Thinking instead of writing: ecology, reasons, imagination, and stalling.

moved-chinon.jpgThis is the sort of speculative writing that’s high on pretension, and low on appeal. But, I’m using it to distract myself from the Big Project, and so, here it is.

Let’s say something like this: speculative thinking (materialist, idealist, linguistic, whatever) operates in a kind of imaginary space. Speculation is a kind of creation, even if we’re just making castles in the air, and you need a space to make things in.

The Ideal person—who thinks that ideas or language constitute reality (everyone from Plato to Maimon to Derrida)—the Idealist likes the city, and gets anxious when they leave it. This imaginary urban space is rapacious, constantly expanding, moving its walls until everything is inside the city (and there are no more walls). In time, you cannot talk about anything outside the city. The campfire and the trees are as unnatural as pavement, and nature is just another symbol. Whether the campfire and a circle are made of ideas, or present only in the trace their absence leaves in language, it’s still reason and its symbols all the way down. And you cannot really argue here, because arguing is done with symbols and ideas, and the moment you open your mouth, you’re back downtown.

The Material person—who thinks reality does its thing no matter what we think about it—likes nature, ecologies, and the countryside. And this space is no less rapacious: the city and the most fragile or hierarchical social formations are shown to be, at heart, just more nature. Urban spaces have their own ecologies, art is a more delicate form of a bird’s mating dance, armies are swarms of metallic bees, and symbolic communication is employed by octopi, monkeys, and some rambunctious forms of mold. Here symbols give way to tools, and reason is a patina which emerges from matter like a rainbow skin.

I’ve been fair to neither of these visions, yet find both appealing (I’m probably more drawn to the latter—I have hippie parents, what can I say?).  But, what interests me is that both are visions. By this I mean orienting pictures that you can’t really argue with, which (I think) precede and guide our thinking and building. It’s been argued that the very existence of these alternatives is an argument against them, that we need to find something in the middle. But, between the city and the rural, is the suburbs. And, for reasons of temperament and upbringing, I cannot abide the suburbs.

Nonetheless, we need something else, if only to address the upcoming environmental collapse; and this collapse is the Big Thing thinking is now forced to orbit. I’m not saying we need to think about this collapse all the time. Read Ibn Tufayl, play a videogame, paint a painting, jog (if you must), do whatever: life is short. But it’s the Big Thing, and anything (from politics to metaphysics) which wants to speculate about the Big Picture, must address this looming disaster. Urban Idealism and Rural Materialism are both not going to work.

Maybe I’m retreating myself, to the tradition I’m most familiar with (Jewish thought), but I wonder if imagination might be the faculty we should be playing with, rather than reason or sensation. Imagination as the space which these other two try to flesh out, or operate within (as a friend put it, the “faculty necessary to create minnesang and nature romantic as well as bauxite mining and drone wars”). That philosophers despise imagination is as good a reason as any to check it out. I know mawkish imagination is the suburban faculty par excellence, but, maybe, if we accidentally redeemed part of the suburbs, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Tales from Gimli’s Hospital

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I can’t bear it. The thing I hate most about life, is death. The thing that makes me want to die, is dying. You can’t fire me because I quit, and so on.

Not my death—I don’t care about that. Other deaths terrify me.

All other creatures are fragile and terrifying—when I was a kid I’d walk from room to room, making sure my brother and sisters were breathing while they slept.

My cat, I have had, for 20 years, and she’s slightly older than that. Or was. Today I put her is a shallow muddy hole, wrapped in a scarf from Jerusalem, because I couldn’t stand the thought of her being taken out with the weekly batch of pets and dumped in a collective grave, and because I have friends kind enough to give me a place to put her.

I despise euphemism, and don’t know what to call it when you take a shivering black ball of hair to a vet to be killed. I’ve been calling it execution, as befits a queen. They call it euthanasia, as befits vets.

I have spent 24 hours wrapped up with her cold quivering body—mewling when she was too far from a heat source. I have spent a week injecting her with saline, and checking on her in an orchid-heated room. I have spent years with her: she has been to more countries and joined more conversations than most humans.

The world is colder, and I stopped crying once she died. More or less. And now I don’t really care, because I am dissociated as hell and could pull my skin off and I’m not sure it would feel anything but windier. Cleaning helped, I threw out everything. All the cat things, litter boxes, bowls, floor pads for her final weeks, food, needles, medication, saline, the carrier, and so on, because I don’t plan to have another animal. Some people consider themselves ‘cat people.’ I am not a cat person any more than I am a music person, or a person person: I like some cats, some music, and some people. But I don’t care about cats, I just love my cat.

Rebecca and I and the Cube went to the vet and watched them fill her with a pink poison. I buried her in the corner of a yard while Nick shot off a BB Gun and Rebecca said kaddish. I came home and started to work, not to avoid my feelings, but to avoid my prickly body. Sitting in the middle of a deflating air-mattress, moving my things back to the proper room, unplugging heaters, and sweeping floors. The house is emptier, and so am I.

 

 

My apologies

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One thing we’ve learned from the current crop of leaders: there is no value in a public apology. We’ve learned this just as the need for such apologies is on the rise. Not because we’ve changed our standards, but because, as my dear wife has noted, we’ve started, in some places, and a few cases, to apply the standards we always pretended to have.  In some places. And precious few cases.

Some cases require no apologies, because those involved are such irredeemable shitbags that there is no need to read. We know their apologies are lies.

But what about the other cases, where we are unsure: is it even possible to publicly apologize? And why bother, when a lie or brutish contempt seems, pragmatically speaking, to accomplish more? Those who have decided for you need no apology, and those that have decided against you will discount whatever you say.

Out of habit or honour, or miscalculation, people continue to apologize. And our response is, as usual, more interesting than the thing itself.

I’ve been quite taken with the arrival of what seems to be a new genre, or set of micro-genres: apology analyses. They flourish every time an apology is issued. The text of the apology is scoured, edited, dissected. In some cases this is quite literal:  the apology is edited, re-written, sections crossed out and critiqued in a digital red pen. The apology analysis is often entitled: “There I fixed it for you”. This whimsical pedantry is supposed to be funny and critical at the same time, the author/editor denigrating the apologist while improving thier work. In another version, slightly more serious, we are treated to a list of things the apology should have done (X should have mentioned the victims by name, have not made it about him/herself, etc etc). But in both, the analyst takes the role of a teacher—the last authority the internet will recognize—correcting the work of a bad student.

Apology analysis takes several forms, some better, some worse, but all share the belief that there is a proper way to apologize. I doubt this.

What would a good apology look like? A perfect apology, one that followed all the rules the correctors are correcting for, would look like a lie. I mean, it probably would be a lie, something crafted by a bunch of PR pricks (in this case outsourced: the corrective cloud). It would properly acknowledge the wrongdoing, recognize the other, the rules, express regret not about intention, but action, propose restitution, insinuate the need for growth which did not exploit the wronged party, and would be 100% bullshit.

So, how to apologize? And how to evaluate them, without cultivating a better breed of liars?

Complaint 5/7: the Distraction Distraction

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Dear Blog,

I apologize for have been away so long. It’s been hours, and much has changed. I am older, and have one less beer in the fridge.

The world is in a political frenzy, and our already overburdened rhetoric is collapsing. Critical moves that were (maybe) once helpful now seem to make things worse. Perhaps because sometimes the problems are obvious, and cleverness adds an unneeded layer. Or, perhaps the opposite is true, and our panicked attempts to elevate ourselves by our minds alone—to feel like we ‘get it’—lead to stupid simplifications. Maybe neither. I don’t know.

But I do know one pseudo-critical move has got to go: “It’s a distraction”.

It goes like this.

“While you were freaking out about baby-jails, the Republicans pushed through a bill which lets you eat a poor person’s face!”

Or

“Guys, while you were losing your shit over Trump’s tweets, the Supreme Court made religion mandatory!”

The authors of these critical nuggets know two things: what everyone is upset about; and, what really matters. Sometimes (rarely) they manage to get these two things right.

But there is a third thing “it’s a distraction” requires: a belief in a plan, or agency, or thought. And, again, sometimes this is true.

Every critique has its day, and yes, a leader like Obama was capable of giving with one hand while taking with the other. Here the “It’s a distraction” critique looks something like this:

“While the President was petting kittens on a rainbow flag, he deported 100 children”

“While Congress sang songs in praise of peace, it pulled out of a landmine treaty”

And so on. Here the ‘distraction’ is something nice, and the message of the critique is ‘leaders are not nice.’ This is usually true, an easy bet. With a competent emperor, you always have to watch both of their hands, because they sing sweet songs while picking your pocket.

But the same move, in the present context, doesn’t work. I rarely appeal to my own experience, but, dear readers, I was relentlessly bullied as a child (surprise!). And I learned a few things. One of them is this: a shitty thing is not a distraction from another shitty thing. If a bully tries to distract you, it will be with fake kindness, false friendship, or something of that sort

Now, my point is not to reduce the present surge of global ethno-nationalist lunacy to schoolyard dynamics. I’m not trying to say you can read the violent symptoms of neoliberal economics through child psychology. But I am trying to say that when you’re punched in the arm, it’s not to distract you from the soon-coming knee to the balls. With an incompetent emperor, you also have to watch both of their hands–but only because they’re flailing.

There’s a moral element, too: its rude to tell someone who’s upset that they’re worried about the wrong thing. As a general rule, you shouldn’t tell people what to desire, or what to be upset about. Yes, mass concern is often annoying. There is something in many of us that wants to poke a cruel finger into its swollen belly. But this kind of resentment’s not a good look, nor a great ground for insight. And while there’s nothing wrong with playing the mouse and trying to sort out where the elephant’s foot is coming down next, it’s foolish to think the rampaging pachyderm is putting any thought into it.

Complaint 4/7: Edting

 

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I once kept a diary, and each entry began something like “I am sorry for not having written. A lot has happened since … [last date of entry]”. Now that I keep this blog—much as one keeps a corpse in a basement freezer—I feel like beginning each entry in the same fashion. But because I am now no longer a teenager, but a half-finished person-husk, to write “a lot has happened since” would be a lie.

There have been no entries lately because I’ve been editing papers. Editing is the worst part of writing, and perhaps the most necessary. Necessary not merely because it makes the paper better (supposedly) and more readable (certainly) but because through editing a paper again and again the thoughts you have accumulated can slowly adhere to the paper’s flimsy body, giving it a shape it probably doesn’t deserve. Like the cross-section of an old tree can record the rhythms and catastrophes of a forest through the thickness and darkness of its rings, editing fleshes out a paper with the layers of bullshit dredged up by the writer. A well edited paper is like a cross-section cut out of a large, dried out, well layered turd.

Often a first draft is like a satisfying shit. And you are tempted to flush it out: to get it away, sink it into the unknown depths of the sewage system, or send it to a journal. This is the joy of a blog: the moment I am done writing this, I will click send, and flush it onto the internet. But with a paper, this is not allowed. You must fish it out of the toilet and sift it for signs of sickness. And then, dear one, once the healthy sections have been identified, you must eat them.

I have been told that some people eat shit and like it. I do not. Instead, I hover around the toilet bowl, putting it off at all costs, sniffing, nibbling, never taking a full bite until the day is almost over, and then showing in mouthfuls as fast as possible. Now and then I convince myself it’s better to re-write the whole thing, flush the toilet, and try to adjust my diet until I’ve achieved the right consistency. I’ve been told by better writers (read: all writers) that consistency is important.

But, dear ones, there is no replacement for it, the day is ending, and so I am off to the toilet once again.

 

 

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Buber’s I and Thou begins differentiating between the I-It and the I-You, which can be partly mapped onto third person and second person relationships, or talking-about and talking-to. One might be inclined to think that there should be a ‘another’ word, one that corresponds to the first person. There isn’t.

Let’s say we begin on the upper floor of language, the third person, or the I-It. Here things are talked-about, signs function as Peircean thirds, in that an interpretant connects a sign to an object, language operates like a network, comparing, contrasting, connecting, interpreting, networking, mediating. 

We decend one level to the second floor, closer to the foundation, the I-You, or second person. Here relationships have two terms: me and you, nothing else or no one else determines the relationship. There is no network, no comparison, no positioning, no mediation. What lies beneath?

What differentiates Buber from many other thinkers with a similar ‘mystical’ tone is that (after Daniel at least) there is no ‘first person’ floor, no I-I, no mystical unifying ecstacy.[1] As is well known, the ‘first person’, or I, is always linked to an object, and the object determines the contours, or composition, of the I.[2] The I-You floor is the ground floor.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing below, just no ‘I’: in the basement of Buber’s house, there are no individuals, there are only firsts, affects, relations with only a single term: circulating feelings thoughts, and sensations.

[1] Wolfson, Unity, 423

[2] “For the I of the basic word I-You is different from that in the basic word I-It.”

Complaint 3/7: Calisthenics, or, unneeded movement.

Me: Didn’t we get into the academy so we wouldn’t have to like sports?

Colleague: I think we went to grad school for different reasons.

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Dear ones,

All of my friends and colleagues have turned traitor and now exercise–and my blood is filling up with fat. Driven by fear and peer pressure, I have decided, once again, to  ‘work out’. I will not pay for a gym membership. Not because it is immoral—although I suspect it is—but because I won’t actually go. I once bought a membership and went twice, meaning that I ended up paying seventy-five dollars an hour to engage in meaningless lifting.

This leaves yoga. Yoga works  because it is absolutely humiliating. The humiliation reminds me of all the things I enjoy, without, of course, being enjoyable. More importantly, in a Yoga class, there is a Person with a Voice who will pass judgment if you get up and leave part way through. And after about 10 minutes, I so very much want to leave. After 20 minutes, I feel like I’ve been tear gassed.

Have you ever been tear gassed, dear ones? Tear gas, in the right dosage, convinces your body, your blood and muscles, lungs and brain, that you are going to die. Not in the future, but Right Now. Calling this effluvium ‘tear gas’ was a bit of PR brilliance. Yoga is more or less the same for me, but despite being convinced that I’m done for, I don’t try to run.

I remain, because the Voice’s disapproval is more terrifying than the fact that my flimsy body is convinced it will die after spending more than 3.5 second in whatever scoliotic variation of downward dog I can muster. Dear ones, you think I’m joking, but I really do panic, every time.

So, I have developed a strategy. It is not as good as my old strategy, which was to never exercise, or the strategy I developed after that, which was to end each session with a beer and a burger, but it is the strategy I can now afford: I turn my panic, which wants to run, into a paralyzing fear. Only fear can stop me from fleeing when, as it always does, The Voice say something like this:

“This is good place to relax, and breath into your body”

But I cannot. I cannot because I am in pain, because my muscles are burning, because a woman twice my age is gracefully sliding through the same pose, while a man twice my size is grunting with sweaty self-appreciation in the corner. I cannot because I am weak, and should not be here.

But the doctors have spoken, the cholesterol is mounting, and the Voice must not see me falter. So I stay there, quivering, squinting through sweat at a clock that does not move, cultivating my fear.