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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One Comment

  1. Tumbleweed
    Posted January 5, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    I like the image of a crumpled bag taking up much more space than a folded one. How quickly those bags can take over one’s lived space, and start to crumple one’s other abilities.

    From a mom of a three-year old crumpler (is “crumpler” redundant here?) who is also a crumpler in rehab.

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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.).