Just Don’t Look at The Other

Anybody want to read my Philosophy One-Pager for today? Sure you do. (“Philosophy,” as well as “remember,” are probably the two words that I mis-type the most frequently. Odd redundancies of letters.) I had fun writing this one, and as has happened a few times in this course, I wished that I could write more. Alas, the assignment is limited to “not much over 250 words,” so there.

You Say Potato, I Say I’ll Go Cry in the Corner

The Other is a refreshing introduction, because it has seemed pretty obvious that things were going to get messy for Sartre as soon as someone else came along and started making meanings for things at the same time that he was. However, I am not certain I agree that consciousness has to forfeit its positionality on things to the Other. After all, the Other would necessarily have to suffer the same fate in my presence. A room full of people is just coincidental, mutual dis-integrations with no sustainable claim on meaning. So why is this forfeiture necessary? Is it simply strict adherence to post-modernism, the requirement of the movement to eliminate the self at the earliest convenient opportunity? Maybe it’s better than that. Maybe it’s because, as I am not him, I cannot know what these things are to him or for him. They have to transfer allegiance to the Other, because for me to have any amount of ownership of their distance or relation or meaning to him is an absolute impossibility. He disintegrates my ability to rationalize – to positionalize – my world, because he owns meanings that I cannot conceive, for objects that I do perceive. The Other is the antithesis of consciousness.

So the objects in my universe have a new focal point. I have been eliminated as the locus of positionality. Seems that, by extension and because it must necessarily be the same from the perspective of the other, that he is also eliminated as the locus of positionality, and on and on in saecula saeculorum, such that there is no such thing, anywhere, as a locus of positionality. All meaning dies, and we place the corpse of morality on the pyre alongside it.

As noted, Sartre leaves gaping vacancies where morality and ethics are concerned, though I hear he made a run at those things eventually. For now I enjoy the challenge of digging through his oily narrations and coming up with some understanding. There’s a lot to like.  A lot to agree with.

Medium, on the other hand, is yet to be decided upon. I joined up last week. No matter how many times I click “show fewer stories like this,” or “show fewer recommends from medium staff,” I still get stories like that, and recommends from medium staff. And they’re all the same droll political drivel. However, there are also many poets and writers (not mutually exclusive, those two, natch). If my exclusions eventually yield a primarily creativity-friendly experience, then maybe I’ll be on to something. Someone posted a poem there today, for instance, that referenced Descartes in a playful way. I pointed out that he had also invited Sartre to the party through some of his lines about forward-looking identity. It’s timely and engaging and fun. And I won’t link to it, because it’s probably illegal or something. Medium is, like, a big and serious internet operation. Meaning that there’s more things you can do wrong there than right.

Imma go off to school now and try to do some things right. It’s working out that way so far.

Our Inner Divinity

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Sven(!) asked me to read the poem I wrote in class today. No, wait. I didn’t write a poem in class today. I wrote a poem last week, and turned it in as an addition to an assignment. Today, in class, Sven(!) asked me to read it. I posted it, but don’t remember if I mentioned anything more about it in the previous post, so I’ll mention it here: this was for philosophy class:

(The False Sartre)

I can point my hands at numbered things
and I can perch upon the wall.
I can wear a face you see right through
and I can speed or I can stall.

But I cannot be the time I tell
nor the alarm you’ve come to hate.
I can only be what I am not yet
and wake you up with your bad faith.

There is no concise way to describe why that poem makes (some small) sense for Sartre, so take my word for it. But I read the poem out loud for my class, and felt surprisingly calm and secure about doing it. Last quarter at South Seattle College, my creative writing teacher set up a poetry reading for us in the auditorium on campus. There were forty-ish people in the audience (including my class), and I was miserable reading up there like that, but I hadn’t presented anything for anyone since an OPORD or two in the Army fifteen years ago. It went well. During this current quarter at Seattle University I’ve done two presentations in my Natural Hazards class, and now today, the impromptu poem reading. I think it’s all starting to feel a little more normal. Which will help when I read my poem at the release party for Fragments Magazine. It’s not that poem up there. We’ve been over this.

Major subject change, but something happened today while I was studying in Starbucks that made me think for a while. Made me wonder about myself and my reactions to things: A girl dropped an F-bomb, and it bothered me. What I am wondering is whether it is fair that I know it wouldn’t have bothered me if it was a man. Well, wait – that’s not actually true. It would still have bothered me, but differently. So that’s the fairness I’m wondering about, and here’s the difference: a man swears needlessly in public and I think “what a jerk.” A woman swears needlessly in public and I think “you’re better than that.” I become disappointed. Context matters, of course. My wife can swear around the house (THOUGH SHE NEVER HAS.) and it’s no big deal (IT WOULDN’T BE A BIG DEAL IF SHE EVER DID IT. WHICH SHE HASN’T. EVER). It’s private and domestic. Our standards don’t lower because we’re home, but our expectations do shift with the intimacy of naked tooth brushings and handling dirty underwear. If Mother Teresa swore in a flower shop I’d feel The Apocalypse bearing down. If she swore in the bathroom I’d tell her to light a match.

The public sphere is different. We need to represent, to some extent, our higher selves. Not through any overt displays, and I’m not expecting rampant sainthood, but looking closely enough at someone should reveal a glimpse of some faint tether to inner divinity. Especially in women. Men, however, I have mostly given up on. We are hopelessly vulgar and mundane. Clever and powerful and packed with potential that is often realized, yes. We heave our creations out of the muck for general consumption, but we never come clean ourselves. We are rotten and banal and probably beyond redemption. We can be good people who do good things, but to hear a prim and proper, well-dressed sort of man walk down the church steps after mass and say “Now where’d I park that fucking car” would give me no pause for disappointment. No feeling of letdown. I expect this expulsion of discernment, because we lost our claim to the throne probably as far back as Cain. A man displaying social and cultural impiety has all the meaning of an off-leash dog shitting on a pool deck. You’d rather not see it, but it’s exactly as much as you can hope for.

When, on the other hand, I see (as I did today), a similarly prim and proper woman, with hair and boots and everything done up “just so” and exemplifying all the wonder and elevated being that men have lost completely, say “some fucking freshman,” I am sharply disappointed. It comes out as a spurned deification from someone who had a chance, man. Another fallen angel.

Now don’t get me wrong, if she has facial piercings and neck tattoos and is standing behind protest signs, I don’t expect anything more from her than I do from a man. She’s made her move, and it is a permanent diminution. But to have, as women do, a GPS with the route to The Kingdom in its presets, and then to follow HBO into an underground cockfight instead, well, it’s just kind of a blow to any general sense of optimism I might be carrying around.

Not a very big blow, though. My inner divinity knows where it’s at and what it’s not. And I still get to read poems out loud to my philosophy class.

Careful With That Analysis, Eugene

Dry Foot Bwoy

“By writing this in rhymed iambic pentameter, Louise Bennett has sort of shoe-horned her Colonial Jamaican language into a traditional, white, almost entirely male literary form, and made it hers. It’s very impressive, and a powerful message.”

“Ummm…”

“Oh dear God what now, Andy?”

“So is it because it’s Thursday, or for some other reason that now we’re celebrating cultural appropriation instead of condemning it?”

No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that because you can’t. I didn’t say that because it is the “other reason” for which we were celebrating this kind of cultural appropriation. Literary analysis is frequently suffocatingly mono-directional. There are simply some analyses that are not allowed. I did say this:

“The family moved to England. They live in England. One of them got out of the house and learned to be English, and his whole family has shunned and ridiculed him for it. Haven’t we anything to say about them?”

We had nothing to say about them, except “bravo.” And so I didn’t say anything else.

Bt it’s all so obvious and so easy. Imagine, for a moment, if a white family moved from Texas to Jamaica and refused to pick up any of the dialect. Refused to sound in any way Jamaican. Refused any level of assimilation. The Republic of Friggin Texas was gonna stand tall and wave its Lone Star flag in a suburb of Kingston. And then one of their sons grew dreadlocks and opened a bar selling jerk chicken or fried conch or something, came home saying shit was all irie, mon, in his best Jamaican Patois, and then the Texas family wrote a reggae song full of “ya’ll” and “ain’t” to celebrate the fact that they kicked him out for being too black. And then Jamaicans in Jamaican colleges applauded them for it.

Small wonder I am feeling less and less capable of succeeding in there. I’m going to have to limit the depth of my interrogations if I want to finish as strongly as I started.

I have a different kind of problem with Philosophy. If I worry at all about my success in that class, it is because it is hard.  Thank God for the A on my most recent paper. The one about a foundational human principle. My thesis statement went like this:

The first principle of the human person is that we bond to things that are not ourselves, and we have no meaningful existence until we do that bonding.

Not world-shaking stuff, and not necessarily what I would say to the question next week. Turned out to be fairly prescient when we began studying Sartre, who is a big fan of consciousness needing something to be conscious of. I developed it well and impressed my professor, so mission accomplished. Have an excerpt:

This is sticky, but if my theory does not eliminate god (and it does not), then it also does not eliminate permanence or ubiquity. The bonds of art with audience are downstream bonds, subject to the bonds that came before, and move beyond what we’ve already discussed, into the realm of social relevance. They are not foundational bonds. They supplement or reinforce our existence, without being responsible for it. Therefore the bonds of meaning that the arts offer to us are sharable and broadly applicable across humanity. Interpretations can be common and shared, because the found meaning is the permanent thread. The social implications of “The Lady of Shalott” do not infiltrate the world as the isolated reactions of its readers, rather as the communal discovery of moral truths. Namely that, in her case as in ours, we are meaningless as long as we remain separated and unbonded from reality. That breaking out of confinement in order to bond with Truth is a permanent expression of The Good, and worth dying for.

It’s interesting, in light of that sample, that I am struggling with wrapping up a paper analyzing the Lady of Shalott for British Literature. Literary analysis has a restriction that philosophy does not, which is that in literature it can be bad to get too philosophical. In philosophy there is no such penalty for being too literary.

Thanks for being here lately.

Get Bothered

Every time I’m all “maybe I’ll major in Philosophy,” something like this happens. The one-pager I am turning in today, after having Sartre forced upon me:

Readings from Group 2. Also Not-Group-Two. Also The Nihilating Interrogation of Both Group to and Not-Group-Too. Also Peter Wears Skis to the Café. Also My Mother Would Be So Confused.

I get Peter and the café. I get the nothingness of the café, the nihilation of its parts and sounds and smells into a ground that exists only to serve as a backdrop against which I get to know whether Peter is there or not. And I get why Peter not being there is a persistent nothingness – the café simply cannot help itself from showing me Peter’s absence absolutely everywhere in it:

“Look! There’s not Peter!”
“Thank you, café!”

Wellington and Valery don’t matter, and that’s cool, too. I have no expectation, and therefore have not initiated any nihilation to ground, and they remain unrelated to the café.

But WHAT IS GOING ON after this? I am the questioner, and I want to know whether Peter is at the café. My question supposes both Peter-at and Peter-not-at-the-café. My question creates the possibility of the non-being of Peter, because that’s what all questions do. My question supposes Peter, not-Peter, the café, and my question instantiates the nihilating withdrawal (to nothingness?) of the café. But why do I need to “wrench” myself “away from being” in order to make this possible? Is it because if the question originates from me, is connected innately to my being (“determined in the questioner”), then it no longer has any necessary tether to Peter or the café or their negations and nihilations at all?

It would definitely be easy to do the old “why bother” in a case like this. But I’m not a 41 year old Junior in college for “why bother.” I’m gonna bother, until it bothers everyone how much I’m bothering.

Age is, like, Relative and Stuff, Anyways

There’s something so tremendously daunting about that “submit” button.

Two members have left the nest, and there’s only 47 years worth of (postpartum) human life in the house this weekend. Though I see those years as differently as my Philosophy classmates do. Bear with me while I get there:

“How did your paper go?” They asked. A couple of girls who sit in the front row alongside me. Come to think of it, I’m the only boy in the front. Five girls and me. And the whole second row is girls. I would do a headcount of boys and girls, but then I’d be tempted to apply that information sociologically based on what the class is, and wind up drawing some undesirable conclusions of a too-political nature about the gender makeup of certain fields in relation to personal choices. I would never do that, you know.

“How did your paper go?” They asked.
“By hand, mostly.”
“No, come on. How did you do on it?”
“I did well.” I don’t like grade comparisons. It’s the equivalent of getting to know someone at the party by opening with “what do you do for a living?” Probing for status.
“Yeah but, like, how well?”
“I got 135.”
“You got an A?”
“I got an A.”
“Well, yeah, I mean, you’re a little older, too. I mean, like, you’ve done more. Like you’re wiser -”
“This isn’t getting any better for you.”
“How old are you, anyway?”

They asked me my name, and said some nice things about my contributions in class. 5 weeks in, and the people sitting next to me don’t know my name. My t-shirt should read “I’m not an asshole, I’m an introvert.” I’m not even that quiet. I speak up in class, I chat a quite a bit, I joke. I just miss all the standard social checkpoints. Like, you know, names. It’s also possible that for the kids in class, the old guy in the room is enough of an oddity that it’s hard to know how to approach him. I could buy that. I do have a hard time seeing myself as significantly older than them, though. My children are 6 and 9 years old, so through that lens, my 20-something classmates might as well be my age. This is where it gets good:

“How old are you, anyway?”
“That wasn’t very delicately put, was it?”
“Sorry, there’s just, I don’t -”
“I’m 41. Forty-one.”
“HOLYSHITNOWAY.” And now the teacher is listening. And laughing. He is Sven(!) as previously referenced, and he is older, even, than me. Srsly. Class begins.

Philosophy is probably as good a class as any for ambiguation of ages, inasmuch as age has anything to do with identity. We’ve been going on interminably about identity (existence, to be far, far more accurate) for the past couple of weeks. And age isn’t any more relevant to the conversation than toenail thickness. We either are or we aren’t, and being 41 or 21 or 11 hasn’t any bearing on that. Being dead might not even have any bearing on it.

The Victorians are dead, as are the Romantics, and here I reach didactically back to the beginning of this post and my lamentation about “submit” buttons.  They are daunting, and especially today, as one such button was a necessary condition for the submittal of my British Literature Midterm. But my God how fun it was to answer those questions. I mean, check this out:

  1. Use the following passage, including literary features like imagery, character, and repetition, to explore the theme of home(s) in Great Expectations.

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? For realz, tho. A question like that tickles all the right places in my mind. Probably not so for you, but that’s ok. I’ve walked through the stark and dead computer sciences/engineering building, peered into the rooms lined with zombification screens and vitamin D supplements. You can keep all that. It’ll serve you better when asked by a stranger what you do for a living, but that’s where my envy ends. I love a question like that one up there because it lets me think and write things like this:

Home is “bodily pain.” Home doesn’t even exist, or at least he doesn’t have one. And as he contemplates it, the only names that come to him are not Joe or Biddy, as it should be. They have a home, and it is not his. The names he conjures are instead the decidedly unsafe characters of Estella and Provis, who are features of the home he went in search of. With Estella being a star – entirely unattainable. And Provis being proviso – a condition attached to an agreement. So even if there is anything like home, it is either beyond Pip’s reach, or it is conditional – incomplete. Ultimately, no matter how he conjugates his approach to the idea of home, he doesn’t end up there. He doesn’t even know home as a place – as a noun. He calls it a “vast shadowy verb I had to conjugate.” Verbs are not destinations. You cannot arrive at a verb, or settle into a verb, or be comforted by a verb. Also “vast and shadowy,” as in without any real form, and a verb that he “had to” conjugate. It’s not even voluntary. It’s an obligation, which could also be called a sentence. Pip’s fears and confusion are a sentence to homelessness.

Now go read Great Expectations again. It’ll change your life.

Blindly Leaping

Dialogue on Human Freedom (Onboard a C-130 Hercules. Forgetting, for the moment, the impossibility of actually having a conversation inside a flying C-130.)

Private First Class (PFC) Goodin: I can’t wait to be free of this airplane.

Sergeant First Class (SFC) Monti: Aircraft, Goodin. Aircraft. Civilians have airplanes. This is a C-130, and if you’ll look past the rust and dust and the shaking, and that hole in the skin over there where the moon and clouds come through, you’ll see there’s not a damn thing wrong with this bird.

PFC Goodin: Roger, Sergeant. Still, the sooner I can get my knees in the breeze, the better.

SFC Monti: Feel free to call me by my first name.

PFC Goodin: Really?!

SFC Monti: No.

PFC Goodin: How many jumps do you have, Sergeant?

SFC Monti: This is number 66. I have freed myself – thank you very much – from various types of aircraft a total of 65 times. Tonight I make jump number 66 on my 44th birthday. Though I’m not sure that, if asked, the pilots and jumpmasters would agree that my freedom, on those occasions, was entirely up to me. The pilots flew me, and the jumpmasters told me when it was time to get up and head for the door. All in all, I’m really just doing what other people tell me to do, when and where they tell me to do it.

PFC Goodin: But none of those people made you join the Army. None of them made you choose airborne school, or to be a forward observer instead of a cook or a tanker. You were free to make all those choices yourself.

SFC Monti: I suppose I was. Though every choice has a past and a future, and it’s arguable that every choice we make is the only one we could have made, unless we were to change our past or adjust our expectations and desires for the future. For instance, I’m going to exit this aircraft tonight because, in the past, I became a paratrooper, and in the future I want to remain one. Choosing to jump tonight is the most seamless reconciliation of that past with that future.

PFC Goodin: When you say it like that, it sounds less like freedom, and more like duty.

SFC Monti: Yes! Duty! We’re soldiers after all. And we have those seven army values, don’t we: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Now, I don’t know it for sure, because it isn’t in the Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks from basic training, or even in the Leader Development manual you’ll be studying soon enough, but I believe those seven Army values (duty among them) are to be used in service of freedom. We are seeking a kind of freedom here tonight, freedom from this aircraft, as you said. And part of our mission is to preserve freedom for those who have it, and secure freedom for those who don’t. But you say duty, and I can’t help but thinking that duty and freedom are pretty near opposite one another. We’re free to do as we please, but we must do our duty.

PFC Goodin: Sure, Sergeant. But we’re also free to not do our duty if we choose, don’t you guess? I mean, there’ll be consequences in any case, but that don’t mean we can’t do it. Or not do it. Or – you get my meaning.

(The two jumpmasters shout the warning: TEN MINUTES!)

SFC Monti: I do get your meaning. Would you say it’s your duty to jump out of this bird tonight?

PFC Goodin: Yes, I think so.

SFC Monti: Well you have ten minutes to know so. Ten minutes to decide if it is your duty to get up and achieve that freedom you were looking forward to. You’ll be off this retiring Hercules, having, if I understand you to this point, gained your freedom only by doing your duty.

PFC Goodin: That’s a pretty shitty way to put it, Sergeant, but yes.

SFC Monti: You felt rather free when you spoke to me that way, didn’t you? And you were right to, though I can tell by your face that you won’t be sure of that until you’re free of me, too.

PFC Goodin: The sooner the better, if I can speak freely (again), Sergeant.

SFC Monti: Indeed you may. And that even helps us a little, because now you’ve added safety to our definition. Really, it was there all along, as you want to be free of this C-130 because you consider it to be safer off of it than on it. So freedom is a destination, then. A safe place. A haven. And so far, we can’t have it unless we make our way to it, and we can’t do that without fulfilling our duty to something along the way. But I can’t help but wonder now: if freedom means getting off this bird, are you not free while you are on it?

PFC Goodin: Of course I am, Sergeant. We’re all free here. But that’s, like, capital “F” Freedom. Braveheart, and all that. I’m just sayin’ that I want to be free of this airpla- aircraft, in a not having to worry about it anymore kind of way. Whatever the case, as far as me and freedom and flying around in here with you, Sergeant, well, I’m more sure than ever that I’ll feel a whole lot free-er when I ain’t anymore.

SFC Monti: Seems to me that you might be considering being free of something the same as being rid of something. You’ll be rid of this aircraft, and of me, and of this conversation soon enough. But you’ll drift to the drop zone with your head crammed into your k-pot1 with me and my words. You’ll assemble with your platoon and drink this conversation from your canteen. You’ll be tossing shovelfuls of Sergeant First Class Monti and his rant about freedom out of the fastest foxhole you ever dug. You’ll be rid of me and rid of this conversation, but I don’t bet you’ll be free of us anytime soon. Heck, you’ll be waddling towards another jump in a week or a month, so you aren’t free of that, either.

PFC Goodin: You’re killin’ me, Sergeant. I’m ready to surrender. It’s the only way to freedom that I can see at this point.

SFC Monti: Oh, my! We’re going to have to pray for bad weather or a stuck door to prolong our flight, now that you’ve gone and added surrender to the conversation.

PFC Goodin: (mumbling) Me and my big mouth.

SFC Monti: You’d agree, then, that we can surrender our way to freedom?

PFC Goodin: What? No –

SFC Monti: Listen: We’ve already said that freedom is safety, right? Combined with duty? It seems almost inevitable that surrender comes from a person doing his duty to gain the safety of himself and those for whom he is responsible, right? Why else surrender, except to salvage what safety may remain to you? In military terms, surrender means saving the lives of those who remain on the losing side. Surely, saving lives is a duty as high as any other. So, if we have surrendered, we have done our duty to save lives. And hey presto: Freedom! Capital F! Right, Goodin?

PFC Goodin: I dunno, Sergeant. Surrendering seems like it lands people in prison a lot of times. Your duty’s done, and if it isn’t a very bad kind of prison, you’re safe. But it’s still prison, and I can’t call that freedom.

SFC Monti: You do like to complicate things, don’t you, Goodin? Let’s skip a bit, forgetting for now whether it matters to whom or to what you surrender, and grant, then, that prison isn’t freedom, as it’s rather obvious that prison is something a person seeks always to be free from. I think we could pick that apart for a while, too, but the jumpmasters are getting fidgety, and must be about to give the one-minute warning. See that? Even now, confined to this rickety missile, we await our jailers’ commands on our quest for freedom from this bird.

PFC Goodin: Hang on, though, Sergeant. What you just said: if this bird is our prison, and the jumpmasters are our jailers, then we can only be free if our jailers allow it.

SFC Monti: Sounds like you aren’t comfortable with that.

PFC Goodin: I’m not. I may not know my jailer, but I know he can’t tell me whether I’m a free man. He can let me out of jail, but he doesn’t have the power to make a whole human being free or not.

SFC Monti: I’m going to have to attach you to my platoon if you expect to start talking about where freedom comes from. I don’t think we can tackle the God topic before the light turns green and we commit ourselves to the clouds.2 I’m content for now to wonder what freedom is, and here you are trying to expand into how we get it. Ambitious, but unrealistic right now.

(The jumpmasters give the command: ONE MINUTE!)

SFC Monti: And there it is. You have one minute to decide if you are free. To decide if you are going to shuffle to the door with the rest of us, dutifully obeying commands, and exit this high performance aircraft because you are a free man, or because it is the only way that you can become one. Or, whether you are so free that you can choose not to jump at all.

PFC Goodin: Well I can’t choose not to jump, Sergeant.

SFC Monti: No?

PFC Goodin: No. Think about everybody else. There’s 32 of us on this side of the plane, and you and me are pretty near the front. If I don’t jump, that’s gonna hold up you and everyone else behind me.

SFC Monti: First of all, don’t be so sure that I couldn’t find a way to persuade you out that door. Second of all, are you telling me now that the duty you’ve been talking about only exists because of all these other jumpers? That in order to be free, you have to see to everyone else’s freedom along the way?

PFC Goodin: At least not get in the way of it. But I’m free to do that, too. I’m as free to screw this jump up as I am to help it work. But if I use my freedom to mess things up, I’m going to lose it pretty soon.

SFC Monti: You can’t seem to pull your duty out of your freedom no matter what you do. Are you saying that we have a duty to exercise our freedom responsibly?

PFC Goodin: Yes, Sergeant. And the light’s amber, so we’re going any second now. I wonder though: is there any time that we can enjoy our freedom without being burdened by duty?

SFC Monti: Maybe when we’re dead!

(And the jumpmasters give the command: GREEN LIGHT! GO, GO, GO!)

Notes:

1. K-pot: Kevlar helmet
2. before the light turns green: When the aircraft is in the proper place over the drop zone, a light at the exit door turns from amber to green, and the jumpmasters send the paratroopers out.