Category Archives: Love

Duende

Around 2005 Susan get into flamenco, and learned the word duende. She talked about duende as a real thing, and she got me thinking about it and writing about it, too. A few excerpts from that time — I time when I’d forgotten decency and hadn’t yet remembered it:

“Duende”
8/18/2005

Susan’s main measure of things: How much duende?

warpspasm sent me a link to Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Duende: Theory and Divertissement”.

Another:

“Bands, ranked by duende”
8/20/2005

My ranking of bands based on how much duende was in them at their peak:

1) The Pixies, from Come On, Pilgrim, to Surfer Rosa (the most duende-possessed album of all time), to Doolittle. To my knowledge no recordings have ever managed to combine torment and manic pleasure at this intensity, in such perfect balance.

2) The Rolling Stones, on Beggars Banquet. The darkness slightly outweighs the exuberant innocence, so the balance tilts toward evil, which, of course, was intentional, but the tension in the contrast is enormous, and ambiguity still rules.

3) Bob Dylan, on Bringin’ it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. It’s one long jeering indictment of all that has no reason to exist. It’s not nice at all, in fact it’s outright malicious, but it’s all for the best. Dylan isn’t afraid of anyone’s hurt feelings.

4) Johnny Cash.

5) The Beatles’ middle period, from Revolver, where the balance between the darkness and lightness is nearly perfect and at its most intense, but oscillates from moment to moment, and progresses toward greater simultaneity without ever quite reaching it (Paul vs John, oil vs water) and at the expense of intensity, through Sgt. Pepper’s, to the under-rated, happy-ominous masterpiece Magical Mystery Tour. Yellow Submarine has a few perfect moments, too. (Everything past that was infected by the denim sound of the wrong drugs in the wrong quantities for too long, which foreshadowed the pus-weeping of the laxest 70s, epitomized by Carly Simon, James Taylor and Cat Stevens, all of whom have zero duende and are loved for that reason.)

6) The entire 60’s Garage Punk phenomenon. Every one of these bands was possessed by duende, raped by it, knocked up, and forced to have its baby in the form of exactly one perfect song. The used-up victims were then discarded– dumped into the suburbs to wonder for the rest of their lives what the fuck happened to them.

7) Susan swears both the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk have it, and that seems plausible to me. They’re energetic and not altogether benevolent. They want you to have a good time but they can’t resist their compulsion to beat the shit out of your brain with intolerable noise when you get too relaxed.

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Now, I’m reading Jan Zwicky’s reflections on duende, and I am seeing duende in a clearer, more Judeochristian light.

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Duende is the moving simultaneity of love and dread.

Embracing abnormality

A friend of mine sent me an online autism test and asked me what my thoughts on it were. It inspired a pretty decent email:

Here’s where my mind went: I want a test to measure organizational autism. Back in the early 00s I used to say that UX is a cure for corporate autism, until I got worried that might upset someone. But it is true! We impose rules on organizations that require a level of explicitness that cause them to become mind-blind behaviorists. These rules are important, of course, but they come with tradeoffs that we should be aware of and weigh against the benefits.

And I guess that brings me to a second thought: I think we have become too quick to diagnose difference. We live in really strange times, where we’ve forgotten that normal isn’t necessarily good and abnormal isn’t necessarily bad. When I was a kid I was into punk rock, and we thought abnormal was the greatest thing ever. I’m pretty sure a lot of what I was into was aestheticized autism, OCD, and other quirks, all of which were mined and made beautiful or at least intriguing. If you ever want to watch a touching story of redemption, watch End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, and get ready to cry.

Everything on this Earth is tradeoffs — every room in this palace of life is furnished differently — there is no single standard of goodness. I think some of what is plotted on the autism spectrum I’d prefer to call an inflexibly quirky personality, not a disorder. And when inflexible quirks are put to work generating technical or artistic innovations, that becomes a feature of a personality, not a bug.

So, that challenges my first thought. Cure for corporate autism? Maybe some organizations ought to be aspie. Some people ought to be aspie. Therapists and designers can help individuals or organizations make tradeoffs toward empathy, where “get organized” self-help books (like Checklist Manifesto) or OE/Six Sigma consultants can help people make tradeoffs toward more autistic virtues. So that’s another thing.

I guess I want to relativize mental health and most other social norms so people aren’t so freaked out and obsessed with being called normal. I want us to get back to the Gen-X perversity of treasuring precisely our abnormalities.

Fictive Midas

I want to define and describe a human type. It is a personality frequently found in the creative classes, especially among writers, but it is also common in religious communities and ideological movements. I am calling this type the Fictive Midas.

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Everything a Fictive Midas touches turns to fiction.

The Fictive Midas inhabits a memoir, an unfolding story toward which they are both intimate and dissociated — intimate because it is their own creation about themselves; dissociated because they a character in this story they are telling, while also existing in the background as the one telling it.

This dissociative intimacy pervades their lives, inner and outer.

The inner life of imagination, ideas and emotions, of course, predominates.

For them, there is nothing peculiar about it, because this is the only existence they know. But for those around them, especially people attuned to the self-transcendent reality of other people, a Fictive Midas is unnerving, and the closer they believe themselves to be with them, the more disturbing they become.

This is because, to the Fictive Midas, the outer life is important mainly as source material for their inner lives, and other people are part of the outer world. This causes them to relate to people and things with disturbing disregard, the kind of disregard authors have toward the suffering of the characters they invent.

*

A friend of a Fictive Midas might from time to time get the feeling that they are not actually fully real to them. Nor is the Fictive Midas really present in the relationship.

There is an alienating barrier — a membrane that separates self from self, and keeps each respective Me in strict parallel, precluding any participation in mutuality, in shared being, in any We. In relations involving a perceptive Fictive Midas, this membrane might develop increasing precision, nuance, even insight — but this is only advanced character development, not interpersonal intimacy. Whatever closeness there seems to be is only a closeness of resemblance between the Fictive Midas’s rendered character and the real person sealed outside. The membrane is impermeable.

This truth hard to conceptualize, and can cause pain and anxiety in those who mistake a Fictive Midas for a friend.

And it only gets worse once the alienating membrane is noticed. Anyone who presses against it too hard or tries to puncture it, by appealing to the Fictive Midas’s humanity will find themselves repelled and expelled as a nobody. The character and the person peel apart, and the Fictive Midas keeps the fiction and discards the person, letting the reality drop over the horizon into the outer void. The Fictive Midas is uncannily unconcerned, incurious, almost hostilely indifferent to the divergences between the person and the character. The person finally knows — feels in their soul — the fact that they do not and never did exist to this stranger.

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Ruthless people are said to leave a trail of blood. Heartbreakers leave trails of tears. Fictive Midases leave trails of emptiness.

Susan says we call it “ghosting” when a person exits a relationship without resolving it and providing any closure, because we are haunted by the absence. The absence is peculiarly present, much in the way the recently deceased are with us after they die.

Those of us who experience the world pluralistically — that is, those of us who feel that their sense of truth is only part of the bigger story and who want to complete our understandings of important things with the perspectives of others — experience the void created by Fictive Midases intensely painful, an aching phantom limb that cannot be treated, because it is a nonexistence, despite being a real part of us.

Pluralists tend to seek reconciliation with others as a means to reestablishment of shared friendship, or failing that, closure, so the relationship can lie peacefully in its grave.

The Fictive Midas, however has no such need, not because they feel none of the pain we feel, but because this pain is all they know. They dwell among their fictional characters, experience their fictional satisfactions and gratification, nurse their fictional grudges, all the while starving of loneliness, isolation and unreality.

Like Midas, they hoard their treasures, and deprive themselves of all nourishment and love.

Only their pain is something that intrudes from outside themselves, oppresses them from without, despite their attempts to defend themselves against it. But no matter how much they keep the cause of their pain — other people — outside, and the source of their happiness — their truth — inside, somehow the loneliness, alienation and envy gets inside and torments them, anyway.

*

It is tempting, when one is written off by a Fictive Midas or written out of their story when the story undergoes a heavy edit or rewrite, to retaliate and return the treatment — to write them out or write them off — and to make up a story where we have done this successfully and no longer care about them or what they did to us.

But this is only to become infected with fiction, and to succumb to the Fictive Midas’s condition ourselves.

And if we are honest, isn’t it true that we would never have fallen into a Fictive Midas’s snare, or worse, stayed there, if we weren’t already doing some significant fictionalizing ourselves? If not, why didn’t we notice the relationship we imagined ourselves to be in was largely imaginary?

It is better to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the voids, while maintaining hope that reconciliation or closure might actually happen someday, if they find their way out of their isolating enworldment.

Meanwhile we can be more alert, and more aware of the reality of others, and more dedicated to reality, however elusive, so we can cultivate real mutual relationships with people capable of mutuality.

*

I have invented the abstract type of the Fictive Midas as a therapeutic effigy — a theoretic fiction of my own — as a general phenomenon onto which I can shift the weight of loss. I’m not going to reduce any person to this type, but I will regret the fact that this type can overtake a person and obscure and their personhood. It is a regrettable syndrome, not an archetype that manifests through regrettable people.

Fictive Midas is the superset containing not only my estranged friends, but the pandemic of ideologies sweeping the world, of epic stories where fictional identities oppress other fictional identities but then rise up and stage a revolution.

*

I believe John Milton knew this type:

Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields

Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built

Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.

Misrelations

More and more, I see the answer of innumerable confusions and conundrums as a matter of prepositional category mistakes.

What do I mean by this? According to Oxford English Dictionary, a category mistake is “the error of assigning to something a quality or action that can properly be assigned to things only of another category, for example, treating abstract concepts as though they had a physical location.” A prepositional category mistake is a category mistake pertaining to relationships between one that explicitly or (more often) implicitly gets a relationship among entities wrong in a way that misleads thinking. The pragmatic consequences following from the relational conception lead to confusion, error or ineffectiveness.

For instance, we might confuse something we ought to experience from — a subjectivity — for an object of experience. (My example here is philosophy. We think a philosophy is a body of truth assertions which are there for us to examine and judge, when in fact the truth assertions are primarily a means for entering and inhabiting the philosophy — from which truths are asserted, examined and judged.)

Or we confuse something that we understand toward (something we orient ourselves toward that is in principle beyond knowledge, or something we can asymptoticly approach in increasing understanding but never reach) with something suited for comprehension as a direct object. (My example here is reality itself vis-a-vis our understanding.)

Or something that mediates an experience of some object as itself an object, instead of an experiencing through. (Here I’m thinking about user interfaces. Novices look at the interface and ask “does it make sense to me?” Experienced designers want to know if the work being done makes sense when performed using the interface, which is why usability testing is organized around the performance of tasks.)

Or we misconstrue a relationship within which partners function as participants within an enclosing whole which includes but exceeds either, snd view it only as an exchange between two self-contained peers. (My primary example here is marriage. The former is what I call actual marriage, but because few modern couples know how to use a participation-in-transcendence conception most enact something closer to what I would call “peers engaged in intimacy exchange”.)

These kinds of things are easy to get wrong. Our thinking is naturally (or deeply, culturally second-naturally) oriented toward objects. Relationships among objects are far more elusive, and we are often distracted by the things themselves when the real confusion is in the manner of togetherness in the things together.

I realize the examples I am providing are sup-optimal. I’ve jumped to the difficult relationships that motivate my thinking, when what is needed are simple, concrete examples that can be built upon.

For this, I plan to rely on a taxonomy developed by Don Ihde and the postphenomenologists: four basic forms of technological mediation: embodiment relations, hermeneutic relations, alterity relations, and background relations. Both my philosophy and design practice are pressing me to finally commit these relationships to memory, so I will write up a succinct summary of these relationships in the next few days.

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I also realize “prepositional category mistake” is bad writing. I plan to call this kind of confusion misrelation. I’m over hideous philosophical language, and I plan to design more usable and desirable vocabulary for conveying my more useful, usable and desirable philosophy. The conceptions I take from phenomenology and other disciplines will all be sent to the gym and given makeovers.

And of course it will all be embodied in a well-designed, well-crafted book.

Useful, usable and desirable all the way down, sahib.

Ipseity, alterity and love

Our knowledge of otherness is part of our ipseity, not of our alterity.

Alterity is not a matter of knowledge, but of a stance, an attitude: an expectation of surprise.

Once a surprise is experienced, remembered and understood, it is now part of us, but the source of the surprise remains surprising.

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Ipseity comprises all our knowledge.

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To love an other — and love is specifically a relationship we form with others — is to form a being that both involves and exceeds oneself, within which one is a participant. We are no longer only ourselves; we participate in and subsist within a greater being.

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Love is our smallest greatness.

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Ironically, to “other” an other is to deprive the other of otherness: to subsume alterity in ipseity.

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We can other with hate, or with indifference, or with what is mistaken for love.

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The beloved is the familiar and surprising other within a greater being who comprises us, a being brought into existence by the ongoing act of loving.

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Some philosophies preclude love. They arrest love’s progress at selfish lust or selfless altruism.

Love requires a modestly great self, a selfhood that transcends the limits of ego, and gives itself over to We with no diminishment of I.

Reciprocities

Why is it that reading Nietzsche always sends me back into working in my wiki?

I just made a new theme: Reciprocity.

  • And under that page I created three headings:
    • Of help
    • Of harm
    • Of love

    I will offer a chord of quotes to indicate the theme that unites these three reciprocities.

    Of help:

    • “Pity is the most agreeable feeling among those who have little pride and no prospects of great conquests: for them easy prey — and that is what all who suffer are — is enchanting.”
    • “If he did not have the compensation of gratitude, the man of power would have appeared unpowerful and thenceforth counted as such. That is why every community of the good, that is to say originally the powerful, places gratitude among its first duties. Swift suggested that men are grateful in the same degree as they are revengeful.

    Of harm:

    • “Benefiting and hurting others are ways of exercising one’s power upon others — that is all one desires in such cases! One hurts those whom one wants to feel one’s power; for pain is a much more efficient means to that end than pleasure: — pain always raises the question about its origin while pleasure is inclined to stop with itself without looking back. … Certainly the state in which we hurt others is rarely as agreeable, in an unadulterated way, as that in which we benefit others, — it is a sign that we are still lacking power, or it shows a sense of frustration in the face of this poverty; it is accompanied by new dangers and uncertainties for what power we do possess, and clouds our horizon with the prospect of revenge, scorn, punishment, and failure. It is only for the most irritable and covetous devotees of the feeling of power that it is perhaps more pleasurable to imprint the seal of power on a recalcitrant brow — those for whom the sight of those who are already subjected (the objects of benevolence) is a burden and boredom. What is decisive is how one is accustomed to spice one’s life; it is a matter of taste whether one prefers the slow or the sudden, the assured or the dangerous and audacious increase of power, — one seeks this or that spice depending on one’s temperament.

    Of love:

    • “The cure for love is still in most cases that ancient radical medicine: love in return.”

    One more quote by Mary Davis, from the foreward of Maus’s The Gift is illuminating: “Charity is meant to be a free gift, a voluntary, unrequited surrender of resources. Though we laud charity as a Christian virtue we know that it wounds. I worked for some years in a charitable foundation that annually was required to give away large sums as the condition of tax exemption. Newcomers to the office quickly learnt that the recipient does not like the giver, however cheerful he be. This book explains the lack of gratitude by saying that the foundations should not confuse their donations with gifts. It is not merely that there are no free gifts in a particular place, Melanesia or Chicago for instance; it is that the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. There should not be any free gifts. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claims from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouchers. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created. it might just as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”

    *

    All this is why I have come to a place in my life where I only like interacting with equals, as equals, and this is why I remain specifically a left liberal: Rough equality is the necessary condition for liberalism. But where equality is pre-defined and imposed by one group upon another non-consenting group, there is already an equality-precluding power imbalance. Where equality prevails, any attempt to unilaterally referee justice, truth, morality, etc. must be viewed as delusional hubristic and futile. If this attempt is not, in fact, futile, the attempt to position oneself as an advocate of equality is delusional. And this is why I continue to insist “wokism” is a right-wing movement: it seeks radical inequality of classes, and justifies its lust for power with a mission of defending vulnerable identities, not only from genuine persecution, but also from hurt feelings.

    Real equality is a perpetual negotiation, perpetual conflict held in bounds by mutual dependence: agonistic pluralism. In such struggles, nobody gets a “safe space” from the anxious experience of having cherished beliefs challenged. And frankly, that is what “being triggered” is: it is the experience of existential dread we feel when fundamental concepts are challenged from a source beyond those beliefs.

    The more ideological we are the less we can distinguish our fundamental concepts from reality itself, and the more we confuse our experience of dread from a real threat of violence. Ironically, this ideological stance is the actual origin of real violence, since it views its extreme self-defense and just punishments of what feels threatening and is believed to be threatening with real threats, counterbalances theorized institutional bias with real institutionalized counter-biases, suspected hate with real, felt hate, theoretical violence with actual physical violence, and so on.

    The feeling that we are entitled to feel safe from our own perceptions and our beliefs about other people’s beliefs — freedom from feeling “triggered” — is a symptom of having too much power while needing the justifications of powerlessness in order to exercise it.

    Love and self-respect

    At the cusp of adulthood, in the summer of 1990, I became aware that I had two modes of esteem and identification, which I labeled “what I love” and “what I approve of”.

    I decided at that point in my life to embrace and identify with what I approved of and to distance myself from what I loved.

    This choice might seems strange by today’s standards, but I will argue that this was a necessary and wise decision.

    *

    In the autumn of 1990, my friend Rob handed me a slip of paper upon which he’d typed a Rilke quote “A merging of two people is an impossibility; and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see each other whole against the sky.” I feel sure that this passage completed and sealed my choice.

    I believe that taking this path allowed me 1) to cultivate a self-respectful (approved of) selfhood, and 2)to gain the distance needed to love someone else precisely for her otherness. “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?”

    *

    A capacity to love that which one finds compelling, admirable, but profoundly alien is a key virtue supporting living toward transcendence.

    A capacity to form self-respectful collaborations with likeminded souls is also a key virtue in transcendent becoming — growing beyond one’s limits.

    And, the wisdom of discerning selfhood and otherhood, and forming appropriate relations with each is necessary to avoid hating what you love and loving what you hate.

    *

    Today I am speculating on what might have happened, had I had made the opposite choice.

    What if I had chosen to identify with “what I love”, and distanced myself from “what I approve of”.

    Earlier, I mentioned that my decision probably looks pretty odd from the standpoint of 2021. Isn’t approval a cold, rationalistic standard? Shouldn’t we love ourselves, rather than just approve of ourselves?

    But consider the consequences: If one identifies with what one loves (and what one loves most is one’s transcendent complement, what one is not) one tries to become precisely what is least possible to be. Failure is inevitable, and when it happens, there is a real risk that one will envy and resent those who succeeded  —  again, precisely those who are most transcendently complementary, those whom one could best love across distance as other.

    And when one invests all of one’s time and energy pursuing an impossible ideal, this diverts time and energy away from the development of one’s own real potential. One’s real possibilities are neglected, and the self is left in an undeveloped state incapable of inspiring self-respect. As a substitute one authors a persona or adopts an identity and uses that as a substitute for selfhood. But this is a thin deception. The assertion of one’s persona or identity is a head-splitting whistling in the dark that barely masks the even louder shame and self-loathing looping beneath. Everything that threatens the illusion is viscerally painful and excites hostility.

    Unfortunately, this speculation is not purely speculative — but, in fact, informed by observations of people I know and have known, and many others I’ve listened to from a distance.

    And I am worried, because I suspect that this peculiarly selfless, but also otherless, state of mind might in fact be psychologically common, or even predominant in the last two generations. The strange, hyper-intense, symbolic politics of our age might be the projection of this inner hell onto the outer world.

    The shift

    From Daybreak: “On the natural history of rights and duties. — Our duties — are the rights of others over us. How have they acquired such rights? By taking us to be capable of contracting and of requiting, by positing us as similar and equal to them, and as a consequence entrusting us with something, educating, reproving, supporting us. … If power-relationships undergo any material alteration, rights disappear and new ones are created — as is demonstrated in the continual disappearance and reformation of rights between nations. If our power is materially diminished, the feeling of those who have hitherto guaranteed our rights changes: they consider whether they can restore us to the full possession we formerly enjoyed — if they feel unable to do so, they henceforth deny our ‘rights’. Likewise, if our power is materially increased, the feeling of those who have hitherto recognised it but whose recognition is no longer needed changes: they no doubt attempt to suppress it to its former level, they will try to intervene and in doing so will allude to their ‘duty’ — but this is only a useless playing with words. Where rights prevail, a certain condition and degree of power is being maintained, a diminution and increment warded off. The rights of others constitute a concession on the part of our sense of power to the sense of power of those others. If our power appears to be deeply shaken and broken, our rights cease to exist: conversely, if we have grown very much more powerful, the rights of others, as we have previously conceded them, cease to exist for us. — The ‘man who wants to be fair’ is in constant need of the subtle tact of a balance: he must be able to assess degrees of power and rights, which, given the transitory nature of human things, will never stay in equilibrium for very long but will usually be rising or sinking: — being fair is consequently difficult and demands much practice and good will, and very much very good sense.”

    This has been one of the central understandings that informs my politics — the one argument for equity that I find compelling. When any single political group becomes so powerful it no longer needs the other’s consent, or where it is do able to dominate it that it need not fear retaliation, it can dismiss that group’s protests and either dominate it or exclude it. All with the clearest conscience.

    And the impotent fury of the powerless at the smug and ignorant moral self-satisfaction of the powerful is a truly dangerous force — especially if the powerful group (thinking inside its own logical bubble) overestimates its power and overplays its hand before the powerless group is truly helpless and unable to retaliate.

    Anyone who sets aside the filters and logic of popular philosophy, and closely observes the relationship between power and truth will see something strange: first-person perspectives bend and warp around power without deciding to, or even noticing it is happening. The power-induced change in feelings and thoughts — even memories — are experienced as an epiphany or moment of clarity. “Now that I think about it, I see the truth, a truth that was there all along, I just never noticed…!”

    I know a couple where one spouse took on a new energizing project, while the other was sinking into a debilitating depression. The energized spouse, looking through the lens of a new power balance, suddenly had insights about the depressed spouse and their years of marriage, and reassessed its value.

    From the perspective of the old power balance, both would have recognized this shift as a betrayal of the worst kind, at exactly the moment when loyalty matters most.

    But this is no longer the active perspective. The very standard of what is true, just and good changes with the change in power-relation. An epiphany occurs. The situation transfigures into a liberation story. …Or it transfigures for one side, the side with the power, the side who sees the truth. The other spouse is in no position to protest. The weak perspective can be disparaged and dismissed in the terms of the stronger one. And the weak perspective might even have to adopt the strong perspective if the relationship is to continue. This creates an illusion that there was really only one valid side to this conflict. The winners write history.

    It is all unnervingly innocent, it happens constantly, and it is all concealed under language that artificially preserves an appearance of integrity and continuity.

    And this story, writ large, is the story of our times.

    Transcending the axial religious worldview

    Susan and I have been having very fruitful arguments over the universality of ethical principles. We’ve been spiraling in on what it is exactly that makes me actively pro-religion, but hostile — almost panicked — toward so much of conventional religious thought.

    Below is an edited and slightly expanded version of a series of texts I sent her this morning.

    *

    My concern is this: the worldview common to religions of the Axial/Ecumenic Age (which includes rabbinic Judaism) is a really well-crafted philosophy. It gives its adherents a well-balanced sense of clarity, ethical guidance and an intense influx of meaning.

    The only real tradeoff (not experienced as a tradeoff at all by most religious people) is that this worldview is not acceptable or accessible for everyone. I’ve always been one of those people. So are the friends I most enjoy talking with.

    Most of them are atheists because the conception of God and religiosity in general given in this worldview fails to resonate with any needs they feel, and the preliminary steps into the worldview offend their intellectual consciences. They haven’t found a conception of God that they can believe in, and they’ve seen many conceptions that repel them, so they do the only decent thing: they refrain from belief, or reject it and remain pessimistic that there’s any value to be found in it.

    But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to fully reject religion. I’ve kept digging into it, even when I’ve been disturbed by much of what I found. Through this process, I’ve discovered-learned-developed/instaurated an alternative religious worldview that is compatible with existing religious traditions (especially Judaism), but which has accomplished this by re-conceiving who God is, what religion is and does, what relationship is possible with a being who is essentially incomprehensible, and what it means to share a common faith (even when factual beliefs differ drastically).

    I believe this new perspective on religion could address inarticulate needs many atheists have, and presents religion in a way that doesn’t interfere with their commitment to scientific rigor, avoids offending their sensitive and rigorous intellectual consciences, and can be authentically believed as true.

    There is a conflict, however, when I try to share this newer worldview to people who have adopted the axial religious worldview, they hear it and say stuff like: “Sure, whatever, but that’s just philosophy.” Or “That’s just abstract thought, and I don’t feel God in it.” Even if they want to (which they rarely do), they cannot conceal their condescension.

    My worldview is compatible with theirs, however — but to understand how, it is necessary to understand alterity (radical otherness) and grasp why the recognition they expect isn’t happening. Further, it is crucial to understand how this alterity is essential to a relationship with a God who is real, and not largely imaginary or conceptual. Any relationship with God must include awareness of God’s alterity and insights into what it is like to encounter it.

    Religion is not only — even primarily — about being united in a common understanding and experience — it is about participating in an infinite being who is also largely alien to us and whose alterity arouses intense apprehension in our hearts, or to put it in more traditional religious language — who inspires dread as well as love.

    Why do I think I have the right to make claims like this? When you are in a tiny minority, you don’t find commonality in the mainstream, and this is doubly so if the minority you belong to is not even acknowledged to exist at all. To overcome the isolation and loneliness of this condition, you have no choice but to learn to relate to otherness.

    But if you are in a majority, the commonality you enjoy becomes so normal to you that you forget that it is not just a universal fabric of reality. And you are satisfied with that universality, even if you must exclude others to enjoy it fully. This complacence is impervious to argument. The only thing that overcomes it is courageous love.

    (This is the line of thought that originally caused me to recognize and feel intense solidarity with other people with marginal experiences and perspectives,  and motivated me to understand the dynamics of power, knowledge and hegemony. This is why I have insight into the principles of critical theory that the progressivist upper class has appropriated in order to legitimize their hegemonic dominance. It is very devilishly clever. It connects with a very deep and important truth, but subverts it, perverts it, and transforms it into a tool for the most powerful to dominate, intimidate and humiliate the powerless in the name of justice.)

    Coalition of the unique

    God lives in the uniqueness buried in the center of every soul.

    God is precisely what is not identical — yet, this very uniqueness is what we most have in common.

    The connection between our unique centers gives life value.

    *

    This center-to-center intimacy alone nourishes us. Without it, we starve. Like starving people, we lose our appetites, and eventually nourishment itself becomes life-threatening. If all we are is identity and our relationships are with instances of identity, we can never feel fulfillment, only an engorged emptiment.

    The Buddhists describe hungry ghosts as having have tiny throats and huge hollow bellies they cannot fill. Hungry ghosts are identical.

    *

    Liberalism is the coalition of the unique.

    We are the ones who value the unique, and want to protect and cultivate uniqueness in ourselves and in every other person.

    *

    Liberalism is politics of protecting each and everyone one of us from politics and its imposition of  unwanted, unchosen identities.

    We might have to join together temporarily to oppose the imposition of identities upon us, but in the process we must take care not to lose our uniqueness.

    “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

    *

    The ideal liberal wants to overcome identifications as soon as possible, and to invite out the strange and surprising being hidden inside the stranger. This is not done through “good listening” where we sit in receptive silence while the other talks. It is done through a collaborative act of conversation, through which uniqueness meets uniqueness, and creates uniqueness.

    Divine trigger

    Other minds are our most accessible source of divine alterity, of the accessibly alien, but for this very reason our most intrusive source of dread.

    The accessibly alien is a thin dark ring of potential-understanding separating the bright spark of understanding from the infinite expanse of blindness beyond understanding, which some people call “absurd”, others call “mystery”, and others call “nothing”.

    As long as we discuss common objects, the things standing around us illuminated by our common understandings. we seem alike. We come from the same place, we want similar things, and we live together peacefully as neighbors.

    But when we try to share what is nearest to us with our nearest neighbor the divine alterity shows. As distance diminishes, our innerness — the source of illumination that gives our knowledge meaning — burns with intolerable blinding intensity, and the light it radiates turns strange, hinting in a way that cannot be doubted how much deeper, wider, denser, inexhaustible and incomprehensible reality is, and how thin and partial even the most thorough knowledge is. Too much is exposed. Perplexity engulfs us, and anxiety floods in.

    Our stomachs drop, our chests tighten and burn, acid rises in the backs of our throats. Our alarms go off, and the talk will be made to stop. Only the most trusting love and disciplined faith will pull us across the estrangement. This is what it takes to raise two divine sparks.

    To many of us this dread seems a mortal threat. And we are right in a sense.

    Transcendence, love and offense

    Transcendence is what gives all things authentic value, positive and negative.

    Positively, when we value anything, and especially when we love someone, what we authentically value is precisely the reality beyond the “given”, that is, beyond what we think and what we immediately experience.

    If we only love the idea of someone or if we only love the experience of being with someone, while rejecting whatever of them (or more accurately “whoever of them”) defies our will, surprises our comprehension, breaks our categorical schemas and evades our experience, we value only what is immanent to our selves: an inner refraction of self that has little to do with the real entity valued. To authentically value , to love, we must must want most of all precisely what is defiant, surprising, perplexing and hidden.

    To want only what we can hope to possess is to lust; to be content with what we have is to merely like, and no amount or intensity of lusting or liking adds up to love. (To put it in Newspeak, love is not double-plus-like. Love is not the extreme point on the liking continuum, but something qualitatively and, in truth, infinitely different.)

    Conversely, authentic negative value — authentic offense — is our natural and spontaneous response when another person interacts with us as if we are essentially no more than what we are to them. They reduce us without remainder to what they believe us to be, and to how they experience us. In doing this, they deny our transcendent reality. This is the universal essence of offense.

    When a social order is roughly equal, it is difficult, if not impossible, for one person to oppress another with such treatment. A person can either shun the would-be oppressor, or make their reality felt by speaking out or refusing to comply with expectations. But in conditions of inequality, threat or dependence can compel a person to perform the part of the self a more powerful person imagines. This is where offense gives over to warranted hostility.

    The fashionable conventional wisdom, which has been drilled into the heads of the young, gets it all backwards. Ask the average casually passionate progressivist what is wrong with racism or sexism you’ll get an answer to the effect of “racism and sexism produce or reinforce inequality and oppression.” But the truth of the matter is that inequality is bad because it allows people to get away with forcing other people to tolerate, if not actively self-suppress, self-deny and perform the role the powerful demand of them. And part of that performance is asserting the truth the powerful impose.

    Reasons to love design research

    Some people love design research for purely functional reasons: it helps designers do a much better job. Others just love the process itself, finding the conversations intrinsically pleasant and interesting.

    These reasons matter to me, too, to some extent, but they never quite leave the range of liking and cross over into loving.

    Here are my three main reasons for loving design research, listed in the order in which I experienced them:

    1. Design research makes business more liberal-democratic. — Instead of asking who has deeper knowledge, superior judgment or more brilliant ingenuity (and therefore is entitled to make the decisions), members of the team propose possibilities and argue on the basis of directly observed empirically-grounded truths, why those possibilities deserve to be taken seriously, then submit the ideas to testing, where they succeed or fail based on their own merit. This change from ad hominem judgment to scientific method judgment means  that everyone looks together at a common problem and collaborates on solving it, and this palpably transforms team culture in the best way. This reminds me of a beautiful quote of Saint-Exuperie: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
    2. Design research reliably produces philosophical problems. — Of all the definitions of philosophy I have seen, my favorite is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about.'” When we invite our informants to teach us about their experiences and how they interpret them (which is what generative research ought to be) we are often unprepared for what we learn, and often teams must struggle to make clear, cohesive and shared sense of what we have been taught. The struggle is not just a matter of pouring forth effort, or of following the method extra-rigorously, or of being harmonious and considerate — in fact, all these moves work against resolution of what, in fact, is a philosophical perplexity, where the team must grope for the means to make sense of what was really learned. It is a harrowing process, and teams nearly always experience angst and conflict, but moving through this limbo state and crossing over to a new clarity is transformative for every individual courageous, trusting, flexible and benevolent enough to undertake it. It is a genuine hero’s journey. The opportunity to embark on a hero’s journey multiple times a year is a privilege.
    3. Design research is an act of kindness. — In normal life, “being a good listener” is an act of generosity. If we are honest with ourselves, in our hearts we know that when we force ourselves to listen, the talker is the true beneficiary. But paradoxically, this makes us shitty listeners. We are not listening with urgency, and it is really the urgent interest, the living curiosity, that makes us feel heard. Even when we hire a therapist, it is clear who the real beneficiary is: the one who writes the check for services rendered. But in design research, we give a person significant sums of money to teach us something we desperately want to understand. We hang on their words, and then we pay them. People love it, and it feels amazing to be a part of making someone feel that way. In a Unitarian Church on the edge of Central Park in Manhattan there is a huge mosaic of Jesus washing someone’s feet, and this is the image that comes to mind when I see the face of an informant who needed to be heard. (By the way, if anyone knows how to get a photo of this mosaic, I’ve looked for it for years and have never found it.)

     

    Adonai Echad

    If you have lived your life without a center, imagining other places that where you are, rehashing the past, fretting about the future, judging from from everyone else’s expectations and opinions but your own… absolutely, you must (re-)find your center, (re-)establish yourself in the now, learn (re-)learn to live in the threefold present.

    It is a basic condition of spiritual life.

    For those who have never had it, the experience of discovering I-here-now is miraculous. It is a miracle on the order of witnessing the genesis of the universe from nothingness. And the happiness and benevolence that floods in put one in a paradoxical state of gratitude toward a past to which one can never again choose.

    Believing that a world-transfiguring rebirth is what religion is for is inevitable and nearly irresistible. It is self-evidently all-important, in a way that cannot, and indeed, should not, be doubted.

    *

    Despite its apparent self-evident universality, this kind of work is not the universal, eternal goal of all religious work.

    It is hard to imagine from a perspective of needing centering that finding one’s center is not every person’s primary spiritual problem, and it is not the dominant problem of every epoch.

    Some people, and some times, have precisely the opposite problem, living only in the present, as if the threefold present is all that exists. They live solely in the here-and-now, pursuing only what they perceive as important, viewing life only from their own crystal-clear perspective, heedless of the future, contemptuous of the past, and giving little thought to the myriad centers existing around their own centrality.

    For people in this condition, finding the beyond — the reality of reality beyond the periphery of one’s own experience is the one thing most needful.

    *

    Due to an uncanny convergence of events, I’ve been meditating on this theme for a couple of weeks, and I’m going to speculate somewhat recklessly from what I think is a Jewish perspective.

    Finding one’s center in the threefold present and learning to participate in life from this center — “I am here being” — corresponds to God as YHWH.

    Learning to live from this center toward the myriad other centers (all of whom live from centers of their own) out into myriad overlapping peripheries corresponds to God as Elohim (whose name is plural).

    Understanding that YHWH and Elohim is one, and dedicating one’s life with the entirety of one’s heart, soul and strength to living from this reality toward this reality, as a responsible citizen of God, embracing more and more through collaboration with my fellows — that’s the religious ideal that guides me.

     

     

     

    Raising sparks

    I’ve learned to recognize significance in anxiety, in love, in anger — a significance which points to relationships to transcendent realities through which we have a relationship with transcendence per se, through understanding or wisdom. I am going to start looking for analogous (or anomalogous) significance in other experiences, responses and actions as well, especially ones related to beauty, splendor, duration, foundations and sovereignty.

    Loves

    If we separate, seclude and protect ourselves from the harsh Otherness of the world for awhile; if we quiet ourselves down and refuse to scatter our attention and diffuse our efforts; if we concentrate our awareness and go deep enough into ourselves to discover what is there; blissful benevolence toward All may arise in our heart and overwhelm us.

    We call this Love.

    But isn’t love the instinct that drives us beyond ourselves toward a particular, individual other? Isn’t it the will to emerge from seclusion and safety to risk all, and if necessary to suffer or sacrifice? Isn’t it the desire to overcome our inwardness by joining our selves to a beloved other in togetherness?

    These loves are so different in their trajectories and conditions it is hard to fathom how they can both be designated by one word. In other languages, such as Greek, they go by different names. Yet, there is reality expressed in marrying them under the shared name, love — as long as one doesn’t dominate or displace the other…