At the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood.
And the snakes will grow like trees,
stuffing skin under skin,
and in their turgid leather casings,
lie about on the ground
like broken branches.
Popular versus classical didactics
If you do not subscribe to the dominant ideology of your time all its art forms will seem as false, stilted and contrived as popular art from the past — and for precisely the same reason.
Popular art always reinforces the current dominant ideology, by presenting an image of reality formatted according to its ideals, prejudices and delusions.
When we collectively move on from one decade to another we move on from one grotesquely willful misrepresentation of reality to another equally (if not worse) grotesquely willful misrepresentation, and from there we look back and jeer at how naively awful we were back then.
I solemnly swear, we are so unbelievably much worse right now that we’ve ever been before, it will make the ludicrous distortions of the 70s and 80s positively pale in comparison.
You don’t see it? You don’t understand? It’s not because there is nothing to understand. It is because you are failing to understand something glaringly real. Wait. You’ll see.
You’ve judged the past according to today’s standards, and you refuse to listen to those who have tried to explain how time works.
Your values are absolute and everyone should have acknowledged them all along.
To you I offer Anaximander’s Maxim: “Beings must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of time.”
For those who have done enough truly independent thinking — which means overcoming the dominant ideology of their youth and of the current time, and which also entails asking questions we are not permitted to ask (which are most certainly not the utterly harmless “dangerous questions” our cultural elites pat you on the head for asking — popular culture starts stinking of the most ham-fisted didacticism.
If that stench prevents you from enjoying art, you have no choice but to flee to higher art, which is formatted according to lower-frequency dominant ideologies — ideals which endure not just months or years like today’s moral “fast fashion” but whole decades and sometimes centuries.
You are normal and ok
The more radical changes a person has undergone, the less that person will take seriously the claims others make of having reached a final conclusive truth.
Every radical change of understanding re-presents the world in light of a new truth. These truths seem conclusive and final. This characteristic of apparent finality, however, is not in any way evidence of actual finality. Apparent finality, if treated as only apparently final, can give way to new truths that appear equally final.
If an apparently final truth does, in fact, become actually final — that is, if a person or group of people refuses to allow more radical changes to happen — this is due to the fact that radical truths are not only theoretical, but also perceptual, practical and moral.
Radical truths are less matters of thought content than they are enworldments.
Enworldments penetrate beneath language, into that dark wordless ground in which language is rooted, from which words grow, and without which words lose meaning and wither into abstraction and nonsense. Enworldments provide the very givens of our experience.
Enworldments project fields of relevance that determine what in our daily life we notice and what we ignore, the degree and kind of relevance we perceive in what we do notice. Enworldments give us the givens of perception.
Enworldments also project fields of intelligibility that determine both the spontaneous connections we intuit in our present and past experiences, as well as the kinds of connections it occurs to us to make if we attempt to consciously think some matter through. Enworldments give us the givens of understanding.
Enworldments also project fields of possibility that determine our actions, both the spontaneous reactions we have before before thinking, intentional responses we think through, plan out and execute and habits we cultivate. Enworldments give us the givens of action.
Perhaps most importantly, enworldments project fields of value that determine what is moral or immoral, virtuous or vicious, attractive or repulsive, good or bad. Values may be what we spontaneously experience, and they may also be codified rules for calculating or assigning values. These values determine where we scrutinize, challenge or attack a value as an illusion, delusion, bias or distortion and where we embrace a value as given and defend it as self-evident truth. Enworldments give us givens of morality.
Values are the primary guardians of enworldments, protecting them from entertaining irrelevant data, from uncharitable or skeptical interrogation, from potentially undermining experimentation. These challenges are bad and should not be suffered or tolerated.
Morality is what preserves and stabilizes the other givens and allows an enworldment to endure. If one wishes to radically change, it is primarily the morality of that enworldment that must be overcome.
This is why Nietzsche was an immoralist. He sought new ideals, new enworldments, new human ideals — ones that we believe from the heart and not just from ethical algorithms and societal conformism.
Earlier, I mentioned that “values may be what we spontaneously experience, and they may also be codified rules for calculating or assigning values.” Codified rules can harmonize with and reinforce spontaneously felt values. Or they can clash and contradict. When this happens we are at a fork in the road. We can ignore taboos and prohibitions against questioning moral fundamentals, and investigate matters to see if we can resolve the contradiction.
Or we can reject codified morality in favor of felt values.
Most of us, however, cleave to codified morality. We train ourselves to mistrust, disregard and repress our spontaneous, felt valuations. We affirm only what we are supposed to affirm and condemn what we are supposed to condemn — even with respect to our own personal moral responses. Perhaps we see our own subjectivity as manipulated and corrupted and in need of rational corrections.
If we do this too much, eventually our value-sense weakens and numbs until we no longer feel it. Many of us become ethical automatons, alienated from our feeling selves, no longer able to exercise personal judgment. We become dependent on analysis provided by others, and we lack all inner resistance to arbitrary valuations. We see something ugly, or hateful, or vicious and we can without much difficulty assign it the opposite value.
It is only superficial truths that are concerned primarily with how we think and speak. They stay obediently within an enworldment, and work within its givens — especially its perceptual and moral givens. Superficial truths can be delightful to play with, they can be daring, transgressive and fanciful in the ways interesting games must be if they are to be absorbing, and they can turn up useful cognitive instruments, but they are inconsequential to our fundamental experiences.
I find that play tedious and at odds with my project, which is to overcome intellectual and moral dishonesty and the self-alienation it causes. Far too many people are obedient to moral ideals they must lie and labor over, with greater and greater difficulty. And now the lies are so fragile that the liars require cooperation from everyone to maintain them to keep unwanted feelings fully repressed.
For people in this state, honesty is an existential threat.
But they are too afraid to break taboos and ask themselves the kinds of questions that can restore harmony between our felt and codified values.
The only solution they can conceive is to control external reality and to prohibit all honest expression so dishonesty becomes internalized through habit, and our new contrived “truth” seems equal to the faint repressed memories of spontaneous given truths.
We Americans just cannot kick our puritan addictions, can we? We finally free ourselves of our need to assert the existence of a thoroughly unbelievable “god”, only to enslave ourselves to other equally unbelievable nonsense. We seem unable to make peace with truth.
But know this: You do not have to believe what you cannot believe.
You are allowed to ask questions, even taboo questions,
If that feels unsafe to you, you are right. It is unsafe. Most people like to feel comfortable, to feel like good people, to frolic in the playground of permissible rebellion. The majority of people choose to keep on lying and lying.
So, if you are a liar, that is ok. It is normal.
If you need to celebrate your lying as virtuous, that is also ok. It is normal.
If you need to call the most dramatically abnormal abnormalities normal, that is ok. It has become normal.
But some of us think being normal is beneath our dignity, and choose abnormality. We do not want to be ok. We ask prohibited questions and produce incomprehensible answers.
That incomprehensibility is fortuitous for all you liars. It doesn’t make any sense. It needs to not make sense. You are in a safe space, a place of its own, a collective enworldment set adrift from anything immediate.
Late-stage managerialism? Postmanagerialism?
I am going to channel Burnham by applying his 1940 analysis of capitalism to its successor social order, managerialism.
Burnham claimed that the capitalism versus socialism framing inherited from Marx’s analysis of 19th century industrial capitalism omitted the social class best poised to take control over production in the 20th century, namely the managerial class. He left them out because this class emerged as a result (and cause) of the exponentially compounding complexities of industrial production. They were not significant enough as a class for Marx to consider them as rivals to the proletariat as inheritors of production after capitalism collapses.
Burnham’s claim is that with the onset of the Great War, capitalism did collapse, and that instead of the worker’s revolution promised by Marx, the world got, instead, a manager’s revolution. This is why Soviet Russia never got anything anywhere near a free, classless society, but instead something nobody could quite nail down. It certainly wasn’t capitalism, but society remained just as classist.
It only became thinkable once this third class, the managerial class — the new dominant class, was considered, and treated as a dominant class with sharply differing class interests from that of the capitalist class and the working class.
Most “leftist” managerial class members still imagine their interests as aligned with the working class, and when workers accuse the managerial class of being oppressive and contemptuous, ask themselves “What’s the matter with Kansas?” with no intention of letting anyone besides themselves answer. (And of course, refusing to listen to objections and entertaining their validity, preferring instead to diagnose the objectors as deluded, manipulated, vicious and afflicted with false consciousness is precisely the kind of contempt that so infuriates the working class.) But these interests are the furthest thing from aligned, and the better the managerial class did, the worse the working class has fared.
Burnham claimed WWI was the end of capitalism and that WWII was the first great managerial class war. He saw Russia and Germany both as rapid and radical managerial revolutions, which accounted for their violence. He saw the New Deal as a primitive beginning of a managerial revolution in the United States, and that full entry into the war (still over a year away at the publication of his book in early 1941) would accelerate the process.
I believe Burnham was largely right. Much of what he predicted did happen. I’m too lazy to list it all out, but if you are curious, I do recommend reading the Managerial Revolution. It is fun to read — as long as you aren’t attached to popular managerial class ideological narcissism that has well-educated, well-compensated pampered managerials situated on the side of justice. Ain’t so — but nobody can force you to see what you don’t want to see. Not so far, anyway. Keep “doing the work” of misdirection if that helps you continue seeing yourself as a good person, and not as a decadent overclasser seeking moral entertainments as relief from your anomie!
Here is my theory, and it blatantly rips off all of Burnam’s coolest moves.
Managerialism has ended. It fell when the World Trade Center buildings fell. It continued falling when the economy collapsed in 2007-2009. What has been replacing it is a new order that has little and decreasing need for a managerial class.
The managerial class has been in spiritual decay for decades. The postmodernism that electrified universities throughout the 80s and 90s only set the stage for intellectual collapse in the new millennium. As far as I can tell, anyone whose university education happened in the new millennium has experienced only one viable political ideology their entire lives and is seized with existential dread and willful incomprehension when faced with any truth not carefully processed and formatted for their effortless moral consumption. Such people are unequipped to diagnose their own political condition. Instead, they interpret the symptoms of class decline in the most naive way possible, projecting their class despair on any surface suitable for projection. The world is ending in myriad ways. In this unprecedentedly safe time, everything is a physical threat — violence!
What is happening is the emergence of a new social order with no more need for white collar workers than for blue collar workers. And a new social class of technology elites — with class interests at odds with the managerial class and the working class — developed within the managerial class, has separated from it, and is now poised to displace the managerial class.
The technological overclass has less and less need to compromise or to feign goodwill toward either the managerial class or the working class. In some ways, this could look like a return to capitalism, but one with diminishing need for human exploitation. If you have AI, robotics and new, low-labor fabrication technologies what good is a large population? They strain the planet, and are a potential source of unrest. Once again, a few hyper-wealthy individuals can own and directly control all production, without human intermediaries.
Liberal arts education has shifted focus (to put it mildly) from pluralism to an impotent, decadent and sentimental monism. The only students who get rigorous training are in technological fields, because this is all that is useful to the rising overclass.
It appears to managerial class members that they are helping vulnerable identities — nearly all of whom, incidentally are members of the managerial class, but whose essential identity is erased so they can become proxies for actually oppressed underclassers. Likewise, with class erased, underclassers who, to ideologically-formatted eyeballs resemble hyper-rich information technology elites, can be attacked and abused as effigies, without any sacrifice of safety or comfort. And these same people, for a variety of reasons, are childless, and help the managerial class approach its optimal size: zero.
If you are a managerial class member and want to really be on the right side of history (though perhaps not as you imagine it) there are two main ways to approach this goal, depending on your tastes and inclinations.
If you are roughly average in intelligence and courage, continue embracing the progressivist ideology. Keep seeing everything in terms of the standard canon of identities. Direct your hatred at the underclass who are prejudiced against these identities. This legitimizes your hatred and gives harmless vent to your class anxieties, and it also gives the underclass a legitimate target for its anger. This is convenient for the new overclass, who would prefer the obsolete classes to fight among themselves instead of uniting against them. Whatever directs their hostilities away from the technology overclass is good. And if it helps reduce the world population to sustainable levels, that is double-plus good.
And do continue celebrating marginalization, powerlessness and victimization. The more we managerials practice admiring these virtues, the more we can retain some self-respect as a class when dress rehearsal ends, and our everyday reality is one of actual marginalization, powerlessness and victimization. In the future the ability to see what is most degraded, unattractive, useless and weak as what is most admirable will be an essential survival skill. We should be proactive about this. We should find absolutely the most non-admirable people and insist on celebrating them as the very pinnacle of humankind.
If you are smarter than average or have a weakness for daring or transgressive ideas, you can replatform yourself on transhumanism, and be an early adopter of the technology elite’s own ideology.
I hope I’m wrong about all this. I probably am. This, however, is how things seem to me at this strange moment in history.
The anxieties swirling around ChatGPT, Dal-E and other advancements in AI have me asking myself almost daily: “Is this person I’m conversing with human or AI?”
It has become almost a habit to search for signs of human intellect. And this has brought me to a disturbing observation: Few humans these days can pass the Turing Test.
When I was in fourth grade I had my first crush. “Crush” is a fitting term for it. It was too much for a ten-year-old to handle. I became entirely preoccupied with what this other person saw, felt and thought — in particular when she looked back at me.
I had absolutely no idea at this point in my life what might be going on over there in her mind. She was a mystery to me, but somehow her presence in the world turned the entire world magical. The world as I knew it was shocked out of its orbit around myself. I was overcome with a pleasant nausea, my body was wracked and overheated, and I was lovesick.
And the worst possible outcome transpired: She did not like what she saw. She rendered that kind of terrible, inexorable judgment older girls (at least the merciful ones) learn to soften. She was nauseated by me, too — but in a very different way, and it crushed me.
While I never did figure out how to dispel this mystery, or conquer or possess it, or control or suppress it, I did learn how to win more favorable judgments (partly by developing my own judgment). And I learned how to inhabit this magical sphere, how to function and flourish within it, and how to order my life according to its strange laws of mutuality.
And while this way of living did expand the region of clear and mundane familiarity, it also lengthened the shimmering outer boundary where mystery recommences, each time reaffirming the inexhaustibility of mystery.
The above is intended as a response to a question I asked myself in the margin of Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. He wrote:
Hegel’s strategy here is quite reminiscent of the later Wittgenstein’s dissolution of problems by showing that our terms only make sense in mundane contexts, whereas philosophy confuses itself by taking them out of the language-games where they do work. It is then that we tend to misconstrue notions in bizarre, that is, philosophical ways: “When we do philosophy we are like savages, primitive people, who hear the expressions of civilized men, put a false interpretation on them, and then draw the queerest conclusions from it.” Within normal conversation or during standard inquiry, we can make perfect sense of an idea corresponding to reality as it really is or the world apart from our conceptions, but once we stop these mundane endeavors and become bewitched by the sublime vision of an unknowable world existing in absolute isolation from all human contact, it has gotten away from us.
And I ask: “Why are we attracted — or repelled — by bewitchment?”
I think the answer is contained in the story of my crush.
Show me your response to lovesickness, and I’ll show you your attitude toward religious life…
Do you want immunity to lovesickness? Have you intentionally immunized yourself to it? Or have you accidentally become immune?
Do you want to treat lovesickness, and recover from it as quickly as possible?
Do you want to practice social distancing, or even self-quarantine?
Do you want to deaden its symptoms with drugs and distractions? Or do you want to intensify its symptoms?
Do you want to experience it with full awareness and attention?
Do you want to prolong it forever? Or do you want to catch it, and when its symptoms abate, catch it again, and again, and again?
Do you want to try to inflict it yourself on others? Perhaps without suffering it yourself?
Do you want to possess and control your lovesickness — or possess and control its source? Do you refuse to become lovesick unless you can possess and control it?
Have you refused lovesickness? Do you dismiss lovesickness as an exaggeration of mundane affection? Would you prefer to be lovesick toward an imaginary image?
Would you prefer to be lovesick for yourself? Would you prefer to be lovesick for lovesickness?
Do you scoff lovesickness into nonexistence, or debase it into impossibility?
These are only a few of myriad possibilities.
My favorite opening line to any book is: “Supposing that truth is a woman — what then?”
Martin Buber was the person who activated my Jewish soul:
To man the world is twofold, in accordance with, his twofold attitude.
The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.
The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.
The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.
The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.
Hence the I of man is also twofold.
For the I of the primary word I-Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I-It.
Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.
Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.
Primary words are spoken from the being.
If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it.
If It is said the I of the combination I-It is said along with it.
The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.
From Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah:
Luria wrote hardly anything. When asked by one of his disciples why he did not compose a book, Luria is reported to have said: “It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received? How can I set it down in a book?” We know of Luria’s teachings from his disciples’ writings, especially those of Hayyim Vital.
Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process of emanation start? If Ein Sof pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. According to some versions of Luria’s teaching, the purpose of the withdrawal was cathartic: to make room for the elimination of harsh judgment from Ein Sof.
Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tiqqun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tiqqun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah. In a sense, the Messiah is fashioned by our ethical and spiritual activity. Luria’s teaching resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.”
. . .
In the beginning Ein Sof emanated ten sefirot, which are of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot. Division and change do not apply to it, only to the external sefirot.
To help you conceive this, imagine water flowing through vessels of different colors: white, red, green, and so forth. As the water spreads through those vessels, it appears to change into the colors of the vessels, although the water is devoid of all color. The change in color does not affect the water itself, just our perception of the water. So it is with the sefirot. They are vessels, known, for example, as Hesed, Gevurah, and Tif’eret, each colored according to its function, white, red, and green, respectively, while the light of the emanator — their essence — is the water, having no color at all. This essence does not change; it only appears to change as it flows through the vessels.
Better yet, imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot — the variegated stained glass — judgment or compassion prevails.
Liberalism, esoteric and exoteric
Pluralism is for the few, not the many. Pluralism is the esoteric heart of Liberalism.
The exoteric face of Liberalism is the Law of Tolerance.
If you pursue tolerance, eventually pluralism may develop.
Starting with pluralism, though, will produce only intolerance and illiberalism.
Pluralism is a way of being first, and only secondarily a belief.
Faith ensouls doctrine.
Doctrines can, and often are, misunderstood and misanimated.
An author can be brought to life through understanding.
An author — or all authors– can be declared dead by those who wish to animate texts with thoughts of their own. But then the author would be better described as undead.
Being of worlds
Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word
Fearless on my breath
— Massive Attack, “Teardrop”
And being is a gerund, a verbal noun formed from the verb be.
A being is one who does existence.
I think I prefer the use of the word “enworldment” to the pluralist use of “world” for two reasons:
- We do, whether we like it or not (and perhaps especially when we do not like it), have an ineradicable sense that there is a world beyond our limited experience of the world and our experience-derived understanding of the world. * (see note below.) The word “enworldment” acknowledges this world beyond what we make of it, which to each of us seems, for all the world, to be The World. Enworldment implies pluralism within the context of metaphysical realism.
- Enworldments are accomplishments, not preexisting things. Beings autonomically produce enworldments through the activity of being.
Note * A friend brilliantly named this sense “exophany” (exo “outside” + -phany “showing”).
No, this ineradicable sense of exophany cannot be logically proven. But it also cannot be logically proven that what cannot be logical proven is therefore not real.
So we are faced with a highly consequential choice: Do we lay reality on a logical bed of procrustes and make them coextensive, or do we accept that logic is only one actor in a larger experiential production? I choose the latter, because I believe both love and morality demand it. Perhaps you will claim you do not have this ineradicable sense or that you have eradicated it, and if so, congratulations: I believe you have a maimed intellect.
The Internomenology of Being
The word phenomenon too strongly suggests a speculative approach to knowledge.
Internomenon might be better.
We know reality not by sensing it and recording what we sense in our minds. We participate in reality and interact with fellow beings within reality, and these interactions are what we know. We come to know more about both our own (transcendental) noumenal self and (transcendent) noumenal others through these interactions.
Whatever of the thing-in-itself (ipseic or alteric) that does not participate is unknown. What is known is what participates in particular ways in particular interactions.
For your convenience, here is Peirce’s Pragmatic Maxim, because it should be coming to mind: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”
… Once again, I feel like I’m lurking about in the suburbs of Whitehead. …
Beautiful and most brave
From Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism:
Hegel cannot accept Kant’s transcendental idealism because it presupposes a transcendent realism: the commitment to a realm that in principle can never be experienced by humans.
In the margin I wrote “This is a good commitment; it is the essence of goodness.”
Braver published this book in 2007. It’s a useful book, or at least useful for what I am trying to do with my book (which is to propose a philosophy of design which assumes transcendent realism but affords us finite but significant latitude to design our own transcendental conceptive schema through which we may interact with the inner-face of transcendence and participate within reality in life-enhancing ways.)
It approaches the Continental Realism versus Anti-Realism debate using methods drawn from analytic philosophy to produce clear, sharp distinctions on a number of key fronts — and to demonstrate how analytic and continental styles of philosophy can be used in concert for better depth and thoughtcraft.
A few years later, Braver published a followup paper, “A Brief History of Continental Realism”, where he introduced a new term “Transgressive Realism” which he described as
a middle path between realism and anti-realism which tries to combine their strengths while avoiding their weaknesses. Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumena), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories, the way God’s commandment to kill Isaac irreconcilably clashes with the best understanding of ethics we are capable of.
This is exactly what I believe, which why I’ve described my metaphysics as a metaphysics of surprise. Only surprise reminds us that something transcends our minds. As Bruno Latour put it, “Whatever resists trials is real.” Our participation in reality constantly produces resistance, and helps us recognize the difference between our understanding and what engages our understanding while exceeding it.
I attach religious significance to actively wanting transcendence, reality, resistance and seeking it even while we seek to understand. We do understand, but there is always more to understand — inexhaustibly more — and if we are alert, sensitive and generous, we will notice how much and how often we need to understand differently and better, in order to accommodate our fellow-persons and those aspects of reality they care about. This is not worship of human “otherness”, but human otherness where transcendence reveals itself and challenges us most conspicuously.
Unfortunately, power has a way of tempting us to substitute our own understanding for reality. We want to control our environment to use technology to keep things things reliable and predictable in order to tame surprise and constrain and confine it to the realm of play. A little surprise delights us. Radical surprise disrupts us, immerses us in chaos, crushes us with perplexity.
Even the threat of impending radical surprise fills us with apprehension and puts us in fight-or-flight mode. It makes us nasty.
And here is where power gets its bad reputation. If a fellow person threatens us with radical surprise, and we have the means, we will use our power to make that threat go away. We will require that person to be polite and avoid controversial or potentially hurtful topics. We will prohibit certain bad opinions from being spoken in public. Then we will prohibit these opinions from being said in semi-public, then from being said in private. Then even indirect or accidental expressions become taboo. Eventually even the suspicion that these opinions are privately held — or even unconsciously present — is addressed as a threat. We might feel entitled or even obligated to help people stop having these beliefs and adopting our own instead. We may start requiring behaviors that are performative affirmation of our beliefs. We might require explicit declarations of agreement, as conditions of employment or membership in civil society. In some places and times, these conforming behaviors and declarations have been conditions of the right to continue living in the community, or living at all.
A person with control of enough wealth, institutions and political force will almost inevitably, unconsciously begin to slide in this direction, demanding more and more surprise-damping conformity from fellow-persons to erase the disturbing difference between transcendent reality and our own thoughts about it.
Solipsism is the ultimate luxury; when weaker people are compelled to serve the solipsism of the stronger, this is abuse of power.
To be good, we must want transcendence, seek transcendence, accommodate transcendence even when we have the power to dictate reality to those lacking the power to resist and to be respected as real.
Pay close attention to who is unworthy of your consideration — because here is where your root biases — your sacred biases — do their work.
Pay attention to those biases you are biased toward and those you are biased against, because these are where your root biases reveal themselves to others while concealing themselves from you. These also are biases — your sacred biases, the ones who do the most self-righteous evil.
Critical thinking makes its own thinking the object of critique — it is reflexive. Critical thinking avails itself of the critiques of others to detect what it would otherwise miss. We are tempted to choose only the critiques from others that we are biased toward receiving — the ones who reinforce our sacred biases — but these are self-gratifying and easy, which is why this kind of “critique” is so popular — and, for a enterprising exploiter of fads, so lucrative. People don’t go to tent revivals because they are averse to being called sinners. They go because the diagnosis and remedy is a small price to pay for moral omniscience.
Listen to those who are angry and fucking hate your guts because you are so comfortable, complacent, omniscient, smugly self-satisfied, so aligned with “the right side of history”, so good — when in fact you are just a typical oppressor, too powerful to be confronted with that fact.
Consider for a moment, the possibility that, despite all their obvious faults, whether they are not to some degree justified in hating you. Test your irony and see if you can hold both conceptions in your mind simultaneously and hear the chord they form. Switch from straw-manning their faults to steel-manning their assessment of your faults. See if you can hear all four sides of this conflict.
Do all this and then I might respect you as a critical thinker and a lover of transcendence — of wisdom — of inconceivable conceptions waiting to be born.
There is a point in every philosophy when the philosopher’s “conviction” steps onto the stage — or to use the language of an ancient Mystery:
pulcher et fortissimus.
The ass entered
beautiful and most brave.
My conviction, beautiful and most brave: Thou shalt welcome the stranger… transcendence.
This conviction, this priority, this “prior” — this sacred bias — is unreasonable and stupid, and I am unable to not believe it is absolute good.
Maybe you can help me believe otherwise.
A cure for nihilism
I just had this thought as if it were my own:
Poetry is language attending to what transcends language.
If Jan Zwicky hasn’t expressed this thought it would surprise me. If she expressed it in exactly these words it would not surprise me. I cannot remember.
But I do know that I would not have had this thought had I not read her. Yet, I did just have this thought myself.
I rehad her thought.
This is how it is with the kind of philosophies I love:
They give us new givens, if we are hospitable and take them in.
They outfit us with new transcendental conceptions (together-takings) that make us aware of givens that would otherwise evade our awareness. They allow us to understand, anticipate, perceive, recognize and think in radically new ways.
These new conceptions allow new being to irrupt into our sense of everything, ex nihilo, expanding, deepening and enriching the realm of possibility. They miraculously make the word “everything” larger and more accommodating.*
If this can happen once, it can always happen again.
Nothing — nothingness — will ever be the same again, because we can never be sure that some inconceivable somethingness isn’t lurking behind the nothingness, waiting to burst through and flood our lives with glory.
How could we ever take nothingness at face value, ever again?
How could we be nihilists, ever again?
We become exnihilists.
What does it mean to transcend language?
It means to suspend that impulse to recognize everything and assign it a word.
It means to notice those moments when we respond? without the guidance of speech, and to refrain from labeling those moments “absentminded”, but instead to become curious about who is doing all this doing, being all this being, am-ing all this am-ness.
Maybe we are truly absent in these moments — but maybe it is only speech that is absent. How do we discern? Do we really think sitting around talking to ourselves or to each other is going to clarify the issue? To speech, speechlessness is nothingness, but more is going on in us than speech can capture in its textual web.
Words can call us to what is beyond words. And that is exactly what they ought to do.
Language-breakers: Meditation mats, usability labs, acid tabs, shock…
Note: * Expanding, deepening and enriching the realm of possibility, making the word “everything” larger and more accommodating — this is the effect of magnanimity. The measure of a soul is how much is meant by the pragmatic sprawl of its belief in “everything”. But just beyond that sprawl is an inexhaustible more-than-everything, the wellspring of holiness, the awareness of which is wisdom.
Pluralism and open faith
Some faiths are open-ended. Such a faith is aware that it animates only one way of being — and produces only one way of understanding being (and of responding to being). This way of understanding receives truth, as given, in its one particular way (and responds to being in its one particular way) — but with awareness that many other ways are possible. And it might also be aware, or even anticipate, that multiple possible ways can be actualized in a single lifetime.
But some faiths are closed. These faiths believe they possess knowledge of what animates reality itself, and that what varies from their own way of understanding, to the degree that is conflicts with or confuses is wrong.
A way of understanding and responding — what I am calling faith — is not the same thing as belief, or knowledge, opinion or doctrine. Belief, knowledge, opinion and doctrine are only the content of faith, where faith is what contains the content and, by its containing, shapes the content and renders it intelligible and known.
(Technical note to myself: Faith transcendentally conceives truth. The form imparted by faith on any understood truth is concept. The specific material conceptually shaped by faith into an instance of a concept is content. But content only gives us some of being, not all of it. Every concept, in its selection and exclusion, makes tradeoffs of illumination and shadow. Every faith, in its habitual patterns of selection and exclusion, makes tradeoffs of illumination and shadow. We know only our own faith’s enworldment, not the world in its chaos of possibility. Ignore this if you wish. Leave it in the shadows as irrelevant, or not-yet-relevant.)
Many people who have known only by one faith conflate container and content, and believe when they change opinions they’ve changed their mind as radically as a mind may be changed. These are the clever philistines.
Others change from one closed faith to another, and experience the second closed faith as waking up to the truth after a long delusion. These are the awakened omniscients.
Strangely, all open faiths, despite their diversity, share something in common — perhaps the most important thing — that one most needful thing rejected by closed faiths — a belief in transcendence, in mystery, in possibility of change of the most surprising kind… of change toward one another as we outspiralingly embrace more and more inexhaustible being.
I call the doctrine that expresses this open faith and its orientation toward the hopeful and unseen pluralism.
I understand very few are capable of this faith.
This faith is the essence of living religion.
“You do not believe in God,” [Alyosha] added, with a note of profound sadness in his voice. But suddenly remarking that his brother was looking at him with mockery, “How do you mean then to bring your poem to a close?” he unexpectedly enquired, casting his eyes downward, “or does it break off here?”
“My intention is to end it with the following scene: Having disburdened his heart, the Inquisitor waits for some time to hear his prisoner speak in His turn. His silence weighs upon him. He has seen that his captive has been attentively listening to him all the time, with His eyes fixed penetratingly and softly on the face of his jailer, and evidently bent upon not replying to him. The old man longs to hear His voice, to hear Him reply; better words of bitterness and scorn than His silence. Suddenly He rises; slowly and silently approaching the Inquisitor, He bends towards him and softly kisses the bloodless, four-score and-ten- year-old lips. That is all the answer. The Grand Inquisitor shudders. There is a convulsive twitch at the corner of his mouth. He goes to the door, opens it, and addressing Him, ‘Go,’ he says, ‘go, and return no more… do not come again… never, never!’ and — lets Him out into the dark night. The prisoner vanishes.”
“And the old man?”
“The kiss burns his heart, but the old man remains firm in his own ideas and unbelief.”
You are not empathic
You are not empathic.
I’m sorry, it is true. This is mainly because you have become confused about what empathy is.
What you experience when you believe you are being empathic is the exact inverse of empathy.
In empathy, we approach an actual person with the intention of acquiring a new or modified understanding of how they interpret and respond to the world, because the understanding we currently have is inadequate for making sense of their emotions, beliefs and behaviors. We approach the problem of the other not making sense with the working assumption that the fault lies with our own failure to understand, not that the other is nonsensical — that is, confused, insane or deceptive. Once we gain an adequate understanding, we assume, we will be able to make sense of their feelings and perhaps even respond to what they experience with similar emotions.
What you do is reversed on each point. You are far less concerned with actual persons, but rather with abstractions of persons.
You conceive a person with whom you intend to empathize as an instance of a category of person — a type — to whom typical things happen. You recognize a structure: “This category of person has, once again, been subjected to that category of mistreatment by that category of person.”
In other words, a pre-existent dramatic or mythical structure has been matched with a story being told. The storyline itself is an embellished variant of a familiar myth. The actors in the story are match with a mythical figures who serve as the dramatic personae. These personae will serve as the intentional objects of the intense feelings the spectator will have.
It is important to note that there is absolutely no change in understanding here, as there is in empathy. All necessary understanding in this emotive event arrives pre-fabricated and will not be challenged, but rather reinforced by its re-instantiation, which transforms it into another example of what always happens.
It will also be charged with emotions. The relating of the story is invariably emotional. And not subtly but full-on operatic. There is sorrow, despair, outrage, righteous fury, cries for vengeance — all the stuff of the Greek theater.
The spectator observes the intense emotions expressed in the telling of the story, and mimetically reproduces them in herself. (I use the feminine pronoun here because this mimetic capacity is regarded today as highly virtuous and it has become customary, when speaking of virtues, to use the feminine pronoun.) She instinctively imitates the feelings of the storyteller and co-feels these same strong emotions in herself.
Many people who, like you (perhaps misinformed by sentimental sociopath Brené Brown) call this imitative emoting “empathy”. This very natural, very animal sentimental imitative receptivity is sympathy. It is important to have, but it is not particularly rare and it is only good when tempered with reason and willingness to understand in new ways — that is, as a supplement to empathy.
So, the last step occurs when the sympathetic spectator attaches the overwhelming emotions she has reproduced in her own imagination to the mythical structure and the actors. She is then able to believe that she has had emotions about people, and she believes that she is empathetic. What she has really experienced is something like what the audience at a romcom pays to experience. Newly whipped up familiar emotions about familiar stereotypes experiencing familiar situations with familiar themes. Zero intellectual effort yielding lots of gratifying feels.
Where real empathy is needed, however, this same “empath” is intellectually opaque and emotionally somewhere between indifferent and hostile.
If someone approaches her with a different viewpoint or with feelings she cannot match to a preexisting mythical structure, she cannot compute and cannot muster much concern. Their feelings or opinions “do not make sense” which means they must not be valid and that the person is irrational or hostile or deluded and not worth understanding. If they press the matter, and continuing trying to get her to understand, and she is unable to distract herself or evade or otherwise make the unfamiliarity go away, she get angry, cold, mean, alienating, and eventually vengeful.
The children of “empathizers” understand this about their mothers, and figure out how to become little instantiations of mythical protagonists. Ordinary feelings about ordinary individuals are not important enough to warrant a mother’s attention or sustained affection — but if the child is experiencing some kind of social or political persecution, now that gets her feelings all revved up! Now the child becomes a cause she can really feel.
This is sufficient to account for so many young children manage to get caught up in social turmoil and controversy and adopt new attention-getting identities: children need parental attention and will get it any way they can.
In reality, though, every child is unique and often deeply odd, and requires actual empathy and understanding. Children force parents to change and mature and develop in order to love them fully, in their entirety. But fundamentalists, whether of Christianist or Progressivist inclination, cannot get outside their own heads and experience anything that transcends their own solipsistic imaginations. Their kids get unbelievably fucked up, but the fundamentalism explains it all away or “normalizes” it with yet more myth.
So now that you know you are not empathic, you might find yourself in need of a more accurate term for what you are. I suggest “sentimental mythologue”.
It is a great label, and you might be proud to bear it and identify with it, since being a sentimental mythologue is celebrated nearly everywhere today.
But please don’t be satisfied with this label.
Please do not remain in this deficient state — especially if you are a parent or a spouse who aspires to be real marriage.
I urge you to develop genuine empathy.
Why? Because human beings need love. They need to give it and receive it. Without it they fall into despair, anomie, self-destruction. What passes today for “empathy” precludes love, blocks love and makes love impossible — even between a mother and her child.
You are not a critical thinker
You are not a critical thinker.
I’m sorry — you just aren’t.
You don’t know what it means. You haven’t put in the right kind of effort.
Despite what you think, “critical thinking” is not just doing an extra-good job of thinking the way you happen to have been trained to think — and, consequently, reaching the correct conclusions your correct and competent thinking reaches.
That is the opposite of critical thinking.
The problem is this: You have your criticism pointed in the wrong direction.
You think “critical thinking” is thinking up criticisms of how other people think. But, everyone does that.
The fundamentalists who send their kinds to Jesus Camp to learn ludicrous garbage and become braindead foot soldiers of the salvation army — they train their kids to memorize and recite arguments that demolish foolish worldly wisdom.
When they do it, it is easy to see that this is not education in critical thinking. It is only indoctrination.
But when you do the same thing, it is different because you are teaching what is true.
Are you really so dim that you cannot see that this attitude does not make you different from those dumb fundamentalists, it makes you exactly the same as them?
You, like they, have grown so smugly self-certain of your own correctness that you’ve lost the ability to put yourself on equal footing with others who, like you, have lost that ability. And you lost that ability because you, like they, have failed at critical thinking.* (see note below.)
The critique of critical thinking is pointed back at itself, not at others. This is what makes it different from what most ideological dummies do, and what makes it as rare as hen’s teeth.
Critical thinking examines its own presuppositions, its own conceptions, its own habits, its own blindness, and it breaks down its own certainty and its own clarity.
Critical thinking is a harrowing process. It leads directly to disagreement with anyone who has not engaged in it, themselves.
Critical thinking is essentially nonconformist and essentially anxious.
If you need your thinking to always be delightful and playful you can’t be a critical thinker.
If you need people to pat you on the head for being a good person, you can’t be a critical thinker.
As long as you cannot do without the comfort of being surrounded by a community of benevolent, like-minded kindred-kindred spirits — all of whom congratulate you and each other for their critical thinking, and for their ethical excellence and their deep concern for the marginal (or at least the like-minded marginal) — you most certainly can not be a critical thinker.
Of course, you can call yourself a critical thinker. I can’t stop you.
But I can laugh at you for calling yourself that. And you can’t stop me.
NOTE: * For instance, have you ever once asked yourself how, if other people can be unconsciously cognitively biased and prone to self-interested motivated reasoning, you can be sure that your use of these concepts isn’t biased and self interested? No you haven’t, because you’ve only deployed these critiques against other people, not against your own ideological dogmatism.
Or have you ever once wondered how, if “Whiteness” can be an identity that “erases” itself in order to continue enjoying unjust “privileges”, how you can be sure you yourself don’t enjoy unacknowledged self-erasing identities with unjust privileges — perhaps one that grants you the unjust privilege to be the arbiter of all matters of justice? No, you haven’t, because asking that question will knock you off your perch, and you love that perch.
Have you ever once noticed that your “offense”, your little “traumas”, your righteous “PTSD” tantrums bear a hell of a resemblance to what you call “fragility” and “rage” and “hate” and aversion to being criticized? Again, no, you have not, because you cannot take what you dish out. (I’m not kidding: I’ve seen people start blubbering, crying actual tears, when confronted exactly the way they confront others, and then actually complain of mistreatment, when they urge others in the same position to “lean into their discomfort.”) But no, you believe you should not have to be subjected to the discomfort of aggressive, radical, unwanted criticism of the kind you subject others to… because you are right and they are wrong.
But you are not right. You are only prejudiced toward your own views, because you are you, and you happen to have enough power to bully others with your ideology and force them to pretend to agree or at least shut up. Isn’t that a “power differential” of the kind your ideal is sworn to oppose? But, see, this is a good power differential. This is responsible bullying for a higher cause, meant to redistribute prestige and humiliation to make things more equitable. So say you, at least when cornered. Everyone else sees it as just the kind of bullying every powerful group does, and always finds a way to morally justify.
Critical thinking could help you overcome these profound intellectual and moral defects, but you won’t do it. You don’t want to be less certain, less, clear, less self-satisfied, less confident. You’ll only try to make everyone else do it, because when their confidence and certainty is broken it gives you the advantage you unconsciously crave — a desire which, for your own advantage, you repress and disguise as justice. You are full of shit, and you are hated by the truly socially vulnerable — not those pampered, pseudo-vulnerable fellow overclassers you call “marginal” and “vulnerable” “protected classes” — for the very best of reasons. If that revolution you enjoy longing for ever comes — God forbid! — I think you’ll be quite surprised who gets lined up against the wall.
A minor word tantrum
Three words reliably deflate my heart when I hear and read them: 1) narrative, 2) practice, 3) performative. I’ve caught myself groaning.
I am removing these words entirely from casual speech, but keeping some of them for very specific technical uses.
Where there were “narratives” there will be stories or ideologies. There is no reason to use that word ever again. It is irretrievably ruined by association with this idiotic moment in history.
“Practice” will be replaced by methods, tools, or other less fancy-pants terms. I’m ashamed of my own overuse of this word. I will make it up to you, somehow. The only place I plan to use it now is when I discuss “praxis”, which I still consider an excellent word, provided you use it when you aren’t being an asshole, a qualification that will reduce use of the word to almost, but not quite, zero.
“Performative” will be strictly limited to two technical senses, the only permissible uses for this rotten-ass word. First, when a speech act demonstrates or implies a belief which potentially contradicts the content of the speech. (For example, the famous paradox “This sentence is a lie.” The act of assertion implies conveyance of truth, while the content of the assertion denies that what is conveyed is true. Or saying “You do not exist.” The act of addressing you presupposes your existence, while the content claims your nonexistence.)
The other technical meaning of “performative” is where the essence of some thing is its performance. The most famous use of this word comes from Judith Butler who argued that gender is performative — that is, that the essence of womanhood or manhood is the performing of these gender roles, as opposed to the expression of some biological condition.
But the use of “performative” to mean merely-acted is entirely pointless when we have simpler and more beautiful words like “phony”, “ostentatious”, “insincere” or “bullshitty”. Ironically, saying “performative” seems performative, in the sense I claimed I was retiring. See, in that last statement I just performatively contradicted my resolution to stop using performative, but in this present sentence I am not. Shut up, self. You’re boring everyone, including yourself.
I’m listening to Brett Easton Ellis’s latest novel The Shards.
It is an absorbing story but Ellis’s writing is annoying.
Now I will gripe. I will limit my gripes to three, because this angry blog post was brought to you by the number three.
Gripe 1: The constant music references are cheap and carry too much weight. In some random places he attempts to convey fresh novelty of certain bands who now seem banally ancient (“a band called the Stray Cats”). But most of the time he drops the names of bands and songs as spray-on atmosphere.
Gripe 2: Ellis is a hamfisted abuser of adverbs. One memorably dumb example (so dumb I actually, physically slapped my own forehead in the parking lot of Kroger) was when he had hippie cult members “eagerly” ringing doorbells while casing neighborhoods. Huh? What does an eager doorbell ring look like? C’mon, Brett. Don’t write when you’re stoned. It shows. I’m not motivated enough to dig up more examples of misguided adverbs. I have no work ethic. You go do it. It’ll only take two or three pages, and you’ll have dozens. Had Ellis’s editor removed every adverb, even the rare well-chosen ones, it would have been an improvement. Maybe his editor was stoned, too. This book could be an exhibit in a case against the legalization of marijuana.
Gripe 3: Ellis’s frequent and thoughtless use of “performative” and “narrative” irritates the everloving fuck out of me. It is plain bad and brainless, but it is even worse than that. It stands out like a conspicuously contemporary hair-do in a period piece. Hair is where a director ingratiates characters to us by making them relatable and desirable, and these worn-out now-words are how Ellis gives us the secret handshake that signals to us that he is actually morally up-to-date and not really amoral, after all. I think it is the cowardice of it that’s getting under my skin.
If you’re going to be amoral, commit and do it for real. I’m doing a citizen’s arrest and revoking Ellis’s Gen-X credentials. He can go shop himself around and see if some ethical generation will have him.
I hate this book, but it is fun. I do intend to finish it, but I also intend to supplement the fun and avenge my annoyance with more griping.
I feel a mixture of disgust and pity for progressives who actually believe they are leftists despite enjoying every advantage of class dominance. …and not only enjoy this dominance, but work to extend and maximize their class domination, which of course, includes noisily and ostentatiously diverting attention from their own grotesque class privilege by hyperfocusing on petty identitarian trifles.
It never occurs to them to wonder how it could be that their “left-wing” politics are not only approved of in the workplace — but increasingly “left-wing activism” is actively celebrated, even compelled, by the largest, wealthiest, most powerful capitalist institutions — the exact ones they harmlessly claim to wish to dismantle. Until the day of reckoning comes, though, they’ll work their asses off, sacrifice their happiness, their children to win their boss’s approval and win that promotion and pay raise.
Progressivism is not leftism.
There is no longer any mainstream left.
Apologies to Gertrude Stein, but there is no left left.
There are only classes which have formed around different industry sectors, which have developed cultures, ideologies and justifications for seeking hegemony.
These classes have no need nor desire to mobilize the masses. This is why democracy has grown unresponsive to citizens. They don’t need citizens. Instead, they mobilize their own products, resources and wealth to maximize their power and establish social and cultural hegemony. The political goal is to maximize the power of the hyperwealthy owners the means of production in these industry sectors (which produce not only products and services, but also culture, information, attitudes). A secondary goal, more a means than an end, is to deputize those who serve the owners of these means of production, and trickle them petty power over those who refuse to toe the ideological line.
For whatever reason, these industries are at odds with one another, and have become existential threats to one another. There is no longer an invisible hand of the market, but, rather, multiple hands, each benefitting one market and undermining the other. These hands have clutched into fists. What we are now experiencing is the impact of invisible fists upon the invisible bodies in which we all, as employees of various kinds, are incorporated.
People, in general, are really, really bad at thinking about how they think. They prefer to just focus on what their current way of thinking — the one they were trained to use in college — presents to them as real and true and good, and just let their logic crank out conclusions by its own rules. They think this thought by acquired logic is “critical thought”, but this is mere ratiocination. Critical thought challenges precisely the logic — the ideological underpinning — that produces conclusion. One of our more engrained ratiocinative habits is interpreting conflicts in terms of opposition. If some movement opposes another movement that is called “right-wing” obviously the opposing movement must be opposite: left-wing. If a movement opposes another movement that is called “evil” obviously the opposing movement must be the opposite: good. If a movement opposes another movement that is called “self-interested” obviously the opposing movement must be the opposite: altruistic.
This is plain dumb. Two entirely self-interested, ruthless, ideologically-deluded, hard-right movements can oppose one another, without either being opposed in principle to the other. And either or both of them can develop ideological images of themselves as idealistic, altruistic, principled champions of the common folk.
In my view, precisely this has happened. Both major factions seek hegemony. Both suspect they can pull it off and have grown increasing aggressive toward the other, using wealth, state power and whatever institutions and infrastructure they control as leverage. Both have developed myths to romanticize participation in their conflict. Both are utterly full of shit. But both movements are amply stocked with well-intentioned, intellectually-suggestible, obedient souls who have bought it all and taken it all to heart. They are the expendable cannon fodder of warring industrial sectors who imagine themselves glorious angel warriors battling over the fate of Heaven.
It’s self-interest all the way down, sahib — especially when people start striking altruistic poses. People care about “the other” only as justification for taking and exercising power.
We could call this situation sector sectarianism. Or maybe sectorianism?
I’m a realist. I don’t blame people for wanting to have both power and good conscience. But I also cannot respect it, nor can I play along with it. I find it all embarrassing. Self-respect, not goodness, forbids participation in this tragicomedy of self-righteousness. And people who fall for it on either side are less interesting and respectable, which makes the world a duller, lonelier place. I’ve lost friends to this nonsense, and by that, I mean friends have ruined themselves with this nonsense. I mourn the loss, and despise the body-snatched political puppets who now occupy their bodies and names.
Philosophy and friendship
To me, what matters in philosophy is not what we can argue or analyze. When philosophy is used primarily for analysis or argument it is, at best, uninteresting.
What matters to me is how philosophy can enduringly change and improve how we conceive — and through changes in conception, change spontaneous givens of experience and what sense we can find in these givens, and what sense we can make of them.
This use of philosophy clearly is not for everyone. Some use philosophy for different purposes. And why shouldn’t they? Philosophy can have more than one purpose. Others pursue self-transformation by other means, such as religion, psychology, exercise and other forms of self-discipline. And so what? Many means can share a common purpose. Whatever gets the job done.
But for me philosophy is the most effective means of self-transformation, and self-transformation is philosophy’s most valuable purpose.
I no longer expect anyone — even friends — to understand, much less share these attitudes. But these attitudes are central to my existence, and the degree a person can respect that truth about me is the degree to which I can respect that person as a friend.
Rambling on about gundams
A friend of mine invited me over to his house to assemble a model gundam with him. I’ve done it twice now, and it’s got me thinking.
As a young kid, for a few years I got way passionately into building model airplanes and cars.
I can pinpoint exactly when I got into it — July of 1981 — because I associate the smell of the citrus safety glue with Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding which was going on at the same time. I’d picked up a model F-104 Starfighter at an Eckerd Drugs en route to SUUSI, a Unitarian-Universalist family summer camp thing. At SUUSI that year I learned the word “lesbian”, and, simultaneously, I found out that gay people were not mythical beings, but actually existed, were attending this camp, and wanted to hang out with each other. Who knew? Also at this session, they showed a film called “Beatlemania”, where I discovered that the Beatles were not an obscure musical act that only I knew about. Not only did a large number of UU adults show up to see the film, but other kids my age did, too. But here’s the real kicker: according to this film, the Beatles were a very popular band — bigger, even, than KISS, the Spinners and Ray Stevens.
Don’t judge me. I did not ask to grow up in rural South Carolina, and I definitely did not ask to be the socially awkward nerd child of yankee pinkos who decided to save money by living in an extra-backwards town neighboring the university where my dad worked — a town that detested yankee pinkos and their awkward offspring, in the very decade when nerd persecution became de rigueur. The theme of every other movie that came out was how dorky, impotently horny and hopeless nerds were, and how they deserve the abuse they naturally receive from their social superiors, but maybe they can use computers or science to get revenge or catch a glimpse of gratuitous boobery. It was not a good time. So fuck off. I had to figure everything thing out myself (including, most of all, how to generate self-respect in a respect vacuum), and that is what made me who I am.
But I’m digressing.
So, model-making takes me way back into by biographical prehistory, and the idea of trying it again was intriguing.
But it wasn’t the same at all. There is no citrus glue. The pieces fit together perfectly — like, weirdly perfectly. When I made my F-104 Starfighter the parts were crude — obviously molded out of plastic magma, probably poured by hand from cast iron vats, in some dark factory lit only by coal fire and arc welders, by some worker who looked like a sooty Mario from Donkey Kong. The parts were attached to trees, and had to be twisted and wrenched free before they could be stuck together.
Half the time the part broke at the wrong point, and the other half of the time the part got all mangled. Later, I learned to gouge the parts off the tree with a long-expired X-Acto blade. I wasn’t clear on the concept of disposable blades. I thought of changing the blade as repairing the knife if it broke, and as long as it kept cutting stuff, it wasn’t broken, yet. So I’m pretty sure the blade I plunged into the palm of my left hand, while attempting to carve a T-Top into the roof of a silver 1978 Trans-Am Firebird, was blunt at the tip, if not completely broken-off, and there was probably rust and paint all over, too. But that hand-stab was likely the cleanest cut of my model-making career.
These gundam molds are miracles of precision fabrication. We snip the pieces with an instrument called the GodHand Nipper. But snip is the wrong word. The plastic just politely and perfectly separates along the cutline.
Then we sand the imperceptible mark where the cut allegedly occurred, until it is as if that part materialized mid-air from the plane of pure forms. The parts are then snapped together, effortlessly, without any need of glue. They fit with a perfection that gives me goosebumps. Half of the experience is marveling at the ingenuity of the kit’s designer, and at the quality of the fabrication.
Reflecting on this experience, I realize I’ve misconceived the activity.
A long time ago a brilliant philosophical friend explained the difference between popular art and fine art as one of effort, or — as we say in the service design racket, of “value exchange”. In popular art we expend little effort, and in return passively receive the modest pleasures of entertainment. With fine art, we invest serious effort in meeting the work half-way, and through active participation receive sometime life-transforming rewards.
In saying all this, I am not claiming that gundam models are fine art — (but I’m also not denying it!) — but if I were to think of it that way, I would see the assembly of these kits less as an act of creativity, and more in terms of that kind of cocreativity demanded of the listener of classical music — or maybe, better, of the performer of a scored piece of music. Here there is a lovely blending of connoisseurship and artistry, of consumption and production, of a kind that was more available back in the day when, if you wanted to hear your favorite Beethoven sonata, you had to go play it for yourself with your own two hands on a piano.
Nietzsche Preface Project
From time to time Susan has uncanny “potentia” intuitions which fill her with an overwhelming certainty that something must be done. Invested with weird authority — and with a loving imperiousness that not only forbids but precludes argument — she issues decrees. The most recent was directed at me. The command: Produce a podcast, a Nietzsche seminar, where you (Stephen) guide me (Susan, and maybe eventually one or two others) through the process of reading and understanding Nietzsche.
You cannot and should not argue with Susan when she gets like this, plus I’m flattered that she wants to invest time and energy in doing this, so obviously I’m starting work on the project right now.
I know exactly what text I want to study. For a long time, I have harbored the hunch that it might be fruitful to read Nietzsche’s late prefaces together as a single work. However, I’ve never actually done it. I don’t remember the content of these prefaces sufficiently to imagine the likely results. This is an experiment, which seems fitting, if not essential, to this project. For this reason, the episodes will be unscripted. We will not preread the material. We will not edit out our missteps and errors. We will “show our work” and demonstrate “philosophy in the making”.
But I do want to establish clear context in the first episode: what we are doing, why we are doing it, why anyone should join us, and — perhaps most importantly — how we will go about collaborating. I’m terrible at improvising sequences. I jump around, omit details, skip steps, digress, backtrack and make a mess of it.
So I’ve been designing a script, just for the first episode, and here it my first draft:
Brief backstory of Nietzsche’s Prefaces
In the years between 1883-1886 Nietzsche’s philosophy crystallized. He wrote and published his magnum opus, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Beyond Good and Evil, which was intended as a polemical presentation of the ideas animating Zarathustra.
This new clarity drew a bright line between the earlier works and what Nietzsche now understood to be his destiny. Before, he was a wanderer, impelled toward something important but unknown. Now he understood where he was headed, and he understood clearly where he needed to go.
With this new clarity he could now retrospectively situate his previous work within this context. To that end, he wrote new prefaces for his earlier works — Birth of Tragedy, Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, and Gay Science.
These prefaces, taken together, tell a coherent story of a journey toward an unknown, unmapped and unmarked destination, impelled and guided by intuition, whose purpose can be known only in hindsight. And they also impart the hindsight itself, most importantly, the obscure purposes driving his work, and the kinds of experiences, problems and responses these purposes induce in him. This, I claim, supplies an attentive reader with the tools needed to navigate the terrain of Nietzsche’s wanderings — and to blaze paths in one’s own personal wanderings in unmapped, unmarked regions — as well as make clearer sense of Nietzsche’s later work.
Before we dive into the work I want quick acknowledgement The direct inspiration for this Preface Project was Jurgen Habermas’s Philosophical Introductions. Here’s the blurb on the cover:
On the occasion of Habermas’s 80th birthday, the German publisher Suhrkamp brought out five volumes of Habermas’s papers that spanned the full range of his philosophical thought, from the theory of rationality to the critique of metaphysics. For each of these volumes, Habermas wrote an introduction that crystallized, in a remarkably clear and succinct way, his thinking on the key philosophical issues that have preoccupied him throughout his long career. This new book by Polity brings together these five introductions and publishes them in translation for the first time. The resulting volume provides a unique and comprehensive overview of Habermas’s philosophy in his own words.
We will begin with the “present” from which Nietzsche wrote his prefaces, the newly completed Beyond Good and Evil. The first preface we will read will be from that work. We will treat it as the key for understanding the earlier works, in two senses of key. First, I believe (from my own experience as a reader) that at least one important symbol, ubiquitous in and central to all of Nietzsche’s work, is illuminated in this short passage, which can be used to unlock at least one set of meanings across Nietzsche’s corpus — including these prefaces. But also, it sets the tonal key, which we should use to attune ourselves to the rest of the prefaces.
With our ears so equipped and attuned we will read each of the prefaces, in order of publication, starting with the brutally self-critical preface to Birth of Tragedy, then Human, All Too Human, then Daybreak, and finally The Gay Science.
We will be using the Cambridge editions:
We will not read these prefaces straight through. A mistake many novices make when reading Nietzsche (and other existentially challenging writers) is to expect him to build a system of information, one clear fact at a time. A lot of the time Nietzsche’s intent is destructive — demolishing entire cultures or epoch on a grand scale, or vivisecting one’s own most intimate and cherished ideals. He is destroying the familiar and beloved in order to clear ground to build new, inconceivable understandings, for which one is not yet prepared. The work is not straightforward.
It will make far more sense if we think of this reading less as informing ourselves on what Nietzsche believed to be true, and more like learning to play a new piece of music.
We will try to understand the rhythm, phrasing, focus and emphasis of each sentence. And we will interrogate each word, to understand the range of meanings and resonances it might bear, exploring the polysemic possibilities, until one meaning crystalizes for us. Then we will play the sentence at full tempo and hear it as a spontaneously understood whole. This process will then proceed one sentence at a time, and we will carry the spontaneous understanding to the whole paragraph, then the whole preface, and eventually to the prefaces taken together (con- “together” + -ceived “taken”) as a single given. And we will experience it as given to us by Nietzsche, the least dead author the world has ever known, providing we want him to live and work to bring his work to life in this manner.
There is strong textual evidence that this is how Nietzsche wished to be read, and some of the strongest comes from the preface to Daybreak, which I will preview here, but which we will read better later:
This preface is late but not too late — what, after all, do five or six years matter? A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading: — in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste — a malicious taste, perhaps? — no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow — it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book: — this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers … My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well! —
My Own Ulterior Motive
My life changed dramatically and for the better with my first encounter with Nietzsche. The experience changed how I read, what I expect from reading, what I expect from philosophy — what I expect from life.
I spent about five years immersed in Nietzsche’s world, and then the next fifteen puzzling over its implications. What kind of world is this, where the translated words of a flawed man dead for a century could radically transform my fundamental experience of life? These questions carried me in many different directions, but perhaps the most interesting was where it intersected with my professional life.
Without going too far into it, I have come to see philosophy as closely related to design, and if fact I now view philosophical works as artifacts that can be developed in designerly ways and evaluated as designs.
In this project, I hope to gather a rich set of demonstrations of where and how I see this happening and to continue developing my vocabulary and repertoire of concepts to convey and support my view of this new designerly way of approaching philosophy. To keep things simple and clean, I am going to try to keep this personal purpose in the background, and separate it from the reading, but I might add reflections to the end of some of the episodes.
Then we will start into the preface to Beyond Good and Evil, whose first line is the best of any book I’ve ever read.
Dog’s-eye fiction is a very, very, very, very bad idea
In my 20s, two friends who knew me well, within a month of each other, both recommended that I read Borges. I followed their advice, and what ensued was so transcendently, life-alteringly rewarding that I adopted a new policy. If two or more insightful friends independently recommend an author or a work of fiction, I automatically read it.
But now, having finished Thurston Branch’s Immanuel, at the recommendation of not two, but three friends, I am going to have to discontinue this policy. I cannot risk reading another book like this ever again. Also, fairly or not, I blame Borges for this book’s existence. Until further notice, consider me soured on trippy fiction.
The premise is intriguing: an Australian Shepherd named Immanuel suddenly develops some doglike awareness of the limits of his own canine cognition, and drives himself insane with paranoid self-consciousness.
This much I gathered from the back flap, the only coherent writing I was able to find anywhere in or on this book. Opening it, I found myself trapped inside a postmodern Jack London nightmare of attempted dog-perspective storytelling.
Maybe the problem is that I’ve never been a “dog person”. I’ve spent very little time empathizing with dogs or reflecting on dog psyches. This kind of exercise is probably delightful to that breed of dog owners who imagine their animals having human-like personalities, and interpret their dog’s annoying neuroses as signs of intelligence. (This, is how I account for everyone under the age of forty spontaneously melting into a puddle en masse over this book, despite the fact that they don’t read books. More on this later.) For me, it amounted an excessively lengthy and persuasive demonstration of the truth of Wittgenstein’s aphorism: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.”
But I made myself read the whole thing. I focused my attention on each of the words in every one of the thousands upon thousands of sentences printed on excess of four hundred densely-set narrow-margin pages. Fans of Immanuel claim that these words and sentences lead a reader through the tragic story of a dog who suffers a philosophical insight, or a dog’s approximation of one. I will rely on what I’ve learned from them to summarize the plot. Immanuel realizes, in some doglike way, that he only experiences a small sliver of what humans experience. He somehow connects this intuition he’s had to human existence. Humans have these sorts on intuitions all the time, he senses, and this is somehow connected to the weird sounds they’re always making. Immanuel is oppressed by this mute, dark and crushing hunch. He is terrified of the vast ocean of intelligibility surrounding him, permanently beyond the paw-grasp of his mind. The poor guy can no longer fart or lick his balls without a sense of being witnessed and known. He becomes immobilized with anxiety. He gets moody, destructive and aggressive. Eventually he stops eating and starves to death ruminating on the unknowable mystery of humankind.
How anyone got this from what Branch wrote, I will never know. I’ve read some gnarly books and wrung at least some sense out of them, but I went dozens — grosses — of pages without encountering a single example of recognizably English syntax. We are invited to join Immanuel in his descent into madness, and at this the author succeeds, but only because it is altogether too easy to sympathize with this dog’s terminal bafflement when you, too, are paralyzed by anxiety at how much you are missing, assuming there is some there to understand. This attempt to render a dog’s inner life produced literally — I’ll say it again — four hundred plus pages of impenetrable babble of mysterious significance, which is a lot of words to evoke a supposedly wordless intuition and its nonlinguistic mental aftermath.
After actually forcing myself read all these words — every one of them, in order — in the misplaced hope of gaining something from it, and instead getting zero, I need justice. I will take my vengeance in the form of a mean-spirited diagnosis: this book’s freakish level of acclaim and our culture’s obsession with dogs share a single root cause. Both book and beast are entirely free of humanity — purged, cleansed, disinfected, liberated. Just as there is not a scrap of human intelligence to be found between your pet dog’s adorable, shaggy doggy ears, there is also none between the covers of this book — and that is precisely the appeal. Because there is no human content, because there is featureless blankness, we are free to invent. We can dispense with the hell that is other people, but without suffering solitary confinement in our own solipsism. We can project our own fantasy content upon it like a screen, and enjoy our own imaginary characters as if they were someone who isn’t us. We can populate the blankness with freely-invented fictional “others” — starting with our dogs, and continuing on to the entire population of the planet. Every living thing we encounter is given the Midas touch and transformed into a concept — image, identity, self, news, brand. We then run our imaginary menagerie of inventions through dramatic scenarios and have overpowering emotional experiences. The passionate emoting we do over the fates of our fictional artifacts is what we call empathy. All from the comfort of our own skulls.
I don’t know. Maybe highlighting this allergy to real-live, independently-existing, stubborn, perplexing, disgusting first-person human beings was what Branch had in mind when he started typing. If that was his intention I salute him. In the future, however I’ll skip the reading part, and just salute him from a distance.