Category Archives: Religion

How to close the theory-practice gap

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

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

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

I’ve never seen things go the opposite direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Six sensibilities of service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is why this course is needed.


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

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

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

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

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

Some happy weirdness

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

Bite!

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

 

 

Destructive misconceptions of justice

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

Totalitarian word worlds

Hannah Arendt again, from Origins of Totalitarianism:

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

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

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

Eichmann and cliches

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Struggle

My favorite liberal is also a Muslim.

Last night I confessed to him that if it weren’t for him, I would be an Islamophobe.

This is not because I believe the tradition of Islam is invalid, only that it seems exceptionally vulnerable to fundamentalist perversion. My Perennialist perspective of traditional religions views these traditions in gradations of esoteric and exoteric understanding. The esoteric core of religious traditions converge toward a single transcendent truth. The exoteric diverges into increasingly incompatible difference. Islam’s exoterism seems to lean violent. I want to know why. Is this caused by its scripture, as Sam Harris claims? Is it the devastation wrought by the oil economy? A vestigial trait of nomadic herdsmen culture?

Susan asked my friend to explain jihad.

My friend said jihad means struggle. He quoted a verse from the Quran:

Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.

Susan and I immediately had the same insight and recalled the same verse:

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, two maidservants, and eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Yabok. He took them and crossed the stream with them and then brought across all that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until dawn. When he saw that he could not overpower him, the man wrenched Jacob’s hip in its socket so that the socket of Jacob’s hip was strained as he wrestled with the man. “Let me go,” said the man, “for dawn is breaking.” But he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” asked the man. “Jacob,” he replied. “No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel,” said the man, “for you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name. But he said, “Why do you ask my name?” and he blessed him there.

Explaining antisemitism

I have several explanations for antisemitism.

I’ve heard that if you are trying to explain yourself, one explanation is more persuasive than several. But I am not trying to persuade. I am trying to understand, and I think there are multiple reinforcing factors.

The first explanation is based on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The Jewish people have a deep, intense enduring love for Adonai, for their tradition and for their homeland. Other groups have imitated these loves, and have claimed the relationship, the tradition and the land for themselves, to the exclusion of the Jewish people. But the Jewish people refuse to give these things up, so a scapegoat is needed. Every pogrom is a dark communion — a reenactment of the crucifixion.

The second explanation concerns love and dread, the compelling pull and the repulsive push of the transcendent. The Jewish people began as one more tribal sacrificial cult, but over many generations of stubborn refusal to die out, has iteratively rebirthed its own culture into something so sublimely transcendent that, now, very few people can enter and understand from it. Everything Jewish is haloed with a love-dread aura. It is alien and transcendent, but, worse, it has a strange attitude toward alienness and transcendence — it loves the stranger and welcomes the strange. Which makes Judaism both strange and meta-strange. Religiously sensitive non-Jews love-hate it. They can’t get it out of their heart. They cannot leave it alone, but nor can they grasp and accept it. They need to have it, or control it, or failing that kill it and keep it.

The third explanation is boring. Because the Jewish tradition values parenting and education, many Jews are smarter and better parented than their peers, and consequently excel, and become objects of envy, especially in times of rampant mediocrity and vanity. When a self-esteem pandemic hits, Jews make folks feel like something the cat dragged in. And, this might be a separate point, they make very poor objects of pity, because they just aren’t, as a group, pitiable. People addicted to compassionate condescension can’t do that with Jews, even when Jews are dramatically persecuted.

The fourth explanation is even more boring. Jewish culture values honesty and directness over saccharine softness. Jewish honesty runs confrontational, argumentative, brusque and sometimes flat-out harsh, and people get their precious feelings hurt. Envious and offended people get resentful, and resentment can infect whole generations.

The fifth explanation concerns the role of Jews in history. Primarily because of the first reason, the uneasy centrality of Jews in other peoples’ religions and hostility consequent to this centrality, for much of history Jews have been excluded from land-ownership and participation in reputable trades. They were forced into disgraceful trades like finance. Nobody likes their lender, so that has been a problem. But worse, Jewish financiers — all of whom spoke Hebrew and were therefore able to partner with Jews in other regions — were the financiers of the aristocrats who founded the modern European nation-states. The tradition of hostility of one’s own nation-state contains a thick red strand of Jewish international finance paranoia.

The sixth explanation is so obvious I almost hate to include it. Jews refuse to stop being Jewish. Many learn Hebrew and can speak to one another in a language unknown to suspicious folk who wonder what exactly is being said. And what is going on in those houses of worship? What is going on in their homes and the backrooms of their prosperous businesses? What are those weird people scheming about? Jews are conspicuously alien and for that reason inspire paranoia in the paranoid.

There’s probably more, but this list suffices to account for the phenomenon. And this same list also helps account for why Judaism is my religion.

Redrawing the knitbone

I’ve been playing around with the knitbone image again.

In case you’ve never been subjected to one of my rhapsodies on this topic, “knitbone” is a folk name for comfrey, a plant remarkable for the depth of its taproot.

A comfrey taproot can burrow a ten feet or more into the soil deep under the ground draws nutrients up to the surface.

Gardeners traditionally plant comfrey throughout their gardens. When comfrey drops its lush depth-nourished leaves into the soil, it fertilizes all the surrounding shallower-rooted plants.

The name “knitbone” comes from comfrey’s medicinal application. When pulverized and applied to a wound, it helps the body heal. It can help a bone knit itself back together.

I have emotional history with this plant. When Susan was pregnant with Zoe, we had an herb garden in our back yard. Our midwife was excited to learn that we were growing comfrey. She used it to make a knitbone poultice to help Susan recover from labor. We cared for this plant and received care from it.

Symbolically, knitbone attests to the nourishing power at the depths of understanding, and to the duty of those of us who work at the depths to bring what we find up to the light of everyday practicality.

Ex infinitio

Genesis does not begin with nothingness. Creation is not ex nihilo.

Genesis begins with more than everything. Creation is ex infinitio.

As with scripture, so it has been in that already-in-progress life inside which you awoke, from the chaos of infancy.


Somethingness — toomuchness — is primal. In the beginning is chaos.

Nothingness is abstract. It is an advanced abstraction that, once it possesses us, is thrust beneath the primordial toomuchness — an artificial ground, upon which we cannot stand, but within which we stiffen ourselves in epistemic rigor mortis.

Inside this self-inflicted vacuum we stiffly tumble end-over-end, nowhere, vacuous.


An infinite welter and waste is articulated by spirit.

Objects emerge from the encounter of subject and chaos.

Light against dark against mottled grays? Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa against a muddled mixture of suffering and comfort.

Division of this and that — always against the undivided all. Definition of this, in contrast that — both always against the irrelevant field of everything else.


We define against infinitude, but infinitude is so omnipresent we confuse it with nothingness itself. Just as you, sitting wherever you are, focusing on whatever focal object occupies your attention, define the object of your attention against everything else.


Every subject emerges in the midst of undifferentiated chaos.

You did. I did. Our infant subjects learned to recognize our first given objects.

When we learned new subjects, new given objects emerged. Our mathematical subject learned that one apple and one block shared a characteristic: one. And one block and another block shared something with one apple and another apple. From chaos came quantities of whatever.

We learned the subject of manners. We learned to say “please” when desire emerged and to say “thank you” when desire was gratified. We learned the subject of morality. Some actions were rewarded, some punished.

Every subject articulates new given objects. Those objects are articulated from chaos.


Then there is the sheer bullshit of social construction. You take a class on Derrida in college and get it in your head that you can invent reality. If you practice your bullshit invention long enough it will become familiar. If you force other people to adopt your bullshit long enough, they too, will see it as familiar.

What this does, of course, is alienate us from what we experience.

Soon, we are so alienated, we can see images of slaughtered and raped human beings and just view it all as political abstraction. It’s all just concept play.

We are like the little German boys who followed the first World War like a sporting event, described by Sebastian Haffner:

For a schoolboy in Berlin, the war was something very unreal; it was like a game. There were no air raids and no bombs. There were the wounded, but you saw them only at a distance, with picturesque bandages. One had relatives at the front, of course, and now and then one heard of a death. But being a child, one quickly got used to their absence, and the fact that this absence sometimes became irrevocable did not seem to matter. As to the real hardships and privations, they were of small account. Naturally, the food was poor. Later there was too little food, and our shoes had clattering wooden soles, our suits were turned, there were school collections for bones and cherry pits, and surprisingly frequent illnesses. I must admit, all that made little impression. Not that I bore it all “like a little hero.” It was just that there was nothing very special to bear. I thought as little about food as a soccer enthusiast at a cup final. The army bulletins interested me far more than the menu.

The analogy with the soccer fan can be carried further. In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a soccer fan. I would be making myself out to be worse than I was if I were to claim to have been caught up by the hate propaganda that, from 1915 to 1918, sought to whip up the flagging enthusiasm of the first few months of the war. I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necessary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.

What counted was the fascination of the game of war, in which, according to certain mysterious rules, the numbers of prisoners taken, miles advanced, fortifications seized, and ships sunk played almost the same role as goals in soccer and points in boxing. I never wearied of keeping internal scorecards. I was a zealous reader of the army bulletins, which I would proceed to recalculate in my own fashion, according to my own mysterious, irrational rules: thus, for instance, ten Russian prisoners were equivalent to one English or French prisoner, and fifty airplanes to one cruiser. If there had been statistics of those killed, I would certainly not have hesitated to “recalculate” the dead. I would not have stopped to think what the objects of my arithmetic looked like in reality. It was a dark, mysterious game and its never-ending, wicked lure eclipsed everything else, making daily life seem trite. It was addictive, like roulette and opium. My friends and I played it all through the war: four long years, unpunished and undisturbed. It is this game, and not the harmless battle games we organized in streets and playgrounds nearby, that has left its dangerous mark on all of us.

It may not seem worthwhile to describe the obviously inadequate reactions of a child to the Great War at such great length. That would certainly be true if mine were an isolated case, but it was not. This, more or less, was the way an entire generation of Germans experienced the war in childhood or adolescence; and one should note that this is precisely the generation that is today preparing its repetition.

The force and influence of these experiences are not diminished by the fact that they were lived through by children or young boys. On the contrary, in its reactions the mass psyche greatly resembles the child psyche. One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses.

Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.

From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that has now become the underlying vision of Nazism. That is where it draws its allure from: its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination, and its zest for action; but also its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents. Anyone who does not join in the game is regarded not as an adversary but as a spoilsport. Ultimately that is also the source of Nazism’s belligerent attitude toward neighboring states. Other countries are not regarded as neighbors, but must be opponents, whether they like it or not. Otherwise the match would have to be called off!

Many things later bolstered Nazism and modified its character, but its roots lie here: in the experience of war — not by German soldiers at the front, but by German schoolboys at home. Indeed, the front-line generation has produced relatively few genuine Nazis and is better known for its “critics and carpers.” That is easy to understand. Men who have experienced the reality of war tend to view it differently. Granted, there are exceptions: the eternal warriors, who found their vocation in war, with all its terrors, and continue to do so; and the eternal failures, who welcome its horrors and its destruction as a revenge on a life that has proved too much for them. Göring perhaps belongs to the former type; Hitler certainly to the latter. The truly Nazi generation was formed by those born in the decade from 1900 to 1910, who experienced war as a great game and were untouched by its realities.

This was written before the Holocaust. Here is an account from Hannah Arendt on the moral reasoning of one of these boys, grown up into a nice abstract adult:

The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler. He coined slogans, like the famous watchword of the S.S., taken from a Hitler speech before the S.S. in 1931, “My Honor is my Loyalty” — catch phrases which Eichmann called “winged words” and the judges “empty talk”… Eichmann remembered only one of them and kept repeating it: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again,” alluding to the “battles” against women, children, old people, and other “useless mouths.” Other such phrases, taken from speeches Himmler made to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen and the Higher S.S. and Police Leaders, were: “To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” Or: “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive.” Or: We realize that what we are expecting from you is “superhuman,” to be “superhumanly inhuman.” … What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique (“a great task that occurs once in two thousand years”), which must therefore be difficult to bear. … The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. elite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler — who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself — was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around; as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!


Life is to be lived in reality, and reality is given to us intuitively in myriad ways. If we receive it, our reflections on it will keep us in relationship with reality.

We can obscure replace reality with words. We can focus on words and play with them. It will all be quite amusing and pleasant. But we will alienate and we will be alienated.

Uniqueness, universality and the social region

What is unique to each of us is intimately connected with what is universal to all of us.

The connection is intimate but it runs a long and intricate circuit through everyday, practical life.

Let us call this intimate, intricate circuit the social region.

In good times, the social region mediates between uniqueness and universality and provides us roles and identities that do justice both to our uniqueness and to universality. Because it mediates uniqueness and universality, we find social existence tolerable and sometimes worthwhile.

In bad times, the social region imposes upon us roles and identities which suppress our uniqueness and eclipse our relation to universality. Social existence alienates us from ourselves, and from universality beyond socially given commonalities.

Cut off from our uniqueness, individuals are reducible to identity. Cut off from universality, reality is socially constructed.

Cut off from everything apart from social existence, tormented by their alienation, social activists work tirelessly deconstruct and reconstruct society, in order to win the recognition, power and resources to which those of their identity are entitled. They win and win and win. But with each victory they feel less and less victorious. And the social region, as it tries to do more and more of what it cannot do, becomes more and more alienated and alienating.


Arthur C. Clarke famously said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The supreme example of such a technology is religion.

And ironically, another example is… magic.

We do not even know what either of these technologies exist to do.

But we go on knowing, anyway, with “the sublime confidence of the ignorant.”*

This addled age is a cargo cult of history.


Credit to Freddy DeBoer for the hilarious expression: “the sublime confidence of the ignorant.”

This article, by the way, is about the unfounded belief that a normal, intact personality lurks beneath the outward personalities of the severely autistic.

This exhibits the same disastrous mental move I have observed in vulgar understandings of the subconscious. Somehow, fully-formed but unspoken beliefs lurk beneath the surface of consciousness, forever trying to bob up, despite our frantic efforts to push them back under, away from our awareness.

Both are the result of an incapacity to think subjectivity-first.

Supersubjectivity

Something incomprehensible is happening to us.

It is happening to all of us, all at once, and each of us, personally.

It is happening so rapidly, so pervasively and so totally that the change is, as yet, incomprehensible.

It is happening immanently, in every minute detail of our individual and collective lives, but it is obviously also happening transcendently: something portentous is going on elsewhere, beyond, and manifesting here, now, personally.

The whole itself is disturbed, and life is saturated with signs of the disturbance.

Some read the signs as the creaks and groans of decaying institutions, preceding total collapse. Some read them as clues of secret scheming of a malevolent totalitarian cabal, while others diagnose this reading as precisely the kind of paranoid theories concocted and propagated by totalitarian populists. Some read the signs as Gaia making final preparations to heal herself of the destructive parasite we have become. Some interpret these signs as an approaching futureshock of exponential proportion. A post-singularity artificial god will purge us from the planet. Some read the signs as the harvest of evil seeds planted centuries ago — a long overdue reckoning — a humanist ultio dei. Others see it all as prophesied trials and tribulations finally coming to pass.

Different faiths, different metaphysics, different elsewheres, different beyonds — different accounts, different explanations. But for all their differences, they all point to a common phenomenon: our shared sense that the fabric of reality is unraveling.

It manifests as uncanniness. We are all collectively and individually anxious about everything-all-at-once. Most of us fixate on one or several particular foci. But the themes and things upon which we focus our angst are just condensations of something in the air. That something defies focus. It demands something else.

The something-in-the-air that everything-all-at-once is not calling us to action.

It is calling us to a reorientation to subjectivity.

We can no longer be naively objective. Mere objectivity will no longer deliver us.

We must learn to comprehend our own subjectivity, and the supersubjectivities in which we participate.


Who are your supersubjects? Or rather, to which supersubjects do you belong?

And do your supersubjects answer to anyone higher than themselves?

Some do, some don’t.

Most don’t.

May your wanting be wiser

I was looking in Susan’s copy of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and saw that she wrote in the margin “May your wanting be wiser.” She says she learned it from Rabbi Jeff Roth.

I find it strange how everyone assumes they are, in the state they are already in, qualified to define what a better world should be. And it seems the less experienced an activist is and the more distorted their faith is, the more passionate they are about reshaping the world to match their ideals.

Unless you are wise and your wantings are wise, your vision of a better world will be unwise. If you think you must repair a broken world in order to repair your own brokenness, your vision is broken and your repairs will only make things worse.

Make yourself better, then you will be able to make the world better.

Remedial phenomenology

For the last couple of months I have been re-grounding myself in Husserl’s phenomenology. The work I am interested in doing is phenomenological, but it is not, itself, phenomenology. By returning to Husserl, I hope to arrive at the point of departure for my project. I am interested in approaching philosophy as a design discipline, both in the form of the philosophy (writing, visuals, practices designed to impart a particular faith) and in its substance (the life afforded by adoption of the faith). To make matters weirder, the faith itself is designerly. Obviously, it is a synthesis of philosophy, design and religion that profoundly scrambles the current meanings of philosophy, design and religion.

Natural as opposed to what?

I’ve used the word “natural” to four very different ways, and each is defined against a different opposite. These are each

The first two are the boring obvious ones.

  • Natural versus manmade. Is it from the wilderness, or is it from our own hands?
  • Natural versus supernatural. Does it obey the laws of nature, or does it follow the laws of something or someone beyond nature? Note: I understand there are less vulgar notions of supernatural, but for the present purposes, let’s use the vulgar sense.

The second two (to me, anyway) are more interesting.

  • Natural versus unnatural. Does something subjectively feel as though it spontaneously participates in nature or does it seem alienated from it and at odds with it? This could be subdivided into any number of categories, depending on the perceived location of the unnaturalness. For example, it could be one’s own self (“this action feels unnatural”) or in a perceived or conceived object (“that light looks unnatural”).
  • Natural versus phenomenological. Am I regarding some phenomenon in solely terms of the object given to my perception or conception, or am I understanding the phenomenon also as a subjective act of perceiving or conceiving some given object? And I will always add: and if conceived differently, will reveal a different given object.

These latter two are at the heart of my philosophical design work.

Can phenomenological freedom be used skillfully to suspend one natural way of perceiving in order to reconceive reality (or nature, if you prefer) in another way — a way that is shockingly unfamiliar, yet just as natural as the old one. A new comprehensive praxic gestalt clicks into place, replacing the old “everything” gestalt.

This is a non-supernatural account of metanoia, and it suggests that philosophies rooted in phenomenological reflective practice can be a kind of genuine religious practice. If one is willing to pay the necessary exorbitant price, one can radically reconfigure one’s own subjectivity, objectivity and subject-object relations.

For a long time I was planning to call my perpetually unwritten book on this subject Second-Natural. I was also playing with another title The Ten Thousand Everythings.

Now I am leaning toward calling it Enworldment.

Phenomenological prayer

Reality is an articulate whole we inhabit.

Reality is myriad interacting things among us.

Reality is participation with our fellow inhabitants.

We participate in realities beyond our comprehension.

Interacting things unite and divide.

The whole can rearticulate in shocking ways.

Reality is not what we think it is.

Things can be otherwise.

We are not who we think we are.

Metanoia and the triad

A problem is coming into view for me.

For the last two decades, it has seemed true to me that we have three fundamental factors that shape our being:

The first factor is intuition, and intuition’s “object”, everyday, immediate givens — those real entities we encounter and interact with in the course of our practical lives. Do we have a clear conception of these givens, that allows us to relate this particular given to other givens? Or is our intuition purely tacit recognition that lies dormant in oblivion until it spontaneously recognizes and responds to some given, and then recedes back into oblivion? All encounters with entities around us, whether conceived or merely recognized, are given to experience. Intuition is the faculty of immediate givenness.

The second factor is will — our own motivated response or nonresponse to what we experience. Do we ignore or attend? If we attend, do we merely observe or do we respond? If we respond, do we respond subjectively by adjusting our understanding or attitude, or do we try to respond objectively by changing that which we experience? Or do we do both at once, and interact — alternating fluidly between acting upon and being acted upon? All response, whether ignorant or attentive, whether observational or active, whether inward, outward, or both is will.

The third factor is metaphysical attitude — our sense of reality and our own place in it and our relationship with it, to it, within it. In fact, it might be the essence of our metaphysic what preposition we prepose when relating self to beyond-self. This metaphysical attitude is an implicit faith, which might or might not be articulated as a metaphysical doctrine, and that articulation might be a faithful expression of the implicit faith or it might be in conflict with one’s implicit faith, which means it is held in bad faith.


This is my best understanding of the great triad. The source of intuitive givens is Earth, who is Prakriti, who is Shekhinah, who is the Virgin. The source of reality within whom we exist is Heaven, who is Purusha, who is Keter, who is YHWH. Between is Man, who is the Ideal Person, the polycentered heart of the world, and the schlub who is each of us.


Rabbi Simcha Bunim taught: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pocket at all times. On one: ‘I am a speck of dust,’ and on the other : ‘The world was created for me.’”


If we manage to change our metaphysical attitude, it changes also our intuition and our will. I am talking here about metanoia.

This is not the same thing as coming to authentic articulation of a faith that was misrepresented in bad faith.

Nor is it that more common, much worse reverse case, where we adopt a bad faith that allows us to make coherent articulates sense of things, and share it with others around us — but at the cost of fidelity to our implicit faith and our intuitions. We gain the world(view) but lose our soul (our intuitive and metaphysical connection with reality). This bad faith dooms us to clearly and compellingly positing things rooted neither in our experience nor in our sense of reality.

I am talking about shift in how we tacitly situate ourselves in reality, due to a shifted tacit understanding of reality, a shifted tacit understanding of self and a shifted tacit understanding of relationship between this new self and new reality.

My problem is: In the metanoia experience of rebirth as a new person in a new reality, is it better to think of it as new conceptions — new receptive faculties affording new realities to which, before we were oblivious due to lack of receptive faculties? Or rather, is it registering novel ordered stabilities emerging from the chaos and instability of unordered experience, which we did receive but could not order?

Is metanoia more like being blind but now seeing? Or is it more like becoming able to make out murky forms we see in the shadowy fog? I’ve been inclined to see it as the former.