Essay: A Belated Birthday Address

On April 26th I turned 34, an age I like because 3 is a prime number and 4 is the square of a prime number. Both digits add up to 7, which is also prime (hell yes), as well as an auspicious number in several schools of esoteric and hermetic thought. Of course, next year is 35, in which both digits are primes (sick) but their sum is not (bummer). However! 8 is two cubed, and that’s still pretty good. Cubes strike me as even more esoteric.

And so, I’m firmly in my mid-thirties. That doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me except that now I have to care about the lumbar support on my desk chair in a way I didn’t before. Turning 34 has, however, gotten me thinking: how long before I can justify becoming a model train guy? I used to think I would wait until about 40 for that, but with the turning of another year plus having a nephew that will be ambulatory in short order, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t speed up the timeline some. I don’t wear white New Balance sneakers and I have little interest in either the Civil War or World War II, so I need something for some uncle cred. I already like birdwatching and, now, stamps, so maybe model trains are a logical next step?

For the last five years or so I’ve been participating in Postcrossing, an online platform that allows members to send and receive postcards from all over the world (maybe a great-uncle type thing to do). I love digging through my postcard collection to find the perfect one for each new address I get, and it’s always fun to get a card from someplace far away in the mail. But it isn’t just about the cards. I also love to see interesting stamps from all over and use nice stamps on my own cards. For my birthday this year, my lovely wife, M, got me some vintage US stamps. She also gave me some old canceled stamps from different countries around the world. One was a set with a dinosaur theme that included a stamp with a pterosaur on it from, wait for it, North Korea. Badass.

When I opened the little packet and realized what was inside I spent about a half hour ooohing and ahhhing over the postage. I would never have thought to buy the foreign stamps for myself, which made the gift all the more special. After arranging them all on the table I cracked up because of how silly I felt. Apparently I’m a character from a Charles Dickens novel: morally complicated, kind of stuffy, living in a hell-world of hideous economic inequality, and pumped about old stamps. I also wanted a pudding (flan) for a birthday treat, which made me feel like Oliver Twist or something. M was relieved when she saw my reaction to the stamps – she thought I would think they were silly, but they turned out to some of my new favorite things.

I haven’t arranged the stamps in an album yet, but it’s on my list of things to do. Again, as a Victorian child, I love an album. I have binders of postcards from my several years of Postcrossing and an album of ticket stubs, money, and other paper ephemera from my various trips. Almost all of my class notes from undergrad and grad school are squirreled away somewhere in plastic bins or folders, as are old journals. My photographic experiments with a Fujifilm Instamatic camera that M gave me a few years ago (she’s a talented present-giver!) now nearly fill three of their own albums as well. But for all that, I don’t think I could ever be a serious stamp collector, even though it would give me a reason to buy yet more albums. Not least because I don’t have the money to “invest” in stamps – or anything else for that matter, although I will say that anyone who wants to give me a gold Krugerrand would get Christmas cards from me for the rest of my/their life. (To be clear, not because Krugerrands are made of gold but because I think the name is funny, the guy on one the face side has the beard-but-no-mustache look of the seafaring people from The Wheel of Time, and the other side has a Springbok in the process of “pronking.” Plus, it’s legal tender in South Africa but doesn’t have a value stamped on it, which I like for some reason.)

While I’m kidding about the Krugerrand (mostly), I do often find that the things that most interest me aren’t the things that command the greatest price or airtime. I don’t mean the platitude that “the best things in life are free” or some variation on that theme. That old chestnut is simply not true – a postcard from a botanical garden, pistachio ice cream, a nickel flattened by a train, or a movie ticket stub that you find inside a used book aren’t free, even though they’re some of the best non-people things I can think of off the top of my head. Rather, I mean that collecting things for the sake of completing a set, or because of some externally defined standard of valuation, strikes me as odd. What if the other members of the set are ugly, or expensive? Or, the worst possible thing, not interesting? If I’m going to collect anything, it’s going to be because I like the particular items in question, because I find them interesting – I don’t really care if they’re valuable.

In my office at home, on a high shelf in the closet, I have a box of treasures. One of these is a McDonald’s toy shaped like a Big Mac that “transforms” into a dinosaur. I have had this toy since I was in the single digits in age, and it fascinates me. The box also contains cards, bits and bobs, and various other trinkets that I have accumulated over my life and that have either sentimental value or interest for me. None of these things is valuable in the monetary sense (I think), but I nonetheless like to think of this box (which started its life as one of those picnic boxes for a wine bottle and later carried, hilariously, a small hookah) as a kind of mobile Wunderkammer [literally “room of wonders”], a nomadic Cabinet of Curiosities that I’ve carried from one residence to the next over the years.

I don’t open the box to look at the things inside very often. It’s actually kind of an intense experience, bordering on the unpleasant. There is lots of Time in there, and Memory. In a way, I’m not sure I even keep it for myself. Maybe this is a bit Romantic of me, but I think I actually keep the things inside the box for posterity. I think that’s also why I’ve never been happy with ereaders and prefer physical codices, why I keep ticket stubs, why I take notes by hand, and why I’ve kept journals and notebooks – sometimes obsessively – for most of my life.

Last night I was working on my card catalogue (about which more in an upcoming series) and came across this quotation from Byung-chul Han’s The Burnout Society:

The imperative of expansion, transformation, and self-reinvention – of which depression is the flipside – presumes an array of products tied to identity. The more often one changes one’s identity, the more production is dynamized. Industrial disciplinary society relied on unchanging identity, whereas postindustrial achievement society requires a flexible person to heighten production.

The Burnout Society, 44.

I would substitute “hyperindustrial” for “postindustrial” here, but the point remains the same: personal identity has been well and truly hooked to market circuits of consumption, and the more identities change, the more there is to consume. To “Become a Stamp Collector,” I would have to buy: albums, stamps, other people’s collections, books or memberships to websites, flights to go to conventions, etc. A pretty penny for somebody, and more or less trackable and calculable. If Amazon sees me order a stamp album, you can bet your britches that my recommended items – now populated by books on Hegel, knee compression sleeves, and gardening stuff – will soon include reference books on stamp values, and maybe even some numismatic stuff (why not? I collect stamps, don’t I?)

I don’t think Han’s point is to argue that we should work to have a permanent, unchanging core Self that stays consistent across time. At least, I would hope not if he considers himself a faithful reader of Heidegger (which appears to be the case). Rather, the point is that hyperindustrial society incentivizes changing one’s “identity” via consumption, on a whim, to drive consumption, which then dynamizes production. With a weekend, a new Twitter account, and a few hundred dollars, I could become a sneakerhead, an “energetic healer,” or (God forbid) a crypto guy. The danger, then, is that I would mistake my consumption habits for truths about myself, rather than see my “self,” such as it is, as a process of projecting into a future that is not yet known and remains unforeclosed. The self, on Han’s account, is plastic. I would argue that this is not new to hyperindustrial or postindustrial society, but rather has always been the case. Capitalism has just established a parasitic relationship with this pre-existing aspect of human Being.

So what does this have to do with stamps, exactly? Or that weird treasure box I’ve described? If human Being is plastic enough that it can be harnessed and channeled via patterns of consumption as a vehicle for the flow of capital, this Being can also be modulated, molded, formed, and shaped in other ways, including through one’s immediate surroundings: one’s objects and the significance they have. While I’m sure that the sneaker guys who buy and sell and collect shoes take some sense of abiding satisfaction from that pursuit, it still strikes me as having capitulated to the insistence of hyperindustrial capitalism that its cellular components (us) exist the way it wants us to. It would strike me as a bit sad, although maybe this is unfair, for a sneakerhead’s grandchild to find grandpa’s shoe collection in a storage locker and spend time poring over it, reliving and widening their experience of their grandparent.

The things I keep, that I find valuable and wonderful, help to bolster and reproduce my own sense of self and the kind of Being I want to inhabit. But I also think of these things as affecting the Being of those who come after me. What will my grandchildren think, for example, of the reading log I’ve kept on index cards for years? For one thing, they’ll probably find it a pain in the ass that I insisted on keeping these records of paper, rather than in an Excel file. But, hopefully, they’ll also see the way my handwriting will change over time, growing spidery as I age until eventually someone else has to write the cards for me. Maybe they’ll think of the dusty shelf where I kept the box as it filled up, and then think of the shelves full of books that I insisted on long after physical books on paper were “practical.” What will they think of the odd assortment of bits and bobs in my carry-on Wunderkammer? The funny rocks, the stamps and bookmarks and ticket stubs and boxes of notebooks they’ll find when I’m gone? Will they be able to simply throw these away?

I’ve given the ideas above a fair amount of thought over the years. One of the handful of things I’ve published is a story called “Going Home” that touches on the sense of taking things with one, especially inconvenient physical objects. You can read it at The Ekphrastic Review here.

I didn’t set out to write something “serious” when I started drafting this essay. I guess things just turn out that way sometimes. One last point before I leave off philosophizing, though. If you weren’t convinced by my meditations above, think of it this way: M gave me some old stamps for my birthday, and from one stamp, for reasons singular to my own strange reality tunnel, I wrote an entire essay. How’s that for the importance of physical stuff?

Essay: Care and the Green Thumb

WARNING: If you have no patience for elliptical style, riffs and digressions, or etymological wordplay, best skip this post.

Problematic: What does it mean to have a “green thumb?”

For Heidegger, one properly acts through the hand. (Do note the singular.) Insofar as humans (which are not all Dasein, and, at least for Dreyfus, vice versa) have hands, we properly act. The hand distinguishes the human from the non-human in acting.

Of course, an immediate objection arises: what about the great apes? Or Old and New World monkeys? What about elephants, whose trunks are at least as capable of handling finicky bits as a human’s fingers? As Derrida argues pretty convincingly in The Animal that Therefore I Am, Heidegger’s thinking privileges humans over other species, thus inadvertently continuing a tradition that places humans, if not at center stage, then at least at the top of the playbill. Any attempt to identify and designate a specific difference between human and any given animal fails, on Derrida’s account, not least because one could always find examples of individuals that are not human doing things that, supposedly, only humans can do. Of course, DNA sequencing makes this trick even easier. I have a lot more common with a pumpkin than one might initially suppose. (A fact which I rather like. Pumpkins, when planted as part of a Three Sisters bed, provide shade and keep the soil cool and moist for the beans and corn. I’ve always felt more comfortable with support/maintenance roles – a point I will return to below. Besides, pumpkins are kinda round and squat, much like myself.)

For the moment, I want to bracket concern with differentiating humans from animals. While I find Derrida’s contributions useful and important, it nonetheless remains obvious to me that, even if one cannot clearly and permanently distinguish humans from species that are not human (and that this lack of distinction bears ethical ramifications), differences nevertheless persist.

Rather than the hand, then, I would look to the thumb, the means by which one (a human and a Dasein, for the time being) grips, encircles, takes hold of. In German, a concept is a ,,Begriff,” reminiscent of “gripped.” One encircles with a concept, creates a barrier or boundary (or perhaps a membrane), a place to hold on – a grip. In Heidegger’s “A Triadic Conversation,” the character of the Scholar most clearly represents the power of the ,,Begriff,” of the concept as boundary.

[A brief riff, if the reader will indulge me. Humans act through the hand, but this does not apply to all humans. Even bracketing for the moment individuals with impairments or motor difficulties, at a much more basic level the hand does not represent our originary means of “handling” things in the world. How does a baby interact with the world? By putting things in her mouth. One often reads “human” to mean “adult human” (historically also “white,” “male,” and “free” or “property owner.” But how did those adults get to the point of using only their hands to interact, with the mouth relegated to food, drink, medicine, stimulants, and (sometimes) the mouths and genitals of others? The mouth takes in, and indiscriminately, until the hand mediates the encounter.]

The longest of Heidegger’s “conversations” (collected in Country Path Conversations edited and with an excellent introduction by Brett W. Davis) takes place on, you guessed it, a country path. Three conversants, a Guide, a Scholar, and a Scientist, take up again a conversation they had left off a year earlier. As the conversation carries on, the Guide seeks to convince the Scientist that, contrary to popular belief, one can describe science as an applied technology, rather than the other way around. The Scientist, a physicist and positivist, resists these ideas, remarking that the Guide’s words make him feel “groundless” or dizzy. For the Scientist, the Guide is LSD in the water. But not so with the Scholar.

As the conversation ambles on, the Scholar tries to find ways to identify and encircle the Guide’s words. Some statement reminds him of Leibniz, or Spinoza. Unlike the Scientist, whose disciplinary specificity and (necessary!) rigidity make him an easy window to smash, the Scholar has a much more flexible immune response. He enlarges the circle of a concept, broader and broader, until it can, potentially, fill all of space. The Scholar, one could say, has a much firmer “grip.”

The range of the Scholar’s ability to “grip” novelty into his existing handhold makes him (an assumption – we don’t actually know from the text) a tougher nut to crack for the Guide (whom I think one can safely say represents Heidegger more or less in earnest). To the Scholar, anything the Guide says can be identified with an existing concept and fit into an existing schema. Resemblance oozes subtly into identity.

I have, of course, a literary analogy for this phenomenon. In William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (probably his most interesting novel, in my opinion), the protagonist Cayce Pollard (about whom more in this post) travels from New York to London to Tokyo to Moscow, and each time finds herself playing a kind of game where, when faced with difference, she tries to fit it into an existing schema. Parts of London (which she calls the “mirror world”) are “really” like New York. Parts of Tokyo are “really” like London. Anyone who has traveled extensively, especially to big cities, will recognize this pattern of behavior, a pattern made increasingly understandable (if no more laudable) by the homogenization and leveling of global culture. For me, Shanghai “really” was just like Paris until I turned off the main thoroughfares and found myself firmly back in China again. But then I passed a Burger King, entered a Starbucks, and placed an order in English, at which point I could have found myself pretty much anywhere.

[I beg the reader’s indulgence for another riff. Starbucks, it seems to me, best represents the homogenized no-place subsuming cities large and small. I have visited Starbucks locations in several countries on three and a half continents, and each only stands out as a separate place in my mind because of its differential surrounding context. For example, I visited one in Shanghai located inside a huge multi-layer mall that I found garish and too bright. It looked just like all the “nice” malls I have ever visited, but something felt a bit “off,” like how UHT milk from a box doesn’t taste like fresh milk. Another Starbucks, in Mexico, I remember because the inside of the shop was too intensely air-conditioned, leaving the glass door to the outdoor seating area covered in a thick layer of condensation. It gets hot on the Yucatan Peninsula.

One might respond that McDonalds would serve as a better example of homogenization. I would not disagree. Initially I would say that McDonalds has more of a functional or even “low class” set of associations and homogenizes “from the ground up,” but that doesn’t exactly work since, for example in China, one can buy fast food from street vendors for much cheaper. McDonalds isn’t haute cuisine there, but it’s not a cheap source of fast and convenient calories. Again like Cayce Pollard, whose usual “allergy” to haute couture brands bothers her less in Tokyo than it does in London, context matters. Nonetheless, I think that Starbucks, which I associate with people tap-tapping away on MacBooks, better represents the digital and aesthetic homogenization of culture. Maybe a homogenization from the inside out, from the aspirational and downwardly mobile middle- and consuming classes that serve as insurance against overproduction. A smoothing of culture, as Byung-chul Han puts it in Saving Beauty. To put it a bit vaguely, a McDonalds anywhere feels like more of a “real place” to me than a Starbucks anywhere.]

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that making comparisons or finding similarities is some kind of problem in and of itself. You need some existing schema to apprehend a new idea, at least initially. Learning the grammar of your own native language makes learning a foreign one easier (or at least less totally baffling). The problem arises when all novelty is “fittable” into one’s schema ahead of time. We don’t live in a modular world, where pieces can go together in various ways, but are nonetheless standardized. This isn’t Legos. Heidegger’s Scientist needed his rigid positivism not only to actually conduct scientific research, but also to allow for the possibility of going beyond his scientism. Byung-chul Han writes (somewhere, I don’t have the citation right now) that knowledge differs from data in that knowledge is gained against resistance. The Scientist’s rigidity creates precisely such resistance. The Scholar’s erudition, on the other hand, more amorphous and loose than the Scientist’s, runs the risk of souring and overrunning the entire world. Like a gas, there’s nothing to push back against. Every Starbucks looks like all the other Starbucks, even if the layout and specifics differ slightly. If you’ve seen one Starbucks, you can probably literally imagine them all.

Speaking of Starbucks, where they wear green aprons, I now sense the approach of the point of this excursion, like a change in the wind. To return to the green thumb.

The thumb serves to grip, to encircle, to make concepted – ,,zu ‘Begriffte’ machen.” As we saw with Heidegger’s Scholar, this gripping broaches the possibility that, as Ecclesiastes would put it, “there is nothing new under the sun.” Everything strikes one simply as “like” something else. One cannot any longer imagine novelty so new that it passes through to trauma.

The green thumb, then, a subspecies of thumb as it were, “grips” and encircles. But now, we must ask: what does it encircle? How hard does it grip? Does the wrist remain loose and flexible, or taught, tight, under pressure? Do the muscles of the forearm suffice to accomplish the hand’s goal, or do you have to put your back into it and slip a disc? Does the grip involve all five fingers? Both hands? (Heidegger, to the best of my knowledge, does not ask or answer these questions. Part of his problem with typewriters has to do with one properly acting “through the hand.” Of course, as Don Ihde points out, this is a clear indication that Heidegger never learned to type with any proficiency.)

A green thumb means its holder (its haver? its bethumbéd?) can keep plants growing and alive. Many people described as having “green thumbs” can, of course, tell others in explicit terms how to care for plants, but their ability nonetheless continues to strike others as peculiar and impressive. And even they themselves cannot exhaustively describe their own capability. Why? Because “having a green thumb” does not mean “knowing all about plants and being able to express that knowledge systematically and precisely in symbolic form.” To those poor souls who always kill their succulents, the “green thumb” is magic , something almost preternatural of which they despair of learning. But this is a mistake.

The meaning of a “green thumb” really comes down to this: a particular way in which the green thumb “grips” the world. It is not a way of knowing in the sense of exhaustively and systematically articulating symbols through recall, but rather a way of comportment, a mode or key of being.

Consider an analogy with your native language. We say that one “knows” one’s native language, but we really mean something more like one lives one’s native language. (To put it in Heidegger’s terms, “language speaks us.”) Aside from sometimes struggling to find the right word, or occasional stumbles, one does not need to remember anything to speak one’s native language. Don’t believe me? Spend six months working diligently but not too intensely on Duolingo (any totally unfamiliar language will do), then take a trip to a place where that language is the native language of most of the population. If possible, try to avoid big cities where you are more likely to encounter others who can translate for you.

What will happen? Well, Duolingo works pretty well, so you’ll get up to speed on basic terms and meeting basic needs quickly enough. But beyond that, you will find yourself thrown for a loop. You will find, in your stumbling attempts to navigate the world and interact with others, hat how you communicate with others plays a significant role in forming both who you are to others and to yourself. The most difficult (and intimidating) part of learning a new language is the plummeting feeling of having to learn how to be yourself again.

A green thumb – or an eye for photographic composition, or an ear for musical composition, or a good arm in baseball – works the same way. One doesn’t “have” a green thumb or “know” a green thumb. One is a green thumb. That is, the green thumb serves as a descriptor of a mode of being in the world, one that cannot be exhaustively expressed because it does not come after the one doing the being – it is the being.

Another analogy might help. I do not know how to surf. If I accompany a surfer to the beach and we both look out onto the ocean, she and I will see different things. Not “literally” (at least assuming we have similar levels of visual acuity, etc.), but rather in the sense that the surfer will be able to tell if it’s a good day for surfing, and I won’t. She might be able to explain some of how she knows this, but not all of it. And, unless my being already exists in some sense “adjacently” to the being of a surfer, I may not even understand the things she is able to explain. However, if I begin learning to surf, if I practice surfing, if I become a surfer, then maybe someday she and I will be able to once again walk onto the beach and both see whether the waves are good that day or not.

The green thumb works the same way. One has to learn how to be such that one has a green thumb. While this learning must incorporate explicit symbolic knowledge to some degree, the real work, the real learning, and the real change in being comes from the doing, and from the becoming.

The green thumb, as a thumb, grips, it creates and holds concepts of the world. But the green thumb differs from, for example, the Scholar’s pre-configured means of expanding his grip, precisely because plants are not symbols. The mimosa tree in my front yard is, if the conditions are within a certain range, gonna mimosa. Period. I can help it along, shelter it, take care of it, feed it and water it, but fundamentally, the plant is doing its own thing. The green thumb “grips” the plant, but it can never do so completely, simply because the plant does not allow itself to be fully symbolized. It is outside of the human in a significant sense, and even an exhaustive knowledge of horticulture does not preclude the possibility of plants dying for what appears to be no reason. For all that one’s symbolic knowledge of plants can expand and expand, it eventually founders on the brute reality that the plant is not up to you.

And here we see the most salient facet of the green thumb. Insofar as it does “grip,” conceptualize, and encircle, it does so in the knowledge that this is only ever a kind of loose grip, a conceptualization that may prove useful in some cases, but ultimately fails to fully encircle its charge. It is a grip of care, the careful grip with which one holds a child’s hand while crossing the street. This is not a grip one can learn except existentially. By doing. And in so doing, by changing not just what one knows, but who one is.

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