Tuesday, December 01, 2009

in answer to your question.

a home i'd want would be full of people and their lives. it's not like everyone i know would get a key to the place. but sort of. i've managed to be where the people i love are talking about the things that interest me by travelling everywhere at every hour to be where those people are talking about those things. if i had a home, the kind of home i'd want, they'd come to me, from everywhere at any hour. a home i'd have with you would be a place they'd be inclined to be, inclined to feel at home in themselves and inclined to talk about things in. and all of the people who came, no matter whose friends they began as, we'd have to come to really know each other, because a home is who lives there, and i love small talk, too, but so much of this feeling that people would feel of wanting to come and to talk about what they really wanted to say would be the result of their comfort with us, and our comfort with each other. a place we come to know each other and other people. that's a home i would invest in more spoons for.

the apartment i grew up in was a prison. no one was allowed in, and the only possibility was escape. to be fair, it was a prison handcrafted with all of the strangebeauty that is the bright side of the schizophrenic's imagination. but we were all trapped inside in the dark with our secrets, just surviving. i think that lots of homes, normal homes, not particularly fraught, lock us up in pairs, ostensibly for our own good, with scheduled visitations for scripted conversation with friends who know us less and less, and then we know each other less and less, and ourselves, too. i don't think it has to be this way. i don't think it typically is in the homes i'm blessed to know now. but this better way isn't a thing i've always been sure i knew how to do. it seemed to me that a certain kind of distance was the way to save myself from people and save people from myself. it's one way to go. but there were things i didn't know. i didn't know all the things that walls could do, but i knew some bad things they could-- keeping people in, for example, and out.

but there's a trick some people know for making homes into safe warm flower pots, good for growing in. lots of things follow from this central way i'd want a home to be. it means that a home i share can't be in the country or in the suburbs, or even too far from a train station. ideally it would be in a place that the people who talk about the things i'm interested in talking about would walk past just in the course of their day. when a friend comes into town on a couple of days notice with a backpack and a duffle bag, i don't want them to have to walk too far from the train before they can put down their duffle and have some tea and tell me what brought them on such short notice. it means that they'd need to know i'd be around to be found. ideally close to the work we do.

it would be like a place we built to make ourselves and other people comfortable. you know, full of warm and cold things. blankets. beer. a guest sweater and a guest a bike. i'd have to feel comfortable in a kitchen. i'm not at all certain that i have an aptitude for cooking, but i assume that, for my purposes, being a nuanced and subtle epicure probably isn't essential. i expect it's more about reliably having these warm and cold things around that aren't just logs of high fructose corn syrup. i think that small places are particularly nice for this. small places arranged for comfort.

ideally there could be space and time in a home for projects. the ukulele began for me as a project like the kind i'm thinking of-- a morningtime bedroom hobby. i think things like the ukulele and terrariums, say, or bug collecting, are often left in childhood. but i like the space to try and then fail or forget and then try again at little projects like these. order is nice-- order is important-- but i'm just saying, if you ever wanted to turn the bathroom into a darkroom or a distillery to pursue your morningtime hobby, or the backporch into a green house, i love these kinds of things, and i'm into prioritizing them, even if they don't always work out.

there'd be a library. more than a bookshelf. that's a thing i have to offer. when we're talking, and some essay comes up that moved us so much, the book they printed it in could be there so we could look at it together. i spend an unreasonable amount of money on books that i can't even read right away, and i don't intend to stop. whatever decorative or atmospheric function a library would serve would be ancillary. these are reference materials for a life in which we're forever referencing materials. and, of course, as building blocks for the other furniture. i don't own any furniture, and while, if i had home, i'd probably want some (see: the last paragraph), i'd want to collect it slowly as opportunities came up to acquire things i like, that have meaning to me. going to ikea makes me feel upset.

then, privacy. lack of privacy is an integral part of any prison, and it was an integral part of the imprisonment i knew. work space is the best privacy, i think, and really inviting work space is probably the only possible way of avoiding work email in bed. in my experience you don't need a more expensive place or a place farther away from the train station to have this, though people are forever saying that you do. the best work spaces i've ever had have been made in tiny closets or unexpected corners. i like making these spaces. a thing i can't even take the time to address here is how much time we all need for work, and how hard that is and always will be to figure out. but privacy, relatedly, is as much about scheduling shared time as it is about arranging shared space. this is one reason that not sharing an exact work schedule with the person you share a home with can be nice. it not only makes for alone time, but the pleasure of anticipating and experiencing one another's arrival.

i don't like having a lot of shit around. i don't like decorative plants. i don't like ornate picture frames, or cheap plastic picture frames, either. i like even the hooks i use to hang things to be made out of some old office supply that's around. i don't like buying new things when i can use old things. i don't like buying new things to match the old things when the old things break. a lot of people say they don't like having a lot of shit around, but they don't care enough to actually do the extremely hard work of not acquiring a lot of shit. one of the great advantages of not having a home has been that i can ruthlessly purge without having to consult or compromise, which makes a hard thing less hard.

i do like the meaningful clutter of beloved pens and the oddly sized art my friends make, and the clutter from projects. i have drawers full of those polaroids (although i expect that someday i'll get a lot of satisfaction out of throwing most of them away). other things i do like are red and brown and blue and green and yellow. i like maps. i like map pins. i like spinach. you know what i like. i like doing laundry (bone-dry and warm-- i'll pay whatever it takes). i like rugs. i hate organizing clutter, which is just to say that i'm bad at it-- but i'm good at throwing it away. i like the radio to be on. i don't like the tv to be on, making noise or filling a void. more and more i like listening to podcasts while i clean. this has made organizing clutter, even, less terrible. i like writing early in the morning and reading and practicing the ukulele late at night.

practically speaking, a place we shared would likely be covered in newspapers and drafts of things i'm writing and loose change and half full glasses of water and cups of coffee-- bobby pins when my hair is long, running shoes when it's not winter, and bikes hanging somewhere when it is. there'd probably be lots of mail that neither of us cared to deal with. our combined subscriptions to periodicals alone would fill shelves. my clothes and shoes would look funny next to yours in the closet, and we'd probably make lots of jokes about it. you know how it is.

hannah arendt talks about the difference between loneliness and solitude-- how a certain approach to virtue is about being lonely even in a crowd, and another version emphasizes solitude-- a time alone for necessary reflection in which one isn't lonely at all. i guess the best idea of a home i know is a place that assuages loneliness and provides for solitude. the place i grew up was all loneliness, no solitude, and i escaped the lonesome crowd by having nothing like a home that could fit more than one, and keeping my family outside of it. it worked. i have been often solitary and rarely lonesome. but those ways i learned of doing things are mere means to the ends i really care about, and i can be inventive about developing new means when the old one's stop working. and i think the validity of that strategy would not be undermined if it turned out for me to be a stop on the way to something else-- it was just time spent learning to think inventively about achieving what matters-- good skills for home building, i hope. loneliness will come of course. and solitude is hard won in the crush of things. but home, a home i'd have would be a place i'd want to work at making full of the good life noise of projects and people that as much as possible relieves loneliness and as absent as possible the bad life noise that impedes solitude. there would be space for saying the things it's hard to say. there would be patience and aid.

i've always gone out for the things i needed. it's an expensive way to live. the price has always been worth it to me. i have no regrets. but i suspect that this isn't sustainable. i think it's a riskier proposition, trying to make the things i need at home with other people, but inasmuch as we achieved it, i expect that like most riskier things, the potential gratification is something awfully profound. and you know i'm so indebted to people for couches and meals and places to talk about the things that interest me. i'd like to be able to do more than just show up and accept what other people can offer me. i'd like to be able to offer it back. i like the idea of one space to bring together all of the disparate people who i go to see in disparate places, and the people you have. i think you'd like them. i think i would like them. i think they'd all like each other. the blood family i bring is small, but my friend family is wide and wonderful and rich in resources. a home could be a place from which to share these resources, not just split the bills.

i've been working on this a little everyday as a way to think about it. i expect i'll keep at it for awhile.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

a work in progress.

i've been thinking back a lot about a lecture i listened to a professor of mine deliver-- the first session of a course on causation. he's a philosophy professor now, but he was an engineer for a long time, and one of the things that he used to do professionally was provide expert testimony, in the aftermath of disaster, about what went wrong. why the plane crashed. why the bridge fell.

why did the bridge fall? it's a harder questions than it seems to be, and it already seems like a really hard question. let's say we put to one side the ponderous constraints on what even an engineer can know about the precise empirical facts of something even just as complicated as a bridge. say we know with perfect certainty the properties of all the materials the bridge is made of, and of all the pressures those materials will come under, and all of the effects that each part of the bridge will have on the other parts, and precisely what effects the environment will have on the whole structure. say we know the story of every raindrop that ever winds its way into any fissure in the concrete, or along any rivulet formed in the bend of the steel. say that there is no detail in the story of the epoxy and its corroding effects on the particular material of which the screws are made when the temperature falls below zero that escapes our notice. say the whole story of the bridge and the bridge's coming to fall is, in all of its immense complexity, fixed and knowable and known.

why did the bridge fall? you might think that under these conditions we have an answer to the question, but it turns out that we only have a story-- a long story of materials and dynamics in which each and every material and dynamic plays an ineliminable role. to pick out a part of the story, a particular material or dynamic, and say 'here is the cause' requires something else-- something more even than the most perfect knowledge. even more, that is, than what we can ever hope to have.

coming soon: proximate cause, making the difference, and everything that's left unclear, even then.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

i've got a new attitude!

oh my gosh, i have to do this so fast, i should not be blogging right now, but i want to write this down. it requires you to (1) read my last post, which was a short little transcript of an interview with the novelist hilary mantel, and (2) understand the basics of the philosopher peter strawson's essay 'freedom and resentment'. you go do (1), and i'll work on making (2) happen:

(skip this if you've read the strawson) in 'freedom and resentment' (probably one of the most riveting little philosophical essays i've ever read), strawson asserts that there are two general places from which we can consider one another. the first he calls 'the reactive attitutes' [RAs], and we 'inhabit' these (i think that this is the word strawson uses) pretty much all the time with other adults. from the RAs we implicitly consider one another agents, who are, with some exceptions, the cause of their own actions, and we can feel passionately about them as agents, hating them, or loving them as equals; we can feel mildly amused or annoyed at them as strangers. i did a bad job of explaining that, but it'll make more sense after i tell you about the second place-- the objective attitutes [OAs]. we tend to take up the OAs when we think about children, or people living with severe mental illnesses, or when we're acting as doctors, or social workers or whatever. when we think in this way, we are thinking about people in terms of (a) the forces that caused them and (b) how to use that information to sort of manage them in the future. blame, according to strawson, is an RA, and we can only avoid blaming others by taking up the OAs. but strawson doesn't think that we are capable of considering the other adults in our lives from the OAs for very long-- we can do it for a little, but we could never manage to maintain the OAs consistantly in our daily interactions. And, he thinks, we oughtn't do that even if we could, because while you can feel compassion, or affection, perhaps, or the love of a parent for a child, passionate adult engagement is impossible, almost definitionally. there is something clinical about the OAs, and that troubles strawson. (this paragraph sucks, but i'll fix it up later-- you get the general idea for now, and hopefully most of you have read the strawson and are skipping this part anyway.)

the point: i think that the attitude that HM takes up in thinking about these characters (thomas cromwell and robespierre) constitutes a third kind of approach or attitude. it is diognostic in a sense- she wants to know the causes, the full explanation of what happened- 'the facts'- but it is not clinical- first, because she's not trying to manage that person (their fate is set in history- the facts are in), just understand them, and second, because she is utterly concerned with the vividness of the character's inner life. she's not trying to do anything to them, she's just trying to understand them-- and not just functionally, but phenomenlogically. she wants most of all to do them justice.

i don't think that this is a version of either the RAs or the OAs. i don't think that this is a highbred. i think that this is a distinct approach, and it's a better approach. because i don't think that our respecting one another as agents or loving/hating one another passionately depends on our failing to know who a person is, including the forces that caused them (aka the forces that drive them), and if meditating on the causes of a person tend to mellow our most recriminative impulses, i don't think that they'll necessarily dull our ardour. indeed, i don't see why it couldn't give our ardour more depth and focus. oh man, i really have to go grade papers, but i want your opinion: what should these kinds of attitudes be called?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

h. mantel on doing justice.

from a riveting interview aired today on NPR's weekend edition between liane hansen and booker prize winning author hilary mantel:

LH: was it difficult to provide a certain amount of suspense when many people, anecdotally, know the outcome?

HM: what we’re doing here is unlike what a historian does. we’re behind thomas cromwell’s eyes, and we’re moving forward with him through history. he can’t have hindsight. he doesn’t know what’s going to happen. he’s just blundering on, in the half dark, as we all are—the way we all move through life, with imperfect information—and he’s only able to guess at what will happen next. of course we all know what happened, and we can’t entirely forget that. but there are two questions: how did it happen? and also, most vitally for a novelist, how did it feel to the person concerned? how did history feel from the inside?

LH: are you attracted to historical characters that need some kind of rehabilitation? i mean, in 1992 in your book A Place of Greater Safety, you made robespierre sympathetic.

HM: i'm not so much attracted to rehabilitation as i'm attracted to justice. there is something in common with robespierre and thomas cromwell, in that they’ve both been given an extremely bad press. and it's very difficult to get back beyond reputation, back to the real man, back to the sources. because a lot of the history we're taught, it's just packets of prejudice handed on from one generation to the next, and the packet is never opened and examined. we just carry it unquestioningly and hand it on ourselves. and i suppose i’m the kind of perverse person that, if you tell me someone’s a saint, i'll go looking for his feet of clay. but if you tell me that someone is a scoundrel, and a villain, and there's nothing to be said for him, i start asking, “now why would you want me to think that?' so it's not that i feel i have to redeem these people in any way, it's that i think the facts will redeem them if the facts are ever examined.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

death panels.

the night my gram decided to die we were alone together. we were alone in the middle of the night in a smalltown midwestern hospital. there were a couple of nurses on shift who settled her into a room (she had been brought over from the nursing home where she was staying for several weeks while going through physical therapy to recover from a broken hip. there was water in her lungs-- a nascent case of pneumonia). everything was quiet and white and well lit. there was a sleepy young doctor at the nurses station looking over charts.

my arrival was hurried, and confused in that way that things are confusing when what woke you up was an emergency phone call. as i walked in the room my grampa walked out, grimacing, frantic. 'you talk to her. you talk to her,' he said, furious and defeated. i still had very little idea of what was happening.

let me skip ahead and tell you what i didn't know, and wouldn't really understand until well into that night's aftermath: gram had given up. and this strange moment, she saw, was her chance. what she needed to live was simple-- she needed fluids-- but it required hooking her up to a machine. once she was on the machine, it would be something quite complex to get herself taken off. but here, in the middle of the night, with only me, the young doctor, and her irascible but helpless husband, she could refuse. if she consented tonight to begin even the most basic treatment the inertia of hospital rules and a cadre of wellrested family members filled with goodmorning optimism would mean almost impossible odds. and she was done fighting odds she deemed impossible.

i don't know how to get back to that night, before i understood this, to fully remember and explain to you what happened or what it felt like then, before i'd fit fragmented experience into a story that made sense of it. but what i mostly remember, and what i want to talk about, is the stabbing helpless desperation of feeling that everything was at stake, and nothing was clear-- that it would be clear to someone, but that it wasn't clear to me, and i was the only one there. i was alone in the room with my small sad grama, who was pleading with me to understand and agree. she said she couldn't go back to the nursing home. she said 'i'm not strong. i never was.' she cried, 'i'm done. i'm just done.'

there was the vague sense that if i'd objected strongly enough that i could overrule her. but it wasn't clear. there was the vague sense that the prognosis wasn't so bad-- no one was telling us to give up-- which made her capitulation bewildering. but how did i get that impression exactly? when? was it about the pneumonia or the hip? was she just depressed? the nursing home was depressing. i felt depressed. should she be allowed to decide to die in that state of mind? how could i know her state of mind? were there really only two options? what was my role? did i get to decide? (she seemed to be pleading with me.) decide what? based on what? i was playing some role, the nature of which was unclear to me, in a situation i didn't understand, wrestling with feelings i never thought i'd have, suspicious of everything, particularly my own motives and knowledge. i felt like i was operate the heaviest machinery at gunpoint without a licence, and i just kept thinking, how can they let this happen? shouldn't someone in this giant white laboratory be explaining something to us?

how do i tell you, how do i really bring home to you that there, in the hospital in the middle of night it wasn't just the answers that were terribly unclear-- i couldn't even figure out what the questions were. and the young doctor and the unobtrusive nurses (those enormously competent nurses) weren't criminally neglectful, they were just giving us some quiet time to come to terms with some hard things. they didn't see i was drowning. i didn't know what to ask for help with exactly or how to. it was the middle of the night.

i don't think that my experience was unique. for all of the specific features of my circumstance detailed here, i think that what i was feeling was just what it feels like to confront the possible death of someone you love in the midst of the sort-of-science of modern western medicine happening in the tangled little bureaucracies we call hospitals.


one of greatest of a great many perversities of this healthcare reform debate has been the branding of end of life counseling for patients and their family members as "death panels". it's not even as if those shucking death panel fear are trying to make something bad seem worse than it really is. rather, they have attempted to paint one of the most sensible, insightful and deeply kind bits of legislation i've ever seen written up in official language as something monstrous.

i needed help-- not so much answering the questions as figuring out what they were and what all of the possible bases for making them might be. i've largely dedicated my life to being ready to understand and face mortal questions as they come up, but that night i needed help more than i've ever needed it since. if you think you wouldn't-- if you think, with senator grassley that we have "every right to fear [of end of life counseling]. you shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life. you ought to have counseling 20 years before you’re going to die. you ought to plan these things out" -- if you've never been through something like this before, and you think you could do better-- then i feel sorry for you, and scared for our country. there are a few things we all do have in common, and the experience of death is one. your time will come, and what i wish for you, and i couldn't wish more, is sound and thorough counsel.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

gay marriage.

apologies to facebook friends who've already read this, but today i reposted a link-- a link to a blog post that responds critically to the outpouring of anger in the wake of the california supreme court decided 6-1 in favor of upholding proposition 8.  i posted this link with some trepidation, as my own update feed was almost entirely filled with good friends who are, in fact, very angry about the decision.  here's the link, and here's what i wrote:

to be clear: i'm interested in civil unions. not for gay people, but for everyone. the rights, privileges, and obligations that come with state-sanctioned unions should be available to any consenting adults who would choose to enter into them-- a legal framework flexible enough to structure all kinds of different families. if i spend my old age caring and being cared for by my dearest friends, then we'd be a household, a family, worthy of those privileges, rights and obligations. if my sister and i raise children together, then we'd be a household, a family, worthy of those privileges, rights and obligations. leave it to religion to specially consecrate sexual relationships (heterosexual or otherwise), and abolish civil marriage in favor of civil unions between any consenting adults who will pledge in good faith to be profoundly responsible for one another.

this is a policy change i would donate money and sign-petitions and canvas and write letters to the editor in support of.

i was extremely anxious about posting anything that would convey my ambivalence about the decision. partly out of respect for the very real pain and disappointment suffered by citizens of california; partly out of respect for the fact that, even though i'm not exactly "for gay marriage", those fighting against it are obviously motivated by their own intolerable homophobia and not to be supported in their aims;  and mostly by the fear that it would further alienate me from certain friends (see: my last post).

but this is a serious issue, and i've got to say what i think. for every story about a same-sex romantic partner being barred from a hospital room, or being ignored while estranged parents are allowed to make bad end of life decisions or take away children or property (even if special papers have been signed), there's a story about the same sorts of things happening to people without romantic partners.  their actual life-partners-- friends and housemates who care for and understand them and their wishes-- are ignored.  these are wrenching stories-- each one a terrible miscarriage of justice.  all people, in the vulnerable moments around death and birth and sickness, need recourse to the special protection that state-recognized unions afford.

and there's something maybe larger and certainly more radical that ought to be on the table: it's hard to see how we, as queers, can effectively imagine and adopt nontraditional family structures without said recourse.  and it's hard to see how the larger public could begin to re-imagine traditional (often oppressive) family structures in the shadow of civil marriage.  i won't go on about this at length, but it's worth mentioning.  i'm no HRC gay with a yen to assimilate.  i'm a radical, god damn it, at least about this, with a mind to reimagine.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


if you're very lucky then it will happen to you once or twice or several times over the course of your life that you'll spend a smitten season with someone, and with this someone romance, when it concludes, concludes simply and in an easy affection.  smittenhood itself lives on. smittenhood deepens, even.

i'm very lucky.  so lucky!  but my friend hannah (with whom i spent a smitten season) is moving away.  i'm feeling surprisingly stricken!  she's moving bravely, i think, to an unfamiliar city where she'll learn to do the work she loves, and work in a new way on the love she's in (grad school, in other words, and the pleasure of domestic partnership).  so we're all being scheduled, all of us lucky ones, for a little quality hannah time before she goes, and mine was yesterday.  i should have been writing a paper, as i should be writing a paper now, but it was such a worthwhile conversation, as our conversations are (i can't say how much i'll miss them).

hannah and i have both been thinking some, for various personal and pragmatic reasons, about domesticity.  i feel surrounded by it all of a sudden.  i'm sure it wasn't actually sudden.  i'm sure it sauntered up to me slowly, in plain sight, waving.  but here it is-- a collective turning inward toward shared homes, and marriages, and pets, and babies.  everybody wants a damn baby!  i can't even love babies without being accused of wanting them, too.  can't i like babies for themselves, for being awesome, without self-serving motives like wanting to own one and dress it up and do things i think are cute?

not coincidentally, i think, i've made a series of apparently offensive comments over the last few weeks regarding the children, pets, and relationship dynamics of my friends.  frankly, i haven't said anything that i'd never thought to myself (or even said out loud) before, but i've begun to say these things too loudly and at just the wrong moment.  i've been courting confrontation.

the summer i met hannah was a conspicuously undomestic moment in both our lives, and this was reflected in the politics and circumstances of our friends and wider community.  'i was living on whisky and air' she said, and i was explicitly practicing a kind of friendly pluralism in which anything like the formal or informal expectations and hierarchies that come along with romantic relationships were strictly prohibited.  and this was, it's true, a moment, but our views and commitments weren't, i think, fad-ish.  i was two years in to a four year stint of this way of doing things, and most all of our friends were trying for something a little weird, where they were trying for anything at all.

i still think that there's something ethically dubious about the expectations and hierarchies that tend to structure romantic relationships.  on the one hand, arranging one's priorities and expectations around a single other person can undermine other relationships-- to friends, to oneself.  but i also wonder if the relationship in question-- the very one being prioritized-- doesn't tend to wither under the weight of prioritization and expectation.  right or wrong, i've spent a long time trying to live by the conviction that one way of making relationships sustainable is to resist the impulse to expect, and, spun out to it's conclusion, this conviction has at times led me pretty far off the beaten path, romance wise. 

my concerns aside, this primary relationship business seems to be what people are up to these days, even me, sort of.  and i'm mostly proud and impressed and happy.  this winter i visited with another old friend,  unexpectedly living with someone and liking it, and she said to me that loving someone alone is not reason enough to think that you can make domesticity last.  partnership-- sharing your life with another person-- is the deepest kind of compromise.  it's an agreement to negotiate on the most important and distinctive features of what your life will be like.  you have to think, she said, that this kind of compromise is valuable in itself-- not just something yr willing to put up with because you love someone.  loving someone is one thing, wanting to be close to them no matter the cost-- honestly, that shit's a dime a dozen.  any asshole can fall in love, and they generally do.  it's another thing to think of someone that your own life would go better if it were decided by what you come up with together, even through conflict, then it would guided by your judgment alone-- to think that even the conflict itself generates something of vital importance-- that you're better for it.  conflict will always be a reason to leave if you see things any other way.

i'm not sold on it yet, myself.  it might be a good way to do things, and it might not be.  it might be a good way to do things for some people, but not for everyone.  "it" might be several different kinds of things misleadingly disguised as one, or one thing misleading disguised as several.  i don't know.  but i'm lucky, as i've mentioned.  i'm surrounded by people i trust and admire who i can observe and talk with as they run their own on-going experiments on how a life might best be lived.  h.lewis is just one bravewondefullovemess of an example.  the greater the diversity of the experiments, earnestly undertaken, the more i learn and the better i can imagine.  and the less fucking cranky i get.  i want to romance my friends, and be a friend to my girlfriend, and i want my friends to be my teachers, and i want to treat babies like they're my friends, too.

hannah helped me think about it.  she's put a damper on my bitchery with brave thoughtful goodwill, and thereby saved the rest of you from my aggressive heckling.  sucks for you, she's leaving.  no wait, sucks for me.  no wait, i'm so happy!  another city with a comfortable couch i can sleep on. xo, HL-- xo.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

the retributivist instinct, revisited.

last year i wrote a little about jared diamond's article in the new yorker, "vengeance is ours". the new yorker is now being sued by the papua new guinean tribe for making false accusations, and the media ethics project at the art science research lab (stinkyjournalism.com) is about to release a 40,000 study entitled "jared diamond's factual collapse: the new yorker's papua new guinea revenge tale untrue". it was diamond's analysis of the facts that i found objectionable, which no factual expose can disprove, and i'm sure that it's very complicated and diamond could probably explain things in a way that made sense of his choices. but in as much as he even finessed the facts it begins to look like he used them to illustrate a conclusion that he had reached independant of particulars. its the worst kind of anthrolopogy and the worst kind of philosophy that begins with an assumed conclusion and chooses the evidence to suit it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the truth is very different from what we are inclined to believe. even if we are not aware of this, most of us are non-reductionists. we [are] strongly inclined to believe that our existence is a deep further fact, distinct from physical and psychological continuity, and a fact that must be all-or-nothing. this is not true.

is the truth depressing? some may find it so. but i find it liberating, and consoling. when i believed that my existence was such a further fact, i seemed imprisoned in myself. my life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which i was moving faster ever year, and at the end of which there was darkness. when i changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. i now live in the open air. there is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. but the difference is less. other people are closer. i am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

when i believed the non-reductionist view, i also cared more about my inevitable death. after my death, there will be no one living who will be me. i can now redescribe this fact. though there will later be many experiences, none of these experiences will be connected to my present experiences by chains of such direct connection as those involved in experience-memory, or in the carrying out of an earlier intention. some of these future experiences may be related to my present experiences in less direct ways. there will later be some memories about my life. and there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. my death will break the more direct relations between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. this is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. now that i have seen this, my death seems to me less bad.

after hume thought hard about his arguments, we was thrown into 'the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness'. the cure was to dine and play backgammon with his friends. hume's arguments supported total scepticism. this is why they brought darkness and utter loneliness. the arguments for reductionism have on me the opposite effect. thinking hard about these arguments removes the glass wall between me and others. and, as i have said, i care less about my death. this is merely the fact that, after a certain time, none of the experiences that will occur will be related, in certain ways, to my present experiences. can this matter all that much?

derek parfit
reasons & persons

Friday, April 10, 2009

enforcers., or, vigilante outting!

several weeks ago, i was privileged enough to be eating dinner with some really wonderful philosophers- my fellow philosophy students, my professors lionel mcpherson and erin kelly, and two guests, tommie shelby and derrick darby. it was maybe the least socially awkward philosophical dinner party that i've ever been lucky enough to be a part of. the conversation, which i've recounted a number of times since (if i've recounted it to you, bear with me-- or, conversely, don't bother), turned, to my delight, to the moral status of vigilante outing! the gist is this:

(1) within the gay community there is an general belief that a closeted person could rightfully object to being outed by another person in the community.

(2) then there is the more radical view that a closeted person has no right to object to being outed, though it may cause them some harm. it might, in other words, be ethically permissible (or even obligatory) to out them on a number of grounds. first (this is the seemingly easier case), the person in question may be doing some direct harm to the community from their closet-- a closeted conservative politician, or evangelical religious leader, say. but the more interesting argument applies to people that we all know, closeted at work, or at home, in most cases to avoid harms and efforts ranging from the tedious to the down-right dangerous. the idea is that by being closeted, they harm the community by failing to bear their part of the burden in the larger struggle to secure benefits that they themselves enjoy, or could enjoy. it's the old free rider problem.

i have lots of thoughts about this! but i'm not going to talk about them here, directly. my view, in short, is that no one is ever, even in the extreme case, morally obligated to out someone, and that outing anyone under any circumstances is probably the wrong thing to do. but my reasons for holding this view are not, i think, conservative. i fully recognize the very real problem that the radical proponent of (2) is openly confronting:

in any community, and particularly within some solidarity group engaged in a struggle for survival, it is essential that the group find some way to protect themselves, both from external threats, and from the internal threat of free riders. the survival of the community itself depends on defending certain borders (literal, ideological, or otherwise), and on each member within those borders doing his or her part to abide by community standards. and yet, each individual within the group must grapple constantly with the temptation to minimize or avoid altogether the burdens of citizenship. if a group is large and its members have a reasonable measure of privacy, there will always be opportunities for this kind of exploitation. so keep it all together-- to maintain the good thing you've got going-- you've got to find a way to police against free riders, and ensure solidarity.

but even if all communities require policing, it might still be the case that the individual acts that policing consists in are not the sorts of things that, in and of themselves, anyone ought to do. going back, for example, to the case of the vigilante outer: it might be the case that if we had this sort of community policing, we'd all be more honest, or that we'd all be forced to join the fight and stay in it or something like that-- if no one had the option of being closeted, it seems reasonable to assume that we'd have more people fighting harder for gay rights-- fighting for their lives, bearing some of the cost of some collective struggle. but it still strikes me as obviously true that the sorts of people inclined to do this sort of outing are going to be morally insensitive dicks. and if they're not-- if they're just good people who decide that it's a job that must be done, despite it's distastefulness, by someone, for the sake of the group-- then they're going pay a high price, selling their souls, so to speak, in the supposed interest of the rest of us. this is not something that i would either do myself, or council anyone else to.

the problem, i think, is this: it's one thing to ask someone to do what's right, despite the cost to oneself-- it's another to ask someone to do something that's wrong as the means to some better end. i don't want to be a free rider-- it doesn't even sound fun or satisfying to me. which is why i try (with occasional success) to do what's right despite the cost to myself, and why i would encourage anyone who asked me to do the same (for their own sake, as well as everyone else's). but i don't think that i can endorse (or even fully make sense of) the notion that it's right to do something that's wrong in the interest of survival. and in this case, it's the survival of a group whose own principles may very well conflict with the actions that must be taken in order for the group to survive.

people sometimes assume or imply that an act that preserves a person or community that is itself good, is a good or at least acceptable act. i don't see why this should be true. it strikes me as obvious that being a good person is going to come into conflict with self- (or group-) preservation. but it's not at all obvious what, when that conflict arises, one ought to do about it.

1 an exception: i don't think that anyone is ever obligated to closet themselves for someone else-- it's unreasonable for someone closeted to expect another person to keep their actual behavior a secret. while it's lame, i think, to out someone for the sake of outing them, it's better when we can live our lives openly, and it's unreasonable for someone who fails to live openly to ask someone they've slept with to fail along with them. though outing someone for the sake of outing them and outing someone just in the course of living one's own life honestly might have the same impact on the person who is closeted, it seems to me that each act has a different moral status.

Friday, March 06, 2009

how it's not fair.

i'm a little drunk1, but there's some things i need to write down right now before i forget them. this past week filing2 we found a diary entry from a woman3, a radical, a member of the symbionese liberation army who was shot by police probably a year later, and she was sad and cynical over the death of a revolutionary also gunned down, turned against by someone he was fighting with, and she said (sad and cynically and better than i will) that the revolutionary spirit is so rare and beautiful, so rare and beautiful that she just didn't know anymore if a single drop of it was worth losing to save spiritless others.

i bet that the man she was talking about was so luminous. i bet he bristled with imagination and love for the people and a sensitivity to injustice like an exposed nerve. i bet he was so beautiful and so rare. but but but but but! what does a revolutionary fight for if not people? and what are people but just themselves? and if you fight for them, you'd better be fighting for them and not your idea of them that's wrong. that's what i thought when i read it. i thought, first, 'there's something wrong here-- something amiss at the very center of this moving idea'. revolutionaries fight to free people. maybe people need revolutionaries to free them. but revolutionaries need people just for there to be such a thing as a revolutionary. what can it mean, then, to say that people aren't worth revolutionary blood? what beauty can the revolutionary spirit have independent of these others who fight to free? even if they fucking crucify you. even if it's a thing about people that they will always crucify you. that's people. that's what you're fighting for, and i think part of what that woman meant by the beauty of the revolutionary spirit is that when you have it, you have it consummately. you are the fight. and the fight is (ostensibly) for the people. but could you keep fighting if you didn't harbor the illusion that they'd all rise up like an army behind you? could you keep fighting if you didn't believe falsely that they'd love you for it? if you can't, then the revolutionary's very identity, their sense of self and purpose, depends on maintaining this illusion.

have you ever been loved as someone that you aren't? someone that you aren't as good as? and then disappointed someone as bigly as an ocean? have you ever thought that you might prefer to be loved as the big risk that you actually are?

the people never said they'd rise up. the people never gave anyone any reason to think that they'd ever love anything and not turn on it. people will say what they say, but over and above what what they say stands who they are, and it's right there for you to see. and if you love people you've got to see it and love them anyway. love them just because every once in awhile, though you have no right to expect it, they'll make art or keep a promise or smile at you like an arrow through the heart.

sorry for all the rhetorical questions. i've had a few.

1 i've since made some sober editorial decisions. i haven't edited for grammar or anything like that, just minorly, for clarity. i've also removed a quoted song lyric, because quoting song lyrics is embarrassing, but i do urge you all to get neko case's new album and listen to it repeatedly. i particularly like 'vengeance is sleeping', 'i'm an animal', and 'middle cyclone' (the title track).

2 some of you probably know that i work as a research assistant to a radical feminist theorist, attempting to organize an archive of her personal papers (lectures, correspondence, etc.). we're still working on a first sift of the (seventy-odd boxes of) papers, so it involves a lot of one-page-at-a-time sifting and filing.

3 nancy ling perry, known also as fahizah.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

it's been a somewhat difficult and totally wonderful february. march!

i've just completed, after two weeks of toil, a prospectus for what will be my writing sample. i will no doubt tinker with it in the coming days:

Despite the foundational role that capacities play in so many analyses of moral responsibility, capacities are not, as far as I can tell, entities1 of which there is some common or uncontroversial understanding. Nearly any theory in which moral responsibility or membership in a moral community is predicated on some notion of freedom or agency will in turn explain freedom or agency in terms of capacities, either rational or sympathetic. The risk philosophers run when they don’t state plainly some preferred analysis of the term—and even, it turns out, when they do—is packing that which is at issue into an unanalyzed or amorphous conception of a capacity, rather than directly claiming or arguing for it.2 It is essential, I think, that those philosophers who invoke capacities and claim for them some power, explanatory or otherwise, should state their analysis plainly and in a way that gives us some reason to think that capacities are rightly thought to have the powers claimed for them.

In Ethics and the A Priori Michael Smith does provide an explicit analysis of capacities, which he offers in service of his own account of moral agency and responsibility. Here Smith, in his explicitness about capacities and their role in his larger project, models what I think is a useful and forthright approach to moral theory. And, further, I find his analysis of capacities itself to be both plausible and illuminating. Where I disagree with Smith is in thinking that capacities, as he ably explains them, are adequate to the task of supporting his larger views on agency and responsibility. Far from shoring up his larger view, his analysis of capacities gives us an excruciatingly clear view of why rational capacities will fail to provide an adequate justification of our attributions of moral responsibility. [In this paper I will present Smith’s view, offer a criticism of it, and then evaluate two potential rebuttals.]

A capacity, as Smith analyzes it, is an essentially metaphysical entity. While a rational capacity is underwritten by some actual psychological state constituted, perhaps, by some state of the brain, of the individual in possession of said capacity, the capacity itself is, over and above the actual state, a host of true counterfactual claims about that agent in relevantly similar circumstances. So when confronted with the question “could X have done otherwise?” we are to understand this as a question of whether or not X had the capacity to do otherwise, and this, in turn, depends on whether, in a certain number of relevantly similar possible worlds, it is true of X that she does otherwise. Smith has aggregated the would haves into a could have, which is yours (you could have), and which is therefore you. In the case of someone who has one drink too many, for example, we might ask, “would she have chosen to have that drink if a different friend had been there with her?”; “would she have chosen to have that drink if she had considered for a moment longer her commitments the next morning?” If the answer to enough of these sorts counterfactual questions is yes, then it can be truly said of the agent in question that she had the capacity to do otherwise—that her failure to do the right thing is, in these sorts of cases, best explained as a failure of her capacity to act rationally (which, for Smith, is synonymous with acting rightly). She had the capacity to act well, and she is therefore rightly thought answerable for her poor choice.

Claims about capacities are claims about possibility-- about what we could have done, what we can do. Anyone committed to a moral system in which responsibility depends on capacities, either directly or by way of agency, will therefore have to predicate their system on certain metaphysical commitments, some way of making sense of modal claims. Smith offers a possible worlds analysis of capacities, and possible worlds analyses provide, if I understand correctly, our clearest and best analyses of modal claims. It’s hard to see what we could mean by claims about capacities other than something along the lines of what Smith suggests. What this analysis reveals, I will argue, is that our assumptions about what capacities justify are, according to our best metaphysical theories, misinformed. More specifically, I will argue that Smith’s analysis of capacities makes clear that he, along with others who claim that the possession of rational capacities justifies attributions of moral responsibility, begs the question against his opponents. Far from demonstrating that capacities provide an adequate basis for attributions of moral responsibility, Smith's analysis lays bare their inadequacy to the task.

To see why this is so, we need only look to Smith’s analysis of dispositions. Though the disposition he analyzes is the property of a non-human animal (a chameleon), his analysis of a disposition is otherwise identical to his analysis of a capacity—both are analyzed in terms of hosts of true and relevant counterfactual claims. In his example case, we have a shy but powerfully intuitive chameleon who, though disposed to be green under normal viewing conditions, blushes red when he knows he is being watched—and always knows when he is being watched. He has, in other words, the disposition to be green when viewed though, when actually viewed, he is red without fail. His disposition to be green under normal viewing conditions is constituted in part by properties of his skin, and in part counterfactually—in all of the many nearby possible worlds in which the chameleon is a little less shy or a little less intuitive, he will be green when viewed. As in the case of capacities, dispositions are a kind of aggregate—the collection of relevant would haves—underwritten by the actual constitution of the one to whom it is attributed.

A disposition, when present, does not engender responsibility in the way that Smith takes a capacity to. If I have the capacity to resist the temptation to have another drink (if, in many relevantly similar circumstances I do resist it), then, Smith says, my failure to resist is best explained as a failure of my capacity to resist, and it is therefore right to hold me responsible. I have failed to do what I could have done. But imagine substituting the term “disposition” for “capacity”. Would anyone ever be inclined to attribute my having an ill-advised third drink to a failure of my general disposition to refrain? I think not. This seems, in fact, to get things exactly backwards: my general disposition to refrain is, for once, not the explanation for my behavior. We must look elsewhere.3 Smith himself, when speaking of dispositions (never in terms of human beings, but in terms of animals), describes these sorts of situations as cases of masked dispositions (i.e. cases in which the disposition is masked by some other disposition, which, I assume, is the better candidate if you’re looking to attribute my behavior to something).

What all of this amounts to is that dispositions and capacities, understood in this way, are both similarly constituted and metaphysically indistinguishable, and yet there is no indication that the attribution of a disposition engenders responsibility, while it is taken for granted that a capacity does. No argument is offered for why capacities engender responsibility while dispositions don’t, or even, for that matter, why some notion over and above dispositions is necessary for adequately explaining human behavior.4 The application of the term “capacity” to certain modal properties of human beings and “disposition” to the modal properties of other things seems merely to name the fact that we just do hold human beings (and not inanimate objects, weather patterns, plants or non-human animals) morally responsible. Smith thus assumes what is at issue.

Smith might reply that the difference between dispositions and capacities is that capacities are constituted in the actual world by brain states giving rise to psychological states, while dispositions are constituted by other sorts of bodily properties—of the skin, for example, or of muscles. Perhaps it is even some particular subset of psychological states that merit the modal status “capacity”. I haven’t fully thought this objection through yet, but I don’t see what (non-question begging) difference this distinction could make.

Smith might also reply that his explanation of capacities need not be justificatory. Indeed, he actually suggests this, on the grounds that not only our moral theory and practices, but all thought and discourse presuppose capacities. It is therefore deemed inappropriate to demand a justificatory explanation on the grounds that that which thought and discourse must presuppose is beyond the reach of valid skepticism. On this view, the job of the moral theorist is just to delineate the role that capacities necessarily play our moral systems and theories, and give the best possible descriptive account of them (which Smith certainly does). And yet Smith’s analysis is rife with justificatory aspirations, and, I will argue, rightly so. Neither thought nor discourse presuppose capacities (though many moral theories, I gladly concede, most certainly do). Our thought and discourse do certainly presuppose some modal truths and entities, but nothing that can’t be adequately explained in terms of dispositions. Again, Smith has provided no reason why we should think in terms of responsibility engendering capacities rather than the similarly constituted and metaphysically identical dispositions which, though they may license certain expectations, do not engender responsibility. We appeal to capacities (over and above dispositions) not because we need to, but because we want to.

Smith, finally, doesn’t succeed in providing an adequate “basis of an account of freedom and responsibility”. He doesn’t make sense of freedom and responsibility by making sense of capacities. The descriptive project—the project of sketching out an analysis of capacities—never gets adequate prescriptive traction. And while his descriptive project accomplishes quite a lot (as I hope to have time to spell out a little)5, capacities, so described, will not serve as an adequate basis for an account of moral responsibility. Which is not to say that nothing could, but only that capacities (or dispositions if you prefer) are not the right sorts of things.

1If capacities can even be said to be “entities”.

2I think that this happens in all sorts of philosophical exchanges, and the “it” therefore varies some from case to case, but I’m thinking most particularly about arguments over free will, practical rationality, and internalism versus externalism.

3In many cases, it will, admittedly, be hard to know just where we ought to look. This, I think, is part of what motivates our reliance on the notion of capacities—it sort of absorbs the impact of all the things we don’t and can’t know about what explains human behavior.

4I don’t think that there is any sound argument for why capacities, given their nature, engender responsibility while dispositions don’t. I don’t think that capacities can offer licit explanatory power over and above dispositions. I think, in fact, that we assign

5Smith’s analysis of capacities/dispositions helps us to see their importance in a number of ways, particularly around issues of personal identity. Who you are, on Smith’s view, is partly constituted by who you might be, who you could have been. There’s something right about this, and that Smith’s view captures it seems to me to be one of its great virtues. Further, a capacity, like a disposition, licenses the making of all sorts of interesting and important distinctions between objects (in this case people). Think again of the shy and intuitive green chameleon: employing Smith’s analysis, we carefully capture a real difference between it and the really red chameleon. Similarly, it seems plausible to think that there is a real distinction to be made among all of those people who have never gone skydiving between those who would go, given the chance, and those who wouldn’t. Smith’s careful analysis structures these distinctions—which are, I think, morally relevant, and generally crucial— setting truth conditions for them, etc. Overall, Smith’s analysis of capacities succeed in making sense of them in a way that allows for a vastly enriched (theoretical) view of the world—and agents in particular.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

waking up.

i dreamed that i blogged, and now i feel the need to really do it so that my feeling that i did can attach itself to something in the world-- can have an actual object. here is a prompt from my schoolmate anthony diclaudio and my given response:

anthony: ...the only logically consistent ending to Lost is ______.

laura: i have a theory (by which i mean a cruel hope) that it's an extended mindfuck experiment in how long people will spend trying to make sense of a bunch of random and ever increasing information. it'd be like a cross between the experiment where you show toddlers three pictures of shapes in different places on the page, and they (the toddlers) attribute intentions to them (the shapes) and tell a story about what the shapes "doing" to each other, and that other experiment where you see how many pennies you can drop in a cup full of water before the surface tension breaks and the cup runs over.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

on my current subject of choice:

'we’re in trouble — deeper trouble, i think, than most people realize even now.' p.krugman, in yesterday's new york times.

the following is from holland cotter's excellent ' the boom is over. long live the art!', featured in last week's new york times. it begins with a totally worthwhile analysis of american art in the american economy of the past fifty years.

"....Students who entered art school a few years ago will probably have to emerge with drastically altered expectations. They will have to consider themselves lucky to get career breaks now taken for granted: the out-of-the-gate solo show, the early sales, the possibility of being able to live on the their art.

"It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

"At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again...

"Will contemporary art continue to be, as it is now, a fancyish Fortunoff’s, a party supply shop for the Love Boat crew? Or will artists — and teachers, and critics — jump ship, swim for land that is still hard to locate on existing maps and make it their home and workplace?

"I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with. I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable — impossible to buy or sell — is the primary enterprise. Crazy! says anyone with an ounce of business sense.

"Right. Exactly. Crazy"

sometimes i wish that philosophers were more like artists-- sometimes and partially supporting themselves and educating others through work in the academy, but with the larger and more vibrant world of philosophy happening out in the cities and in the minds of anonymous farm kids on their way to cities, as compelled as any young painters to keep "imagining the unknown and unknowable".

[and also, this.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

there are more than a million. there are more even than an infinity.

it sounds simple, i know. but it’s not. listen, there are a million worlds you could make for yourself. everyone you know has a completely different one - the woman in 5G, that cab driver over there, you. sure, there are overlaps, but only in the details. some people make their worlds around what they think reality is like. they convince themselves that they had nothing to do with their worlds’ creations and continuations. some make their worlds without knowing it. their universes are just sesame seeds and three-day weekends and dial tones and skinned knees and physics and driftwood and emerald earrings and books dropped in bathtubs and holes in guitars and plastic and empathy and hardwood and heavy water and high black stockings and the history of the vikings and brass and obsolescence and burnt hair and collapsed souffl├ęs and the impossibility of not falling in love in an art museum with the person standing next to you looking at the same painting and all the other things that just happen and are. but you want to make for yourself a world that is deliberately and meticulously personalized. a theater for your life, if I could put it like that. don’t live an accident. don’t call a knife a knife. live a life that has never been lived before, in which everything you experience is yours and only yours. make accidents on purpose. call a knife a name by which only you will recognize it. now i’m not a very smart man, but i’m not a dumb one, either. so listen: if you can manage what i’ve told you, as i was never able to, you will give your life meaning.

jonathan safran foer
a convergence of birds

(i'm reading about possible worlds again, and i'm always reading about agency of course, so i like to read this. but then it made me uncomfortable, too: i'm more and more skeptical all the time of what people call personal truths. i suspect that anything not common and available to us all might be something really good, but it isn't the truth.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

butterfly magic!

my little tucson visit has been so nice. it began raining at almost the exact moment that my plane touched down, and the sun hasn't showed its face since, which is just fine with me. i know it's some kind of travesty, but i like winter and was feeling unprepared to abandon my winter layers, which has turned out to be unnecessary. i'd like to write little portraits of my friends here, but i need to do a little metaphysics reading before my host is up. maybe tomorrow. in the meantime, i'll say this: j.s. knows just the kinds of adventure that i like, and also the kinds of adventures of which i will be skeptical/petrified of but then love so much. here are some little videos from the butterfly magic exhibit at the tucson botanical gardens:

video video video

video video video video; video

[NOTE: i am not under the influence of any drugs in these videos, but dumb with wonderment! jerk.]

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


"OUR financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff’s pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today’s financial markets is immense. Obviously the greater the market pressure to excel in the short term, the greater the need for pressure from outside the market to consider the longer term. But that’s the problem: there is no longer any serious pressure from outside the market. The tyranny of the short term has extended itself with frightening ease into the entities that were meant to, one way or another, discipline Wall Street, and force it to consider its enlightened self-interest."

the end of the financial world as we know it
michael lewis & david einhorn

why does it have to be forced? this is just exactly what's been so hard for me to understand about nearly every aspect of this economic wreck, and every corrupt corporate meltdown that led up to it, and all the ones that just keep coming: where is enlightened self-interest? how the fuck (b.madoff is just one clear example) did all of these people think things would end? were they hoping that they'd just die before anyone noticed that there was no substance to their claims?

it's not that i trusted corporations and financial advisers to be virtuous-- to the contrary, i "trusted" them (wryly, implicitly) to look out for their own interests with a machiavellian precision. i thought they were self-interest experts, and they've turned out to be a bunch of fucking amatuers-- their "self-interest" so stupidly managed that they couldn't so much as sustain themselves-- their decisions based, apparently, on a conception of self-interest so simultaneously hollow and overblown that to call it sophomoric is to give it too much credit. (bah-dum, ching.)

all i can conclude about this bewildering mess, finally, is what i generally conclude on nearly every topic: pretense is so tempting, but it will fuck you in the end.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

something, continued.

it's sometimes something more sinister (sinister?) than superstition or even solipsism that leads us to attribute ill-will and bad intentions to other people or the universe at large: we posit external enemies as a way of avoiding the seemingly unface-able truth that the problem is in us-- that the enemy is inside. and it must take elaborate psychological mechanisms to prop up this belief in external enemies, because isn't it obvious that we ourselves are the only common factor in all of our experiences and changing circumstances?

i don't mean to sound like some kind of republican or motivational speaker or anything like that. who we are is itself a part of the world, and a product of it, and our demons are so often an unfair fact of bodies and circumstances into which were brought without consent. and it's a nightmare-- a reoccurring human nightmare, told and retold in all our scariest stories: the alien is on our own ship; the parasite is in your own guts; they're not the ghosts-- we are. it's a powerful fear we carry. it's a powerful shame. and maybe it takes a kind of power to confront it that's greater than what we can reasonably expect of another person. that might be so.

and sometimes it really does work the other way around-- in the case of oppression, say-- and then, of course, the members of the oppressed group are made to feel (to deeply feel) that the problem is in them, written into their genetic code, when in fact they really are systematically confronting other people's bullshit. and they wonder 'am i crazy?'