This is probably the best expansion of the idea “What is, is.” I have ever read. While that sentence has the appearance of a tautology, only an idiot would mistake it for one. (There are a lot of people who pretend to be idiots to force linguistically narrow agendas — I am being aggressive up front to avert any disingenuous conversations about the polysemic nature of language.) The word “is” is obviously being used in two different senses — and some philosophy is probably necessary to understand that there is a question at all, or what question is being answered. Walter Benjamin approaches the idea by proposing expanding a metaphorical use of the word “life” to be the principal definition of the word. He is not mistaking a definition, he is proposing a shift of a definition — and it is not a new one, it is one you are already used to, you just are not used to it as a primary definition.
Here we go:
The idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely un-metaphorical objectivity. Even in times of narrowly prejudiced thought there was an inkling that life was not limited to organic corporeality. But it cannot be a matter of extending its dominion under the feeble scepter of the soul, as Fechner tired to do, or, conversely, of basing its definition on the even less conclusive factors of animality, such as sensation, which characterize life only occasionally. The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life. In the final analysis, the range of life must be determined by history rather than by nature, least of all by such tenuous factors as sensation and soul. The philosopher’s task consists in comprehending all of natural life though the more encompassing life of history.
(from: The Task of the Translator)
Since we are having this conversation after the New Age movement I need to add that he is not talking about everything being conscious. This is not spiritualism — he is talking about taking the word life — as it is used in the metaphor “it developed a life of it’s own” — and making that sense of the word the primary definition, instead of basing the word on the subjective experience of being an animal, or even the objective definitions of biology.
I was sick for almost two weeks, and I have discovered a funny thing — I have only a cursory relationship with the person who actually got sick. I’m living in his room — I have inherited a series of problems (he was in the process of getting his drivers license and such), I have some phone numbers — and various biographical facts about the people who will answer the phone if I call — and a job. All in all it fits together — I’m a role playing character on a reasonable adventure for my type and skill. What I don’t have is any firm sense of identity with this person. I know what he was doing — so it is no real trick for me to pick up where he left off — but I’m not at all sure who he was — and I don’t think that I agree at all with what he thought was important.
Of course it doesn’t matter – because since I am occupying the place where he was — he is obviously dead — there is no other place for him to be.
Since he is dead — I find myself in an interesting ethical conundrum — what do I owe his memory? I have inherited some thousands of pages of notes — do I owe it to him to read those notes and try and figure out what he was doing? Or should I just toss them and start from scratch? Should I keep the books that he thought were interesting on my shelves? Or should I displace them as I discover my own taste? I don’t particularly like how he dressed — but all his clothes fit me — and he doesn’t really have very much money. In fact — he doesn’t appear to have much of anything, which makes me wonder — do I owe him anything at all?
If I just allowed his passing to go unremarked, and quietly slipped into his place (as I evidently have done physically) would anyone notice?
I’ve had a miserable flu for a week and I have some wonderful things about fever dreams to share, but sitting down at my desk is making me dizzy and ill, so I think I am just going to go back to bed. Sorry.
I did want to share a recent discovery (sans comment) in light of my complaint about online writing. I found a fun blog — it is neither the New Yorker nor the Paris Review — but it is awfully good and is almost what I was looking for.
And I also want to share a lovely musical discovery.
But only for people who are curious enough to follow links.
I’ll be back when my brain heals a bit.
And in saying this I am not advocating a return to medievalist metaphysics, or leaving a door open so that I can whip out my own bizarre theories and try to convert you
But it needs to be said: Things are not so straightforward as all of the rationalists are walking around pretending.
Things look very clear cut in the text books — but that is not science, that is dogma — and dogma always has the fat trimmed off. If you have ever actually engaged in scientific experimentation then what I am saying now will be immediately obvious to you — there is no such thing as a clean experiment.
It almost never works out in practice like it does in the first year physics book — with all the sig figs being where they are supposed to be, and the law being obvious and apparent. Where it does — like in the Millikan Oil Drop experiment (which is an astoundingly beautiful experiment) the environment has been highly contrived to produce the desired results. That doesn’t at all mean that the result is invalid — but it does mean that narrative has a central place in the process.
Life as it comes to us is messy — and anyone who tells you that science does not posses narrative is lying. As soon as you construct an experiment — and I don’t mean quantum interaction with consciousness or any foofy shit like that — just a simple pendulum experiment, you are no longer observing — you are creating a situation which does not exist by itself in nature. You are imposing a narrative — and the order of your results partially reflects order in nature, and partially the order of the experiment.
Science education does us a great dis-service when it presents the ideas of inertia and force and acceleration as if they are self evident and clear. People argued about those concepts for almost 2000 years before getting a satisfactory formal representation. When you go and memorize that, and then hold yourself up like you thought of it yourself you are just being a buffoon. And it is assuredly not the case that one can tell from the outset, from a priori reasoning how much narrative, and what the narrative should be that will make sense of the columns of numbers. Or even which columns you should use.
Study your science history — it doesn’t matter what field you are looking into — there are 25 blind alleys to every well traveled thoroughfare that is used today, and a lot of what we use today is going to end up getting tossed out.
George Santayana says that we are born “in play” — life is already going when we get here — and it is important to remember that we will simply never get back to the beginning to see how it all came together. What we have is a whole mess of instincts, feelings, ideas, and words — and we are surrounded by complex and constantly changing phenomena that have deep symmetrical patterns — some of which appear to be more objective and some of which appear to be more subjective.
We take for granted that the life of a plant can be reduced to it’s chemistry — and I for one believe that there are good reasons to think this is the case. But it is important to acknowledge that you yourself have never actually seen that this is the case. You have never taken a plant apart on the molecular level, and put it back together, and observed the transition from a non-living set of chemical equations to a biological organism. You can take reductionism on faith, or you can accept it by way of an inductive argument, but you don’t get it through deduction, and you don’t get it through empiricism. You are accepting it based on the preponderance of the evidence, and a couple of value judgments besides. You are accepting a whole collection of abstractions, which you have likewise constructed partly from data, and partly from narrative. It all pulls together and makes a pretty coherent picture — which happens to leave out most of reality, and is filled with errors.
If you forget this, especially when you are arguing for a reason based life, then you fall into the same trap as every other faith on the planet — of assuming greater support for your own position than is actually warranted. The only reason to do that is to buoy up your ego. Put it aside man — you aren’t that important — the plant is important. AND YOU DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT THE PLANT IS.
And that is OK — lets look together…
The web is not a prose medium. I am pretty confident of this, as a generator of prose content. I’ve been putting text pages on the web for about 6 months — and people will come to the site for a variety of reasons — mostly because they know me from some other place — which is a social draw. But they don’t come to my site for the prose, which feels increasingly awkward, because I created the site for my prose — not for me.
In that six months time — I’ve put 76 posts up. The ones that have gotten the most attention have been the ones that have pictures, that have links to sites with video, and one that was a comic list (which counts for me as “specialty” as opposed to text or prose.) One exception to this was a report on a peculiar and popular web phenomenon, with links to long comment lists about that phenomenon — again I’m going to call that special interest. This is matched by what I see in terms of successful blogs — which are mostly news and technology — which is not really what I mean by writing — it is news, but not news that stays news. (In Pound’s famous formulation.)
None of my prose pages have gotten any significant number of hits whatsoever – please don’t use this as an excuse to spam me with social media bullshit — I know how to generate invalid traffic — if I just wanted traffic that’s what I would do. And I’m familiar with the arguments about legitimate and illegitimate manipulation of social media. What I’m looking for is readers. As a Stumble Upon reviewer I can generate 100 hits for my pages pretty quickly by selecting the correct categories to write for — but that has resulted in almost no comments or additional thumbs up, so as far as I can tell people are just blowing by — and judging from the number of people who access the links on the pages I have that have links, I think that is a pretty good bet.
Now my blog as a whole has gotten about 16 thumbs-up (a way of passing a page along on StumbleUpon)– most of these are people who I have communicated with and who read my other blog on the social media site itself. So again — those are my friends, I love them, but they are coming here, for the most part, because of a personal connection to me — not for the prose. It is fair to assume this, because I have gotten almost no attention from the other social media sites where I do not have a social presence.
What if I just suck? I’m going to take a guess that isn’t the problem, because I don’t, and also because there are a couple of sites I have come across that have gotten a lot of attention that were just unoriginal pictures or video which surely suck as much, as pictures or video, as I suck, if I suck, at prose — I am going to accept out of the box that, as prose, my prose is as good as any number of sites on StumbleUpon which have 10 or more “thumbs up” but which are hosting photography or video — I’m sure that as I generate more attention in the bricks and mortar world with my writing, that I am going to draw more individuals to the site. My thought is that what your “typical” web surfer is looking for is a picture or video snippet.
And while I know that I could learn to generate content that was perfect for this medium — I’m not at all interested in doing that. I’m a writer and I am interested in writing. The web, as a medium, is nothing more to me than a really neat typewriter that hotlinks to a big freaky encyclopedia. I think, at least for now, that I am not interested in learning any more about it than that — ie: I don’t really want to do video, or learn how to type-set my poems on pictures of kittens, or create databases, or web aps or games or all the other — admittedly really cool but just not my type of stuff. Kind of like I’m not interested in haunting 15 other social media sites — I like StumbleUpon for what it is. I think most of the other social media sites suck.
So my guess is, for now, that people do not come to the web to find original prose to read. One thought about that is that prose and poetry are slow digesting phenomena. One of my favorite writers out right now is Roberto Calasso — he is brilliant, a great writer. He runs a publishing house, he is deeply connected in the publishing world. All of his books at the UW are currently sitting on the shelves. He is not “generating hits” — there is no question that he is an important writer. I have no doubt that in 100 years his books (the specific physical books sitting on the shelves) will each have been read many times. But when I search for him on the web there is not that much there. A few reviews, a few articles. Even in the scholarly journals there is just a handful of articles. He has been publishing in English since 1993 (I actually remember purchasing his first book in Hardback.)
My question is — is the web, as a medium, simply inappropriate for what Calasso is doing (and what I am interested in doing.) Is the web not a writer’s medium? The web has only existed since 1991 — but despite all of the public money that has gone into filling up archives with e-books — how much of book culture has really migrated here? And how much ever will?
I am really attempting to open a conversation — this is just an initial speculation based on an admittedly tremendously narrow data set — mostly based on myself as a reader (I read avidly and I read almost no new prose on the web — unless it is something written by a friend of mine, or a passing fancy, or something that I couldn’t find in the library.) Maybe there is a burgeoning tribe of web-based readers out there that I have just never encountered — if so, dear reader, point me to them in your comments…
I was contemplating a atheist enabling site (a site where lots of arguments for atheism are made) and it struck me how that, despite the fact that all of the arguments were clear to me (even though my position is somewhat more complex than strict atheism) — that if I were to have chosen to be a believer, that the same arguments would not be persuasive at all. Here is the site.
This is a great list for anyone interested in establishing the claim of fact that the Bible is false, according to specific and modern claims of “truth” — which are a limited sub-set of the class of definitions of the operational idea of “truth.” What it does even better than that is show that the claim of fact is not actually the point where religion is concerned. A person has to make a separate decision that they are interested in considering claims of fact before arguments based on them will be convincing. Most people (even in the modern world) have not made this step.
An even better site, because it is clearer — the whole argument focuses on the irrationality of prayer:
In an honest argument — these guys have it. Period.
However – like the first case, the point can be made that they miss the point of religious belief — which is that it is irrational. That is why we have a name for it: religious belief. We don’t call it “metaphysical position” — which opens up a different set of arguments and we certainly don’t call it “religious claim of fact.” The slip in that definition opens the door for the logical fallacy called “special pleading” — when it is handled in a formal argument. But special pleading can be valid if the terms under which the “specialness” of the case are all considered.
If I say that I reject the power of rational argument, as one of my terms of debate — then it is no longer special pleading. But then we also have no standard to determine a satisfactory conclusion to the argument. But that is JUST FINE with most of the religious folks — it is the “moderns” who want to impose standards for rational argumentation — those standards are NOT as old as the species and people DON’T have to accept them at the outset of an argument. But like most human beings, both the atheists and the apologists are eager to have it both ways. Because we do not have a satisfactory model of human cognition, religious people can always claim that they have their insight due to grace, and rationalists can claim that they accept their position by strict a posteriori reasoning — and the truth is that neither of those claims can be demonstrated to be true — and in fact there is a lot of evidence that neither of those claims are specifically true.
Most of your staunchest rationalists beliefs are not only irrational, they are incorrect. They are approximations made by their senses and cognitive apparatuses to steer them through a world that it is impossible to reason strictly about. Reasoning always involves abstractions — there is no way around that brutal and unforgiving stumbling block.
Of course — a lot of people who are believers also miss that point, and try to make rational arguments, or to claim that there are rational truth claims that can be made about religion — and those people are demonstrably wrong. Many of them are simply untrained in analysis, or unwilling to apply analysis to what they claim to be the most important things in their life. This is also not such a terrible or uncommon thing — how many married people do you know who sit around analyzing weather or not their spouses really love them? If you were to do that too much, you wouldn’t stay married long.
Bottom line is that no monkey has a right to be smug. And any monkey has the right to pretend like he is a super-monkey — and all the other monkeys have the right to laugh at him. (And even if they don’t have that right — they probably will do it anyway, just try and stop them.) Monkeys are like that.
Shut up. I keep forgetting. Life reminds me every day, and I keep forgetting it still, and letting myself be put out by some little imbalance or awkwardness or mood. In terms of flashes of insight, that is really the major one — that is the one that I just don’t want to lose site of — because it is so important not to forget — and I take it for granted so much of the time. Listen to this oatmeal which passes for my speech. This ridiculous assertive grunting. And I know that there is just no way to be adequately grateful for the things I have, and I forgive myself to some degree for being unable to be conscious of all the little things that go right. And a reasonable compromise (it seems) would be to just not complain — to never be put upon by anything.
But I still do — no matter how many times I come back to that insight, I still forget it again and I find myself whining about some fucking thing. It is a joke to even suggest something like “I would like to live my life as a response to possessing this astounding possibility of being alive.” I am tempted to say something like that — and during times when words mean very little to me — when I am making sounds without much meaning — when I am making sounds– that is a sound I find myself making. But even to be conscious of being 10 trillion cells, living in harmony with my 90 trillion immediate neighbors (or enough harmony that my face isn’t dissolving, my digestion is basically working — my skin, mouth and throat are coated with my normal flora). But even to say that is affected — as if I was capturing some degree of the wonder with such words — normal flora — biology– to be aware of the sound in my ears, of the sounds my mouth makes when I speak. To be aware of how the colors move in my eyes when I stand up or sit down.
To be conscious — what a ridiculously vain idea — and to superimpose on that the even more absurdly impossible concept of being grateful. Let’s put aside the asinine conceits of religion for a moment here. Just simple monkey gratitude, OK? I mean — to be grateful as a dumb monkey (like I am) who knows not whither I came nor where I am going. Sure — we smile at one another and say “Thank you.” Or “I am grateful for the opportunity to…” whatever. But that is a convention — one more thing that we inherit as a result of being this kind of monkey, of being in this monkey society. We say it like we are in control of our own existence — and I don’t mean that like a “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” kind of control — just the idea that I am not, right now, flying into pieces. That I am somehow responsible for the coherence of my own chemistry, the idea that I can take responsibility for the fact that all my electrons wind appropriately around their cloudy pathless paths. The absurdity of this word “I” – as if I had anything to do with it at all.
So please — no — do not offend the empty space which you occupy by saying “I” anything — especially not “I am grateful” — with it’s presumption of knowledge of what you have to be grateful for — not while taking for granted that such space is yours. That somehow you occupy it by right, as the result of some decision. Don’t say that. Just because it wouldn’t be true. Do I want to add lying on top of all the rest of it? So just restraint — just this — such a simple human thing, something completely reasonable and within my capacity — when in addition to having forgotten everything else I am so lacking in self awareness as to think that there is something wrong, to think that there is something that I need someone to give me or to do for me, just to remember to shut my mouth, to shut my mouth, to still my thought, and in the place where my pathetic presumptuous and childish demand would be to instead notice that generous graceful and genuine moment of silence.
The Healing Place of the Soul
Erach, Nippur, Tello, Ur, Ebla – four to five thousand years ago – the
oldest known Libraries on earth.
The House of Writings, from 2600 BC, and The Healing Place of the Soul –
in Thebes, Egypt. A hiding place from the world for kings and priests.
Sidon and Tyre, in Phoenicia, were open to the public.
Hattusas from 1700 BC, with Hittite retellings of Babylonian and
Sumerian stories. Created by person or persons unknown.
Abu Simbel Temple — saved from lake Nassar (sort of.) You’ve seen it on
Plato (a wealthy man) purchased a collection of books from Philolaus of
Tarentum, and another collection from Syracuse.
Aristotle’s library in Athens, the complete repository, by popular
opinion, of what was known in Greece.
Hadrian’s Library included lecture halls.
The Alexandria Library (Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Euclid and Ptolemy all
worked there. Intentionally burned.)
Trajan’s Ulpian Library. That Trajan.
The Herculaneum, destroyed by Vesuvius.
The Celsus Library at Ephesus
Ashur and Ninevah in Assyria
Hoepi and Loyang (this second where Lao Tzu, according to rumor,
was the royal librarian.)
Taxilia stood for one thousand years in India.
The Vatican Library, and archive. Mostly available now on microfilm.
The Mani Library. Intentionally burned. One hundred thousand Mayan texts.
La Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.
The Bodleian Library, Oxford. 50,000 square meters of floor space.
The New York Public Library – some forty-two million items including
about twenty million books.
The Internet – the largest single repository of knowledge in human
history and not likely to get any smaller any time soon. If there is a
disaster sufficiently large to destroy it, reading will be the last of
Alone in the campus library after hours
here are all the things I love about people
and a locked door keeping the annoying monkeys out.
Finals are over and
the tourists have gone home for the holidays. I am a pool cleaner
at a summer resort off season
sitting in a chaise lounge with my Coke.
Actually I am alone in the belly of this silent monument
with a printing press
making books for next seasons troops. The press is
chugging and chattering away
so I walk through the forest of architecture
and ordered shelves filled
with the work of my forebearers.
When I was eleven I would ride my bike to
a six story building like this one, and get lost
(a child on a college campus is invisible.)
I would troll through the canyons and collect
twenty-five or thirty volumes at random
nesting in an abandoned corner or cubicle.
Some would follow me home and get lost in my closet
(I paid $400 in overdue fees
one year alone.)
I went to the library for the solitude
and hoped I could bring it home with me.
It never worked.
The noisy chatter would start
and the books would be forgotten
until a notice would come. My mother
would pile us (the books and I)
into the car and we would feed them to the
big square brown return box
like a thousand broken promises.
I am so much happier in the library
when it is empty of bodies.
Our building is greater than we are –
this is what leads to the myths of the
decadadance of civilization.
Take Chartes as a monument of human suffering –
a great monument of political pride
built on the backs of peasant families.
Christ would blush to the roots of his thick black hair
if he knew that he was worshiped there.
Abu Griab (built in the cradle of civilization)
knows nothing of the misery of the children
who went without soup and shoes for the loyal tithe
the families that starved when their breadwinners
fell from the scaffolding.
Chartes is a horror and a monstrosity.
But there is something great in that we are willing
to kill and die for something beautiful to look at.
There is a heroism there which in unachievable
in the pursuit of any practical end,
you can feel it when you stand within it.
I lay on my back (the faint sounds of the distant press
fill the air with barely audible muted echoes) on the mezzanine
not so much flying as swelling to occupy the space
my eyes closed, I become large and porous
but wholly engaged.
I feel the contents of the library within me
and its boundaries pressing like old fabric against my skin.
I wear the library like a costume.
I breathe text.
The lines in the books run away in every direction
a billion interlocking corridors
in a tesseract, each picture is an Alice mirror
and cohesion floats within it
like a Cheshire smile.
The hypnotic rhythm of the distant press halts.
I stretch and go back down
to put more paper in.
Assuming that you are a soulless shill, and that you don’t really have any reason to exist or anything to offer from the core of your being (because you are a duplicate, an extra) then you can always make it by finding a preexisting genera with well defined expectations, and produce within those expectations. You might even become the personal secretary or caddy for someone who has been successful (in the literature about how to become a successful shill this is called getting a mentor.) Because it is all about the metric — it is all about the public sign of success. It might be (this year) the number of pumpkins you have on your doorstep for Easter. You yourself might never have thought of putting pumpkins on your doorstep for Easter, but if that is what is “going” this year — and someone else has figured that out — you notice this by seeing that the beautiful people are at their house on the weekends, they have an expensive gardener, a lot of blog traffic. Well then, whether you understand it or not — better put those pumpkins out.
And that is why there are so many people watching what other people do. And there are magazines and TV shows that are dedicated to watching what other people do. And there are books that tell you how to interpret the magazines, and magazines that tell you how to interpret the books. And there are stores that sell the clothes that the people on the TV shows are wearing as they explain how to interpret the magazines that tell you what the other people are doing.
All of this makes people very tense. I’m not kidding — try going to some of the places where successful people go, and watch them watching each other. Those are some tense motherfucking people — because so much is riding on everything they do. They are looking at each others shoes and shirts and dresses and stockings. They have to keep everything cleaned and pressed and matched — that takes a lot of time. And it has to look like they aren’t trying — so even though they are all watching the same shows, and spending the same amount of money (which is most of their discretionary income — after you subtract out the payment on the student loan for going to the right college, and the rent or mortgage payment to live in the right neighborhood.) — even though they are all playing the same game, so they all know how much it costs, they all still lie to each other and try as much as they can to pretend like it all just happened naturally. And since they are all telling the same lie — no one wants to get caught, so no one important is going to blow anybody else’s game, because once fingers start pointing everyone comes out smelling like ass.
But as hard as that all sounds — at least there are some definitions. If you want to be yourself you have to worry about choosing your first principles. And then you have to worry about how you build up your actions out of them. Maybe no-one has feedback for you, so you just have to keep talking and hope that someday someone will hear you. You have to throw away all the easy answers — like too good to be true credit offers. You have to sound words out, you have to cut the trail yourself, you have to climb bare rock — you have to be willing not to cheat — you have to settle for what accrues by justice to you for being who you are. Do you have faith in who you are?
Don’t bother reading this if you aren’t going to carefully look at the pictures at the far side of the link, and read the two articles there. It is an amazing story about how people perceive things and project their own weakness and failure onto limited understanding of other peoples strengths. I promise you that if you look at all the pictures, and read the stories that I’ve linked to you’ll see something surprising – and after that feel free to consider my own response to it:
The first thing that I have to say is that I really like these men. I don’t know them, but I recognize them in a way from the pictures — I recognized them when I first saw the picture of one of the lead showmen parading a hyena down a public street in Nigeria. I feel, when I see the candid pictures of them with their animals, that they understand the animals in a way that most people do not. I feel that they are closer to their animals, for instance, than zoo keepers. We are very civilized in the west — we handle our animals through bars. I imagine that when you handle them without the luxury of bars and tazers and guns that you have to learn how to handle them very differently. It’s just a guess, but I think that anyone who handled hyenas without respect would be dead very quickly — and since they are traveling performers, and have learned the trade from their family, I suspect they have grown up with the animals and probably treat them a damn site better than you treat your dog.
Besides the respect for the animals, I suspect these men are not stupid. They are not living an easy life — they have to do a lot of navigation. They have to pay attention to the animals, and to the people the perform for. They have to know the rules and the stigmas, they have to find places to stay, they have to find food. I suspect that they show more intelligence in a day than your average office dweller shows in a month.
Another thing I can see directly in the pictures besides the respect they have for the animals, is their humor. They have the humor of the showman — there is a freedom to being an itinerant performer — it is the same in every culture — gypsies, troubadour or carny — there is a humor to finding a way out of the grind — back to a responsive (if substantially harder) life. They fool people for a living, make the animals look more out of control than they are. Like a juggler who wobbles a little to make a trick which has grown easy look hard. They are engaging human fascination — and bringing surprise and delight to people ground down from the facticity of life.
I could be kidding myself — but then so could we all about anything — I think I would feel profoundly comfortable with these men — much more so than with the metaphorical hyenas and ringmasters of the office world.