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Report from the Workshop: 01/23/22

Currently reading:

  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Currently writing:

  • Finalizing the outline and drafting the second volume of Foggy Weather, my urban fantasy detective series
  • Sketching out a more “literary” tragic novel set in a peri-apocalyptic world
  • Working out sketches for short stories/novellas
  • A screed about “knowing” writing (and I do mean “screed” – I’ve toned it down a bit, but whatever ends up posted here will still likely depart from my more typical even tones.)

Currently thinking about:

  • Robert Anton Wilson’s body of work, specifically his Quantum Psychology and how much I’d like to run a workshop on it
  • Fungal hyphae as a metaphor or analogy for descansos, roadside memorial crosses common here in New Mexico
  • The similarities between German and English and how well Duolingo actually works
  • Installing rain barrels and preparing for Spring and the growing season

After a hiatus longer than I intended, I’ve now found my way back to the Workshop. The Spring 2022 semester has well and truly started, so I’ve started classes again. This semester I have German for Reading and three hours of independent study, which means my classes don’t keep me on campus too late in the day and, as of right now, don’t have much in the way of hard deadlines. I’ll start auditing a Symbolic Logic course in the second half of the semester after Spring Break, which will demand more of my time, but for right now my schedule doesn’t weigh too heavily on me.

The Religious Studies department renewed my contract as a Graduate Assistant this semester, so I’ve started back with that as well. Part of my job consists of holding office hours and I’ve scheduled them in the mornings, when I tend to find myself most productive in terms of writing. I don’t anticipate getting too many visitors, so hopefully I’ll have plenty of time to write. I’ve found that writing in smallish chunks of an hour or two at a time works best for me, especially when I can feel like I’ve gotten away with something by writing on “company time,” whether during my office hours or while at work in the library.


At home, I’ve begun preparing to transform our yard and plant a garden. I have big long-term plans for the outdoor space we have, but I’ve gotten hung up in the past on trying to do everything all at once. For now, I’ve started gathering materials and determining what pieces of equipment to buy/make/acquire that will serve me the most flexibly. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes her childhood characterized by the old Depression adage: “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” I like that, although I would qualify the adage to include something about this only holding true in sombunal* cases, rather than as a universal rule. I’ve also found myself exploring some of the DIY corners of YouTube for ideas on planning and maintaining a garden as well as instructions for making repairs to our house.

[*: Robert Anton Wilson coins the term “sombunal” in his writing as a way of saying, “some but not all.” I’ve recently made an effort to use this term, if only mentally, in my thoughts and conversations and have found the effects quite interesting.]

These explorations have led me to adopt a strategy that I think will serve well in the long term (because I want to stay in this house, dammit). I’ve listed my general principles, as well as (some of) their qualifications, below:

  • If you can make it, don’t buy it
    • (unless there is a particular product with a proven track record, that doesn’t cost too much, and will act as a “force multiplier” for other scrounged, repurposed, etc. objects. For example, a manufactured rainwater diverter for gutter downspouts. I could make several from lengths of diverter out of swimming pool hose and PVC, but I don’t want to fuss around with removing or damaging our perfectly good gutters. Since I can easily find repurposed blue food-safe barrels to use as containers, I don’t have a problem with buying the diverter kits they provide a more reliable means by which the water actually gets into the barrels.)
  • Invest in good tools that will last a long time
    • (investing in and maintaining good tools will cost more initially, but over time will end up obviating the need to replace crummy tools, making workflow easier and reducing long-term costs. Maintaining one’s tools also serves as good practice for a more general attitude of maintaining and taking care of others and world in general. Think of it as a kind of concrete practice that encourages a general inclination.)
  • Resist designs that have no “give” or flexibility
    • (fortunately we have a relatively large yard. I had originally thought of building raised beds, but now rather think I’ll try double-dug beds in the soil (after amending the sand), with light barriers of brick to distinguish them from the stepping-on parts of the garden. I may eventually make some raised beds to place on the parts of our yard covered in concrete, but I don’t want to commit time and materials to an unnecessary project.)
  • Work with the environment and landscape, rather than against it
    • We have sandy soil, gravel all over our front yard, and a weirdly shaped lot. While I could break my back getting all the gravel moved out and dumping mulch over the entire yard, I don’t have the money, time, or physical stamina to get this all done in a weekend or so. Instead, I plan to consider where I might want the gravel to stay and where I could repurpose the gravel elsewhere before listing it on Craigslist for free.
    • Water scarcity presents a problem globally, but here in Albuquerque it really does represent a scarce resource. I’ve decided to prioritize rainwater storage and take into account even before I really get down to planting so that I can take advantage of the sparse rains and save on using city water. I plan to use topography and things like swales, sunken beds, mulching and retaining walls to save on water as well. And, of course, I don’t intend to plant really thirsty plants.
  • Finally, don’t waste energy, and only start what you can finish
    • Since my days in the Boy Scouts I’ve heard the adage, “work smart, not hard.” Two years + of pandemic living has taken its toll on my physical stamina, so I can’t spend the whole day shoveling stone and lifting heavy things. Instead, I’ve decided to break up my larger vision into a series of modular, smaller projects I can complete over a weekend or so that will 1) help me get in better shape slowly over time, and 2) keep the yard looking nice while I work. I always hate the “making a mess” part that comes before cleaning up a mess, and I hope this principle will mitigate some of that.

I should clarify that I don’t identify as a “prepper,” nor do I adopt a DIY ethos without any qualifications. While I have respect for those who do – and for the incredible things they build – I find that acting on principles without any qualifications, principles for their own sake, does not suit me. I have no intention of becoming “self-reliant” or “self-sufficient,” and though I find taking measures to reduce one’s reliance on commercial infrastructures laudable, I don’t think one can actually do this completely in any “strong” sense. In fact, the tragic novel I began outlining yesterday takes up precisely this theme of self-reliance and its tragic consequences if taken to its logical conclusions. While I’ve recently begun limiting the number of categorical statements I make, in the interest of my sanity, I would agree with Judith Butler’s line in her recent book on violence that, “strictly speaking, no one feeds themself.”

Kimmerer would doubtless agree with this sentiment, and would even take it one step further by arguing that the group “those who feed us” need not stop at human farmers, parents, distribution systems, grocery clerks, etc. but should rather expand to include the animals and plants whose bodies we consume. I found myself reluctant, when I began reading her book, to go along with the idea of plants and non-human animals as “people,” but my recent re-reading of Wilson’s Quantum Psychology has convinced me to take this thought on as an experiment. What happens when we make an effort to think of the green onions we see in the produce section of the grocery store as people with whom we have a reciprocal relationship? Like my mention of developing an attitude of maintenance, I don’t think we need to go around with the idea of other species as people like us constantly at the forefront of our mind, but periodically asking this question may nonetheless lead to interesting results.


Thus concludes this week’s Report from the Workshop. – Krumholz

Report from the Workshop – 11/22/21

Currently reading:

  • All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
  • Politics of Deconstruction by Susanne Lüdemann
  • God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

Currently writing:

  • Sketches for essays after finals
  • Notes on final papers
  • to-do list entries that say “work on papers”

Currently thinking about:

  • The anthropology and psychology of shame (for my Nietzsche course)
  • Writing and what it discloses as a practice for Heidegger (for my Heidegger course)
  • The question of things “mattering” (or not) in the contemporary world – Heidegger’s thinking of nihilism
  • The insufficiency of Heidegger’s thinking of Technology (capitalized to show its ontological status)

[A quick gripe before getting into it: Google Keep is really useful and I’ve recently returned to using it on my phone and tablet, but Google now makes you use Keep as a Chrome app instead of being able to use the app on its own in aOSX. This annoys me because I don’t use Chrome as my regular web browser and to use Keep on my laptop I have to open both applications. Annoying.]

Two things have kept me preoccupied this week:

The first is the critique of Heidegger’s thinking of technology from the postphenomenological position espoused by Don Ihde. I’ve been reading his Heidegger’s Technologies for my final paper and have found his position, at a crossroads between phenomenology and American pragmatism, much more congenial to my own thinking than Heidegger’s. But despite his critiques in the book, Ihde doesn’t break completely with Heidegger. For one thing, Ihde finds Heidegger’s thinking of Technology as Gestell, enframing, perfectly appropriate to large-scale industrial technologies like the ones Heidegger would have been familiar with during his life. Steel mills, battery farming, and other “big” industries do make sense within Heidegger’s framework, even if his claim that there is no difference between mechanized agribusiness and the gas chambers of the Holocaust raises a skeptical eyebrow (at least). I’m still working through the book but have found it worthwhile reading so far. I’ll probably write something in more depth about Ihde’s position after finals. (There’s another commitment The Editor will have to make sure I follow through on.)

My second preoccupation this week has been the question of “meaning,” or its lack, in the contemporary world. I’m working on a longish essay on this question that sprouted from something my Heidegger professor said in class this week. (Before going on I should say that I like this prof and he’s a good instructor. He’s something of a Big Deal, if heterodox, scholar of Heidegger. I don’t intend the essay as a take-down; this isn’t YouTube, I’m not “destroying” anybody. Rather, I have in mind Nietzsche’s line from Zarathustra that “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”)

The question of “meaning” strikes me as important because the position I’ve heard before is that the modern world doesn’t have “meaning” built into it like the ancient or Medieval (European) world did. While I’m sympathetic to Heidegger’s critique of the Nietzschean/Sartrean position that humans are the ones to assign value to things outside of them (Descartes once again rearing his ugly head), it nonetheless strikes me that the idea of having to think about one’s “meaning” is a good thing on balance. I’ll readily concede that anxiety and malaise could result from this “loss” of “meaning,” but it still strikes me that anxiety is an improvement over calcification, and it’s only from the perspective of the possibility of anxiety that a more “unified” or “non-split” subjectivity is perceptible at all, much less appealing. I’m not saying that anything could be “meaningful.” There’s probably a relatively small set of things that tend to be determined to be “meaningful” after the fact of actions that diverge from strictly “efficient,” “normal,” or “optimized” behavior. Probably, but I don’t know what they are.

[Sorry for the overuse of scare quotes above. It’s a bad habit I’ve picked up since reading Derrida, but I think it’s actually appropriate here since I’m not sure what we call “meaning,” or its lack, is a good way to think about the world.]


Otherwise, this week has seen me beginning to sail out of the luffing doldrums of worrying about my final papers. It seems like every semester I go through an initial stage of feeling confident about a topic, then some aimless pacing about getting started on it, before finally something happens and I start working in earnest. Oh well, guess I’d better just unfurl the sail (or whatever the correct sailing term is.)

On a final note, I found my nearly-forgotten CD ripping skills put to good use this week while at work in the archives. Who knew that clumsy, janky-ass music pirating knowledge would someday be a valuable skill! Turns out being a child of the 1990s has its advantages.

Report from the Workshop: 11/14/21

Currently reading:

  • All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
  • Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert

Currently writing:

  • Mostly sketches for medium- and long-term projects
  • Gathering pieces to submit to the UNM literary journal
  • to-do list entries that say “work on papers”

Currently thinking about:

  • The anthropology and psychology of shame (for my Nietzsche course)
  • Writing and what it discloses as a practice for Heidegger (for my Heidegger course)
  • Why “being a writer” irritates me
  • A sculptural practice consisting of pieces made entirely of 1) office waste paper and other paper product leavings, 2) office supplies you can get at a drugstore or hardware store, and 3) packaging detritus

This week was long. After last weekend’s staycation, I had to come home early on Friday to lie in bed all afternoon. I was exhausted.

Despite my exhaustion, I’ve been reading Dreyfus and Kelly’s All Things Shining, a kind of pop-philosophy “self-help” (?) book that’s been on my list for a while. I’m planning one or more essays on this book, so for now I’ll give my initial thoughts. But first, some context.

For a while now I’ve been wondering whether the hallowed halls of academe are actually a good place to do philosophy if, by “philosophy,” we mean something like “the love of wisdom.” Contemporary philosophy is often thought of as a purely speculative discipline, but this would seem to betray its earliest exponents – every one of the classical schools of Greek and Roman philosophy promised that its version of the “love of wisdom” did something. One gained happiness, or freedom from perturbation, or an accurate understanding of nature and how to live in it by practicing a particular school’s philosophy.

This isn’t to say that contemporary academic philosophy doesn’t “work,” or that it doesn’t seep out from the poorly sealed foundation of the Ivory Tower into the culture at large. It does, but often badly. A good example of this warped seepage is the idea of the performativity of gender pioneered by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. The popular conception of this idea runs like this: gender is conventionally defined. As such, one isn’t a man, woman, etc. Rather, one performs these roles. That is, I “play the role” of a man. This understanding suggests that, since I can be aware of my masculinity as a role I play, like on a film set, I can choose not to play the role I’ve been assigned, or play it in ways diverging from the “straightforward” portrayal others expect.

Sounds good, right? The only problem is that this popular conception of the performarivity of gender misunderstands Butler’s point. She argues that our performance of gender is, at least in part, not up to us. We are assigned roles, often by violent means. But, since our social practices are “iterable” (a concept she gets from Derrida), they can be copied and recopied – or not. Since social roles are iterable, we can choose not to reproduce them, or reproduce them differently. Gender, then, becomes something like a “social” performance, in which one is assigned a role, but because these roles don’t go “all the way down,” one can find ways to either reject the performance of that role or reinterpret it. The big point missed is that the performance is not (entirely) something an individual chooses, but is rather partially a product of social forces.

I give this example because I have a feeling that All Things Shining will (have) be(en) misread in a similar way. Dreyfus and Kelly are basically recapitulating Martin Heidegger’s argument for the possibility of postmodern living beyond what he calls late-modern “Enframing” (Gestell). Enframing is a kind of ontotheology (a way of understanding the world both “from the ground up” and “from the top down”) that assigns to everything, including humans ourselves, the status of Bestand, or “standing reserve.” Things are, within this ontotheological framework, fundamentally resources to be exploited. There is no longer any qualitative difference between one thing and another. The question “should we do this?” is now trumped by “can we do this?” And, if the answer to the latter is yes, then there is no a priori reason not to do it, whatever it is. Dreyfus and Kelly don’t mention Heidegger specifically more than a handful of times, but their argument is essentially a kind of popularization of his thinking. They do this by tracing the origins of the nihilism that makes enframing possible through several canonical texts of the Western literary tradition. I haven’t gotten to the end yet, but I have a feeling that their gesture toward a renewed meaning of the world against nihilism will have to do with the late Heidegger’s “fourfold” (Geviert).

I don’t want to jump the gun here as I’m still reading the book, but at least one value I can see from this book is a pretty clear object lesson and articulation of what Heidegger thinks “art” (which includes literature) means and does. They also offer some interesting readings of canonical texts in the Western tradition from the Odyssey to David Foster Wallace. Even if the reader doesn’t buy the whole argument, these readings are worth a persual.

I know Dreyfus was an expert on Heidegger, but I don’t know anything about Kelly except that he’s at Harvard. The general idea they’re presenting is familiar to me since I’m familiar with the later Heidegger, so I’m trying to read as a “general reader” and evaluate the book on those terms. We’ll see if that’s possible. No timeline, of course, on when I’ll get those essays up. Being one’s own editor isn’t always bad.


Other than reading, I’ve mostly been worrying about final papers, the holidays, etc. You’d think that after being in grad school for nearly a decade I’d have figured it out by now and could preempt end-of-semester nerves, but you would, of course, be wrong. Nothing better than perseverating, I always say. Except maybe procrastinating by cleaning the house.

This semester has presented a strange series of challenges. On top of big-deal Life Events like buying a house (in a new city), looking for and finding a job and graduate funding, and failing to recognize people from last semester’s Zoom classes when I see them in person, it’s been difficult for me to be around other people in public. I’ll confess that I rather liked not having to go anywhere last semester, even if the reason why was bad. UNM instituted a mandatory vaccination policy for all students, so I’m not really worried about Covid (on campus, anyway), but just being around groups of people is increasingly difficult for me. It’s always been exhausting for me to spend time with large groups, but I feel much more sensitive to the exhaustion these days. Maybe I just need to be patient and my old tolerance will return, such as it was.

Another significant change I’ve made is that I’ve stopped setting myself a reading goal each year. I’ve been keeping track of the books I read since March of 2017, but last year I set myself a goal of 50 books for 2020. My final total was 68, but it occurred to me earlier this semester that I was treating this pursuit like a game, just trying to beat a high score. I doubt I was paying close attention to many of the books I read last year, even if I did in fact read them, and that’s not what I’m after. I’ll probably write more extensively about the experience of keeping track of my reading later, maybe in the new year. Of course, The Editor hasn’t set me a deadline, so we’ll see.

Thus concludes this inaugural Report from the Workshop.

New look, new ideas

This site has languished for quite some time as I’ve been busy with coursework, buying a house, etc. Now, I think I’ve finally gotten it where I want it.

When I started this site I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be, exactly. I played around with some ideas and never quite felt satisfied. But now, and with remarkably little conscious thought, I think I’ve figured it out.

Some time ago, when I was still teaching high school English, I found myself “afflicted” with hypergraphia. I would write, and write, and write, like I had to drain the words out of myself or risk rupturing something. At the time I also experienced periods of hypomania. Just the depressive parts, without any of flights of intense experience characterized by full-blown bipolar disorder. Writing, I found, helped me keep those hypomanic episodes comparatively mild. I keep all my notebooks, so I could probably excavate these old torrents of words and examine them, but that doesn’t seem wise. I still feel the compulsion to write, and still experience hypomania on occasion, but now I’m beginning to understand what to do with my writing and how to channel it. To look back at my earlier discharges now seems like a kind of sacrilege or an exhumation. Better to let the dead horse lie.

I’ve been in graduate school for a long time, with (theoretically, haha) several more years still to go. I enjoy grad school and find it stimulating, but I’ve also come to realize that a big part of why I wanted to pursue it in the first place was to find a way out of a bad situation. With a boring career of teaching English staring at me behind the barrel of a gun, anything more intellectually stimulating seemed appealing, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.

I’m less enthusiastic these days (or maybe the enthusiasm has mellowed with age), and now realize that my writing and other projects no longer need to be a “way out.” Hence the renewal and revitalization of this site. Here, I can pursue thoughts and inclinations in a more relaxed manner than I can in my coursework. While I’m busy specializing in my academic life, I can indulge my generalist habits with this site as a working space, portfolio, and archive. My academic work will no doubt occasionally bleed into these pages, but it won’t be my main concern here.

And now, after the preamble, the new program.

  • I’m in the midst of reading Hubert Dreyfus’s and Sean Dorrance Kelly All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age and will post an essay on it – or maybe several essays – here soon(ish).
  • I will also be holding myself to a regular posting schedule of Reports from the Workshop: what I’m reading, writing, thinking about, etc.
  • I’ve also hashed out the skeleton of a new long-term project on botanical gardens. You can check out the page for that project in the menu above. It’s fairly ambitious, so I’m not holding myself to any deadlines. After all, there’s no professor here to assign me a due date.
  • Finally, I have some other ideas in the works as well, one involving photography, landmarks, and geo-tagging. More on that to come later, since I have to learn how to take better pictures first.

That’s all for now.

Announcement: major overhaul soon

For a while now this blog has languished, neglected. I didn’t have a plan when I started it, so it turned into a kind of catch-all. Recently some developments and chance encounters have helped me gain a more specific sense of what I’d like this blog to be for and about. All this to say, at some point in the relatively near future I’ll be making some significant changes to the site. The posts that are already up will stay up, but will probably be moved around some. I’ll also clean up the tags, change how I organize things, and hold myself to something resembling a regular posting schedule. I’ll also create a distinction between the blog portion of the site (regular, short essays on current thoughts, projects, etc.) and other sections with longer and more polished essays and other things.

Some of the topics I’m thinking of including in the material I post here include thoughts about gardening, horticulture, and ecology. I’ll also be doing some philosophy (since hopefully that’ll eventually be my job). I’m especially interested in the question of how space is perceived qualitatively and affects human life, maybe a kind of phenomenology of space. Some of the posts will doubtless reflect my current coursework or interests, so there’ll still be a grab-bag element but with a bit more direction. Think “antique shop” rather than “garage sale.”

Since this is a personal website, all opinions will remain my own and any mistakes should be read as not only intentional, but deep and thought-provoking.

That’s all. Now, back (?) to our regularly scheduled programming.

On stopped clocks (Stopped Clocks series #1)

Is that clock right?

(Note: I wrote this before the events at the US Capitol on January 06. After some time to gain more clarity on what happened there, I will probably consider those events in a similar vein to the essay below.)

They say that stopped clocks are right twice a day, but we need to ask three questions about this saying:

1. how is a stopped clocks right (if it is)?

2. what keeps the stopped clock from being “more” right?

3. what should we, who are (presumably) more right, do differently given that this stopped clock is sometimes right?

Several years ago I went to a meditation group meeting at a local library. I was a bit at loose ends socially and thought that meeting some new people or trying something new might be good for me. I was expecting the standard breath meditation, maybe a bit of “Om” recitation, a bell, maybe some candles. What ended up happening, however, was something much more interesting.

I don’t remember the name of this group and can’t seem to find them online. Long story short, they played their hand pretty quickly, and that hand was aliens. The woman leading the session was very nice and didn’t seem “woo-ey” at all, but as we settled in to the session, she described how the world is in spiritual peril but our friends from outer space are here to help. The goal of the evening’s meditation was to visualize a hole in the top of the head to receive the transmissions of extraterrestrial healing, and then to visualize that healing as a beam of light emanating out into the world through the forehead. The leader of the session reminded us gently that when we lost concentration on this healing energy, we were to silently think “Om” and return to the transmission.

We did this for about 45 minutes. I went along with it and found it relaxing, if not world-altering (for me, anyway). After the session, the leader mentioned that the group meets at a house twice a week to meditate together and invited all those at the meeting to join. That the group met regularly wasn’t strange, but she followed up her invitation with something very interesting. Another of the participants, who had been all in on the alien stuff from the start, asked if people attending these meetings should bring snacks or anything to share. The leader responded that no, these meetings were strictly business – obviously long-time members knew each other and sometimes socialized outside of the sessions, but the sessions themselves were totally purpose-driven. The point was to heal the world, and that’s what the sessions were for, period. She mentioned that a guy had been coming to the sessions religiously, never missing a meeting and seeming to take it very seriously, and none of the other participants even knew his name. He was just there to do the work. He would show up, say hello, sit down and get to meditating, then say goodbye and leave. Performing this meditation in a group, according to the leader, made it more effective. If I remember correctly, it had to do with the signal coming through more strongly when meditating as a group.

So what’s the point? While this experience was one of the stranger ones I can remember happening to me in a library, it is an excellent example of a situation that calls for interrogating a stopped clock. Let’s go through each question individually.

1: How is the stopped clock right (if it is)?

This example presents some challenges because it relies upon belief not only in the existence of extraterrestrials, but also in their benevolence and superior wisdom. Modern UFO stuff has a lot in common with the theosophy of the 19th century, including the concept that there are beings superior to humans in wisdom and/or understanding of the world who want to impart spiritual wisdom to those with ears to hear. This is not the part that is sort of right. What is sort of right, instead, is that the world is facing tremendous conflict and that this conflict both calls for and potentially responds to active effort on the part of people working as a group. For the stopped clock, there is a problem: spiritual poverty leading to violence, destruction, etc. This problem has a potential solution: the superior spiritual wisdom of the aliens. This solution can be applied: group meditation channeling the “good vibes” in a workmanlike way, which will help enlighten the world, leading to an end to strife.

Of particular interest here is the last element: the “workmanlike” effort at effecting this change. While the leader of the session was clear that at least some of the people in the group did know each other and socialized, she was equally clear that this was not expected of anyone participating. Like the nameless regular, there was no requirement that anyone make this practice a part of their social life or commit more time than that required for the group sessions. It was work, not a “hobby.” One could show up, do the work, and leave. I will return to this point, which I believe to be crucial, in a moment. For now, let’s turn to the next question.

2: What keeps this stopped clock from being “more” right?

This one appears, on the surface, to be easy. The problem is, again, obviously The Aliens. I am personally agnostic on the existence of extraterrestrials, although I assign it a fairly high probability. That being said, without proof positive of their existence (and benevolence, superior wisdom, etc.) this is an obvious candidate for this particular example’s impediment to being “more right.” The real impediment, however, is not just the aliens, but rather the practice itself. I don’t doubt that systematically trying to exude “good vibes” has a positive effect. So does being considerate, polite, charitable, etc. But, and this is important, these positive things don’t necessarily have material effects on a large, persistent scale. Channeling spiritual wisdom may make others feel good, but it won’t, by itself, feed them, or clothe them, or take care of them when they’re sick. “Thoughts and prayers” only go so far.

The clock stoppage here is that this practice doesn’t do anything in material terms. More specifically, it doesn’t operate on terms that are agnostic on or even opposed to belief in the aliens and their wisdom. A no-strings gift of food or medicine works regardless of who makes it, or under which auspices. The recipient doesn’t have to share the donor’s beliefs for the donor’s work to have a positive effect. My channeling good alien vibes, on the other hand, can only have a positive effect if other people know I’m doing it (barring for the moment the possibility of some kind of “spooky” effects we can’t identify, test empirically, or scale up systematically). I have a hypothesis about the popularity of this kind of “good vibes” practice as opposed to more materially effective practices that I will tackle more fully in another essay. For now, let’s turn to the last question.

3: What should we, who are (presumably) more right, do differently given the way that the stopped clock is right?

Now that we’ve established that the stopped clock is right twice a day and we know how it is right twice a day, we need to think about how this might affect our own efforts toward our own, more right, goals.

As we saw in question one, this meditation group takes a systematic approach: 1) something is wrong, 2) there is a way to alleviate or fix what is wrong, and 3) that way is practice X, performed in a disciplined, group setting that is not necessarily a significant part of the participants’ private lives. The only thing missing from this formulation is a step between 1 and 2 detailing why the problem exists. This lacuna represents an important absence for two reasons: first, filling it is difficult and requires rigorous, dispassionate analysis, analysis which will have to be ongoing as situations change. Thinking clearly and systematically requires distance and time along with effort. It also requires tolerance for error, failure and the wholesale abandonment of reasoning and practices that can be shown through experience and reason to be ineffective. Channeling good alien vibes, because it can’t be measured, can’t be shown to fail or succeed. And the absence of proof positive of alien involvement means that practitioners of this meditation must take it on faith that these wise extraterrestrials can help by mysterious means. They take a passive approach, literally acting as “channels” for extraterrestrial vibes, rather than collectively deciding on an approach. Identifying this passivity leads to the second reason for the lacuna’s importance: the lacuna can give the game away. I’m still working on this idea, but my preliminary thought is that this kind of lacuna is probably one of the keys to distinguishing between clocks that are only right twice a day and those that are more reliable.

Conclusion: Starting the Clock Again

So what does this mean for those who are “more right?” What would a materially effective version of this “woo-ey” practice look like? All we have to do (but this is not so easy, as it turns out) is take the structure of this meditation/channeling practice, bring it “down to earth,” and slip in the missing second step. At the abstract level, this might look something like the following:

1. A problem X exists.

2. This problem is caused by Y (with the proviso that the causes can and will change)

3. There is a way to alleviate X (again, with the proviso that methods may need to change as well)

4. The alleviation of problem X can be effected by practice Z

For those keeping score at home, this will be immediately apparent as the structure of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist thought. Much of what is sometimes called “Western Buddhism” (though it is not limited geographically to the “West”) actually betrays itself by sneakily “stopping the clock.” That is, it abstracts the problem it claims to be in a position to solve from empirically verifiable reality, and then removes the second step in the systematic approach, closing the loop and leaving the otherwise effective method eating its own tail.

As an example of a “more right” version of this practice, maybe something like this:

  • A group that meets regularly, not individuals
    • Individual action is clearly important, but the group itself should act as a group. This takes on a particular salience now in what I like to think of as the digital “culture of exhibitionism.” For now, it might be best to just say that many hands make light work and institutions can outlast their founders.
  • This group is purpose-driven, that is, it tries to avoid turning the work into a “hobby”
    • If there is a social element to the practice, it takes a back seat and is not a requirement for membership, which is defined by the work itself.
    • The group’s work will feel like work. Sometimes it will feel like pleasant, purposeful work, the kind of work that leaves one feeling tired but happy. Other times it will feel like a burden, but like a burden worth bearing. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, the language of the anarchist planet Annarres has a word that means both “work” and “play” at the same time. There is another word, kleggich, that translates to “toil,” something that is universally (and correctly) avoided. A significant problem here is that most of the pleasant work we now do is directed toward “hobbies.” The kind of work imagined in this “more right” practice reads to us, under current circumstances, as kleggich, toil. This will need to change.
    • Another significant problem here, one that I will address in another essay along with the group question, is that of social media. All I will say here is that it is effectively a Faustian bargain: yes, these networks help spread the word, but they also create incentives that detract from the actual work itself. My inclination, for reasons I will elaborate in the same further essay, is to avoid them.
  • This group knows why it is doing what it is doing, that is, it maintains a collectively articulated theoretical framework that answers the question of why the problem exists in grounded terms
    • It’s important to note that a working abstract theory is necessary to get the stopped clock moving again. Without active theorizing, however abstract it may be, the material work will tend to “dissolve” into vague platitudes and other bullshit. The map is not the territory, but an accurate map is still necessary when exploring. Continually ensuring that the map is as accurate as possible is crucial.
    • Also of note: any theorization must remain aware of the fact that others, even those whom the group may be trying to help, will not or maybe even cannot buy into their theories. The important thing is the work, not that everyone join the group (again, more on this in the next essay). A good litmus test is to ask whether the results of a particular theoretical position will speak for themselves in terms of action, regardless of whether or not outside observers buy into the theory. If the results won’t speak for themselves, the theory isn’t good enough.
  • This group is actively trying to obviate itself.
    • The alien meditation in the example cannot be obviated because it cannot be demonstrated to have failed or succeeded. Its practitioners can only lose interest and move on to the next thing. This proposed group, on the other hand, would know when it had achieved its goal, and disband at that point. People could stay in touch, obviously. It’s difficult to work together with others for any significant length of time without forming connections, but these connections are ancillary to the work itself. Once it’s done, the group no longer exists. The horizon for the group’s ultimate dissolution may be infinitely distant, but it should be kept in mind.

This has been an initial stab at a spiderweb of thought I’ve been batting about for a while. I think I’m on the right track here, but still need to do some thinking. I’m envisioning a series of further essays on this theme addressing some of the impediments to putting this kind of approach into practice including:

  • the popularity of “good vibes” practices
  • the lacuna of how/why giving the game away
  • the problem of work, toil, and “hobbies”
  • the problem of social media platforms

I don’t pretend to have the last word on this, and would welcome any comments or suggestions.

Final Reading Log of 2020

For about four years now I’ve been tracking my reading. First, I used index cards in a box, which I have since supplemented using an app called Reading List for a digital backup. Normally I use the index cards as bookmarks while reading, but since all my books have been packed up for our move to New Mexico since August, I’ve had to make do with an ereader for longer than I would have liked. I’ll be glad to once again surrounded by my faithful friends in the new year once we’ve made the move.

My general tendency is toward neurosis. I don’t suffer from a compulsive disorder, but sometimes feel such is just around the corner. My wife pokes fun (lovingly) at my “systems,” and I do sometimes go overboard in my desire for systematization, but when I consider the kind of life I want to have, it is a thorough, considered, systematic one (although not one devoid of flights of fancy!) This systematic approach is a source of comfort for me. For example, when I feel bad I clean the house or fold laundry or rearrange my index. But for all its comfort, my “systems” are also sources of (good) stress. When I see my carefully arranged index, I feel spurred to use it. The thing itself calls to me, entreating me to give it a use, a purpose. I feel I would insult it to just let it gather dust. The systems themselves are not the goal, but rather means to the goal. I keep track of my reading because I want to write, and at least for the last few years, this system has served me well.

I see the particular neurosis of logging my reading as an attempt to do two things: first, to serve as a kind of mnemonic. When I flip through the cards, I remember what I was doing when I was reading each book. I don’t always remember specifics, but each card carries with it a kind of encapsulated atmosphere. I’ll remember the chair I was sitting in, or the weather, or maybe how I felt that day. My memory tends toward the visual, and I can “see” the past in each card. Of course, I also remember the plot or topic of the book, which helps me to remember what I know and what I don’t.

The second thing this neurosis does (I find the word “practice” irritatingly overused) is to create a physical, tangible, external trace of myself. I took a course on Martin Heidegger this last semester, and learned that his collected works, or Gesamtausgabe, are still being published in several volumes even decades after the man’s death. I’ve been fascinated by the things that come to light in a person’s “papers” after their death. In my training in history, I often thought of the things that we wouldn’t know had it not been for the survival of a single lucky shred of parchment or paper. In a world where correspondence and more and more of life take place in an ethereal space of ones and zeroes, I like the idea of leaving tangible things behind. Would todays Heidegger (hopefully sans dalliance with the Nazis) leave anything accessible behind? I’m sure archivists and librarians are considering this problem, and no doubt digital files take up less space than reams of paper, but it is still something I wonder about.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes “labor” and “work.” Labor is circular – it’s the “daily grind” that keeps us ticking over. Work, on the other hand, is linear – it’s the way that humans make a lasting mark on their world. The world of the digital, especially now that it is being colonized by the same ruthless market forces destroying the planet and everyone’s minds, feels like a space of labor to me. The physicality of pen and paper, the tangible scent of the stuff on my desk, feels much less like labor to me. For all its demands that I put it to use, such demands feel like the demand to work in Arendt’s sense, that is, to be free.

I don’t have much to say about this year’s reading specifically. Like everyone else, I have basically gone insane since the pandemic and its vicious mismanagement (at least on the part of the US government). My reading this year probably tends more toward escape than it would otherwise – and why not? Ursula LeGuin once made the point that one escapes into freedom. Don’t we all want to be free? Over the next year I plan to make periodic posts ruminating on my current reading. I have set myself the same goal this year as in previous years – 50 books – but in the past I haven’t been using this goal as effectively as I could have, that is, I haven’t taken the time to use it to think. In the Jewish tradition, when one drops a book, one hurriedly picks it back up and kisses it to make it feel better and apologize for hurting it. This particular ritual is a bit theatrical for my taste, but the kernel of truth it contains remains deeply appealing. I don’t make new year’s resolutions usually, but this year I think I might make an exception: to respect my tools by using them to work.


Below is this year’s reading list. I may post something in January about the most significant or memorable books of the year, but we’ll see. Moving is stressful, and I may not feel like working (but, then, my tools don’t care about that, do they?)

TitleSubtitleAuthor(s)Started ReadingFinished Reading
1491New Revelations of the Americas Before ColumbusMann, Charles C.12/31/201901/02/2020
The SwerveHow the World Became ModernGreenblatt, Stephen1/3/202001/06/2020
RuthlessScientology, My Son David Miscavige, and MeMiscavige, Ron; Koon, Dan1/6/202001/07/2020
Red ShambhalaMagic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of AsiaZnamenski, Andrei1/7/202002/29/2020
BlasphemyA NovelPreston, Douglas1/11/202001/11/2020
Babel-17
Delany, Samuel R.1/13/202001/19/2020
Broken AngelsA NovelMorgan, Richard K.1/19/202001/25/2020
Pattern Recognition
Gibson, William1/26/202002/09/2020
The Bloody White BaronThe Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of MongoliaPalmer, James2/26/202003/04/2020
The MastermindDrugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.Ratliff, Evan3/13/202003/15/2020
The Secret TokenObsession, Deceit, and the Search for the Lost Colony of RoanokeLawler, Andrew3/15/202003/21/2020
Indispensable Goods
Pepper, Tom4/23/202005/06/2020
The Dark Tower IThe GunslingerKing, Stephen4/24/202004/24/2020
The Dark Tower IIThe Drawing of the ThreeKing, Stephen4/26/202004/28/2020
The Dark Tower IIIThe Waste LandsKing, Stephen5/2/202005/13/2020
The Origins of UnhappinessA New Understanding of Personal DistressSmail, David5/6/202005/27/2020
The Dark Tower IVWizard and GlassKing, Stephen5/14/202005/21/2020
The Wind Through the KeyholeA Dark Tower NovelKing, Stephen5/21/202005/23/2020
The Dark Tower VWolves of the CallaKing, Stephen5/23/202005/30/2020
Valis
Dick, Philip K.5/30/202006/01/2020
The Dark Tower VISong of SusannahKing, Stephen6/2/202006/05/2020
A Maze of Death
Dick, Philip K.6/5/202006/08/2020
The Dark Tower VIIThe Dark TowerKing, Stephen6/8/202006/15/2020
The Divine Invasion
Dick, Philip K.6/16/202006/27/2020
Downward To The Earth
Silverberg, Robert6/28/202006/30/2020
Faking HistoryEssays on Aliens, Atlantis, Monsters, and MoreColavito, Jason6/30/202007/02/2020
The Quest for Wilhelm Reich
Wilson, Colin7/2/202007/06/2020
Wilhelm ReichPsychoanalyst and Radical NaturalistCorrington, Robert S.7/6/202007/12/2020
The Western Esoteric TraditionsA Historical IntroductionGoodrick-Clarke, Nicholas7/12/202007/16/2020
Provenance
Leckie, Ann7/21/202007/22/2020
KrakenAn AnatomyMiéville, China7/22/202007/26/2020
Woken Furies
Morgan, Richard K.7/26/202007/29/2020
La Balle du néantLes Futurs mystères de ParisWagner, Roland C.7/30/202008/02/2020
Ancillary Justice
Leckie, Ann8/3/202008/05/2020
Ancillary Sword
Leckie, Ann8/5/202008/07/2020
Ancillary Mercy
Leckie, Ann8/7/202008/09/2020
AuthorityA NovelVanderMeer, Jeff8/11/202008/14/2020
AcceptanceA NovelVanderMeer, Jeff8/14/202008/16/2020
The Forge and the CrucibleThe Origins and Structure of AlchemyEliade, Mircea8/18/202008/30/2020
Hawksbill Station
Silverberg, Robert8/18/202008/19/2020
Continental Philosophy A Very Short IntroductionCritchley, Simon8/19/202008/19/2020
Analytic PhilosophyA Very Short IntroductionBeaney, Michael8/20/202008/23/2020
The Medusa Chronicles
Baxter, Stephen; Reynolds, Alastair8/28/202009/01/2020
Consider Phlebas
Banks, Iain M.9/2/202009/18/2020
The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe
Flint, Valerie Irene Jane9/2/202009/16/2020
On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism
Scholem, Gershom Gerhard9/17/202009/24/2020
The Player of Games
Banks, Iain M.9/18/202009/20/2020
Use Of Weapons
Banks, Iain M.9/20/202009/25/2020
Starfish
Watts, Peter9/25/202009/27/2020
Don’t Sleep, There Are SnakesLife and Language in the Amazonian JungleEverett, Daniel L.9/28/202009/29/2020
A Parting of the WaysCarnap, Cassirer, and HeideggerFriedman, Michael10/1/202010/05/2020
Jurassic ParkA NovelCrichton, Michael10/4/202010/05/2020
The Lost World
Crichton, Michael10/6/202010/07/2020
John Dee and the Empire of AngelsEnochian Magick and the Occult Roots of the Modern WorldLouv, Jason10/7/202010/22/2020
The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age
Yates, Frances Amelia10/7/202010/18/2020
Isonomia and the Origins of Philosophy
Karatani, Kojin10/31/202011/14/2020
Pandemic!COVID-19 Shakes the WorldZizek, Slavoj11/4/202011/04/2020
An Insula Life 
Pepper, Tom11/5/202011/06/2020
Time in the DitchAmerican Philosophy and the McCarthy EraMcCumber, John11/13/202011/17/2020
Greek BuddhaPyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central AsiaBeckwith, Christopher I.11/14/202011/26/2020
Warriors of the CloistersThe Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval WorldBeckwith, Christopher I.11/29/202012/01/2020
Stranger from AbroadHannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and ForgivenessMaier-Katkin, Daniel12/10/202012/16/2020
A Corpse in the Koryo
Church, James12/18/202012/19/2020
Bamboo and BloodAn Inspector O NovelChurch, James12/19/202012/20/2020
Hidden MoonAn Inspector O NovelChurch, James12/19/202012/19/2020
The Man with the Baltic StareAn Inspector O NovelChurch, James12/21/202012/22/2020
A Drop of Chinese BloodA MysteryChurch, James12/22/202012/23/2020
The Gentleman from JapanAn Inspector O NovelChurch, James12/28/202012/29/2020
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