Skip navigation

Category Archives: Anthropology and Social Theory

The study of people and cultures, including (but not limited to) analysis of language and culture as a whole, as well as any archaeology or biological anthropology that I may accidentally write. Expect long words and overlap with social justice.

Hello reader,

First of all, if you’re reading this today, and you read my blog post in January 2020, congratulations to both of us. First of all, to you, for still reading all my posts, thanks mom. ❤ Second of all, and of course, to me, for writing a blog post almost every week for a year.

Things have somewhat disintegrated toward the end of the year, but I find that having to write SOMETHING every week was VERY helpful. That’s been the theme of the year, in fact; me, personally, disproving once and for all that deeply-held belief that somehow, slowing down will make it better.

As a matter of fact, it’s never once in my life been the case that waiting to figure out what I want to do is a better decision. In writing, in relationships, in my career, action is the order of the day, and it’s always worked out better than passivity.

Just like Montaigne says it’s easier to judge the goodness of a life after it is over, I think it’s best to determine the theme of a year looking backwards–a belief concordant with Hillman’s admonishment that life, itself, is best understood reading from the end to the beginning. With that in mind, while I look back at 2020 and see that it was dark, and bleak, and lonely, and while we struggled alone in each of our billions of unique ways, I see too that there was connection.

Connection is something I think about on a daily basis–not only because we are now “blah blah more connected then ever,” boak ,fucking gross–but because we share more than ever. There is a piece of cheese next to me on the table as I write this. When I finish this paragraph, I’m going to take a picture of it, and send it to a friend of mine with whom I was discussing raclette last night, along with the caption, “IT’S RACLETTE SEASON!!!?!?”

My work this year–though it’s been, admittedly, sporadic and stressful and insecurity-inducingly-poorly compensated, has been intensely rewarding too, because I’ve been able to speak to and work with people from around the world. I don’t know these people, but I know their faces, I know their stories, and I have seen some of them survive the same year I have. I think about them, when I read news about events happening elsewhere, and we always take time aside from our work to have those moments of sharing–hello, how are you, are you well? isn’t this terrible? aren’t we all sad? at least we’re all together here.

I think a lot about what humans are. As a scifi/fantasy writer by passion, I am fascinated by the human experience and what it means to tease and deform it along different dimensions. When we travel, we look at a world which is unfamiliar to us through eyes that don’t understand what they see. Travel makes us open and excited and receptive, and when you come home from travelling in this state, you see your home in the light shed by the places you’ve left behind. Writing can do that. A story about another world can be a universe you can step into and use to look back at the world outside in a new way.

But, thing is, I can already do that. I can imagine myself into another world and never come out–there’s a reason A Wizard Alone is my favorite Diane Duane novel and maybe my favorite YA novel of all time. I could just write these stories for myself, and never tell any of you motherfuckers about it.

But that would be inhuman. Because the point of writing isn’t the ability to create something. It’s the ability to create something you can then share with others. The ability to put something into the world for people to connect with. Because that’s human. Humans are connection–we are majestic, wonderful, silly, naked little monkeys holding angelfire in our hands, seeking to share our light and warmth with one another. We are little groups and families that take care of each other, even in the sacred night before civilization. We are living things, and all living things must exist in connection to other forms of life–life cannot survive in isolation.

Happy New Year, reader. It is 2021, and you are not alone, and neither am I. Be well. See you next week.

Hello, reader.

It is very nearly election time in the U.S.A., and while I try not to talk about politics here on the blog, it’s a difficult and unsuccessful policy, because politics is simply the natural extension of ethics into broader society, and thus inextricable from who we are as individuals and, from how we think about the world.

This is, of course, part of the problem. We tend to talk about “politics” in the USA as if it were something we could separate out from everything else. There are two sides to this coin, and I’d like to come to grips with them quickly before we move on to the main thrust of this post.

Problem one: The fucking Puritans.

We COULD just stop the post here, comma, semicolon, period, and be done, but I say “UGH the FUCKING Puritans” so often that once in a while I ought to explain it. When I say this, especially here on this website, I am shorthanding a whole lot of stuff (I should do a Toolbox on this…hmm, stay tuned for next week) into the idea that maybe people from the U.S. tend to categorize and make moral judgments very quickly.

Problem two: Politics IS not something that you can separate from daily life. I don’t understand how to say this more explicitly. If you think your brother should be able to go to school without thousands of dollars of debt, you should be in favor of free or low-cost college. If you like the independently owned coffee shop on the corner and don’t want them to go out of business, you should be in favor of legislation that actually protects small businesses. If you think your child should make more than $12.50 an hour, you should be in favor of raising the minimum wage. If you think your health insurance should cost less, you should be in favor of universal health care.  Hypocrisy is bad. Don’t do that.

BUT THAT iSN’T WHAT WE’RE GOING TO TALK ABOUT TODAY, and I’m becoming DISTRACTED by my RAGE.

What I want to talk about is the day, whenever that day actually ends up being in this year of CONTINUAL fuckery, when we actually know for sure what the state of our political system will be in the next two to four years. Because now, and then, we have some work to do.

Because, you see, when we get done with the current president, and when the country finally has a substantive Left that isn’t just three women willing to admit that yes, they are kinda socialist, but in that gentle way where they just want people to not starve to death? if that’s ok?, THEN we are STILL going to have the following problem:

This country is FULL of Nazis.

Let me rephrase this in a slightly less polemic way.

Consider, for a moment, how many people in the United States must have extreme, disconnected-from-reality, hardcore threaten-a-public-official white supremacist ethnonationalist neo-nazi third reich two electric boogaloo views. What percentage of the population are you willing to believe that might be? 2%? 10%? 15%? Fine. Now think about all the people who nod along when those people get started on a rant in a bar, and who if you corner them will say, “sure, he’s a little extreme, but he’s making a lot of good points.” What percentage of the population is that? What percentage of the population is content to live in a Fahrenheit 451 haze while drone strikes are ordered and asylum seekers are held in prison cells, so long as they don’t have to think about the yucky parts of living in a very active imperial power? How many family members do you have, who have voted for the current president, or for one of his supporters, and who you are now ready to cut ties with?

This is the problem.

A problem, I should mention, which doesn’t exist for the Right. Nazis are playing politics on Easy Mode: just listen to your leader. The answer to “what do you do with the part of the population which finds your politics incompatible with their ideal state?” is “genocide them.”  Shoot them, force them to flee the country, lock them out of healthcare until they die. Boom, done, ethnic cleansing accomplished, time to have a huge party where nobody can fucking dance.

But for the left, for us bleeding heart AOC simp snowflake socialist liberals who just want evweywone to be happy, UwUniversal Heawf Cawwe, MinUwUmum Wage Inkwease, we have the following MASSIVE problem: when we’re done, and the GDP is through the fucking roof, and the cost of living is $20 per year, and everyone has free health care, and college is $1, and we’ve nationalized Amazon’s logistical network to carry food through the entire continental United States, entirely eliminating food deserts and shortages, we are still going to have Nazis in this country. 

The next time we have a Democratic president and House and Senate and Supreme Court, we are still going to have a substantial vocal minority of people in this country who want to burn it to the fucking ground. And we are going to have to reckon with this.

Re-integrating these people into society is going to be WORK. It is going to be work from EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ONE of us. Yes, this means people who have baggage. People who have trauma. People who by all fucking rights should not have to do this, are going to have to reach out. Yes, this isn’t fair. Fairness is a luxury for people who don’t live in a post-authoritarian state.

What comes after this presidency is not utopia. Maybe we will live long enough to see a kind, fair, just country. But first comes the grimy, slimy, dirty work of reaching back out and rebuilding some semblance of unity across a political divide that goes back decades. Because it’s simply not possible to run a country well when less than half of its population is on board.

Goodbye for now, reader. Stay safe this Election Day. Good luck.

Hi reader,

What is culture?

I mean, like, this isn’t a hard question. Obviously I could just link a screencap of a definition. You could go google “culture definition” and find an answer in less than a second. But it’s one thing to look at the definition of a word and a very different thing to know what it means. And today in Toolbox we’re going to talk about cultures.

First we have to ask why, though. Why are we talking about culture? This answer is an easy warm-up; because it’s useful to be able to talk about culture in an intelligible way. We can clearly tell from our lives running around in the world that there are differences between (where you currently are) and (directly opposite your location, on the opposite side of the world). Yes, that’s right, I came right out and said it: this blog is pushing a round-earth agenda.

So let’s take a stab at this: maybe culture is something like, “practices, materials, and behaviors unique to a certain place.” That definition allows us to talk intelligently about how maid cafes in Tokyo are different from Starbucks’ cafes in Portland.

Hmm, but we have a problem; culture is also different over time. As they say, “the past is a foreign country.” I may be going out on a limb here, but I would venture to guess that some of the practices, materials, and behaviors in maid cafes in Tokyo now are different from the practices, materials, and behaviors of cafes in Tokyo in 1604.

Let’s amend it. ” Practices, materials, and behaviors unique to a subset of the Earth’s population.” Great. Nailed it. Though there is another question we ought to address (just one??); and that is…how, exactly, do we define that subset? Sure, Riyadh and St. Paul are very different cities in many dimensions. But St. Paul and Minneapolis are very different in many dimensions, too, even though they are much closer together.

This is an essential part of talking about culture in any meaningful sense: deciding (implicitly or explicitly) the level of abstraction at which we are grouping that subset of the population.

Because, of course, there is another problem: culture overlaps. Actual real reality doesn’t have clearly defined borders in the same way that the words we create to serve as analytical categories do. And it’s not great to forget that, especially if you’re trying to have a conversation about cultures and places and peoples with any kind of nuance at all. Or, as someone more qualified might say:

“Every attempt to deduce cultural forms from a single cause is doomed to failure, for the various expressions of culture are closely interrelated and one cannot be altered without having an effect upon all the others. Culture is integrated. It is true that the degree of integration is not always the same. There are cultures which we might describe by a single term, that of modern democracies as individualistic-mechanical; or that of a Melanesian island as individualization by mutual distrust; or that of our Plains Indians as overvaluation of intertribal warfare. Such terms may be misleading, because they overemphasize certain features, still they indicate certain dominating attitudes.”(1)

“These brief remarks may be sufficient to indicate the complexity of the phenomena we are studying, and it seems justifiable to question whether any generalized conclusions may be expected that will be applicable everywhere and that will reduce the data of anthropology to a formula which may be applied to every case, explaining its past and predicting its future.

I belief it would be idle to entertain such hopes. The phenomena of our science are so individualized, so exposed to outer accident that no set of laws could explain them. It is as in any other science dealing with the actual world surrounding us. For each individual case we can arrive at an understanding of its determination by inner and outer forces, but we cannot explain its individuality in the form of laws.”(1)

So then, as I desperately cling to the reins of this post; when we talk about culture, it is essential to keep this many-faceted idea in mind–it is useful, definitely, to be able to have a word which we can use to describe the many ways and things that humans have. The capacity to discuss the things which are unique to places, times, groups of people, is essential to our ongoing curiosity about what we are and how the world affects us. But like everything, it has its limits–and when talking about cultures, especially, it’s easy to think of them as easily-separable categories.

That’s all for now, reader. Tune in next week, when I have no idea what I’ll be writing about.

Toolbox: A series of posts where I go into greater depth about words I use too goddamn much and actually explore them with something resembling nuance for fucking once in my life, so that in the future when someone (possibly me) complains about it I can just link the post instantly without having to have a even the smallest moment of self-awareness or reflexivity. (one of the words is reflexivity)

(1) address given by Franz Boas to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dec 1932

 

 

Hello reader,

A while back we talked about an article by a man named Jeffrey Hall. For those of you who haven’t read this, if I could summarize nineteen hundred words of absolutely unhinged free-association, I would.

Anyway so in this ARTICLE, these dudes talk about a concept which I have gone absolutely feral over: a “social diet.” In other words, the kind of social interaction people choose to ‘consume.’ They suggested that their findings quite compellingly suggested that people who had more control over their social diet (people who weren’t, uh, socially force-fed?) felt happier and more content. More nourished, if you will. In other words, if you have some ability to choose when, and how much, you interact with other people, your sense of well-being improves. I believe the actual word they used is thriving, which is a very fun choice of term for me, personally, as a closeted Aristotelian. 

We’ve talked about metaphors before. They act like convenient pocket-theories, a cognitive multitool we can deploy to explore a new idea. Let’s sink our teeth into the idea of social interaction as food. 

Suddenly, social interaction becomes not just important, but vital. Your diet influences so much more about you than we know–we’re only beginning, for example, to understand the exact role that gut bacteria play. Further, your diet is only partially under your control. So much about what kind of food is available, the quality of food you can afford, your tastes and your mealtimes, is all affected by your particular circumstances, what we call positionality, that crossroads of individual, upbringing, society, culture, and economics.

Something we also cannot forget here is time. Food takes time. So does social interaction. The connection between meals and social interaction is fundamental, and it’s something I’ve talked about before, so we won’t go into it so much today. Instead we’ll consider that time-bound aspect of food (in our metaphor) compared to modern life.

How many times have you had a quick meal because you didn’t have the time? Something just to sustain you for the rest of the workday until you could sit down and have a proper one? Isn’t that what it’s like to call a friend on your lunch break to say hi, or to send an email to a parent? Isn’t that what it’s like to get a letter?

Isn’t that part of the brutality of modern life? Having to take the things that sustain you in little, hurried bursts, glutting on something you would much rather have the time to savor? Having no time to devote to those long, lingering meals where you eat until satiety and then just a little more? We dream of friendship, of social fabric, of connection, like a starving animal dreams of food.

At the end of the first post I wrote on this topic, back in January, I asked; when we talk about wellness, all these concerned voices pipe up about meditation, hydration, diet. Why isn’t social time considered when it comes to wellness?

Because the wellness movement in the U.S. stems partially from an attempt by employers to keep their wage-slaves happy without having to shell out huge amounts of money for medical insurance and partly from a culture forming in a society where half of the population is on workplace job insurance and 8% of us just, straight up don’t have any? Because having some life outside the workplace might threaten the 100%/0% work-life balance employers want? Because social connection scares people because it has the word ‘social’ in it and reminds them of ‘socialism?’ 

Can’t think of anything. Must have just been an oversight. But let’s talk about it.

When I wrote this post in January, I had no idea that we were collectively about to embark on a gigantic, weird experiment in human social isolation. I wrote (and posted) about this article about two months before…well, You Know.

remain indoors

We feel lonely when we don’t want to be alone, when circumstances force us to be on our own. I talked about loneliness a little more on Valentine’s day this year–again, a post written before The Event.

Things are changing. Like plunging glass into cold water makes it stiff and brittle, this sudden shock of pandemic has crystallized many problems. People are asking more radical questions, discussing more dramatic changes, because we’ve already seen how much things can change in no time at all.

Food is elemental, and so is connection. Time is essential for the enjoyment of both. And so is control, the ability to determine when and for how long you are able to nourish yourself, rather than to have it determined for you. While bigger things are going on, and bigger questions and bigger demands need to be addressed first (more on that next week, I think), we cannot lose sight of the subtle problems. We were lonely before this. We are lonelier now. Starvation makes us weak and scatterbrained, even when we can eat again. Isolation does the same.

In many places, the lockdown continues. People are stuck at home, reaching out to each other through telephones and video calls and social media. Can we sustain ourselves on this alone? Maybe so. Maybe the social tools we’ve synthesized, the technology we’ve built, is enough. Who knows? The experiment is ongoing.

 

 

 

 

 

https://academic.oup.com/ct/article-abstract/27/1/21/4061217

Howdy howdy reader, we’re back in the weird theoretical saddle with this week’s post, so buckle up, there are going to be a thousand references to previous weird theoretical posts. Let’s begin.

I complain a lot about academics, in a vague, scornful tone, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually taken the time to really get into it beyond the obvious complaint: that they use big dumb words that only confuse people. It might come through a little bit when I talk about Erudition–the quality of having read a lot of stuff. These two critiques are related, insofar as they are part of the larger problem I have with academics: the distance between academic work and the real-world problems it could solve. I believe the work philosophers do should be able to enrich the lives of people who don’t have doctorates. I think that’s called pragmatism.

Now for the new content:

Academic research is narrow.

This is not BAD. Remember when I made that post about how scientific theory is socially constructed? That’s not a bad thing. Because here’s the deal about social constructs: they are a tremendously powerful tool we can use to explore the world. By constructing things which any human can learn socially, we make it possible for people to learn in a more focused way and skip straight to asking very specific questions, by relying on the knowledge that other people have built before. In other words, thanks to the theories we built, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we want to calculate the carbon footprint of an electric car. We just ask the guy who has spent fifteen years studying electric vehicle energy efficiency. We ask an expert. 

This means we are, to some extent, reliant upon other people. This is also not bad. One of our oldest strengths as a species is that we can always rely on other people, and they, in turn, on us. At the risk of being hyperbolic, that’s the whole point of society. We are reliant upon each other.

This strength that theory gives us–a focusing, narrowing, boring in like a laser–is also the source of its big weakness. The guy who spends fifteen years studying electric cars necessarily has less time to study cello. The girl who learns rocket science has less time to read poetry. The poet who writes for a decade isn’t as well versed in how to change the oil on a zamboni. We are forced to specialize, and while we gain a great deal in that process, I think we also lose something.

Specifically, I think we lose big ideas. The world used to be full of big ideas. This is related to narrowing and erudition on a fundamental level: before the different disciplines became so focused, trying to be an intellectual required a lot of study, because you basically had to re-learn all of the relevant knowledge in the world before you could make statements that people would pay attention to.  But once you did that–once you’d read all the literature (which used to be possible), you wrote a theory of, well, everything.

To some extent this is inextricably connected to the existence of academia. We picked a few of these theories of everything as bedrock–atoms and particles, evolution and general relativity, behaviorism and neuroplasticity.

Sure, not everyone can write A Critique of Pure Reason–and that’s fine. But everyone has their own metaphysics, their own theory of the world, and more people should try to write it down. Why do I think this? Glad you asked, imaginary straw person.

Unwritten and untouched, our theory of the world is purely intellectual. It is inchoate. You cannot really evaluate a theory that isn’t written down; it’s too mutable. You have to make it concrete, and then you can begin the long work of assessing it, exploring it, making it more sophisticated. It’s only through practice that we learn the limits of our conception.

And it doesn’t really matter whether or not your personal theory is “perfect.” I mean, sure, great, maybe you’re the one person in seven billion who understands exactly how the universe works. But even things that are absolutely dead wrong can teach us something. We can learn life lessons from novels, and most of the things that happen in novels are fake. What matters more is that it exists, explicitly, in text, in a way which required its author to come to grips with it concretely, to really look at what’s on the page and go “yes, I wrote this on purpose.”

Maybe this is because of my background in philosophy. Maybe I’m just a pedantic nutjob. But I think that the work of trying to make sense of the world loses something when it requires ever more focused research, rather than rewarding people for trying to make sense of everything. Even if it is (as I suspect and have asserted) impossible for any single individual to really understand the universe, we should try. And in the attempt, in the struggle to present our inner cosmos in a rational, coherent way, we grow.

That’s the theory, anyway.

That’s also, in a nutshell, the point of this blog (and i swear to god this is the last time I say something about “the purpose of this blog is –)  An ongoing and personal engagement with the task of rigorously setting down what I think about, well, everything. It’s important to set reasonable goals for yourself. I blame Montaigne for this one.

See you next week.

 

 

 

Hello again, dear readers! I’m back, after a brief hiatus which was not at all due to me listening to one hundred and thirteen consecutive episodes of The Magnus Archives!

On an unrelated note, today we’re going to talk about fear!

Fear is also a religious feeling.

The sacred does not only reveal itself in comforting splendor. The universe also touches us in that breathless flash of terror, the slow chill of rising apprehension, the shock of something that isn’t right. These experiences force us to be present, put our body through the paces, and make the hazards of the real world felt in our psychic life.

Many folk traditions are based in fear. Take a look at literally any mythology and they will give you a short list of things you should never do, for fear of deadly consequences or metaphysical retribution.

For example; sneezing.

When someone sneezes, you have to say something. The atheists i know say “gesundheit.” The normal people I know say “bless you.”

(I’m only joking, some atheists can be normal)

Who can tell me why we say Bless You? The goths and religious studies nerds in the audience may be able to answer this question; there is a very old idea in the West that a sneeze is the body’s natural response to the presence of an evil spirit–a spirit which might kill or corrupt its victim if not expelled by a sneeze and banished by a blessing. So while in the modern era, we may say “bless you” only from the haunting fear that other people might think we don’t care about them sneezing, it didn’t start that way.  It started with fear.

In terms of comparative religion, there are a few kinds of fear that can be “classified,” which gives us a way to talk about the subject with quick shorthand. Fans of The Magnus Archives will be naturally more adept at this conversation, a fun connection which I am circling back to at the end.

Since we are talking about spirituality and fear, it’s time to hear from our boy Rudolf Otto, author of The Idea Of The Holy (1932), which you can find for free online and should absolutely read, if you’re at all interested in the topic of religion and spiritual experience.

“Tremor” is in itself merely the perfectly familiar and “natural” emotion of fear. But here the term is taken, aptly enough but still only by analogy, to denote a quite specific kind of emotional response, wholly distinct from that of being afraid, though it so far resembles it that the analogy of fear may be used to throw light upon its nature. There are in some languages special expressions which denote, either exclusively or in the first instance, this fear that is more than fear proper. […] Old Testament throughout is rich in parallel expressions for this feeling. Specifically noticable is the …”Fear of God” which God can pour forth, dispatching almost like a daemon, and which seizes upon a man with paralysing effect. […] Here we have a terror fraught with an inward shuddering such as not even the most menacing and overpowering created thing can instill. It has something spectral in it.

Now, in the modern era, we like to think we live in a secular world. Categorical statement: False. [game show buzzer noise] incorrect! The spiritual has not deserted us–and we can look a little ahead in Otto’s book. Rudolf places the element of religious fear or the uncanny as further back in the cycle of religion’s rise and fall, one of the more fundamental elements of human spirituality. Not only does this “fear” manifest itself as terror in the face of something alien–the fear, for example, reportedly felt by shepherds keeping watch by night, when they were visited by angels that burned with the cold light of the moon–Otto also considers this to be part of the same strain as the rapturous, manic terror of something awesome, in the old sense–the feeling of watching a storm rage upon the sea, or watching a Godzilla movie.

That’s right. These emotions may no longer be present in the shuddering, creeping fear of divine visitation, and it we may make fewer cultural references to the Fear of God, but this fear can still be conjured, and these spiritual moments are still possible even in cultures and circumstances that might deny them. Standing dwarfed by the majesty and splendor of stars overhead, the sudden creeping chill of realization in The Thing, these both belong to fear, in the old sense.

Fear drives ritual.

We wash the milk cartons when they come home from the store. We hide our faces with masks and avoid the air breathed by other people. We maintain a safe distance from others, lest we  be struck down by an invisible force that can kill quickly, but is slow enough in the onset that it can almost evade our sense of cause and effect. We touch things in public only with our left hand, when we can, when we remember, and when we notice that our attention has wandered, we curse and hastily scrub our hands with burning alcohol or hot water.

Can you feel it?

Do you notice the sense of unease when you are out in city streets that were once crowded–streets that are always crowded, streets that should, by rights, be full of people, but are mysteriously empty? The low-grade anxiety of being unclean, when you touch something in the grocery store? The demons, creeping back into reality despite our attempts to banish them outside it with the flimsily made constructs of modernity, drywall over rot–do you know what Jung had carved in stone over his house? A quote by Erasmus, VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT. “Called or not, God is there.”

Can you see the rituals closing in around you like armor, a shield to press back against the world, a set of motions and practices that stand between you and death?

If that isn’t magic, what is it?

 

“The world has become full of symptoms. Isn’t that the beginning of recognizing what used to be called animism?” –Hillman, 1992

 

Tune in next week for–whatever the hell it is I’m going to write about, dude, I don’t know! I’m moving to a once-weekly Saturday schedule; no spoilers yet, but I’m working on a big long-term project which I am excited to write about.

 

You know the old expression, “rules are made to be broken?” Like most things, there are places where that’s more true than others. And one of those spheres is within anthropology, specifically in the way anthropologists talk about “rules” in a culture.

That’s right, I’m socially distanced and no one can physically stop me, so I’m going to talk about Bourdieu again.

As you know, imaginary reader, I’m an airy-fairy big picture thinker. A pandemic hits, and I’m already thinking about the after. About the world, taken together. I have a thousand questions which we cannot possibly answer right now. But what I’m thinking about a lot is rules and customs. We love rules.

Humans, generally, love constraints. Our daily activities are full of constraints; time, space, rules, structures.

Time, as in not just what time it is, but also “time” as a dimension. Human behavior has meanings which are structured across time. Consider the handshake. The meaning of a handshake is affected by time. How long does it take someone to offer a handshake? How long do I wait before I accept? How much time do we spend shaking? How many “shakes?” How long does each shake take? What if we held hands and we were in a model of social interaction together? just kidding. unless…

Space, not just the fact that we exist in space as well as time, but the fact that we move through different spaces. The meaning of things is affected by space. Greeting someone with a firm handshake is normal when you’re in an office or a conference hall. It is very strange if you’re at home in bed. Unless you’re English, in which case it’s perfectly normal to wake up in the morning and greet your lover with a polite handshake.

Rules–not just “spoken” rules, but unspoken ones. What are the unspoken rules in your culture? In some places it’s normal to yawn loudly in public, in others it’s weird and uncouth. In some places it’s rude to ask someone about their family life; in others it’s quite normal. These roles are not learned explicitly; we’ve already talked about social construction, so I won’t inflict that on you again.

Structures are like rules, but different. By “structures” I don’t just mean physical structures (though those are important, and relevant here); “space” broadly covers physical structures. I mean the kinds of rules that are taken for granted. Bedrock assumptions. How you talk to your professor is not just based on one rule that only the two of you follow; it’s part of a group of rules and patterns.

Rules and structures are what I am thinking about regarding this pandemic that we’re all living together–and I do mean, all of us. Because there are “rules” and there are Rules. In terms of social science, we can think of “the passage of time” as a big-R Rule. You can’t circumvent it. That rule is not, in fact, made to be broken.

But little-R quotation mark “rules” and structures are not unbreakable. In fact, our handshake example is a fantastic one here: the ordinary “rule” of shaking hands on first greeting has been suspended. Something which we judged more important than preserving the rule has happened, and so each of us individually and collectively has decided not to follow it. We’d probably each make the same decision individually if we met someone who visibly had guacamole smeared all over their hands; but in either case the same moment happens; we suspend the rule, and improvise a solution.

The same thing happens within structures. Sometimes, a sufficiently exigent, urgent, immediate need can overrule structures. It happens all the time, when police waive traffic tickets for someone on the way to the hospital, when teachers give extensions to students. These cases are so frequent that there is actually a structure to accommodate violations of the structure; official extensions, verbal warnings–but sometimes, agents or organizations will even violate that structure, too.

The coronavirus-illustration here is…well, everything. The ordinary rules and structures which govern school, business, office courtesy, are suspended or modified. The time-frames and the spaces in which we do these things are similarly changed. And, on the societal level, many structures are changing; which brings me to my point:

mutually shared illusion

Thinking about big picture. The lesson we’re learning, especially “we” as the youth, the future. And it’s a big one. In the past, people said it was unfeasible for an entire workforce to go remote. That social programs like health care, welfare, or universal basic income were impossible to realize. This is false. This crisis is an object lesson in one of our fundamental human abilities:

Improvisation.

We like constraints. We live within many constraints. The vast, vast majority of those are self-created, or created by other humans, and we all, subconsciously, recognize this. We know when we can break the rules and when we can’t. We know that if we’re sick, we shouldn’t shake hands, even though it’s normally rude. The lesson we are learning is that this rule is bigger than you think. 

No human-made rule is unbreakable. This is what makes ethics such a pain in the ass. Given the correct situation, any human rule or structure can be suspended, and humans in the area will just…improvise around the problem. We’ll make shit up. This is all we do; we make shit up, all the time, and it’s so much easier to do that if you have a bunch of guidelines and rules to tell you what to do.

What does that mean for the future? I know the lesson many of us on the left are taking from all of this. I see it over and over. The culture is thinking it through, coming to the same conclusion.

covid 19 lessons

Remember this crisis. The next time someone says it’s impossible to make some kind of sweeping change to our society, fucking laugh at them. It happens all the time. The status quo is simply not a feasible argument any longer, and should never be again: Because for humans, rules are made to be broken.

 

Hello, dweebs!

We talked previously about the nature and use of theory, and this represents sort of a continuation of that trend. Lightning review: A theory is a piece of knowledge we create to explain reality. It’s useful when it explains reality. There, now you don’t need to read that entire blog post. Anyone who read that blog post: I’m sorry. No substitutions, exchanges, or refunds.

Imagine I make a theory. Imagine I come up with a new theory of, fuck, I don’t know. ADHD. What do I do next? What do you do when you make a theory?

You tell somebody. You peer review it. We review it. We deploy it. We decide when and how to deploy it. When it’s useful. When it isn’t. Newton’s Laws explain the interactions of bodies in certain situations? How do we know when to apply Newton’s Laws? Boyle’s law? Tremendous short-cut happening here, based on Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions: We decide whether or not a theory applies based on previously established sets of rules.

We have a kind of unspoken knowledge about science, about theories, which tells us in which situations it’s acceptable to deploy a theory which explains one kind of phenomenon, versus another.

Further, we have different levels of knowledge about when to deploy a theory! This is a skill you can get good at. Having different ways of looking at the world, and knowing when to use which, is a skill you can get good at. The shortcut happening here is on Bourdieu’s Outline Of A Theory Of Practice, which you should read, because it’s fascinating, but also never read that, because it’s the single densest work I’ve ever read.

So. Juggling between theories (sets of rules) is a skill. How do we get good at skills? Practice. What kind of practice? Toggling between different sets of rules.

Let’s talk about jobs.

Have you ever had a job which required you to interact with the public in a customer service capacity? If so, you’ll know the feeling I refer to when I talk about “switching on” your “customer service voice.” It’s an entire set of rules, attitudes, and practices, which you have to inhabit for an entire shift, maybe with a break for lunch. Eventually, most people who work in customer service develop the skill of being able to put on this Voice at the drop of a hat, being able to deploy this set of practices in situations where it is helpful.

But you can’t be a customer service person all the time. 

Let’s talk about college. Going to college is hard. Not just because you have to read hard books and write a lot of words in a row one after the other. That’s hard, too. But also because there’s so much about college that you just have to know. Especially for first-generation college students,the amount of unspoken information in the “culture” of higher education is tremendous.  

Shortcut: being a successful customer service worker requires a different set of skills, rules, and information, compared to being a successful student.

Layer of complexity: Being a successful student and a successful customer service worker are not guarantees of being an emotionally healthy human.  Any successful student will tell you that. Further, being a successful student is not the same as being erudite, which we’ve previously discussed.

Now we have four distinct skills. Being a healthy human, being a good professional, being a good student, and being an erudite human. These are all complexes of skills; not just a single skill, but many interconnected ones.

Summary: Even to exist in society requires multiple sets of partially overlapping skill-complexes. We can begin to deploy a postmodern lens now, to highlight the edges of each “sphere” of knowledge. This is again, in part, a shortcut partial summary of Bourdieu; individuals who are good at being members of their society are good at the skill of choosing which rules and which knowledges apply in a given situation.

You could extend this metaphor to any other kind of work. Problems in the real world can often be solved in a nearly infinite variety of ways; the ways we as individuals choose as problem-solving are often selected from among our strengths. Example: I worked in customer service for years, and as a result have developed an instinct for when something is above someone’s pay grade. I attended a four-year-college, and so learned that at a small school you can sometimes solve a problem by literally going to talk to the person in charge of that department. When I have problems, I tend to default to a combination of these approaches: very politely working my way to the top of the chain of responsibility and reasonably asking for help.

Someone from a business background might have a very different approach, which superficially is the same. Both might be effective.

Basically: When we try to solve problems in real life, we are constantly improvising, innovating when faced with new situations, applying multiple sets of rules simultaneously, trying to reach the “best” possible outcome.

Assertion: Solving theoretical or moral problems could benefit from the same behavior; becoming familiar with multiple sets of rules, improvising within them with the guidance of experience, growing better at solving these problems not because of the application of a set of rules (shortcut: Bourdieu) but by practice.

This assertion is a shortcut, too, incorporating part of Aristotle’s Ethics. 

At the bottom of this draft I wrote: “A non-hopepunk conception of the goodness of humanity would have to be framed by a conception of its not-badness.” What the fuck does that have to do with this hot mess of 953 barely-comprehensible words?

Find out next week.

Does philosophy have to be useful?

BOY that’s a question, isn’t it?

I started writing this blog post because I’ve always been interested in the idea of “pragmatic” philosophers, up to and including “common language” philosophers; this is an American school of thought within the modern analytic tradition, which I’ve always sort of vaguely jived with, without ever actually bothering to read any closer or study in any depth. Now that this blog post is at the top of my drafts list, I’ve got to study up and learn a little more, and you, poor unfortunate reader, are stuck coming along for the ride.

Preliminary statement: I quite like the idea of pragmatists just based on what is connoted by the name. I am one of those people who think philosophy should be of some practical use. I use the Aristotle quote about we are discussing “how we ought to live” about every six months. I’d take a step further in fact and say that philosophy must be of some practical use, otherwise it is of very little good to anyone.

One of my first real contacts with pragmatic philosophy was in the form of this quote by John Dewey, where he asks (about philosophy):

“Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful? Or does it terminate in rendering the things of ordinary experience more opaque than they were before, and in depriving them of having in ‘reality’ even the significance they had previously seemed to have? Does it yield the enrichment and increase of power of ordinary things which the results of physical science afford when applied in every-day affairs?”*

I found Dewey an interesting figure in part because of his methodology. He alternated continuously between theorizing about the world and practicing; his theories are said to have been influenced by ongoing events during his lifetime, and are informed and built around the uses to which he put them.

THIS REMINDS ME OF ARISTOTLE FOR THE FOLLOWING REASON

Yeah that’s right we’re gonna talk about Aristotle. It’s gonna be chill tho. There are a lot of different ways in which people argue and fight about Aristotle’s theory of ethics; we’re not going to get into all of them. Extremely extremely simplified version; there is a school of thought which suggests that part of what Aristotle is saying makes a good person, essentially, is just asking, “Do you have a consistent rationale for how you engage with the world?” (logos).

The theorists and “thinkers” who I tend to read all orbit around this idea of applied ethics. People who assert that it is not simply enough to be able to hold a theoretically advanced and incredibly precise conversation about human motivation; the system of ethics which you believe, the guiding philosophy which you espouse, must also be something which is visible in the public sphere. (Public sphere? marketplace? community?)

Because I’m long past the point in my life where I pretend that I care at all about a coherent transition from one idea to another, let’s talk about one of James Hillmans’ final books; We’ve Had A Hundred Years Of Psychotherapy–And The World Is Getting Worse. This book is a collaboration between Hillman and a novelist named Michael Ventura (who is now also one of my personal heroes). James Hillman, (1926-2011, QEDP) was an influential depth psychologist and psychotherapist who has not yet been the subject of a biopic starring David Strathairn, but I’m working on the screenplay, and Mr. Strathairn can expect a call from my agency.

We’re going to cite this book a lot in the coming year, but for now, I’m going to credit and allude to it vaguely for the following idea; ethics and values cannot be internal processes. An idea of health, an idea of goodness, and an idea of what, sort of, the meaning of all this actually is, these things have to be connected back to the world. Somewhere in the last decades? centuries? it feels as though this process has been internalized, certainly in the public consciousness. People want to know, what can I, personally, do to help the environment? How can I make what I believe part of my personal daily life? Well, that’s great. That’s one step further from pretending the issue doesn’t exist (one step towards what? great question).

Bringing this way way way way back to the beginning of this ramble. I’m interested by the pragmatists because they were often public intellectuals. I think that’s an interesting sort of divide to draw about intellectuals. Public vs. private intellectuals. We’ve talked previously about erudition, the quality hiding in the backgrounds of our great intellectuals. We’ve talked about social constructs and their great influence on our lives. We talked about the purpose of theory and, in a very very small part, we’ve talked about the impact that modernism and postmodernism have had on our culture, our “global” culture. Less than a week ago we talked about citations, how they work as part of this big, zany collaborative project that is human culture.

The crux of this post, of what draws me to pragmatics, what interests me in all these diverse figures, is really no better articulated than in the quote I start with.

“Does it end in conclusions which, when they are referred back to ordinary life-experiences and their predicaments, render them more significant, more luminous to us, and make our dealings with them more fruitful?”

To answer the question I asked at the beginning of this post, yes, sort of. The end. The practice of philosophy, like the practice of any other art, ought always be connected back to the world. Saying that philosophy should always be “useful” feels a little totalitarian. But philosophy should always be available for practical use. I suppose that’s part of the project with this blog; to put a little bit of philosophy and theory out into the world and make it available for practical use. This airy-fairy work should always be grounded in something. A comfortable place for me; back to the old question I always ask when I encounter a new idea:

“What does it mean?”

 

 

*Experience and Nature, Dewey (1926)

PREVIOUSLY ON THIS BLOG we talked about ERUDITION, a quality possessed by many (I would argue, all) historically meaningful intellectuals. (notice how I use the completely useless category of historically meaningful, so that I can then move the goalposts as I see fit and remain completely beyond reproach)

Today we’re going to talk about CONTEXT and CITATIONS. 

But we’re going to start by talking about monkeys.

Well. By talking about ourselves. After all, we are essentially monkeys. Just because we invented wine and berets, doesn’t mean we get to discount our hominid heritage.

A LONG LONG TIME AGO, WE WERE MONKEYS. And then, very suddenly, we weren’t. Now, lots of people much smarter and more qualified than me have argued a lot about when and how we went from monkeys to humans, so rather than attempt to get involved with the dumpster fire inherent in any untrained foray into evolutionary theory, i’m just going to say; one critical thing which separates us from monkeys, and thence, from animals, is culture. And by “culture” I mean a shared set of symbols, meanings, and behaviors, which can be transmitted horizontally (peer to peer) and vertically (parent to child).

(this is sort of a quick, sloppy, half-assed definition of culture. at another date when i feel like diving back into Bordieu, I will probably put up a Toolbox post about culture. Until then, please indulge me)

WHAT IS SO IMPORTANT ABOUT THIS? Let’s put this in brutish, crude, animalistic terms, by using a computer science metaphor.

Suddenly, our computing power was tremendously magnified. With the ability to cumulatively learn from our peers’ and parents’ happy accidents and tragic errors, we could, effectively, brute-force reality, trial-and-erroring our way into a system of accumulated knowledge which probably either would originally have best been titled, “How Not To Fuck Up And Get Eaten By Cheetahs,” or, (alternative joke! please tell me which you preferred in the comments!), is indistinguishable from any pickup artist blog. (yeah! get dunked on, pickup artists! this is a relevant cultural commentary! it’s always 2009 on my blog!)

this red font makes me nostalgic for Warframe 

anyway

POINT BEING; (again; shit slapdash shorthand) the power of culture is that we can take the entire set of “all the shit we know” and allow any schmuck to access it through language and practise, which is accessible to (nearly) anyone. It’s basically acoustic google.  It’s “Hey Alexa” but it only works if you know the actual names of people around you. It’s a Legend Lore spell but any class can cast it as a ritual. This definition is designed to be optimally useful for the point I wanted to make! I’ve just discovered that I can change the colors of the font. OH YEAH THAT’S THE STUFF. EIGHT FOOT VERTICAL LEAP

SUDDENLY, we had traditions. We had accumulated knowledge. We had, in a sense, eliminated the tremendous obstacle of time. Our lifespans were no longer a limitation, because we would pass what we had learned on to inform the next generation, who would be just a little different, maybe a little better-equipped, a little better-adapted, to face their lives in the future.

I started this post by talking about citations. I threatened, once, to talk about citations on this blog (and if the professor who taught me how to properly cite ever saw me using in-text citations on an “intellectual blog” he would hunt me down and beat me to death with a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style)(the jarring in-text citations are part of the joke! it’s a stylistic choice!), and we now approach dangerously close to the area of philosophy of science. Buckle up.

It’s very, very, very tempting to think of human knowledge as this thing that slowly accretes big-t Truth like cotton candy gathered on the spokes of ever-spinning research. (side note: WordPress, your spellcheck doesn’t know the word accrete? get your shit together. god damn.) And wooo boy we are getting awful close to that metaphor now, talking about “brute forcing reality.” It’s a great idea. It stirs the soul, because it lets us let that big word off the chain, that word we haven’t been able to comfortably use since the 30s, TRUTH. 

We will talk more about Truth on this blog. I have already talked about Truth, both forwards and backwards in time from this point. (the fact that I write these posts months in advance and structure them ahead of time makes this whole process a little surreal; not to mention I don’t exactly have the best grasp of the passage of time); Our relationship to Truth is a little “it’s complicated” right now (see previous writings about Postmodernism)

But for now we’re going to talk about citations. Citations, which are not signposts on a big “tree of knowledge” which we are slowly and inexorably constructing. Time is deep, and truth is built on shifting sands. The truths and sources that we considered authoritative and justified in the past (Boethius, Aristotle, Freud, Marcus Aurelius, Marco Polo) have been overwritten by the truths and sources we consider authoritative and justified in the present (Einstein, Darwin, still Aristotle, Skinner, Rick Steves). But even though what we call Truth might shift and sway with the movements of culture (because culture inexorably defines truth, and the images we conceive, and I’m getting ahead of myself), citations are forever.

Citations are not signposts on a big tree of knowledge. They are trail markers in a forest, to show where others have gone and where they were going. Maybe walking their path backwards or forwards can illuminate our own. I’ve talked before about erudition, and in fact this post is a direct sequel to that thought.

WE DO NOT LIVE ALONE, AND WE HAVE NOT LIVED ALONE.

Others are in the forest with us, and we can share what we’ve learned with them, tell them about the paths we’ve traveled. Others have been there before us, marking out their discoveries, and we follow their markings to see whether or not what they found can still be of use. More will come after us, and we leave our markings in turn so that they can find their way back. The forest shifts and changes, and what we look for is changing too, collectively and individually.

But we leave signposts. There are restaurant reviews scratched on the walls of Pompeii. We leave signposts. Cite your work. And for the love of god, don’t bother us with it in the text. Do it with footnotes.*

 

 

 

Footnotes: 

*That’s right, I can’t figure out how to superscript numbers on WordPress, so we’re doing this the old-fashioned way.