This is a weird post. I don’t want to argue about anything. I just want to say what’s on my mind. I’m hoping that some parts of my subjective experience will be universalizing. If I could make something out of my current difficulties that could be useful for someone else then that would make it easier to bear.
I hope the world turns around quickly. There’s been a lot of bad news. It’s getting all a little hard to handle.
When I think about how I envisioned life progressing as I went into my twenties– and I can’t say I thought about it in too much explicit detail– I certainly did not imagine that I would be spending the midpoint of it in the middle of a worldwide crisis. An unprecedented one; whatever that means. I also don’t usually consider crises as best dealt with by staying at home on the computer alone.
My partner had to go home to another country. My best friend almost lost his job, and now his future is just as interrupted. Supply chain interruptions kicked in, and now due to lost pharmaceuticals, my mother has some neurological damage. She can’t quite use her hands right.
It’s not like a spiderweb crack in a windshield. It’s not a bump in the road. It’s like an earthquake. All the windshields in the row broke open.
I was reading the theory around The Fourth Turning. Those guys talk about American history. I’ve seen films of hippies celebrating their freedom, and I’ve heard songs about resisting the British. I don’t know if I feel connected to anywhere the way those Americans felt connected to America.
If they’re right then we’re going through the crisis that shakes the old ways down to death. So the new ways and new identities are supposed to emerge after this. I hope they’re good ones.
Someday, it might become obvious how this crisis that we’re going through led into whatever good thing came next. Though I don’t know if anything good will ever come next, I’m trying to put myself into the perspective of myself looking back, because doing that often makes being me now easier.
Worst of all, it’s cold outside. I worry about the climate, but it’s still so cold outside in July.
I remember being young and asking all sorts of questions about why I was alive, and what I should do with my life. All those options seem to have faded away, and it seems like nobody is interested in the topic of why anyone is alive rather than not.
Maybe everyone else got the memo that nothing has a specific point, and I just didn’t notice. I remain curious, for some reason.
I hope I look back on this post in two years or so and go “oh hey, that wasn’t so bad.”
Note: I want this post to land in a caring way, and not an angry way. But maybe angry needs people to care.
I think it would be fair to say that I am currently in the deepest portion of the empathy burnout spectrum that I have previously here-to-fore inhabited. Maybe that’s why I’m considering a post comparing the types of people I’ve supported at work. I don’t think mental health workers get enough support. So let’s talk about burnout, which is what I’ve been dealing with lately.
Recently, Scott Alexander, the psychiatrist-intellectual behind Slate Star Codex has decided to delete the entirety of the blog in reaction to an NYT reporter refusing to maintain his pseudonymy in an article written about the blog.
I don’t really know how to articulate the magnitude of this loss. While it’s true that his work will remain publicly accessible through websites like The Wayback Machine– if he decides to step back from public discourse then we will have lost not just the best current writing on the internet, but maybe also the only current writing that aims to remain high quality, considered and non-partisan in an increasingly divisive and emotionally violent period of social history. Which would be a tragedy.
Sometimes I think politics is a plague. If it is, then it’s a plague in the same way that war is a plague. Not because there are no just wars, and not because there are no just political conflicts. But because the collateral damage can sometimes be more than I can stand.
That Scott decided to take his website down over the fear that his public work might alienate him from his psychiatric clients, whom he has stated run the political gamut from extreme right to extreme left, is just a sign of what a good-natured and morally practical person he is.
That he has made this decision has to be his to own, and I have to respect it. But I can still mourn the existence of a world where the smartest, brightest thing he could do is to remove all his frankly fantastic work from the public sphere to care for his clients. It seems problematic to me that we live in a world where that’s the best choice.
I don’t know who to blame. I want to blame somebody, but I think that would be contrary to the basic idea. Sometimes, things just happen. I won’t get into the whole drama of the who-saids here, because I hate recounting things like that. But maybe everyone really was out for the best here and the permanently raised stakes of cancel-world have just prompted a meltdown of the most game-theoretically unsatisfying kind.
For those of us who cared about his blog, it will be like so many other awful things that happened this year. I think we’ll just have to learn to live with it.
Luckily it’s still possible to find archives and backups of Slate Star Codex. While I heartily recommend it, I’ll leave that to you. Something feels dirty about linking to a blogger who chose to delete their blog. That being said I do want to promote it in some sense by mentioning it. Just because I value quality thinking and intellectual content.
Those are my thoughts on the matte I guess. I hope this somehow gets undone, but I have the somehow sinking dread that it won’t be.
Note: While I intend this piece to be readable for those who haven’t also read Fear and Trembling, I suspect that this piece will be a lot more valuable to those who are interested in the text itself, which can be found in loads of places on the internet, but also at least here.
A few months ago I was writing up a storm about Heidegger. The ultimate purpose of this storm was because I find him fantastic. But I like Kierkegaard a whole lot more. I’ve recently been re-reading his Fear and Trembling, and the concept in it I find the most interesting and worth discussing is the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical that he describes in the first main section of discussion.
Whew. The phrase itself is somewhat of a mouthful. Therefore, in order to make sense for you readers, I should explain what a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical is. That would make sense before I start telling you why it’s important.
And once you know what it is and why it’s important, then we can maybe start talking about it. Or perhaps I’ll save it for a later post. We’ll have to see!
I recently watched this fantastic 1969 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais and written by the exceptional Marguerite Duras. I’d also recommend the film to anyone who likes a classic, or who has an interest in things that are beautiful. I thought I might say a few things about it. Also, Hubert Dreyfus talks about it in his lecture series on Kierkegaard– which I think is just brilliant.
This film smoulders at the edges with incoherent light, like the edges of burnt newsprint. It is black and white, which means that the fire has gone out. It is covered in coal dust, and the coal might be from wood or metal. Or perhaps, the ashes might be flesh.
Flesh, human life, cities and memories all are subject to the law of impermanence. Even when they are shot through with violence and love, those tethers can’t hold them down– and they float away into the sky.
We could say that Nevers (Emanuelle Riva)– the female character as she is named at the end of the film– and Hiroshima (Eiji Okada)–the male character of whom can be said the same disgrace themselves together. But do so only to re-enact a trauma that is passed and which therefore can never be touched again. It’s an experiment in fossilizing pain. At least in the case of Nevers, her defining pain is something she clings to, and which she is compelled to relive again and again through her affair with Hiroshima and other men, as we come to learn..
Hiroshima was a city that disappeared in an instant. It was also a horrible scar, left by the most brutal and impactful conflict in human history. These assets fix it as a perfect scapegoat for a sacrifice.
In the first scene, Nevers and Hiroshima are entangled, as they question each other over documentary footage detailing the horrific aftermath of the atomic bomb. In this light, it is significant I think that the trauma of Nevers was individual, while the trauma of Hiroshima was collective.
There is something essentially audacious about comparing the loss of a single individual to the loss of an entire city. I suppose the way we can satisfy our concerns as viewers of this film would be to acknowledge that his own knowledge of Nevers’ secret love is what brings Hiroshima to accept her on his own grounds. Where previously– as in the beginning of the film– he did not believe that she had seen suffering that was comparable to his own.
But both know what it’s like to be mad with grief. The film-makers wisely unplumb the depth of world-death. They use the death of one’s lover to point at it indirectly. That’s probably because it’s impossible to fit something so large in something as small as a film. It would be easier to fit an elephant into a tea-cup.
I am deeply suspicious of any writer who thinks that writing about writing is the right way to go about it. This is a problem, because so many people think the right way to start writing is to feverishly scribble down the one lousy thing they were given to say in their lives, and then they just spend the rest of the time doing that (1).
While I sure hope I have things left to say, I do think I’ve spent enough time in front of a blank page making words appear to talk about what Hubert Dreyfus would call ‘the real phenomenon’ of writing. That is, the experience of doing it, of setting yourself to the physical process and not letting go until it’s done resolving itself. I don’t think this is anything special. It is perfectly accessible to anyone willing to do it.
There is some garbage that culture tells itself regarding what it’s like to write, and I’d like to get it all out of the way, just so I know where I stand on the matter. If you like it too, all the better! Don’t get sucked in by people who think in the following terms. They’re charlatans.
I. ‘Divine Madness.’
Hemingway never said ‘write drunk, edit sober.’ Having done it myself, it’s a terrible idea. I’ve only seen it work once in person, and while it did really work, I’m not convinced the guy who pulled it off wasn’t a genius anyway. In history, as well as in all things, Bukowski is the exception.
Don’t align things like creativity and things like self-destruction. It’s too easy, and too cheap. If I had a penny for every college colleague who lived the idea that Bacchus was optreme angle from which to approach the process of producing a thing– this could include academic work and essays– then I’d have maybe around ten bucks, which I could then spend on a book that was actually good.
The mistake is understandable. If it hurts like love, smells like love, and feels like love, it must be love, right? Wrong. Detecting the loss of your ego could be a sign you got your self out of the way long enough to produce something you couldn’t expect. That’s a sign of good writing. Or it might be a sign that you’ve blasted yourself out of your mind on something prescription or non-prescription.
I like Hunter S. Thompson as much as the next guy, but even he admitted that he could never keep up with his own press. Fitting way to go for a newspaper man.
II. That the Writing is Yours; That it Comes from You.
If it’s true that you have to get yourself out of the way for anything good to come, and it is, then you can’t be the place that it comes from. Because remember, you aren’t so much more than just a bundle of preconceptions about the thing trying to be born through your skull.
The myth of the birth of Athena is archetypal, and as anxious as Jungian analysis makes me these days, I’m tempted to point out the ways in which the myth needs to mirror the truth.
All the plans and structures in the world can only get you so far when you have to confront the page at the end of it. You don’t get anything good without risking carpal tunnel or RSI. That means scribbling out and replacing, frequently. I’m not saying this to sound cool, or exclusive, or elitist– I’m just saying it because it’s true.
The reason why it helps to put down the pages of pre-determination and make is because only when you really enjoy the process of making do you and your preconceptions fuck off for long enough for something good to happen. Just trust it, cause it will happen. And when it does, it can be glorious, and that’s the gamble.
(1): I say this while apologizing to Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds is really little more than writing about writing inasmuch as it is a film about films. That said, it remains one of the single finest god damn films I’ve ever seen, not because it was art, but because it was good. I don’t think he was one of those people I demean.
I recently read Mark Fisher’s fantastic Capitalist Realism. It’s a short book and all, but it was so engrossing I put it down in one sitting. Here are the notes I took on each chapter. This is intended to be a summary and mixed commentary.
It’s a fantastic book, and I’d recommend anyone who is interested in the same sort of societal themes and critique that I am to look into it. My intention is for these notes to help you get more out of it, though it’s also eminently understandable.
The brutal dystopia as a cultural concept in entertainment serves to justify our increasing alienation, and the increasingly competitive and brutal economic world we find ourselves in. It idealizes the brutal individual, because this is what we are forced to become.
If we are increasingly driven to adopt the ideals of the brutal survivor in the post apocalypse, what might that say about the economic and spiritual realities we’re currently navigating?
This is, in the worst case, simply known as ‘being realistic.’
Much as per Zizek’s critique of Starbucks: do not worry, you can save the starving African children by purchasing this latte. Would you like a venti or grande?
There are tacit ontologies we take on board as a matter of course. These assumptions make their rounds on the basis of their compatibility with the dominant narrative of economic success. Namely, they are that there is no way but capitalism; that there are infinite resources for capitalism; and that there is infinite affective capacity to endure the stresses of capitalism including individualization and the privatization of stress in the absence of the sort of communities that capitalism is hostile to.
It is now ‘known’ that there is no way to get around capitalism. Once you accept this, whether it is true or not, there is only the pursuit of pleasure. Fisher calls this ‘depressive hedonia:’wherein constant distraction and stimulation is the only solution to hopelessness.
He cites his experience teaching hopeless students– Capitalism’s new illiterates. Deleuze via Fisher: ‘Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.’
Strangely, the role of the teacher is no longer the disciplinarian who uses power to impose form and function a la the sort of analysis we see in Foucault. Instead, the teacher is present to justify the exercise of sitting in a classroom without any desire to learn at all. It would be difficult to believe the students had satisfactorily consumed the knowledge in the lesson without the presence of a teacher, though much more than that is unneccessary.
One of Capitol’s most effective ploys was to orient success around motivation: this was the privatization of stress. For Fisher, this was the moment whereby winners became the most effective perpetrators of the system.
Flexibility as an idol becomes a chain for the freelance professionals that embrace it.
If schizophrenia is the disease at the edges of capitalism, as per Deleuze and Guattari, then bipolar disorder is the disease of the interior.
When workers are incentivized by the ‘freedom’ of neo-liberalism, they get chained to it too. But those chains aren’t external any more. Instead, they’re internal. The modern workplace offers pensions schemes after all, which are investments. Workers themselves become part of the market– they are psychically coupled to its cycles.
Work in both public and private sectors have ceased to be oriented towards production, and instead have become oriented towards the image of production, with a constant battery of assessments, objective statements, targets, outcomes, etc.
This in some sense is a repeat of late stage Stalinism, according to which the plan was all that mattered: a valuation of symbolic achievement over achievement.
For capitalism this can be explained in terms of the stock market, wherein the perception of success is far more important for valuation than genuine success. This, ironically, is what trickles down.
Who isn’t allowed to know how bad things really are? Why are we performing as though this were a perfectly oiled machine? Who would be upset if we admitted how dire circumstances really are?
TV’s Big Brother as a perfect paradigm case of internalization. We are Big Brother. There is no Big Orwell, there is only Big Us.
My own thought: the only way to overcome the continual deferral of the beaurocratic instinct is to willingly act where you would not be empowered to: beuro-kratos.
We are deciding to ignore this. We are complicit. ‘Life is but a dream’ and we are willing to pay for it. We are willing to forget that we have done this. The only remainders are our implicit memories– the procedures that we use to forget in the first place, and which we employ without any memory of why.
The call center as the clearest illustration of decentralization. The generation of a hatred that has no proper object, because this mess is no one person’s fault in particular.
The collective entities that in actual fact make up the capitalist structure do not have agency the way we think of it; therefore, they cannot have moral standing and cannot be responsible. This is not a problem of people. Anyone would do the same if they were a CEO or a banker.
The death of paternalism. Now, there is only the injunction to enjoy. The idea that there might be anyone who ought to tell you how to live, as if they could possibly know better than you do, is dead. This structure requires people to know what they want. Which means that nothing new can ever be made.
But consider the following: “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” (PP.81)
I recently came across a podcast that approaches similar issues to those that I’m concerned about like the profit motive in mental health care, the encroaching influence of the psychopharmaceutical companies, the atomization of the individual, etc.
I think it’s important to share it here, because I think it’s an important discussion to have. Note: They spend the first 8-10 minutes talking about their own backgrounds, including a bit of what I felt was signalling identity politics. I personally found that a bit much. That being said, the discussion that follows is well worth waiting for/skipping to, and I would encourage you to listen to it.
In this piece, I’ll recount the experience I’ve had with practicing contemplation or meditation, or whatever you want to call it, and the way it effected my personal and professional lives.
Update (29/05/2020):It’s worth noting that I don’t take meditation very seriously these days. At the minute, I’m questioning a lot of things. That being said, I thought it would be better to keep this up because otherwise I’d be a bit of a revisionist and those types can get annoying.
I. Note on Method.
I’m intending this piece to fit within the broad tradition of qualitative research in the phenomenological tradition. Without getting overly technical that means I intend to be as precise as possible about my own experience in the hope that it will be knowledge bearing, in the hope that it might be useful for someone else.
In our day to day lives, we are often perfectly happy to act on a piece of observational simply because the observation is interesting or relevant. The inclusion criteria of a personal observation into this discussion is simply that it seemed noteworthy to me. If you also see my observations as noteworthy, I encourage you to experiment with the ideas I present later on.
I absolutely see the epistemic status of any conclusions I draw here as: something to consider, rather than something you must absolutely accept. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what would constitute ‘something you must absolutely accept…’
II: The Basic Observations.
A. Contemplation and Skill.
Let’s get into the idea that contemplation involves some skills. But first, what do I mean by contemplation? I’ll offer you a model that is synthesized from my study of a few different traditions and my own experimentation. This is my view on contemplation.
Contemplative practice is any regularly pursued exercise that involves a posture of stillness, solitude, silence in-as-much as is possible, a bodily orientation, and calm. The aim of a contemplative practice is to still yourself to such a degree that your attention is naturally drawn towards personal content that is usually inaccessible.
However, in order to achieve the sort of calm that is required for contemplative practice, it is also important to develop the ability to focus quite cleanly. Focus is also a kind of stillness. You can learn focus in plenty of different ways. You can learn it by focusing on your breath, or by sitting perfectly still. Kierkegaard would probably call focus ‘willing one thing.’ Erich Fromm highlights the ability to will one thing as an essential part of switching into the being mode.
I think ‘willing one thing’ is probably a more important or useful way to understand the quality of samadhi than ‘focus’ is. The reason for this belief of mine is that in my own case, trying to focus is associated with a whole bunch of baggage from my time in school, etc. Focusing is something you force yourself to do. Willing one thing is something you let yourself do.
So here’s what you do in contemplation: you will one thing until you are quiet and alone enough to notice things about yourself that you’ve never been able to notice before. It sounds kind of simple, right? Well, what do you notice?
In my case, I started to build skills around my automatic emotional responses. I found that certain bodily responses were associated with emotions and thoughts, and that thoughts could lead emotions to arise, and that bodily responses could come before either in some cases. I found that certain tensions in the body were associated with certain persistent thoughts and feelings, and that a simple effort to relax the tension in the body sometimes resulted in the thought or the feeling passing away as well.
It’s difficult to describe the phenomena as if there was any sort of taxonomy I could make, or any set of if-then propositions. As far as I can see, what happens when you learn how to contemplate is that you acquire a sort of judgement about and intimate familiarity with your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as well as their relations.
Beyond that, in the process of trying to learn how to contemplate, you’ll have to learn how to will one thing, which is by no means easy. There is a reason that traditional meditation teaching starts with samadhi before it moves onto vipassana or ‘insight.’ I don’t like the term insight either– I feel like it implies some sort of sudden light-bulb moment which isn’t necessarily how change will occur in you, if any does at all.
One problem with learning to will one thing is that it is incredibly powerful, and that contemplation is ultimately a morality-neutral practice. I do not have nearly enough evidence or science in order to start commenting seriously on visualization as a practice, which may be another instance of using the ability to will one thing. That being said, I have suspicions. If it’s just a coincidence, I don’t think it’s a meaningless coincidence that so many skilful athletes and artists cite visualization as a contributor to their success.
In my own practices of Tango dance and climbing, I think I can attribute a good amount of my progress in either case to visualization, and therefore to my practised ability to will one thing.
B. Skill and Outcomes.
But back to contemplation: I want to talk a little bit about how the skills I learned through the whole practice of contemplation have emerged as useful for me in my life.
I’m current pursuing an odd and difficult career in psychology. This means that I have committed to leave myself hanging in professional limbo for the period of time it will take me to gather enough relevant experience to be admitting onto the program. It also means that intend to become a trained therapist, and that I benefit from studying therapeutic literature in my day-to-day contacts with clients.
There is one quality which is very useful for the pursuit of an uncertain future, and which is very important to an honest attempt at helping someone who is suffering deeply. That is the ability to tolerate uncertainty on a bodily level.
You’ll note when you feel anxious or angry or afraid that your body might seem to be on fire. From a psychological perspective, we’d call this a state of extreme behavioural activation. Your heart rate is likely higher than normal, along with your body temperature. You may start to sweat. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may recognize these signs and fear them due to their tendency to runaway into a panic attack.
As far as I can see, the point of these emotions– in their phenomenological quality– is to demand action. This isn’t always the best idea. It’s usually a pretty terrible idea if you’re doing any sort of fine emotional work with someone else or yourself. Imagine working on a watch or a circuit-board by hand, and then suddenly suffering a violent sneeze or muscle spasm.
That whole delicate order you had been trying to preserve for your purposed would disappear in a second. Or think about playing ‘Operation!’ during an earthquake. Sensitivity requires precision and patience, and both qualities require calm.
I’m illustrating the importance of this concept with my own life, but I can make it relevant to yours, too. If you hope to do anything with your life that requires risk, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty will be an asset. If you hope to have a relationship that involves intimacy and vulnerability on your part, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty is essential.
Every life-course worth living involves risk, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a relationship worth having that did not involve vulnerability. Your relationship to your world and your relationship to the people that are important in your life are joined by another important relationship: your relationship to yourself.
The ability to tolerate uncertainty is a consequence of your ability to tolerate your self. The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about an important principle in the process of self-transformation: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
III: Results and Interpretation.
Consider more the idea that contemplation refines the sensitivity of your instrument, and you get an idea for the range of applications of the technique: any domain that demands intellectual or emotional sensitivity will be more easily accessed if you are sharp. At the same time, any domain that benefits from a degree of non-reactivity is more easily accessed by a contemplative.
That’s just if we want to talk about the more mundane consequents of contemplative practice. But it doesn’t seem like spiritual consequents necessarily fit in this discussion, and I feel like I speak enough about them elsewhere, so I’ll leave them out for now.
One example from my own life: it is common in psychotherapy to talk about counter-transference. In the literature on borderline personality disorder, counter-transference is understood in terms of the emotional reactions, sometimes prompted by personal baggage, in the therapist toward the emotional content brought forward by the borderline client in the course of the session.
Having had my own one-on-one encounters with the emotional content of borderline clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that the ability to take a contemplative stance can save the relationship and the interaction.
This skill is by no means important just when it comes to borderline clients. Any time you are faced with exploring someone’s emotional world, you are faced with a situation where your own history and experiences might become present and obscure the reality of the person you’re faced with. In the worst case, this can end up in a complete misinterpretation of the person– with possibly disastrous consequences.
But it seems that even in the ‘best’ cases it can significantly hinder your ability to actually relate to the person. In any of these cases, the ability to ‘calm the waters’ is invaluable in getting a clear picture of what is reflected through them. Namely, the other person.
It can often be very difficult to focus your effort on setting your own emotional content aside for the purpose of understanding the person to whom you are trying to relate. In these cases, the ability to ‘will one thing’ is once again relevant. Our emotions are compelling for a reason– usually they prompt some sort of action that would be the best thing to do in a certain context. But that doesn’t mean that we should be led by them, rather they should inform us.
It is the ability to ‘will one thing’, and the ‘sensitivity of instrument’ developed by contemplative practice that allow us to do this.
IV.A Little Discussion
There is a notion that comes from Spinoza that power is not just the capacity to affect, but that it is also the capacity to be affected. In meditation, we get the ability to be sensitive from the ability to be still, and that is its own form of power. Affect and effect are interestingly different. I think the best way to distinguish them is like the difference between your heart and your hands.
When you’re meditating, you’re sitting perfectly still, which means you can’t do drugs or eat unhealthy food or hurt people or get irritated with those you love. If you meditate a lot, then you might learn how to remember what it feels like to not do all those bad things when you get the opportunity to. That might help you avoid doing them later if that’s the sort of thing you want to do.