A charming Facebook exchange about Authenticity, if you “care”

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The following is an exchange I had with a friend on Facebook about a status that I posted. It’s tangential and spotty but it touches on an interest of mine to think in and/or from the interstice of a specific issue. This time the issue is authenticity, as opposed to last time when the issue was time (https://jimkanaris.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/a-charming-twitter-exchange-on-time-if-you-have-the-time/)

The status in question: One of the most difficult things to be in life is yourself. For how can one “be” what one’s always en route toward? And yet …

The conversation that ensued:

Janet: Very true. What we can do is be the authentic self we know ourselves to be at this moment.

JK: I’m afraid my authentic self is always in a state of becoming.

Janet: Yes, it’s supposed to be!

JK: Right, but that’s the conundrum: I’m thinking that authenticity, because always already inadequate and in a state of becoming, isn’t something known as such. It (is) a quality of heuristic yearning, an irreducible je ne sais quoi, “knowledge” of which is impossible but necessary and therefore always deconstuctible, always on the way. It is in the interstice of decision to be X and not Y without the comfort of certitude. God help us!

Janet: Inadequate?

JK: Yes, inadequate in the sense of lacking the quality of plenitude. The essence of authenticity is inadequate to authenticity itself. This is what allows us to be self-critical with respect to our given paradigms of authenticity.

Janet: Certitude is not possible.

JK: “Certitude is not possible” and yet we are made nervous by statements that we can’t know what it is to be an authentic self.

Janet: Because we wish for certitude. It is hard to be aware of living with paradox.

JK: Indeed, and yet “authenticity” depends on it (i.e., on the paradox and living with it).

Janet: Hmmm.

JK: Mind you, I’m simply pointing out a dimension for thinking authenticity, not living it. In the every day, we must act practically in connection with the hopefully tried and true paradigms of being authentic. The interstice is for thinking, a strategy for development and creativity. Life is for being–hopefully as informed by thinking.

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A knee-jerk response to a post on science as spirituality

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A colleague posted an otherwise interesting piece on Facebook about science as spirituality (despite the misleading conjunction “and” in the title). The author of the article makes claims like the following, which should be seen in the light of his overall reductionist argument–so here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/09/10/347422469/science-and-spirituality-could-it-be

“[W]e must, first and foremost, eliminate the connection between spirituality and spirit, in particular, of spirit as a supernatural manifestation. The starting point of my argument is that only matter exists. There is only the natural. In its awesome complexity, from electrons to proteins to butterflies to stars, natural forms express the wealth of interactions between the basic material constituents and the forces that bind and repel them.”

“So, we must rid spirituality from its supernatural prison, make it secular. Spirituality is a connection with something bigger than we are, seducing our imagination, creating an urge to know, to embrace the mystery that surrounds us and the mystery that we are.”

Having taught an undergraduate course on Religion and the Sciences for years, I cannot help but be bothered by such suggestions. The problem with so much of this trend is the inability or lack of know-how to accommodate different languages, their different impulses, manner, objectives, expressions, and foci. It relays a bewilderment framed by one particular language reducing the richness of experience to that language. It’s no wonder you get the cacophony of opinions expressed at the end of the article. No one, except the homeless reductionist, really buys it since the wonder expressed by science is not on a par with that expressed in poetry, religion, philosophy, etc. This is not to say, however, that these languages can’t complement one another. It is to say that we still have loads of work to do! I feel as if I must side with philosopher Richard Rorty on this one, against my better judgment.

I’m a terrible writer

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“OF ALL that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit.” (Nietzsche)

I’m a terrible writer. Every time I ponder why I suffer migraines. It’s a wonder I settled on a livelihood so dependent on writing! Why would anyone do that to oneself? How excruciating it is to be driven to say something while simultaneously suffering the anguish of trying to say it! It’s the incompleteness of it all, necessary and normal, which irks us in the process and in the face of the finished product. Experience is a stream and so are the words by which we desire to capture it. Writers who care feel this deeply, more deeply than they care to, in fact.

I often resign myself, as all writers must, to cut the umbilical chord when the frustration peaks and I enter the Sahara of insight and identification, of my words with my feelings and understanding. A battle ensues. My understanding is too quick for my words but my words, despite all their limitation, must prove themselves stronger. As in the UFC, my words must strategically arrest what I’m forced to describe as the opponent of my understanding. That is what must take place if I am to win the match my employer calls productivity and I self-development.

What’s even more paradoxical is that my understanding is given form by my words, a harrowing thought since words are temporally specific. We settle (in every sense of the term) on a phrase that later seems paltry and insufficient. The phrase becomes disjointed from what we think we remember about the jig in question. There’s much truth to the idea that our understanding is our words. However, I like to guard my experience of the multicolor whirlwind of my understanding, not as superior to words but as somehow richer, fuller, if tongue-tied. Perhaps this glorious inadequacy is what fills my heart with terror? Words enframe and give form. They are temporally specific as our experiences but words don’t reproduce what they simultaneously form: our experience, understanding, judgments, and decisions. It is a mystery, not in the sense that there is a deficit of linguistic theories to explain the occurrence. No, it is a mystery in the sense that the element of incompleteness and elusiveness is inherent in the act of writing. Theory can’t—is not meant to—remove these dimensions of writing while nonetheless forming the writing. We’re in yet another interstice!

And yet, and yet I say: we often dupe ourselves into believing our experience is superior to words. Experience, our understanding, is no more in the know than the words we use to express it. This is a grace, my reader friend! And it’s one I believe we experience when revisiting what we write. How often does it happen that what seemed (and was) incomplete has taken on a different and yet strangely similar sensibility. If it’s “better” it’s because we’ve allowed the writing to assume its autonomy. It now dictates to us (authors included!) “the” meaning framed by the words. Time, coupled with a little forgetfulness, prods us to appreciate the writing’s temporal specificity, its definite limitations. It may not capture the color of my understanding, which I felt, at the time, my words marred, but in permitting it a different significance I can appreciate what I dreaded to originally release. The text takes on what mysteriously seems an “enhanced” meaning no longer determined by the limitations I felt and communicated in my original experience. It’s usually only after the experience that I value writing as worthwhile.

All writers doubtless experience this dread. The relativity of whether we are actually terrible at it is probably best left to readers. However, when I say that I am a terrible writer I’m really saying that I experience the terror of writing, deeply. I’m a terror to myself. This is my spin on the epigraph. Hopefully Nietzsche approves! In any case, what I am to others in my imagination while writing is a terror for another blog.

A knowledge that “loves”

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“I like mathematics because it is not human and has nothing particular to do with this planet or with the whole accidental universe—because, like Spinoza’s God, it won’t love us in return” (Bertrand Russell). In a nutshell: we love mathematics but mathematics doesn’t love us. Let’s try that again: the loveless world of mathematics is tantalizing. Unlike human or physical reality, it provides us with certitudes of a conceptual order. In a world rife with dubious claims about humans and the universe, which more often than not inspire wrong-headed enthusiasm, mathematics provides some respite on account of being self-contained and dispassionately attained. For that reason mathematics can be quite satisfying. However, even Lord Russell has admitted that the ambiguities of mathematics have threatened to unhinge his mind, unlike those surrounding the very human concern of God’s existence.

My interest here is not with a philosophy of mathematics or to make dubious claims about Russell’s worldview based on anecdotal statements. Russell wedded his positivistic epistemology and humanitarian ideals in ways that would shame many of us who happen to find his analytic philosophy antiquated. No, the issue is how this impersonal view of mathematics attaches to philosophy and thinking in general. It could be that I’m addressing my generation, which is still in the throes of early 20th century philosophy known as logical positivism. True, it doesn’t have the same “pull” it once did but I believe it resonates somehow. Despite all our so-called postmodernism, which has supposedly cut the umbilical chord of foundational assurances, this anchor of impersonal, objective, empirical (or what have you) knowledge, believed to be the true model of knowing, continues to hold sway. It makes up so much of our common sense that questioning it is tantamount to questioning our grandma’s delicious recipes. (I sure do hope your grandma’s a good cook!)

We are victims of an ‘epistemic’ pathology, a fancy word of Greek origin that basically means knowledge. It has become the inner lining of our individual horizons, helping us cope with “reality” as we encounter it from age to age, screw ups notwithstanding. For that reason, as a cultural phenomenon, these horizons can take centuries to unlearn. And because common sense isn’t always and necessarily common nonsense, this is both a blessing and a curse. However, the idea that for knowledge to be knowledge knowledge must be pure, that is, emptied of all human concern and fragility, is, frankly, bankrupt, a pipe dream facilitated by the very human concern to escape the world of change for one that is fixed and stable.

None of this is news, of course. The diagnosis has been around for as long as the condition has. I’m divided on the issue myself, as is fit, I suppose, since I, too, suffer from the condition. There’s no point in quibbling about the right side of this particular debate when both sides are parasitic steeped in a pathology that often needs to be reeled in. Never mind, I say, the metaphysics of the various branches of knowledge, i.e., whether they are human or not, whether one qualifies as knowledge based on degrees of certainty or scales of probability that mute the personal. Bertrand Russell was probably at his most authentic when mathematical ambiguities threatened to unhinge his mind—a personal investment if ever there was one. Were it not for these ambiguities, would we push ourselves as hard if not to resolve them, then to understand them? This tendency to discriminate sharply between the objects we want to know and our knowledge of them is strange, if understandable. Somehow it throws our sense of inadequacy into sharp relief when we depersonalize objects in or apart from the world. We feel as if we guard their integrity by doing so. Russell arguably does when he transposes the attributes of Spinoza’s God to mathematics. “[L]ike Spinoza’s God, it [mathematics] won’t love us in return.” But the transposition is already present in the desire to discriminate them, to depersonalize them. The German philosopher Hegel had a point! (Not surprisingly, Russell’s affections for Hegel were—let us just say—not very high.) Perhaps the objects we love to know or not know also “love” us? That is, in our knowledge of their independence or indifference objects “known” are ipso facto personalized, whether they or we like it or not. I’m not sure I like it but I can’t, nor do I want or feel a need to, escape it. Maybe I just need to learn to love it?

Life is simply complicated

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“Life is simple but we complicate it.” It backs up your feeds. You hear it said often. It may even be your desktop marquee. After all, the wise Confucius once said something similar. It must be true, always and without question!

Proverbs and aphorisms are a strange thing. We give our nod of approval to one and moments later contradict the sentiment via another. “Too many cooks spoil the broth”, “Two heads are better than one”; “Clarity is the sun in a dark night”, “Epiphany emerges from a melting pot of obscurity”. Ok, I made up the latter pair but you get my drift. Proverbs are common-sense insights meant to provoke thought, not to crystallize or fix it. They provide as a useful directive in one context but stifle when applied in another context.

That’s the problem with the “life is simple” saying. It often hardens into a dogma in the minds of many. To contradict it is symptomatic of its truth. “You only disagree because you like to complicate things!” No, I disagree because it’s also true to say that life is complicated, really. In fact, I’m willing to wager that the statement “life is simple” is a response to a complicated situation. It arises because life is uncontainable and multifarious in the face of which we sometimes need to affirm that life is simple. A psychologist might call it a coping strategy, a mantra to help us through something difficult, dare I say complicated.

I agree that we somenatural-weaved-leaf-fibers-headertimes complicate things unnecessarily. However, it boots nothing to argue simplistically about an otherwise true sentiment. The idea of simplicity is meaningful to me only when seen in the context of complexity, not vice versa. Enlightenment comes after the experience of suffering. Salvation comes after the experience of one’s shortcomings. Plenitude or the state of completeness—simplicity, if you will—is inclusive. It interlaces all the elements of which it is composed as well as those which it is thought to exclude. Complexity is like that, without the evaluative trappings in my soteriological examples. You can’t have simplicity without it. Life is simple and complicated. It’s simply complicated.

Afterword to ‘Beauty in a plastic bag and a dead bird’

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In my last post, “Beauty in a plastic bag and a dead bird” (https://jimkanaris.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/beauty-in-a-plastic-bag-and-a-dead-bird/), I selected two scenes from American Beauty to play on a contrast: beauty as alluring and potentially morbid. After posting that blog I chanced on the closing scene of the film, which, no joke, I had forgotten. Hence I can’t call this contribution: the director’s cut! In any event, although I believe, and continue to believe, that the ending of a story doesn’t determine the meaning of a story, this scene enhances a point I tried to make in my earlier blog. Incidentally, I can’t even call that blog the theatrical version! Afterword must suffice for this one.

“Lester Burnham”, Jane’s father, is seated lifeless and bent over a table. His head rests in a pool of his own blood. Eyes open, in that earthly state he sees nothing. The Ariadne’s thread of Newman’s “Any Other Name” is playing again, as in the plastic bag scene. Jane and Ricky clutch each other fearfully making their way down a flight of stairs. They’re incited by a gunshot. Ricky slowly pushes the door open to reveal the surroundings of a homicidal act. Lester’s blood is consistently dripping off the table. Jane embodies what our response would be: “Oh my God!” chokingly. Ricky, slightly perturbed, is more composed. We’re made to feel even iffier about him. At least in the dead bird scene that somewhat loopy stare he’s wearing here, as he makes his way toward Lester, is absent. A frontal shot captures Ricky lowering himself to Lester’s first-person perspective, looking even loopier now, as a crimson bed frames the scene. He lets out a faint smile after the camera shifts back from a brief shot of a tranquil-looking Lester who himself appears to be smiling. “Wow!” Ricky exhales finally in amazement as he takes in more of the scene. Were it not for these signals—music, camera panning, and an eerie-shared serenity (Lester’s and Ricky’s)—we’d probably want, with Angela, Jane’s friend, to certify Ricky. But then the voice of the narrator suddenly breaks in, which happens to be that of the disembodied Lester, as if to placate doubts about Ricky or to minimize his importance. He drops the veil and Ricky vanishes.

What does the disembodied Lester say? Does he articulate from his privileged point of view what Ricky viscerally experiences but clumsily expresses? I like to think so. Lester speaks with authority, with certainty. “I’d always heard your entire life flashes before your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all. It stretches on forever like an ocean of time.” He personalizes that stream by recounting moments in his life that stuck and the people who were central in it without whom there would’ve been little joy. The narration is interrupted by scenes surrounding his death that we don’t see as he’s gunned down, of Jane and Ricky, of Angela, of “Carolyn”, his wife. Trauma mixed with serenity. As in life, so too in death: a melding of opposites. Heraclitus and Empedocles would be pleased. And wouldn’t you know it, Ricky’s plastic bag scene is a leaflet in Lester’s atemporal script! And his words, too, almost verbatim! “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst” (emphasis mine). Now Ricky is pleased and we are appeased. Dexter bows out.

The veil drops. “And then I remember to relax … and stop trying to hold on to it”, continues Lester. “And then it flows through me like rain. And I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.” As in life, so too in death. In losing one’s grip an alchemy of sorts takes place. The larger picture renders our “stupid little life”, our insignificance, if you will, significant. It’s a revelation glimpsed by the Ricky in us walled off by our Angela and Carolyn—worst case scenario: Dexter. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure,” gloats Lester in the calm of infinity. “But don’t worry, you will some day.” As in life, so too in death: an interstice of awareness and decision.

Beauty in a plastic bag and a dead bird

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A plastic bag flails to an unheard rhythm supported by Thomas Newman’s “Any Other Name”. Fallen leaves give chase in an attempt at mimicry. Effervescent. Solemn. A ballet choreographed by the inner eye. It sees what it alone can see: an unseen acquiescence, beckoning, comforting.

You know the scene well. It’s from the blockbuster American Beauty (1999). “Ricky Fitts” is gushing to “Jane Burnham” about a transcendent moment he captures on film. Both look on in wonderment as we, the viewers, participate in a wonderfully framed moment. Two heads, shoulder to shoulder, separated so we can look on from behind. The TV set projects the images I described earlier. After Ricky’s sullen narration of the filmed event, the camera shifts suddenly to a facial close-up. Glazed eyes, Ricky mouths the words: “That’s the day I realized that there was this … entire life behind things. And this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid … ever…. Sometimes there’s so much beauty … in the world. I feel like I can’t take it. And my heart is just going to cave in.”

We look to Jane’s reaction to some of these words, after which she nestles Ricky’s hand. Ricky looks down surprisingly. He reciprocates and steals the beauty now offered to him from her lips. A tender kiss followed by a loving stroke of his chin. Jane smiles solicitously as if embodying the unseen force Ricky sees behind the plastic bag.

And then there’s the earlier scene, which makes us iffy about Ricky. He’s filming a dead bird that he calls beautiful. Jane is present as is her friend, “Angela Hayes”. “What are you doing?”, Angela asks. Ricky: “I was filming this dead bird.” “Why?”, she exclaims, puzzled by Ricky’s idiosyncrasy. “Because it’s beautiful” is shot back nonchalantly. Short pause but full of audience anticipation. “I think maybe you forgot your medication today, mental boy,” Angela snickers. The camera effectively pans to an intensely composed Jane as Angela says this. Jane is riveted. Two reactions we can appreciate. We may not be as crass or heartless as Angela but our conscience might utter something similar, if euphemized. No? I doubt you connected as easily with Ricky’s sentiment in this scene as you probably did in that of the flailing bag. We are supposed to feel ambivalence and Jane’s there to help us through it. Perhaps she’s as disturbed as Ricky? Maybe. But I can’t bring myself to believe that that’s what Sam Mendes, the film’s director, wants us to focus on in his orchestration. These two, Ricky and Jane, see otherwise and, whatever their psychological state, they surface two sides to beauty we are invited to see.

Hold up! A dead bird?! Beautiful? Seriously?! Dexter, too, saw beauty in astonishing hues of blood spatter and mangled bodies. Are we supposed to see beauty in that too? Apples and oranges, my reader friend! I’m not expounding a theory of aesthetics but our connection with Dexter is not on a par with our connection with Ricky and, possibly, Jane. It’s not with Dexter’s Hyde self that we connect or how beautiful, CSI-like, what he does appears on the screen. We connect with Dexter because he’s both nice and terrible as we placate feelings of disgust for who he sometimes is and what he does through his vigilantism due in large to an unfortunate childhood. Unless you’re psychotic yourself, I doubt all of Dexter is beautiful to you, let alone the debris of what he does. Note, too, that Dexter is conflicted by all this. We like that. It’s an admirable quality, minimalist but redemptive. With Ricky and Jane, their personalities are almost incidental, their idiosyncrasies mere instruments. They communicate what in our indifference we tend to miss, in our busyness, in our surface living; what we don’t always see as beautiful, what we could easily ignore as gross or blasé.

Ricky and Jane teach us how to appreciate what already is, not to manipulate what is for our fascination. Theirs is not an issue of control but of revelation. It’s not the beauty of the psychotic (potentially present in the dead bird scene) that morphs into a sinister, one-sided God-like power: “he taketh away”. Ricky is enchanted by the “he giveth” in which the play of beauty and obscurity often jumble together. A feathery carcass on a lush bed of grass, a blue sky punctured by clouds, Ricky experiences beauty. I’m going to wager that the beauty the dead bird occasions in him is one of pathos for a lifeless being whose fate Ricky can share at any moment. Angela’s too preoccupied to see it; she’s too self-absorbed, too hospitable of accepted mores regarding normalcy. Jane is considerably less preoccupied. She welcomes Ricky’s words startled that someone might see things as she. She connects. She sees something we come to appreciate more in the plastic bag scene.

A space opens up, an interstice airing on both sides of life and death, of beauty and its presence where it’s supposedly absent. Let’s be clear, though. I’m not saying that the whole point of American Beauty is captured in these two scenes. Duh! They are embedded in a larger, more complex storyline. These scenes fascinate me because they are well-crafted representations of moments I myself experience and, I trust, you do as well, which underlies, of course, why I’m bothering to write this. Is the meaning I capture from these scenes mere projection, then? Perhaps. In the interstice we’re not troubled by the absence of assurances. Here we get to play. We get to select, compare, and contrast, to reflect and genuflect. A world of possibility, an opportunity to develop and affirm. I have no interest in being Angela, although I have some of her in me. Ricky and Jane? Too intense, but they resonate more. Thankfully it’s not an issue of them but how they mediate a universal experience, as opposed to, say, Dexter, where it is an issue of him rather than anything beautiful or desirably revelational in his sinister oeuvre, CSI elements notwithstanding.

Robin’s In Pieces

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I happened to be on Facebook when the news hit. A friend shared a column from HuffPo: “Robin Williams Dead in Apparent Suicide”. I’m no stranger to that familiar sense of shock that overtakes when hearing such news. Incidentally, when this particular news item hit, my feeds filled almost instantaneously like a swarm of bees deserting a disrupted hive. E-sympathies and diagnoses galore, there was no shortage of opinions based on the initial report of the coroner concerning apparent cause of death: suicide by asphyxiation.

Williams’s publicist is on record stating that the beloved actor was battling depression and in rehab since July. E-sympathies turned into a frenzy of support for what I’ll cautiously identify as a “sanitized” recognition of depression: a mental illness and not a character flaw worthy of social stigma. And who would disagree? Some, like Maclean’s Jaime Weinman, in his write up, shifts the shock of the event into a presumed mass ignorance about the well being of celebrities:

“We may think [that some celebrities] have it together, that others need to get it together, and our guesses are meaningless because we don’t really know these people, even though we think we do. The reasons for Williams’ death will start to become clearer as time goes on, but we’ll never really understand why a man like him did the things he did, or couldn’t find happiness and peace despite his success and popularity. We will always be on the outside, where we belong.” (http://www.macleans.ca/culture/movies/williams/)

Doubtless a rhetorical device, I remain puzzled by Weinman’s presumption. Although I never gave it much thought, were you to ask me about Williams’s state of mind, I would’ve gushed: depressed! (Disclaimer: I’m not a clinical psychologist and so the views and opinions expressed… blah, blah, blah.) His zany quick-witted humor, outrageous and mixed with his usual dry spirited satire, belies anything placid I might’ve imagined about the man (pace Weinman). And what about the morose roles he played? He did that so convincingly that they appeared almost seamless with his comedic personality. Play-acting is most effective when it’s not simply play-acting. No, I’m not at all surprised by the diagnosis. I’m intrigued by it, especially Weinman’s presumption and the social-media outpouring surrounding his death and that of other celebrities.

Even Apple.com has a memorial page (http://www.apple.com/remembering-robin-williams/) and a recent ad for the iPad Air bolstered by an inspirational narration of Williams from Dead Poets Society (http://business.time.com/2014/01/13/apples-latest-ad-is-probably-going-to-give-you-chills/). Matt Vella from Time says the ad will probably “give you chills”. Apple, of course, wants to caress you so you do. Is it a well-meaning gesture that incidentally incites us to associate their product with an iconic figure? Well-meaning? Doubtless. Incidental? Let’s not kid ourselves. Apple’s website theme may be white but its intentions, as a real-world corporation, are necessarily grey. I’m not castigating Apple per se. I’m castigating the semblance of innocence. Nothing is innocent in a corporation, especially one as powerful as Apple. What’s unfortunate about such displays of solidarity is that they feed a society rife with cynicism. Innocence in us is no less bogus. Look at your Facebook and Twitter feeds. For every status and tweet praising such activity, there are as many, if not more, overrun by antipathy. Incidentally, did Apple run ads featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman or post a memorial page in his honor? Is stature what’s really at issue here? Is it about which deceased celebrity or influential person can cast the widest net to solicit interest in a product? See what I mean?!

There’s the other side, too. What if Apple or the rest of social media remained silent about the issue? Surely we’d find reason to apportion blame. “How heartless of organization X or Twitterer Y to ignore such a momentous loss?” Philosophical jigs is about the interstice. An interstice pertains to self-critical reflection about a determinate set of options or opinions, as those traced above. The point, in other words, is not to reach a self-assured perspective about X but to disrupt our self-assurance in tackling X. It’s not that Jaime Weinman is wrong in his presumption noted earlier but rather that his presumption occasions in me an opportunity to assess my reaction to Williams’s death; it’s not that Apple is wrong in using Williams’s death as an opportunity to express its solidarity while marketing their product; it may be in poor taste but it’s not wrong. The interesting question is why such things bother me—you—as I react to news as Williams’s death.

The issue of who dies is unimportant to me, although like you I experience stronger feelings when I “know” the person in question. I know millions die every day in poverty-stricken countries but I’m not as affected by it (I’m ashamed to say) because it’s an abstraction. A celebrity whose career I’ve tracked since youth is weirdly more personal. Williams’s death is not important for what it has to say about the severity of depression or for what it has to say about his contributions to society—better: Williams’s death is not important only in these senses. It’s fundamentally important in the same way every death is important: it occasions in us a sense of our mortality and, therefore, solidarity with fellow human beings who, despite their successes and failures, suffer and die as we do. The circumstances surrounding their deaths accentuate our reactions but at bottom that they die is typically enough to move us.

We look to such events not to feel good about ourselves for announcing it first on Facebook or for guilting ourselves into a show of solidarity by proclaiming it the loudest on Twitter or through Likes and Retweets and whatnot. I’m not denying this happens, says he who is writing an excessively long blog about the matter. However, I like to believe that we really do feel the altruistic things I list above, although it may not always come out “right” or innocently.

Take the saying “rest in peace”. I was surprised to discover that the sentiment bothers many. It irks me only in the form of the inscription “RIP” that accosts from slabs of stone. Horror films are doubtless responsible. In any case, my take is that people who are happy to use the expression do so as a means of coping with loss. The sentiment is basically: peace to us ‘cause we’re feeling something awful. I don’t mean to say that we intentionally say “rest in peace” to the living. That would be to give a whole different meaning to the phrase. We say it about the dead but its significance is really for the living. Religious individuals reserve the right to say it about both. “Rest, rest my friend, as you await to enter another dimension of existence, and I shall rest in the thought of your peace.” But not everyone shares that belief, which is why, in the interstice, I play on a reference to the living. And so, yes, I am torn about media expressions of sadness at Williams’s death and all the issues for which it’s exploited. In times as these I like to take a step back and reserve some humanity to my otherwise cynical feelings and say that at least social media provides us with an outlet to express grief, to discuss it. Desirous of solidarity, it binds the e-community together. It’s just an aggrandized form of what we used to do on a smaller scale, with print and in coffee shops. But make no mistake, the ambivalence surrounding intended expressions of grief will always be there. Robin may have been in pieces, but I trust his peace gives me some rest.

A charming Twitter exchange on Time, if you have the time

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Adam: Wait. Think about it. “Days” are fiction. Why aren’t there 12 or say, 19 “days” in a week?

JK: Time is also “fiction” but I doubt our lives would work without it.

Adam: hmmm … No, Time is non-fiction. How we define it is fiction. Or so I would think.

JK: Time’s “just” an inner sense we use to measure, more “fictional” than space but as nonfictional. Ya dig? 🙂

  • i.e., days and weeks are important parts of time’s productions, hence co-dependently fictional, to put it evaluatively.
  • i.e., this is my pain-in-the-ass way of saying I don’t believe time or days or weeks are fictional per se 🙂

Adam: 🙂 lol, I suppose it depends on the definition of fiction? [And] yes I dig it, but why can’t a Sunday just as well be a Tuesday?

JK: It can but think about all the angry passengers travelling on the Tuesday before we nominate Sunday as the new Tuesday!

Adam: I don’t believe time is fictional, only our narrative of it, which is okay … It’s just kind of wiggly in terms of “truth”

JK: Our narratives can be both fictional and nonfictional. Not sure what “it” [time] could possibly mean without our narrative.

  • i.e., I guess what you’re looking for is a way our narratives hook up with “truth”, a lovely nonfictional narrative, btw.

~ Debrief ~

To stay focused, let’s continue to use the terms of this exchange. Time is our “narrative” to explain our inner sense of change and location. Although fiction and nonfiction aren’t ideal terms, we can use them to describe time according to the classic distinction between subjective and objective knowledge. Adam eventually comes to guard the objectivity of time by distinguishing it from our subjective fictional narratives. He begins by focusing on the arbitrary nature of our designations, “fictions”, and then proceeds to make the case that because these designations are arbitrary and fictional they’re unimportant or, at best, incidental—accidental, to use the Aristotelian category.

My point in the exchange is to point out that this distinction is itself arbitrary but also essential, important. I believe we unnecessarily evaluate the nature of our objective experience of time as “subjective”, fictional. Say what? Read it again. Time is not some objective thing “out there” that we have the luxury of knowing apart from our narratives, apart from us. We experience time as objective. Its truth, to borrow another term from the exchange, is grasped in our judgments about its fictional and nonfictional qualities. Instead of fiction as something false, illusory, or what have you, I prefer to see it, in this context anyway, less evaluatively, as something practical and necessary, although not necessarily true, certainly not more or less true than non-fiction. After all, planes fly, ships sail, highways are built, cities are laid out, and travel takes place—all on the basis of our arbitrary “fictions” of time, in Adam’s sense (although I think Adam, whose reason I have no reason to doubt, would agree—see, for example, what looks like a partial admission in Adam’s comment above: “which is okay”). Non-fiction cannot be assumed to be on the side of time “out there”, whatever that is. For time as nonfiction is also a narrative about time as independent of our narratives. You might want to read that again. It’s ok, I’ll wait! … It’s more robust perhaps, more systematic and discursive, but narrative nonetheless. In this way we get to keep both fictional and nonfictional aspects without needing to imagine time as time-less, if you catch my drift.

Color your world

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One of my favorite thinkers makes the astute observation that “[y]ou can never prove a horizon. You arrive at it from a different horizon, by going beyond the previous one. [You go] beyond a previous [horizon] because [you have] found something that makes the previous horizon [either] illegitimate [or unsatisfying]” (B. Lonergan, Philosophy of God, and Theology).

First, what is a horizon? Well, there’s the dictionary definition of a line or circle that forms the boundary between earth and sky. This picturesque understanding of a natural phenomenon is often applied to human experience, as in the quotation above. A horizon of meaning now, it describes our basic orientation in the world. In looking at what’s before us, we see a horizon but rarely attend to it. We take for granted, too, all the contents for which a horizon serves as a horizon. It literally grounds us in a way we come to appreciate when vertigo hits, when we become unseated, as it were, in our usual commerce with the world, when we suddenly loose our footing for whatever reason. A synonym is ‘worldview’, a fortunate translation of the German original “looking-at-the-world” (Weltanschauung). And yet horizon strikes me as something more fundamental, more implicit than worldview as a “system” of beliefs seems to suggest.

A horizon is what rivets us to the world. It orients how we connect with others, with ourselves, with our very surroundings, providing for the sensibility that keeps us from feeling unhinged. That’s some serious shit right there! In the commerce of life we move in and out of horizons sparingly—it’s that fundamental! But hopefully when rather than if we do, some adjustment takes place. The things that used to move us now give us pause. A child moving out of a world where money grows on trees into one that comes with the responsibility of earning her keep is quite the game changer and representative. Philosopher Paul Feyerabend (in Fairwell to Reason) puts it in these terms: “The events that surround a forest ranger differ from the events that surround a city dweller lost in a wood … The Greek gods were a living presence; ‘they were there.’ Today they are nowhere to be found.” Horizons filter our worldviews. They breathe life into our beliefs, flushing our world with vibrancy and color separating us from the zombie.

Nice. But what about that whole vertigo thing that awakes us to transition? Thank heavens that happens sparingly! Still, it’s a great reminder that authenticity is built on movement, not stagnation. Recall our initial quotation: “[You go] beyond a previous [horizon] because [you have] found something that makes the previous horizon [either] illegitimate [or unsatisfying].” In the movement from one horizon to another, we feel as though in limbo, not quite the deathlife of zombies … ok not even close. Let’s try again. The uncomfortable squeeze of uncertainty that overtakes us as we shift horizons makes us feel zombie-like. It’s care, combined with reasoning, which keeps our foot in life. In this new horizon underway time is required to reinvigorate a newfound sensibility in which our sense of connectedness, in partial vertigo, develops into a worldview that feels authentic, real, true. The Greek gods may not be resuscitated there but what allowed them to manifest resuscitates us. Horizon collides with worldview and a new Adam, a new Eve, is born!