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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Wisdom?  §

© 2003 Aron Hsiao

As I imagine wisdom, universality is one of its quintessential characteristics.

This poses a bit of a problem during those moments when I can’t for the life of me think of a single universal anything, in any context whatsoever, and at the same time don’t want to concede that I am so completely unwise as to be unable to even conceive of wisdom.

— § —

Every now and then I wonder about these popular quanitites that are less quantities than they are value orientations and symbols for ethical and moral allegiances.

Wisdom. Courage. Discretion. Perserverance. Grace. Hope.

That list of words that makes its way undeservedly onto greeting cards and birth certificates and more deservedly into literature and speechwriting.

Without wanting to read a lot of originalist or essentialist nonsense about what are, after all, socially constructed and spatiotemporally local quanitites, I sometimes wonder whether I oughtn’t to spend more time thinking about them.

After all, without even trying to do so, I’m relatively certain that I hold these up to be goods in much the same way that others do, and pursue them haphazardly and often implicitly and failingly, again in much the same way that others do.

But I’ve never taken the time to dissect what I understand most of these to mean (much less to try to do any sort of wider cultural or linguistic analysis in this regard). Without knowing what they mean, we take them to be self-evidently good and desirable, the territory of the aged and of those that have suffered at extremes that we “cannot possibly imagine and no doubt would never survive.”

But what I want to know, at the end of the day, is this—and it’s a question that I can’t actually answer offhand, even intuitively—are these taken-for-granted goods compatible with one another? What do they look like when plotted on a Venn diagram? Might they, in their most virtuous extremes, even be mutually exclusive and incompatible?

What then?

It would seem an untenable and ethnocentric position to suggest that they are universalist tendencies in practice and substance, or even that there is a universalist basis in moral reasoning for each of them. That would appear to legitimate much of the colonial project and many historical ills.

At the same time, if there is no unversalist basis for them, then what is the nature of their value, and how are they different from either cynicism on the one hand or martyrdom on the other?

— § —

Nope, not a philosopher. And haven’t read anything that would seem to be on point, at least not to the layperson.

They chuck a bunch of Kant and Hegel and Hume and Heidegger at you in the social sciences, along with a bit of Rosseau and Lock and Hobbes in literature departments, but for the most part you’re kept out of the grand traditions of western philosophy.

But then again, if we’re talking western philosophy, the same questions tend to obtain regardless of the canon.

— § —

Do I have the sense that there is a proper hierarchy of values as outlined above?

How about a proper hierarchy of disciplines?

If mutually inconsistent, does wisdom trump courage, or vice-versa?

The same thing goes for the social-scientific ethical universe on the one hand and the canons of western philosophy on the other.

— § —

Does any of this even mean anything?


It’s only that tonight, as is the case now and then, I was feeling particularly unwise and ungraceful.

So I consciously tried to be wiser and more graceful.

Which led me to feel uncourageous and lacking in perserverance.

And at the end of it all, the morass led me to want to have a drink, put some words down, and throw my keyboard against the wall.

That, at least, would have been unwise, ungraceful, uncourageous, and so on.

Perhaps it all works out, like so many other things, in negative space.

Or perhaps Marx was right and we all ought to pull our heads out of the clouds and turn Hegel on his head. I used to be sure that Marx was right.

But the moral universe that Durkheim outlined is a real one, and leads me at times to doubt.

— § —

At the end of the day, without having ever wanted to be one, I sometimes suspect that I am, simply, a *skeptic*.

Holiday Detente?  §

© 2005 Aron Hsiao

The holiday season arrives every year as a collection of expectations, the promise of rewards whose coming has sustained everyone through the darker, more work-intensive periods of the year.

Those expectations are not the same from individual to individual.

— § —

For me, the release of the holiday season has always come in a particular form of collective down-time.

The holidays are, in my deepest imagination, a period during which all rules and all activity end. Family members are drawn together not by “doing things” together so much as by being “down” together, by developing—for once during the year—the particular sort of intimacy that comes from being inactive in collectivity, from seeing one another passively in mutually inactive states.

For some in my family over the years, this meant television for days on end. For others, this meant quiet time reading in solitude behind a closed door. For others, it was a matter of undirected talking or reminiscing. All were able to observe, in a quiet way that drew no attention to itself, what others did to unwind—what others did when there was nothing to do.

There was an unwritten rule that no plans could be made or proposed. To do so would have shattered an unwritten detente, drawn time and choices back into issue, would have required interaction that for some were irreconcilable with the notion of non-being-in-the-world that was always woven through the holiday expectations of others.

And so it was that on the morning following a major holiday, all would gradually make appearances and, in some cases, follow these with disappearances back into rooms or corners. Little would be said; littler still would be done. There was no talk of the future, either future hours or future days.

For a moment, at least, the world came to an end, realized in ultimately in the willfull anti-climax of holiday ecstasy. A new world would surely come once the holiday season was over, and everyone knew this at some unspoken level, but for a few days at least, all were between worlds, caught between the end of one and the start of another. There was nothing to be done but to observe what others were inclined to do at the end of the world.

— § —

Those days of complete emptiness, open horizons, limited interaction, yet complete co-presence are amongst my most essential memories of childhood and are the crux of the holiday release toward which I have looked forward every year.

As it turns out, however, this tableaux is more and more difficult to realize; a single thought of the future, a single plan made, a single mention of practical things brings the world back to life again for all; the moment is lost. Ritual and anticipation can only suspend existence outside of time if they are carefully nurtured—if the fiction is gently, painstakingly, and interactively built and respected.

— § —

Rather importantly, this is not everyone’s idea of the perfect holiday season or the perfect holiday release, and it has always been difficult to reconcile the impulse with the very strong competing impulse in the broader culture for the holidays to be a season of frenetic activity and involvement.

It is inevitable that things are changing as others marry into the family and as my own children grow. It is already clear that the previous tacit agreement about the natures of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays can no longer be sustained.

In short, I’m less and less able to depend on the holiday season for the particular rewards that it once provided to me. I suspect I’ll be able to develop some other avenue in my life that provides for the same escape. It will likely shift, however, from a particular form of collective experience to very different one of individual and sequestered experience, caught in fleeting moments without the awareness of others.

— § —

I suspect that the cultural difference at issue is founded in different valorizations of silence and inactivity as they occur in togetherness.

For me, silence and inactivity are as central to social life as their opposites. I suspect that one cannot know or be properly intimate with another without spending a certain number of hours physically together yet unengaged in speech, eye contact, or ordered activity.

For others, however, this kind of time makes no sense; it is wasted, or at the very least, negative space in the context of human relationships. Time spent in silence facing away from one another in the same room does, according to this other value system, nothing for a relationship. It indicates merely that no one has yet thought of or mustered the energy to engage in meaningful activity or to speak to one another.

— § —

It’s strange as a parent to believe that this kind of time is so important for the development of healthy personhood, yet to know that within the context of mainstream western culture, it may be nearly impossible to organically find.

To try to acheve by open insistence, however, is to try to accomplish by force something that is at its very core the antithesis of force. It is a ritual whose invisibility, unnameability, and easy taken-for-grantedness are central to its substance.

Snow  §

© 2002 Aron Hsiao © 2002 Aron Hsiao

Life happens always and only in the past.

Days come and go, but they are never “life.” They are details and rushing; they are tasks and process.

Only when today has become yesterday is it (was it) life, after all.

— § —

I have never believed anyone who said that they have no regrets.

Life is nothing without regret.

If there is or ever was anyone that lives or has lived without regrets, I pity them. I wish them many regrets in the future, to the extent that they are able still to have them. Many wonderful, terrible, heart-rending regrets.

To die without regrets? What sort of a life is that?

— § —

We’ve had snow this week.

Snow changes things. Somewhere in the annals of physics, a long-forgotten author has published on the way in which the particular characteristics of the atoms in the water molecule, at a particular energy level, stop time entirely, catch time out of time.

Every period during which snow covers the ground is a period during which being stops and turns inward on itself.

That’s the secret and hidden nature of the holiday season, the one that I missed when I was living in places where there was no snow: the relentless march of time continued year-round when instead it ought to have paused.

Winter and its snow grant to its children a halting of the accumulation of life.

During this time, while life itself is frozen, it is possible to make a few notes, to take a few measures, and to understand what must be done next.

Without snow, one is quickly overwhelmed by time; it takes only a year or two to find that one is being carried along by the endless current with what feels like little hope of escape.

Experience tells me that there is only one way out: to go somewhere else and wait for snow.

— § —

Every now and then I think that my “blog” (which was never meant to be one in the first place) is and has always been the most pointless, most pretentious exercise in my life.

But every time I stop, I start again, even with no time, no audience, and (I claim) no interest in continuing.

It must be here for a reason.

In the Light  §

© 2005 Aron Hsiao

Funny how your experience of being in a place changes the way that music affects you.

In New York I listened to a lot of stereotypical New York stuff; it felt right. Hipster bands, electronica, prog. Sonic Youth, the White Stripes, the Walkmen.

When I was living in Chicago, I couldn’t stop listening to Einstuerzende Neubauten and the Smashing Pumpkins.

Now that I’m back in Utah, it’s all Led Zepplin and Soundgarden.

When the Levee Breaks and Zero Chance make absolutely no sense in Queens. In Utah, they are milk and honey. They are everything.

— § —

I am doing NaNoWriMo, but off the grid. It’s a model, silent participation, an impulse but not a community.

Today, however, I am taking the day off. Saturday is my “weekend” these days.

— § —

If you go enough places over a long enough period of time, you being to realize that there is no essential you; only a collection of preferences and habits subject to continuous change within certain narrow bounds.

— § —

The kids participation in Music Together has me interested in music theory again.

Modalities have captured my imagination.

This may also be supported by the renewed intered in Led Zeppelin.

The silly thing is that I no longer play any instrument at all, nor would I claim to, nor am I ever likely to try again in my lifetime, since music is simply not represented amongst the remaining items on my “things to do before I die” list.

— § —

In some ways, this is sad.

— § —

I forget that I am nearing the end of my ’30s. I honestly forget. I suppose that’s the way of things, but when you’re younger you never imagine that this might eventually be the case.

When I do remember, it helps me to recognize the things that I ought be embarrassed by and the things that I ought to prioritize.

— § —

In all my meta moments about writing, one thing I typically forget is that music feeds writing.

I need to hear more music in my life.

— § —

As you get older, you begin to realize that you have tremendous difficulty recognizing what you actually think or feel about anything.

You always have done; you just didn’t conceptualize it this way as you made your decisions based primarily on identity-construction pursuits and various forms of status performance.

— § —

The leaves in autumn in Utah are not as inadequate as I thought when I was young, even in comparison to those in New England.

Sure, across New England there may be more intense colors, but the leaves in Utah, in their own spectral tendencies, somehow have a grittiness and an almost mystic intensity that New England lacks.

If New England is an autumn rainbow, Utah is autumn corrosion and oil stains. The latter are less romantic in many quarters, but have a protean depth and determination that rainbows precisely lack.

— § —

The human experience is an incredibly and insistently complex thing.