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: Some general principles part I

Course adjustments

The other day I spent a bit of downtime writing out an attempt at formalizing (or at least making explicit) the general principles from which I tend to operate. I don’t pretend to have listed them all here, not least because I make clear in several of the principles that one doesn’t and can’t have “pure” or “transparent” access to one’s mind (not least because one’s “mind” doesn’t exist the way most people think it does). Asymptotic access, maybe, although even there I have questions.

I like to try and make these things explicit when I experience significant shifts in the demands on my time and effort, shifts which demand not only that I change what I spend my time doing, but also, in some sense, who I “am.” Semesters always end like blast doors crashing down. I go from more or less constant activity – grading papers, checking email, reading for class, writing for class, worrying about whether I’ve forgotten to do any of these things, wondering whether I have any drafts I could punch up and publish, etc. – to…nothing. I have a job this summer and other obligations, but these don’t keep me quite as busy as the semester does. Taking time to make my rules of thumb explicit means I get a chance to tap the brakes and avoid spending the summer spinning my wheels.

Speaking of rules of thumb: the principles I list below don’t work (for me) like hard-and-fast commands, or articles of faith. In fact, most of the time I don’t even realize that they structure my behavior, hence the value of making them explicit. If I know something about myself more or less clearly and explicitly, then I can make the conscious choice to continue operating along those lines, or try something else.

In the list below I have tried to articulate my principles (as of May 2022, anyway) as clearly as I can. [As I wrote and elaborated these principles, it grew clear to me that listing them all in a single post would prove too long, so I’ve just included the first two here and will address the others in further posts.] I have also tried to include relevant citations and sources of inspiration for these principles. [Keep an eye out for a post dedicated to this – it’ll take some time for me to put together.] I should emphasize, again, that these principles don’t exhaust my commitments. Nor do I argue that these principles hold in all places and times or that every person should adopt them. I can say from experience that explicit and consistent application of these principles has improved my experience of life in significant way, but that doesn’t mean everyone else will benefit the same way.

1. You are what you do, and vice versa

“Being” and “doing” operate in a recursive relationship that one can symbolize as a kind of “advancing” spiral (scare quotes because the advance does not approach a predetermined goal, but nonetheless moves in a general direction at any given moment).

No clearly definable difference exists between thinking (including “staring off into space,” “getting lost in thought,” writing down ideas, manipulating models, etc.) and doing things like mowing some grass or eating an apple. Thoughts affect the body/mind (on which more below) in a way similar to how physical activities do, but one mustn’t confuse the levels (see point X).

Despite no final teleology ahead of time (at least that one can know for certain rather than believe in hope for), a target exists at any given time under any given arrangement and schema of mind/body. That is, if the mind/body remain in their current relationship, one will tend to approach a certain point. And since one will eventually die, the point at which one dies can define the target retroactively. [For my own purposes, as an atheist, this makes sense to me. I recognize that those coming from theistic positions will differ on this point, but I nonetheless would argue that belief in a final target, in a universal teleology, doesn’t mean the same thing as knowledge of that final target. Belief in a final moral purpose to the universe does not preclude acting as though the future remains open and, to some extent, malleable. Knowing that the final teleology exists, and acting on this knowledge the same way one acts on the knowledge of where the nearest Walgreens is, brings problems. But that’s a topic for another post.]

Think of a ship underway. The ship could go to any number of ports, although not every single one of them. If the captain points the ship in broadly the right direction and just guns the throttle, the ship will probably not ever arrive at its destination because wind, currents, collisions, and all manner of other things will affect its course trajectory. Even a thickish mat of barnacles on one side might cause a list that takes the ship far off course without regular examination and correction (e.g. what I intend with this post). One should also note that a ship’s captain not only makes these regular course measurements and adjustments, but also logs them externally to him/herself in a publicly accessible form.

2. Not transparency, but translucence

One “never” (or as close to never as makes little difference) has total, transparent access to one’s mind/body. In support of this claim, consider the experience of being “drawn up short.” For example, consider two good friends having an argument. Things get heated – maybe they’ve had a couple drinks too many – and one says something absolutely unforgivable to the other. In the moment following this traumatic (in the sense of “resisting symbolization”) irruption, both friends just stare at each other – neither knows the other, now. The friend who made the outburst apologizes, but the dice remain cast. One cannot un-cross the Rubicon.

Experiencing this feeling of getting “drawn up short” doesn’t have to come from a situation like the one described above, but I trust that the reader will understand what I mean. While I gave a negative and interpersonal example, a variety of things can “draw one up short.” Catching a glimpse of a particularly spectacular mountain vista from the corner of one’s eye, narrowly missing stepping on a dog turd on the sidewalk, acute chest pains that turn out, after an EKG, to have come from bad gas. In Being and Time, Heidegger describes the experience of using a hammer, only for the head of the hammer to go flying when one tries to fasten a nail.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes that the person (he uses “man” throughout, but means “person”) who recognizes the absurdity of life gains what he calls “lucidity,” a new sense of the world and one’s possible places in it. The experience of being “drawn up short” offers an opportunity for a kind of lucidity in that it throws into stark relief the assumptions one makes about the world and its consistency.

To return to the metaphor of the ship, think about what would happen if the captain of a large ship, say a container ship of some kind, put the vessel underway and then violently cut the steering to the left or right. While here I probably demonstrate my ignorance of how modern ship steering works, for the purposes of the metaphor, we can imagine two salient possibilities. First, as the rudder slams into the suddenly adamantine water, it twists its internal mechanisms and snaps. Now no steering is possible. Insisting on constant, “pure” transparency of the mind/body to oneself leads, at least potentially, to total stasis and movement only at the whim of sea and sky. [I would argue that being “blissed out” and getting “beyond thought” in, for example, many forms of contemporary Buddhist practice or Pentecostal ecstasy, can lead to this possibility.] The second possibility involves the ship capsizing. The rudder and steering mechanisms hold, but the vessel lists too much, starts taking on water, and begins to sink. Here again, no steering is possible and one loses the control one had, however modest. Scylla and Charybdis, without even any monsters. This second possibility represents the fate of the Romantic, obsessed with some kind of “truth” to themselves that sits beyond their daily mind/body lives and efforts. As the ship sinks, it hopes to leave a beautiful corpse.

Against these possibilities stands the acceptance of translucence, the idea that one can and does have some access to the “internal” working of one’s body/mind, but that one cannot (and should not) attempt to gain “complete” access. I call this state “translucence” because something always gets in the way, but one can nevertheless see clearly enough to steer and make modest course corrections. Think of the difference between a naked light bulb and a lamp with a shade on it.

It would seem that I have now committed myself to a series of posts on this topic. Hopefully others find something of use in these principles. Keep an eye out for probably another two posts outlining the rest of my general principles (again, as of May 2022), as well as a final post consisting of a bibliography of works that I’ve often found useful or edifying. I still have some last assignments to complete before the end of the semester on Sunday, so I will probably post these latter entries this coming weekend or next week.

[For anyone interested, it turns out that I adopted this idea from a series of podcast episodes put out by Hilaritas Press, the literary executors of American writer Robert Anton Wilson. Each episode outlines the basic work and ideas of some of the thinkers and writers that influenced Wilson. RAW has remained a strong influence on me since I first encountered his work in high school, so I suppose this laying out of principles also serves as a kind of tribute to him. In any case, you can listen to the podcast here.]

Report from the Workshop: 05/08/2022

I’ve more or less finished my third semester at UNM. I have another week’s worth of stuff for the 8-week logic class I’m auditing as a background requirement, but that’s not a huge deal. The work is also much more interesting than I thought it would be, although it takes a lot of time and work to really understand it. At one point I actually said, while in the throes of trying to finish a test before the deadline, “I just wish I had more time for this!” It’s been a long, long time since I had any math classes, and logic is similar to math in that if you don’t get one thing down before moving on, you eventually hit a wall. Trying to work cumulatively, especially with all the nitpicky and counterintuitive rules, and with only a few days for each chapter, really was not ideal. Earlier today I actually caught myself looking for books of logic puzzles on the internet. High-school-math-hating younger me would have had a stroke.

Otherwise, I’ve now crested the hill and am approaching the end of my Master’s program. I have a few more distribution requirements to meet and some background requirements to audit, but beyond that, just a thesis and I’m done. For the second time.

I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get into UNM’s PhD program in philosophy because it felt to me like I was losing time and had taken a step backward from where I was at UT Dallas. Now, a year and a half later, I’m glad things turned out this way, even if it means my CV looks a little weird with the two Master’s degrees. I’m planning on spending some time over the summer researching PhD programs, although ideally I would like to continue into the program at UNM.

Speaking of summer, I thought I would use this post to write about some of my summer writing and reading plans.

First of all, prepare for my thesis. The degree program I’m in only requires a 40-page thesis (the thesis for my MLS was 160 pages), so I’m not really worried about it. I do, however, really want to knock it out of the park so that I have a head start on research for an eventual dissertation, or might be able to submit it as a long paper to a journal somewhere. I haven’t published anything since before COVID, so I need to get on that. I’ve been working on my old card catalogue for my first thesis with an eye to making it into a long-term archive and writing tool, and I’ll also be drawing up reading lists and working through material as I find it.

[It occurs to me that I’ve never written about my fascination with index cards here. Maybe I’ll do that this week.]

Second, continue working on my German. I took a German for reading course this semester which really did help supplement my nearly three-year streak on Duolingo quite a bit. I can read news articles with minimal dictionary help, but I’m still a long way from reading Nietzsche or Heidegger or Marx in the original. I’m planning on using parallel text readers from Penguin as well as continuing on Duolingo to keep my German improving. I’m also planning to work on reading knowledge of Portuguese and Dutch. There’s a lot of interesting philosophy of technology stuff in Brazil and the Netherlands, as it turns out. I can already read Portuguese a bit since it has so much in common with Spanish, and I know that Dutch is less morphologically complex than German, so hopefully this doesn’t turn out to have been too ambitious. Since I have a lot of downtime at work, I’m thinking I’ll set Monday and Wednesday for German, Tuesday for Dutch, and Thursday for Portuguese, with some time spent scraping the rust from my French on the weekend.

Third, get more consistent about writing fiction and poetry. I’ve gotten better about not beating myself up when I don’t write for a while (and this semester has been difficult in a variety of ways), but I really want to get into the habit of writing more regularly. Of course, some of this is self-interest: selling a novel to a big publisher and making a fistful of cash (hahahahahaha) would be great. But really, I’m more concerned with keeping the machine well-oiled. Besides, the more material I have written, the more material I have available for recycling, remixing, repurposing, and connecting. [I might also talk about this in my post on index cards…]

I have other plans beyond these, including researching PhD programs and trying to find publication opportunities, but the three goals above are my highest priorities. Outside reading, writing, and academia, I’m hoping to take some time to relax, keep getting my injured knee healthier, and spend time outside getting our yard in shape. We might also take a trip to Maryland to see family, but we’ll see. Flying just about anywhere from Albuquerque takes forever.

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.

Report from the Workshop: 01/23/22

Currently reading:

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

Currently writing:

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

Currently thinking about:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Reading Log of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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