Category Archives: Philosophy

Room 101

If someone were designing my ideal Hell (or if you prefer atheistic imagery, Room 101) put me on a team that designs by committee for a committee. You don’t even have to sentence me for eternity. A month is plenty to get my teeth gnashing, and more than a month will reduce me to the blackest despair.

The thing that makes a design approach render clear social sense for me is that it makes sense of some region of the world in personal terms. We investigate how a specific person does specific things with specific things and experiences specific things, and our job is to make these interactions, artifacts and experiences good by the standard of that person. When learning from users, design researchers redirect all deflection of personal response (and users always try it) into speculation on how other people might respond with “we are interested only in what you think and feel, and what you would do.” By looking at responses one at a time, and only at the end finding any generalities, we rid ourselves of the noisy refractions of what people think other people think other people will think other people will think, which gives us more information on their social psychological folk-theories and and insights into how they would try to design the thing we are designing, than on their own personal responses to novel possibilities.

Speculating on how heterogeneous groups of people might react to a design, and designing for an audience instead of persons is a different art, and an important one. It changes the activity from a interpersonal one to a social one, to use Buber’s distinction. The skillset becomes that of constructing systems that conform to the social rules of that social setting. These rules help people participate as members of a group, performing standard roles, which entails selectively suppressing personal idiosyncrasies, for the sake of smooth social functioning. This means the construction, too, must use standard language, in standard ways, denoting familiar concepts, used in familiar ways. Change at this sphere of design is exponentially difficult and often requires power and some degree of coercion.

But if you are trying to do this kind of design in a group which is itself so large that it can no longer function by an interpersonal dynamic, but must adopt social rules to function, now we have something requiring a degree of talent for functioning within social rules to design things that function within set social rules. The smartest option in situations like this is to design activities with new, temporary social rules that “program” the group to interact differently to accomplish different outcomes. (Which is another way of saying: design and facilitate workshops, because a workshop is a temporary social setting with new roles and rules that afford new kinds of works and new work products.) Workshops can produce group outputs that differ from the usual, but they are still stiff lumbering things that never result in the kinds of surprising snd brilliant novelty interpersonal dialogue can produce. And that is probably fine. The stars for which very large organizations reach in their grandest moments are suspended like gravel in the upper reaches of clouds, somewhere above incompetent mediocrity but well-below that of the average novelist. Workshop outputs are plenty good enough, 95% of the time.

*

It just occurred to me: people who always operate by individual social rules, who play the role of themselves, following the rules of their personal ethic, and find it impossible to improvise in a dialogical setting feel like workshops.

Maybe this is what I despise about political types who see roles and rules governing all things. When the “personal is political” dialogue, deep invention, all the divine creative potential of persons encountering persons is lost. Corporate stability is imposed and preserved.

Totalitarianism is eternal design by committee.

*

Room 101.

Anne-Marie Willis’s “Ontological Designing”

Yesterday, Nick freaked me out about the existence of Anne-Marie Willis’s paper “Ontological Designing”. I was so distressed about possibly being scooped, and also about the state of my current project — a distress possibly biologically amplified by an infected eyelid — that I barely slept last night. I was dreaming about this stuff.

Today I got up, read most of the paper and sent Nick the reply below, which seems worth keeping.

Ok, this is not what I am doing, though it is the kind of ontological designing Willis describes here that informs my project.

This paper appears to be written from the perspective of a user contemplating designs-ready-made, not a design practitioner reflecting on design-in-the-making (to adapt Latour’s distinction).

The experiences that feed my thought (experiences I am undergoing, unfortunately, though quite conveniently, on this very project) are the reworkings of understanding induced by the breaking of individual interpretations and understandings upon an (as yet) inconceivable design problem.

In these situations, designers are forced to instaurate new local micro-philosophies that permit collaborators with incommensurable understandings to “align” their efforts to design equipment that can be readily recognized in a present-at-hand mode, adopted, and then used in a ready-to-hand mode. I think this microphilosophizing is an underrecognized gap both in design practice (which tends to focus its thinking on its tasks at hand, and rarely to macrophilosophize) and in philosophy (which rarely participates directly in the kinds of hellish rarefied design projects that inform my concerns).

My work is describing what happens if we apply the lessons of constant local microphilosophizing back to macrophilosophizing.

I think it is important because I’m seeing the same dynamics I see in my mini-hells unfolding in the larger world in our incapacity to align on what to do about — well — everything. The disgruntled tolerance for the postmodern condition and its refusal to macrophilosophize (due to the po-mo allergy to grand narratives) has contributed to a deep fracturing and factionalizing of our citizenry.

And you can see that this idea of designerly coevolution completely misses the central problem: How do we agree on what to do in the first place, in order to world our world into a state where maybe it can coevolve us back into a more livable, peaceful condition? Everyone is full of end-solutions, but at a loss to explain or even frame the problem of why we can’t get there, except to invent theories of viciousness about those who refuse to cooperate. We do not know how to think these kinds of conflicts, which are essentially just political crises — but I think I do have some clarifying insights, thanks to my occasional hell-immersions, and my funny habit of trying to feel better by understanding their hellishness and applying the resulting insights back to my own grand narrative, which I happen to think is better than the ones that developed in the vacuum of public intellectuals being to smart and stylish to perform their duties.

Kant’s questions

In Critique of Pure Reason Kant famously listed his primary questions:

All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the three following questions:

  1. What can I know?
  2. What ought I do?
  3. What may I hope?

I find it odd that Kant took such a moralistic angle on his actions and hopes. Why are they framed in terms of ought and may, when they could have been more neutral questions of pure capability? Why not ask what can I do? What can I hope?

I’m sensitive to these kinds of relationships, especially in the ways they can get confused when combined — most of all when that sneaky and garrulous character, the what, starts insinuating himself in questions where he might not be as helpful as he claims to be. The what is pretty glib — a lot of talk, and little action.

In my little 9-page chapbook (which outlines the basic forms of my own enworldment) I permute intuition and object and identified nine combinations. But each of these combinations can themselves be the objects of other intuitions, and those complex combination can also be objects, and so on.

  • Intuiting-what knows the what of is, as fact.
  • Intuiting-what knows the what of can, as method.
  • Intuiting-what knows the what of ought, as ideal.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of can, as ability.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of ought, as grace.
  • Intuiting-how does the how of is, as technique.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of ought, as value.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of is, as taste.
  • Intuiting-why cares the why of can, as purpose.

Justifying my frustrating ways

I’ve been a serious pain in the ass lately, even relative to my usual unspectacular behavior. I’m in a situation that has been extracting too many of the wrong things from me, too relentlessly, for too long, and it is undermining my mental health.

It’s all got me questioning myself, and my ability to get along with my fellow humans.

If only my philosophy were one that allowed me to dismiss these concerns. But I reject philosophies of contempt. And I’ve tried them all. They are too lonely, and I found the Sublime Solitude of the Profound Thinker to be a super-lame booby prize.

I’m feeling feel obligated to justify myself in multiple ways, even if I haven’t yet matured to a stage where I care if anyone actually buys my justifications. That would choke out out my remaining, already overburdened creativity, and I’m not doing it.

Anyway, below is one of my struggles. It’s pretty good.

*

I read philosophies in the way an industrial designer reads engineering literature.

Our industrial designer reads engineering books and papers to understand new materials he might use, or fabrication techniques that might open new possibilities of form or function. He might even dip into physics now and then to press past apparent limits. His fascination with shaping products invests materials and matter in general with significance, and this inspires his curiosity. But his urgency is a practical one: what can I do with this?

I am trying to justify my oddly arbitrary but intensely picky taste in reading, and, unfortunately in the kinds of work I can tolerate doing. For me, everything is driven by the design of enworldments, and most of all my personal enworldment, which is an enworldment within which enworldments are designable. I’m building a shop that makes parts for shops — shops that might even put my shop out of business.

So, no, I am not particularly interested in discovering unknown truths (not even fresh existential insights, which are my favorite ones). Nor am I motivated to acquire every formal technique for fabricating forceful, durable syllogisms (or even building a respectable baseline logical toolset, because logical welds seem brittler than rhetorical, poetic and especially heuristic joints, which have superior flex and tensility in many conditions.) And my deficiencies in adducing evidence to support my beliefs are worse than you suspect, however suspicious you are. You should not care what I think. I have not, and will never earn your respect, because I won’t do the boring legwork that requires.

You should respect only how I think and why I believe thinking that way is important, good and beautiful, and the ultimate way to show that respect is to try it out by climbing into it, and using it to generating some knowledge or judgments, and to experience how reality changes tone, significance and value while you do it.

I’m just rummaging for whatever is useful for my purposes.

Philosophical bug? Or feature?

I keep catching myself myself making an odd move when I read philosophical critiques of other philosophies, especially ones involving criticisms in the family of oversimplification, omission, or apparent blindspots.

I find myself protesting that what is being presented as a flaw seems to me a design device that helpfully bundles unmanageably complex phenomena as a simple data object or affordance.

These critics are doing that thing every design amateur does that drives professional designers insane, namely, treating every tradeoff as a disqualification of the design. When you realize that skillful designing is largely a matter of intentionally choosing optimal tradeoffs, perfectionists literally do not know what they are doing, and make design impossible.

To make these optimal tradeoffs, it is necessary to know what the design problem is: who will use it, for what purpose, under what conditions, where, when, and so on.

So, when critiquing a philosophy and calling it oversimplified, what I want to see is a tradeoff analysis. What does this simplification do in use? What class of problems are made harder by this simplification, and why is this an unwise tradeoff? Or better: when is it an unwise tradeoff?

Because, to say it once again: reality is infinitely complex. No concept, no concept system, not even the ideal set of every possible concept, is adequate to comprehend reality. The standard of truth implicit in omission critiques is an impossible standard. I prefer a humbler pragmatic standard of truth based on an absence of untruth, relative to the intended purpose of the truth claim. In other words, does this truth function as intended, or does it malfunction? Truth exists for the simple reason that falsehoods, errors and lies exist.

Enworldment design

Another way to think about enworldment within the larger context of philosophy would to be to draw another anomalous analogy between the domain of thought and the domain of engineering.

Some philosophy explores lines of thoughts out of sheer interest in the thought itself. Something about the ideal material fascinates the thinker. What can be done with this way of thinking? What can it be made to do? What can be made out of it? This is analogous to engineering — it is objective in the sense that the thinker is not inhabiting the thought or merged with it, but instead is absorbed in the activity of crafting, assembling, disassembling conceptual systems. This is philosophy in an engineering state of mind.

Enworldment is philosophy in a designerly mode. This is the mode of linking formal thoughts with the immersive experience of using them for one’s own understanding. Not as merely explaining or arguing — that is still a manipulation of objects external to self. Enworldment is using concepts for original and spontaneous understanding, where the understanding is built into how one conceives what one perceives, without any conscious figuring out or translation process.

Enworldment aims for the same goal as design — the extension of self through artifices. In enworldment we become conceptual cyborgs (thanks, Donna Haraway) through using concepts so perfectly designed that they are invisible (thanks, Beatrice Warde) and that produces a personal being-in-the-world existence that we understand intuitively and clearly, that helps us respond effectively to events in our lives, and that makes existence itself feel valuable and motivating, or as designers frame it, useful, usable and desirable (thanks, Liz Sanders).

I like to distinguish design from engineering by defining engineering as constructing purely impersonal systems — systems with components that function apart from personal participation. Once a system requires for its successful functioning a person who experience, responds and completes the system, the problem has expanded into a designed system. (Most engineering happens inside a usually unacknowledged design context, and most design depends on engineered subcomponents. This is why engineering ought to report up to designers.)

Enworldment is what happens when we pull together ingenious concepts and arguments developed through philosophical engineering type activities and assemble them into a habitat or a vehicle or workshop — something we can climb inside of and inhabit, which then becomes self-evident truth, and eventually indistinguishable from reality.

Beatrice Warde said “design should be in invisible.” By extension, the ultimate goal of enworldment design is naive realism.

Enworldment

I am contemplating a radical shift in language.

I’ve talked about “designing philosophies”, and observed that most of the time when we think about philosophy and design we almost automatically think about applying philosophical ideas to design practice, and rarely the reverse — applying design ideas and practices back to how we do philosophy.

But when we turn back to design these philosophies do this, I’m not sure it is helpful to think of what we are doing as a kind of philosophy (nor other handy words, like psychology or religion). We are definitely designing, but designing a very strange artifact in a very strange way which does something very strange to our experience of life. And further, philosophy is so obscenely freighted with history, crusted with connotation, and so professionalized and specialty factionalized — and I am so uncredentialed as a philosophical professional (or any kind of professional, for that matter), I might as well invent a new domain that I can survey and map out as I please.

So, I want to re-try out a re-new way of characterizing what I am proposing. Years ago I coined the term “enworldment” and started sporadically using it as an alternative term for worldview (which is too ocular and not interactive enough) and lifeworld (which seems too biologically interactive and downplays the conceptual too much for my taste).

Some things I like about the word “enworldment”:

  • It suggests a better locus for the activity of thought. Not inside my skull but outward into a world within which I am enmeshed.
  • I like this implication that the world neither contains us materially, not that we project it mentally, and that this world is neither an active medium that deterministically makes us into some kind of a self (aka identity), not a passive material upon which our agency can impose its will, but rather something we draw around ourselves and weave ourselves into, in how we think about it, in how we interact with it, and what we rearrange within it (aka, what we “make”).
  • I like that it is nearly synonymous with praxis, but freed from Marxian straightjacketing.
  • I like that it promises (or can promise) to do what religions do, but sans mumbo-jumbo. It could be argued — and I would be the last to argue back — that my own Judaism is no longer a religion, but instead, an enworldment. But, because it does everything I expect of a religion, including making intensely meaningful sense (albeit non-thaumaturgic sense) of religious texts and symbols, I observe Judaism (at least Reform Judaism). But the theories I consider respectable and useful smell pretty atheistic to most conventionally religious folks.

Out of time — I’ll write more later.

A possible outline for my book

A philosophy should be:

  • Understood as an instrument that is adopted and used (instrumentalism)
  • Expected to disappear in use and become a ready-to-mind producer of self-evident truths for its user
  • Designed with a subjective user experience (perceiving, understanding, anticipating, responding) as its primary purpose and mode of being, and its objective forms (presentation, argument, vocabulary, etc.) serving as a means to this subjective end
  • Evaluated as a designed experience according to its varying degrees of usefulness, usability and desirability
  • Understood to be used for specific purposes in specific contexts
  • Approached as potentially designable
  • Approached as briefable (framed as a formalized design problem)
  • Informed by design research
  • Developed using designerly instauration methods
  • Produced nonlinearly, through iterative rounds of testing, evaluation and redesign
  • Understood to be shaped by tradeoffs
  • Understood to serve as a mind-reality interface mediating interaction with transcendent realities
  • Understood as a system existing within larger ecosystems, with which it must cooperate
  • Understood to be designed using earlier generations of philosophical instruments

Instrumental-instaurationism?

Most “truth is a construct” type constructivists appear to have retained a vestigial correspondence theory of truth; that is, they take truth to be a little mental duplicate of, or model of or, in extreme cases, a substitute for, reality. Truth is true to the degree that it corresponds to reality. According to a correspondence-constructivist view, we are more or less free to reimagine the world we wish to live in, and this is what the world becomes for us.

My view is similar but differs in some consequential ways. I agree that truth is constructed, but my constructivism is modified by an instrumentalist theory of truth. I view truth as something produced by a repertoire of concepts we use to interpret and guide our interactions with reality. Truth is true to the degree that it helps us effectively interact with reality. According to my instrumental-constructivist view, there are ways we can modify the concepts we use to interpret, evaluate and respond to the world, and these can drastically change how we live and experience the world.

However, the changes rarely match what we imagine. We cannot start with an imagined ideal and then just build a worldview to spec. Why? The main reason is, according to this view, the world is very real and transcends our mental images, theories, models and plans, and when we act on it, reality acts back on us. Sometimes we can manage to get reality to cooperate with our hopes and expectations, but often does not, at least not on the first try. This this is especially true with that most special part of reality that is our fellow human beings. Humans are essentially surprising creatures.

This interactivity is a big reason I prefer, in place of constructivism, Étienne Souriau’s (or Bruno Latour’s?) term “instauration” which is a kind of interactive construction — a discovering-making — a term that any hands-on designer or craftsperson will instantly recognize as a better fit for how their constructions really happen.

Sadly, this change in language makes my view an “instrumental-instaurationist” one, which is so incredibly ugly the kidnappers responsible for abducting “pragmatism” might feel moved to euthanize the term out of pity. I’m going to refrain from naming it, and instead just call it a “philosophy of design of philosophy”.

Commercial reign

Here is why reading Nietzsche is such a strange experience: he plants perplexities in the reader’s head, then signals what he has done a couple dozen pages later. For the last couple of months I’ve been reading Daybreak. I was reading it when I wrote “Designerly virtues”, “Crisis of interspection”, and “Interspecting interverts”. And now I come to these two passages.

174. Moral fashion of a commercial society. — Behind the basic principle of the current moral fashion: ‘moral actions are actions performed out of sympathy for others’, I see the social effect of timidity hiding behind an intellectual mask: it desires, first and foremost, that all the dangers which life once held should be removed from it, and that everyone should assist in this with all his might: hence only those actions which tend towards the common security and society’s sense of security are to be accorded the predicate ‘good’. — How little pleasure men must nowadays take in themselves when such a tyranny of timidity prescribes to them their supreme moral law, when they so uncontradictingly allow themselves to be ordered to look away from themselves but to have lynx-eyes for all the distress and suffering that exists elsewhere! Are we not, with this tremendous objective of obliterating all the sharp edges of life, well on the way to turning mankind into sand? Sand! Small, soft, round, unending sand! Is that your ideal, you heralds of the sympathetic affections? — In the meantime, the question itself remains unanswered whether one is of more use to another by immediately leaping to his side and helping him — which help can in any case be only superficial where it does not become a tyrannical seizing and transforming — or by creating something out of oneself that the other can behold with pleasure: a beautiful, restful, self-enclosed garden perhaps, with high walls against storms and the dust of the roadway but also a hospitable gate.

175. Fundamental idea of a commercial culture. — Today one can see coming into existence the culture of a society of which commerce is as much the soul as personal contest was with the ancient Greeks and as war, victory and justice were for the Romans. The man engaged in commerce understands how to appraise everything without having made it, and to appraise it according to the needs of the consumer, not according to his own needs; ‘who and how many will consume this?’ is his question of questions. This type of appraisal he then applies instinctively and all the time: he applies it to everything, and thus also to the productions of the arts and sciences, of thinkers, scholars, artists, statesmen, peoples and parties, of the entire age: in regard to everything that is made he inquires after supply and demand in order to determine the value of a thing in his own eyes. This becomes the character of an entire culture, thought through in the minutest and subtlest detail and imprinted in every will and every faculty: it is this of which you men of the coming century will be proud: if the prophets of the commercial class are right to give it into your possession! But I have little faith in these prophets. Credat Judaeus Apella — in the words of Horace. {“Let the Jew Apella believe it; not I”. The phrase means, roughly, tell it to someone else, not me.}

I indexed these two passages in brain.anomalogue wiki under Commercial culture.

This line of thought was a big reason I chose to return to the work world after my paid vacation working for a university, ruining the lives of professors for the convenience of the university administrative class.

Nietzsche hinted that there were cultural possibilities in wholehearted engagement in commercial activity. If you don’t know how to read him feistily you’ll take him at face value, and swallow the notion that commerce is essentially degrading. But illuminate these observations with his fundamental insight that the origin of human virtue is often unsightly, and even vicious: “Thus here too something moral of the highest sort has blossomed out of a black root.”

I would like to believe, and choose to believe, that design is the virtue (or family of virtues) that has grown out of the calculating timidity of merchants, and that this event deserves to be recognized, celebrated, embraced and put to work on our nastiest, gnarliest, bitterest conflicts.

*

“Commercial Reign” is stuck in my head now.

I wonder if Susan is in this crowd, since she was part of the Madchester scene at its peak. Then she moseyed over to Berlin to see the wall come down. My wife is a trifecta mystical, cultural and historical badass.

Nietzsche

I have an understanding of Nietzsche that seems to fall outside the range of normal.

I hear completely different focus, emphasis and purpose in his words, and to be completely honest, that understanding completely changed my life nearly 20 years ago when I discovered Nietzsche.

I’ll try to sketch it out.

  1. A human soul is a society, under a political order. Some parts of a soul are dominant, other parts are dominated, others are suppressed, and still others are completely unknown.
  2. This political order is what we know as morality. What is good or evil is a function of what supports or undermines the political order of a particular organization of a soul.
  3. Morality comes largely from outside. The strongest, most talented parts of a soul can often be suppressed by the prevalent morality. When these suppressed members of a soul rebel within a soul it can produce a guilty conscience. If the suppressed faction of a soul revolt and take it over, the person becomes socially unacceptable, and is called “evil”.
  4. A large part of morality is making questioning the morality taboo. To even question morality is an act of rebellion by the very faction of the soul doing the questioning.
  5. If the questioning faction of a soul questions hard enough, the soul can be thrown into chaos and perplexity and a moral crisis ensues.
  6. If a new political order is produced in a soul, this “revaluation” changes everything. New aspects of one’s soul can emerge and live. The new self experiences itself and reality itself in a completely different way. It can be experienced as a death and rebirth of self, of the world, even of what God means.
  7. When Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” this was not a call for permanent atheism, but a renewal of life’s total meaning. Gods do not stay dead. (Which reminds me, Happy Easter to all my Christian friends.)
  8. This experience redeems all pain preceding the struggle. One would be willing to go through it again, and infinite number of times (an “eternal recurrance”) for the sake of this revaluative transfiguration, which is lucky because this is the permanent cycle of spiritual life.

This has been the backbone of my reading of Nietzsche. There’s a lot more to him than only this, but if you approach him from this basic trajectory he seems a lot less… Nietzschean?

Religious worldview

What makes a worldview religious? Here is a list of what I believe to be essential characteristics:

  • It is holistic. It effects near-total shifts in perspective, holistically changing the What, How and Why of existence.
  • It is transfigural. it spontaneously changes and seems to re-create both one’s self and the world — the visceral sense of who one is, who others are, what life is, what reality is and the relationship between self, other and everything.
  • It intensifies value. The shift in Why expands and/or deepens the value of life and reality itself.
  • It is transcendent. The worldview is oriented by realities that are understood to transcend comprehension.
  • It defies preconception.. The worldview is literally inconceivable until it happens.
  • It is second-natural. The worldview is not consciously used or applied; it spontaneously changes one’s experience of being prior to thinking. Insofar that one’s beliefs change, this is a byproduct of one’s faith, that tacit layer of understanding that shapes and moves thinking, speaking, feeling and doing.
  • It links us to a community. The worldview is capable of relating to others in a community who share our faith, even when our beliefs, thoughts and tastes differ. Something is shared, and this commonality is known to be real, even when it defies explication.

So far, so good. Now I will infuriate religious people by insisting that many allegedly essential characteristics of religion are dispensable.

  • It does not have to be theistic. A religious worldview can center around God, but God is only one way of conceiving transcendence.
  • It is not about believing. Beliefs about beings, deities, forces, events, theories might be a side-effect of a religious faith, but these are not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious faith.
  • It does not have to include magic. Adoption of magical or mystical beliefs or practices (rituals, sacrifices, prayers, observances) might be adopted as an expression or reinforcement of a religious faith, but these are also not the substance of religion, and all too often are counterfeits of religious life.
  • It is not a means to an end. Adopting religion in order to get something or accomplish something for oneself or the world — again, a goal of this kind can be a side-effect of religious faith, but more often, they are counterfeits.

I believe that many people who think they are religious are not, many people who think they are atheists are far more religious than they know, that many people who think they’ve overcome fundamentalism (which is counterfeit religion) still believe new secular content with the same fundamentalist faith, and that people need religion and are tormented by the wrongness of the world until they find it.

Martin Guertner’s “Mathematik und Musik”

I just bought a cassette tape player that rips mp3.

I had to get it because back in 1994 (or was it later? 1997?) I sent fan mail to Martin Guertner for some really cool fractal music I found online.

He went through the trouble to send me a cassette tape all the way from Germany, and all he asked in return was that I play it for people and send him their comments. Of course, I didn’t do it, because I suck.

So, I’ve ripped the cassette and put it here. If you will, please listen to this and leave comments so I can redeem myself after a quarter century of shameful neglect.

Passage

What have I learned reading millennia of eloquent bellyachers?

Every generation is convinced it is the last because life without self is inconceivable. What we can’t conceive, seems to us, nonexistent: thus, the eternally receding nigh of endtimes.

Every generation longs for the simplicity of earlier days, because all we want to bequeath the future from our hassled present is the relatively simple center, and the simple center of former times is all that is bequeathed to us. The present for everyone at all times is mostly hassling periphery around a tiny, vulnerable, simple center.

We are always stunned by the rapid change of present times, because that is what present times do: they change rapidly. “Ha, you call that rapid change?” says each generation to its stunned ancestors.

Now is always lonely, isolating, alienating. Human life is like this, or at least it is for the kind of person who needs to write.

We are always in a unique predicament. Every epoch, every people, every person: in the uniqueness of our predicament, we are all alike.

In our conviction that I, alone, at the center of my own universe, am in a unique predicament that nobody else can understand, we are all alike.

In our belief that all others must displace themselves and recenter around the absolute center of the universe — we might try to make this happen. Maybe we even should try.

And if life is especially malevolent, it might allow us to succeed for a time.

Interspecting interverts

A friend asked me what I meant by interspection.

By interspection, I mean our attention is neither turned inward toward ourselves, nor outward toward the world, but rather otherward into each other’s inwardness.

Everyone else’s inner life is now everyone’s problem — both their phony public passions they pass off as their subjectivity, and their more authentic personal perspectives they mistake for objectivity.

We’re all interspecting interverts, and we are still pretty horrible at it. We celebrate it as “empathy” but very little of it penetrates beyond our collectively-believed, individually-imagined amateur sociologist fantasies.

Crisis of interspection

Yesterday, I came upon this passage in William Barrett’s Irrational Man:

Yet a great formal style in painting has never been created that did not draw upon the depths of the human spirit, and that did not, in its newness, express a fresh mutation of the human spirit. Cubism achieved a radical ?attening of space by insisting on the two-dimensional fact of the canvas. This ?attening out of space would seem not to be a negligible fact historically if we re?ect that when, once before in history, such a development occurred but in the opposite direction—when the ?atness of the Gothic or primitive painters passed over into the solidity, perspective, and three- dimensional style of early Renaissance painting—it was a mark that man was turning outward, into space, after the long period of introspection of the Middle Ages. Western man moved out into space in his painting, in the fourteenth century, before he set forth into actual physical space in the age of exploration that was to follow. Thus painting was prophetic of the new turn of the human spirit which was eventually to ?nd expression in the conquest of the whole globe. Have we the right, then, to suggest that the ?attening of painting in our own century portends a turning inward of the human spirit, or at any rate a turning away from that outer world of space which has hitherto been the ultimate arena of Western man’s extroversion?

…The subjectivity that is generally present in modern art is a psychological compensation for, sometimes a violent revolt against, the gigantic externalization of life within modern society. The world pictured by the modern artist is, like the world meditated upon by the existential philosopher, a world where man is a stranger.

When mankind no longer lives spontaneously turned toward God or the supersensible world… the artist too must stand face to face with a ?at and inexplicable world.

Do we still feel like strangers to ourselves? Do we still recoil from a “gigantic externalization of life within modern society”? I don’t think so, but mostly because most of us were born into a nearly complete state of alienation, have never known anything else and consequently we have no contrasting state of being with which we can compare our own.

I would argue that the analogue to extraverted exploration or introverted introspection most conspicuously and painfully present in our time is interspection — a crisis of intimacy.

In our time, largely due to social media (sorry for this boring, but true analysis), a person’s inner self is subjected to an unprecedented level of external exposure and scrutiny, both in voluntary expression and involuntary behavioral monitoring and increasingly sophisticated means of linking, tracking and analysis. At the same time, a self is assailed and buffeted by other people’s personal expressions, spoken with sincerity cranked to the maximum — heartfelt responses to tragedy, anguished pain cries from assorted microagressions, agitated responses to these social phenomena from rando bloggers amped-up on ungodly doses of yerba mate.

Even the news is infused with a standard opining and emoting. All journalism is gonzo journalism now, even when the journo subjectivity admixed into the story, far from spicing it and tilting the perspective dilutes it and locks it into a standardized, redundantly radical viewpoint.

And at work, matters are even worse. Rather than leaving our controversial opinions at home, as etiquette once required, we are now encouraged to bring our opinions “authentic selves” to work — at least selves selected from the list of recognized identities. Unique selves require far too much effort to understand, and tend to strain busy peoples’ patience. From time to time these select authentic selves are invited/required to ritualistically confront one another in encounters that are intentionally “uncomfortable” and to affirm the necessity and goodness of the ritual and the social theory that prescribes it.

And, at least in the rapidly-expanding design world, teams are plunged into resolving problems of human understanding, unknown 20 years ago. These problems are pushed to the edges of comprehensibility, because these are the extremes that yield innovation. This kind of deep working produces a completely different kind of intimacy crisis than those of social media, editorialized news, workplace authenticity and the like, all of which are counterfeit intimacy performed by social actors whose whose selfhood is eclipsed by role and buried beneath layers of personae — or what was known in existentialist circles as “bad faith”.

It is no coincidence that design’s intersubjective intimacy occurs precisely where people are trying their best to be objective by directing their mind away from who they think they are toward what the think they are not. Ironically, here is where we encounter the raw realness of fellow-souls, in the schematic interference of divergent conceptualizations and those intuitions we resort to when our conceptual schema fail us.

We seek our selfhood in the object at the center of our own experience, which is exactly the wrong place to look for self. Self is more vividly present everywhere but there, especially in times when that egoic object is such a matter of concern that it is smothered in image.

This is why Pinterest is the only social medium where selves can be found. Everywhere else is just persona propaganda.