Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Problem of Inspiration

This passage in Talal Amin’s essay “What Might an Anthropology of Secularism Look Like?” triggered a visceral emotional response in me:

Johann Sulzer, a theorist of the fine arts, wrote in more general terms: “All artists of any genius claim that from time to time they experience a state of extraordinary psychic intensity which makes work unusually easy, images arising without great effort and the best ideas flowing in such profusion as if they were the gift of some higher power. This is without doubt what is called inspiration. If an artist experiences this condition, his object appears to him in an unusual light; his genius, as if guided by a divine power, invents without effort, shaping his invention in the most suitable form without strain; the finest ideas and images occur unbidden in floods to the inspired poet; the orator judges with the greatest acumen, feels with the greatest intensity, and the strongest and most vividly expressive words rise to his tongue.” Such statements, Flaherty argues, are strongly reminiscent of accounts of shamanism—in this case of a shaman described not skeptically but in wonderment. They employ the idea of inspiration metaphorically—as control of an “instrument” from outside the person, or as a “gift” from a “higher power.” But these remain metaphors, covering an inability to explain a this-worldly phenomenon in natural terms.

My problem after multiple sclerosis is that I cannot have this experience as a writer. The experience of exaltation when one is flooded by imagination and converts that imagination into a structured, final product was my primary motivation to work. Charisma is the experience of exercising transformative, creative power. You have to see transformation and creativity in real time for it to be charisma.

The difficulty is not that I cannot be flooded with imagination anymore. That will still happen all the time if I don’t work to control it. The problem is that my organizational skills have been so badly compromised by the brain damage that I can’t keep up with an intense flow of imagination. I can’t organize the flood of images quickly enough to experience imagination as a high, because the high is the product not only of pseudo-religious awe at the flow of images flooding one’s consciousness, but also of mental power in processing it all. Instead, the result is distress. I’m still flooded with sight, but I can’t shape it effectively. Trying to do it in real time, I write disasters like the damned Lebanon paper.

The obvious solution is to let in less at a time and developing means of putting the pieces together slowly. The problem isn’t that the processor is bad (low intelligence) or the hard drive is bad (compromised long term memory problems, like Alzheimers), but that I’m running on too little memory (short-term recall problems) and simply can’t keep and manage all the images flooding into my conscious mind all at once.

The problem is that working on turning imagination into theory bit by bit just isn’t a high. Remember, I have to see the creative transformation in real time, i.e. “right before my eyes,” to experience that exalted high. If creative transformation happens incrementally, there’s no euphoria at all.

Is it any wonder I’m not getting anywhere?



Financial incentives

Regular if scanty pay at regular intervals when I teach.

The vague possibility of gainful employment without regular pay interruptions that seems to recede into an impossible to attain future.

Time constraints

Structured allotments (the course meets at regular times) with immediate selective incentives that force efficient use of off-schedule time (if I walk in unprepared I die of embarrassment). Top prioritization because I must teach to receive an income.

Chronic fatigue greatly reduces my “off schedule” time outside teaching and real life (funerals, doctor’s appointments, family crises, etc.) eats away at this time. Writing is consistently interrupted.

Pleasure in the work

Immediate high of watching the students experience new ideas they’ve never experienced before.

Slow boring of hard boards. Perspective erodes passion. Lack of self-confidence, as I can’t see the results happen in “real time.”

Monday, October 06, 2008

A Letter to Kirk

Dear Kirk

This is a link to the only thing that has come close to a locker room analysis in the aftermath of our third consecutive loss.

I don't know what's wrong and neither does the media. I'm pretty sure it's in their fucking minds, though. Maybe McCarthy is too soft-spoken to be a real leader. I know its unfair to compare him to Vince Lombardi, but fuckin' A. Sports, like life, requires passion. Thompson is always going to be detached, always going to be zen. Fuck, Kirk, he reminds me of you, which is why I trust him. But Thompson is a general manager. McCarthy's a coach and a coach can't be detached. It's the same as being a teacher. You have to evoke passion in your players. You have to do what they cannot—force them to draw on that reserve or embrace higher discipline or do whatever unnatural, counterintuitive act they need to win—a coach has to motivate. You can't do that with distance and reserve. They have to know that they're not alone, because they can't make it on their own. They need leadership.

I'm wondering if McCarthy's the problem. You can't be "just a manager" as a coach. I dunno, Kirk. All I know is that they suck and they shouldn't. They're better than this.

Favre may have meant a lot to them. I don't see why, though. None of these guys were there for the glory days, except Donald Driver. In 2005 we saw that Favre is only as good as the rest of the team. He isn 't a magician. They can win without him. People said that Favre led the team to 13-3 last year, but I think that's bullshit. We had Favre in 2005 and we sucked. Last year, the team gave Favre the opportunity to win.

I'm proud of Rodgers. If this is Favritis, I don't understand why they aren't proud of Rodgers. He was beautiful today. I was so proud of him. Rodgers is giving from his very soul. I don't see why that's not inspiring enough for anyone. It inspires me.

Damn it, he's the hungriest guy on the team. I just don't get why the rest of them aren't hungry. This team has the potential to be great. I don't know why they can't find it in themselves to believe in themselves.

I mean, I'm fucking ninth year graduate student with lesions in his brain. I'm not giving up. And I'm not going to win the Lombardi Trophy—that's obvious now. I'm no fool. It's enough for me to get a paying job as a teacher. But they can win. They can still go all the way to the Super Bowl. It pisses me off that they don't care enough to at least try to comport themselves with dignity, the fucking tattered bit of cloth that's survived the ruin of all of my dreams—to show that they have some self-respect.

This is Week 5. Who the fuck gives up the ship in Week 5?

Your pal,


Saturday, October 04, 2008

On Being A Geek

This is from an e-mail reply to an ex-student and friend who is applying to grad school (God help him):

Dear Josiah,

> Of course I know the litany, you said "fear is the mind killer"
> in class once and I called you out as a Dune geek!

It probably says something rather bad about my character that I don't recall all of this “Gary Gygax/Dune calling out” until I'm reminded of it. One of my character defects is that I get so focused on the task at hand that I sometimes don't take in enough of people as people. My intellectual strength is that I can focus. My intellectual weakness is that having a gift for focusing means I'm not good at relaxing.

These references are opaque for most people. I really should remember when someone actually gets the references.

I'll work on this.

> The irony
> of accusing someone of something which, by your very
> accusation you admit to being as well...

What? Being afraid? Being a geek? Being human?

What's truly ironic is that being human is something that we fundamentally are (a biological fact) but is something we must also practice a great deal to be any good at (because it is also a constructed, idealized identity). These two conflicting constructions of the word drive liberalism as a political ideology and account for its deep tensions and contradictions.

Did they make you read The Republic before you left here? For Plato, the foundation of recognition, hence of knowledge, is the form of the good. You recognize an object by its virtue. How do you know a knife if there's a chunk missing from the blade and the handle is broken? Because you know what a good knife is supposed to be and you can see that the defective knife is "trying" to be a knife, but not quite making it. You have to know the good knife to be able to recognize the defective one. So how do you recognize a man? Plato thinks you do it in just the same way—because you know what a good man is supposed to be. A man who doesn't live up to the standard isn't a good man. But you can only recognize him as a man because you know what a good man is. For Plato, the precondition for knowledge is morality.

You could be immoral, says Plato, but you have to admit that you are absolutely ignorant in order to do so. Evil is fixed as ignorance for all eternity. There is something good in this argument, as it forces you to wake up and be moral. There is something wicked in it, as the Bene Gesserit forces your hand into the box and, if you flinch, you clearly never were human. Those who do not live up to the standard are forced into the category of the sub-human. It's only a hop, skip and a jump to Hitler's death camps from there.

Weber's critique of this argument is that it confuses logical perfection for moral perfection. Yes, you do have to have a specific "form" in your head in order to marry sensory stimuli to the constructs that exist in your mind. Further, you do compare sensory stimuli to those forms and they do, "more or less" fit (remember Piaget? You accomodate or assimilate). But if you are a scientist, the fact that the real, palpable object does not accord to the image is the result of the fact that the image, not the object, is defective. Weber consciously uses the term "ideal-type" rather than "form" as he is very frank that human beings create ideal-types, which do not exist at some transcendental level, some realm of the forms. Moreover, Weber is very frank that it is the ideal-type which is "one-sided" and not reality that is imperfect from the vantage of logic. Reality is complex and the imagination is limited. We do our best to understand reality with limited resources.

Weber is very clear that epistemology is divorced from morality. What is entailed in morality is embracing a one-sided ideal and rejecting reality for not "living up" to it. There is no one who does not do this and it is at the heart of being human. Knowing that its origins may be a logical fallacy in no way means that you will or even could give it up.

This deliciously fucked-up moment is both the origin of postmodernity and perhaps the clearest ideal-type to date of the human condition. Weber, more than any other philosopher, understands tragedy.

So, no, you don't have to be a geek to know a geek. You can model it as a logical category, even if you can't really understand it through empathy. You may not really know what a "good" geek is. You don't have to know that it's good to be a geek or that a geek is a good thing.

Foucault ends The Archaeology of Knowledge by saying of the modernity that emerged from the Enlightenment, "They cannot bear (and one cannot but sympathize) to hear someone saying: 'Discourse is not life: its time is not your time; in it, you will not be reconciled to death; you may have killed God beneath the weight of all that you have said; but don't imagine that, with all that you are saying, you will make a man that will live longer than he.'"

In the starkness of the world that Foucault describes, there is a deep solace in the fact that at least some individuals who have been initiated and acculturated into a world of contradictory identities can find a common identity with others from a radically different context. This identity offers a certain freedom from the institutionally enforced basis of family life or the all-pervasive disciplinary influence of the modern state. Both of these identities, despite their value, have their Schmittian fascist undertones which cannot easily be reconciled with human freedom. Being a geek is a strange, unexpected identity born from self-imposed discipline that emerges from the simple personality trait of being a compulsive, obssessive thinker.

Having such a mind hurts. It hurts because its own disposition forces it to experience a lack of psychological resonance as it looks at the contradictions of its given identities. Such a mind is forced, as a result of its own proclivity for probing the world, for making rational sense of the world, into seeing the interstices where the constructs come together and where their artificiality is most apparent. The resulting awareness that the content of identity is not natural, not "of" some transcendent, divine world of forms, but created, fallible and constantly revised, and yet utterly necessary to our psychological well-being, is traumatic. It forces you into solitude and isolation. It disconnects you from an assumptive world shared by all those that you love. This has been the greatest source of pain and sorrow in my life.

Yet, if the person who has such a mind has a desire or a drive to be an agent of healing, there is deep meaning to be found in such a life, and in this love, there is a balm for one's suffering.

Moreover, there is always someone else, from some strange, far away, bewildering context, who shares this experience. That person is a geek. And if you are lucky, he or she is a good geek. And while this still does not offer a Platonic moment of recognition, it sure doesn't suck to know that in this crazy world there are others who are just as fucked-up as you are.

And who knows? Maybe together, the geeks can heal the world.