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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.


Essay: Don’t Write Down Your Nose At Others (A Screed)

[A note to the reader: “screed” seems an accurate descriptor for this essay after my having written it. But a screed is not necessarily incorrect, just impolite. Since this is a personal blog, I make no apologies. Nor do I give specific examples.]

[Another note to the reader: I wrote this essay several weeks ago and have sat on it for a while because I don’t quite know how I feel about it after getting it all out. I still think I make good points here, but the essay is a bit repetitive. I’m posting it anyway because I haven’t posted in a while. Maybe I’ll come back to it later. -jk ]

Writing as a philosopher, “theorist,” “thinker,” etc. does not give one license to write like a jackass. I find myself increasingly irritated and impatient with “thinkers” who write from on top of the mountain of “theory,” where all the smart (read: “good,” “informed,” etc.) people live. These writers take the tonal equivalent of people from New York City or San Francisco who assume that others know all about the geography and administrative subdivisions of their city. No, I have no idea where “Queens” is, nor do I know what, if anything, being from there means. “The Bay Area” is another one. Which Bay? The Chesapeake?

Don’t worry: I’m not pulling a JD Vance and trying to pivot from college-educated cosmopolitan to straight-talkin’ yokel, although Vance’s cynicism in his own recent politically-motivated pivot is so astounding as to almost be impressive. I don’t have a problem with dense, abstruse, technical language. (Someone claiming to be “telling it like it is” can be guaranteed a skeptical eyebrow-raise from me. Thanks, Derrida.) In fact, I don’t even really have a problem with the claim that some ideas are so complex or counterintuitive or whatever that the text explicating them needs to be difficult. While I would argue that many conceptual difficulties can be more or less cleared up by trying to explain one’s ideas to a bright middle schooler, in principle I don’t have a problem with some texts simply being difficult. Anyone who has read and enjoyed one of Stephen King’s novels featuring Maine accents so thick you can hardly understand them has encountered an analogous phenomenon to some “difficult” theory. Readers of pulpy sci-fi or multiple plot-line “high fantasy” are in a similar boat.

So, what’s my problem, then? My problem is “theorists” or, even better, “thinkers” (ughhh) that don’t write difficult prose, but rather knowing prose, prose that will be read and appreciated (only) by those whose noses are attuned to the subtle aroma of rare discursive ambergris. And not only will this prose be read and appreciated, but part of the frisson of its appreciation is the disavowed knowledge that other people aren’t getting it because they aren’t as well-read as me and that I am, therefore, in some vague sense superior to them.

“Difficulty” is not the issue, nor is technical language or expecting a reader to do their share of interpretive work. The issue is the sly wink, the little nod of recognition that the reader and writer are, already, in the same club. Even more fundamentally, the members of that club refuse any attempt at trying to open membership to others not already a part of it. It’s “not their job to educate you.” (Yes, in fact, it is.) These writers make little attempt to explain their positions and give context to help bring their readers more fully into their discursive complex. They don’t seem to either be struggling to present the material or have struggled to think about it. When it comes to those not “in the know” – even before reading the book! – they simply shake their heads or shrug. Hélas, they say. What’re you gonna do?

In sombunal cases, “knowing” writing bears a resemblance to a bad habit I often see among highly-educated liberals: using “ignorant” as a slur rather than as a neutral descriptor. For these well-intended people, others who are not like them (i.e. anti-racist, anti-sexist, “woke,” cosmopolitan, desiring of adherence to politeness and “sensitivity”) are not like them, ostensibly, because they are ignorant. They don’t know enough. If they only went to grad school or read a damn book, they’d see the truth, just like the “right-thinking” liberals! While I share many of the positions these liberals espouse, at least the social ones if not their milquetoast economic stuff, I part ways with them over their refusal to admit the creeping condemnation that rides along like an invasive species with their noting that others don’t know fact X.

For the “knowing” writer, there are certain home truths (even when that writer is denying the existence of capital-T “Truth”). These truths are not up for question because in most cases they are not even made explicit. And, more importantly, one should demonstrate a certain affect about these unacknowledged truths. Those in the know are the “good” people, predestined by God in a latter-day literary Calvinism to paradise, while those unfortunate not count themselves among the elect have no hope to escape Hell. The reader not in the know, for the “knowing” writer, is a benighted rube and will, hélas, just have to stay that way, I guess. What’re you gonna do?

In many cases “knowing prose” isn’t marked by anything direct or explicit in the text. Rather, the “knowing” haunts it. There’s something in the tone, or the little parenthetical jabs, or the diction. To put it simply, “knowing” prose gives off a “vibe.” Talking about things in terms of “vibes” strikes me as a phenomenon worth considering. Complain all you want that this is an imprecise Zoomer re-appropriation of hippie slang, it still seems quite useful to me. “I just get a bad vibe.” You feel it in some peripheral part of your perception, like the little nudge you get to grab an umbrella before you leave for work, just in case. I wouldn’t argue that one can live on vibes alone – you need an argument, too – but vibes nonetheless serve as a useful starting point. And attention to the “vibe” of a text is precisely what leads me to frustration with such “knowing” writers. They have no sense of the nasty “vibe” they give off.

My internal Freudian speaks: “yes, but could your frustration not really be a projection of your own habits and tendencies onto a text?” Of course it could, and it probably is to some degree. I live in the same world as these “thinkers,” or at least in an adjacent zip code. I am definitely guilty of looking down my nose at others, and of doing so because they aren’t in the know. And yet. Two further points come to mind:

  • Does projecting onto a text necessarily disconfirm the observations in that projection? That is, does the possibility of my irritation stemming from projection mean, by itself, that I am therefore wrong in my observations? Could it not be that my observations are both born of projection and accurate, at least in some cases?
  • Does the fact that I have no doubt both looked down my nose at others and projected my own bad habits onto a text mean that I must do these things, or that I will always do these things? One would think that people might grow and change – otherwise no one raised in a racist society could become anti-racist. Despite the hemorrhaging of church membership and attendance, the Anglosphere sure seems to still pump out a fair number of Calvinists.

The “knowing” writer commits what is for me a cardinal sin in exposition: discounting entire groups of readers from the get-go as a way of further defining their own sense of worth and sufficiency, and of doing so at the expense of everyone not in the club.

I want to make something perfectly clear: I do not intend to argue that malignant, willful ignorance does not exist, or that non-college-educated people have some kind of “authenticity” which the college-educated have lost. I likewise do not want to argue that ignorance of particular facts makes one see more clearly. Learning about biology or ecology, for example, will (often) change one’s mind about how things are, hopefully in good ways. Rather, I want to point out that what I’ve called “knowing” prose does both the writer and the reader a disservice by alienating them both even further than they already were from others they assume not to be “in the know,” and does so without any basis in facts on the ground. They aren’t alienated from readers who will react antagonistically to their writing, or people who have no interest in it, but intelligent, sympathetic readers who are simply not (yet) playing the same “language game” as that of the “knowing” writer. Writers should write for a specific audience. But to structure that audience on the basis of a prelapsarian predestination to benightedness and the hellfire of “ignorance” hurts the writer in the end, and not least because it shrinks their potential market share.

Consider: let’s say you know something. Something important and useful. You want to write about it. Writers, as far as I know, want to write to explain their ideas to others, to engage with others and convince them of something or show them something they hadn’t seen before. The “knowing” writer does all this, at least to some degree. However, the “knowing” writer is not, deep down, actually upset that others don’t know or care about what they know and care about. If everyone read their book, gave the ideas some thought, and then adopted them, the “knowing” writer would no longer be special! To actually communicate their ideas and write to others effectively, the “knowing” writer must give up that extra little spurt of dopamine they get every time a benighted rube gives them a blank stare or asks a too-basic question. And in this day and age, who will willingly give up free dopamine?

That the people who write in this “knowing” way often identify or are identified as “radical” thinkers is especially egregious. I won’t deny that I have probably read more books than many people who didn’t go to college, but that just means that I have more work to do in writing for others. (Note even here one of the assumptions that inform “knowing” writing. For all I know, my neighbor who worked as a house painter for decades has read substantially more, and better, than I have.) What good is my erudition and knowledge if I don’t use it to the benefit of others who lack these things, or who have similar levels of erudition but outside of my field or area of interest? Why would I want to have a sense of self so deeply dependent upon there being others than whom I am “better” in some vague sense? Isn’t such superiority the logic of the “white man’s burden?” Of course, the “burden” borne by the white man is a scam – there was/is no intention of making good on any promises to improve the lives of those counted by the white man among the burdensome. Even leaving aside for the moment the question of what the white men think counts as “improvement,” the fact remains that being the one to heroically bear the burden feels much better than working toward solving the problem that led to one’s shouldering the burden in the first place. Having one’s cake and eating it, too. Martyrdom without all the nasty dying bits.

Last week [a month ago] I started (and stopped) reading Günther Anders’ Philosophy of Technology by Babette Babich. I was excited to hear about the book and actually requested that the UNM library buy a copy when it became available. Günther Anders is one of the overlooked thinkers of technology in the 20th century whose works, as far as I know, are still not translated into English. Since I don’t read German yet I was excited to see a philosophical biography and contextualization of Anders’s work that, I hoped, would make his work easier to read once my German is up to snuff. While I’m sure reading the book would help me approach Anders’s works with fewer unnecessary hurdles, I don’t think I’ll finish it. Not because of problems I have with Babich’s project in general, but because of her writing. She writes as someone “in the know,” someone willing to take on the hard work of thinking about the things that “really matter” and that are vital to our time “now more than ever,” and to do so from a position of barely-concealed scorn for anyone not likewise bearing this romantic burden.

Her introduction starts with a meditation on Anders’s habit of working from home (he never held an academic appointment), comparing it to the social changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic with deep-sounding musings on “home-work,” etc. While there’s a version of this idea that makes an interesting point, her way of expressing this meditation positions her as someone “in the know,” someone who understands the “real stakes” of social distancing, wearing a face mask in public, and working from home. As though the difficulties, frustration, and confusion of the pandemic were not by now felt bone-deep by everyone. She writes like an unselfconscious parody of a university professor, with diction that would read as a bit stilted and too-flowery if it weren’t so ridiculous. Even more than Heidegger, whom I would argue is the locus classicus for “knowing” writing, Babich is clearly “in the know,” and wants to make sure you know it too, maybe even more than she wants you to understand Günther Anders’s work. Even Nietzsche had some tact and decency. For all his claims that the readers had not yet come who would be able to read his books, he at least clearly suffered from his writing.

I won’t give examples of her “knowing” writing here because I don’t want to read any more of her book (and, on a personal blog, I don’t have to!) I don’t mean to pick on Babich in particular, her book just had the misfortune of serving as a nucleation point for subterranean grumblings I’ve registered pretty much since starting grad school several years ago. She is definitely not the only “knowing” writer I have encountered.

To conclude my screed, one more differentiation. I do not think the “general reader” exists. And, if they do, they are probably not particularly quick on the uptake. One cannot and should not write for “everyone.” This, in fact, does “everyone” a disservice. Anyone making a good argument will have a specific audience, including detractors and antagonists. If you don’t seem to have any enemies, double check your argument because you didn’t make it well enough. In contrast to the “knowing” writer, the honest writer is aware of their antagonists and takes them seriously if and only if those antagonists return the favor. Those unwilling to take your ideas seriously, even if only to argue against them, don’t deserve your time. But to then take the “knowing” stance and look down on them makes you even less worthy of being taken seriously. The “knowing” stance demonstrates nothing more clearly than one’s own weakness. Iron sharpens iron. To paraphrase Nietzsche, there’s nothing like a good enemy, but to the “knowing” writer is about as desirable as a hole in the head.

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.

Masturbatory Fictions, Masturbatory Reading

Précis: some thoughts on masturbatory v. sexual reading; the problem of genre fiction being taken “seriously;” an elaboration on Byung-chul Han’s Saving Beauty in a literary context. 

Insomnia is not uncommon for me these days, and its silver lining is that I often come up with interesting thoughts and questions while tossing and turning. A few nights ago I was tossing and turning and generally not having a great time when my thoughts turned to reading. In my sleepless lucidity, I came up with a term that I’m going to explore here because I think it offers something useful: masturbatory fiction and masturbatory reading. 

I’ve been thinking about reading a fair amount recently since being quarantined. Now that the semester is well and truly over and I have summertime freedom ahead of me, I’ve been taking more time to get to some of the backlog in my “to read” list. One of the items on my list is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. My wife gave me a copy of the entire series for our wedding anniversary, and I’ve decided to attempt a yearly re-reading. (See this post for more thoughts on this). I sometimes resist reading fiction because I get “sucked in.” Francis Spufford describes himself as a “fiction addict” in The Child that Books Built, and I think I share that sentiment. As I was tossing and turning, I stumbled on a question: what kind of pleasure does reading fiction bring? People talk about “important books” or “books that changed their lives,” but I’m sometimes skeptical that this actually results in real, i.e. physical, change. I suspect, and maybe this concept of “masturbatory” reading can shed some light here, that most often novels and the way that people read them just makes one feel good, rather than actually do anything differently. The only thing that changes is the readers’ feeling of themselves, not the physical speech and action among others that really constitutes their lives. 

I started re-reading Byung-chul Han’s Saving Beauty and I find his critique of “smooth” aesthetics relevant here. Han’s critique is that what he claims is the dominant aesthetic today, the reflective and smooth, has separated beauty and the sublime. Beauty, de-natured of its potentially disturbing, even destructive, sublimity, becomes something that “feels good,” that “goes down smooth.” He gives the art of Jeff Koons as an example of art that conforms to what he calls the “society of positivity,” in which any alterity or otherness is removed. Followers of Han’s work will no doubt recognize this concern from several of Han’s other works, including The Burnout Society, The Transparency Society, and The Expulsion of the Other. “Smooth” beauty, of which smartphone touchscreens are another example, for Han:

only conveys an agreeable feeling, which cannot be connected with any meaning or profound sense. It exhausts itself in a ‘Wow.’

Han, Saving Beauty, 3.

Han uses Koons’s work and touchscreens as examples for another reason: they are reflective. The viewer sees herself in the screen or the piece, being reassured of her own existence by herself. There is no other person or people to whom the viewer appears and through which she might be assured of her existence as a potential actor. (The second chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition is relevant here.) Rather than shock or disturb the viewer into re-evaluating her self and what she does by creating a dissonance between the viewer’s sense of herself and how she appears to others, under the dominance of smooth aesthetics, 

Art opens up an echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence. The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether.

Han, Saving Beauty, 5.

This has concerning consequences for the possibility of moral judgment as Hannah Arendt would see it, but that’s a post for another time. My concern here is that if visual art creates this closed echo chamber of the self reassuring itself of its existence in an infinitely autistic loop, does contemporary literature do so as well? If so, how? Does it operate differently than visual art? 

The short answer to this question is yes. I think much contemporary literature works in a way similar to Han’s description of the aesthetics of the smooth to close the reader off from genuine alterity and the possibility of new, better ways of thinking and living. My goal in this essay is to try and figure out how the concept of masturbatory fiction might be useful in thinking about the version of “smooth” aesthetics in a literary medium. I’m thinking of the problem in two parts. I’ll outline them here, then discuss them further individually:

  1. “Masturbatory fiction” (also “Fleshlight fiction”)
    1. This is fiction that is not written with any intention of challenging the reader. It is fiction that “goes down smooth.” My initial thought was that this category could consist of genre fiction read for pleasure (especially series of novels like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files), but I’ve since thought about it some more and see titles like these as less of a problem. Masturbatory fiction that presents a real problem is fiction considered “serious” or “literary” that is written with “pure aesthetics” and “beauty” in mind, but that nonetheless fails to break the reflective loop of the reader’s reflection in the text. The social and cultural cachet of texts like these makes their smooth aesthetics a particular problem.
  2. “Masturbatory” reading as opposed to “sexual” reading
    1. Here I mean a reading practice in which the reader uses a text to feel good in themselves, that is, to masturbate, even if the text does not lend itself to such usage. There is no actual engagement, negotiation, or communication with the text from the reader – the text is approached as a passive reflection of the reader herself, thus creating the loop of the reader reassuring herself of her existence by seeing herself in the text and vice versa. I’m beginning to think that this reading practice is actually the bigger issue than the masturbatory texts themselves.

One qualification before I describe these problems in further detail is that I don’t think I’m arguing that one should not engage with masturbatory fiction. In fact, I’m thinking that the only way out of the impasse of the smooth is precisely to force these texts, which are written to be used/consumed for pleasure, to “stick in one’s throat” through critique and a more “sexual” reading. The idea that one can remain completely free from these problems is, I think, its own kind of masturbatory position, reinforcing the illusion of the Romantic “real self” in a way analogous to the aesthetics of the smooth, but oriented toward a more “critical” subject that, at least in her head, “knows better” than that. Insisting on only reading “The Classics” because modern literature is largely masturbatory doesn’t keep one from practicing masturbatory reading without realizing it.

Masturbatory fiction

Literature that lends itself to masturbatory reading (think “popular” fiction) uses language in such a way that a reader is likely to already be primed for or expecting. It uses language smoothly to reinforce what the reader already “knows,” but doesn’t speak. The reader will recognize herself (through her assumptions) in the text and, thereby, take pleasure in herself as she takes pleasure in the text and is “satisfied” at its conclusion. There aren’t any bumps in the road, or sticky-outy bits, the plot flows without any sense questions about what the characters are doing or why. 

One way that masturbatory fiction reflects the reader in itself is through the use of genre tropes that the reader can recognize in her identity as a “sci-fi reader,” or a “western reader,” or a “fantasy reader.” For example, potboiler detective novels have identifiable generic tropes that might include characterizations, plotlines, and assumptions. Even exemplars of this genre that do something new with it retain these generic elements which can be used to re-affirm the reader as a “reader of detective of novels.” For example, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files features a protagonist, Harry Dresden, who is a wizard. He works with the police as a consultant, and there is the familiar detective novel trope of “good” and “bad” (or incompetent, anyway) police officers that by turns ask for the detective’s help when they run into bureaucratic inertia or try to get him to scram so the real law can deal with the problem. Harry is a gruff, rather socially traditionalist figure who “knows right from wrong” and lives without the trappings of modern convenience. As the series continues, it is also revealed that he is an extremely powerful wizard who needed substantial training to use his powers effectively and responsibly, contributing to the affirmation of the reader seeing herself in the text as not only morally upstanding in a world of confusion, but also unique and special for something she simply is. She, too, is powerful but misunderstood! Harry Dresden acts as a way for Butcher to live out a fantasy that, if taken seriously, would likely seem uncomfortably retrograde and oppressive to many of his readers. By identifying with Harry uncritically, readers internalize their own sense of “specialness” and moral rectitude along the limited and traditionalist lines set by Butcher’s characterization. As the only wizard in Chicago, Harry is part of a special group that knows the “real” truth of the world: that magic and a whole host of spectral beings exist and operate just outside the ken of the merely human. 

The Dresden Files is clearly masturbatory literature. It makes use of genre tropes from fantasy and detective novels, “subverting” them in some sense but with a result that has an identifiable parentage in the genres that inform it. The novels present a problem, elevate tension, and resolve the problem in ways that do not challenge the reader or their assumptions about the world. For a “fantasy reader,” these novels reflect the self that is taken to already be there “inside.” The pleasure the reader takes from this masturbatory novel, then, is satisfaction in herself, reaffirming herself in an autistic loop that fails to consider what construal of the world the text itself offers and whether she thinks this is a construal worth having. Harry’s old-school gentlemanliness is naively charming in the novel, but also represents a host of repressive assumptions that the text discourages from being questioned. There’s nothing dirty about the sex that he and his love interest eventually have. Even that is pure as the driven snow. 

I don’t want it to seem like I’m just picking on Butcher and Harry Dresden. I quite enjoyed the volumes of the Dresden Files that I read, and found them quite useful to think with. I’ll return to this question more thoroughly in the conclusion, because I think it’s an important corrective to the idea that one should only read “serious” fiction. That notion is mistaken, for reasons I will turn to now. 

Masturbatory fiction that is clearly identifiable as such presents less of a problem when it occupies a position that is separate and distinguishable from “literature,” especially “serious” literature. Reading Crime and Punishment, for example, is not likely to make one feel “good” in the same way that reading Crazy Rich Asians is. That genre fiction is being taken more seriously by the academy is indicative of the fact that, as Han argues with visual art, this “serious” literature is being (further) dragooned into an ideological project to reinforce the reader’s pleasure in the self, as opposed to positioning the reader to find satisfaction in engagement with the world around her (that is in fact the condition of her being). Basically, it’s a way to keep things from changing. Literature claimed to be “beautiful,” especially anything described as “timeless” (more on this concept in another post) encourages masturbatory reading, even of texts that might actually, on a more critical reading, leave the reader not “feeling good.” The “serious” veneer of so-called “literary” fiction means that its masturbatory characteristics are more difficult to point out and potentially work against. Knausgard’s My Struggle is not embarrassing to read (to some) in the same way that Twilight is, simply meaning that those who might tend to read more critically because of a theoretically higher level of education or cultural cachet are given pleasure in the same way that the “masses” are in their stories. They are also thereby stymied in whatever attempts they might make at engagement with the world. Since they benefit more from the world as it is, or at least don’t suffer as much from it, masturbatory reading of “serious” fiction acts as further insurance that these people continue to avoid engaging with and changing the world. That they are in positions of relative power, where they might actually be able to make changes more easily than those at the very bottom, at least individually, makes the dominance of masturbatory reading especially tragic. 

It’s not the case that even novels that lend themselves to masturbation do so completely or necessarily. These novels tend to encourage a masturbatory reading, but there is another variable at play: the reader herself. The reader, by forcing herself to become attentive to the words of the text as a construal of the world can change the reading of any masturbatory text from an act of self-love, to an act of making love, which requires a partner and results in the challenge and potential that a partner brings.

Masturbatory reading

What I mean by masturbatory reading is basically a failure to read critically, but it’s not just uncritical reading. Taking a text at face value is actually less masturbatory because it might result in shocks (if the text itself is not masturbatory). Masturbatory reading also consists of assuming that the “pleasure” of a text is in its formal beauty, determined by those in positions of social authority. One uses the text to satisfy oneself by oneself, rather than challenging the text and drawing satisfaction from the novel possibilities that this challenge might bring into the open, even if the text itself was not written to “go down smooth.”

Masturbatory reading is a kind of corollary to masturbatory fiction, but I think tends to occur more frequently when one reads “serious” or “literary” fiction because of the cultural cachet that these texts have. Since they’re “real literature,” the idea that one such as my own lowly self could challenge them is anathema, arguments over canons notwithstanding. It’s like the only choices are completely uncritical reading that makes one feel good in oneself, or a disenchantment from the text so complete that it removes any possibility of pleasure or satisfaction from the reading exercise, thus leading to another kind of masturbatory pleasure: the pleasure of the ascetic. 

Genre fiction, again, like the Dresden Files, is fairly well culturally coded as “for fun.” Literature departments have insisted in recent years, however, that things like YA novels, science fiction, and comics are all topics that fall under the purview of academic literary studies, i.e. that can be “serious” and written about in a dissertation. On the one hand, they aren’t wrong. If we take literature or literary studies to mean “the study of texts,” then it seems obvious that comics, for example, would count as literature. On the other hand, however, the seriousness with which things like comics can now be taken, and the cultural cachet that surrounds them as “literature” exacerbates the problem of the smooth by removing the “guilt” one historically felt when reading masturbatory fiction. These formerly “guilty pleasures” now become something one can talk about openly and in public without shame. Han is relevant here as well.

For Han, a work of art that retains the sublime character of beauty offends its viewer:

A push comes from the work of art. It pushes the observer down. The smooth has an altogether different intentional nature. It adapts to the observer, elicits a Like from him or her. All it wants is to please, and not knock over.

Han, Saving Beauty, 6.

The desire to please, to not make any waves or stick in anyone’s craw eliminates the possibility of negativity, of the self being challenged. The possibility of experience, gained against negativity, “withers” (7). This has implications for masturbatory reading because the desire to please and its elimination of negativity removes the transgressive and excessive qualities from sex, leading to a situation in which

Dirty eroticism gives way to clean pornography.

Han, Saving Beauty, 9.

Eroticism relies on secrets, on transgression and excess, on not simply or only desiring to please. The sexual metaphor applies well here, I think. Consider the difference between a satisfying masturbation session and really satisfying sex. Sex is dirty (both literally and metaphorically), excessive, even dangerous. The possibility of being physically or emotionally hurt, even quite severely, exists much more strongly in a sexual encounter than in masturbation. One emerges from a satisfying sexual encounter physically tired or sore, with love-bites or even bruises to show for it. Taking masturbatory pleasure in self-inflicted pain is not the same because one inflicts the pain on oneself – it isn’t the result of a challenge posed by an Other who represents difference and negativity in the sense of “not-me.” It is not possible for one to “go too far” except by accident during masturbation – you only need a safe word with a partner. A partner may go too far, but intentionally, unaware that their action crosses a boundary. Such a challenge shocks the other partner, forcing communication and negotiation in which both partners gain experience of the other’s sexual proclivities and limits. Both partners change as a result of a sexual encounter. 

One reason that masturbatory fiction is less of a problem than masturbatory reading is that masturbatory fiction is, or was, marked as kind of embarrassing. It shared with sex the “dirty” or “guilty” element of pleasure. Sure, read Twilight in bed before going to sleep, but maybe not in a trendy coffeeshop, especially if you’re the kind of person who pretends to like French art films better than rom-coms. Pulpy sci-fi or detective novels, even when they are not themselves masturbatory in form, are culturally coded as “guilty.” They are, or were, to be greedily consumed in private. Paradoxically, this allowed for pulp sci-fi to express wide-ranging challenges to prevailing social norms and ways of thinking and acting. Social norms that took such texts as “less serious” or masturbatory paradoxically allowed sci-fi to encourage or even demand more “sexual” readings. 

The problem now, however, is that even works of “serious” or “literary” merit tend to be written and read in a masturbatory way. The bestselling books one “has to read” are increasingly, it seems to me, intended to “go down smooth.” They aren’t all like this, but as the quality of life and the possibility of the future continues to decline for those in the class of people who read New York Times bestsellers, it should come as no surprise that “beauty” should be a primary criterion of literary (and cultural) merit. 

That’s all on this for now. I’m still not sure if I have still have these concepts muddled. I’ll keep thinking about it.

Works cited and mentioned:

Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (I have the 2nd edition)

Butcher, Jim, The Dresden Files series

Han, Byung-chul, Saving Beauty

Spufford, Francis, The Child that Books Built

Meditations on Re-Reading

Précis: Meditations on re-reading The Dark Tower series. Thoughts on the practice of re-reading, especially at regular intervals; considerations of the temporal experience of re-reading and what it can tell us about making a better world.


My wife gave me a complete set of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower for our wedding anniversary, and I’ve decided to attempt a yearly re-reading of the series. I read the series for the first time about two years ago on the recommendation of my father-in-law and loved it. Now that we’re all quarantined and the sense of time is slipping and getting fuzzy (at least for me), I found myself gravitating back to The Dark Tower for reasons that I’ll make clear later. I’ve just finished volume two of the series, The Drawing of the Three. I have final papers to write and final grades to assign in the next week and a half or so, so I probably won’t get started on volume three, The Waste Lands, for a couple weeks.


The Dark Tower series is cyclical. The first and last lines of the series, which King has described as one long novel in several volumes, are the same: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Roland’s quest for the tower is an eternal cycle, although one that might be eventually end. He and his ka-tet, those bound by destiny, travel though worlds that have “moved on,” with the trappings of technology and civilization degrading and degenerating into unusability. Through a series of trials, the ka-tet travels to the Dark Tower, the nexus that holds together all of the worlds to face the Red King who is intent on destroying the multiverse held together by great Beams that intersect at the Dark Tower. I’ll leave it to the reader to find out for themself whether Roland is successful.

The cyclical nature of The Dark Tower saga makes it an interesting point of departure for some meditations on re-reading. I will mostly focus here on re-reading novels, but will address re-reading non-fiction (especially philosophy) toward the end of this essay. I’ll be making quick and dirty use of some ideas from the work of French philosopher Gilbert Simondon (filtered through that of another French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler.) This isn’t a formal paper so I’m dispensing with footnotes, etc. Besides, I’m really just using on concept as a starting point.

In the first reading of a novel, everything is new and surprising. The reader is pulled along through the narrative both by its novelty and by the impulse of the plot. The plot basically implies or poses questions – what happens next? how does this end? Even in formulaically written “genre fiction” like detective novels, techno-thrillers, or supernatural romances, part of the pleasure of a well-written novel is the way it manipulates the reader’s expectations and provides novelty. For example, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files plays with the hard-boiled genre of noir detective fiction by making its protagonist a wizard (really – and it’s not YA fiction like Harry Potter). Long-time readers of detective fiction will recognize some common tropes from other exemplars of the genre, like the protagonist’s hard-boiled but ultimately moral and heroic nature and the incompetence of most of the police, and the fun twist is that Harry Dresden, the protagonist, is an honest-to-goodness wizard. The novelty of the plot in this example, then, is not the form of the plot itself, which is an established genre, but the twists and idiosyncrasies Butcher incorporates into it.

For Simondon, and Husserl before him, perception is not a passive act. All objects of perception are understood through the mind of the perceiver, and this mind is not just a receptacle for perception. The mind actively reaches out, “protends” toward new perceptions based to some degree on previous perceptions it has retained. As an illustration, think of a person standing on a beach watching the waves break. A person who knows how to surf sees the waves differently than one who does not, or one who is more interested in fishing than surfing. It’s not that the surfer sees “more” than the non-surfer, just that the surfer perceives different aspects of the same object that she knows how to look for and considers important.

After the initial perception, which again is not “pure” – there is no “pure” or non-judgmental perception – elements of the perception which were “protended” for, toward which the perceiver’s attention stretched, organize how those perceptions are retained in memory. The non-surfer may go home happy and feeling calm and peaceful because the waves only lapped gently at the shore that day, while the surfer may go home frustrated for the same reason.

Yes, but what does this have to do with (re)reading? As I said above, the first reading of a novel is new in the sense that, even given previous experience of the genre of novel one reads – or the experience of reading novels at all, this particular novel is new to the reader. We don’t know what happens yet, so we read on (or don’t.) It is easy to forget that even this first reading is not “pure” in the sense of non-judgmental perception. To continue with the example of genre fiction, The Dresden Files is obviously and immediately a detective novel, albeit an idiosyncratic one, so noir-junkies will “protend” expectations into the text that more casual readers of the genre might not, even if they recognize the presence of generic tropes. Even more basic, however, are the protentions inculcated in readers by our social frameworks that help us make sense of novels at all. The novel is a relatively recent form of literary creation. For Homer, for example, novels would probably not have made much sense, even if he could have read one, because they differ dramatically from the forms of literary production common to Homer’s time and cultural background.

On a second or subsequent reading of a text, the protentions one brings to a novel might become more clear. For example, maybe you read a book and told a friend about it, who then told you that every time a character stands up to do something in the novel he is described as “stretching his legs.” You didn’t notice this, and so you re-read the book with this claim in mind. Sure enough, you find to your dismay that this character does indeed do a lot of leg stretching. This example is somewhat prosaic, but it points to two important aspects of re-reading I think are worth lingering with.

First, perception is not passive and never “pure.” It can be “primed” to look for certain things and mark them where it may not have otherwise. I’ll talk later about how this can be used for making the world better, but it’s worth stopping a moment to consider the negative version of this kind of “priming:” conspiracy theory.

Again, this is blog post so I won’t go deep into the psychology or subjectivity of conspiracy theorists, but will only pause to point out that conspiracy theory is protention gone awry. The conspiracy theorist sees the object of their obsession everywhere, and any piece of information can be made to fit their understanding structured by this mis-protention. “Of course they’d say that, they’re X kind of person, in the pay of the Deep State, etc.” The problem here is not that the conspiracy theorist doesn’t see things “objectively.” Again, no one ever does. Rather, the problem is that they have hyper-extended their protention so they can never be wrong. At no point can they be brought up short and be required to rethink their claims or incorporate new evidence into a revised and necessarily partial (both in the sense of “incomplete” and in the sense of “interested,” like “I’m partial to”) understanding. For all they like to claim to be thinking, this is in fact exactly the opposite of thinking.

Second, perception can be trained and altered in line with one’s goals. An aspiring novelist, for example, might approach a novel she has enjoyed in the past with the intention to look for, that is protend her perception into, the stylistic and formal qualities of the novel rather than simply its plot and dialogue. She isn’t seeing anything that wasn’t there on her first reading, only actively looking for data in the same text that mean something different to her in line with her new goals. This is obvious to anyone who majored in English because they liked to read. Reading Frankenstein for pleasure is very different than reading it for your final paper.

It’s worth pausing here again to point out an important point. We protend into new perceptions constantly, whether consciously or not. We cannot “suspend judgment” completely, and have to be trained to do so even to a modest degree. If we could all magically see things “as they really are,” there would be no need for lawyers or negotiators. One of the possibilities re-reading allows is the opportunity to carefully consider and examine the protentions we bring to the object of our attention, and whether we want to continue using those protentions. This requires us to think carefully about what we are looking for, and, even more importantly, about why.

“Why” is the most difficult question, but in a sense also the most natural. We don’t do things for no reason. Humans are capable of intention and making choices in the world, a world which is of our own design. Death and taxes may be certain, as the saying goes, but these are not really the same kind of thing. Death is the great unifier. Everyone dies, and has always done so, regardless of where, when or how they lived. Taxes, on the other hand, require a whole host of other things to exist in order to make sense at all: money, the state, a sense of “civic duty” or responsibility, accounting, and so on. All of these things are produced and reproduced by humans and, because they are produced by humans, could be reproduced in other ways or ended entirely. This might seem obvious to some, but for others the idea that death and taxes have the same kind of certainty is an article of faith. Like conspiracy theories, claiming that the way the human-created world is is somehow “natural” inhibits thought, rather than stimulating it. For an example, consider the time and energy spent by Southern writers and politicians in trying to convince people that slavery was “natural.” A practice that we perceive with disgust was not only accepted but claimed to be natural not even two centuries ago.

This example should prick us to reflection then. What do we think is “natural” that is in fact part of the human-constructed world that could operate differently? And how could we make it that way?

Re-reading, then, is a useful way to illustrate a capacity humans have that goes far beyond just looking for hints at how to be a good novelist in a book one enjoys. By attending to our protentions and considering what we bring to a text and why, we can gain experience in performing similar acts of attentive consideration to the broader human-constructed world we live in. This is especially important in a time when media are reduced to “content” made to be “consumed.” To re-read a book, especially to re-read it with a particular goal in mind for a particular purpose is a weird atavism now. Sure, re-read it if you like it, but what are you looking for? Why make the effort? Just enjoy it!

(Note for another time: one consideration we might attend to is why the work I’m describing here, of reading and thinking critically, is not considered “fun.” Or why “fun” things seem to be the only things many people consider worth doing.)

Re-reading is an essential practice, especially in a world dominated by the drive of consumption. Many novels, television shows, movies, video games, and other media aren’t worth re-visiting, but those that are, ought to be. The critical faculties developed through the practice of re-reading may be all that stands between the hope of human lives worth living, and the possibility of precarity, penury, and nastiness, of lives of pure and thoughtless consumption, of lives without even a bad “why,” where our protending is simply done for us.

I may seem to be overstating the power of re-reading. It’s true, I probably am. But we are (always) living in the Kali Yuga, the time before the end of the world, and it’s worth starting somewhere.

Project: To Fill a Man’s Heart

Précis: A short introduction to a novel provisionally called To Fill a Man’s Heart, a writing project I hope to work on this summer. I’m planning the novel to take the form of a dialogue between a “successful” artist and her younger, so-far unsuccessful friend as a way to explore questions of aesthetic authenticity and the importance of creating something new in the world.

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a novel that I think may occupy my time this summer. The working title of the novel is To Fill a Man’s Heart, a line from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. I’m imagining the novel as something like a long Socratic dialogue between a young, unsuccessful and frustrated artist and an older, more succesful friend of his. The young artist has been injured and laid up after a traffic accident (or maybe just a nervous breakdown) and the goal is to draw a parallel between the young man’s convalescence and a change of his aesthetic sensibilities into a new form of aesthetic agency.

Some of my inspiration going into this project comes from John Fowles’s The Magus and Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel and Demian. These novels might be described as Bildungsromans, novels about a young person’s (in these cases, a young man’s) education. The German word for “education,” Bildung, carries connotations to me of building, or construction in the sense of care-full development toward a goal. The English word “education” has a similar sense to me, reminding me of “edification” or “edifice,” all words associated with building, and building toward a purpose, with goals and intention.

I’m imagining a pretty unapologetically didactic novel, a roman à thèse, that uses the novel form to make a point and, hopefully, break open a space for its readers to think. I know that modern creative writing classes – at least the ones I’ve taken – advise against such tactics in favor of pure aestheticism, but that’s not what I want to do. While I don’t fault writers concerned solely with writing “good” novels in a “purely” aesthetic sense, I don’t count myself among them. I think the interdiction against political or social concerns in favor of “pure” (that is, apolitical) aesthetic concerns in novels is just a way to inhibit thinking and reproduce frustrating and harmful ideological positions. “Good” novels with no political or social concerns may be pleasing to read, but I’m not interested in producing palliatives for badly interpellated subjects.

This is one of the big differences between the project I’m envisioning and the models I have above. The examples I gave see the protagonist develop, but in a more or less purely individual way. My goal with this novel – and it’s a daunting one – is to break the reader’s normal sense of the world and encourage them to think. A y’all order, but I’ll have lots of free time this summer.

I have a skeleton of the story outlined and have given some thought to the characters and the point I’m trying to make. I probably won’t have time to get started on a draft in earnest for another couple weeks. I have term papers to write and final grades to assign. Thinking is hard these days, especially under the conditions the coronavirus pandemic has forced upon us (and the woefully incompetent response from our leaders). But moments of crisis are the perfect time to stop and think, and that’s what I’m hoping this novel project will help to do.