and in aerial silks. Similarly, creating an aerial silks routine involves a synergy between reason and emotion. I’m sure the emotional aspect does not surprise anyone but you may be wondering, “How can a form of dancing in the air can have anything to do with reason?” Actually, learning and understanding the mechanics of aerial silks is similar to learning and understanding a symbolic logic derivation.
As many of you will know, a symbolic logic derivation is a method of converting an argument into various symbols in order to prove the validity of the argument. The process for completing a symbolic logic derivation involves writing out the premises and conclusion of an argument in symbolic form, then applying logical rules to show that the conclusion can be deduced from the premises of the argument. For instance: modus ponens is a well-known logical rule of inference. Modus ponens says: If P then Q. P, therefore Q. We can rely on these logical rules because they have been previously shown to be correct.
I find that when learning certain skills in aerial silks, I go to a similar frame of mind as when I’m working on a symbolic logic derivation. In aerial silks, we also need to use reason in order to understand the mechanics involved in the various wraps, poses and drops. A wrap is a method of placing silks around yourself in such a way that creates friction, ensuring that you are secure in the silks. It acts in a similar way for an aerial silks drop that a rule acts in a symbolic logic derivation. Once you understand how the wrap works, you can build upon it with more wraps to create more intricate drops. Similarly, in symbolic logic, once you learn a new rule of logic, the rule can be applied to build upon more intricate derivations.
In order to better understand what a wrap might entail, let’s return to the one-handed hang I described at the beginning. Reaching up with my left hand, I grab the fabric just above my right hand to give myself more leverage. Once I have a secure grip, I pike my legs up, invert myself, straddle, then hook my right leg around the fabric above my hands. I bend my left leg, then sweep my left hand down to scoop up the live end (the free-hanging part of the fabric under me) around my back and over the knee of my bent leg. After wrapping the fabric again around my bent leg I have completed a catchers’ wrap. At this point I can take my hands off the fabric.
One thing to keep in mind is that certain drops could end up undoing the wrap, so it’s imperative to understand the rules (so to speak) of how climbing, wrapping the fabric, and dropping will affect your base wrap. Unravelling your base wrap could obviously have grave consequences. In the same way a basic aerial wrap is used for building drops, modus ponens (or some other form of logical rule) can be used as the base of a more complicated derivation. One just has to figure out how to get there. Once again, just as with wraps for aerial silks, one mistake in the logic equation can ruin the entire proof.
Understanding the mechanics of aerial silks is important for safely executing drops and poses, but the ability would be obsolete without an emotional drive to participate in aerial silks to begin with. In A Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume famously proclaimed “Reason is, and ought only to be, a slave to the passions.” Hume argued that humans were essentially emotional beings. While we have the ability to reason, and many of us highly value reason, we only value reason in so much as it helps us achieve our desires. Even the most rational person might believe they are acting solely for the sake of reason, but even if they think they are, they still have some type of sentiment that drives them to be rational. The driving emotion might even be warm and fuzzy feelings about rationality. After all, the ability to reason through the mechanics of the wraps or write out symbolic logic derivations would have little value to me did it not bring me some type of pleasure or fulfilment.
Initially, aerial silks brought me fulfilment though satisfying my curiosity. However, I soon found it was also fulfilling and pleasurable as an outlet to express my emotions, it consistently challenges me to gain strength to master poses, and gives me a sense of purpose. In these ways, aerial silks is art. Since an aerial silks routine is a combination of silks skills put to music, it may thus be considered a form of dance. There really is nothing that compares to expressing one’s self through movement to music. However, much of the emotional process involved creating an aerial silks routine happens at home, rather than in the air. I can spend hours sitting and listening to music with my eyes closed, imagining how various movements would flow and work with a particular song. Even sitting still, I can almost feel myself move to the music. The funny thing is, I’m a terrible dancer. Moving with the tempo, finding ways to make graceful and dramatic arm and body movements, and pointing my toes are all things I struggle with. And I usually fail at them. I often tell my instructor that I feel like a frog trying to do a dance in the air. Somehow, this doesn’t diminish my sense of enjoyment from self-expression.
I have succeeded better at the strength aspect of aerial silks than at being graceful. Continuing to gain strength adds another sense in which I feel fulfilled by aerial arts. I still remember that first class where I learned that I could climb twenty-foot silks to the top. Realising I had this kind of strength was invigorating. Since my first silks class I have started training in Calisthenics (body–weight lifting) at the gym. I can now hang from almost any point on my body, including my ankle. Each new skill gives me a sense of accomplishment. There is a simplicity to gaining strength that I don’t experience elsewhere. Every time I attempt a new pose, I return to the earlier question, “Will I be able to do this?” Every time I ask it in regards to a new pose, it is just as simple to answer the first time. All I have to do is try before knowing the answer. The answer is not always “yes”. I am currently working on a move called a roll-up. A roll-up involves splitting the fabric, wrapping a side around each arm, then rolling up the fabric. The move requires a significant amount of strength, dexterity, and control. I make sure to work at being able to do roll–ups every aerial silks class, and I have yet to be able to do them properly. I also currently have bruises on my upper arm from attempting a roll-up three days ago. If I can’t do it, I work toward being able to do it.
Achieving increasingly difficult moves on silks plays a key role in giving me fulfilment through a sense of purpose. It gives me a goal to meet. When I meet these self–set goals, there is a satisfaction that comes with the achievement. However, there are also times when I do not reach certain goals, or I do not reach them as fast as I hoped to reach them. Naturally, this can be discouraging. Every now and then, I even become discouraged enough to question whether it’s worth the struggle. Is the sense of fulfilment I enjoy from meeting my goals on aerial silks enough to make up for the disappointment I feel when I do not meet them? As with any topic in philosophy, one question leads to another. Thus, when I allow myself to consider the question of whether the positive value of self-fulfilment outweighs the negative value of disappointment, I am brought to consider the amount of value that can be placed on fulfilment through self-set goal achievement in the first place. Unfortunately, in order to answer the question of how much value self-fulfilment might have, one must first establish that self-fulfilment is valuable to begin with. Therefore, we might ask, “What gives self-fulfilment value?”
The question, “what gives value?” is more easily answered if we first could establish what is intrinsically good. There have been many attempts at pinning down intrinsic good including: pleasure, rationality, virtue, desire satisfaction, consciousness, and much more. The problem with finding the intrinsic good is that there is not agreement on what is intrinsically good, nor does there seem to be any way to prove something is intrinsically good. Proofs need grounding, but by definition something that is intrinsically good is the grounding for other goods, and needs no grounding.
John Stuart Mill attempted to address the grounding problem for intrinsic goods by arguing that the proof that pleasure is intrinsically good is simply because we want it. If Mill is correct, I should simply focus on the pleasure I get from aerial silks. The happiness I receive from aerial silks is enough. One pleasurable experience that is still fresh in my mind is the new drop I learned yesterday. The drop consists of wrapping the fabric around your legs three time, inverting, pulling your legs into a straddle, then suddenly straightening your legs up in the air. The result is that you drop so that the fabric catches you in an ankle lock, and you end up hanging up–side–down from your ankles. When inverted, I stay in the position for several moments. This is one of my favourite places to be. While I’m told most people hate being upside–down, I love the feeling. The blood rushing to my head, the stretch in my spine, and some other feeling I never can put my finger on. Perhaps it’s the feeling that comes with a shift in perspective. For now, I am only in this moment.
Returning to Mill, the issue with his answer is it’s a circular argument as, by definition, pleasure is a feeling we want. After Mill-ing about, we are then left with many options in which to place our value, but nothing we can be certain of beyond a shadow of a doubt. Without the certainty of value, there is always the possibility that any activity, including aerial silks, is simply an exercise in futility.
I am reminded of Camus’ use of the myth of Sisyphus to talk about the absurd. In this sense, absurdity is the problem that we are always seeking meaning, but will never be provided with it. According to Camus, once we realise life is absurd, it causes us anxiety. In the myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus is punished by the gods to roll a rock up a hill. Just when Sisyphus reaches the top, the rock rolls back down. He must do this meaningless task for eternity. We might be tempted to feel sorry for Sisyphus, but Camus’ warns that the various activities we participate in are really no different. Humans tend to fall into a cycle where they sleep, eat, work, and then sleep again. Even activities outside the cycle, such as aerial silks are meaningless. Camus believed that we will never be provided with grounding for value, and should therefore stop seeking it. His response was that we should rebel in absurdity, and keep living in spite of it, even in the anxiety inducing absence of value and meaning.
It may be the case that I cannot know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is some fixed value. Instead I am left with a type of existentialism as an alternative. I am left to set my own goals and work toward meeting them. I could choose to focus on absurdity, or I can choose to follow my curiosity, sense of wonder, ask questions, and seek answers. The ability to do aerial roll-ups continues to be a long-term goal. The time and work it takes to reach that goal can still be daunting at times, but it generally helps to give me a sense of purpose. In the meantime, I also have smaller goals, such as learning easier poses and drops. Each time I learn new moves, the sense of accomplishment propels me forward.
In a recent student showcase at my gym, I performed an aerial routine to Bird Set Free by Sia. I can still recall the feeling of anxiety I felt beforehand as I went over the routine in my head. This anxiety was not the sort that comes from the tired realisation of absurdity. I was not questioning the value of the experience. Rather, my anxiety was the result of my own choice to value my own self-set goal, to satisfy my sense of wonder as it once again posed the question, “Will I be able to do this?” And, I would have to find out the answer in front of a crowded audience. I tried to imagine myself gracefully going through the motions, to flow with the rhythm of the music, and to feel the tension from the fabric as I wrap it around myself. Soon it was my turn to perform.
I started the routine dramatically, inverted in a single ankle–hang, holding both ends of the fabric spread widely in my hands. The pose was meant to be reminiscent of wings. As Bird Set Free started, my anxiety fell away. I forgot there was a crowd of people watching me. I let go of questions about value or my ability to attain value. Relying on hours of practised wraps and strength training, I am set free to simply exist with the fabric. From an ankle hang, I climb the fabric to invert into what is known as a catchers’ wrap. Once secure in catchers, I climb the fabric using a series of wraps and manoeuvres. I pause when I reach the top of the fabric, letting myself hang sideways in the air. After a few moments of building tension, I let go. The fabric unravels and wheels me sideways through the air in a quick descent. There is this moment in mid-air when I wonder if the fabric will catch me. It’s only a passing thought. Before I have time to worry, I feel the tension on my leg from the wrap as it holds me in place. I continue on with the aerial routine, having forgotten the thought about the wrap failing. This is a new moment, and it’s time to climb again. As usual I forget to point my toes.
After a performance, such as the one described above, I often reflect back on the self-fulfilment and pleasure I enjoy during the experience. As I reflect back, I wonder if perhaps Mill was on to something. While circular, his argument, that pleasure is good because we desire it, does make some sense. When I’m in the moment, up in the air on aerial silks, the value of self-fulfilment is experienced. Mill’s argument that pleasure is valuable because we desire it may not make sense as a logical argument, but as Hume pointed out, our values must first begin with passion.