Queer by Nature

the song of love“Love” is not single act, such as gazing fondly at another, but is a total way of living in relation to another person that is enacted through myriad activities each of which on its own is neither a necessary condition for love nor a sufficient condition for love. Saying “I love you,” for example, does not automatically mean one is in love with another, (so it is not a sufficient condition) nor does not saying “I love you” automatically mean one is not in love with another (so it is not a necessary condition). What we should, but often do not, recognize, is that the same situation is true of sex.

Sex, like love, is a way of comporting oneself with another, and it is enacted through a complex web of different attitudes and practices. Once again, there is no necessary or sufficient condition for sex: in particular, it is not reducible to genital contact, nor is genital contact automatically sex. What makes our interaction truly a situation of “having sex” is the fact that we are erotically oriented to each other.

What is striking about the erotic is what the Greeks might call its “huperphuos”—literally, “supernatural”—character. A body enters our field of experience, and the whole environment is transformed: a new order of meaning overlays the world, a new order in which my body and that of the other are suddenly highlighted in a magical, magnetic way. Erotic experience takes us out of the ordinary, and we experience the opening up of a world beyond the everyday, a charged world where the very fabric of things takes on a new, exciting texture, a bodily texture in which we find ourselves bodily implicated.

danceErotic experience is first a kind of calling, a beckoning from one body to another. One feels oneself called upon to respond, to act in such a way as to take up the charge of the situation, but the charge is puzzling, ambiguous. The pull of erotic attraction cannot easily be translated into conceptual terms—it is not something we grasp by “understanding”—but calls, rather, for us to act with our bodies in such a way as to apprehend it, rather as we must twist and swing our bodies in dance to apprehend the music. The bodily action is a kind of answer to the question the other poses to us, but, as in any real conversation, the answer to the question is not given in advance. We feel that something is called for from us, but it is not immediately clear what that something is. The various activities we engage in—caressing, kissing, etc.—are so many attempts to “grab hold” of that originating impulse.

The erotic is thus “supernatural,” a magical transformation of the world that takes us outside the terms of normalcy and demands of us an action we cannot define in advance, and in which we feel the freedom—and the vertigo—of initiative. Sex, in short, is precisely erotic because it is not “natural,” not a pre-defined set of reactions to a pre-defined situation. The erotic is what takes us into something new and unprecedented, in which we cannot rely on an already established set of terms and rules.

At the same time it can feel very “natural” to us to engage in erotic life, but natural in the way of entering into a reality that is experienced as “that’s what I was waiting for,” though one didn’t know to look for it in advance. Sex is natural, not in a biological sense, but in the sense that we feel especially brought home to ourselves when we are called, puzzlingly, to creatively mould our bodily situation with this other body. It is natural, that is to say, as a form of experience rather than as a biological given. (No doubt it because we feel this call and response as a bodily emergence that we are sometimes tempted to confuse it with what is natural biologically.) That form of experience is specifically the call to take the initiative to creatively enact a new relation with someone in a way that our “nature” does not prescribe for us: it is precisely the imperative not to be dictated to by biological or social givens, but to respond uniquely to unpredictable bodily magnetisms.

the questionErotic perception is as hard to maintain as is artistic creativity. The puzzling challenge of the erotic call is not easily answered, and it is easiest to evade the unsettling beckoning of desire by drawing upon the readymade. Kissing, fondling and all the other stereotyped practices so familiar to us from the movies are easily substituted for authentic erotic engagement, and treated as if they were sex. In this behaviour, however, we confuse answer with question, and effectively return to another version of sexual “naturalism.”

Aristotle described the human being as the “animal having logos,” and this, he shows, implies that we have the peculiar characteristic that what is natural to us does not occur naturally. Politics and language are two of the most striking examples of realities that we have to bring into being in order to be able to truly be ourselves. Sex, it seems to me, is of this same nature.

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Protecting Identity

scienceWe don’t just live in our minds.  We also don’t just live in a world with other people.  We live with the need to have the world in our mind fit with the world of other people, and the shape our life takes is determined by how these two mesh.

At one level, this need to intergrate our subjective perception with the perceptions of others involves having our “factual” view about the world accord with the views others have of the facts.  The sense that we inhabit the same “real” world establishes a norm to which our personal views must answer, and the perspectives others have (especially others who have devoted careful attention to gathering and analyzing the evidence) thus offer a “check” on our opinions.

At another, ultimately more intimate level, the need for the integration of perspectives means having our sense of ourselves accord with the views others have of us.

elbows on tableIn any given encounter, it is possible to interact smoothly with another who thinks of you differently from the way you think of yourself.  It may be irritating, for example, to go to a restaurant or bar where you are a “regular,” and be treated by a newly hired server as a stranger to the place.  But many of us (not all!) can brush off such a slight, especially because we know that, in a short time, the server’s perspective will be corrected as she or he comes to learn from others of our long involvement with the place.  Or, again, it may be amusing to be lectured to by someone with far less experience in a matter with respect to which you are Sailoran expert, especially if you will soon return to a world where your expertise is recognized such that your sense of yourself is not significantly threatened by this minor case of misapprehension.  Finally, such a situation of misrecognition can even be strategic, that is, you might rely on being misunderstood so that you can subsequently win praise through revealing your unrecognized greatness.  I have a friend who used to do just that: at a young age, he had sailed both across the equator and through the arctic circle, thereby earning the privilege of resting both of his elbows upon the dinner table while at sea; he would regularly put his elbows on the table nonchalantly, counting upon being challenged by an older sailor who would presume from his youth that he had not earned the right to do so, only so that he could have the pleasure of proving that sailor wrong.

Reading Plato’s Apology of Socrates, however, is a good reminder that not all such situations of misrecognition are so easy to accommodate.

At the age of 70, Socrates was accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens.  Those who accused him and most of those who tried him were significantly younger than he was; they were not there when, as a young man, he spoke with Parmenides and Zeno, or when he learned the art of love from Diotima, or when he A philosopher amongst the youngreturned to Athens from a long absence and spoke with the young Charmides.  Indeed, a number of Plato’s writings that portray Socrates in dialogue with others are framed by the conversations of the individuals who are relaying the dialogue, and those followers, like the jurors at his trial, are also often at a great distance from the original conversation, reporting on something long past that they have only heard about from others.  Both at his trial and with his later followers, Socrates exists primarily as a reputation that he has acquired in the eyes of others–a reputation that may be quite at odds with the identity he actually lived through in the events of his life.  It is hard not to think that both his accusers and many of his followers significantly misrecognized him; in the case of his trial, that misrecognition cost him his life.

Gordon Russon M.D.Most of us will not be tried in court at the age of 70 and forced to justify our lives to the younger generation.  But it seems to be nearly a necessity that with age will come misrecognition.  Your children will not know you as the “life of the party” that you were when you were 25.  Since no one turns to you now for help, no one will recognize how much you know about mechanics, finance, or medicine.  Though for you your love affairs were many and meaningful, no one around you even knows of the existence of your former partners, let alone of your passionate, erotic style.

One need not be 70 or 80 to face such misrecognition.  We can all surely turn to those around us and notice how short and narrow is the history of our acquaintance with them.  But this issue seems especially pronounced for the very old.  When we are younger, we have resources to turn to with which to counter the force of misrecognition: we can turn to a more intimate community of peers and old friends where we feel better recognized, or we can demonstrate through our actions those aspects of our identity that others are failing to notice.  For the very old, though, there typically is no other community to turn to for recognition, and typically it is no longer realistically possible to re-enact an earlier identity.

We should take care that we remember that the old were once young, and that it is up to those of us who are now young to ensure the continuing recognition and remembrance of their true identity.


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Agencies of Scale

st augustineWhen Augustine came to Rome from his home in North Africa just before 400 A.D., he was coming to the cultural centre of that part of the world, rather as one trying to “make it” might travel now from a small mid-western town to New York City. But whereas New York has been a major city only for about 150 years (initially beginning to prosper through offering a regular naval cargo service operating back and forth to England), Rome had been a cultural capitol for centuries. In 410, though, Rome was sacked by the Goths, and, though that particular event may not be of tremendous significance by itself, it is emblematic of the dramatic change that took place around this time. Not only did the city of Rome fall prey to alien invaders: the whole Mediterranean and European cultural world of which it had been the centre for centuries was about to come to an end, to be replaced by an era not inappropriately called “the Dark Ages.”

I find it fascinating to reflect on the different perception one would have had in Rome in, say, 400, and the perception one would have had in, say, 450. While there were obvious signs of trouble by 400, I imagine that people generally did not imagine their whole world and all its familiar terms and structures were about to disappear; by 450, I imagine the millenium-long glory of Greco-Roman Mediterranean culture seemed the matter for a nostalgic dream.

downtown delhiI tend to think that we are living in Rome in 400. In other words, I think we are living in a world that is soon to undergo a pretty dramatic change. Our modern North American culture (and the broader culture of European modernity that is its context) was built up through generations of creative work, and, through both fair means and foul, this modern life was accomplished. Our modern generation, though, has mostly lived on the fruits of these accomplishments–not so much accomplishments in technology, which are obviously of central importance, but more importantly accomplishments in the development of social infrastructure such as sewage systems and roadways, accomplishments in political participation for historically marginalized groups, developments in intercultural communication and interaction, and so on–without particularly advancing or even protecting these accomplishments. Instead, the richness of our accomplished culture has been a great storehouse to be plundered by wily politicians, bankers and the like for many decades, while the broader population carries on its life largely oblivious to what is happening, content to live on the basis of the progressively attenuated form of the accomplishments of earlier generations. I fear that not long from now this world will look different in a way most of us, presuming without question the general continuation of the familiar, have not anticipated or prepared for.

Those who do look at the contemporary political world and there see impending political, economic and environmental disaster are typically disheartened and immobilized: it’s often hard to do much other than look on in disbelief at what is happening, (while nonetheless believing very much in the reality of what’s happening).

I think it is important in such situations for concerned individuals to remember that this was the age into which we were born. The forces that have brought us to this point were not of our making, and none of us has the individual power to change this contemporary state of things. We, as individuals, are not players at the global level and we should not, therefore, measure our individual agency by its ability to have an impact at that level. While it is easy (and no doubt proper!) to bemoan the state of the world–while it is important, in other words, not to be indifferent to global issues–it is, I think, essential to turn our energies to affairs that are of a size appropriate to the agency of individuals, and to concern ourselves with handling these affairs well.

study groupTeachers typically do not have the power to reduce the sizes of the classes that they are required, by the economic and organizational decisions of governments and educational administrators, to teach. While it is right to complain about the bad educational policies that produce such large classes and to contribute what one can to collective action aimed at pressuring administrators to improve things, (frustrating experiences in which we commonly discover more impotence than power), we should nonetheless complement these activities with the positive practice of doing what we can to offer the most we can to the students who have no other avenue to education than this, and we should recognize that, in so doing, we are offering an essential human service that will come from nowhere else if not from us.

peripheral visionWriters, musicians and other artists face a commercial and a political world that is systematically minimizing the cultural impact of the arts (and, coincidentally, crippling the capacity of artist’s to sustain themselves). But, in the absence of the ability to have a large-scale impact, (which is the glittering dream by which contemporary advertising tantalizes us all), we should not conclude that art is no longer relevant, but should instead contribute to the spiritual health of the smaller communities to which we belong, and we should appreciate the irreplaceable importance of this contribution.

We should care about matters of global justice, and do what is within our power to understand these issues and to support constructive efforts, but we should also remember to focus on the local matters of justice that arise in our families, our workplaces and our other local communities. Whereas in the first domain we can typically expect to meet with failure and frustration, there is good reason to think we can meet with much success in our local settings, which is much to the advantage of the quality of the lives of all the individual persons involved.

Today is New Year’s Day, and there is a tradition in my culture of making a resolution on this day for one’s conduct in the upcoming year. This year, why not resolve to contribute what you can to your local worlds, despite the gloom that characterizes our global situation?

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Economies of Freedom and Necessity

I overheard two depressing conversations recently.  One was on the streetcar, where a man was introducing his companion to another friend.  The companion asked the friend, “what do you do?” and she replied, “I’m in development.  I work for a company marketing solar panels.”  The other conversation was in a coffee-shop, and one fellow was telling his companion about another friend: “She’s the CFO of the company.”  Both of these exchanges struck me as quite alien to my social world–sentences like these really never come up when I talk with my friends about their careers–and thinking about that led to some sad reflections.

The woman selling solar panels seemed reasonably enthusiastic about her job, and I imagine the Chief Financial Officer feels fairly successful.  To me, though, these job descriptions sounded much more unhappy than happy.  One’s job is how one “makes a living”–it is not a small thing, but is, on the contrary, one of the largest components in shaping the form one’s adult life takes.  Over the years and years of adult life, how many things will actually occupy more of one’s time than that job?  Devoting that much of one’s life to matters of sales and financing seems to me a sad lot.

MusicianThe people around me make their livings in ways very different from this.  I am surrounded mostly by teachers and musicians, with a few others thrown in: a visual artist, a musical instrument repairman, a couple of editors, a couple of recording engineers, a couple of owners of small clubs.  These people have all devoted their lives to activities they find inherently fulfilling.  It is true that these activities involve them in getting and spending money, (which is simply the common representation we have for the exchangeable worth of our efforts), but none of these people is in the business of “making money.”  Some are in the business of making music; some are in the business of helping others to digest our vast cultural inheritance; some are in the business of running a neighbourhood institution–a coffee-shop or bar–that provides a site for social-gathering, and for perhaps for the display of the musical or educational activities of some of the others.

Basement Recording StudioThere is a fundamental difference between making a living by doing something you care about, and doing something for the sake of making money.  What I found depressing in the conversations I heard was they way they reflected the fact that our society has developed in such a way that, for most people, making a living has to mean doing something for the sake of making money: for most people, making a living means working for someone else’s enterprise in exchange for a wage–and, likely, that other person’s enterprise is itself an enterprise designed for the sake of making money.

It’s possible, of course, that the solar panel company is a product of some person’s real interest in working to advance projects that improve our relationship to the natural environment, but it is also very possible that that company is a product of someone saying “I think that’s a product we could sell”; and, indeed, if it becomes a company that sells shares that are publicly traded on the stock-market, than, regardless of the original intention of the company’s founders, it will function exclusively as a money-making device.

The word “economics” is based on two Greek words: “nomos,” which means something like “law” or “custom” and “oikos,” which means the household, or the familiar place we make our home.  Economics, then, basically means something like “the way we have established for making our home.”  Holy Oak CafeThe “money making” economics that defines our contemporary culture is very much at odds with what we might call the economics of “productive homemaking” that defines the life-practices of the circles of teachers, musicians and coffee-shop owners who are my neighbours.

It is a sad fact that I live quite a privileged and atypical existence–it’s not sad that I live that life, but that it is a lifestyle not open to many.  In order to make a living, most people have to find a place for themselves in the money-making economy.  That means that most people are destined to spend possibly the largest part of their lives devoted to a practice that is not inherently fulfilling and undertaken as something freely chosen for its own sake, but is undertaken out of necessity.

Of course I have no criticism of the woman’s enthusiasm for her job at the solar panel company: this is not a moral criticism of individuals who are content with–or stuck with–jobs of this sort.  Indeed, many people may find great satisfaction in such work, for myriad reasons.  My point, rather, is that it is sad that, by and large, these are all the options we have to choose from.  Our culture has proudly advertised itself as a society of choice, and this is the notion that is typically rolled out to justify our economic system.  It looks to me, though, like this is an economy in which most people have had realistic choices about ways of freely making a living eliminated, and they are instead forced to subordinate the bulk of their lives to the necessity of money-making.

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A Lesson in a Paper Bag

messI awoke after last night’s party to an apartment quite, uh, messy.  You can predict what I saw: a lot of empty bottles, unfinished drinks, food scraps on plates and on the floor, a guest’s forgotten scarf, etc.  The kitchen counter was particularly intense in its clutter, and it took a moment of gathering psychological fortitude to dive into cleaning up.

What struck me as the difficulty in cleaning this stuff up (and something similarly is true of packing up the house when moving) was the disorganized character of the mess.  In contrast to an assembly line, where each task is systematically separated from others and carried out quickly and Movingrepeatedly, allowing production to move forward at a very fast rate, the items that make up the mess each demand to be treated singly–basically, you can’t build up any momentum.

This situation was especially emblematized to me by the crumpled up bags on the counter (bags that had formerly contained potato chips, wine bottles, etc.).  When partyers had extracted their comestibles from the bags, they had scrunched the bags up with their hands (possibly a practice and a gesture that they found satisfying in itself, as people sometimes enjoy crushing their empty beer cans).  The reason I noticed the bags was that, in gathering up the paper ones for recycling, I noticed how much less space they took up when I folded them up neatly, compared to how much space they occupied in their crumpled state.

Uncrumpling the bags and folding them neatly was actually a moderately pleasing activity, different in gesture but probably roughly equivalent in level of emotional payoff to that experienced by the original crumplers.  I also noticed how much easier it would have been to fold the bags neatly in the first place (i.e., pre-scrunching) than it was to do it now, having to force a compact fold onto a bag after first uncrumpling it.

No doubt there are plenty of circumstances in which a crumpling attitude is better than a folding attitude.  Last night was a party, after all, so self-controlled orderliness is probably less fitting to that event that messy spontaneity.  Some other situations are not like this, though.

Sorting out?When situations are challenging and stressful, we feel a sense of pressure, and we want that pressure to be released and the situation to be over.  Under pressure, we often “lose our cool” and act rashly.  We do something spontaneous and messy, giving the pleasurable feeling of agency–“I did something”–and of release from the visegrips.  Such rash actions, however, generally fit quite poorly with high pressure situations.  The pressure is typically there because the situation is important and because the issues are complex.  What such situations typically call for is precisely the opposite of messy spontaneity: they call for self-controlled orderliness.

Interpersonal conflict, always an arena of highly charged emotions, is a prime site for this mismatch of call and response.  Our conflict calls for the careful, cooperative sorting through of some issue–quite possibly, a matter of uncrumpling something we already scrunched up–but our responses can often be hasty, grumpy gestures in which, even if it wasn’t a crumpled mess already, our communication is soon made into one.  What we get left with then, in addition to the original problem that needed sorting out, is something that first needs to be uncrumpled before it can be folded up properly.  And, like the paper bag, it never folds as well after having been crumpled as it would have when it was still a fresh surface.

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We Need to Talk.

There are different forms that talking can take.  We reveal that we are familiar with this when we rely on the common distinction between “small talk” and a “deep” conversation.  Sometimes, someone says “we need to have a talk,” and you know it’s serious, and other times we mockingly refer to ourselves or others as just going “blah, blah, blah.”

This distinction between small-talk and deep conversation is important, and it speaks to a real difference that we experience in different situations, but it barely scratches the surface of the varieties of discourse in which we engage.

The first time I recall really being prompted to think about this exact topic was a night when I heard a singer performing John Prine’s tune “Angel from Montgomery.”  The narrator of that song asks, “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?”  A friend with whom I was sitting that night thought this line reflected correctly the problematic attitude of a silent spouse who can spend a whole day engaged with worldly affairs and yet have nothing to share with his or her partner.  There’s surely something right about that interpretation. We do go through our days wrapped up in myriad affairs that occupy our attention, our problem-solving skills, our emotions and more, and it seems that that should supply material to share with someone else, someone close.  And it does seem true that people get into bad relationships with their partners, developing habits of withdrawal and silence rather than sharing.  There is something right about being frustrated with one’s partner who goes to work in the morning, comes home in the evening, and has nothing to say.

But, I thought, there is another answer to the question asked in that song.  How can such a thing happen?  Well, it can happen because one’s work or one’s life is so stultifying that one is not stimulated but suppressed.  Or, again, one’s work or one’s life can be so challenging that one seeks rest.  Perhaps, after a difficult day, we want to be petted and amused rather than being called upon to be lively and engaging.  The song doesn’t really seem to be asking a question, but rather to be making an assertion that such behaviour is wrong, but in truth I think the question is real, and it is worth thinking seriously about how such a situation can come about.

These initial musings about the situation presented in John Prine’s tune, (and, incidentally, it is worth noting that this is one of the great things about music and the arts in general, namely, that they invite us into a world that allows us room for imaginative musing), led me to further reflections about what we talk with others about and what it takes for us to have those conversations.

The other night, I went to a party at the home of friends whom I like very much.  Further, the other guests at the party were also people I like very much and whose company I welcome.  And, yet further and more importantly still, I went in the company of someone very dear to me.  I went to the party with some trepidation, though, because, though I liked the idea of seeing people I like, I knew that I had nothing to say.

My having nothing to say didn’t mean that I had nothing on my mind.  I always have many things on my mind.  Not all thoughts, though, translate easily into conversation.

Many of the partygoers that night were professional musicians, and two of them were talking about the concert one had attended the night before.  They both knew various people associated with the concert—sound technicians, sidemen, etc.—and the concert-going experience provided material for lots of conversation.  I hadn’t gone to a concert, but I had done various other things over the preceding days—things I found interesting.  Those activities, though, mostly involved other people from the world of professional philosophy, people, that is, who were not known to the other partygoers.  I had lots of thoughts about the people I had been involved with and the activities I had been engaged in, but the ways in which these thoughts were interesting to me would not have been interesting or even meaningful to any of the people at the party.  I couldn’t really talk about these things, because, regarding these things, the people at the party and I did not belong to the same community.  (This suggests the tremendous difficulty that must be faced by immigrants who have left behind their friends, family members, cities, religions, cultures.  How narrow must be the opportunities for sharing, that most basic human experience, upon their arrival in their new land.)

On another recent occasion, another friend was mildly grumbling about the way various of my musician-friends talk exclusively about music when we go out, leaving other friends who are not musicians out of the conversation.  She surely is right to be critical of specific individuals in particular situations who carry out their conversations in a socially inept way; in general, though, it seems to me that it is almost always the case that our conversations revolve around our shared interests, and so it should be the case that musicians talk about music.  It is around our interests that we have the greatest depth of involvement, which means it is around our interests that we are interesting, and it is really only going to be in social environments in which people are well-attuned to our specialized interests that we will really be able to share our most compelling thoughts and feelings.  In the words of my friend Morgan Childs: “We’re discussing important things here.  Drummer things.  You wouldn’t understand.”  It is these most intimate and deep engagements that provide the most interesting and engaging materials for sharing, but such sharing requires others who have compatible, and compatibly deep involvements with the same issues.

Some of our intimate and deep engagements, too, are essentially private: our intimate interpersonal and emotional affairs can very much be what is on our minds, and we can have very deep and developed thoughts about these matters, but such thoughts are not for public consumption.  An emotionally trying day or an emotionally fulfilling day can dominate our experience, and “inside” we can be effectively “bubbling over” with things we’d like to say, but this may very well go along with a generally silent demeanour in a social setting precisely because those thoughts are only to be shared with our intimate companions.

And, indeed, if I do want to share my intimate feelings with my partner, that will require that he or she bring an appropriately receptive attitude: I will not want to share my most sensitive feelings when my partner is angry with me or distracted or preoccupied with something else.  I may have much to say, but in certain situations it may be very hard to say those things.

All of this led me to reflect on how much conversational sharing depends on a matching up of speaker and listener.  In order to share freely our thoughts and feelings, we need others who belong to the same general social world as we do, and the more developed our lives are, the more specialized that social world needs to be.  We need others who have a cultivated relationship to the same issues with which we have developed a cultivated relationship.  And especially we need others who provide an appropriately supportive emotional space for us to feel open to sharing those things we truly care about.

So, talking can take many different forms.  There are very specialized situations when we have “deep” conversations, and there are throw-away situations when we engage in trivial “small talk.”  Most of our conversations, though, correspond to neither of those two categories.  Most of our conversations are rather specialized explorations of matters of mutual interest.  Such sharing goes hand in hand with specialized relationships: we share freely with those with whom we have developed a bond, which involves both a developed, shared interest and a comparably developed emotional intimacy.  The lack of either an appropriately developed shared involvement or an appropriately developed level of intimacy makes real conversation impossible.  In short, the extent and the depth of our conversational life varies pretty directly with the extent and the depth of our friendships, and the forms of our conversation are as varied as the forms of our companionships.

Talking is sharing our experience, and that is, I think, what we want to do most.  But such talking is not something we can do on our own: it requires an appropriately prepared environment that only another person can offer.  That’s what friends are for.

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Memories of Immortality

Miles Davis’s tune “So What,” on his 1959 recording, Kind of Blue, has clearly won the designation as a jazz “classic.”  Indeed, I could easily have written, “his classic 1959 recording, Kind of Blue,” and virtually anyone at all familiar with jazz music would unhesitatingly recognize the truth of this.

The fact that this tune is a “classic” means, among other things, that the tune has near-universal appeal: it is quite a safe bet that virtually anyone hearing this song (anyone with a basic familiarity with Western music, anyway) will find it immediately appealing and expressive of a specific, and quite compelling, atmosphere.  The tune, in short, has captured something like a universal feeling, and listening to the tune is like visiting an identifiable place on the map of the human soul.

This, in general, is how the pieces we come to identify as important works of art operate.  Artwork—a single work of painting or architecture, or, more commonly, a movement realized through many works and many media—captures something about the experience of being a person, and, by expressing this, it allows us to see something essential about ourselves, typically for the first time.  Art is like mirror, but a creative mirror: creating the “reflection” that this mirror provides comes first, allowing us subsequently to recognize ourselves therein.  We feel, with the artwork, that we are finally able to see or say something important that was otherwise lying unacknowledged.  Having now been expressed, however, an essential aspect of our reality is permanently available to all.

When we relate to a great work, it is this universal appeal, this creative human mirroring, that we are most likely to notice.  This “eternal” message of the work, however, is not all there is to notice.

There is a date attached to the recording of Kind of Blue: 1959.  In fact, the date is even more precise: March 2, 1959.  We call this a musical recording, and what is recorded are the activities of 6 individuals in a particular room (at 207 E. 30th Street in Manhattan) at a particular time on that day.  When you listen to “So What,” you hear something universal and eternal, but you are also hearing a very specific historical event.  You are hearing what those guys did in that place on that day.

Family photographs record the activities of parents and children at the beach or at the Christmas party, and we typically rely upon them to be a kind of memory of the events of our past.  When we look at a family photograph, we typically do not look for a universal meaning, but instead look to them as memorials of human particularity, (though we can shift our perspective to find artistic worth in the personal photographs we otherwise look to only as record-keepers; see, for example,  http://borrowed-memories.blogspot.ca/).  Typically, attending to memory is not how we listen to musical recordings, but we can: we hear in these recordings their universal meaning, but they, too, are memorials to the long-past actions of particular individuals.

We can love the music of a great recording, but, it seems to me, the impact of the recording is even greater if we hear it as the memorial of a singular event.  If we hear “So What,” for example, as something 6 men did on that day, and we ask ourselves again, “What am I hearing?” we hear something amazing: we hear people, in the finite time of their mortal lives, (and, indeed, all but one of those 6 men, the drummer Jimmy Cobb, have since died), wrestling with the infinite, grasping and realizing for us all an immortal significance through their particular, temporal practice.

This is how the great Athenian historian, Thucydides, described his own project in writing his history of the Peloponnesian War: he sought to produce a “possession for all time.”  The size of his accomplishment is, in fact, staggering.  Recording military and political events in 5th-Century B.C. Hellas as they transpired, simultaneously he preserved for us the memory of particular actions, cast through his narrating into a meaningful form they would not otherwise have had, he provided a meaningful interpretation of human, political life that has the eternal capacity to educate us about our own condition, and he effectively invented the practice of writing history, thereby transforming forever the possibilities for human self-interpretation.

Whether in the “modal” revolution of 1959 recording session of Miles Davis’s sextet, in the shore temples of Mahabalipuram, in the history of Thucydides, or in the forgotten family photo, we have the memorial of the distinctive nature of humanity: in our mortality, we are the finite site for witnessing to the absolute.

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Learning for a Change

Our everyday perceptual life is a back and forth exchange with the environment that is characterized by, among other things, a constant novelty in our awareness—I find out, through perception, that a man is arguing with his daughter in that house, but I didn’t know that until I came upon the scene and heard them quarrelling.  Though by and large our core sense of our environment remains constant throughout the day, we nonetheless are constantly making discoveries about what is going on in this world as we carry out our day’s activities.

This experience of discovery is magnified further by our practices of conversation.  Throughout the day, we meet with others—friends and strangers—and with them we respond to the impulse to put our experience of our situations into words.  Even more than in our silent interaction with the world, our linguistic interaction with other people allows us to discover aspects of the world otherwise unknown to us—through language, we are enabled, effectively, to “see through the other’s eyes,” and reshape our own perspective through the discovery of how another perceives.

It is this basic sense of perceptual discovery that we underscore and emphasize when we self-consciously engage in the practice of learning.  (And turning to books and to lecturers is, of course, a self-conscious deployment of the everyday power of language to allow us to partake in the perspectives of others.)  In our self-conscious projects of learning, we take the everyday experience of discovery and pursue it as such.  Instead of simply responding to what shows itself spontaneously, we actively ask, “What can be found here?” “How can I see into my situation—my world—more deeply?”

When we take up this project, we discover that there is a lot to learn.

On the one hand, the world offers us an inexhaustible domain of fact.  Just within one’s immediate perspective, the list is endless: the store is open; there are two women sitting at the table; the coffee is cold; and the list could just go on and on.  In the larger word, a similarly infinite list: it is noon in Damascus; there is heavy rain in Chennai; the President of the United States is delivering a speech; the students in Montréal are gathering on rue Ste.-Catherine.  And when we step beyond the immediate present to what has been, a veritable abyss opens: Mohammad died in 632 A.D.; the caves at Chauvet were painted 35,000 years ago; Socrates was executed in 399 B.C.; the Bretton-Woods Agreement was signed in July 1944; etc., etc.

It is a very limited conception of learning, however, (and one often implicitly or explicitly endorsed, unfortunately for us all, by novice students, by parents, and by educational theorists or policy-makers), to imagine the acquisition of fact to be the primary or even the exclusive phenomenon of learning.  Facts are important, but that very notion—importance—is not itself a matter of fact.

More so that apprehending fact, learning is importantly a matter of developing insight.  Learning is most basically a matter of improving our understanding of the facts that confront us.  Understanding is not itself an apprehension of fact, but is a grasp of the intelligible principle that allows us to interpret the significance of what we encounter.  It is one thing to know that students are gathering on Ste.-Catherine; it is something else to recognize that one is witnessing a public outcry against unjust or even illegal practices of the Quebec government.

And once one recognizes this priority of insight, the easy association of education with the acquisition of fact—“information”—faces a further challenge.  The essential role of interpretation in recognizing the significance in our situations in fact compromises the putative simplicity of recognizing “facts.”  Is it a fact that George W. Bush was the 43rd President of the United States?  One might have thought the answer was obviously “yes,” but in fact the answer to this depends upon what “President of the United States” means.  Is the President the one generally recognized by the population? The one recognized by the courts? The one who legitimately won the position according to the rules and laws surrounding elections? The one who enacts policy in the interest of the nation?  These are all plausible criteria for justifying the use of that name, but they do not necessarily point in the same direction.  It has been alleged, for example, that the election in this case was compromised, and did not in fact follow election laws.  If this is true, then it is not the case that this is the individual who was elected, properly speaking.  It has also been alleged, for example, that this individual did not pursue policy in the public interest.  Again, if this is true, then, though this individual was recognized by many as “President,” properly speaking he may not, according to the fourth criterion, have held that title.  Indeed, in that case, there may be no “fact of the matter” regarding “who was the 43rd President of the United States?”

Similar complexities attach to other notions that we often treat simply as matters of fact.  Is it true that Jean Valjean stole bread (in Vico Hugo’s Les Miserables)?  No doubt he seized the loaf with his hand and took it for his family’s use.  Is this theft, though?  That depends on how we determine ownership.  Though the police and the courts recognize the shopkeeper as the owner, we might well disagree that these are the relevant agents, and argue instead that that shopkeeper possessed the bread only because of the operations of a larger economic system that unjustly exploits the working population, that is, it is a system that steals from the poor.  In that case, Valjean’s actions would simply be a retrieval of wealth that was unjustly stolen from him.  In the case of “theft,” in other words, we cannot establish the fact without insight into the nature of the economic situation.  In short, what we take to be immediate fact depends in many cases on what we already presume to be the essential “logic” or “mediation” in the situation, and developing a true insight into the situation may result in our having to criticize our own presumptions and, with them, our own beliefs about what are “the facts.”

Insight, then, “trumps” fact in matters of learning; and yet, even insight is not the highest matter here.  We typically think of learning as knowing the truth about the world—a matter, that is, of objectivity.  In its most important forms, though, true learning does not leave us untouched, but is a matter of existential change—a matter, as Kierkegaard wrote, of subjectivityShould we learn the truth that Jean Valjean is (or student protesters in Montréal are) unjustly being seized by the police and then do nothing about it, we are not “neutrally objective”; on the contrary, we are now complicit in the unjust action, and our behaviour is an expression of cowardice or immorality in the face of what we recognize to be a situation of injustice, not an expression of epistemic neutrality.  The developing of the insight that challenges our presumptions precisely requires us to change and to act—it precisely requires us to recognize that our situation cannot be divorced from ourselves, objectivity cannot be divorced from subjectivity.

This, it seems to me, is the ultimate goal of education: to find in our situations the compelling imperative to render justice to those situations.  Education, though it begins with the recognition of fact, must be oriented towards the cultivation of insight into the deeper mediation in our situations for the sake, ultimately, of precipitating in us a turn to our subjectivity that is simultaneously a criticism of our prejudices and a change in our behaviour.  Education, in short, is ultimately about becoming better persons.  Education is not living up to its intrinsic mandate if it is not ultimately serving to cultivate our characters such that we become courageous in responsibly answering to the demands of our situations.

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Perceptual Storytelling

Our perception does not happen in a moment, but unfolds over time in concert with our actions.

I notice the car pulling out of the parking lot, because, in the context of my cycling down the street, it draws my attention to it by the threat its emergence poses to me.  Its appearance wells up in my perception, and the clear recognition of what is happened is preceded by a more “mobile” experience in which different significances seem to simmer, waiting for the relevant, salient feature of the situation to show itself decisively.  The appearance of the car pulling out “boils over” into my explicit attention, and it also recedes back into oblivion when the sense of threat disappears and I become occupied with something else.  Rather than happening in a moment, as if a sensory impression dominated my awareness, the explicit perception is more like a blossoming, a stage of heightened tension in a process that takes varying forms.

The perception of the emerging car, too, is not just visual.  I perceive its threatening emergence as much by swerving around it on my bike as I do by looking at it and noting its sensory characteristics.  It is my behaviour that defines the context within which the perceptual object becomes significant, and my recognition of that object is itself as much behavioural as it is “cognitive.”

What is presented to our perspective, then, is not so much an object with precise and determinate features that forces itself upon us as it is a kind of invitation, a suitor for our attention.  The perceptual situation impinges upon us ambiguously, and what we end up perceiving will be the result of a dynamic interaction between the perceiver and the perceived, a back and forth process of solicitation and responsiveness.  Perception is basically the establishing of a mutual “fit,” as the perceiver finds herself compelled to acknowledge the specific demands of the object’s features only once that object has itself passed the test of successfully speaking to the perceiver’s concerns.

The emergence of the perceptual object is thus the result of something like a process of communication.  When we do engage with and notice the object, the process of communication continues.

Even when I have noticed a coherent object in front of me—the advancing car, for example—I have not fully perceived what is confronting me.  The car itself offers me various paths for further perceptual exploration.

This is most simply true in that I am only noticing the car from one angle, and the car presents itself to me precisely as something that is not exhausted in that one perspective—I can see the car from the other side, or from the inside, for example.  And the options are not just visual—I could drive the car, and I could feel it, either by rubbing it as I wash and wax it or by being knocked over by its weight when it collides with me.

The object also offers a different kind of exploration, though.  Over time, I can come to understand more clearly what it is that I am dealing with.  I can learn more about what a car is, at every level from the material details of its manufacture through the mechanical features of its functioning, on to the practical range of its uses, and ultimately to the metaphysical grasp of its essential nature.  This depth of explorability is true of a car, and infinitely more true of the core, given elements that structure and populate our reality—colours, trees, emotions, persons, language.

All this depth of realization again occurs in dialogue with the perceiver.  In each case, the greater depth of the thing is revealed in response to a perceiver’s receptivity: these deeper truths take the form of answers to questions, and it is only in the context of the question, only in the context of a responsive openness, that they can appear.

What is striking about this dialogue of question and answer is that we are educated by what we perceive.  The objects of our perception have the amazing capacity to function in relation to us rather as another human interlocutor functions towards us in dialogue.  In each case—the linguistic dialogue with a person and the perceptual dialogue with the thing—the other communicates to us something novel, something truly “other,” and our engagement is an openness to being transformed beyond our own expectations, being open to a realization we could neither predict nor manufacture on our own.

Indeed, the parallel of the everyday process of perception with a human conversation is even stronger.  In a conversation, our interlocutor captures our attention and draws us in.  Similarly, the object of our perception actually entices us, drawing us more deeply into itself.  Typically I feel drawn by the perceptual object to look at it more closely, to examine its contours, to feel its surface, and, indeed, to think about it.

When we read a good story or listen to the tale told by a fine storyteller, we feel that the story attracts us and invites (inexhaustibly) our engaged exploration of its depths, which is to say our exploration of what reality it opens up to us.  But in functioning this way, the story is simply making thematic what is always the nature of things.  The experience of a story is thus simply the thematic experience of what is always implicitly happening in our perception of things, the original story-tellers.

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Nature, Science and World

The great shift from ancient to modern science is the shift from observation to experiment.  Aristotle, in the 4th Century BC, was an amazingly insightful observer of the natural world, and his work is exemplary of the science that cultivates a knowledge of the forms in which the world naturally presents itself.  The great scientists of the Early Modern period, however, weren’t interested in learning about the given forms in which nature occurs; on the contrary, their goal was to learn how to harness the power behind those forms in order to bring about results of their own devising.  In order to determine these driving forces, they developed the experimental method.

Experimental method is not primarily a matter of going out and looking at what is there.  On the contrary, experimental method, as the philosopher René Descartes explained in the 17th Century, is primarily done “in here,” planning something in the mind.  The work of experiment is to design a precise procedure to isolate an exact result that will answer a question that is precisely defined in advance.  The experimental scientist has something she wants to find out, and her task is first to work out a bit of reasoning and then to set up an apparatus that reflects that reasoning so that she can perform a procedure on a specified bit of nature and get an answer—at what temperature does it boil? how much does the precipitate weigh? how many millilitres of acid are needed to make the liquid change colour?  The experimental scientist still observes, but the relevant observation is the simple and final result of the process—and the observation is not seen for its own sake, but to see what it has to say about the question that the scientist initially brought to bear on the situation: “since it’s green, it must be sodium.”

There are no doubt many good reasons to be critical of adopting modern science as our norm for knowledge.  Most obviously, this “science”—the Latin word that simply means “knowledge”—is not concerned with apprehending what is there, which is our typical sense of what “knowledge” is, but with figuring out what are the routes of access into things for the sake of taking advantage of them.  The goal of modern “science” is not truth, but, as Francis Bacon, the British spy, expressed it clearly in the 16th Century, power.  Generally, we don’t think of “knowing how to take advantage of something” as proper knowledge of the thing—generally, on the contrary, we think of proper knowledge of the thing as a sympathetic appreciation of its inherent nature.  The destructive impact of relying on this “inquisitorial” model of modern science is evident in many areas of life, but most obviously in the progressive destroying of our natural habitat that is the result of approaching nature as something to be exploited rather than as something to be understood.

What is nonetheless exciting about this modern method is its recognition that what shows itself in the apparently simple observation that, for example, a liquid is yellow, is something powerfully communicative of deeper matters of great concern to us.  Through the simplest immediacy, great complexity is transmitted.

As the simple fact that a liquid is yellow can, in the appropriate circumstances, reveal that an important chemical transformation has in fact happened, allowing the scientist to conclude, therefore, that a particular chemical is present in the rock, which in turn indicates that there was organic matter at that level of drilling, which means, finally, that there will be oil found if one drills there, so can the fact that you rolled your eyes that way indicate that you really were not sincere in your expression of interest in my view, revealing yet more deeply that your level of respect for me is significantly lower than you claim it to be.

This is not just a matter of what we reveal about ourselves though seemingly trivial bits of behaviour, (though that is a very important matter).  This revelation of deep complexity through sensory simplicity is the core structure of our meaningful inhabitation of the world.

Though it might seem that I am simply here, now, my presence is really an elaborate carrying on of a vast history of developed significance.  When I sit in the coffee shop, I feel at home.  This “homey” feeling of belonging is what draws me here, but this sense of belonging is not part of the simple sensory immediacy of the material setting but is the way I have established a history of relating to this place and its denizens.  Now, while I sit, I work on a writing project, itself meaningful because it is something I have been engaged in for weeks, and that engagement is itself meaningful in turn because of the network of personal, interpersonal and professional threads that are woven together in it.  The simple immediacy of “here” and “now” are always inherently mediated by the complex past that we retain through them and the rich future they allow us to anticipate.

And this, perhaps, allows us to reflect again on modern scientific method.  What we should remember about modern science is that it, too, is not just a simple and innocent “immediacy,” but is itself the vehicle through which a particular project of relating to the world is carried on.  What we need to ask is whether the attitude toward the world implicit in this “science” is adequately respectful of the human world from which it originates.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).