Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dangerous Tendencies

Here's another passage from Terry Bouton's Taming Democracy, on the topic of public attitudes towards corporations in the 1780s (with the Bank of North America as the particular case in point):
. . . people worried that the bank would eventually destroy democracy. Thousands of Pennsylvanians complained in their petitions that bankers [...] had begun "to acquire influence in our public councils, and an ascendancy in the government, subversive of the dearest rights of the people." They were worried that "a small number" of "monied men" and "perhaps a single stockholder" could eventually use the bank's growing economic might to begin "actually governing" the state as a shadow government. Others spoke of how it was "highly dangerous" and "Contrary to [the] spirit of a republican government" to have an "institution" that was "placed out of the reach of the legislature," noting that not even "the former government" had been willing to create a private "influence" so "powerful and alarming."

It was not that these people thought bankers were somehow innately sinister; instead, they worried about [...] the "nature of the institution." As a profit-driven company, the bank operated under "natural principles" of doing whatever it took to make money. [...]

The belief that profit-driven corporations pose a grave threat to democracy led many people to declare that they should all be made illegal. Echoing the phrases in popular petitions, some state legislatures said for-profit corporations were "totally destructive of that equality which ought to prevail in a republic." "The accumulation of enormous wealth in the hands of" a company with corporate status, they declared, "will necessarily produce a degree of influence and power which cannot be entrusted in the hands of any set of men whatsoever without endangering the public safety." Others spoke of the "dangerous tendencies" of for-profit corporations or talked about corporate power as "an engine of destruction" that enabled "a few men to take advantage of their wealth." Even one of the state's leading writers on economics argued that any institution chartered for "its own immediate profit [was] incompatible with the interest of the State." "So powerful and uncontroulable a combination of property in private hands," this economist declared, could only lead to "an undue exercise of influence" over economic and political life--just as private corporations like the Bank of England had an "injurious" hold over the British Parliament.

This anti-corporate belief was so strong that, during the postwar decades, few government actions prompted the kind of swift, widespread, and visceral public condemnation as did the attempts of state leaders to grant corporate status. (pp. 111-112) (Elisions are mine; bracketed words are Bouton's.)

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Noted: Samuel Beckett

From Molloy, by Samuel Beckett:
But suddenly a woman rose up before me, a big fat woman dressed in black, or rather in mauve. I still wonder today if it wasn't the social worker. She was holding out to me, on an odd saucer, a mug full of a greyish concoction which must have been green tea with saccharine and powdered milk. Nor was that all, for between mug and saucer a thick slab of dry bread was precariously lodged, so that I began to say, in a kind of anguish, It's going to fall, it's going to fall, as if it mattered whether it fell or not. A moment later I myself was holding, in my trembling hands, this little pile of tottering disparates, in which the hard, the liquid and the soft were joined, without understanding how the transfer had been effected. Let me tell you this, when social workers offer you, free, gratis and for nothing, something to hinder you from swooning, which with them is an obsession, it is useless to recoil, they will pursue you to the ends of the earth, the vomitory in their hands. The Salvation Army is no better. Against the charitable gesture there is no defence, that I know of. You sink your head, you put out your hands all trembling and twined together and you say, Thank you, thank you lady, thank you kind lady. To him who has nothing it is forbidden not to relish filth.

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Too many people to buy off

In my last post, I wrote the following incomplete passage:
In the popular conception, independence meant owning property; most people were farmers. Economic independence meant political independence. It was widely felt that one could not be "free" if one was economically dependent. For most people, this meant owning land.
There was a lot I left unsaid here, and I fear that the effect is misleading and undermines the overall point of the piece. I should have taken more time to expand on it. If people, ordinary people, believed that one could not be truly independent if one did not own property, where does that leave us? How is their conception one that should inspire us? When we learn rules that require the ownership of property, don't we instinctively think they are wrong? I know I do. I can remember in my youth being indignant upon first learning that the true beneficiaries of the American Revolution, of the new "democracy", were the propertied classes, that the system was never meant to be broadly democratic, etc.

In any event, Terry Bouton's Taming Democracy helped me to understand better why people would link economic independence with political independence in the first place, but it also discusses their movement beyond the notion that only property owners should be able to vote or take part in the political process. I should have noted that, though many colonial Americans were indeed farmers (and could be said to "own" land), many were not. There were numerous artisans and laborers and apprentices (not to mention slaves, of course). It was felt that these sorts of people would be pressured by their employers or landlords to vote a certain way. It is in this way that they would have been said to not be "politically independent". Even so, with the more radical 1776 Pennsylvania constitution nearly all adult men could vote (including free black men), with the removal of all property requirements. Here is Bouton:
This opening represented a dramatically new way of thinking about voting and citizenship. In the past, governments had focused on limiting the franchise to adult men who own sufficient property because it was thought that only those with property could be truly “independent” citizens. Governments had disenfranchised propertyless “dependents,” whom it was thought would vote as their landlord, employers, or creditors directed. It was said that preventing dependents from voting would keep wealthy men from corrupting the political system. As Pennsylvanians broke from Britain, they also abandoned this old way of thinking about voting. The new focus was to protect against corruption by giving the vote to men who held little or no property. The idea was that an expanded electorate would protect against corruption better because, with so many voters, there would be too many people to buy off. At the same time, it was thought that allowing ordinary folk to vote would give them the power they needed to get access to money, credit, and land and become independent. And with property in many hands, it would be even harder for the affluent to control political life. There were remnants of the old thinking in this new ideal: Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries still considered the propertyless a possible threat. But they now believed that giving the vote to ordinary folk was the only way to keep the wealthy in check. (pp. 53-54)
I think that fleshes things out a little better, so I'll leave the topic for now. . . (Though I hope to return to the idea that "one could not be 'free' if one was economically dependent".)

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Myth Rushes in to Fill the Gap

"We praise democracy most of the time, but we practice it as if we had accepted every argument against it, as if we believed it must depress the level of culture and of public life." - Marilynne Robinson (2007)

". . . when communal memory, dialogic memory, breaks down or disappears, myth rushes in to fill the gap." - Gabriel Josipovici, "Memory: Too Little/Too Much" (1999) in The Singer on the Shore (2006)

"Opportunitys once lost is not easily recovered." - William Petrikin, letter to John Nicholson (1789) quoted in Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy

I've made the argument here that democracy, properly understood, should mean a society in which people have non-trivial say over basic decisions affecting their actual lives. We have a fantasy that the history of the United States is the unfolding of this great experiment in democracy, but it is exactly that: a fantasy. A case can be made, fairly easily, that the history of this country is in reality the history of the systematic prevention of democracy. The U.S. Constitution, that holy document, in particular is a key element in this thwarting of democracy, and yet in our imagination, the Constitution is held up as defining and protecting democracy.

In a recent post, I mentioned my reading of Eric Foner's book, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. I said that, for me, the most interesting aspect of the book was how it showed "how the established leaders of Pennsylvania, for example, co-opted the more radical elements, before re-consolidating their power during the revolution itself, with the resulting system being far less free than many had hoped and fought for." Subsequent to that post, I read the book Taming Democracy (Oxford 2007), by Terry Bouton. Bouton's book is subtitled "The People," the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution and is a fascinating study of the raised and finally crushed hopes of the revolutionary generation. (Full disclosure: Bouton was one of Aimée's college professors. I've never met him.) One thing that struck me about reading the book is the centrality of economics to the arguments and struggles of the time. As Ellen Meiksins Wood has shown (see her Democracy Against Capitalism or Empire of Capital or The Origins of Capitalism), one of the key features of capitalism is the wholesale separation of the economic from the political. Economic decisions are made outside of the political realm, whereas the state enforces the conditions necessary for these decisions to have weight. That is, since economic power lies elsewhere, our impact on crucial decisions is negligible, regardless of whatever political victories we may claim. This is why voting is reduced to our selection of one of two candidates, both of whom ultimately serve not the people, but big money. This is difficult to see, since capitalism is like the air we breath, so it is bracing to read about the obvious role of economics in the conceptions of freedom held in earlier eras.

Bouton focuses on Pennsylvania, as did Foner, largely because of Pennsylvania's role as both the center of the most radical popular revolutionary attitudes and as the focus of the counter-revolution that began during the war itself, finally resulting in the Federal Constitution, “taming democracy”, as the title has it. He explains the various economic policies imposed by the British that led to the revolution. It begins with British attempts to extract payment from the colonies in order to pay for the heavy expenses of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which it tried to do by "enact[ing] a set of policies encompassing trade, finance, and taxation that created a profound scarcity of money". Colonies were forbidden from printing paper money as legal tender, and paper was pretty much all the colonies used, since they had so little gold or silver (there was a huge trade deficit with Britain). Through the 1760s, it was increasingly argued by ordinary people that what was wrong with British policies was not just abstract political concepts like "Taxation without Representation”, but that such policies impacted the population unequally, and that this inequality, aside from being unfair, meant that people lacked say over important decisions. In the popular conception, independence meant owning property; most people were farmers. Economic independence meant political independence. It was widely felt that one could not be "free" if one was economically dependent. For most people, this meant owning land. (We are, of course, talking about white men, let's not forget. And it was taken for granted that they had the right to take land from Native Americans.)

By 1776, a decade-plus of popular agitation led to the adoption in Pennsylvania of a new constitution. It was the most radical, most democratic constitution in the colonies, and very popular with ordinary Pennsylvanians. It included many of the features which later became part of the Bill of Rights, and most interestingly, a unicameral legislature:
Modern Americans are accustomed to thinking about the height of democratic government as a divided legislature (house and senate) and a powerful executive (president) armed with the veto. Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries thought otherwise. They viewed such a government as checking democracy rather than promoting it. After all, divided government was a British legacy, where the king and upper chamber of Parliament (the House of Lords, filled with titled aristocrats who served for life) checked the democratic branch (the House of Commons). Most Pennsylvanians believed they had suffered under such a system. Consequently, they wanted a new government that would remove the barriers that had kept their voices from being heard.
The executive had only advisory and enforcement powers. "[T]his was the most democratic government in the new nation; according to Benjamin Franklin, that meant it was also 'the safest and best.'" Consider Marilynne Robinson's quote at the top of this post. She's right, isn't she? Don't we think it's in our best interests that there be an "upper" house of Congress, or any legislature? Got to keep the rabble in line. That is, I would wager, our official American position. Whenever I see a discussion about democracy in its purest form, there is a recoiling away: always the assumption is that you simply can't have it; people can't be trusted. But in the 18th century, the bulk of ordinary people seemed to believe otherwise. Naturally, the wealthy were horrified at the idea.

I don't plan a detailed review of the Taming Democracy here, but suffice it to say that reading it was an often revelatory and infuriating experience. I was inspired by the simple idea that most people believed they had the right to a say in decisions affecting their lives, that they believed they had the right to fight for it and did in fact fight for it. I was especially inspired by what he calls the "rings of protection", concentric rings of people resisting unpopular laws: sheriffs refusing to enforce, judges refusing to sentence, people refusing to attend property auctions, people digging trenches across access roads, preventing tax collection and eviction, and countless other kinds of acts in common cause. To quote from John Pilger, writing about his native Australia (in his book Heroes): "Genuine Australian radicalism, without the closed logic of any fear or prejudice, flowed from experience and conditions, rather than from theory or intellectual fashion. . ." The experience of ordinary colonial Americans led to the radicalism of the Revolution against the British, and to the decades-long resistance to the counter-revolution and to the unpopular Constitution. Most of this history is lost, effaced, forgotten, replaced by the myths of the founding fathers and the glory of that Constitution.

Marilynne Robinson's words quoted at the beginning of this post come towards the end of her short essay, "A Great Amnesia", which was adapted from a talk she gave at Amherst college and which appears in the Readings section of the latest issue of Harper’s (May 2008). I think it's an important piece. She discusses the time she spent reading political economy in her spare time at Amherst, during which she learned of the "iron law" of wages, which has it that "the great class of those who lived by their labor could not earn more than subsistence", an iron law that "has come into force again in much of the world as a consequence of a form of competition that has based national economies on the poverty and low expectations of the mass of their populations." But her discussion begins in the library at Amherst, a library that was "almost always equal" to her demands. She talks about a house that was part of the Underground Railroad, and "other hints at participation in the great issues of an earlier America". And here's where her piece unfolds. The significance of these hints only struck her when she found herself in the Middle West, and "found any number of Amhersts . . . scattered over the landscape." She talks of colleges founded in the Midwest, the faculties of which
seem to have been composed largely of graduates of divinity schools in New England and New York, which sent bands out in to the West to advance the cause of liberal education and the reforms it was meant to promote, including the abolition of slavery and the advancement of women. Many of these colleges were racially integrated and integrated by gender also before the Civil War.
She elaborates:
A very generous hope was abroad in America which undertook to realize itself in the wide diffusion of a kind of education historically associated with privilege. That it was intended to break down the barriers education had historically enforced is clear from the fact that it was open to otherwise excluded groups, African Americans and women. Also, many of these schools were organized according to what was called the Manual Labor System. This meant that everyone in the college community, including the faculty, did the work involved in the keeping it fed and housed, in order to assure that there would be no economic barriers to education. On the frontier this meant everyone chopped weeds and butchered hogs and operated the printing presses that poured out abolitionist pamphlets, many of them mailed to the South. The association of learnedness with privilege or leisure was intentionally undercut.

. . . the strength of this movement was based on the willingness of a surprising number of highly educated people to leave the relative comfort of the East for lives of almost unimaginable difficulty, based on the assumption, which proved true, that the populations that found their way to the prairie would have an interest in Latin and Greek, mathematics and logic. [. . .] Their intention was to re-create American society by practicing as well as promoting standards of justice and freedom to which the nation had not risen.
What happened to destroy this great experiment in democracy? She points to "the emergence of Social Darwinism". Certainly Social Darwinism "had precursors in many forms, not surprisingly, since there is nothing easier than persuading people of their natural superiority to other people." But Social Darwinism was accepted as science for a long time, and "[t]here is no arguing with science". She talks about a "great amnesia": it mattered not that there had been blacks and women admitted to and succeeding in colleges before the Civil War; since science now "proved" that they were inferior, "there was no use for that kind of information." I think she makes a compelling point about Social Darwinism and its scientific imprimatur. (This is not the place for me to go into the differences between science as a practice, and the effects and practices of institutional Science then and now.) I would also point to the bottom-line needs of the emerging industrial economy (though they are related: Social Darwinism was tailor-made for capitalism).

Robinson in her essay notes that if she "had not been struck by the anomalous presence" of these Midwestern Amhersts, these New England colleges and towns found in the middle of the heartland, she would not have "learned that aspirations for American democracy had once been so generous and at the same time so high". While reading the essay, I immediately linked it in my mind with the stories found in Taming Democracy. With both, we have the lost history of a more expansive conception of what democracy can be, of what community can be, conceptions that I believe can help us find a way forward, out of our current mess. These conceptions have been buried beneath the weight of History. As she says, these things are not part of the "story we tell ourselves". We tell ourselves other stories, exaggerated stories: of individual freedom, of invention, of progression over time, of rights granted from above instead of won from below. Meanwhile, our communal memories of what once was, and what once was thought possible in common cause, have been obliterated, replaced in many ways by persistent "fear and prejudice" and by diminished expectations. And myth rushed in to fill the gap.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

We lack jouissance

A few weeks ago, I questioned the appropriateness of Leon Wieseltier's preface to the new edition of Reflections, a collection of essays by Walter Benjamin. In the offending passage I quoted from, there was a small fragment with which, on its own, I must admit some sympathy. This is when he writes: "I confess that there are many pages of Benjamin that I do not understand . . ." Unfortunately, he completes this thought with ". . . in which the discourse seems to be dictating itself, and no direction is clear", which seems, again, designed to exert undue influence on the reader approaching Benjamin for the first time.

Nevertheless, I also confess that there have been many pages of Benjamin that I have not understood, though I am not so eager to assign the blame to Benjamin. It's possible that many of his pages, which often amount to sketches or fragmentary thoughts, are less explicable to me because, in fact, they are incomplete and were not intended for publication. Perhaps he simply hadn't completed the work necessary to make himself more clear, either because he didn't have time, or because he gave up on the item in question. But the truth is, I have some of the same problems with parts of essays that are clearly finished and were published during Benjamin's lifetime, so this provisional explanation doesn't satisfy me. I've written here before about my experiences reading Benjamin, describing a "vertiginous feeling" I have while doing so. While there are great moments of lucidity, when it seems as if complex ideas suddenly come into focus, the fact remains that I often literally don't know what the words on the page are supposed to signify. I have experienced similar problems with other critics. I'm thinking now of Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot. I have great difficulty understanding what they're talking about. For the most part, the words look like words I should understand, but the sense often eludes me. It takes me several passes before I am able to decide what is being said in a given passage.

What is the problem? Are these writers simply obscure? Is it all gibberish? I think there are a few problems. First, note that each of these three writers wrote in a language other than English--Benjamin in German, Barthes and Blanchot in French. I read neither German nor French, which means that I am, by necessity, reading these writers in translation. So something is lost, something which perhaps makes it difficult for me, at least, to access these writings. Richard Howard writes in his preface to Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text:
. . . the French have a vocabulary of eroticism, an amorous discourse which smells neither of the laboratory nor of the sewer, which just--attentively, scrupulously--puts the facts. In English, we have either the coarse or the clinical, and by tradition our words for our pleasures, even for the intimate parts of our bodies where we may take those pleasures, come awkwardly when they come at all. So that if we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take--the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its most abrupt and ruthless pitch--we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French utterance; we lack jouissance and jouir, as Barthes uses them here. The nomenclature of active pleasure fails us. . .
Howard goes on to discuss the solutions translator Richard Miller devised to bridge this gap, but the point here is the gap itself. Is it possible that these texts are simply not to be understood? Obviously this is not an acceptable answer. Others seem to be able to read them, and I consider it the height of presumptuousness to assume that readers are not actually reading, with pleasure or with understanding, what they say they're reading. (Ignoring for the moment the inexplicably popular writer, as well as those times in our lives when, perhaps, we do indeed claim pleasures in order to please others.) Though Miller generally supplies "bliss" for Barthes' jouissance, the latter is a term I've seen used by writers writing in English--one of those terms for which the translated word is simply not sufficient, so the original has entered the target language. Yet for it to do so, a body of readers would have had to understand the term conceptually.

In any event, too many people I respect consider these and other critical thinkers to be not just coherent, but of the utmost importance to them. One such person is Gabriel Josipovici, and if I'm able to profitably read Josipovici's critical essays, why then shouldn't I be able to read Maurice Blanchot's? Of course, Josipovici himself writes in English (and appears to be able to read French and German, not to mention Hebrew), so perhaps this is still the difference, for me? Or maybe that's only part of it.

As I might have expected, Steve Mitchelmore suggests a possible direction. This is only appropriate, since it was through This Space that I first learned of Josipovici. Last week, Steve posted a list of some of his favored texts of literary criticism, texts which he warns "may contain erudite literary argument." One of these is Maurice Blanchot by William Large & Ullrich Haase. (It also includes Michael Wood's wonderful The Magician's Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction, the only book on the list I've read.) In the comments to this post, Steve writes that he recommends the Large & Haase book because "it's a straightforward and memorable intro for English readers mired in English commonsense reading habits." That final phrase "English commonsense reading habits" jumped out at me, as if Steve had been reading my mind as I've been struggling with these issues and writers. (And as such, this book has been immediately added to the wishlist.)

"Commonsense": this word by itself says a lot, doesn't it? I think the idea of "commonsense reading habits" as related to what I was getting at recently in a couple of posts in which I lamented a kind of writing that I called "depressingly utilitarian", which I further identified as primarily Anglo-American. I said that this writing--journalism, columns, opinion pieces, not true essays--means to impart information. And we, as readers, expect usefulness; we expect information. We don't expect to work too much. We resent work. We might be conditioned to shout down someone who appears to be making an issue too "black and white" (usually when we simply disagree: everyone else is always more intractable than we are), but in reality, we have difficulty with nuance; ambiguity bugs us. I mentioned Anglo-American writing, but I can really only vouch for my observations as a middle-class, white American, with a lazy college degree, and a blandly liberal, yet politically conservative, upbringing. We expect writing to speak plain truths--we assume truths are plain. We want the language, in general, to be plain-spoken. If a book cannot be simply opened up and read and grasped by an uninitiated reader, then it must be bullshit ("gibberish"). Writing that is not plain-spoken is difficult and therefore pretentious. People who claim to enjoy supposedly difficult writing are poseurs (or, possibly, elitists). Philosophy is suspect. In my life, I've had more than one person say to me that they had no intention of reading philosophy, because why should someone else's random thoughts on life have any bearing on your own? What makes the philosophers' "opinions" more worthy of consideration than my own? What use could they possibly have? Or, why read philosophy when science has actual answers? (I realize these are gross generalizations and over-simplifications and that plenty of Americans do not subscribe to these attitudes. Forgive me.) My instincts tell me that this problem has to do with the culture of capitalism (and of course it has everything to do with education), but I have neither the time nor the energy to expand on that notion right now. (Having neither time nor energy being intimately related to said culture.)

Ok, I'm all over the map in this post (so it feels), and I'm going to have to come to an unsatisfactory close. Steve's recommendation and the acknowledgment contained in his "commonsense" phrase, these are reminders that some things do require work, pleasure among them. One must learn to read philosophical and critical writing. One must spend time with it (time which may be hard to come by). And those of us used to expecting utilitarian writing, used to a certain kind of reading, may need to teach ourselves how to read differently, better, and may need some assistance in learning how to do so as we approach certain kinds of writing.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Find a Subject

At Already Half Naked, David E. Ford, Jr., has posted an intriguing review of Gus Van Sant's latest movie, Paranoid Park. He ends with this:
Some reviewers have even remarked that Van Sant appears to be in a rut, going over much of the same territory he explored in his earlier films. This complaint echoes many of those made about the recent films of Wes Anderson. What these reviewers seem to ignore is that this is precisely what artists do: find a subject and repeatedly explore it in order to reveal new perspectives and deeper meanings.
These reviewers (and others) don't ignore this so much as they remain blissfully unaware of it. Yet it seems obviously true to me.

(Oh, and please check out David's excellent new blog. He's been posting some very interesting stuff over there.)

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Who it is that Chooses

I've been taking a lot of breaks in the midst of my reading of Proust. During these breaks, I've been reading non-fiction (somehow it doesn't feel right for me to begin another narrative before completing my journey with Proust). At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading Thomas Merton, the Christian existentialist. From what I've read so far, I think Merton has much to say to us today, whether Christian or not. In "Learning to Live", the first essay of his posthumous collection Love and Living, he begins thus:
Life consists in learning to live on one's own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one's own--be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid.

The purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself authentically and spontaneously in relation to his world--not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world, still less an arbitrary definition of the individual himself. The world is made up of the people who are fully alive in it: that is, of the people who can be themselves in it and can enter into a living and fruitful relationship with each other in it. The world is, therefore, more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive: that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. Basically, this freedom must consist first of all in the capacity to choose their own lives, to find themselves on the deepest possible level. A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions (in Pascal's sense) is simply a sham. It claims to be a freedom of "choice" when it has evaded the basic task of discovering who it is that chooses. It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.
Countless things could be said about our current methods of education. That they in general show people how to "define [themselves] authentically" is not one of them. And do we choose our own lives? How many of us drift aimlessly to a certain point, before we realize what's happened to us? My life in particular has been marked by this aimlessness. Over the years, I've become aware of the un-freedom of our modern freedom, a freedom that allows us innumerable pointless consumer decisions, but few real options, few alternatives. But this awareness has been essentially intellectual: I've scrupulously avoided dealing with it at an existential level. In recent months this has started to change. . . (we could call this post yet another placeholder, till such time as I am able to expand on various points with the detail and coherence they deserve).

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News

Dear readers, Aimée, my beautiful, brilliant wife, is pregnant, due to give birth in early August. We are, naturally, excited and nervous and thrilled and terrified. I turned 38 a little less than two weeks ago. Some time before then, when considering the birthday that was coming up, I was astonished to realize that I already thought of myself as 38. I've never been too wrapped up in birthdays, but this is the first time I've ever thought of myself as any older than I already was. I've decided that this is because I knew some months back that I would be 38 when our child would be born. Who am I going to be when this new person appears? Who will I be to him or her? How have I gotten where I am now? I am not in the practice of writing about my personal life here, other than the occasional exception for special announcements like this. However, I have been considering a more personal approach--the shift referred to in my last post. I'm considering this, not because I intend to stop writing about the things I've been writing about here, but because those things seem to require that I make such a shift, however subtle. For it seems to me that my ongoing concerns here at The Existence Machine are intimately tied in with my concerns about being an authentic person and about raising a child in this world.

Let me tell you something else personal: knowing Aimée has forced me to come to terms with hidden aspects of myself, forced me to take emotional risks, allowed me to begin the work of breaking down the protective veneer preventing me from, at times, being fully present in my own life, and allowed me to see this work as both possible and necessary. This is what love is all about. These processes are also wrapped up in my writing here. Not to worry: this blog will not morph into a personal diary about my most intimate hopes and fears, but it will at times be a place for me to try to translate literary and socio-political concerns into personal terms.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

Two Years?

That's the way things go around here: a flurry of activity, and then nothing for days on end.

The other day I was thinking about a possible shift in direction here. What might such a shift entail? As I was contemplating this question, I noticed that I had overlooked the fact that the second anniversary of this blog had come and gone. I can't say whether I'd have otherwise marked it or not (let's be honest: I probably would have), but perhaps the timing is appropriate.

What do I hope to accomplish here? A stumbling in the dark, after what? For what purpose? The writer of the blog No Answers engaged recently with a Spurious post from 2005, in which Lars reports having come dangerously close to an actual idea. Is there a threshold one must pass in order to become a better thinker? No Answers writes: "There is a very particular moment - almost a revelation - in which one recognises one's private thoughts as the possible seeds of a communal idea." I like this a lot. It suggests both the way in which one begins to think better (one opens oneself to debate with another), and the reason why it would be important that one would bother (community). That moment when you think something you've considered is worth sharing. For me, "communal idea" points to an idea that helps bring us together, which I see as relevant to most of what I try to write about here. . . more to flesh out later. . .

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