Wordworlders

If you watch people draw, it is pretty obvious that most of them aren’t drawing as much as writing in some 2-dimensional hieroglyphic language.

I suspect something similar is going on with visual perception. When non-visual people look out on the world they don’t see images as much as read them.

Perhaps the same can be can be said for all experience — including the experience of thought. What defies language gets filtered out, or trapped within, denied full existence.

I suspect a great many people are imprisoned in a wordworld, locked in or walled in, and some without so much as a window to let in wordless light, sound or touch. (This is the consequence — and possibly the very purpose — of making the personal political.)

Jasper Johns said it best:

Ecologic

Ecology is situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem.

Supersystems that contain and involve the comprehender are not objectively comprehensible. An understanding of the incomprehensibility of containing systems is, however — as is the fact that the proper response to the condition of containment is participation in the system. Rather than participate in what contains and involves us, however, we tend to truncate, encapsulate or even evert it to objective form conducive to our usual thing-manipulating mode of thought. This objective deformation is, in my opinion, the kernel of “taming wicked problems” — situating ourselves outside a problem whose problematic nature is our situatedness within it.

This is why we find all eco- realities — including ecology and economics — so difficult. We know the containing whole largely through our participation (or non-participation) in it, and many of us lack any mode of understanding beyond objectivity. If a reality refuses objectification, it is excluded from consideration.

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Ecologic is understanding situated between comprehending supersystem and comprehended subsystem that seeks to relate both to each other and to the system one is oneself.

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My theology is an ecologic. Before I saw theology this way, theologies were nonsense to me. After, everything and more-than-everything was inextricably bound up in practical metaphysics.

Putting Rorty to work

This lifted from an evolution map my team is currently working on. I’m posting this here because the concepts of “progress from” and “progress toward” were derived from Richard Rorty.

 

(For context: the purpose of an evolution map is to sketch our a phased approach to a service, where each phase delivers a useful, usable, desirable, coherent service that builds on the last phase, and sets the stage for the next. The future phases, though, can be too distant to predict with any degree of confidence. This is why we call the furthest phase the “north star”. We navigate by it, but do not seriously expect to arrive at the future we describe. We think about the present in reference to it, always anticipating where we might go next.)

Proclass chord

The following quotation chord sounds the root notes of my antipathy toward the dominant ideology of the professional-progressivist class. Two of the three authors are left-liberals.

1.

Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

The academic, cultural Left approves — in a rather distant and lofty way — of the activities of… reformists. But it retains a conviction… that the system, and not just the laws, must be changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very vocabulary of liberal politics is infected with dubious presuppositions which need to be exposed, the first task of the Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of names. The concern to do what the Sixties called “naming the system” takes precedence over reforming the laws.

“The system” is sometimes identified as “late capitalism,” but the cultural Left does not think much about what the alternatives to a market economy might be, or about how to combine political freedom with centralized economic decision-making. Nor does it spend much time asking whether Americans are undertaxed, or how much of a welfare state the country can afford, or whether the United States should back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement. When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its principal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic arrangements — a way of thinking which is, supposedly, at the root of both selfishness and sadism. This way of thinking is sometimes called “Cold War ideology,” sometimes “technocratic rationality,” and sometimes “phallogocentrism” (the cultural Left comes up with fresh sobriquets every year). It is a mind-set nurtured by the patriarchal and capitalist institutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most clearly visible in the United States.

To subvert this way of thinking. the academic Left believes, we must teach Americans to recognize otherness. To this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic disciplines as women’s history, black history, gay studies, Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not in Britain. the term “cultural studies” means victim studies.” Cellini’s choice of phrase has been resented, but he was making a good point: namely, that such programs were created not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of human life which gave rise to cultural anthropology, but rather from a sense of what America needed in order to make itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new directions taken in scholarship in the United States since the Sixties has been the urge to do something for people who have been humiliated — to help victims of socially acceptable forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer acceptable.

Whereas the top-down initiatives of the Old Left had tried to help people who were humiliated by poverty and unemployment, or by what Richard Sennett has called the “hidden injuries of class, ” the top-down initiatives of the post-Sixties left have been directed toward people who are humiliated for reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer­park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and residents of trailer parks are not “other” in the relevant sense. To be other in this sense you must bear an ineradicable stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted sadism rather than merely of economic selfishness.

This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi­ consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as “politically correct” has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country’s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous.

2.

Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible:

Living in the world of Surkov and the political technologists, I find myself increasingly confused. Recently my salary almost doubled. On top of directing shows for TNT, I have been doing some work for a new media house called SNOB, which encompasses TV channels and magazines and a gated online community for the country’s most brilliant minds. It is meant to foster a new type of “global Russian,” a new class who will fight for all things Western and liberal in the country. It is financed by one of Russia’s richest men, the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns the Brooklyn Nets. I have been hired as a “consultant” for one of SNOB’s TV channels. I write interminable notes and strategies and flowcharts, though nothing ever seems to happen. But I get paid. And the offices, where I drop in several times a week to talk about “unique selling points” and “high production values,” are like some sort of hipster fantasy: set in a converted factory, the open brickwork left untouched, the huge arches of the giant windows preserved, with edit suites and open plan offices built in delicately. The employees are the children of Soviet intelligentsia, with perfect English and vocal in their criticism of the regime. The deputy editor is a well-known American Russian activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and her articles in glossy Western magazines attack the President vociferously. But for all the opposition posturing of SNOB, it’s also clear there is no way a project so high profile could have been created without the Kremlin’s blessing. Is this not just the sort of “managed” opposition the Kremlin is very comfortable with? On the one hand allowing liberals to feel they have a free voice and a home (and a paycheck), on the other helping the Kremlin define the “opposition” as hipster Muscovites, out of touch with “ordinary” Russians, obsessed with “marginal” issues such as gay rights (in a homophobic country). The very name of the project, “SNOB,” though meant ironically, already defines us as a potential object of hate. And for all the anti-Kremlin rants on SNOB, we never actually do any real investigative journalism, find out any hard facts about money stolen from the state budget: in twenty-first-century Russia you are allowed to say anything you want as long as you don’t follow the corruption trail. After work I sit with my colleagues, drinking and talking: Are we the opposition? Are we helping Russia become a freer place? Or are we actually a Kremlin project strengthening the President? Actually doing damage to the cause of liberty? Or are we both? A card to be played?

3.

Another from Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

It is as if, sometime around 1980, the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility had been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) calls “the secession of the successful.”

Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from the unions and from any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the “center.” The party no longer has a visible, noisy left wing — a wing with which the intellectuals can identify and on which the unions can rely for support. It is as if the distribution of income and wealth had become too scary a topic for any American politician — much less any sitting president — ever to mention. Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes among the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the polls: the suburbanites. So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence.

If the formation of hereditary castes continues unimpeded, and if the pressures of globalization create such castes not only in the United States but in all the old democracies, we shall end up in an Orwellian world. In such a world, there may be no supemational analogue of Big Brother, or any official creed analogous to Ingsoc. But there will be an analogue of the Inner Party — namely, the international, cosmopolitan super-rich. They will make all the important decisions. The analogue of Orwell’s Outer Party will be educated, comfortably off, cosmopolitan professionals — Lind’s “overclass,” the people like you and me.

The job of people like us will be to make sure that the decisions made by the Inner Party are carried out smoothly and efficiently. It will be in the interest of the international super­-rich to keep our class relatively prosperous and happy. For they need people who can pretend to be the political class of each of the individual nation-states. For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference. Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will encourage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues. The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere — to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world’s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, including the occasional brief and bloody war, the super-rich will have little to fear.

Contemplation of this possible world invites two responses from the Left. The first is to insist that the inequalities between nations need to be mitigated — and, in particular, that the Northern Hemisphere must share its wealth with the Southern. The second is to insist that the primary responsibility of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advantaged citizens. These two responses obviously conflict with each other. In particular, the first response suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.

The first response comes naturally to academic leftists, who have always been internationally minded. The second response comes naturally to members of trade unions, and to the marginally employed people who can most easily be recruited into right-wing populist movements. Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders — as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse, we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens.

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The non-suburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

4.

Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal!:

Our story begins in the smoking aftermath of the 1968 election, with its sharp disagreements over the Vietnam War, its riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago, and with a result that Democrats at the time took to be a disastrous omen: their candidate for the presidency, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lost to Richard Nixon. Soul-searching commenced immediately.

There was one bright spot in the Democrats’ 1968 effort, however. Organized labor, which was the party’s biggest constituency back then, had mobilized millions of working-class voters with an enormous campaign of voter registration, pamphlet-printing, and phone-banking. So vast were their efforts that some observers at the time credited labor with almost winning for Humphrey an election that everyone believed to be lost.

Labor’s reward was as follows: by the time of the 1972 presidential contest, the Democratic Party had effectively kicked the unions out of their organization. Democratic candidates still wanted the votes of working people, of course, as well as their donations and their get-out-the-vote efforts. But between ’68 and ’72, unions lost their position as the premier interest group in the Democratic coalition. This was the result of a series of reforms authored by the so-called McGovern Commission, which changed the Democratic party’s presidential nominating system and, along the way, changed the party itself.

Most of the reforms the McGovern Commission called for were clearly healthful. For example, it dethroned state and local machines and replaced them with open primaries, a big step in the right direction. The Commission also mandated that delegations to its 1972 convention conform to certain demographic parameters — that they contain predetermined percentages of women, minorities, and young people. As it went about reforming the party, however, the Commission overlooked one important group: it did nothing to ensure representation for working-class people.

The labor leaders who, up till then, had held such enormous sway over the Democratic Party could see what was happening. After decades of toil on behalf of liberalism, “they were being taken for granted,” is how the journalist Theodore White summarized their attitude. “Said Al Barkan, director of the AFL/CIO’s political arm, COPE, early in 1972 as he examined the scenario about to unfold: ‘We aren’t going to let these Harvard-Berkeley Camelots take over our party.’”

But take it over they did. The McGovern Commission reforms seemed to be populist, but their effect was to replace one group of party insiders with another — in this case, to replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals. Byron Shafer, a political scientist who has studied the 1972 reforms in great detail, leaves no doubt about the class component of the change: “Before reform, there was an American party system in which one party, the Republicans, was primarily responsive to white-collar constituencies and in which another, the Democrats, was primarily responsive to blue-collar constituencies. After reform, there were two parties each responsive to quite different white-collar coalitions, while the old blue-collar majority within the Democratic party was forced to try to squeeze back into the party once identified predominantly with its needs.”

Years ago, when I first became interested in politics, I assumed that this well-known and much-discussed result must have been an unintended effect of an otherwise noble reform effort. It just had to have been an accident. I remember reading about the McGovern Commission in my dilapidated digs on the South Side of Chicago and thinking that no left party in the world would deliberately close the door on the working class. Especially not after workers’ organizations had done so much for the party’s flat-footed nominee. Besides, it all worked out so very, very badly for the Democrats. Neglecting workers was the opening that allowed Republicans to reach out to blue-collar voters with their arsenal of culture-war fantasies. No serious left politician would make a blunder like that on purpose.

But they did, reader. Leading Democrats actually chose to reach out to the affluent and to turn their backs on workers. We know this because they wrote about it, not secretly — as in the infamous “Powell Memo” of 1971, in which the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell plotted a conservative political awakening — but openly, in tones of proud idealism, calling forthrightly for reorienting the Democratic Party around the desires of the professional class.

I am referring to a book called Changing Sources of Power, a 1971 manifesto by lobbyist and Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, who was one of the guiding forces on the McGovern Commission. Taken along with the Republican Powell Memo, it gives us the plans of the two big party organizations as the country entered upon the disastrous period that would give us Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Gingrich, and the rest. Where Powell was an arch-conservative, however, Dutton was a forthright liberal. Where Powell showed a certain cunning in his expressed desire to reverse the flow of history, Dutton’s tone is one of credulity toward the inflated sense of world-historical importance that surrounded the youth culture of those days. In the book’s preface, for example, he actually writes this: “Never has the future been so fundamentally affected by so many current developments.”

Dutton’s argument was simple: America having become a land of universal and soaring affluence, all that traditional Democratic stuff about forgotten men and workers’ rights was now as relevant as a stack of Victrola discs. And young people, meaning white, upper-middle-class college kids — oh, these young people were so wise and so virtuous and even so holy that when contemplating them Dutton could scarcely restrain himself. They were “aristocrats — en masse,” the Democratic grandee wrote (quoting Paul Goodman); they meant to “rescue the individual from a mass society,” to “recover the human condition from technological domination,” to “refurbish and reinvigorate individuality.” Better: the young were so noble and so enlightened that they had basically transcended the realm of the physical. “They define the good life not in terms of material thresholds or ‘index economics,’ as the New Deal, Great Society, and most economic conservatives have done,” Dutton marveled, “but as ‘the fulfilled life’ in a more intangible and personal sense.”

 

The tangibility of ideology

I’ve noticed something important about how I experience political ideology.

For most people, it seems, the primary significance of political ideology is its intentions. What can we expect this political movement to do? What kind of society does it seek to bring about? How will it change our lives if it gains power? Seen this way, ideologies are most important for how they help us predict future behaviors.

For me, political ideologies are an intrinsic part of a person’s practical philosophy and, by extension, their personality, which includes not only their immediate thoughts, feelings, perceptions and responses but what they make, and what they choose to use and to surround themselves with.

For me philosophy is an immediate, tangible reality that is very much present in the people around me.

And I have experienced the spread of progressivism in my social circles as an enormous loss of humanity. Wherever it takes root, there is less room for personal uniqueness, and only for what can be encapsulated by identity and invested with power to force acknowledgement. This is the consequence of believing that “the personal is political.” Progressivism imagines itself as attacking large powerful groups, but its real target is the unique person — persons identical to others only in the fact of their uniqueness.

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I hate progressivism not because of what it will someday do, but because of what it does right now to people possessed by it.

Participatory empiricism

I was talking with a friend about my suspicion that understandings empiricism as based primarily on perception rather than on interaction has distorted not only our epistemology, but our ontology of knowing. This perception-centricity is at the heart of what we think knowing is, how we think knowing works, and what we hope knowing might accomplish. (I have to wonder how many skepticisms are the result of dashed episto-ontologies? “If truth isn’t what I conceived it to be — well, it must be an illusion!”)

When we take perception as our paradigmatic intuitions, truth becomes about a reality “out there” — seen, heard, or otherwise witnessed from a distance. This, I believe, encourages us to assume an impersonal god’s-eye-view from nowhere/everywhere (what I’ve called “eclipse”) when meditating on ultimate realities.

I prefer to see truth as something that emerges in our interactions with reality and which informs our ongoing participation in a reality that includes and involves but also exceeds us. Our truth is something we draw around us, like a blanket, which informs our understanding and our responses to our environing reality. We enworld ourselves within reality. An empiricism rooted in interactions encourages a human-situated perspective (what I’ve called “solipse”), as opposed to eclipse.

My friend suggested calling this empiricism based on interaction “participatory empiricism” in contrast to the more usual “perceptive empiricism”. That is exactly the right term.

Participatory empiricism.

Self-inquisitions

Love of truth and faithfulness to reality are not only not the same, they can be violently opposed.

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We sometimes — often? — protect ourselves from a reality by loving the idea of that reality instead of the reality itself.

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The most furious smashers of idols destroy material rivals to their conceptual idols. They are “God fearing” to a degree beyond their comprehension.

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Self-inquisitions:

Do I love the idea of poetry more than I love poems?

Do I love the idea of religion more than religion?

Do I love the idea of alterity more than alterity?

What am I resisting…? but how right am I to resist it?

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I do do not trust any love unmixed with dread.

Love is essentially transcendent, and transcendence is essentially dreadful.

Dreadless love is mere lust. The mildest lusts are the most secure against accidental love. Keep it all inside the mind’s confines.

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Maybe some degree of idolatry is not only inevitable, but also good.

From Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy

A series of passages from Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy isolates the central problem I have had with Rorty, and with other thinkers I have admired, who live such an academically-conditioned existence that they have lost contact with the tacit world, and inhabit instead what I have called “wordworld“. Such people are so verbal they have lost themselves in the language game, like we lose ourselves in a book or a movie or an ideology.

What does it take to call us back to the reality of ourselves and to what transcends our language? And how do we — as whole-beinged beings — experience this calling back from linguistic play. How do we react to this unchaining of our heads and bodies, this invitation to freedom from the sedentary linguistic metaverse?

Here are the passages:

§ 226 – L

Nor is the world coaxed into being by communities of the like.

Community is made possible by the world we share.

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§ 226 – R

Richard Rorty:

To drop the idea of languages as representations, and to be thoroughlyWittgensteinian in our approach to language, would be to de-divinise the world…

On the view I am suggesting, the claim that an ‘adequate’ philosophy must make room for our intuitions is a reactionary slogan, one which begs the question at hand. For it is essential to my view that we have no pre-linguistic consciousness to which language needs to be adequate, no deep sense of how thmgs are which it is the duty of philosophers to spell out in language. Rather, all we have is a disposition to use the language of our ancestors, to worship the corpses of their metaphors. Unless we suffer from what Derrida calls ‘Heideggerian nostalgia’, we shall not think of our ‘intuitions’ as more than platitudes, as more than the habitual use of a certain repertoire of terms, more than old tools which as yet have no modern replacements.

Ludwig Wittgenstein:

Just try — in a real case — to doubt someone else’s fear or pain.

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§ 227 – L

Skepticism, seen from a lyric perspective, is loss of the world via language. To become lost in language, and thereby to have lost the world.

§ 263 – L

In Rorty’s view, Bloom’s ‘strong poet’ accepts that system ultimately holds the key to meaning, and hence accepts that the collapse of system shows the futility of asserting that anything is meaningful. Unless this is intended merely as a definition of ‘strong poet’, my sense is that there are at least some ‘strong poets’ who would reject this characterization of their enterprise (as well as the imperialism implicit in Bloom’s original). Their ‘realism’ is not naive — they accept that perception can be conditioned by a variety of biological and cultural factors, and they have grasped at least some of the consequences of the failure of systematic ‘objective’ explanations fully to house truth. However, their ‘realism’ is real in the sense that they affirm the possibility of meaning; and further, believe that it is not something which is entirely intra-linguistic.

Transfigurative philosophy?

Once you realize that understanding what has been, to you, inconceivable and incomprehensible requires a change…

— possibly a deep and transfigurative change…

— that the solution to the problem is “in here” in one’s way of understanding, as well as “out there” in the material to be understood…

— and once you take as your goal the self-transfiguration required to understand…

— and accept as part of the effort the frequently excruciating labor involved in making these transfigurations…

— it is probably fair to admit that the effort is not really philosophy, anymore, as most philosophers conceive it.

This work is something else — something outside the rules of the game of philosophy as played by professional philosophers in the arena of professional philosophy.

Here, outside mind and beyond language that purports to represent the mind, players of the anarchic philosophical game seem not to know how to move about.

I suppose the decent thing is to admit finally that this is a religious effort, though now it will face rejection from the religious side…

Lyric philosophy

I’ve never thought of my preferred mode of philosophy as lyric, but Zwicky’s lyric philosophy is, if not the same, very close to what I am trying to do:

It is in this way, then, that philosophy might assume lyric form: when thought whose eros is clarity is driven also by profound intuitions of coherence — when it is also an attempt to arrive at an integrated perception, a picture or understanding of how something might affect us as beings with bodies and emotions as well as the ability to think logically. Or when it is an investigation informed by or moving towards an appreciation of such a picture or understanding. When philosophy attempts to give voice to an ecology of experience.

Lyric philosophy desires to speak to whole humans; but for this to occur, the language of thought would itself have to be made whole.

Voluminosity

When I first moved to Atlanta, I saw it primarily through the windsheilds of cars and windows of buildings.

During my brief but transformative residence in Toronto I learned to rely on my bicycle as my primary mode of transportation.

Returning to Atlanta, and experiencing it from my bicycle changed my conception of its space. What had been a network of linear tracks and decision-points, connecting interior with interior, was now revealed to be a wide-open terrain of free movement. The linear network was densely crisscrossed with shortcuts across alleyways, parking lots, lawns and wooded areas. Whatever path I chose was lined with sounds and smells and faces. Flowing with traffic was not enforced. I could notice, interact, stop, pull over, take in where I am.

But that isn’t the end of it. My new alertness to birds has lifted this free plane above the ground, and raised it up into the trees and over the buildings. It has also filled up the interstices of all possible paths, flowing into gullies, gardens, underbrush and hidden places. It turns out that Atlanta is a reverberant, living volume. I cannot tune it out, and I feel crazy.

*

There are so many worlds in this world, populating it, radiating intelligence into it. Myriads within myriads — a zillion everythings.

Multipersonal perplexity

A.

Long ago, (perhaps informed by experiences sitting in meditation?) even before I began intensive philosophical study, I adopted a psychology of “subpersonalities“. I’ve talked about it dozens of ways, but the language orbits a single conviction: our personal subjects are microcosmic societies, composed of semi-independent intuitive units.

One of the main reasons I came to this belief was noticing that subjects do not always respect the borders of the individual. Pairs of people can form a sort of personality together, and this personality can leave bits of each person behind. Sometimes this new joint-personality can threaten existing ones, leading to jealousy and estrangement.

Taking-together the idea of subpersonalities and superpersonalities (“ubermenschen” wouldn’t be a bad German synonym) leaves our ordinary personal subjects in a strange position. We both comprehend subjects that are aspects of our selves, but we also are comprehended by subjects in whom we participate.

One of my most desperate insights — which I need to find a way to say clearly and persuasively — is that we are much better at thinking about what we comprehend as objects than we are at thinking what comprehends us as subjects in which we participate, but which transcend our comprehension. I believe we need to learn this participatory mode transcendent subjective thought so we can navigate difficult interpersonal and social situations we find ourselves in, and avoid the mistake (the deepest kind of category mistake) of translating these situations (literally “that in which we are situated”) into objectively comprehensible terms that make understanding impossible. We lack the enworldment to think or respond to such situations.

A subject can be smaller than, larger than, or the same size as a personal subject.

Subjectivity is scalar.

B.

Perplexity is another idea that has obsessed me since I underwent, navigated and overcame my own first perplexity, and experienced a deep and powerful epiphany — an epiphany about perplexities.

(To summarize: A perplexity is a subjective condition where our conceptions fail, and we cannot even conceive the problem, much less progress toward a solution. We instinctively fear and avoid perplexities, sensing them with feelings of apprehension at what resists comprehension, because perplexity is the dissolution of a subject.)

Emerging on the other side of my first overcome perplexity, I understood the positive, creative potential of perplexity. I realized (in the sense that it became real to me) that much of the worst pain and most egregious offense I’d sustained to that point in my life were, at least in part, perplexities that I had interpreted as externally inflicted — and that I had interpreted them that way because my objectivizing enworldment supported no other way of conceiving them.

This epiphany re-enworlded me in a way that I could discern when — or at least try to discern when — perplexities were contributing or amplifying distress in my life. When I later learned the word “metanoia” I recognized it as describing what happened to me. It happens to many people, and once you know it, you can feel it radiating from them. It is palpable.

This insight into the relationship between perplexity and epiphany is my philosopher’s stone, who transmutes leaden angst into golden insight.

The worst things that can happen to us can potentially be the best things that happen to us… if we have a sense of how to move about in the shadowy realms, where we say “here I don’t know my way about“.

Perplexity is the dissolution of subject — a sort of subjective death — that makes possible resolution of a new subject — a subjective rebirth: metanoia.

C.

If we believe that subjects can be larger than an individual subjectivity (so, for instance a marriage is a subject within which each spouse’s subject subsists)…

…and we also believe that when a subject undergoes perplexity that very deep conceptions lose their effectiveness and must be reconceived if the subject is to regain living wholeness…

…why would we suppose that only an individual person can be perplexed?

I believe that multipersonal perplexities are real.

It seems improbable that I never took-together scalar subjectivity and perplexity as the dissolution of subject, and never followed the pragmatic consequences of conceiving these ideas together, but doing so feels like… an epiphany.

*

Just as a perplexity can grip a single personal subject, it can also grip a subject of two people, or three, or a dozen or multiple dozens. It can grip hundreds, thousands, millions, or multiple billions. Entire cultures can be perplexed.

Try to imagine a perplexed marriage; a perplexed friendship; a perplexed organization, a perplexed community; a perplexed academic subject.

(Thomas Kuhn imagined perplexed scientific communities.

Try to imagine a perplexed civilization.

*

I mean “to to imagine” literally. Consider pausing and concretely trying to imagine what multipersonal perplexities might be like if encountered in real life.

Try to imagine a perplexed married couple.

Try to imagine a perplexed organization.

Try to imagine a perplexed community.

*

*

*

If you tried to imagine these scenarios, reflect: Did you imagine being in the situation as a first-person participant, subjectively experiencing the perplexity from the inside? Or did you observe the situation from outside, as an third-person observer of other people embroiled in perplexity?

Can you evert the perspective, and imagine the same scenario, situated within it as an a first-person participant, and and situated outside it as a third-person observer?

*

*

*

If you can, assume with me for a moment that collective perplexities really are possible, and consider a speculative scenario:

Party A and Party B have entered a collective perplexity.

Party A is the privileged party in these scenarios, blessed by me (the inventor of these scenarios and all the assumptions governing them) with true insights into “what is really going on”. It’s an invented scenario, so there can be a true truth here, if nowhere else.

Party B sees things differently (and, again, because this is my custom-made vanity scenario) incorrectly. Party B rejects the notion of perplexity and sees what is happening according to its own worldview, which has no perplexity concept. What Party A claims is perplexity, Party B perceives as needless conflict caused largely by Party A’s iffy (or worse) beliefs and actions.

So, Party A conceives what is happening as a collective perplexity, and attempts to engage Party B in a perplexity-resolving response — a transcendent sublation.

Consider a first variant of the scenario: Faction B wants to recover the collective mode of being that existed prior to the perplexity, and “turns around” and attempts to move back to how things were before the conflict began. How does this play out?

Now, consider a second variant: Faction B decides to bring an end to the conflict through breaking free of Faction B altogether. It secedes, or splits off, forms a new denomination, or resigns, or hits unfollow, or blocks or mutes, or divorces, or cuts off contact, or whatever separation mechanism makes sense for the kind of faction A and B are. How does this play out?

Now consider a third variant: Faction B decides to fight and dominate Faction B. It makes Faction A a deal it can’t refuse. Or it tries to use the justice to force its will. Or it tries to steal an election through various kinds of deceit and treachery. It tries to weaken, dissolve or destroy some institutions and strengthen, reinforce or build others in order to dominate faction A. How does this play out?

There is a fourth variant, but I don’t want to digress.

What is the ethical obligation of Party A and Party B in each of these variants? How does each see the other’s?

*

I have been in deeply perplexed relationships where I was the only one who saw a perplexity, and so I could not win the cooperation required to resolve it. I could not resolve the perplexity of the relationship alone, so I had to resolve the perplexity in myself. This resolved perplexity, however, is not the shared perplexity. The shared perplexity is left unresolved, unasked and unanswered in a state of nothingness.

Over the years, I have gradually learned to avoid such perplexities, except where I sense a possibility of fruitful struggle. Most of the time, with most people, however, I keep things light and gloss over anything that might cause apprehension. I have learned to get along with most people most of the time, and that means keeping my active philosophy to myself.

I have also been in many superficially perplexed relationships, which, because they were superficial, could be collaboratively resolved. Design research has been my laboratory.

Once every decade or so, I get stuck in a situation — usually with a client with little hands-on design experience, but with much learned-about “design expertise” — who can neither cooperate nor resist the impulse to dominate the process, who makes resolution of the perplexity possible. And these leave me detaching from the shared perplexity and resolving a perplexity of my own, not the shared one.

(I feel every lost shared perplexity, whether deep or shallow, like an intellectual phantom limb. It is nothing — but nothingness feels terrible. I see no reason to pretend it doesn’t bother me, or that I can just unilaterally “forgive”, which an individual effort, without mutual reconciliation, which is a collaborative effort.)

I have also had one extremely deep shared perplexity resolve in a shared resolution.


“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered
Who?

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Dematerializing

I read strangely.

When I read, I work hard at understanding the material, but I do not put much effort into retaining the material.

Rather, I use the effort to understand to repattern my conceptions.

As I read, I look for signs of textual attunement or misattunement. I pay close attention to when I am confused or perplexed, or when I am partially or superficial understanding, which means I am misunderstanding. Alert but easy following — fluent reception (influence?) of words into sentences into ideas — spontaneous, intuitive comprehension — these are all positive indications that I am becoming someone capable of understanding this material.

I also notice changes in my experience of the world. What odd details stand out to me as significant, or curious, or beautiful, or mysterious, or disturbing, or infuriating? And what is the overall tone of life?

Instead of trying to possess the material, I allow the material to transform me.

In this state, I write what I am moved to write. These are my own concepts in my own words, but they are formed and animated by conceptions from others, others who have taken a place in my soul. I am densely possessed.

*

I know there are significant tradeoffs to my way of reading. I acquire no expertise. If someone asks me to summarize what I read, or to respond to some particular passage, I am likely to be at a loss. The material is not retained, only the conceptions that give the material meaning. The conceptions continue giving meaning, though, and what is given meaning is lived reality.

What is given this way, I never lose, because it is now part of me, and shows in the givenness of the world.

*

When I am in my library, engaged in conversation with friends, they are sometimes confused or amused by my gesturing to various authors whose conceptions I feel animating my thoughts. I know exactly where each of them sits around me on my shelves, and who is helping me be myself at any moment. I am at home.

*

Do I live in a wordworld? Most people who know me would think so.

*

My Orthodox Christian friends tell me that they do not pray to icons, but rather pray through them.

*

Imagine that you have before you a flagon of wine. You may choose your own favourite vintage for this imaginary demonstration, so that it be a deep shimmering crimson in colour. You have two goblets before you. One is of solid gold, wrought in the most exquisite patterns. The other is of crystal-clear glass, thin as a bubble, and as transparent. Pour and drink; and according to your choice of goblet, I shall know whether or not you are a connoisseur of wine. For if you have no feelings about wine one way or the other, you will want the sensation of drinking the stuff out of a vessel that may have cost thousands of pounds; but if you are a member of that vanishing tribe, the amateurs of fine vintages, you will choose the crystal, because everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than hide the beautiful thing which it was meant to contain.

…Now the man who first chose glass instead of clay or metal to hold his wine was a ‘modernist’ in the sense in which I am going to use that term. That is, the first thing he asked of his particular object was not ‘How should it look?’ but ‘What must it do?’ and to that extent all good typography is modernist.

Wine is so strange and potent a thing that it has been used in the central ritual of religion in one place and time, and attacked by a virago with a hatchet in another. There is only one thing in the world that is capable of stirring and altering men’s minds to the same extent, and that is the coherent expression of thought. That is man’s chief miracle, unique to man. There is no ‘explanation’ whatever of the fact that I can make arbitrary sounds which will lead a total stranger to think my own thought. It is sheer magic that I should be able to hold a one-sided conversation by means of black marks on paper with an unknown person half-way across the world. Talking, broadcasting, writing, and printing are all quite literally forms of thought transference, and it is the ability and eagerness to transfer and receive the contents of the mind that is almost alone responsible for human civilization.

If you agree with this, you will agree with my one main idea, i.e. that the most important thing about printing is that it conveys thought, ideas, images, from one mind to other minds. This statement is what you might call the front door of the science of typography. Within lie hundreds of rooms; but unless you start by assuming that printing is meant to convey specific and coherent ideas, it is very easy to find yourself in the wrong house altogether.

— Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible”

*

Printing should be invisible.

As should words, sentences, passages.

As should concepts and systems of concepts.

As should truth.

*

If we love reality, or aspire to love reality, we will choose truths that reveal reality rather than represent it, explain it, model it, or otherwise eclipse it. Our truths will not be objects of contemplation. Our truths will be subjects who contemplate.

*

“When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children.” — Nietzsche

Wordworld

Living in a wordworld drives our attention on tracks to this and to that but not to the other.

The tracks may be intricately dense, but the spaces between the tracks are infinite.

No, I do not mean the spaces between one noticing and another, along our sporadically unconscious and conscious lines of thought.

No, I mean the atmospheric irrelevance, the unasked nothingness, where words have never carried us.

On the subject of subjects

I have been thinking a lot about “background philosophies”, the ideas we think with, and “foreground philosophies”, the ideas we think about.

I have equated background philosophies with subjects.

Whether it is a personal subject, or an academic subject, it does not matter. My thought has brought me to an understanding of subjects that on principle blurs that distinction into irrelevance.

Subjects are the ideas we think with, by which a certain objectivity can be experienced as objectively true.

I call these subjects, which are modes of objectivities, “enworldments”, and this is probably a much better term than “background philosophy”, because the minute you say “philosophy” there is an expectation that it is made out of concepts that can be objectively presented, talked about, compared combined and manipulated. But an enworldment is made of inter-related conceptions that are known solely by their effect: conceiving, or experiencing meaning of some specific kind. We come to understand a subject by comprehending its objects of knowledge (its concepts) but what is also acquired is the form of objectivity essential to that specific subject.

A discussion of subjects of various kinds might be helpful. Follow my line of thought and see if you pick up the sense of what I am saying.

When we were young, we learned subjects in school which taught us to understand, think and respond mathematically, historically, literarily and so on, each subject in s different way. Many (most?) people — even some teachers, unfortunately — casually see academic subjects as collections of conceptual content, and forget how, until the subject is actually understood — until the student acquires the conceptions required to conceive the concepts and take it all together as meaningful — the material is just an overwhelming heap of pointless, anxiety-inflicting chaos.

It is a mystery how the conception comes to existence in a student, but good teachers learn to make these epiphanies happen in the minds of individual students. The lightbulb turns on, and the student gets it. The bad teachers we remember from our childhoods (Susan assures me there are very few of them today), shared the popular misconception that their subject is the sum of its conceptual material and just drilled the objective information into the children’s head without also teaching the subject that gives the objective content meaning.

In my marriage, I have learned to understand, think and respond Susanly. I was bad at it for many years, and just couldn’t understand why she said, did and felt the way she did. She seemed bonkers, and I did infuriating things. Eventually, I realized I had to let her teach me her subject, and luckily for me, she is a pedagogical genius and did a great job. Now, not only does she make good sense to me, but I rely on what she taught me in my own thinking — including these thoughts you are reading right now.

My profession, research-informed design, constantly requires me to learn new subjects. I ask people to teach me their subject so I can to understand, think and respond to them with design interventions that fit their enworldments and the practical conditions of their lives (“the design context”). Novice designers often see research as gathering data — facts about behaviors, thoughts, emotions people feel — and they work rigorously to set their own subjectivity aside so they can analyze and synthesize the data objectively and say true things about the data we gathered. This rigorous work is helpful in ways, but not as a means to generate understanding. The subject is learned in the interviews. The rigorously analyzed objective data helps us test whether we really learned and understand the subject or if we are fudging by, using the wrong subject (our own!) to misunderstand the material.

*

So we have two modes of intellectual activity: one where an enworldment, subject, is primarily in play, and another where objects of knowledge are primarily in play.

I say “primarily” because subjects and objects are involved in every case.

But that primary makes all the difference in the quality of the play.

*

All this was recap, meant to set the stage for this newish idea:

Today, I am wondering if the difference between a religious mode of intellectual work and a philosophical mode isn’t this:

  • a religious mode focuses on the thinking (living) subject, and
  • a philosophical mode focuses on the thought object.

Most religious people seem to find practical — ethical, emotional and symbolic –activity (ritual) most effective for working on the thinking, living, existing subject. Intellectually working on the thinking, living subject seems almost a contradiction — and to be frank about it, in most cases it probably is a contradiction.

If we continue with the logic of this experimental distinction, defining philosophy as focusing on thought objects, philosophizing about religion would be an escape from religion. The thinking subject focuses on objective religious content, manipulating concepts as ideas exterior to oneself. Based on my sparse reading of theology, I believe much theology has been precisely this: an objectivizing escape from subjective entanglement with what is thought about. For instance, we think about God, in what manner God might or might not exist, what arguments support or weaken various ways of believing in different God-concepts. Or we might skim religious texts and scoop useful concepts out of various religions and integrate them with our own conceptual systems to show how religious systems all, more or less, agree — and not only with each other, but with how we understand things to be.

But it is also possible to think religiously — to think in a manner that is meant to change our own subjectivity. This mode of thought also thinks about religious idea, and it superficially resembles philosophical thinking about religion — but the attitude, focus and goal is profoundly different: it seeks to illuminate the ideas thought with to understand the religious ideas thought about. It is sensitive to the subject, the enworldment, and tries to modify itself to conceive religious material in new ways that induces change both to one’s own subject, its objectivity and the objective sense of the material.

Religious intellectual work pays close attention to the experience of thinking and notices not only the concepts and the concept system, but one’s own response to it — what happens inside one’s own heart, gut, hands, etc. when thinking it — and these responses guide the work just as much as the material, just as a talented teacher pays as much attention to her student’s face, tone, body language as to what the student says when quizzed on the material.

The guiding faith here is that there is something important to understand in the material — (or if you subscribe to the perennialist conception of esoterism, many overlaid successively esoteric understandings of the material) — that may be actualized if one finds the subjectivity to re-conceive it.

Understanding is the spur to bring us to ever more accommodating understandings of a multistable symbol system, and having faith in a religion is actively believing that, for this sacred symbology, each successive understanding will bring us to a new understanding which, once we arrive, we will experience as better than the last. The last understanding is not revealed to be wrong, but it is now understood how it could be even more true. Presumably, this kind of reconception can happen again and again, even when we are most sure we have arrived at the ultimate understanding. This is because we cannot conceive of a better understanding until we actually conceive it.

I do believe that perennialism is right that there is infinite, successive multistability in sacred symbologies. Where I disagree with perennialism is believing that revelation of such symbologies came to an end a thousand years ago.

I believe art can instaurate new infinite symbologies, if artists adopt religious ways of working, and stop pastiching around with old and novel forms.

*

“Religious intellectual work pays close attention to the experience of thinking and notices not only the concepts and the concept system, but one’s own response to it.” So, what are these responses we should pay attention to, and how should we respond to these responses?

I will make a brief list of the ones I consider most important for reading and navigating the waters. This is not an exhaustive list of everything helpful to know to navigate perplexity, but is is a good start. I have also made a list of designerly virtues and another of rights we can extend to collaborators in perplexing situations that are relevant to this subject.

  • Apprehension: This is the disturbing sense that something is wrong with an idea. One can sense that it is important in some unknown way, but also that it won’t yield to full comprehension. It compels and repels. It can be touched with the fingertips of thought, but it cannot be grasped. We are tempted to push it away as confusion, as something for someone else to understand, or something slightly dangerous to understand which might seduce us to delusion. If it compels us more that repels us, it will draw us into perplexity. Apprehension is the feeling of impending perplexity.
    – Practical advice: If you want to do original work, don’t follow your bliss; follow your apprehension.
  • Questionlessness: We stop knowing what the problem is. We cannot explain what is wrong. If a group is perplexed, nobody even knows where the disagreement is. Nobody can agree on what is relevant or not. There is only a churn of chaotic semi-ignorant talking past each other.
    – Practical advice: Learn to see that framing a problem or posing a question is a major accomplishment, a fruit of conception. It is in fact much harder to clarify a question than to answer it. Answering is the inspiring, fun, playful part. Getting to where the question can be asked — especially asked inspiringly — is sheer hell. (See angst/dread below.)
  • Techlessness: We are now in a space where technique and expertise is not only useless, but harmful. The more we try to use concepts that helped us in the past the more we fail, or succeed in a way that we can feel is failing to do justice to the situation. People who believe there always must be a technique for doing anything will be tempted to make do with whatever seems the best technique available. They will solve a problem for sure, but not the one at hand.
    – Practical advice: Try every technique, but stay sensitive to when they are inadequate for the situation. Improvisation, experimentation, trial and groping by the faintest of intuitions will eventually yield new techniques and expertise, but this will come late in the process, not early when we are most desperate for technical guidance.
  • Angst/dread: This is a feeling of helpless distress, and it is caused by perplexity — lacking a conception needed to make any sense of a situation. What is crucial to know about perplexity is it is a subjective state, and affects one’s entire enworldment. It has no object and it is caused by no object, even if thinking about an object or objects of thought induced the subjective state. If we only know how to think about objects, we will not only be perplexed, we will be doubly-perplexed (“metaperplexed”, ugh) — perplexed by being perplexed — and worse, we will misinterpret it objectively by blaming various objects for the pain, such as bad actors, devils, social phenomena, secret conspiracies, wicked behaviors, insensitivity, oppression — whatever image bears our ideal of evil, that is the object causing the angst or dread. And this objectifying response intensifies and prolongs the perplexity and multiplies the pain attending it.
    – Practical advice: Do not take objectifications at face value. Look beneath objects of angst and across them and instead of taking them literally, or grasping them as causes, view them as symptoms of subjectivity. And they are not symptoms of a disease, either. They are birth pangs of an emerging subject.
  • New significance: Things begin to stand out in our experience as significant. They may be positive or negative in tone. Words, images, sounds, tones, moods begin to recur and attract our attention or trigger feelings. New tastes reveal new experiences of beauty or weaken old tastes. Since reading Jan Zwicky I have lost my ability to tune out birdsong, and I know this means something is happening. I do not know what, but I suspect it might lead me where I need to go if I read it right.
    – Practical advise: Notice what you notice, and take note.
  • New associations: Heterogenous things feel connected. The feeling that they are connected long precedes explanation how or why.
    – Practical advice: Hold on to associations and do not try to explain them immediately. Do not reject them if they are inexplicable, but instead value them even more. These takings-together may be embryonic conceptions, and might lead to entirely new modes of explanation.
  • Poetic eruptions: Moments of inspiration hit and guide our behaviors, without our conscious direction, though we are highly conscious of what is happening.
    – Practical advice: If you are moved to write, write what comes. Do not filter any of it by what you can justify or even understand. Let it emerge to be understood later. Bob Dylan, a master of this practice, said: “At dawn my lover comes to me and tell me of her dreams, with no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means. At times I think there are no words but these to tell what’s true. And there are no truths outside the gates of Eden.”
  • Epiphany: Conception happens. A flash of insight hits, some object of understanding stands out clearly. It might be words, a metaphor, a sense of resolve, a vision, a distinct feeling, a melodic line — I believe epiphany can take any form. Mine always arrive visually and structurally as simple geometric shapes or diagrams. But the object is only the core of a subject, and that subject ripples out through our understanding of everything. We can feel the transfiguration of our enworldment before we know what objective truths changed for us. We discover them everywhere, and sometimes we discover that people around us already knew them and were trying to show them to us, but we could not yet conceive what they were showing.
    – Practical advice: When we have an epiphany, we might only be learning a conception someone else has been trying to share with us. For them, that epiphany might have been the result of long, painful work that you did not have to do, because you were given it — as a gift. The objective form your epiphany takes might differ from theirs, but this does not change the fact that you were given the conception that engendered your object. Reducing the accomplishment to the generation of the objective concept, without acknowledging the subjective conception that engendered it — a much, much harder-won, painfully-won accomplishment — is stealing the gift of epiphany.
  • Gratitude: If we learn to notice how subjects and objectivity works, we begin to understand how much we are given and how valuable it is. Then gratitude isn’t obligation, or something you have to make yourself feel. Gratitude just happens constantly. And we are substantially, subjectively connected by this gratitude, this sacred, entangling exchange of gifts. These gifts, this gratitude, this dense entangling, this unaccountable exchange — it creates We.
    – Practical advice: Desire indebtedness — look for it, notice it. Honor the entanglements of indebtedness with gratitude. It means we are not alone, and do not have to be.

*

God is not an object with an existence or non-existence.

God is an infinite subject we will never stop learning and relearning. God is the Subject of subjects.

I am entirely unable to not believe this, and that is why I am religious.

*

I think philosophical thoughts religiously.

The roots of givenness

My family uses a haggadah from the Jewish Labor Committee. It gets overbearingly, even comically, socialist at many points, but we love it. Before blessing the wine, we read:

Consider the cup of wine which we are about to drink. Countless sets of hands played a role in bringing this wine to our seder: the entrepreneurs and farm-owners who decided to direct their energies and capital into the wine business, the workers who planted and pruned the vines, those who picked the grapes, the vintners who directed the fermentation of freshly-harvested fruits into wine, the janitors who kept the winery clean and sanitary, the truck drivers and loading dock workers who transported the finished product, the clerks at the wine shops, and the servers who bring the wine to our tables tonight.

*

Our world is a miracle of coordinated effort. If we don’t pay attention as consumers we can forget this and casually stop remembering that food doesn’t just grow on grocery shelves.

*

What you consume comes from somewhere, and you might be surprised how much effort and pain is invested in bringing you your pleasures.

*

This principle is true, also, for philosophical consumption.

The conceptions that inspire and delight you were brought forth from the chaos somehow, and this process is strenuous and often extremely painful.

By the time ideas arrive to you as a book or paper or article, it has been processed and ready for convenient consumption.

*

What a delightful, playful object a smartphone is!

How delightful it is to shop at Whole Foods and buy ingredients for our dinner party!

How delightful it is to read ideas, play with them, and to feel inspired to invent one’s own original ideas!

*

We steal gifts when we refuse gratitude — when we just help ourselves to things as if they are just there for the taking.

Our givens have roots.

We should notice when we start taking new givens — new technologies, new services, new inspiration — even new problems…

Those givens aren’t just anonymously deposited upon the earth by reality to be mindlessly consumed.

Look for sources for these good things, and rather than feeling the ache of guilt, try feeling gratitude for the pain someone bore so you didn’t have to.

Ignoring the pain, denying the pain, squinting at the pain, or worst of all, claiming that it all could have come to you without the pain — that is just stealing gifts.

*

I’ve heard that is is better to thank people for their forbearance instead of apologizing for your mistakes. The former produces entangling indebtedness — relationship. The latter, release from responsibility.

*

Then the Jewish Labor Committee Haggadah instructs us to say:

Just as we are dependent upon so many of God’s children, many of whom we will never know, all of God’s children deserve basic dignity, respect and sustenance. With this cup, we recognize and honor our interconnectedness with all people.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam borei p’ree hagafen

Blessed are you, Source of all Life, who creates fruit of the vine.

Amen.

Thank you.

Nourishment

Thought nourishes us to the extent that it helps us notice and make sense of the concrete specifics of our lives.

To the degree that our thinking is about other people’s thoughts, and their thoughts are also about other people’s thoughts, the nourishment of thought gets abstracted, processed out.

Most of the  information most of us consume — entertainment, news, editorial, chatter — provides only empty calories, heat without substance.

When we speak as identities we stop being concrete or particular and we lose our ability to nourish others.

When the personal is political we all starve.