Report from the Workshop: 05/29/2022

This week’s reading:

  • Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning (finished)
  • Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (finished)
  • Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (in progress)
  • Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed (in progress)

Reading up next:

  • Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America
  • ???? (Possibly something by Samuel R. Delaney)

For a while now I’ve been working on a post (I’m thinking of it as an “exhibit”) about my index card files and how I use them in my writing. I was talking with M about it last night, and she gave me some good ideas to make the system not only more useful, but also more interesting for others to look at and use. (She always gives me good ideas!)

I’ll save the bulk of my thoughts on index cards for the essay series after I’ve gotten it going. For now, suffice to say that I have a pretty elaborate (but really not all that complicated) note-taking and filing system. 2022 is also year six of keeping track of (almost) all my reading on index cards in a file box. It might seem odd to read this on a blog, but I find that I do the bulk of my better work with paper and pen/cil. These Reports are some of the only things I plan, compose, edit, and publish entirely digitally.

Without going into too much detail, I was explaining to M how the system works and my recent attempt at overhauling it. It started life as note cards for my first master’s thesis, but I’ve since worked on expanding it. Anyway, some of the cards were labeled with topics that didn’t really work with the system as an open and expandable project. They were too project-specific. So I used white-out tape to cover the old topics, then write new ones and refiled those cards. M suggested that I keep the “metadata” of the change on the back of the card, which I hadn’t thought of and now think is a great idea! (I’m also considering including more meta-data like date filed, etc. but that might make adding to the system too unwieldy.)

During our discussion I mentioned how the system has holes and ambiguities. I’ve had people tell me that Evernote, for example, does all the things I want my card catalogue to do, digitally, without the need to write stuff out by hand or take up space. I could have the entire catalogue I have a variety of reasons for preferring the analog method (which I’ll go into in the essays). For now, I just want to make some observations:

1. No filing system or note-taking system is perfect. Things will inevitably go missing, get misfiled, destroyed, or something else. That’s the world, baby. And failing to realize this makes actually putting together a filing system much, much easier. (I work in a university archive and can confirm this. Stuff gets misfiled once, not called for again potentially for decades, then no one can find the thing until someone happens upon it looking for something else. Either that or one part of a collection is filed in a different place from the rest of the collection, but the finding guide doesn’t say that. You know, that sort of stuff.) If you know this will happen regardless of how hard you work, it takes the pressure off to get everything perfectly correct every time. Good enough is, as is often the case, good enough.

2. The less work it takes to keep a note-taking system organized and running, a. the less likely it is to be useful, while b. the more bloated it will become.

To point 1: While I try to keep a central repository for quotations and another for ideas, sketches, and snippets, I know I don’t have a complete record. I can’t have a complete record. The napkin I wrote something down on got washed. I wrote the quotation down right, but forgot to write down the page number of the book. It was, obviously, a library book, and that book is now, equally obviously, not available. Guess I’ll need to file that in the “problem” section and find another quotation to support my argument. If I had it in my head that I needed to keep track of every single idea or every single quotation I marked, I’d not only never get them all organized, but never have the time to use them. While accuracy and thoroughness are necessary to make the system work, keeping in mind that I shouldn’t even try to make the system exhaustive or “complete” means that I actually end up using it. It also has the benefit of spurring continued work on the system, which brings me to point 2.

To point 2: I write out ideas, lines of description, and quotations on lines 3×5 inch notecards. I do this all by hand, typically using a ballpoint pen. (I mark passages in library books in pencil, obviously.) Then, I label them, alphabetize them, and file them. All manually. Typing might take less time, but the time (and effort) is part of the point. When I flip back through the book looking for my marks around useful passages, I have to keep in mind that I’m going to have to write out whatever I end up keeping by hand. Since I want to be able to use the notes later, they have to be neat, which requires care and time. I can only go so long before my hand gets tired and my handwriting starts suffering. Each card, then, already represents a decision: it costs time and effort (and a card and some ink) to make each card, and that means that I don’t copy down everything I mark. Just particularly useful or well-put lines that will fit on one side (sometimes a bit on the back) of one index card.

This doesn’t include the labeling, keeping track of topics on the backs of bibliography cards, filing, and refilling after using the cards. I’ve put physical effort into the system and it takes up physical space as a collection of discrete objects, meaning that using it feels much more “real” than reading highlighted text from a pdf. It also makes the cards easier to manipulate, and since the quotations are already the result of some level of discernment (whether they are worth the effort or not), I feel confident that I won’t be wading through repetition or stuff that doesn’t really matter. Plus rearranging index cards makes much more tactile sense to me. Plus, they never need to be charged.


That’s all for now. I’m working on getting into a regular posting schedule, at least over the semester. I’m anticipating the index card series to take me a fair bit to plan, draft, and prepare (including pictures!), but I’ll shoot for having part 1 up later this coming week.

Report from the Workshop: 05/22/21

Report: plants, writing, and knowing what happened to you.

[Note: this post will consist of slightly more “confessional” material than I would usually publicize. Not baring my soul type stuff, but maybe “meditations” like Descartes (only without my converting to total rationalism).]

Earlier this week I received confirmation that when I injured my knee in March I not only completely tore my ACL, but also sprained my MCL and damaged two meniscuses. Cautionary tale not to get dancing-drunk at weddings, I guess. I appreciate now actually knowing the score rather than being caught between optimism and frustration, but knowing has also brought new problems.

M has several medical professionals in her family, and has passed my information on to them. One says that I might not need surgical repair, another seems to suggest that I definitely should have surgical repair. I await an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon to get more insight.

Here’s the confessional part: I hate doctors. Not the people themselves, or Medicine in general (this isn’t some anti-vaxx bullshit), but going to the office itself, sitting and waiting, getting weighed and measured and blood pressured, waiting again, getting poked, prodded, told to lose weight, asked questions I feel like I’m supposed to know the answer to but don’t, being expected to advocate for myself when all I want to do is get the fuck away from the linoleum and scrubs and standard-issue old magazines and bad landscapes on the wall. I’ve been working with a physical therapist for a few weeks now to get my knee stronger and I not only like her, but actively enjoy the sessions. And yet, the part of the building outside her office is The Doctor’s, and my heart is always nervously pounding when she comes out to greet me. Even my old therapist, whose practice was in an office building and looked distinctly unlike a medial clinic, made me nervous. (She was surprised to learn this since she wasn’t a psychiatrist. I said I couldn’t imagine anyone not being terrified.) About the only people I have a more severe allergy to than doctors are sports coaches, “motivational” people, and obnoxious businessman types.

Needless to say, the possibility of surgery, of entering the very Belly of the Beast (the hospital) does not have me feeling great. Knowing that needles will likely be involved makes things worse.

Why do I share this? For one thing, I have tried to see this as a way to do some desensitizing training. If I go to the doctor enough times without anything bad happening to me or anyone making me feel bad, maybe I’ll start feeling better about it. I don’t think anyone enjoys going to the doctor, but my aversion is so severe that, before covid, I hadn’t had a flu shot in nearly a decade. I recognize that, for some, this will seem horrible unethical, but it’s hard to express how much the thought of needles makes me afraid. My blood pressure skyrockets, I start shaking, I turn pale, and, in extremis, I start saying really, really nasty things.

I will probably be posting more about this topic as a way to try and deal with it. Maybe.


On a different, and more pleasant, note, M and I went to the botanical gardens this morning. I wasn’t able to walk all that much, but we enjoyed the flowers and the nice weather. I’ve mostly been planning my own garden since I can’t really do much physical work in the yard because of my knee. As we walked I got to thinking about taking cuttings and the ethics of taking cuttings.

I recently read an interesting book by Emanuele Caccione called The Life of Plants. I’m still processing my notes from that reading, and will eventually post a full-length review here, but I wanted to mention an interesting point that Caccione discusses: plants make their own environments.

Right now, our backyard is mostly sand and gravel. This is not uncommon in Albuquerque, where lawns are an expensive (and wasteful, I would argue) use of water. There are, of course, all kinds of plants that will grow here just fine without supplemental irrigation after establishing themselves, but figuring that out takes more effort than I think many people are used to. I’ve done a bit of planting and some putting about trying to shovel up gravel, but the bulk of the work will have to wait until my knee is better.

I got to thinking about taking cuttings because plants can be fickle. They don’t always do what their planters want them to do, regardless of what it says on the label. A good bet, then, is finding established plants around you and trying to propagate them individually, letting them make an environment that humans and other people can enjoy as well. Taking cuttings also makes me think of my reading and writing process. I read a book, mark good lines, and then “take cuttings” by writing the lines out on index cards and filing them. (I promised a fuller treatment of this practice in a previous post and, now, renew my promise to get it written. At some point.)


Aside from posts to this blog, I haven’t done much writing lately. With the semester now truly over and some more daylight hours available to me, I hope to get into a more consistent writing habit. I started working out a short story earlier this week that I think has legs. Of course, one benefit of surgery would be an excuse to sit and write all day as I recover. We’ll see.

Essay: Some general principles, part II

[I’ve written this post to stand on its own, but readers curious about why the numbers start with “3” will want to take a look at the first post in this series. ]

Make things explicit

Make your commitments explicit – at least to the greatest extent possible. That’s where I start these considerations. Most of us, most of the time, run on a kind of autopilot, not really thinking about what we are doing or why, and letting habituation run things for us. This phenomenon should not come as a surprise to anyone, really, and I don’t intend to argue that one should work to remain fully aware of everything all the time. I would guess that just about everyone (at least everyone who lives in the modern world of jobs and commutes) has gotten in the car or on the bus and found themselves halfway to work before remembering that they meant to go to the drug store.

Injuries throw this phenomenon into sharp relief. My knee has improved substantially since I injured it in March, but I still have to be careful how I move. I was shelving books in the archives on Monday and needed to get up to the top shelf. I stepped onto the little rolling stool (you know, the vaguely cylindrical one all libraries have), and stepped up. In so doing I put just a bit more pressure on my injured knee than was wise, while also twisting a bit. Nothing popped, and the pain went away as soon as I straightened my leg out, but the experience told me that I still need to exercise caution. I can’t let my knee go on autopilot. Yet. Injuries, then, also show that the ability to do things without having to actively concentrate on them is also crucial to normal functioning.

Another reason for making one’s commitments explicit has to do with the therapeutic effects of writing these thoughts out. I don’t intend to suggest that writing about your problems will solve them (not least because I have no medical training), but at least in my own experience, getting these things out does often help one identify places where one might have some agency, an opening for something new or different. It also helps one find the knots and holes in their world, the places that still need elaboration – or even to exhumed.

On that note, I’ll continue with my general principles. Again, I take these as kind of “rules of thumb” that tend to structure my life, but that don’t go “all the way down.” Hopefully they make some kind of sense.


3. You don’t just see the world – the Earth worlds

I don’t think it constitutes going out on a limb to suggest that a real, mind-independent world exists outside of us. However, the suggestion that any individual could have complete, “objective” access to this world – to “see the world as it is” – strikes me as totally bananas. And also harmful.

For Heidegger, the “earth worlds” (where “worlds” is a verb). This means that the Earth, or parts of it, coheres into a particular “world” for a particular person based on that person’s existential projects. That is, how the world appears has to do with who a person is and what that person, therefore, does. Once you start actively trying to notice birds, you will see them everywhere, all the time. Try it. Once you learn how to surf, the ocean looks different than it did before. Now you see that the calm waves that appealed to you for swimming or floating aren’t any good for surfing. What appears and how it appears to you as the Earth worlds will differ for everyone. This is not to say that each person sees a different and mutually incompatible world – I think it’s pretty safe to say that the point here is rather that the valence or trajectory, or flavor of each person’s world differs from that of anyone else’s.

Timothy Leary (I think) called this a “reality tunnel,” making use of the emic/etic distinction from anthropology to make this point. For those unfamiliar, an “emic” perspective is “within” the object of study. A historian studying the social effects of Sufi lodges in Late-Ottoman Turkey who is also herself a Muslim, approaches the topic, at least partially, from an emic perspective. Another historian studying the same topic and period who is not a Muslim, on the other hand, would be approaching his research from an “etic” position, “outside” the object of study. Now, problems exist with this distinction, not least because any observer affects their object of study somehow, and often in ways unpredictable ahead of time. So, really, no one ever has a “pure” etic perspective because one must have some connection to the object/topic/person/etc. at hand in order to make any sense at all of it. But though “purely” etic perspectives remain beyond reach, one can, crucially, remember that one has a particular perspective.

Making one’s principles and beliefs explicit serves a useful purpose here, as well. Like most of these principles, I question (when not flatly denying) the possibility of transparency rather than translucence. I can know that I have a particular position, and bear this in mind when talking with other people – especially people I disagree with – but I can’t once and for all, thoroughly and systematically lay it all out. Why not?

For one, where is the “I” that would do this? Are these not “my” opinions and commitments? If “I” can see through myself, I have to see myself seeing myself, then myself seeing myself seeing myself, ad nauseam. Whatever “I” sees through me has to already be behind me, but by then I have to “I”s! So no. On pain of infinite regress, I cannot know my own mind transparently. But I can, by making my thoughts explicit, gain some translucence. How?

Let’s say I spend an hour or so writing out some thoughts. Then I get up from the table, make some tea, eat dinner, watch TV, whatever it is people do. During most of these activities I return to autopilot mode. [Just to clarify, this is not bad. It is necessary for life and not (completely) avoidable.] The next day, still in autopilot mode, I get up, go to work, do whatever it is I do for a job, come home, and find my notebook still sitting on the table. I idly flip through it while waiting for some water to boil and turn to the page where I made my thoughts explicit. Suddenly, I find myself face to face with myself but outside of myself. I see the words I wrote and find myself “snapped out” of the autopilot, if only temporarily. I have more thoughts on the imporatnce of what French philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls “tertiary retentions” or “epiphylogenetic retentions,” which lead to the next principle.

4. Cognitive structures don’t stop at the inside of your skull.

I consider it a significant limitation that people seem to think that their brains are where they do all their thinking. Even more limiting is the notion that one’s “self” is something external, transcendent, and unconditioned – a Cogito from…somewhere driving one’s body around like a car. Maybe the most limiting idea, actually, is the accompanying notion that thoughts are not “things” that motive action or that one has some degree of control over. Thoughts aren’t “real,” since they happen “inside.” My principles on this require careful elucidating, and I’m not even sure I’m getting what I want across. I’ve given preliminary and clumsy presentation of some of these ideas in my most recent Report from the Workshop, so hopefully readers won’t lack all familiarity. Consider principle #4 the most “work in progress” of the principles so far.

Consider: When you say what you think, you use words that are publicly available. Wittgenstein’s “beetle in a box” thought experiment has convinced me, at least, that we don’t have access to a “private” language – to use language, we must be integrated into a previously existing symbolic structure and adopt its use and conventions. When one speaks their native language, it feels “natural.” One might occasionally struggle to find the mot juste or to push a phrase off the tip of one’s tongue, but in general one’s native language doesn’t feel like speaking a language at all – it just feels like speaking. Contrast this with learning a foreign language (especially as an adult) – even speakers with a high degree of proficiency might still struggle sometimes and make mistakes. It takes a long time of dedicated practice and use for a language other than the language one grew up speaking to just feel like speaking.

Further, consider the ways that we use language. Speech comes first chronologically, although one listens long before one can speak with ease. After speech come reading and writing, complicated skills that sometimes present distinct challenges, but that, in most cases most of the time, any child can learn. The means by which we read and write – clay tablets, papyrus, bamboo slips, palm-leaf manuscripts, rag paper, digital screens – all exist outside of us (in the sense of not being part of our bodies). But today, at least in “developed” countries, it is nearly unthinkable for an adult to have never learned any reading and writing. “Functional” illiteracy, or not having read a book ever again after high school, we can understand, but not not knowing what a book it as all.

Reading, then, stands as a kind of language use that requires things “external” to us – objects that do not have vocal chords, mouths, and lungs. And these objects, once we adopt them, cannot subsequently be separated. No matter how hard I try, I cannot “un-learn” how to read the languages that I read. I might be able to train myself to focus on the letters I read rather than their significance as words, but even if I study type-faces for their aesthetics, I read the words the type spells out.

A “reading” mind is, then, different than a “non-reading” mind. And the differences don’t stop there. Consider reading a physical codex versus reading a digital version of the same text. While both count as “reading,” in the sense that one visually decodes arrangements of symbols, these readings nonetheless differ substantially in a variety of ways that are too detailed to go into here. Suffice it to say, that writing a to-do list on a piece of paper, or in an application on a smartphone, is a good example of the extent to which one’s mind does not stop at the inside of one’s skull, or even at the inside of one’s body generally.


I hope the reader will forgive my clumsy writing in this post (and the previous one in the series). Part of working to make one’s principles explicit involves making false starts and persisting at the edge of one’s conscious experience. I’ve insisted that one doesn’t have fully transparent access to the contents of one’s mind, but one can gain a certain degree of translucence. I’m making these posts public because it strikes me that writing so that others might read and understand what I’m talking about forces me to take an even further step outside my own head. I can’t rely on shorthands and assumptions, since I remain aware that others might not share them.

Report from the Workshop: 05/15/2022

Earlier this week I wrote this post about my birthday last month, describing how M got me some cool stamps and offering some ruminations on my mobile Wunderkammer full of personal trinkets and their memories.

Also for my birthday, I treated myself to a book I had anxiously awaited for some time: On Quality: An Inquiry Into Excellence, edited by Wendy K. Pirsig. This slim volume collects some important excerpts from Robert M. Pirsig’s two groundbreaking novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, as well as previously unpublished letters and transcripts of a few talks the famously reclusive Pirsig gave over the course of his life.

Robert Pirsig’s work has influenced me deeply. I’ve probably re-read Lila about five times, although I’ve only read Zen once I think. I’ll have a full review of On Quality up probably by the end of next week, but until then I wanted to talk a bit about tools.


In addition to excerpts and other occasional writings clarifying Prisig’s understanding of Quality, the book includes photographs of some of Pirsig’s tools taken by his nephew, David Lindberg. The photos are quite stark, in black and white, and depict wrenches, planers, sockets, and other implements that one might find in any well-appointed garage. The tools don’t appear to consist of anything really all that special – Pirsig seems to have preferred the Craftsman brand – but the photos demonstrate something that resonated quite strongly with me as I considered the treasures in my Wunderkammer: these tools were clearly used.

I have a long-time interest in tools and their use. I’ve been re-reading Samuel R. Delaney’s wonderful Nova this week, which also has some relevance here. Taking place in the third millenium of the Common Era, the characters of Nova are equipped with sockets at their wrists, ankles, the base of their spine and the nape of the neck that allow them to “plug in” to machinery ranging from P.A. systems to starships, controlling the machines with their own neural impulses.

Nova was written long before The Matrix saw the silver screen in 1999, but the idea of plug-in interfaces between humans and machines is probably about as old as machines that could be plugged in at all. [This would be an interesting research project. I’ll add it to the Compost Heap, about which more in an upcoming series on my index card catalogue, but will probably never get around to following it up.] What interests me about the plugs in Nova, versus the single “jack” at the back of the neck in The Matrix, is that the characters of Nova have plugs on their extremities as well – there’s something bodily, something somatic about their “plugging in” to the machines, and these allow one to “plug in” to the real world. While The Matrix deals with philosophical questions of the “brain in a vat” type, Nova addresses the idea that the brain by itself is not what makes humans capable of using tools. In a real sense, the brain does not stop at the inside of one’s skull. Nor does it stop at the tips of one’s fingers, or the palm of one’s hand. The brain is not separable from the body, and the body is not separable from the tools it uses.

To return to the photos of Prisig’s tools. Apart from photos of what appears to be some kind of garage-grade hair dryer, a drill bit, and a set of router attachments, Lindberg’s photos depict hand tools, and these tools have clearly been used. The shining steel wrenches are blemished and worn. Some are probably quite old – Pirsig lived into his seventies and died in 2017 – but their wear and tear is clearly the result of use as well as age. There is also a photo of Prisig’s 1966 Honda Super Hawk motorcycle, now housed in the National Museum of American History. One can easily imagine Pirsig using his tools to keep the machine in good repair.

From the photos in On Quality one gets the impression that Pirsig kept his tools organized and neat – but not too neat. The photo on the book jacket depicts a drawer of wrenches and sockets pulled out from a cabinet. They are laid neatly in the drawer, but not, it appears, in any particular order. While the viewer cannot know whether the objects in the photo were staged this way or not, I like to think that this depiction is an honest representation of how Pirsig arranged them. The photo gives, for me anyway, the sense that though these tools were not organized by size or type, Pirsig would have immediately known where they were when he needed them, probably without even having to think about it. Like the objects in my Wunderkammer, or the files and stacks of papers in my office, the tools and their arrangement represent the life of their user.

I have some wrenches and sockets, but they have yet to see anything like the use Pirsig clearly put his own tools to. Rather, I have pens, pencils, index cards, notebooks, and a laptop. How could these things be similar?

Nova depicts humans interacting “directly” with machines, making the machines parts of themselves through neural connections that obscure the separation between human and machine. The self, then, and I think Pirsig would probably find this thought amenable, does not exist “inside” one, separate from the world “outside,” but rather takes its existence in part through the tools one uses, the “external” aspects of the body that one takes up. Sometimes, when I’m writing something with a pencil, or typing on a laptop keyboard, I lose all sense that the computer, the pencil, the paper, is “outside” of me. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing, because part of what it means for me to do anything at all means taking up things outside of my body (which, as Emanuele Coccia points out in The Life of Plants, is both inside and outside, container and contained, of the atmosphere responsible for the possibility of my life). The computer is made of metal and silicon rather than flesh, the pencil is made of cedar instead of bone and sinew, but at some point I don’t remember this at all, and it becomes one thing.

When I write, it feels like I’m working on something, bringing something out, tuning something up. It’s like working on a motorcycle without knowing whether the thing in question actually is a motorcycle rather than an outboard boat engine, or even a clockwork windup toy. I arrange my tools, get the material in front of me, and get to work, staying out of my own way. We don’t need to “plug in” to machines and technological devices external to us – that tools are not foreign to us, that they are, in a sense, not even really “outside” of us, is probably the single most natural thing to human Being.

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: 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.

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