Archive for the 'Culture' Category

The Click

31 May 2014

When I was a boy, it was a girl. She would come into my life, and all the troubles would begin to seem manageable. As I got a little older, it became perfection, Enlightenment, Buddhahood. After it happened, after it was attained, I would be able to see. Then it was stability: I could be here now and attend to all of my needs and those of my loved ones, because I would be constant. Recently it became adulthood. Sooner or later I would know: Now I am an adult, and the knowledge and responsibility of adulthood would follow.

There have been many variations of the Click along the way, but it has always taken that same underlying form. The Click.

The Click is an idea that some sudden change will transform us from one sort of person to another, sometimes from one sort of being to another, or that will transform our lives from feeling one way to feeling another way, permanently. The Click is not a mood change, not a change in fortune (although sometimes that’s the fantasy), nor a life change or life-changing experience. The Click is only ever an idea: The life-changing experience will transform us suddenly and permanently into the being or into the life we most hope for, fully undercutting our gravest doubts, fears, embarrassments, disappointments, faults, and failures.

We are very clever thinkers, so the Click can take subtle forms. For me, the fantasy of the girl was not sudden perfection. (Even Rom-com romance requires conflict.) She comes into my life and we fight, and argue, and work, productively towards our love. It sounds like the desire to be in a relationship, which is what it was. I was painfully isolated at the time. But there is this added feature: She comes into my life and once-and-for-all my life turns towards love, intimacy, compassion, comfort, clarity. The struggle is no longer aimless and impossible. I suddenly find direction and value, and that direction and value, whatever ups and downs life may bring, could never, after it Clicks, go away.

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2 March 2013

I’m a curious mix of provocateur and introvert. In many ways I’m quite shy and keep to myself, and in many other ways I seek the spotlight, to control and push conversation. To some extent it depends on the circumstances, but exactly when I’m which way is hard to know or describe. Sometimes, when those closest to me would most expect me to want to jump out into the open, I prefer to hide away, and vice versa. Similarly, some of the times when I appear to be either comfortably front-and-center, my inner experience is more introverted: I hide, so to speak, in plain sight. Over the years, this has made it hard for me to recognize some of my fears and limitations, and, even as I’ve come to recognize some of them, it’s also made it hard for friends of mine to recognize them in me. To say, confidently and eloquently, that I am afraid of this or that, seems almost self-contradictory. If you’re so limited, why are you so able to articulate it?

This is partly why I’ve come to embrace provocation – in some contexts. I learned that expressing a feeling like sadness can result in, at best, consolation from friends. Some will just try to escape the discomfort of someone else’s sadness. Others will respond to “I’m sad” with something like: “But you’re doing so well!” These kinds of consolations are well enough meant, but they tend to miss the point. If I am sad, or frightened, or ashamed, or disappointed, often there is a need that is not being met, and it’s that dynamic that needs to be responded to and remedied, not the painful feeling itself. (Actually, if I’m sad, often the sadness itself is the process of healing the fracture; mourning the loss, etc. Sadness is the consolation to the loss it mourns. Fear, on the other hand, needs a response, but often logic fails.) Hence I’ve come to express my joy and gratitude at feeling all sorts of “negative” feelings. Even feelings like shame and fear, which don’t feel good and are often pernicious, are good to feel, because otherwise they afflict us without our notice. I’m grateful to feel fear because then I can actually begin to respond to it, even if feeling it is painful and difficult. Otherwise I’m forced to try to infer its existence and power through a kind of deductive logic. In other words: it is a fact that I experience fear, and that fear affects my life; insofar as I don’t consciously feel and recognize that fear (along with its causes and motivations), I am unable to remedy it; if I feel the fear, this means that I can begin to know and understand the fear, and hopefully start to move through it and move on. But to say, “I’m so grateful to feel my fear,” is, naturally, quite provocative. It’s only when I fully explain exactly what I mean that the sense comes into view. (I’m not grateful that I am afraid; rather, given that I am afraid, I want to fully know and understand it so I can stop it.)

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Remembering interpretations past

22 September 2012

Three months have gone by, and now I’d like to get back to writing in this space hopefully more frequently again. Over the last few months I’ve had many thoughts that I wanted to explore here, and many more that I didn’t even think to but should have, but something kept me back. Around the time of my last post I started to feel the strain and stress of my impending move away from the East Coast and everything and everyone there, away from, in many ways, my former life (which I have been slowly moving from over the last two years), and out here to California, where something new continues to await me. I can write about all that another time. For now, I want to write about memory.

Memory is as primary a mode of human being as any other I know. To be a person implies remembering. Our every judgment, our every association, our every act of immediate interpretation, we cannot help but remember. And yet, memory is fleeting, uncertain, amorphous. Some would say that the past is the past, that what’s happened has happened, and that there are no two ways about it. Even so, all should agree that memory is not so. Of course, we hold fast to some memories, and we imagine many of our memories to be accurate and fixed. Most of the time when we admit to memory’s transience, it is only when we admit to memory’s faultiness. Yes, our memories can be incorrect, can deceive us, and can simply fade and disappear. But we are fools if we accept this simplistic view of memory: accurate or inaccurate, whole or withered, intact or absent.

For one thing, we remember when we interpret, which we cannot but do newly at each moment. It does not much matter whether our memories are concrete and conscious, or whether they are merely the traces of that from which our present mode of consciousness has arisen. But this, too, is less important than the even more basic point I wish to focus on. Read the rest of this entry »

Who are you…

13 June 2012

Who are you to judge…? These words, as so many others, don’t mean exactly what they mean, do they? Firstly, they are only so often meant as an actual question. Rather, they often suggest, “You should not be judging. You are not entitled to judge,” or some such thing. Secondly, the extent to which they are indeed signifying a question, it is one with only two possible answers: (i) “No one, you’re right”; or (ii) a bit of biographical detail intended as a warrant (“Well, it just so happens that my mother was a such-and-such…”). An answer like, “A human being!” is typically seen as arrogant or dismissive or ignorant. But this answer, too, hides further meaning. Often if “Who are you to judge?” is replied with “A human being,” this reply implies a dismissal of the supposed exclusivity of the matter in question. Bigoted terminology is one example of such a sensitive subject. Should I be excluded from the conversation sparked by Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent tweet? Or ought I not even want to be part of the discussion? Etc. “I’m a human being!” would, in this context, mean that this topic is open to everyone, and would imply a criticism of the view that there should be any question of its openness. (As it happens, I’m unconcerned with Paltrow’s tweet, and I don’t think being human is unto itself a good reason to join the discussion, to say the least.)

But, as is my wont, I’d like to read this bit of dialogue more literally and see what comes of it.

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Reinterpreting the karma/rebirth theory in terms of neuroscientific determinism, or, Another look at déjà vu

8 April 2012

There is so much I wish to cover in this post, and I can only cover all of it unsatisfactorily, so I’ll just jump write in and try not to worry too much about how paltry my efforts will be.

Since I’ve been intrigued and inspired by, broadly, Buddhist thought, I’ve been similarly intrigued by the dual theory of karma and rebirth. The precise theory is framed and conceived of differently in different contexts, but loosely speaking the theory is that action (karma) leads to a rebirth the qualities of which are determined by various qualities of the relevant actions. That is to say, act “well,” be reborn in a “positive” rebirth. For a time I was indifferent to the truth or falsity of this theory. Then for a while I didn’t believe it; then I believed it; then I became indifferent again, but differently than the original indifference. In Intro to Buddhism courses I tried to argue to my skeptical classmates (who were often quite new to this theory other than in the popular “what goes around comes around” version that holds that if you do a nice deed at the beginning of the day, someone might do something nice by day’s end) that it was “not moral.” Why would I say such a thing? Our typical conceptions of morality involve moral guidelines, such as those laid down by a creator god, by which we can judge our actions and by which our actions can be judged. To say that the Buddhist theory of karma is “not moral” is to suggest there is no such outside agent determining which kinds of actions are good and which are bad, but rather just that actions that lead to a rebirth that feels good can be considered “good” and those that lead to an unpleasant rebirth can be considered “bad.” This is not moral so much as it is metaphysical. It “just is that way.” The better in tune one is with how it “just is,” the better one is able to judge which actions are conducive to what we would consider good results. In the meantime, I guess we ought to just follow the Buddha’s guidelines. Something like that.

Now, there is an argument to be made that this is a non-moral theory. But what if the details of my argument were true and the theory were still moral? What might that entail? Perhaps morality is just “how it is” when “how it is” comes into contact with the human mind, human relationships, and human culture. What if morality is just our half-hearted attempt to make sense of how it is?  Read the rest of this entry »

Quick thought on terminology (East/West)

6 April 2012

We refer to “East and West” pretty commonly, but the problems with these terms are significant. I’m not the first to point it out, and, actually, it’s become something of a strand of thinking amongst my peers that the terms have got to go, but we still haven’t come up with much better alternatives, and surely none that have really caught on. For example, we can speak of “Euroamerican philosophy,” which is at least better than “Western philosophy,” but what of the philosophy of the rest of the world, is it all just … Eastern? (Additionally, it must be noted that the term ‘-american’ in ‘Euroamerican’ refers basically to the US and sometimes Canada, leaving out the rest of the Americas.) I was recently reading Matthew Kapstein’s Reason’s Traces, a terrific book on certain questions regarding Indian and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and an early chapter led me to wonder: what if the term ‘Western’ wasn’t all that bad, just that ‘Eastern’ had to go? After all, merely marking a distinction between, say, ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’ already splits ‘Eastern’ into two immense traditions, time periods, civilizations, etc., etc., etc. And just as ‘Western’ or even ‘European’ leaves room for the significant individual and overlapping histories of the many peoples who have lived within the arbitrary borders of “the West,” so do the terms ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese.’ Then again, we can broaden these out with such terms as ‘South Asian,’ ‘Southeast Asian,’ ‘East Asian.’ So now we have Euroamerican, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian. Great. But… what about, you know, the rest of the world? Okay, so there’s also this place called the “Middle East,” which, now that we’ve stopped using the terms ‘West’ and ‘East,’ doesn’t seem clearly to mark the middle of anything. Instead we might say “Western Asia,” which, like all of these other terms, will never be perfectly satisfactory, but will do for now. I wonder, does ‘Western’ ever really refer to anything not already covered by the term “Euroamerican”? (Interestingly, both seem to have some space for Australia, although I don’t know whether any of us know exactly what to do with that wonderful place.) If not, this seems to mark a curiousity about our old friends ‘East’ and ‘West,’ as the former has been split into at least four impressive subgroups, whereas the latter has just been more accurately rebranded. It’s a big world out there, the West. But our breakdown/rebranding has helped us with a far more important detail: where are Central/South America and all of Africa beyond the northern countries associated, in the term ‘Middle East,’ with what we’ve temporarily rebranded “Western Asia”? In terms of culture and philosophy, we have room for “East and West,” which would seem to cover it all (as North and South are icebergs!), and in population probably covers a majority, but nevertheless falls well over a billion people short. (This while we’re still brushing with broad strokes.) Now, I don’t think ‘West’ and ‘East’ should be entirely retired, nor do I expect most people to begin speaking of “South East Asian” this and that on a regular basis anytime soon. Nor do I suppose I’ve stumbled upon the best of terminologies in this quick thought. But let’s at least grant this: we do a pretty good job of excluding others from the conversation. This is in most contexts. In terms of, say, Western academia, there is surely room for West, and there is more and more room for East, and though there is room for everyone else, I’m not sure the institution itself has grown used to it. So in whatever context in which we rigidly distinguish between ourselves and others, yet manage to leave still others out of the hierarchy altogether, if we happen to unconsciously think, when they come to our attention, that those others are below us in some capacity or other (see: many of the excellent criticisms of Kony2012), perhaps our terminology is aiding the ignorance. Thoughts?

Crying and lying in the wake of Titanic

6 April 2012

Having spent my early teenaged years reveling in snobbishness, I now find the distaste of some of my fellow academics for all things popular to be childish and annoying. And yet, is it more or less annoying than the distaste many others have for things highbrow? And what’s with the feeling of annoyance, anyway?

Titanic came out when I was but a wee lad of ten, though I don’t recall seeing it until it played on cable, which must have been at least a year later. Let’s say I was eleven. My distinct memory is itself something of a recollection, so we’ll trace back to it.

For years when the movie would come up in conversation I would make a grunt of distaste along with a comment about some flaw or other. (I’m not sure where I got my info on the “flaws” of the film, though considering that the film does indeed have some flaws, I may well have been “right” in the specifics – but, oh, to miss the point…) But as of the last five or six years when the movie has come up I’ve tried to keep silent. This is part of a trend of the last several years of my life in which I try not to be a robotic snob – especially about things I ought to or could know better. (It’s taking a while, but there has been steady progress nonetheless.) Titanic is a good example. See, when I expressed my distaste all those years after the film came out, I was aware of a significant lie central to my criticism: when I saw Titanic, I cried. Sure, I hated myself for it at the time, thinking, as I did, that I shouldn’t like a stupid, super-popular, melodramatic girls’ movie. But I did anyway. The story is pretty damn good, after all. And yet, I held fast to my assurance that, tears be damned, it was a terrible movie. Through the years this memory (of, you know, caring about the characters) slowly strengthened and finally won out against my angst, so I began to keep quiet about the film. (That was step two, I guess.) Now, the best part in all of this is that I can’t quite say whether I like the movie or not, just that when I saw it when I was eleven or so, I was resistant but engaged, and I cried. That’s all I really know. Hence my silence is probably appropriate. But if I were to speak up, why not just say, “Well, when I saw it shortly after it first came out, I cried”? That seems fair enough… Maybe now that it’s back out in theaters again I’ll have my chance. Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t want the old America back

27 February 2012

So I follow the popular strands of American politics with what strikes me as impressive forgetfulness. I just keep coming back for more, evening after morning after evening after morning, and I keep feeling frustrated and bewildered. Actually, that’s not fair, it’s not forgetfulness, because it’s not the same frustration and bewilderment. The thing is, I am actually more keenly bewildered each day I see yet another instance of dastardly cynicism or badly cloaked racism or the arrogance of institutional patriarchy (is there any other kind?)… just to speak of generalities. Disagreements on policy are a separate question altogether. I don’t feel I know enough about how things work to believe I know the best policy on this or that issue, let alone the more significant question of what best policy can be put into practice and how – the complexities are astounding and require care and attention. I love having those conversations, especially because there’s always more for me to learn. So no, that’s not what I’m talking about. Just the little things, the lies and the hatred. It’s all about the, “I want my America back.” It’s about how, when you read that sort of comment in a news story, you can freely bet on the race and relative age of its speaker. Interestingly, both male and female cluelessly bigoted older white Americans make this comment. The women want their America back, too. Maybe their political selves are more entrenched in being white than in being women. Whatever. I want to care, but I struggle to, so blinded am I by the anger I feel towards their hatefulness and childishness and ignorance.

Most of the time I prefer to write more carefully put together posts, but I’m not sure when I’ll next have the energy to compose myself when thinking about this particular issue. Looking at a Thomas Jefferson statue in Charlottesville, VA yesterday, Sarah and I briefly discussed my disgust. Earlier in the day I had supposed in 300 years (to pluck a random number) humans would look back at our beliefs, practices, attitudes, etc., and find themselves confused and aghast. Sarah pointed out that this is how it is now, so there’s good reason to think it might continue on in this way. (In that sense, perhaps 300 is a clever number, after all, the US being a bit younger than that: out of the range of that particular survey, sort of.) My consideration, upon looking up at TJ: people oughtn’t be allowed to say they want to go back to the founders, to the ideals and values of the founders. When I say “oughtn’t be allowed,” I hope it goes without saying that I mean socially rather than legally; i.e., I don’t think it should be considered a legitimate sentiment, and should be mocked and derided in polite company and popular media.

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Things friends say, in two parts

9 February 2012


“I mean, I’m not a rape victim in Darfur…”

Friends say amazing things, almost without exception. It is difficult at times to see what is so amazing about this or that statement a friend makes, but this is only because we take our friendships for granted. Continuing with the theory from my last post, I would like to propose a dual interpretation of two recent statements by friends of mine. This interpretation is not dual because I am interpreting two statements, but because each statement will be, briefly, used to examine (charicatures of) my friends, as well as to examine relationship itself, or, in other words, the world. I will, however, do these both at once. Forgive me.

We are all familiar with the sort of double-sided remarks quoted above. The implication, held within the ellipsis, is a “but” which fulfills the comparison while undercutting it. “I am not a rape victim in Darfur” aims to say something about that rape victim, about myself, and about a relation between us. There is a symmetry between us: we are both suffering. But there is also disjunction: my suffering does not compare. The “but” acknowledges the disjunction while undercutting it: my suffering does not compare, but it is suffering all the same. The full statement would require a translation of “I mean” into “I know, I am aware.” I am aware that my suffering does not compare with that of a rape victim in Darfur, and yet I suffer, too. This last phrase is unsatisfying. What it really means, what the but really means is, “Holding up the ideal of that other’s suffering, I also want to dismiss it by mentioning it but then supplanting its horror with an analysis of the horror of my own situation.” It’s not “but I suffer, too,” but rather, “I’m not a rape victim in Darfur, but I am more concerned with my own suffering.” This allows me to express my suffering yet resign myself to the fact of it. “I am suffering, but because I am aware that, in the grand scheme of things, it is insignificant suffering, all I want to do is say that I am suffering, then I will peacably go back to suffering it.” It is easy to point out the self-denial, once I have translated the statement in this way. What is perhaps slightly less before-the-eyes is the other-denial. After all, supposing a hypothetical rape victim in Darfur, who’s to say she is not happier than you? Who’s to say she is not suffering more skillfully, more knowledgeably, than you are? We can now continue the translation: “A random rape victim in Darfur is the exemplar of suffering, whereas my suffering, which consumes my world sufficiently to limit my capacity for compassion towards, for example, rape victims in Darfur, is insignificant and should be dismissed as soon as I’ve said it.” The interlocutor – the recipient of this analogy – is implored to care more about the rape victim than about me, to be my friend, to listen to my struggles, and to justly dismiss it in the face of hypothetical and idealized suffering while yet not actually turning attention to that idealized other. It is, then, not so much the hypothetical victim in Darfur who is the object of the other-denail – she is a person who is not allowed sufficient personhood to be denied, precisely a hypothetical victim, whose personhood is not merely hypothetical but already denied only in relation to victimhood – but, rather, the friend to whom I am speaking! We can shift from, “I am aware that I am not a rape victim in Darfur, and that my suffering does not compare, but…” to “I know that you care about me, but my suffering is insignificant, but listen to it anyway…” Care about me, but do not care about me. Read the rest of this entry »

“What do you do?”

9 December 2011

I’ve gotten a few different kinds of responses over the last few years when I’ve told people, for the first time, what I am studying. It generally begins with that ever-awkward question, “What do you do?” I’m a student. “What do you study?” Answers I’ve given range across the narrow spectrum from philosophy to Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy, philosophy and religion. And probably a couple of other iterations. Generally this results in some sort of incredulity in the questioner, at least for a moment. The most frequent response: What do you do with that? Which is a charming continuation of the original question, actually. Probably there should’ve been a certain expectation when my initial response was “student” – but I’m not sure, do people who are training to become scientists of one sort or another, or lawyers, or policemen, call themselves students in response to WDYD? Maybe people who ask self-described students what they study sometimes get replies that do not require the follow up WDYDWT? Either way, I tend to find myself responding cordially, on the questioner’s apparent terms, and almost reflexively so. (Professor, etc.) But I tire of the question and its answers.

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