I am increasingly fascinated by the history of the medieval period.
Monthly Archives: June 2016
The modern, capitalist west is a thin world. It is endlessly complex, vibrant, and intense, but it is thin, like a plate of tempered glass—shimmering, blue, ultra-refined, yet insubstantial.
Every now and then I catch hints of a thicker world. Sometimes I can even—for a moment—imagine what it must feel like to live in it. It is not an either/or proposition—one does not choose between the two. Rather, the thick world is the one that stands on either side of the tempered glass window; it extends infinitely in all directions, and is of much more varied and richer substance. What it lacks in refinement it repays in meaning.
It is my goal to see beyond the thin world and to ultimately inhabit the thick one as well, without losing sight of either.
© 2002 Aron Hsiao / All Rights Reserved
The photographs, they are beautiful. They are beautiful because they capture the incredible beauty of materiality but compress it by a full dimension, rendering it perceptible in entirely new ways. If reality is gorgeous, then two realities—for surely that’s what photographs offer us—are together twice as gorgeous.
— § —
Feelings are funny things; they come and go, they answer only halfway to their agents, their other halves being a form of wild magic. Most importantly they are fickle as hell, often passionately contradicting themselves from moment to moment.
— § —
Bourbon is a gift from God, good bourbon doubly so. That is the way of things.
— § —
The good things in life aren’t complicated in the least, yet very few people understand or embrace them any longer. Hint: if it can be politicized, it is not one of the good things. The habit of mistaking the politically settled or the politicizable for the good—a cardinal sin of our age—leads only to a disguised form of suffering.
— § —
Driving on long, winding, narrow roads with windows down and sunroof open is, like photography, a way of capturing the incredible beauty of materiality in new ways by compressing it so as to be rendered differently to perception. In short, it’s a damned good time, and an edifying one, at that.
Take a look at this article, and at the comments.
This is the basic problem with the culture. A woman publicly expresses that she is happily married, has children, and loves them, along with her career.
The result, from well-educated professionals? Disgust. Irritation. The notion that she ought to be ashamed of herself for being married, a parent, and happy as she writes about her career. Because these things are oh-so heteronormative and sexist. And she’s white, just to ice the cake. Oh, the horrors!
I’ll take an incredibly controversial stand here (and to me it is incredible that it’s incredibly controversial).
It is not shameful to be straight.
It is not shameful to be married.
It is not shameful to be a parent.
It is not shameful to be happy in these things.
And, they are neither rare or impossible. They are not lies told to the young in order to prepare them for a lifetime of oppression by patriarchy. They are things people do. A lot of people. By choice. People who have nothing the be ashamed of, and who in fact ought to be rather proud.
I know, I know. What a horrible person am I!
When in darkness
hope dances on the surfaces
a little electricity—
and tiny echoes
to tap out
failures of truth
life should not go on
and with the blessings of the
The discourse on faith and reason is often framed as one in which the two stand in opposition to one another, with adherents to each view attributing the ills of the present to the other.
I have two thoughts on this point, one minor and trite, and the other somewhat more important and less often discussed.
- There is no necessary opposition between the two. The apparent opposition is a matter of the specificity of faith(s) at issue; there is no need for faith as such to contradict reason if in fact the faith is structured in such a way as to be compatible with it. For example, the common “physics and the laws of the universe are precisely how God chose to get things done” puts faith and reason rather in the same box. The conflict at issue, rather, is between particular faiths that are unable for reasons of culture, tradition, and belief to arrive even at detente with reason, much less a position of reasoned embrace. It is thus not faith but in fact the unwarranted belief in things that simply, demonstrably, and empirically are not so that stands in contradiction to reason.
- I think that framing the nature of social ills in terms of a debate about the relative culpabilities of faith and reason misses the point entirely. I’ll explain now.
— § —
What people seem not to understand is that for a quarter, or even perhaps at this point a half a century, both faith and reason are anathema.
Sometime in the 20th century it became a cultural truism that faith was both anachronistic and false. Reason stepped in, as was expected, to fill the void—and it did so for some time, similarly asserting the importance of the collective, of social norms, of the discernment of positive and negative behavior, and so on. Even if it arrived via a different train on different tracks, the destination was largely the same—a healthy society, even if this wasn’t always achieved in practice.
By the time of the culture wars in the late midcentury period, however, the ground under reason was shifting. Now reason, too, was suspect. It had given us Vietnam, Marxism and capitalism, and the stifling uniformity of American suburbia. By the turn of the century, reason was also considered to be obviously anachronistic and false—the source of nuclear waste, climate change, the profit-driven drug industry, pesticides in agricultural production, and so on.
The dominant cultural milieu of the moment is not one in which some line up for reason and others line up for faith and all enter the melee.
It is one in which the average individual understands that he is subversive, less worthy of respect, and apart from the normative group if he or she embraces either reason or faith. God and science must both be disowned and made fun of.
This is the source of our troubles now. Both god and science made the case for the collective, and had something to say about the relationship between the individual and society. But now both are anathema, and anything that makes arguments about self and its relation to society is claimed to be either one or the other (faith or reason) and is rejected as unwarranted and unacceptable on the basis that faith and reason are both inherently unjust and unjustifiable.
— § —
This is another way to approach the fact of postmodernism—the rejection of the “grand narrative” as such (of which God and science are the two most important)—which leaves us, as a matter of conscious choice, with nothing.
“Nothing,” goes the argument, ultimately, “can be argued to be true. To do so is to embrace either a false God or a false science.” Nothing remains, as a normative matter, but the id and the ego. I have in the past written about the collapse of epistemology, but what I probably should have written was that it has been rejected. Not “how do we know” but rather “it is wrong to know.”
That single moral principle alone—that it is wrong to know—is the one thing taken on faith. The rest becomes the fulfillment of drives. Hence activism, terrorism, granola-ism, and a million other isms. They are all variants of the same impulse to reject anything outside the self as grand narrative, most notably God and science.
It’s not a “secular” age that we’re living in. It’s an “interior” age, in which there is no such thing as the world or as society, and in which all of normatively acceptable knowledge must originate and be justified only by the individual self.
We live in a world of emotional children. Teenagers, probably.
Somehow, maturity has disappeared. Restraint—gone. Better judgment—gone.
I was wrong when I wrote previously about total honesty. I’ve had a few weeks to chew on it, to read, to reacquaint myself with better thoughts and better angels. Honesty without judgment is, quite simply, selfishness.
The fact is, it only works—society only works, sociability only works—when people on all sides exercise restraint and reason. The alternative is warfare. The appeals to emotion and honesty and activism… They are how we get to where we are. To mass shootings. To ISIS. To competing claims for victimhood. To increased suffering.
You cannot have what you want. You just can’t. You can fight this until the end of your life, and you won’t change it. And the things you so permissively allow yourself feel and say and do—those things have consequences. It is no good pretending otherwise.
Some amount of self-repression is necessary. Because it is also the repression of the war, violence, hate, and narcissism that are at the core of human nature.
Once, we tried to build a society founded on reason. Perhaps we tried to be better than we are. But at least we tried. Then, we gave up on the project.
I felt hopelessly tired in the middle of the day. I don’t know why. And so I laid down for a bit, and then—before you know it—I fell deeply asleep. Not only that, but I had a dream, which is rare. (It is, at least, very rare that I ever remember having dreamt, much less what any dream might have included.)
— § —
In the dream, I’d taken the kids for lunch to the Sconecutter drive-through (almost a surreal dream in and of itself, if we stopped there), but couldn’t order because in fact the area next to the menu sign was blocked by someone in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume on a skateboard. I got out to speak with them assuming them to be a kid but was promptly grabbed and held with a switchblade knife at my neck and no particular demands. Luckily I wrestled my way out of it and beat the turtle (such as it was) fairly hard, then climbed back into the car, brushing off my hands.
By the time I’d seat-belted myself in, I saw that this “turtle” had in the meantime seized another person—a kid on a skateboard—and now held them the same way, so I quickly hopped back out, got into it with the turtle, and rescued the kid, this time giving the “turtle” an even more substantial beating. And calling the police, who came and picked him up.
Well, after that we ordered our food and began to make our way by car to the house of a white-haired old uncle (who did in fact exist in real life but is long dead now) who had spent years as a cowboy and was now lonely and in need of visits from family and friends. We were to call on and have desert at his house in the afternoon.
On the way, I got a call from the police, explaining that the suspect I’d helped them to arrest was a 43-year-old man who came to the area where we’d tussled every day in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle garb to ride on his skateboard and harass the locals. Only this time, thanks to my help, they’d be able to get him on weapons and assault charges. In his possession when arrested were a 9-inch stiletto switchblade, a long centimeter-wide sword embedded in a cane, a simple but razor-sharp dagger, and a fold-away scythe with a 43-inch curve blade, all tucked into his costume.
I felt a deep sorrow and compassion for the man for some reason. But the case was, of course, also remarkable and chilling, so when we arrived at uncle’s house, I shared the story. We had much discussion of youth and youth culture and also of 43-year-old men who ought to know better, and of mental illness and personality disorders and our ability as a society to cope with them.
Then, just as I was about to excuse us for the evening, he mentioned in passing that he was on his way to Europe shortly. “Oh, wonderful!” I said, “Vacation?”
“Oh no,” he repied, “I work for the European Union. I’ve got to attend to some on-site tasks at headquarters!”
“Not a Brussels-styled technocrat in addition to a cowboy?! I had no idea!” I said in disbelief.
“Well, of course!” he responded and detailed how in fact he’d flown out at least once a month for years and operated as a commissioner of some sort with a heavy responsibilities, doing a lot of calculations, providing judgments about their meanings, and also participating in Very Serious Deliberative Gatherings from time to time.
We then had a little bit of merriment at our newfound understandings of each other—him of my valor against warlike turtles, mine of his latent technocracy—during which he told me that he didn’t drink but had always enjoyed and been just as intoxicated by sweets—and thus enjoyed his trips to Brussels all the more.
Then there was some dancing around the table on his part for some reason, much giggling on his part as well, and also much time during which he sat at the corner of the table, half in shadow, eating Turkish Delight and getting sugar all over his vest and mustache while begging me not to go yet and offering me sweets, which I declined each time.
Eventually I said that I really had to go, as it was after 9:00 pm, far too late for the kids to be out, and that I’d originally intended to leave by 6:00. I rounded them up from the other room where they were playing happily and, on the way out the front door, asked:
“Popular sovereignty or not?”
“Oh of course not!” he said, making a sour face, and he laughed good-naturedly.
“Well, as a sociologist, you know I have to be on the other side!” I said, laughing myself, and he began to laugh again too.
On that congenial note, we exited his apartment, closed his front door behind us, and the kids and I took the fire stairway down from his floor (setting off the fire alarm for a moment when we entered it), hopping two stairs at a time, hand-in-hand. We blasted out the front door of the building (where several large dolls sat in the foyer strapped to Native American style baby-boards) and hopped into our car, which was parked just out front.
And off we went in good spirits.
— § —
I have no idea what this dream means, or why I should have had it between approximately noon and 2:00 pm on a Saturday in June in the middle of the darkest period of my life.
But there it is, for all posterity.
© Public Domain
Now I’m not on the political Right, so this will come as something like friendly fire, but—
The very same people and party who are celebrating the first woman ever to “shatter the glass ceiling” by becoming the nominee of a major party, and declaring it to be a victory and historic day for women and girls everywhere who have since time immemorial been penalized merely for their womanhood—are the people and party who are also during the very same period of a couple of weeks arguing that there are no such things as “biologically male” or “biologically female” and that in fact these concepts are ideological.
This would seem to be a contradiction. If there is no such thing not merely as gender, but in fact no such thing as sex—if both are wholly selectable as personal choices—then the “glass ceiling” that Clinton has just smashed would seem not to have been particularly high or hard. Put it another way—why haven’t all of these women who have been barred from the presidency simply run as men, if sex and gender are completely unimportant, but titles, status, and income are a big deal? Or the converse—if Obama had had the foresight, he could have decided to run as a woman and shattered both the racial barrier and the glass ceiling at the same time.
Or is there something to the idea that women are made to suffer at times because they’re women? If so, what’s with all the language that such things as “women” and “men” don’t actually exist? Or that they don’t matter at all? The Clinton party seems to imply that womanhood does matter and is important and worth fighting for; the bathroom party continues to argue that sex and gender don’t matter and aren’t important or worth fighting over. And it’s the same party.
Is there something powerful and ineffable to womanhood and manhood that make them things either unalterable about ourselves or worth fighting for and applauding? Or are they things of no consequence and, in fact (I’m seeing this argument more and more) utter nonexistence?
I know, I know, the argument is that there exists a spectrum along which people can fall, and it is up to the individual to choose their place on the spectrum. And, the argument will go, this does not itself alter the fact that those on the “woman” side of the spectrum have historically been subject to unequal treatment. But in making these two arguments together, you do both concede that the category (or, at the very least, the spectrum) exists, and that it has a social reality with some historical force (indeed, if the celebration is to be taken at face value, world-historical force). Seems to me it can’t be had both ways, after all, without being open to the claim that what is really going on isn’t about justice but about people wanting what they want and finding the most expedient arguments, those that appeal to high-minded sentiments, to support their requests.
Just sayin’. Identity politics FTW.
Broken people make more broken people, and have always done. The goal is not to become one of them, and to save who you can.
1. Forty is both not too old to start something new and also so old as to be entirely a has-been.
2. The Left is generally wrong. The Right is also generally wrong. And there is no center.
3. The secular humanists believe that they have rejected God and elevated the human. The religious believe that they have rejected the secular humanists and elevated God. Both have rejected both God and human and are not in the process of elevating anything.
4. Use it or lose it. This is one of the most important maxims of all.
5. Entropy is a profound truth, but it can be countered so long as there is energy from outside any circumscribed system to draw on. That is to say, in other terms, that you can get stuff done, but it will cost you, somewhere in your life.
6. No matter how much I have or could have built in my life by now, at the present moment, I’d be starting over. Some people simply have to do that in life.
7. One of the benefits—but also the risks—of starting over is that you have a chance to test your courage once again, and to see whether you can stand courageously this time around in all of the places where you didn’t the last time around.
8. No pain, no gain. This is another important maxim.
9. Place matters. It may even be the single most important factor in a human life, after genetics, personality, and basic health.
10. In the end, there aren’t really so many things. We multiply them and allow them to multiply so as not to have to confront the basics.
As an undergrad focused on my English degree, before I took up my second major in cultural anthropology, two figures stand out to me and will until the day I die.
One was Matt Potolsky, who I understand is still at Utah. He wouldn’t recognize either myself or my name today; I was one of the countless horde of mid-degree students that have no doubt shuffled through his curricular classes, if he still teaches such classes (and I hope he does). I doubt he’d recognize himself or his scholarship in what I’m about to say, but in his classes I came to understand, finally, the relationship between art and history, between ethics and creativity—a relationship that other courses in literature and art, as well as courses in philosophy—had failed to illuminate for me.
Under his instruction, sitting in the back of his classrooms largely unobserved and unremarkable, I finally came to see the arts as one of the many methods by which humans have collectively sought to address the great questions in human existence in the interest of sacralizing, making meaningful, and attempting to construct and pursue a productive hope about, life and its inevitable suffering. This was surely not his fundamental aim in the courses that I took from him, given the topics at hand, but it was the result of his approach and sensitivity to the material, and to the ways in which he illuminated their address of common and ageless threads in human inquiry and experience.
The other figure I won’t mention because I’m about to be unkind. In fact, the one and only unabashedly critical letter I’ve ever written to a faculty member was written in her course. It was meant to be a survey of great contemporary works of fiction, but it was in fact a survey of works that bore on a particular, and very small, politics. The work that I remember best was what I’ll call a work of second-wave-feminist science fiction. Amusing enough in its own right, thought not quite rising to the level of a page-turner—but largely ethically facile and opaque, yet seen to be worth day after day of in-class debate, in which the battle lines were largely (and under her guidance) constructed as “this is not great literature and tells me little” vs. “your belief in great literature as such betrays your latent sexism and patriarchal idealism.”
In my letter, I told her in so many words that while the debates had been intense, they seemed to be in some sense debates about a point that the very existence of the course seemed to concede: whether there ought to be a canon at all. Even the debate on sexism and patriarchy didn’t tackle the issue head-on, but instead allowed it to be hazily mediated through what I felt was a bludgeon-like novel, lacking in greater vision, that itself seemed to prefer to dance around the issue. In-class positions generally lacked social or historical context—a mode of discourse of which she approved, as (once again) the very notion of social and historical contexts was patriarchal on its face, and so on.
Both of these figures and their courses stand out to me so clearly because of the contrast between the two. Potolsky’s courses left me with a new appreciation for the human experience in all its complexity, and the unending desire, seen throughout history, to understand and grapple with it in any number of ways. Even if the task itself is Sisyphean, I found myself believing that the effort itself was tremendously important for the well-lived life.
The other’s courses I now realize were largely nihilistic—their fundamental argument was that none of it matters—indeed, that nothing matters, and that nothing must be allowed to matter, and to suggest otherwise is ideological indoctrination in the service of oppression—because making things matter is precisely how tyrants of all stripes come to rule. Thus we read nothing works and had nothing discussions about them in a grand performance of nothingness that displayed our imperviousness to being the subjects of rule of any kind, interior or exterior. When nothing at all matters to anyone, the course ultimately seemed to argue, no one can compel anyone to do anything, and pure freedom (though to what end was never really discussed) is the inevitable result.
I write this entry after these two have come to mind in juxtaposition again and again over the course of the two decades since I finished my time as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. The memory now takes on a new urgency for me, given the state of my life and the age that I now am. Which view of the world do I prefer to adopt as a guide to the second half of my life?
Potolsky’s implicit view and method, surely.
The relationship that connects action to integrity and possibility is driving me nuts these days. It’s a bugaboo in pretty much every dimension of my life, personal and professional.
Some conventional wisdom on action:
– Do the right thing, even when futile.
– Right action implies right inaction (“Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”)
– Fight to the bitter end for what you want and believe.
– If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
– Mature people exercise restraint and consideration.
– Quit while you’re ahead.
– Never give up, success is the outcome of a battle of wills.
…and so on.
These are all either subtly or strongly at odds with one another.
This isn’t about courage, it’s about decision-making. When is it right to stop?
I suppose this is the battle between idealism and pragmatism all over again in different drag, something that’s been at issue nationally this election season. But it’s a real puzzle in every case, and if you see enough cases in your life, it begins to feel like there is a deeper ethical question underneath it all.
— § —
On a separate but somehow not unrelated note, truth is a tricky beast, because it can also be destructive and painful to real people.
When the truth is likely to bring someone (or even several someones) down, is it better to “do no harm” and to “have compassion” or is it better to engage in “tough love” and “say what needs to be said” because “real friends tell you the truth?”
— § —
I suppose I’m wanting more from reality than it can give?
The way I’m asking these questions is certainly tied to concerns about outcomes. I can see the argument that what I need to do is decide on the “right” choice and do it in each case, whatever my personal philosophy may be, and let the chips fall where they may. That you can’t control reality.
But then, if there’s no concern for outcomes, what’s the point in choosing one thing over another, or in having a personal philosophy anyway?
And I can see a way in which this could also be framed in terms of scale, i.e. are we deciding based on short-term or long-term goods, or on individual or collective goods? (And of course, in both cases, there are many spaces in between).
— § —
I am having trouble working these things out. Discussions in the abstract are easy, but actually deciding what to do in the moment proves, the older I get, to be ever more harrowing, with much more room to second-guess myself about the decision afterward.
Adulthood is hard.
I need to read more philosophy.
(1) Too wordy.
(2) Too strident.
(3) Too negative.
This is why having a blog is useful. Sometimes you can’t see in the moment just where your head is or has been at. But if you have a blog, voila, it’s all revealed to you when you actually take a moment to read what you’ve been writing.
There aren’t enough self-correctives in life. I’m happy to have this one, if sometimes embarrassed about how it looks after stretches like this.
Oh, and for anyone who doesn’t know me but is wondering, I don’t sound this infuriatingly pompous in real life. Well, usually. I hope.
It all comes down to this:
Once you admit to yourself that good and evil exist and that you have seen them, all the rest is just paperwork. There is no longer any intellectually honest escape.