All posts by anomalogue

Learning service design backwards and forwards

I’ve found two ways of helping people understand service design.

The first way, which I began developing almost two years ago and described on this blog late last year, is helping people learn to notice the kinds of problems service design is good at solving. I’m calling this “Six Sensibilities of Service Design”.

The second way is to show the typical final deliverables of a service design project. These deliverables comprise both comprehensive surveys of the service as a whole as well as specific itineraries documenting key paths through the service.

Surveys include:

  • Service flows — Service flows map all primary paths through a service, from one touchpoint to the next. Normally the perspective mapped is that of the receiver of the service, but ideally those delivering and supporting the service would also be mapped.
  • Value exchanges — Every service can be described as a value exchange between different participants (actors), each investing things of value (time, effort, money, information, etc.) in order to get something of value in return. This exchange is conducted in smaller installments that take place over a span of time, and each installment must motivate the next installment if the service is to progress toward its fulfillment.
  • Experience strategy — The experience strategy answers the question of “What should it be like to participate in this service?” One popular way to express the experience strategy is experience principles, a list of characteristics of the service that will experientially differentiate the service from its alternatives.

Itineraries include:

  • Service stories — Service stories convey an ideal service experience, usually, but not necessarily, from the perspective of the receiver of the service. Each experience story traces out one path through the service flow, and relates what one service actor (and other actors who appear in their story) experience along the way, investing and receiving value. These stories are the backbone of service design, because they put, in the most concrete and universally-relatable terms, what all development efforts across all disciplines are contributing to bring to actuality. Service design, unlike other disciplines, operationalizes omnichannel, multi-actor experiences, starting from the experience itself. Other approaches, if they consider experience at all, often do so after most operational work was done (normally with no consideration of experience) and with exclusive focus on “the customer” receiving the service.
  • Service blueprints — Service blueprints are outlines of operationalization of one service story. It outlines what happens in the “front stage” of the service, experienced by the receiver of the service, as well as processes that occur in the “back stage” to support the service.

In an ideal world, every possible itinerary in a service flow would be related as a service story and blueprinted. In reality, designers must prioritize paths, with the understanding that the work will continue in perpetuity.


I am aware this is incomplete and still pretty inadequate. Nobody unfamiliar with service design will understand service design from what I have just outlined. However, I believe once the outline is fleshed-out with more description and examples, it will be quite effective — especially if it is supplemented with “Six Sensibilities of Service Design”.

Once this foundation is established, the approaches of service design will make much more sense. That is my hole and aspiration, anyway.

Design is the supersystem

This article is incomplete, and likely significantly incorrect. But I’m posting it, anyway, just to spur me to keep working on it. It is flawed but there is important truth in it. If you are an engineer, please pay especially close attention to my reckless claims about regression testing, because I suspect I may be speaking about obsolete ideas that I never adequately understood. Let’s fight.


Once you understand that design is concerned with the development of hybrid systems comprising both voluntary participants (humans) and automatic components (nonhumans), and that such systems are incomplete until the human participants are actually participating several truths become obvious:

  • The human participants must be taken as one of the essential parts of the system. Designers seek understanding of how human participants will behave within a system for exactly the same reason engineer seek understanding of how material or technological components will behave in an engineered system: To the degree a part of a system is poorly understood, it is likely to behave unpredictably and cause the system to perform poorly or fail.
  • When we view systems that people are eventually expected to use or to participate in, as already complete without the people using it — when we try to evaluate that as-yet humanless system, without including the users or participants, we are mistaking a mere part for the whole. Almost all engineered systems are mere subsystems of larger designed supersystems, and the superstystem is the proper unit of evaluation.
  • When we make changes to engineered systems, we are often making changes to the larger design system and how humans will participate in it. No competent engineer would dream of releasing a change to a system without performing regression testing, to ensure no unintended effects emerge from the system, but, because they misconceive design systems as mere engineered systems that will eventually be used by people, they fail to include usability testing in their protocols.

UXers and HCDers have always known it was foolish to speculate on how people will use or participate in a system. But few actually thought of people as voluntary participants in a supersystem that could be treated as a testable unit. Service design — our first human-nonhuman hybrid system development methodology — has made the advantages of this conception of design more obvious, but it was actually true from the start.

Personal brand

I remember back in the 90s we explained brands to people as the personality of an organization.

Today the idea of branding is more immediate to us than the reality of souls. We talk about selfhood using the language brand strategy.

It is strange to me how so many children who fancy themselves anti-capitalist have internalized marketing so deeply that they understand themselves as examples of marketing segments of a political party.

Eubigotry

I’m going to fully and publicly adopt the terminology of eubigotry and disbigotry as two species of bigotry, which I define broadly as any reduction of an individual person to a category or identity and relating to the individual person primarily as an example or instance or manifestation of the category.

Most of what we call bigotry is disbigotry. We deduce that a person has certain negative characteristics or we respond negatively because we have assigned them a negative category. But, according to this view, if we deduce that a person must have positive characteristics or we respond more positively to them because we have assigned them a positive category, we are also succumbing to bigotry — eubigotry.

We can also be bigoted toward ourselves. Whether our self-bigotry is disbigoted or eubigoted, we are still objectifying ourselves and succumbing to what existentialists call “bad faith”.  In this weird time, we are suffering mass bad faith. It appears to be the default faith for most college educated young people.

Deeply bigoted people sometimes try to overcome their bigotry by reversing disbigotry into eubigotry. The purpose of coining the word “eubigotry” is to show that even if the felt valuation has actually reversed (which is questionable) this makes no progress toward seeing the other as fully human.

Note: I stole this linguistic move from the field of psychology, which identifies both distress and eustress as varieties of stress.

Annual disorientation

Every year around this time I lose my curriculum. I pick up books and abandon them.

This year I’ve picked up and dropped several books about the formation of worldviews. I started at Worldview and Mind by Eugene Webb. Then I switched over to Nelson Goodman’s Ways of Worldmaking. Then I spent a few days in Cassirer revivalist Sebastian Luft’s The Space of Culture. Now I am tentatively rereading Bruno Latour’s weird and semi-neglected magnum opus, An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence.

All this came after a half-year dive into hermeticist literature, focusing on Kabbalah and Tarot, and approached from my own heretically practical angle.

Susan has booked a mountain cabin for a week-long writing retreat in early spring. I’ve noticed that everything I am doing is now preparation for that week.

My project is the same as it has been for the last decade, and both the hermeticist and the worldview investigations are components of it, and, of course, design remains at the heart of it as well. The project is enworldment. If we are displeased with the world as we experience it, what do we have at our disposal to change our experience of the world — by materially changing the world, by changing own being-in-the-world, by changing our own social participation? My prescription is to approach things as a designer — always as a designer — and most of all when we think we should approach them as a political or “ethical” actor.

Boring or anxious?

As we all know, “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t.”

And as anyone who knows me knows, I’m of the former camp, though do I believe there are innumerable interesting or useful ways to bifurcate our species, so I can easily come across as the latter.

Today my favored bifurcation is 1) those who prefer anxiety to boredom, and 2) those who prefer boredom to anxiety.

In this bifurcation, too, I am of the former camp, though I can go on about anxiety so extensively, that I often seem to belong to the latter.

How to close the theory-practice gap

I have never once just thought up a truly new practice and then executed it afterwards.

Every new thing I’ve ever conceived emerged from intuitive, nonverbal doing — from groping in the dark, from muddling through, usually under conditions of considerable perplexity and stress.

Only after, if it worked, can I go back and reflect on what made it work, and produce a theory.

I’ve never seen things go the opposite direction.

As far as I know, the only way to close the theory-practice gap is to theorize from practice. And it is less like a closing of a gap than it is paving something substantial but rough and poorly lit.

There is only a gap if theory has been sketched into a vacuum. I don’t think those gaps ever close.

And trying to practice from theory leads to mechanical sterility. It leads to execution of memorized dance steps, or the recitation of syllables from an alien language.

Every important thing I’ve ever conceived has come came to me this way. And every important thing I’ve ever learned has come to me first as a new practical capacity, a new ability to perceive or respond first — tacit know-how — and only much later has it become something I can actually explain.

Maybe a Sartrean formula would be helpful: Practice precedes theory.

What emerges from practice-forged theory is praxis — articulate practice.


I am excited about design as an alternative mode of practical life.

It is a new living tradition, a way of working, self-consciously developed by many diverse practitioners, solving a vast and growing array of real-world problems in every conceivable material (matter, space, time, information, imagination, feeling), for (arguably) the last 60-so years.

It is a tradition that must be appropriated and internalized before it becomes productive in the head, hearts and hands of a participant.

It is the appropriate mode of practice for anyone who works in systems in which humans participate. If you think about it at any depth at all, this category embraces just about all human activity, most of all the governing of people at every scale.

Design is the way we should be approaching life together, but its methods and even more, its core sensibilities, its conceptive capacities, are still largely confined to specialists. In my own life, I’ve found that disciplining myself to behave as a designer has made intractable, incorrigible problems soluble.

Almost anything I do, I do better if I do it in a designerly way.

But what is this designerly way? It is not methods. It is what animates these methods. It is a faith.


More and more, I am realizing that the purpose of my life is to illuminate and activate the esoteric underpinnings of design practice.

Like all faiths, design has a visible outward form that can be looked at — an exoteric expression — and an inward, esoteric being that cannot be looked at, but rather is seen from.

The reason I have been so quiet lately is I am returning to the sophia perennis. I want to do for design what esoterists have done with traditional religions — illuminate their transcendent unity. To this end, I am focusing on the esoteric depths of my own faith, and studying Kabbalah.

But just to preemptively address on obvious and important objection:  I am not in the slightest interested in making design into a religion. I am just trying to invest our practical lives with religious energy. We cannot continue on with this vacuous, stressful, tedious slogging. Our oil-dependent economy depends even more on another rapidly depleting fuel source, will-power. Our will-power tanks have been sucked dry are emptied even of vapors.

We sit before our screens, commanding our hands to move and type out words, but they refuse to do what we say.

We need an alternative, renewable psychic energy source. But we cannot tap into this source as long as we continue to insist that all new sources conform to our current sacred theories of power. These theories possess us and will not release us until we pay the price of our redemption.

Polycentricity

Every citizen today seems to have a non-negotiable issue. “I will play by the liberal-democracy game on any issue except this one issue, which, to me, is more important than liberal-democracy itself.” Here, one is entitled — no, one is obligated! — to use force if persuasion fails.

But what if your fellow citizen takes precisely the opposite position as yours? This, in fact, is not hypothetical. Your non-negotiable opposes their non-negotiable.

You, however, actually know what is true and good. You can explain why your contemptible enemy is deluded and morally perverse.

Your enemy, however, also knows what is true and good and has explanations for your deluded and perverse morality.

What makes you so sure you are right about being right, when your enemy is wrong about being right? Is it your justification of your judgment? Well, that is only meta-judgment, and it is just as fallible as judgment.

For instance, you think you’ve addressed your biases? What if you are biased about your biases? You look for them some places and not others. Hell, some of your worst biases are against people who challenge your biases, but you give those prejudices pretty moral names.

Our very worst biases, our most incorrigibly vicious prejudices, live in the holy of holies, at the sacred center of our moralities.

And here is the root reason that you so sure of your rightness. It is nothing other than the fact that you are you. And this makes good sense. You were born into the center of the universe, and you have never left it. Never for one second has the universe not orbited about its heart, who is none other than you.

But you are not the only center of the universe. I, for instance, was born into the heart of the universe. My wife was, too, as were both of my daughters.

We are all centers of the universe.

Nobody has the right to ask another person to decenter themselves, no matter how brilliant our arguments and no matter how sound our theories. When we do so, we are invariably asking them to center ourselves as the true center of the universe, even if we pretend it is for other people. We want to impose our own morality, or own prejudices, our own biases, so we can better mistake them for Truth.

Instead, we can polycenter ourselves. In this act, we each go first and invite others to join us.

When we polycenter ourselves we acknowledge our fellow-centers by seeking to persuade and cultivating our own persuadability.

For us, the only non-negotiable is that everything must be negotiable.

The invitation looks and sounds like respect — gassho or dap or “shalom”or “namaste”, etc. It changes the air around you. We become who we are, organs of the distributed God.

Six sensibilities of service

I’ve decided to experiment with making my course “Introduction to Service Design” an exercise in hermetics. I am going to re-title the course “Initiation Into Service Design”, and I am going to re-title the central module of the course “Six Sensibilities of Service”.

I’m using “hermetics” to mean applications of esoteric insights in the domain of mundane life — applied hermeticism. I’ve been working this way for decades, and have struggled for language to explain my approach to design and how it differs from the technique-driven approach of most professional designers.

The esoteric language, including the designation “hermetic”, however, is not for the public. It is just for me and my own clarity, and for the handful of weirdos who also respond to this kind of thing and find it clarifying, rather than mystifying. At this point, I do not plan to run around billing myself as a “hermetic designer”. My outward practice and language will and must stay compatible and cooperative with the exoteric practices and norms of the design industry and the business world to which it belongs.

This kind of skillful selective semi-concealment, by the way, is part and parcel of esoterism, which always remains in communion with the exoteric facets of its tradition — while serving it by investing it with life, or “vivifying” it, to use Valentin Tomberg’s words.

I’ve intuited this idea often, but I think it is time to say it explicitly: Design is a tradition equipped with exoteric theories and practices, rooted in esoteric understandings into which designers are initiated, or of which they are oblivious.

Merely learning the lingo, theory and methods of design does not fully equip a would-be practitioner to actually design. Nor does expertise in executing the techniques designers use. There is something else required if one hopes to “really know what they’re doing” as designers, or even “knowing where designers are coming from”.

The new goal of the course is to accelerate the acquision of this “something else”, which consists of activating a set of enceptions — what hermeticists call arcana — each a different capacity to perceive, recognize and interact with a certain species of given, without which the given is missed. The given is either not noticed, submerged in oblivion, or it is meaningless, or perplexing.

For the sake of sounding minimally sane, sober and non-exotic, I will call these enceptions “sensibilities”. After all, each is an ability to make sense of some particular species of given. Also, the word “sensibilities” is common in the world of art and design, and my use of it is, though novel, completely compatible with current usage. It is a very gentle repurposing of the word.

The six sensibilities are what one must activate and cultivate in oneself, in order to recognize, understand and resolve problems with services.

Think of the six sensibilities as parts of a mental hand — five fingers and a palm. All six are needed to grasp the complexity of any service as a simple whole. All six are needed to articulate this clear understanding of service and communicate it to others. All six are used to grip the tools of service design in shaping new services or reshaping existing ones. They are the background of any clear understanding, any effective communication or any skillful response to a service design problem.

These six sensibilities differentiate  inspired, insightful service designers who work naturally and intuitively from designers who work formulaically and mechanically with tools and techniques they understand mostly theoretically. Before the sensibilities are active, a designer is like an aspiring dancer who must recall and execute each step of the dance they are performing. After the sensibilities are developed, the dance moves the dancer’s body with spontaneous, musical grace.

But this course is not only — or even primarily — for designers. It is for people who might hire and/or collaborate with service designers. But why would they need a course? After all, don’t we hire professionals to spare us the need to become experts?

Here is why: One of the challenging peculiarities of service design is that an organization cannot hire service designers to do service design work for them. They must hire service designers to work with them.

Service design work changes the way organizations operate, and even how they organize themselves around the delivery of services.

Every design discipline works with a particular material, and with service design the material is the organization.

For service design to work, an organization itself must, and cannot avoid, participating directly in the service design process.

That participation requires a significant degree of understanding of service design, and that understanding is hollow, ineffective and overwhelming without the six sensibilities.

That is why this course is needed.


So what are the sensibilities and how do we activate them?

I will list the sensibilities, and offer a quick and barely adequate description for each one:

  • Temporal sensibility – Services are experienced in a series of Now points, each with a past and future. At each point in the experience, one remembers what happened before and tries to anticipate what comes next, and this shapes and colors what is happening in the present. When the service experience ends, it is remembered as a story with memorable ups and downs, and an overall impression of how it went. Designing an experience that unfolds over a significant duration of time requires a different mentality from designing an object experienced momentarily — it requires a temporal sensibility.
  • Omnichannel sensibility – Services happen across multiple touchpoints delivered through different service channels. A typical service zigzags across locations (home, car, store, service centers) and physical objects (computer, phone, product packaging, product interfaces) and virtual objects (websites, apps, messages, social media platforms). But they are perceived as part of something, and that is a service. Designing an experience that unfolds across multiple channels of a person’s free choosing requires a different mentality than designing an experience confined to a single channel — it requires an omnichannel sensibility.
  • Polycentric sensibility – Services are experienced by different actors playing different roles in the service, often interacting with one another. For instance in a retail scenario, a customer is an actor who receives the service, a cashier is an actor who helps delivers the service, while backstage in the stockroom another actor supports the service. Service design tries to make each actor’s experience a good one. Each actor is considered a different center of a common experience with multiple centers. Designing for multiple actors simultaneously requires a different mentality from designing for one actor at a time — it requires a polycentric sensibility.
  • Reciprocity sensibility – At every point in a service, in order for the service to unfold as intended, one or more actors must be motivated to participate in the service. The actor wishes to get some kind of value from their participation, and if they see no value they are unlikely to play their part. They invest something valuable — effort, time, information, money, comfort, etc. — in order to get something valuable in return. This is as true for those delivering and supporting services as those receiving them. And it becomes exponentially true when participation is voluntary and non-hierarchical, for instance when partners cooperate to provide jointly-delivered services to shared customers. To the degree that a service provides a win-win value exchange for all who participate in it at every point, the service will flourish. Wherever it does not, the service will be weak or even broken, and actors will opt out (refuse to buy; quit their job) or choose services with a value exchange (buy from a competitor; find a better job somewhere else). Designing win-wins for everyone who participates in a service requires a different mentality from designing around the needs of only one actor — it requires a reciprocity sensibility.
  • Operational sensibility – In the practical world, ideas are worthless unless they can be implemented and made real. Service design is radically practical, and to ensure ideas can work in practice enlists experts from throughout the organization to contribute their knowledge and disciplinary know-how, and to collaborate with other experts to push the boundaries of what is concretely possible. To guide collaboration among diverse experts each of whom has insights and knowledge required to ensure practicability of innovative ideas requires a different mentality from pie-in-the-sky “big idea” concepting — it requires an operational sensibility.
  • Staging sensibility – It is a truism that some of the best designs are invisible. But at the same time it is also true that some of the best designs are delightful and memorable. The best services are an orchestration of both. Services design pays close attention to what elements or moments of a service should be unobtrusive or even concealed backstage, and which elements should be brought frontstage to be experienced, appreciated or remembered. To coordinate a service that appears the right way at the right time and conceals what should not be noticed requires a different mentality from something designed to only be invisible or only to delight: it requires a staging sensibility.

In the course itself, I will introduce each sensibility with a more extensive description, provide some examples to be viewed through the lens of the sensibility and outline some criteria and earmarks to keep in mind when.

After we have been introduced to each sensibility individually, and learn to exercise the sensibility to detect the kind of service problem that sensibility perceives, we will use all six sensibilities together to assess real services and clearly communicate our assessment.

Concept and synthesis

(Below is a post I wrote in June 2022. I didn’t publish it for some reason, but reading it now, it seems interesting enough to release.)


In December 2005, I posted a philosophical typology on LiveJournal:

A philosophical typology

  • What is its principle of organization? Is it systematic or organic? In other words, does articulation or construction predominate, and to what degree?

  • What is its scope? How much does it admit as relevant, and how much must it prune out as irrelevant, in order to close its horizon?

  • What is its range of action? Is it analytical (destructive), synthetic (constructive), or both?

  • What is its terminus of meaning? In other words, where does it ground its assertions? In the perceptions of primary experience, in the assumptions of science, or does it avoid grounding and merely posit in circles?

  • What is its attitude toward existence? Negating, neutral, affirming?

  • What kind of resolution to problems is sought? An articulation, a proof, an application, something else?

I look for some other qualities, too, but they are mostly just earmarks to help settle the questions listed above. The most important earmark: is the philosophy monodualist, and if so, what is the nature of the duality (or dualities) the philosophy selects as significant?

That is the earliest use of the concept-synthesis dichotomy I can find. It appears I was reading S. L. Frank at the time. I need to go back and see if I got it from him.

This dichotomy was a resolution of a perplexity at the heart of the worst design project (and the worst year) of my life. I found myself completely unable to talk about or argue for some existential necessities for doing design work — necessities that are apparently felt as real by some — but, for others, are not experienced at all. For them, talk about these necessities is talk about nothing, about imaginary nonsense. Sadly, these “others” seem to thrive in business and get promoted to positions of authority, especially in technology. For me, though, nothing is more real than these existential necessities. Being forced to work without it, in a milieu where they were not even real enough to deny, sucked me into the deepest, most hopeless state of despair I’ve ever felt.

Around 2011 I designed a framework to explain how design methods move teams from relative unclarity to greater clarity. It showed a kind of interplay between conceptual and synthetic development. Ever since, I’ve had reservations about some of the claims I made, especially concerning design methods and movements along the proposed path to clarity. But the framework remains as relevant now as it was then. In 2013, when I started a design studio with a friend, we named the company after the form of the path to clarity: Outspiral.

This framework was also inspired by despair — the second worst of my life. The theme here was a continuation of the first.

1-4-3-1

Susan and I were trying to find a simple way to explain reconciliation among equals.

“When conflict breaks out, we are shaken out of unity, and fall into the four-sidedness of conflict. There is [1] what I believe, there is [2] what you believe, there is [3] what I think you believe and there is [4] what you think I believe.

(Naive egocentricity, of course, sees only two sides: what I believe and what I know you believe. Until one overcomes naive egocentricity and learns to see conflict as four-sided, progress is impossible.)

To begin reconciliation we try to go from four-sided conflict to three-sided disagreement, where there is [1] what I believe, and there is [2] what you believe and there is [3] our shared understanding of our disagreement.

But sometimes when we reach a shared understanding of the disagreement we realize that this shared understanding has transcended and absorbed our old conflicting beliefs. This new understanding is no longer an agreement about a disagreement, but [1] a new shared belief. The three-sided disagreement is now a more expansive and accommodating unity.

So it’s one to four to three and then back to one. Repeat, ad infinitum.”

At this point Susan reached over and picked up a book from a pile of hermetic books next to her chair. “What is this?”

The Tool-Using Animal

Note: I wrote this post a few days ago, and sort of abandoned it. Then I had a conversation with my favorite expat gringoid, who said a bunch of stuff that I’d said in parallel in this post. I’m posting it now mainly for his amusement. It’s unfinished, but there’s some gold flakes mixed in with the silt, if you don’t mind doing some light sifting.


We humans are tool-using beings.

We are such profound tool-users that the boundary between our own being and the being of the tool is blurry. A good tool in use becomes an extension of our mind, our body, our attention, our intention. We do not know where we stop and where the tool begins. And the better the tool, the less we perceive it.

The very best tool, the one that extends us best, the one least distinguishable from our own being is language. Some of us identify with our language so thoroughly that when we have a question, and ask it and answer it with language, we think the language itself asked and answered it.

Most of our life is lived beneath language, beside language, and beyond language.

But to language all life is words, and it is language who says what is and is not real and true.

A bad tool, including bad language, requires us to use language in order to operate the tool. We have to ask ourselves questions and answer them before we can do the next step. Or we have to recall instructions to execute. It is this that makes a sharp boundary between me and the thing I am trying to use. But on this side of “me” is a set of language tools, that seem part of my own being. But they are not really me. They are only my favored tools — so favored that I forgot there is a self beneath them who could use other language and interact differently with the real beings around me, if only I could “open the hand of thought” and let these old interceding words drop away.

This is what we do when we meditate. We let being be. And we let language chatter alongside the being, or we let it stop chattering. We do not let language absorb our being, or we at least allow being to notice its accidental absorption. No, Language: Shhhh… the point of meditation is not (as you assume) to give us a nonverbal experience that we can know about. No, we cannot read books on meditation and get the same knowledge about meditation that we get from doing it. It is not for that.

But it cannot occur to our language-using being to stop using language to think about being. Language uses language to keep using language to use other language. Many of us — most of us — are trapped inside a linguistic machine that moves us more than we move it. When we try to understand ourselves we use words to think thoughts about the object of our thought, Me, what makes me identical to other subjective objects (“Others”) and what makes Me and Others identical to one another (“Identity”). The transcendental subject who uses and cannot stop using its words to do all its understanding cannot comprehend the word-using, word-used transcendental subject behind the word use, because understanding is its words.

If you know what I mean here, this will be, at best, a redescription of a truth you know well.

If you do not know what I mean here, this will be, at best, a redescription of a truth you understand differently and better. You prefer a third-person scientific mode of explaining mystical, existential truths, but beneath all the descriptions we refer to the same deeply mysterious object underpinning all reality. We are all referring to the same Tao, the same Ein Sof.

But this is not about referring — or not only about it. It isn’t even mainly about it.

It is about participating in what transcends our being and what transcends our language.

Some happy weirdness

I’m reading flaky stuff these days. The exact material is nobody’s business, but it’s even more shocking than you’d guess. It inspired the following spew.


I just found a parallel between two of the books I’m poking around in and my own sacred pamphlet, which is more or less visualized enceptions of my personal faith. (It was not easy to find my genre.) …

In the first book, it is suggested that our worldviews naturally close in on themselves and form vicious logical and interpretive circles. To open the the circle is to form a holy spiral. The opening of that circle is Shabbat. In my tradition it is understood that Shabbat punches a 24-hour diameter hole in time, through which flows Eternity and the Shekhinah (a feminine facet of the Divine), and establishing, for those with the senses to perceive it, Malchut, the Kingdom of Heaven. In this space we are invited to suspend the cranking of our automatic thoughts and behaviors and to open out to the world in its glorious profusion of overlapping orders.

In the second book, a figure is presented, a triangle with a center point. Each point is a letter of the Tetragrammaton. Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh. Yod is the active principle, the potential to do. The first Heh is the material upon which Yod may act. Vav is the result of the action upon the material, the child of the Yod-Heh intercourse. The second Heh is the center of the triangle , the entirety of the triangle rooted from the center, which I am inclined to understand as the transcendent being of the triad. This transcendent being of the second Heh then becomes the Yod of another triangle. I am inclined to understand Yod as a transcendental subject whose being is only manifested when it acts upon the first Heh. But the action of Yod and its result ultimately produces the second Heh, which is a transcendent subject. In my understanding then, the triangles are linked by transcendent subjects who found new transcendental subjects.

Some old insights that feel feel alive to me today: Opening the circle into a spiral not only allows it to open onto what transcends its outer limits — to extend outwardly to embrace more and more reality — that  same opening permits the spiral to intend inwardly and enter into its own heart, at the center of which lives the divine spark. But some of this reality is the reality of other people. Two spirals can coil together as a double spiral, as can three, four … myriad. A closed circle implies the question, who contains whom? Spirals are egalitarian.

A new Jewish thought. Torah famously ends open-endedly. Moses never enters the land. The Torah is several essential loops of the spiraling story of the Israelites. Past Torah, beyond Deuteronomy, outspirals Talmud, the application of Torah to practical and communal life. But the inward coiling of Torah beneath Genesis, further into the weird heart of the faith inspirals Zohar.


The opposite spirality, who self-referentially thinks about thinking about thinking, and experiences the experiences of our experiencing, is the self choking beast, the Gorging Ouroboros.

Bite!

A young shepherd I saw, writhing, gagging, in spasms, his face distorted, and a heavy black snake hung out of his mouth. Had I ever seen so much nausea and pale dread on one face? He seemed to have been asleep when the snake crawled into his throat, and there bit itself fast. My hand tore at the snake and tore in vain; it did not tear the snake out of his throat. Then it cried out of me: “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite!” Thus it cried out of me — my dread, my hatred, my nausea, my pity, all that is good and wicked in me cried out of me with a single cry. … The shepherd, however, bit as my cry counseled him; be bit with a good bite. Far away he spewed the head of the snake — and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human — one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed!

 

 

Pragmatic Opportunity Cost

I explained the Pragmatic Maxim to Susan this morning. I explained how Pragmatism provides an alternative to correspondence epistemologies. The meaning of any assertion or belief is the sum total of practical consequences of its being the case — the Golden Therefore — or as William James so crassly and Americanly put it, the pragmatic “cash value” of that truth. She thought for a second and asked whether for each assertion there was also a set of practical consequences left unconsidered.

She called it the Pragmatic Opportunity Cost.

Dang.

Destructive misconceptions of justice

Sam Harris and Yoval Harari had a remarkable conversation on Harris’s podcast Making Sense. Harari seems to, at least to some degree, share Matthew Yglesias’s perspective on Netanyahu’s destructive role in this conflict.

Two quotes from Harari stood out to me as profoundly true:

As a historian, I tend to be cautious about drawing historical analogies. But what I can say, from a broader perspective, is that in most ethnic conflicts around the world, both sides tend to be victims and perpetrators at the same time. And this is a very simple and banal fact, that, for some reason, most people seem incapable of grasping — that it’s very, very simple — You can be victim and perpetrator at one and the same time. And so many people just refuse to accept this simple fact of history. And in thinking binary terms, that one side must be 100% evil and one side must be 100% pure and just, and we just need to pick a side.

And this, of course, links to these fantasies of perfect justice, of absolute justice, which I can say, from a historical perspective, are always destructive. The idea that you can achieve absolute justice in this world, usually, or almost always leads to destructive places — to more violence and war. Because no peace treaty in the history of the world, provided absolute justice. All peace treaties are based on compromise. You have to give up something. You won’t get absolute justice, in the way you understand it.

and

And I think this is a choice in every ethnic conflict, whether you look to the past, or you look to the future. And I will say one more thing about it as a historian: I think the curse of history is the attempt to correct the past, to save the past. “If we could only go back to the past and save these people.” And we can’t. We can’t go back to the past and save the people who were massacred on the seventh of October in Israel, or go back to the Holocaust… No, it’s impossible. And we can’t go back to the past and try to do a different narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What we need to do is stop using the injuries of the past as an excuse for fresh injuries in the present, and instead, to think constructively about how we can heal the injuries and create peace — which will not give absolute justice to anybody, but will create better future for everybody.

The servant of practice

The wisest thing Yogi Berra never said was “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

Those who have pushed theory to its limits, and subjected all values to critical interrogation will tell you also that in theory there is no better or worse, beautiful or ugly, good or evil. Theory debunks them. They are social, psychological, philosophical phantasms, constructs, instruments of domination.

So it seems from inside what can be theorized about.

In practice, however, values are the very heart of the matter.

Theory is — and must always be — the servant of practice. When theory tries to usurp the place of practice, theory repeats Apollo’s rape of Daphne.


If you confine yourself only to what you can objectively conceptualize, explicate, reason out, argue and defend you’ll find it impossible to take many of the most important features of human life seriously.

You will gain a comprehensive objectivity at the cost of subjectivity.

But you will not even experience the loss, because, by this point, you will have come to consider subjectivity an epiphenomenon of objective processes, a species of object, an epiphenomenon of objective processes.

A subject, however, is not an object. Subject is, among many other things, objectivity.

To make an antithetical dichotomy of subject-object is to commit a category mistake.

Subject and object are not on the same order of being. Subject is the ground of object, the objectivity within which an object appears as an object among objects.

Subjectivity is our first-person participation in reality. The antithesis of subject, that against which it is defined, is not object, but rather transcendence.

The subject-object dichotomy is a nihilistic dead-end category mistake. The subject-transcendence (Within-I, beyond-I) dichotomy opens us to participation in the world among myriad objects.


Critical theory criticizes everything except theory as final arbiter of what is really real, what is apparently real and what is unreal.

But in practical life, theory plays a minor role.

Theory plays a major role only in the skull-sized kingdom of wordworld, down in the palace dungeon where the Grand Inquisitor does his work.


Nietzsche:

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. … The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

Nietzsche again:

Into your eyes I looked recently, O life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable.

“Thus runs the speech of all fish,” you said; “what they do not fathom is unfathomable. But I am merely changeable and wild and a woman in every way, and not virtuous — even if you men call me profound, faithful, eternal, and mysterious. But you men always present us with your own virtues, O you virtuous men!”

Thus she laughed, the incredible one; but I never believe her and her laughter when she speaks ill of herself.

And when I talked in confidence with my wild wisdom she said to me in anger, “You will, you want, you love — that is the only reason why you praise life.” Then I almost answered wickedly and told the angry woman the truth; and there is no more wicked answer than telling one’s wisdom the truth.

For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life — and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed toward wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?

And when life once asked me, “Who is this wisdom?” I answered fervently, “Oh yes, wisdom! One thirsts after her and is never satisfied; one looks through veils, one grabs through nets. Is she beautiful? How should I know? But even the oldest carps are baited with her. She is changeable and stubborn; often I have seen her bite her lip and comb her hair against the grain. Perhaps she is evil and false and a female in every way; but just when she speaks ill of herself she is most seductive.”

When I said this to life she laughed sarcastically and closed her eyes. “Of whom are you speaking?” she asked; “no doubt, of me. And even if you are right — should that be said to my face? But now speak of your wisdom too.”

Ah, and then you opened your eyes again, O beloved life. And again I seemed to myself to be sinking into the unfathomable.

Totalitarian word worlds

Hannah Arendt again, from Origins of Totalitarianism:

Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda — before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world — lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world. The only signs which the real world still offers to the understanding of the unintegrated and disintegrating masses — whom every new stroke of ill luck makes more gullible — are, so to speak, its lacunae, the questions it does not care to discuss publicly, or the rumors it does not dare to contradict because they hit, although in an exaggerated and deformed way, some sore spot.

The most efficient fiction of Nazi propaganda was the story of a Jewish world conspiracy. Concentration on antisemitic propaganda had been a common device of demagogues ever since the end of the nineteenth century, and was widespread in the Germany and Austria of the twenties. The more consistently a discussion of the Jewish question was avoided by all parties and organs of public opinion, the more convinced the mob became that Jews were the true representatives of the powers that be, and that the Jewish issue was the symbol for the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the whole system.

The actual content of postwar antisemitic propaganda was neither a monopoly of the Nazis nor particularly new and original. Lies about a Jewish world conspiracy had been current since the Dreyfus Affair and based themselves on the existing international interrelationship and interdependence of a Jewish people dispersed all over the world. Exaggerated notions of Jewish world power are even older; they can be traced back to the end of the eighteenth century, when the intimate connection between Jewish business and the nation-states had become visible. The representation of the Jew as the incarnation of evil is usually blamed on remnants and superstitious memories from the Middle Ages, but is actually closely connected with the more recent ambiguous role which Jews played in European society since their emancipation. One thing was undeniable: in the postwar period Jews had become more prominent than ever before.

Eichmann and cliches

Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?

To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.


Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.

Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”

Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.


…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”


Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.

Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.


I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of  mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.

I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.

I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.

For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we  once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.

Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.