All posts by anomalogue

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.

But I’m digressing, again.

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.

Acknowledgement

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.

General Approach

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:

Method

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.

Bias metabias

Motivated reasoning not only can, but does motivate thinking about motivated reasoning. Our awareness of cognitive bias can be biased — biased in where we notice bias or unfairness, biased in where we assume that objectivity or fairness reigns, biased in where we assume charges of bias from others aimed at us are mere projections of their own bias.

When we assume these theories are (through some metacognitive magic) exempt from their own implications — when we take these ideas at their word without subjecting them to the critical scrutiny they prescribe for all other ideas and practices — we feel like we have transcended naivety. In fact, we have only deepened our naivety, through the naive conceit that we have transcended naivety.

Without a twinge of conscience — or even ironic self-awareness — we view ourselves as the most competent and altruistic of reasoners and cognitive bias counterbalancers. Because we have “done the work” and neutralized our own self-interested biases, we are not only qualified, but obligated to use whatever power we have at our disposal to impose objectivity on those who, in our unbiased opinion, are biased, self-interested and dangerously authoritarian.

What could possibly be self-interested about maximizing your own power and using it to suppress all opposition if your intention is to use power responsibly and altruistically to make things equitable for all people?

On Faith

Faith is that by which we experience reality as real and true. Faith takes what is given as given.

*

We might say we “have faith”, but we should not allow this expression to mislead us: Faith is not a possession; faith possesses. We do not have faith; faith does our having.

One of the things faith possesses is the content of our beliefs. If something is actually believed, faith’s action actualizes the belief.

(Faith does much more than believing beliefs, but for now, let’s focus on beliefs.)

Sometimes we want to believe something that we cannot actually believe, because faith somehow refuses to accept and actualize an authentic belief. Sometimes we claim to believe it anyway, and this is bad faith.

Other times we argue something to demonstrate its soundness, but faith still refuses to accept the conclusion and actualize it as a belief — even while accepting the validity of each part. But we claim to believe the conclusion anyway, and this is weak faith.

Sometimes it is not us, but someone else who argues to a conclusion our faith does not accept and actualize as a belief. We are told that the argument compels us to believe, and unless we can show some flaws in the argument, we are obligated to accept the conclusion. This is an attempt to exploit weak faith. And sometimes the argument serves a second function: the logical hectoring exhausts and weakens faith, making it more susceptible to exploitation.

Much rationalism systematically weakens faith, in order to replace actual belief with constructions grounded solely in a faith in rational thought. It leaves us free to construct whatever theory we wish to believe. It also leaves us vulnerable to being made to believe things powerful people wish us to believe. We are taught to fear cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, unconscious prejudice — and in order to overcome it we “put our faith in experts” and stop concerning ourselves with the question “but do I actually believe this?” Or we ask it without concern for the answer, because we believe we can train ourselves to believe any well-constructed theory, and with time, the theory will become habitual and belief will follow.

Here intellectual honesty devolves into existential bullshit, in the technical sense proposed by Harry Frankfurt in his essay turned gag-gift bestseller On Bullshit:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

A great many people today — perhaps a majority — have bullshit faith.

They don’t care whether they believe what they claim to believe, only that the people who are like them — the best-intentioned, best-educated, best-informed, best-all-around people — claim to believe this stuff, and the worst people reject it for bad reasons.

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None of this is to say faiths are fixed and inalterable.

We can change them, and for the better.

But to change them we must become more sensitive to what faith gives us, and what it refuses to accept.

We must start by respecting our faiths.

Gutenperger

My McLuhanite friend has been talking to me about “Gutenberg Man” — a species of human consciousness shaped by a society saturated with and shaped by the printed word. Wikipedia says:

McLuhan studies the emergence of what he calls Gutenberg Man, the subject produced by the change of consciousness wrought by the advent of the printed book. Apropos of his axiom, “The medium is the message,” McLuhan argues that technologies are not simply inventions which people employ but are the means by which people are re-invented.

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For awhile now, I’ve noticed a kind of mentality that seems to connect with McLuhan’s concept. This mentality understands entirely in terms of cognitive objects, which entails removal of the subject from the matter to be understood so the matter is viewed from a point exterior to the problem.

When this mentality thinks, cognitive objects are analyzed (disassembled) and synthesized (assembled or reassembled) into systems, like an engineer tinkering with a gadget set before him on a workbench. There is distance separating the thinker and the thoughts, and the thinking takes place across this distance. The thinker extends his intellect to the problem and puts together facts or ideas into arguments, or theories, or demonstrations. It all takes place with words. If there is no word, there is no thought. Thinking is a linguistic matter.

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Much can be accomplished with this style of thinking, but it does have sharp limits — in what it can create, but also in what it can understand.

One realm of understanding that fully outside the limits of this mentality is religion. Inside its boundaries is only fundamentalism or anti-fundamentalism. It cannot even conceive the kinds of truths known to a religious mind, which is perfectly okay with them, because religion is just a mix of rustic platitudes and dangerous nonsense. Religions must be instructed by more advanced, scientific minds to COEXIST — by emphasizing the essential rustic platitudes and suppressing the inessential dangerous nonsense. But wouldn’t it just be better to keep the rustic platitudes and move on?

I find the limitations of such mentalities intensely frustrating. They stand inside their limits, demanding (with smug, smirking skepticism) a preview of what will be known beyond their limits, because, of course, “there is no there there” — and failure to produce the requested preview demonstrate this fact. Or, alternatively, they demand proof that their current way of thinking is inadequate — and if they cannot be driven from their current position with overpowering arguments, it is reasonable to conclude there are no real reasons to change their current understanding.

In both cases, a particular understanding of the nature of understanding is excluded from play, and all that is left in in play is bounded — imprisoned, in fact — within the realm of objective thought.

This exclusion prevents them from understanding their condition within the world than bystanding it. They stand apart, oblivious to themselves, except as a bundle of thoughts about themselves (psychological, biographical, social, scientific, magical), like stunted gods, knowing things about all things.

*

Because I get mean when communication is willfully thwarted, and because I enjoy inventing insults, I am calling this condition Gutenperger’s Syndrome. It is, like Asperger’s Syndrome, an empathic incapacity — but one caused by an incapacity to think outside the limits of objectivity and explicit language. It makes a thinker immune to radically new understandings that implicate one’s own subjectivity and potentially transform it. Those with Gutenperger protect themselves from such transformations and all its dreadful preliminaries.

*

Once I recognize a person as a Gutenperger’s case, I know that philosophizing with them can only end in tears. I must keep things shallow and light, especially when they want to be “deep”. And they always do.

The Philosophical Click

When thinking about philosophy many people make a fundamental category mistake: They think a philosophy is a system of claims, and that acquiring knowledge of the claims is understanding the philosophy. In doing so, they mistake the philosophy for its content.

But learning a philosophy is learning how to do that philosophy, or even better, how to participate in that philosophy. The claims, the arguments, the language — the content — is best seen as a delivery vehicle for the philosophy. If engaged as intended, philosophical content induces a way of thinking that makes clear, coherent sense of the content.

(For example: If your goal when reading Nietzsche is to answer the question “What did Nietzsche really think?”, you are making this category mistake. Pursuing the question “How did Nietzsche think?”, and using the question of what he thought as a means to this goal, puts us on the right track.)

Philosophical engagement is making the clearest, most coherent, most immediate sense of some philosophical content. This means reading or listening carefully, paying close attention to where clarity and coherence is lacking, trying out alternate senses of each word, alternate interpretations of each sentence, each passage, each work, the whole corpus — patiently reading and rereading, or hearing and rehearing, or trying and retrying, until an understanding clicks into place as a gestalt, resolving the meaning and dispelling all occluding unclarity and contradiction.

After the Click, the content flows in spontaneously, second-naturally — as easy and obvious as a sitcom storyline. This is our best indication that we understand the philosophy. Sadly, it might also mean that we have misunderstood it. Only the most acute alertness to what has not been understood, what remains contradictory, what is still cloudy can help us discern misunderstanding from understanding. This requires a willingness bordering on eagerness to be mistaken — to have misunderstood all along.

(Those who prize intellectual competence above all else — who love the feeling of being right and of having been right all along, who find evidence of their own extreme prescience and omniscience in every experience — are incompetent readers of philosophy. So are those who skim and cherrypick, rummaging for useful components to bolt onto their own sprawling conceptual assemblages. Prophets, collagists and ambitious system builders understand perfectly well all the relevant bits of what they read, and therefore miss the entire point of philosophy, which is to discover subtle misunderstandings and gaps that open the way to more deeper and more expansive re-understandings. Many are attracted to philosophical texts, in order to dominate or plunder them, but few engage philosophical texts philosophically. One must have a perverse taste for discovering one’s own inadequacy  and for immersion in the most anxious perplexities to develop philosophically. In philosophy, hedonism, pain aversion and pride are stunting vices.)

What makes philosophical content philosophical is that it implicitly promises the Click, provided one is willing to put forth philosophy’s distinct kind of effort. The Click is possible because a clear, coherent philosophy was used to generate and form the content, and the author ensured the content expresses the philosophy exactly enough to induce a sharp click of understanding and to prevent false clicks of misunderstanding.

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What makes philosophy so exciting and important is that, once its Click happens, it sets in motion a way of thinking that can activate whenever it is needed. It sets up a new species of recognition and ready response to whatever is conducive to its treatment — to its form of understanding.

I’ve called a form of understanding a concept. A concept is a spontaneous taking-together of a given of some particular form. I’ve called the capacity to recognize and respond to a particular concept a conception.

The purpose of philosophy is to induce new conceptions that enable recognition and response to new concepts in both philosophical content and in every kind of experience. Conceptions are what enable the understanding of concepts in philosophical content as well as the recognition and response to those same concepts in any kind of experience, even when the philosophical content that originally induced the conception is not recalled within that experience.

Real philosophical engagement necessarily changes who we are. It changes us beneath the layer of language, at the depths of self where language is understood and used, and where tools are wordlessly understood and used, where we read facial expressions and gestures, sense danger, experience beauty, and feel reality as real. It is where we do all our practical believing. It is the layer that overrules logic and theories and the content of our brains when life is at stake.

Few of us are in touch with this layer of self. We think we are what the words in our head tell us we are, when we ask ourselves with words “Who am I?” Who we are speaks with silent gestures, and the words that fill our heads and ears talk over it and drown it out. If we listen only for words and even see with word, words are all we hear or see.

This layer beneath language and beneath perception is what I call faith. We can also call it the subject.

There are many ways besides philosophy to change faith, or recall it, or maintain it, or strengthen it, or further develop it — (or, exceptionally, to let it go, or even to kill our faith and suffer in the shadows without it for awhile). Religious practice is a common way to shape faith. So is participation in culture and in various subcultures within our culture. Education also works on faiths, and this is why we call the various educational disciplines subjects. Art can change our faith, at least for a few moments, and a diet of one genre of art can have enduring effects.

But philosophy is my favorite faith-shaping discipline.

It is not the underpinning of everything everyone else is going. That is faith. There is no implicit philosophy, any more than there is an implicit art or implicit academic subject.

But philosophy is one potentially effective means of taking responsibility for faith.

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I have so much more to say.

I want to say how our faith conditions our entire experience of reality, and that if we experience reality as meaningless, persecutory, punishing, dark or doomed, this is only the testimony of our faith.

I want to advise us to stop fixating on the content of our faiths and instead observe how things seem when given to us via our faiths. Yes, the world is real, but the world we experience and know is the world our faith enworlds around us.

I want to point out that our faiths can be intentionally changed for the better.

I’ve said it all before innumerable times, but I need to carefully craft it all into a Click-inducing whole. Maybe the above is the inception of this work.

Liberal virtue mimesis mad libs

A few days ago I threw a design tantrum on my blog dedicated to design tantrums:

Apple seems to think its Jobsian Reality Distortion Field is still operational. It thinks that if it keeps pretending its botched syncing is a magically simple cloud experience — if it sings out “ta da!” insistently enough — its cult of uncritical boneheads will just believe what Apple wants them to believe. And you know what? Apple is 100% correct.

But I do not believe. I do not believe because I notice things and think about them. That is what smart people do. Stupid people copy the thoughts of people they think are smart, and then stupidly imagine that copying smart person thoughts makes them smart.

In that last I suspect I am dumbing down Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and applying it to the contemporary virtue of virtues: smartness.

It is interesting though, how much contemporary progressivist culture rejects mimesis in word, while embracing it in action, producing some pretty comical effects for spectators positioned outside progressivism.

Nobody — or at least nobody in in the ascendant professional class — wants to be a cultural copycat. Everyone wants to be the originator of his own beliefs, attitudes and practices. And every fails dramatically, because originality doesn’t come from intense need to be original and determination to achieve it. Originality comes from noticing what one notices (not just what everyone else is fixating on) and trying to find a way to make clear, coherent and persuasive sense of what strikes one as relevant. It’s the “persuasive” part that is hardest. It requires intellectual honestly beyond what most people have — because most people believe mimetically, and play little or no attention to whether they, themselves, are persuaded.

To put it into my mimetic liberal virtue mad libs formula: Unoriginal “original” people copy the ideas of people they think are original and imagine copying Original Person Ideas makes them original.

A person urgently seeking answers to questions they themselves feel urgently — or, even better, the capacity to resolve perplexities they themselves have entered, with any form of positive or negative resolution, whether it be question, answer, problem, solution, or response — will accept help wherever they can find it. They’ll borrow, steal, copy, whatever — and they won’t stop until they experience genuine persuasion and relief from the question, problem or perplexity. The originality follows from this uncompromising pursuit of clear, cohesive persuasion. As James Dickey said “Amateurs borrow; artists steal.”

So, now I’m wondering what happens if the other virtues of progressivism — those remaining traces of waning liberalism — are subjected to this same mimetic virtue mad libs formula. I’ll make a quick list of the liberal virtues progressivists still prize: Liberalism (as opposed to illiberalism), Strength (as opposed to weakness), Uniqueness (as opposed to conformity), Objectivity (as opposed to ideology), Empathy (as opposed to self-centered).

Let’s mad lib these and see how it goes:

Illiberal “liberal” people copy the ideals of people they think are liberal and imagine copying Liberal Person Ideals makes them liberal.

Weak “strong” people copy the behaviors of people they think are strong and imagine copying Strong Person Behaviors makes them strong.

Conformist “unique” people copy the qualities of people they think are unique and imagine copying Unique Person makes them unique.

Ideological “objective” people copy the beliefs of people they think are objective and imagine copying Objective Person Beliefs makes them objective.

Self-centered “empathic” people copy the emotions of people they think are empathic and imagine copying Empathic Person Emotions makes them empathic.

It seems to work, at least for liberal virtues.

And also, just as Girard says (or I think he does, because I still have only read about his thought and have not yet read him) competition to possess these virtues exclusively and deny them to the out-group produces hostility and an overpowering need for scapegoating.

How it goes

If something in my life becomes unbearably distressing and I force myself to withdraw and stop reacting and instead to recollect myself — the explicit output of this work is rarely “What you understood as bad is actually acceptable.” It is more often “It is acceptable that this bad thing is bad.”

This is similar in form to how my philosophical reconceptions work. The explicit output of philosophical work is rarely “I was wrong,” It is more often “I was right, but not right enough.”

*

I am unfairly skeptical of anything claiming to be metanoia that is just a reversal of a value. Something bad became good, or good became bad. Something false became truth, or truth became false.

Many people who have changed opinions on this or that deep or important topic believe they’ve experienced metanoia… and but actual metanoia can give them something to which they can contrast their simple changes of opinion. But generally, they use this leveling-down move of treating all exciting changes of opinion as equivalent to protect them from any line of thought that could induce actual metanoia.

Nonconformism

Ethnomethodologically speaking, a nonconformist is a human breaching experiment.

Breaching experiments violate the tacit rules of the social game. When those rules are violated players no longer know how to move around. Perplexity ensures.

Nonconformists inspire perplexity, anxiety and hostility.

*

If we understand personalities to form and sustain itself through ethnomethods, and if we understand personalities to be constituted of varying abilities and tastes — it follows that any particular culture’s ethnomethods will favor some personalities over others. This accounts for why some people are attracted to certain cultures and repelled by others. It also accounts for why we might want to borrow customs from other cultures. Foreign borrowings can can help us feel less alien in our own culture.

*

Regarding identity, the compulsive obsession of our self-alienated times: If we wish to reshape our culture we can create new roles or we can change the meanings of old roles. Both of these strategies require a holistic shift in ethnomethods. A private ethnomethod is like a private language, and it cannot sustain personhood. The notion that a person can be a person inwardly without a supporting social setting — one with ethnomethods that allows a person to signal and to be recognized as the kind of person one is — reveals a fundamental essentialist misunderstanding of personhood.

In times when radical cultural change has been desired by a marginal few, the forming and sustaining of new kinds of personalities — kinds of personality more accommodating to the variabilities of ability and taste — motivated the formation of subcultures. These subcultures were voluntary. Those who needed them joined them; those who did not, ignored, avoided or scorned them. Sometimes subcultures were attacked and persecuted. Nonconformity produces perplexity.

Now the most powerful classes of our society wish to change the ethnomethods of our culture to conform with the ethnomethods of certain large subcultures. Because these are the preferences of the most powerful — those who dominate both the public and private sphere — these are not mere preferences, but morality itself. Consequently, those who resist these changes are immoral.

Because the most powerful are acting on behalf of groups who are minorities, and because they champion the ethnomethods of subcultures who have been persecuted in the past, they miss the fact that they themselves are overwhelmingly powerful and that they are behaving precisely the way dominant groups always do. They are perplexed by anyone who fails to see the justice in their domination and refuses to conform to their new norms — and perplexity makes them hostile. So they persecute conconformists, and pretend this persecution is required to defend the vulnerable.

It is all motivated reasoning that serves to justify persecution and domination, just as it always is when one group gains enough power to rule unopposed. It is always done in the name of morality, but this time — always — it is a moral morality.

It’s been God.

It’s been Freedom.

Now it’s Justice.

Someday it will be something else. And, as always, everyone complicit in this madness for Justice will have been doubters all along. Until then they have no doubt: justice must be done.

*

“Beings must pay penance and be judged for their injustices, in accordance with the ordinance of time.” — Anaximander

“Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.” — David Byrne

Schmoness: a tantrum

We humans have no idea how to handle conversions.

When “the scales fall from our eyes”, or…

…when we suddenly become aware of the element within which we swim (“this is water!”)…

…when we suddenly become aware of the gross institutionalized, systemic injustice of a system that we, ourselves, have participated in…

…when we wake up in an oikophobic nightmare and finally see the evil in which we are immersed…

…or…

…when we swallow a hard truth that gives us a xenophobic glimpse into the goings on of a  cabal meeting in distant lairs…

…when we finally see the They Live writing on the wall that we have been dupes of a totalitarian global elite who’ve sold us libertine liberty in order to buy out the very ground of our humanity so they can excavate it, leaving us traditionless, soilless, bloodless, posthuman…

All becomes clear.

We transcend the world of confused, shadowy obscurity into a new clearer realm of dazzling insight.

We are enlightened, born again, woke, red-pilled into the Kingdom of Truth.

And we try in vain to unshackle the minds of the complacent consumers of shadows plays but they are strangely invested in these illusions. They do not want to wake up. They complain that you are the one who is strangely invested in illusions. You are the one who needs to return to reality.

And you know what?

They are right.

Because, as deluded as they are, you are doubly-deluded.

You believe you have transcended to Transcendence.

And you are wrong. You have only transcended to another immanence… an immanence that is oblivious to its own obliviousness .

You love your new immanence. Some immanences truly are much better than others.

Some immanences give wonderful relief from despair. Or from onerous obligation. Or from anomie. Or from self-fragmentation. Or from fear. Or from perplexity, or indifference, or faltering.

Every new immanence gives us relief from some painful form of alienation.

This relief from alienation bestows a beautiful illusion upon us that we have popped outside the human condition and can now experience it from an external godlike perspective. We can now see where we were imprisoned objectively in the bright sunlight, in a way impossible when we were still sealed inside its cold, dark, clammy walls.

This conceit that We have escaped ignorance, that We have transcended to insight, that We now know — is a new and for most, much worse meta-imprisonment, meta-immanence, meta-ignorance, because now we lack all motivation to see that we are still inside the human condition — still a schmo among schmos.

Nope, mere shmohood is not good enough for I — the one true I who was born to sit on the egoic throne situated at the very center of the universe.

We are as gods: woke, red-pilled, enlightened, born again.

We are reborn into a community of others who are also woke, red-pilled, enlightened, born again. They all agree with me that our tribe really knows, where other tribes only think they know. But I trust my tribe, because, according to me, they know.

I call this condition misapotheosis.

In misapotheosis we think we’ve become something special, when we are really just another know-it-all, ignorant-ass god.

There is nothing more human than mistaking yourself for a god.

*

Are we doomed to divinity?

Probably. Being a god is divine.

But we can, if we decide to choose otherwise.

If, by some miracle, we manage to stop spewing our hot wisdom at the unfortunates around us, and just listen — (no, not that way; don’t “be a good listener”) — if we really listen with hearing ears, and hear with a faith that, despite our glorious omniscience we still have something deeply, urgently important to learn…

…if we can miraculously incarnate ourselves back on the human plane as a mortal student…

…we discover that we can transcend again.

And again.

And again.

Each time we return more human and less godlike.

Each time we find ourselves in a world populated more densely with gods and more sparsely with mere humans.

If we do this too much we may become like Diogenes wandering the streets with a lantern asking “Where are the fucking humans? All I see are crowds of glorious, all-knowing gods.” And if we happen upon a Socrates who actually knows he doesn’t know, we almost fall out of our chair.

*

It takes perseverance, effort, wisdom, talent to become a mere human among humans.

It takes more than most people have to understand the ordinary, humble miracle of liberalism — to feel the obligation to hammer out with others the questions of what is true? what is just? what is beautiful? what is good? and to do so as an equal among equals, a schmo among schmoes.

We want to transcend our schmoness and exalt ourselves as the ones with insight into Just Justice, True Truth, and so on and so on.

*

Equity is the unfair imposition of one hubristic group’s of fairness on those who have lost too much power to resist it.

Only a god could be ignorant enough to enforce equity on others without noticing the inequity of it.

*

Somehow, in this time — this time that everyone agrees is a uniquely degraded, distracted, dissatisfied, despairing, dangerously demented time — somehow in this time everyone has become wise to liberalism.

Everyone is too radical and insightful to buy liberalism.

Everybody knows what this society really needs instead of liberalism.

If only those who really know could have their way.

*

So goddamn many gods.

So few humans.

Performative rank

Whether we explicitly know it or not, we perform this knowledge:

  • We inform the judgments of superiors.
  • We impose our judgments on inferiors.
  • We experimentally adopt and compare judgments with equals.

Anyone who teachers other people how they should judge matters of truth or justice can say what they wish about equality or equity, but in practice they exalt themselves as superior.

If a teacher treats this kind of teaching not as the imposition of personal political opinion but rather as indisputable truth, this means they have lost sight of the difference between opinion and truth. This is naive realism.

Naive realism only becomes worse when naive realists understand how naive realism works and by virtue of this understanding believe themselves immune. Now the naive realist has promoted themselves from belonging to the human condition, into some kind of superhuman condition of knowing what others think they know but cannot.


Some religions treat apotheosis as the very goal of religious life.

My religion treats avoidance of apotheosis as the goal.

It takes wisdom not to confuse yourself with God.


Wisdom is not a matter of understanding how vice deludes others.

Wisdom is much more a matter of understanding how vice deludes oneself. Wisdom is the furthest thing from objective knowledge, it is knowledge about the limits of objective knowledge and therefore subjective knowledge and knowing at the deepest level that objectivity and subjectivity are not opposites.


Religious scripture must always be read as addressed to oneself by someone wiser.

If we read religious scripture in order to arm ourselves with things to say to others, we are making the profoundest kind of mistake.

Musical fusionisms

Postliberal leftism is progressivism that has de-fused from and rejected left-liberalism. It opposes left-liberalism and postliberal rightism as more or less the same thing: institutionalized social injustice.

Postliberal rightism is cultural conservatism that has de-fused from and rejected libertarianism. It opposes libertarianism and postliberal leftism as more or less the same thing: global capitalism that sold out traditional Western culture.

Liberals — both the left-liberal and libertarian refugees of the postliberal de-fusions — should view postliberal leftism and postliberal rightism as two halves of the same thing: illiberalism.

Whatever difference we left-liberals and libertarians had, it pales in comparison with the differences we now have with our former allies.

Perhaps we can call ourselves ambiliberals.

*

Last time the entire world got wise to liberalism and decided to replace it with something better we didn’t much like the results. Maybe it will go better this time.

Exnihilist irruption

Once again, I’ve been reading selections from the Sophia Perennis.

My response today, as it has been from the beginning is this: Accepting as given the intellective certainty that we are endowed with microcosmic insight to know a divine macrocosmic Absolute is certainly one beautiful way to understand the human condition and to relate ourselves to that which transcends, envelops and involves us.

An Absolutist can prove the Truth of this understanding — and I cannot disprove it.

But proofs prove nothing, unless we start from a faith that they do.

I do not share this faith that Logos and the Absolute are one and the same — not even from a human perspective. In other words, I am not Christian, though I do love Christianity.* (see note below.)

From where I stand, the only absolute I know is a simple fundamental fact of human condition: I am — as we all are — finite being situated within infinite being, whose being, by virtue of infinitude, defies all totalizing conception. I am inclined to include also the concept of being itself as defied by infinitude.

It is the task of faith to relate ourselves — I — to infinite Thou — from the very heart of this all-encompassing, edgeless Thou. And this task requires more than the conceiving mind. It requires one’s entire being — mind, feelings, intuitions, willpower, blood, muscle, bone. All these are mobilized by faith that relates I to the Infinite One.

Through my own urgent incessant efforts to find the inadequacies in my own totalizing conceptions, I have arrived at a faith that infinity is inexhaustibly capable of shocking my finite conception with new revelations beyond the limits of my current conceptive capacity.

For this to happen, I must welcome the inconceivable shock before its advent, enduring the dread that heralds its coming — and to do all this for the sake of the shock itself and not for the reward of epiphanic bliss that often follows the shock.

Each time this happen, I am invited or demanded to conceive a new way to accommodate the new revelations as well as a way to relate myself to this incredibly strange situation of being within being among beings, where at any moment, if you maintain an open heart, new beings may enter from the edges of nowhere, ex nihilo.

If I am anything, I am exnihilist.

But this accommodation is never final. No norm is ever finally just, however just it seems to the judge who judges it. We fiddle away with our codifications, persuaded we at last have Knowledge of Good snd Evil. But only the appeal, only the shock of the suppressed voice finally heard is just, and it comes from beyond what we conceive.

Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.


(* NOTE: “What is love but understanding and rejoicing at the fact that another lives, feels and acts in a way different from and opposite to ours?” We must not try to be who or what we love; we must be with, toward, for our beloved. Only then can we participate in I-transcendent We. This We is as inconceivable as God Godself, and this We is as much God as any finite being can hope to be. A Jewish sage presented love of God and love of neighbor as one and the same highest mitzvah. Do both in one action of love, or you do neither.)

Eclipse, solipse, transcendence

If your philosophy is soliptic, dialectic will converge into a unity — the unity of absolute subject, whose idea permeates all being.

If your philosophy is transcendent, dialectic will diverge into unity, the unity of a relative subject within an infinite indefinite — irreducible to idea, or even to being.

If your philosophy is ecliptic, and treats subjectivity as epiphenomenonal — you will overcome both solipsism and transcendence — according to the language game that no longer mistakes itself for you.

Visitations

If we somehow manage to stop interposing concepts between ourselves and reality — something that any meditator will tell you is easier to think about than to do — and to simply attend to the present, can we spontaneously receive what we — I — now find here in this present?

Is receiving the given present only a matter of opening the door so the present can enter — or, everso, so we can get out of ourselves to meet it?

Or is there an effort of some kind to enable ourselves capable of accommodation — a preparation for each new given? A spiritual hospitality?

Or is the effort of accommodation only for those givens we ask to stay and to join our household, where some givens are only guests who are welcome to come and go?

Or does our hospitality for present givens allow accommodation to develop in collaboration with our guest — to instaurate residence if our given chooses to stay and share our home?

Invitation, hospitality, then accommodation, then residence…

*

The door is often locked shut by the thought of openness, which substitutes opening with thinking about opening and striving for an experience of openness.

If you have meditated for long hours, you might know what I mean.

If you have not meditated for long hours, you will certainly know what I mean.

This is a religious matter, and with religion one always already knows, unless by some miracle one stops always already knowing so something new can happen.