Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

River and rope, or, ambition without direction.  §

Don’t know as I start this whether this post is going to go onto the blog or into the archives. Why do some things go into the archives? Most common reason is because they’re too boring and abstract to go onto the blog (and you thought the blog was boring and abstract).

What I do know is that I feel compelled to type, and to potentially type a lot. For most of the afternoon, every single though that’s passed through my head became a chain of thoughts and then a full-on sequence of musings, and each time I thought that it ought to be on the blog.

Now that I’m actually sitting down to write because I just can’t take it any longer and need to start typing rather than merely thinking about typing, what invariably happens will happen all over again:

  • I will suddenly have no idea what to type
  • I will suddenly get very sleepy and that will be that

I have no doubt that some of this comes down to psychology. My psyche is giving me the bum steer for some reason when it comes to thinking these days. Maybe for a lot of reasons. But the only solution to the problem of “I am not allowing myself to think for some reason” is to continue to think and peel the god damned onion.

— § —

My committee chair and I haven’t spoken in a while. I’ve love to speak to him. He’s a good man and a friend. We’ve talked off and on about setting up a time to catch up this spring, and over the last 48 hours or so he has reached out to me to see if we can chat. I haven’t responded.

The reason for this is that I frankly don’t know what to say. That sounds like a bad reason not to speak with a friend, and it is, but it’s very me. I hate speaking with people when I don’t know what to say, when I don’t know what my feelings or thoughts are.

The contemporary virtue-signalling position is that “I listen to everyone, and I’ll listen to you, so share with me what’s on your mind and I won’t judge, because I’m here to hear you, because you matter and it’s all okay” and so on and so forth. And I’m sure he’ll be just like that.

But I’m going to be the contrarian and honestly say what people won’t allow themselves to think: someone who literally does not know which three words to string together is not a good conversation partner, and high-minded non-judgmentalism does not change this fact.

— § —

Academics right now is all of the following to me:

  • Cipher
  • Hazy memory
  • Distasteful morass
  • Insurmountable mountain

Probably a few other things besides.

Yes, I did get to talking the other day with one of my best friends, who is staying with me for a little while, about Dialectic of Enlightenment, One-Dimensional Man, and the Frankfurt School and ISR crowd as a whole in the context of intellectual history and the juncture between politics, social science, philosophy, and cultural criticism.

And it was exhilarating to be talking about such things again, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But academics is not about such things. Academics is about publications and the job market. And I have been out of that game for years now. And for good reasons:

  • The job prospects are terrible
  • It is not a good job even if by some miracle you get it
  • Getting it requires far more than a miracle; it also requires heroic self-crucifixion

I’m just not interested. That’s the part that’s difficult to talk about with other academics, because of course they conflate the two. The job is the books, the books are the job, the journals are merely a medium, and so on.

Well, no.

In the time I’ve had to reflect since getting my Ph.D. I’ve come more and more to the opinion that academics and academe by and large have little do to with inquiry or research. It is a kind of coincidence of marketplace activity that the two are related, sort of like when General Electric ends up putting out a line of flying discs or dog toys at one subsidiary or another.

The fact that this happens does not indicate, contra appearances, that General Electric and petkeeping really and necessarily have anything to do with one another.

Academics is rent-seeking on an industrial scale as people pass through the part of life’s river known as “youth.” The particular contents are irrelevant. Yes, there are many people in it that love the books, but that’s merely good business—good marketing strategy. It’s not at all unlike eBay’s business model in connecting buyers and sellers together.

On one side of the room we have some people who absolutely love books and journals—so much that they will work under horrible conditions and almost for free at a thousand other things if only they get the chance to read and write a lot of books and journals. They come incredibly cheaply, will work extended hours, and accept all manner of indignity so long as they can continue to read and write a lot of books and journals.

On the other hand we have the youth, who—by a combination of patronage, lobbying, blackmail, and other strategic behaviors often bordering corruption—are now essentially forced (or at least believe they are being forced, which often comes to the same thing in the end) to travel up this stretch of river in order to reach adulthood and receive an income of any kind.

The professoriat stands on the banks of the river and lifts the rope, but the money collected goes to the rent-seekers, who happily pocket it and reinvest it into the aforementioned youth campaign(s) to ensure that a steady supply of rivergoers continues to pass by—that no-one disembarks and ends up walking along the bank instead.

And the professoriat are promised that they can read and write as many books and journals as they wish between rope-liftings and toll-collectings, so long as they do not slow the flow of traffic or fail to collect in any one case. They simply have to work it all in. (They are also promised that the reading and writing that they do in between toll-collectings and rope-liftings is tremendously valuable and laudable and will be read by everyone, which serves as an incentive to certain high-minded sorts of people, as well as to certain insecure sorts of people.)

But in fact what is going on is that the reading and writing is done on a riverbank and comes to nothing in the broader world. The rivergoers are poorer for having passed up the river, and don’t feel as though the rope-lifting was a particularly beneficial exercise worth the price that they’ve paid for it. The estate owners happily reassure both, pocket the tolls, and enjoy their life in the manor.

And it all happens out on the river, far away from much of anything else, and comes to nothing in particular.

— § —

So, having said all of that, what do I have to say about academics, except the banal observation that despite all of this nonsense I’d happily give myself up to sitting on the riverbank, lifting that rope, doing the reading and the writing, but for the fact that I have hungry mouths to feed and that must take precedence. And the fact that I want to spend time with my children, and that, too, must take precedence.

“I’d happily embrace the entire sorry enterprise, except I can’t afford to, and that’s pretty much it.”

Not much to talk about.

— § —

The wristwatch period—over?

I find that the passion and interest I’ve felt (and felt rather silly about at times nonetheless) over the last year for horology has faded.


I don’t know. I literally don’t know.

What has changed?

In any case, I find myself musing that I ought to trim back the entire collection to maybe one Zodiac, two Orients, and a Raymond Weil and liquidate the rest.

A few months ago this would have been unthinkable. Now most days I just keep the Zodiac on my wrist and forget about the rest. The project watches are all sitting idle. The website probject and business project I’d started—also idle.

I get scratches and I don’t polish them out.

WTF. So deflating.

I want to feel that way about the watches because it’s the way that I once felt about the books, and was a good thing, because of the scenario that I described above. When your passion is both implausible and possibly unethical, not to mention likely inconsequential, you feel rather happy when another passion magically comes along.

Only that now seems to be dissipating. Damn and blast, particularly since I had (okay, have—see what’s happening?) promising projects in the works.

— § —

Everything on divorce that’s out there is so focused on the stages of grief. Only I didn’t really have much grief, not for the marriage or the loss of the significant other, so all that stuff isn’t helping me that much.

I did have some grief about the loss of a certain life for my children, a kind of vicarious grief, and a sadness about that. But that comes and goes as it does and I accept that I’ll probably always feel that. It’s not overpowering and there’s not much to be done about it anyway. Their parents divorced. That’s that.

But the thing that I have struggled with the most is how divorce fits into the larger pattern of transition in my life. It’s been quite a period.

  • Finished the “life-long” get-a-Ph.D.-project
  • Became geographically stuck thanks to parenthood (and divorce)
  • Got divorced, putting an end to the “life-long” relationship project
  • Left the left, without joining the right, became a bit nihilistic and pessimistic about politics and society in general

I mean, what am I working on exactly?

This goes along with the “passion” bit above. It’s all what they mean by “mid-life crisis.”

A bunch of the big stuff was achieved, and there is no particular positive life goal hanging around that I still:

  • Believe in
  • Am practically and ethically able to pursue
  • Have not yet completed

Once you run out of plausible goals, you are on a bit of a raft.

I’ve been trying to bring the raft in for a landing. For a while, it seemed as though writing might be it once again. Or horology. Or parenthood itself (though I was always dubious about whether or not this was good for the kids).

But no. The sighting of land was an oceangoing mirage. There is beautiful blue water as far as the eye can see, and so here I sit, ironically ribbing an anthropomorphized Newtonian mechanics by blowing into the sail myself, purely for amusement and as a way to pass the time and pull the wool over parts of my subconscious that would like me to be doing something productive.

— § —

If there is anyone out there who reads my ham-handed, underdeveloped analogies and understands them, I love you. And if you actually like them, marry me.

Actually, maybe don’t. Not sure about that whole marriage thing still. But let’s talk, because this is actually how I think.

— § —

It occurred to me before that there is another metanarrative that can be crafted about the most recent period in my life—about moving on from things like academics and marriage and public writing while embracing parenthood.

It also seems to fit into another variation on common “mid-life crisis” characterizations. It’s the “American Beauty” transition.

I was at the academics thing for a very long time. I’d been working toward that since I was a kid. Ten years as an undergrad getting two B.A. degrees. Another two years getting an M.A. Another eight years getting a Ph.D. Building the experience, the knowledge, and—this is the insidious bit—the persona.

The last bit is insidious because it’s such a big part of the enterprise. To become a part of the professoriat, it is not nearly enough to be smart, or well-read, or full of interesting ideas that you can actually write about at length. In fact, I had all of those relatively early on.

What really matters is the persona—and the persona is a strange combination of inoffensive milquetoast blandness and quiet authority, with elbow patches and a certain commodified “intellectual vanguardism” that is, in actuality, little more than—in plain and simple terms—a an embrace of groupthink justified not by actual belief, but by the degree to which it serves as a test of your inoffensive, milquetoast, bland posture vis-a-vis the manor-dwellers that we spoke about earlier.

Anyone who has actually spent time getting a doctorate knows this. Unless you are a legacy that came through Harvard or Yale and arrive with the promise of very big dollars for the endowment and very many international connections beyond academe for the faculty—unless you come bearing a title and gifts, in other words—you are most decidedly not free to speak your mind.

You are naturally encouraged at every step along the way to develop “your own voice” and perspective, and so on, but in fact, the process of becoming an academic is the process of learning how to identify and conform to rather narrow ideological, behavioral, and superficial expectations. There is a directly proportional relationship between the degree to which “you are more and more a real academic” and “you spend more and more of your time not saying a single thing that you think, no matter how your soul swells with indignation.”

Having and expressing an opinion are tremendously important; required, even. Having and expressing a different opinion, however—well, that’s another kettle of fish. That’s for the full professors (not even the associates). Do it before you’re time and you are, quite simply, out.

And after years and years on the climb, with years and years more ahead of you before you reach full status, that simply won’t do. Sunk costs and all that. So you keep your mouth open while also keeping it shut, and you do it religiously.

— § —

That is, of course, also the story of my late marriage, which, for at least a year now, has seemed increasingly absurd to me. (What, I was married once!? Who told you that?)

Early on, I was adorably idiosyncratic and everything that I did was gold. But over time, the range of things that I could think, say, or do without losing my investment in the enterprise became smaller and smaller, as the threat of the institution’s collapse from any tiny deviation from external expectations got larger and larger.

— § —

It is also—to put it into a very small section—the story of my career as a public figure.

Early on—say, first book time—it was very cool to have my name out there and be asked to do interviews and so on.

But then at some point I had four books. And then six. And not just a few articles, but thousands. And they were associated with major brands. Pearson! eBay! About! etc.

And every moment spent with my mouth open became a bigger and bigger risk. So, naturally, I meticulously reduced, over time:

  • How often my mouth was open
  • How wide I opened it
  • How many things came out of it when it was open
  • Anything original in any of this

— § —

In short, the period between about 20 years old and about 39 years old was, for me, a paradoxical combination of:

  • Gradually increasing responsibilities to speak (as an academic, as a husband to a wife that needed much support, as a public figure in my career).
  • Gradually increasing audience size and intensity of attention from said audiences.
  • Gradually increasing volume of speech.
  • Rapidly diminishing honesty or self-expression of any kind in any of that speech.

By the time my marriage was ending, I felt as though I rather exhaustingly did nothing but speak/write/think and at the same time I didn’t recognize myself, or anything that I actually thought or cared about, in almost any of it.

And the amount of effort involved in continuously speaking/writing/thinking in such a disciplined way (in the technical sense—controlled, narrow, managed, etc.) was staggering. I did nothing but produce words, all day, every day, with either large or very important audiences, but I parsed every . last . word . carefully all the time—and more and more narrowly—while the real me, under there somewhere, was more and more silent until in the end I wasn’t sure he was there any longer.

— § —

He was.

But, as I was saying, the recent period in my life can alternatively be understood as me throwing off the chains—of academic life, of public life, of married life—and regaining some sense of my voice.

The simple pleasure of being me and saying what I think.

My audience is now essentially two—my kids. And I have to parse far less for them. It’s more about just being sure that I don’t use big words.

— § —

Problem is, however, that once you’ve spent two decades being forced into a smaller and smaller space—a deeper and deeper inner silence and agentive stasis—you don’t automatically become a swashbuckler again even if you do decide to make a break for it and get free.

It’s a bit like a jailbreak—a part of you is concerned about being on the run, and a much larger part of you has beein in jail for so long that you really have no idea what to do with yourself on the open road.

So I’ve gone from “so much to say and can never, ever say it, so much to do and can never, ever do it” to “free to say anything, not sure what to say, free to do anything, not sure what to do.”

— § —

I suppose that’s what this post is ultimatley about (looks like it became a post in the end).

It’s about a period of uncertainty that is ongoing, and my sense of things as summer starts. (I didn’t even write the part about the end of the school year and reflections of a father, etc.—glad?)

  • Not sure what to say.
  • Not sure what to do.
  • Want to join a pirate crew again.
  • Can’t remember where or how to find one; left hoping that I stumble across a needy pirate in a bar who’s open about things.


— § —

P.S. I do really want that Raymond Weil Freelancer Titanium. I’ll probably save up. Maybe the horology thing isn’t dead after all? One can hope, because there’s f’ing not much else going on just yet other than work, paychecks, bills, and bedtimes, and these are not enough.

The direction may be gone, but the ambition is not. Ambition without direction—frustrating. But maybe the former will ultimately serve to deliver the latter.

One can hope.

— § —

P.P.S. I should have been the other kind of doctor. I do, in fact, still regularly think about going to med school, preposterous as it seems. I suppose it’s not on the cards. But who knows?