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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.

Complaint 2/7: the Darwin Awards

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Dear ones,

For those of you lucky enough to not know: the Darwin Awards are ‘awards’ granted to people who “eliminate themselves in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.” The ‘official’ awards are a product of the early internet, now kept alive by a failed microbiologist. But people use ‘Darwin Award’ as a figure of speech, for any death brought about by stupidity or recklessness.

The Darwin Awards appeal to a slightly above average intellect. The sort of person who unironically reads reason.com, or talks about having a ‘rational conversation’ when someone gets upset. The dude bro who calls things he doesn’t like ‘fallacies’, and considers his point made by a few words of Latin that he doesn’t really understand. Mensa. Anything to do with Mensa. Mensa and the Darwin Awards are two angels perpetually getting married in a mediocre heaven, and the service is given by that guy on the subway who interrupts your reading to tell you about a literature class that changed his life—even though he never bothered to take another.

The Darwin Awards are the unneeded dessert at all-you-can-eat Mandarin buffet of life’s real dangers and suffering. Setting aside that we are seeking satisfaction in accidents that are far more likely to befall the poor and desperate, or that taking delight in ‘exotic’ deaths is plainly racist, the Standard Award looks at a death which follows an (admittedly) dim-witted risk, and asks: Who would do such a thing? Who would stand on top of a moving car in a field? Who would build a Molotov cocktail after seeing one on TV? Who? What kind of an idiot?

The question is rhetorical, but, dear ones, I have a real answer. Me. Not current, exhausted, neurotic and cowardly me, but me in my teens and 20s. Me, all my friends, and most of their friends, and most people I enjoy talking to. All of us have more than once been brought within a few inches of a Darwin Award by a few drinks and a bad idea, or even just one night without sleep.

Perhaps the award dispensers are shamefully attracted by alternate versions of their youth where their stupidities killed them, and they no longer need to work a full time-job. Perhaps this is some kind of inverted desire: to risk death not for glory or Mel Gibson, but because It would be amazing for Once to not have to Worry about the fact that we live in a terrifying world of plate glass and moving cars, high walkways, subway cars and electric wires. The cost of abandoning our worry might be death, but I think we’re all jealous of those who go through life without it.

When one of these free spirits takes a hit, we are envious. And so, out of a spirit of revenge, we ensure they’re granted a posthumous award, handed to them by a gloating tired windbag, who probably cheated on his Mensa application.

Complaint 1/7: The Email Chain

 

 

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In an effort to begin writing, I will be posting a series of small, unedited complaints. After that, I hope to return to dead-blogging the Earl of Shaftesbury.

Dear ones,

As I’ve aged, the pleasure I take in trauma has translated into taking on too much work—a genteel form of suffering that befits my station, but leaves me thoroughly uninspired. Worse: too much work leads to breathless prose, and the internet has already saturated the world with the moist wheezing of insecure people with no time for themselves.

And so, I have decided to guard my summer writing time as if it were a loose lipped drunk in witness protection, hiding it from the authorities and well-meaning neighbours. The summer is attacked on both sides by committees and class prep. Both necessary, both bloated and intent on stealing from me what little energy I have. As is well known, the advance attack is made via the email. What is perhaps less well known is that the mid-west has augmented the attack with the Midwestern Email Chain.

The chain drags behind the email, and each link is forged out of a freakishly positive ejaculation. It goes like this. I write an email to a group, saying “I have left some old crackers and a sock in the break-room, please feel free to use them in your presentation to the provost tomorrow,” and click send. Within the hour, one of the members of the group will reply to everyone (this is key: everyone must be involved) saying something like:

“Great work, Dustin! Thank you so much! The world wouldn’t be the same without you!”

Within 15-20 minutes, another link is added:

“I love mouldy socks, this is amazing! Really proud to be part of the team!”

And then another:

“Socks are the BEST! Really reminds me of my undergrad! Thanks!!!!!!”

…,

“Oh.My.God. I love this!”

And so on. There is no harm in this–it can even be mildly touching. It is, however, a problem when you have not authored the first email, when you are a recipient of it, and, say, three or four links in a quickly building chain. It is especially a problem when you are clearly expected to participate, and yet have inherited an absolute allergy to effusiveness from your father.

Dear ones, I cannot do it: I cannot publicly say ‘good job’. I cannot join this community of praise and relentless affirmation. Taciturn dickishness is my birthright, and I cannot betray it. So, instead, I resentfully diagnose: what is behind this chain? Why is it public? Why do otherwise elegant people write with one hand trained by habit to hit Shift+1 after every sentence?

The best answer I have is stolen from a friend: all communication occurs against a background of hostility. To push back against this assumption, we have exclamations of praise and wonder. Each email translates, roughly, into:

“I do not hate you. I wish you no harm.”

And this is a good thing. I do not want to be hated, not here, and not by these people. But I cannot reciprocate, because my vanity will not allow me, and my time is running out.

A series of indefensible proposition, all true:

1) The first critique is more aesthetically interesting than the third.

2) The third critique shaped what a lot of philosophers think about art. The first critique shaped how many artists think about, and do, art.

3) Why? The claim that the structure of appearance is an appearance is fun for artists. A disaster for philosophy.
The notion of disinterest is fun for philosophy. A disaster for art.

4) The first critique is part of the early 18th century aesthetic project, where sensation (including dream and imagination) was central, and art just a privileged instance of sensation.

The third critique is an attempt at a ‘philosophy of art,’ and is very 19th century. The requires a stable of idea of art. There is no such thing, so it dissolves into a discussion on this point

5) Early aesthetics is more important right now than the philosophy of art. It deals with design, screens, cognition, decoration, and so on.

6) The third critique is a snooze-fest, other than the parts about biology.

7) Early aesthetics allows art a place (expansively speaking: it starts with poetry; Lacoon is nothing original in this sense) but is compelling because it also allows us, if we wish, to ignore the concept of art.

8) It is also compelling because it allows for aesthetics to sustain its sensuality, or carnality—from Baumgarten to Boyarin?—while also sustaining a link to cognition.

The inter-discipline and the Field

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Articles calling on academics to ‘be engaged’ appear with metronomic regularity, almost as steadily as we are asked to use less jargon, or ‘be more accessible’. The content is homogeneous but the tone differs, varying from “look guys, I’m trying to save the humanities over here” to “get a real job you punks”. All are grotesque. Not because the people calling for engagement get angry when the ‘engagement’ actually occurs (although this is annoying) but because these articles ignore a pretty basic question:

Why should academics be more ‘engaged’ than a server at taco bell, or an electrician? Are we so important? Am I so special? My mother thinks I am, but I don’t think she should be steering public policy.

I think there are two reasons for this repetitive oversight:

  1. Academic work isn’t considered real work
  2. Labourers aren’t considered real people

With (1) we have real people doing not-real-work, and with (2) we have real work being done by not-real-people. I am not sure who the real people doing real work are. Likely  CEOs, consultants, drug dealers, and other people above my station.

Those asking us to engage request nothing less than that we cease our nonsense and start doing real work, work that matters—like dealing drugs or raiding pension funds. It is a request that we justify ourselves properly. It is also the request that we grow up, admit that academic work is useless, and work towards the common good.

But, what is the justification for our not-real-work? For academics even one-half a generation before me, it was The Field. The Field was a beautiful thing, as this recently discovered dialogue between a Beautiful Soul and an administrative Philistine illustrates:

               Philistine: Why are you studying ancient Ugaritic tax invoices?

               Beautiful Soul: To advance The Field.

               Philistine: Why recreate Diderot’s path home from the brothel?

               BS: The Field of brothelology demands it.

In this golden age, there were an unstable number of Fields (History, Literature, Biology, Phrenology, and so on) which were both spaces to be cultivated, and forces to be advanced.

Of course, no one has ever known where one field ends and the next begins, and most things can’t be understood if you aren’t willing to wander across multiple territories. But The Field allowed you to justify your work without appealing either to making money or improving society. It was a fantasy, but one that gave legitimacy to many wonderful things. Now it is gone, and money and the greater good are the only legitimacy we have left.

Clearly unable to make money, humanities professors are thus supposed to improve society, to be useful, and advance social justice. Which we should. Hell, we should also advance economic justice. But–and this is the trick–everyone should do this. I have about as many opportunities to advance the cause of justice with my work on Mendelssohn as an electrician does when she considers who to apprentice next. That is: some, but not much.

In any case, the Fields are gone, and we are interdisciplinary now. Older curmudgeons ask how we can be inter-disciplinary if we have never studied in a Field. For some reason, this doesn’t bother me. I just read and write, and I assume that’s what people like me have always done. But I do not like enforced inter-disciplinarity; every funding application I write stresses how inter-disciplinary I am. And this is true. But I dislike knowing that these words must appear in either the first or second paragraph, or I will never be funded. Because my work is housed in and protected by actual departments, and mandatory inter-disciplinarity weakens them. And my work is still half-justified by the fact that it might help people in a understand things, and better their work in their little field, or gardens. But the Fields are all gone, gardening is for the rich, and I am running out of justifications.

A hamster’s thoughts on his first child

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There is a thing called ‘sleep training’ that parents are ordered to go through after producing a child. It goes like this: for the first few months you just replicate the womb, but outside of your bodies. You sit in this grubby amniotic-apartment, and quiver over a tiny little fragment, a creature whose fragility is so intense you assume it must be eternal. In this window of time, babies, sometimes, die in their sleep, and no one really knows why. Unknowns birth superstition and arbitrary sacrifice, and so you sacrifice your most precious possessions, your sleep and sanity, to appease the god of SIDS (Sudden infant death syndrome). According to Wikipedia, the chief symptom of SIDS is “Death of a child less than one year of age.” That is the symptom.

After three months, the chance of this happening reduces, but, if you’re me, you still live in near-total fear, as the child-fragment becomes more of a child-slug: totally inept and useless, but quasi-independent. The womb becomes a normal room, albeit one with a baby in it. After 6 months, the slug evolves into something like a self-rolling log, and it is now safe to push it into another room while you sleep, and watch it roll around on what is called a ‘baby monitor’: a device that transforms a normal semi-bourgeois room into a lo-fi horror movie, replete with rustling sounds, haunting cries, chaotic artifacts, and glowing eyes. Bad film equipment conjures ghosts, and the ‘monitor’ conveniently positions these ghosts right around the cradle, where they belong. After a full year there is, thankfully, no danger of SIDs, because if a 366 day old baby dies in her sleep, they call it something else. (Unless it’s a leap year).

Six months into this process, you ‘sleep train’ a baby. From the womb to the room, to the chamber down the hall: you put it in a crib, sing it a Yiddish worker’s anthem, and let it cry itself to sleep while you watch it flail on the ghost machine. It is terrifying, but it is necessary, or so I am told.

I once thought that the necessary was the non-contingent. I now know this to be false: the necessary is what Google tells you to do. Montreal Lemmy, a.k.a. ‘Cube,’ has taught me the spiritual value of the path of least resistance. I once looked at people on this path with contempt, but I have joined their docile number, and willingly. Google determines the direction of this path, and so Google is, functionally speaking, the third parent in this home. When I am unsure which way to turn, I go to my laptop, enter my search terms, and submit to the results. I rarely get to the bottom of the results page before I have taken up my marching orders.

And so, sleep training. Here google and the doctor speak in a single voice, and the Cube has been exiled down the hall.

The difficulty is: it has not been so terrible. After a song or two, the little guy sleeps more soundly than I do, and clearly misses me far less than I miss him. Apparently, he didn’t need my comforts as much as I needed his, and he now sleeps without my fearful interruptions. I, of course, remain petrified, and wake up to every monitor hiss and crackle, staring at his night-vision-ghost body on a tiny digital screen, secure in the knowledge that I am marching on the road towards clingy, emotionally demanding, parenthood.