When the devil comes blowing through your door

19 10 2008

It needs to be said: Beth Orton did not save my life. And it’s always dicey to attribute too much personal meaning to someone else’s words. Nonetheless, I took her devil as my own, as this song accompanied me on the way out of a decades-long tunnel.

Did I save myself? Hmmmmmm. I guess. I decided to live; is that saving myself? I hesitate to say yes for two reasons: One, I question whether one can save oneself, i.e., what is saving, anyway? Two, and more concretely, I question whether I did, in fact, decide to live.

Yeah, I’m alive, and that works for me. But at that crucial moment, my toes stretched across that thin thread, I didn’t so much decide as happen to lean this way rather than that. To illustrate this point, I sometimes put my hands together and let one fall back: ‘it could just as easily have gone the other way’, I say. Why live? Why die? I had no answer.

Hm. I wonder if that wasn’t the crucial question, Why die? I never asked that question (though others, of course, did); the default was death. But at that moment, sitting in my apartment with my palms over my eyes, I allowed myself the question: What am I to do? For the first time in over twenty years, I didn’t know. That un-knowing, which I mentioned in my last post, gave me that chance to fall this way rather than that.

What I did decide was to go with that chance. I fell into the net, and decided not to cut through it. Very well. My life is in my hands. I will take it.

How did I get to that night, that chance? I don’t know. It’s entirely possible that I had neared such moments previously, but couldn’t recognize them; certainly, I didn’t ask, before then, why I should die. Perhaps it was the work done prior to that night which cracked me open enough to allow that question through. Lucretia puts it quite nicely:

That I managed to get through that has a lot to do with learning to live with pain, and that was a redemptive experience. It’s like a zen trick; it’s not that “suffering ennobles” or some bullshit like that. But, by accepting that the pain was there whether I wanted it or not, and there was nothing I could do about it and nothing redemptive about it, that’s how I set my feet back on the path to redemption.

Yes, exactly. The pain would always already be there, as it is for every other human being on the planet, and that there was nothing either romantic or shameful about it. And despite all of my anti-romantic protestations, I did hold it rather close, as if it were something I was in danger of losing. I wrote about this years ago, some months before my turnaround:

[Kay Redfield] Jamison notes [in an Unquiet Mind] that in coming down from a manic high, “I had a horrible sense of loss for who I had been and where I had been.” This loss was magnified—rationalized, certainly, but also magnified—as she settled into her lithium routine. She was not just missing the swooning highs, but a self which, terrifically flawed, was nonetheless valued. To get better is, in a fundamental sense, to lose oneself.
To repeat: to get better is to lose onself. The idea behind treatment is that one gains a more complete self, that whatever loss occurs is mitigated by the wholeness of who one becomes. Nice idea, and I believe it insofar as I take part in treatment, but I also don’t believe it. As much as I try to make sense of my troubles, I also resist making sense of some its aspects: loss is loss, period.
Actually, if I understand therapy as leading to a more complete me, I can sign on, but if you tell me it will make me “better,” I want to bolt. Better?! Better, how?! More
normal? is that what you mean? To fit in, to be like everyone else, to conform?  To not be me, that’s what you mean. Why not just stick an icepick in my brain and get it over with.
I’m a little sensitive on this issue.
But even as I recognize overreaction, I still hold to the notion that there is something in this withered and distorted life which is meaningful. Not good, necessarily, but not everything which is meaningful is good.  I can see things, living as I do, off to the side and peering at the rest of you in some bewilderment. There are things you take for granted as good or normal that I just think, Huh. . . .
[So I worry] that I will lose this sight of the unsightly. . . . More primordially, I grasp at this sight as something which is
mine, which I have earned in years of living perched in the branches of a barren tree.  God. Dammit. I’ve survived out here, and now you’re telling me, Forget it? None of it matters?  . . .
My life yields strange and bitter fruits, but there is fruit and it is mine.

I protected that pain, that depression, out of sense that it was all that I had. Oh, I knew that other people felt bad, that I could not (even if I wanted to) monopolize suffering, but, somehow, I thought that my troubles with life gave me some kind of special sight into life itself. Yes, these troubles would kill me, but in the meantime. . . .

Hah. Who knows, maybe I did see something most others did not. So what. Every other person, by virtue of being every other person, will see something most others did not. This is the most basic condition of existence—that we are separate beings, with experiences we may only uncertainly communicate to others—and one which I missed, so frantic was I to take myself out of existence.

So much I missed. So much I don’t even know to look for.

Still, I am, finally, looking.

Yesterday, once more

7 10 2008

Lucretia, as usual, is forcing me to sharpen my thoughts in response to her own perspicacious observations.

So: the varieties of tolerance. I’ve been focussing on political tolerance, tolerance among citizens, and tolerance among strangers. The first might be a kind of structural or constitutional tolerance; the second, for those who move within a particular political or constitutional tolerance; and the third, for those about whom one knows little, and for which no relationship of even the minimal constitutional type is necessarily defined.

I haven’t said much about this third type, mainly because I’ve been preoccupied with the political and there’s nothing particularly political about this. Still a brief: A certain defensive wariness may be apt when among this last group, insofar as the encounters may happen ‘outside of the law’ (e.g., a deserted street or minimally populated area, with no obvious authority present), as it were. That these encounters may be ‘lawless’, however, doesn’t mean they have to be violent or aggressive or even threatening: One may wish only to move through or around strangers, and however much the strangers may eye one another, each nonetheless decides to leave the other alone. (This might be considered a literal ‘toleration of existence’, and a necessary precondition for politics.)

Perhaps somewhere in there should be tolerance of acquaintances (feel free to offer a better term): These are the people we work with or see regularly or engage in genial conversation, even if we wouldn’t invite them into our home and they wouldn’t invite us into their home. We might like one another ‘well enough’ or find each other ‘interesting’ or ‘worth talking to’, but wouldn’t, really, call a friend. Someone you know, kinda, and are satisfied with that.

Anyway, what poked at me from Lucretia’s comment was about the personal side of toleration. I noted that I wouldn’t be friends with someone who merely tolerated me, but Lucretia adds some shading to this statement:

As for wanting more than tolerance from my friends – maybe. I’m finding as I get older that I am more tolerant than I thought I could be. I can be friends with someone even if there are one or two things about them I really don’t like or even actively disapprove of, because they have other qualities that shine brighter, and because everyone has faults and blind spots, including me. But I agree, that if a person only tolerates something that I feel is the very core of my being, it’s going to be much harder to feel close to that person, and trust them.

I was getting at more the ‘very core of my being’ aspect, as opposed to the ‘I’ll put up with’ or ‘I’ll overlook this’ aspect of tolerance. My sense of not wanting to be friends with someone who merely tolerated me arises both out of a desire for dignity and from not wanting to feed my occasionally raging neuroses. Why hang out with someone who doesn’t think you’re, basically, okay to hang out with? Why do that to yourself?

But Lucretia’s right: Ain’t none of us perfect, so even dear friends are going to irritate us (and vice versa). What then to do? Nothin’. Let it pass. Be glad for the friendship, be glad the other person is as flawed as you, be glad you don’t have to be perfect to have a friend or be a friend.

When I was younger I used to say ‘I don’t judge.’ Hah! I judged all the time, but since I didn’t want to be judgmental, I wasn’t honest about it. As a result, I was never able to reflect on those judgments; they were unconsidered. Now I know I judge all the time, but I also let a hell of a lot more judgments go. So X is always late and Y never calls, but I know that, and I still want to be around them. So I set aside time for X and I’m the one who calls Y. At some point, I decided not to moralize these behaviors. Yeah, it’d be nice if X were prompt and Y could pick up the phone, but so what: the people matter more than the irks. (And I’m glad that goes both ways.)

Yeah, sometimes the irks overwhelm the people, and it becomes difficult to remain friends. And sometimes things just change so radically you have to reconsider everything. (I’m thinking of my friendship with someone who moved her Christian faith from the periphery to the center of her life. Another post, perhaps.) But at that point I think the issue is less a matter of tolerance and more a matter of compatibility.

Huh. Perhaps the distinction should be between tolerance of persons (which is not somethings friends do to one another) and tolerance of acts (which friends, citizens, and strangers may allow).

Does this help, or am I just fucking it all up again?

Takedown! Takedown—two points!

26 09 2008

Some seriously unhappy things happening with the cats. It will be fixed, but in the meantime, grrrrrr.

So I was reading Chantal Mouffe’s The Return of the Political, and I thought, Hm, she might be able to help, after all. She is of the agoniste school of democratic theorists, that is, among those who believe that politics is less about deliberation (Guttmann & Thompson) or ideal speech situations (Habermas) than about plurality, conflict, and constant risks and possibilities of democratic engagement. Jeffrey Isaac has written cogently on this (Democracy in Dark Times), as has Judith Butler, albeit somewhat less cogently (Precarious Life). Arendt fits here, I think, as does Vattimo. (And not-so-far in the background, as Mouffe points out, is Carl Schmitt. Brrr.)

Blah blah, enough with the name dropping: how does it help? Because it reminds me that I’ve been writing as if Lucretia’s comment signalled some kind of crisis in democratic thinking. And it does—of liberal democratic theory. (n.b.: Mouffe does not herself reject liberal democracy, just the consensus modes dominant within it.)There’s a lot worth exploring in liberal democratic theory, but Mouffe reminds me there’s more to democratic theory than liberalism, and, by extension, more than ‘respect’ amongst political actors.  I think I was headed back in that direction anyway, but having her scowl at me and point the way was useful. (I’m being only a little melodramatic: she’s staring straight at the camera—and frowning—in her publicity shot.)

Anyway, I don’t know that Lucretia was really asking about radical democratic theory, but I think that’s the place to find a decent response to her initial question. Mouffe notes that ‘Once we accept the necessity of the political and the impossibility of a world without antagonism, what needs to be envisaged is how it is possible under those conditions to create or maintain a pluralistic democratic order. . . . It requires that, within the context of the political community, the opponent should be considered not as an enemy to be destroyed but as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated. We will fight against his ideas but we will not question his right to defend them.’ [emph in the original, p. 4]. Yes. Very ‘disagree-but-defend-your-right-to-the-death.’

In other words, the lack of respect is not a crisis, is not necessarily even a problem. If there is to be conflict, there the question is how to live with it. Some might seek to suppress it, others to deliberate it away; the agonistes, however, note that it is simply a condition of human existence, and to rid ourselves of conflict is to rid ourselves of. . . us. Thus, while consensus-liberal theorists (and I included the deliberatives among this large and varied group) consider tolerance too thin a mat on which to roll around with our problems, Mouffe says, pfft, it’s enough. The point is not to avoid bruises; the point is to continue the wrestling, i.e., to continue the politics.

There are many worse things than the hurt or anger which arise out of political disagreement. What, after all, are the alternatives to [a democratic] politics?


8 09 2008

C. is FINALLY finishing a big job, so I hope this means she’ll be able to create her blog sooner rather than later. Yeah, lady, I’m a-waitin’!

I’m reading John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, in part because it’s at least somewhat related to a course I’m teaching, and partly to get at the issue Lucretia raised some time ago: how to deal with those who demand respect for claims you, in fact, don’t respect.

And I will talk about this, but first, I have to say how much I dislike reading philosophers on politics. Contemporary philosophers, I mean: those who have to nail down every last damned point before they can even begin their argument. (Nevermind that in the process of the nailing they are, in fact, shaping the argument. Some acknowledge this, some don’t.) It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work, or that I don’t think it’s not, on some levels, necessary. But it sure ain’t sufficient, and to a non-philosopher like me, it’s tiresome.

I know, I know: as a political theorist I should bow my head in before the clearly superior philosophy, and I should be ashamed—ashamed!—to admit my boredom with the perspecuity of the philosophical presentation. But I don’t and I’m not.

This isn’t a slam on philosophy generally. I took up John Caputo’s Radical Hermeneutics awhile ago (along with some other stuff), as well as the work of Gianni Vattimo, and I’d really like more time to get back to their stuff. Their work on the theology of the event and weak theology, in particular, is fascinating. And I’d like to read more Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel and more names than I can conjure on this Sunday evening.

But not about politics. It’s not that philosophers or economists or psychologists can’t or shouldn’t discuss politics—I’m a big believer in cross-contamination—but however acute they are in their analyses, I’m unwilling to yield the field to them. Yeah, there’s a bit of boundary patrolling going on, but there’s also something to be said about studying politics as a subject unto itself, and not merely as an adjunct to another subject. In short, I think boundary crossing works best when there are, in fact, boundaries.

Politics is largely a mess. Philosophy, arguably, is about cleaning up messes. Good for them, but I prefer the mess.

Ain’t no love

2 09 2008

Finally, a frame of mind in which to respond to a comment from Lucretia (about my last bit on Nussbaum).

BUT FIRST: I gotta say something about the whole Sarah/Bristol Palin thing. Damn! I feel bad for the girl. She’s seventeen, knocked up, and a week ago she was probably freaking out about what her classmates were going to say or were already saying about her pregnancy. Now, for reasons that have little to do with her, she’s worldwide news. That’s tough. I hope the people around her (and her boyfriend) are as supportive as they say they are.

As for her mom? I don’t like her politics. No need to say much beyond that.

Okay, on to the question of nonbeliever respect for the religious, especially when the religious show so little respect for the nonbeliever. On August 26, Lucretia asked

‘It’s such a common notion in our culture, probably in Western culture as a whole – maybe all human cultures? – that we have to respect people’s religious beliefs. I find I’ve absorbed this idea without quite knowing where it came from.

Why do we have to tiptoe around other people’s quirky, bizarre, or moronic ideas? Particularly when, if a religious nut knows you’re an atheist, he feels perfectly free to declare open season on us?’

I’ve been batting this question around for awhile, and I think I’ve got the beginnings of a response to it. And, ironically, Nussbaum, in Women and Human Development, helped shape part of my response.

The first part, that which to which Nussbaum’s discussion of political liberalism contributes, is the notion of respect for persons. One can reject or accept this notion, but it’s a pretty standard precept of modern philosophical-liberal thought. We are free and equal beings, individuals with distinct desires and personalities, and endowed with sufficient reason to pursue our own, individual ends. (This is a bit of a mash-up of liberal thought, but, again, not an unreasonable one; similar kinds of notions anchor many human rights declarations & charters, for example.)

Anyway, as free, equal, and distinct beings, the ends we choose for our lives ought to be left up to each of us. That is, whatever meaning we assign to our lives, including whether that assignment includes a supernatural element or not, is up to each of us.  Unsurprisingly, this means we are likely to choose different meanings, different ends. Some are so discomfitted by this plurality of outcomes that they seek to favor some meanings and outcomes over others, to say, in effect, that no rational person would choose these lesser ends.

Nussbaum argues, rightly, I think, that one can’t have it both ways: either you allow for respect for persons to choose their own lives, or you don’t. (There are issues about the conditions for choice, and choosing for others, especially children, but that’s a separate topic.) She distinguishes political liberalism from comprehensive liberalism, such that under conditions of political liberalism one creates the conditions for choice of ends, whereas under a regime of comprehensive liberalism, one seeks to shape those ends, to favor some over others.

Another, shorter, way to put this is to state that I will respect your ability to choose your own way, and you will respect my ability to choose my own way. Reciprocity.

This works, I think, as a formal model of respect, especially as regards respect among strangers, and as creating a kind of space against an overlord (government, religion) which seeks to choose our ends for us.

But while such formal or process-respect can help remind one not to trample on another’s ability to choose, it’s incomplete. It doesn’t get at that deep frustration over lack of respect for the choice of ends. In other words, while Nussbaum would like to bracket off discussions of ends (and which, in the context of her larger argument about constitutions and states, makes a great deal of sense), the issue of ends-respect remains.

And it is much harder to deal with, because we connect the ends a person has chosen with that person herself. In other words, it’s personal. So Lucretia’s question looms: why respect shitty ideas? why respect shitty beliefs which belittle the nonbeliever?


That, finally, after many years of trying to square my principled belief in respect for persons with the batshit things we believe in, is my answer. I will maintain my respect for you as a human being, but not so much for you, personally. If you believe menstruating women are polluting and to be avoided, if you think black people are inferior to white people, that Jews run the world, if you think anyone who doesn’t believe exactly as you do isn’t worth as much as you, then expect the ridicule you so richly deserve.

This sounds, hm, if not contradictory, at least, not right: Aren’t I, after all, expecting others to believe exactly as I do? Aren’t I saying dissenters to my view aren’t worth as much? No, and yes. No, insofar as I distinguish between the formal- or process-respect and personal- or ends-respect. I’m not saying you don’t get to believe what you do, or that you deserve less protection of the law than anyone else. You should never lose the respect owed to you as a human being, or, to put it more politically, as a citizen.

But we are not simply citizens, not simply occupants of the formal-human-being role. We are also individual personalities, with our own desires and flaws and beliefs, and to state that we can have whatever beliefs we want, but that we ought not take them so seriously that we form judgments in relation to them, is to miss something vital to our humanness.

You can go on and think I’m going to hell because I don’t pray or don’t pray to the right god or don’t pray to the right god in the right way—and you can say you condemn me out of love—but why on earth would you expect me to respect a position which denigrates me? If you judge me because of who I sleep with or how I sleep with that (consenting) person, why should I, who don’t think this matters to anyone but me and that other person, take your side against my own?

If the only way to respect your view is to belittle myself, well, I ain’t respectin’ your view.

I respect absolutely your right and ability to hold whatever views you choose, but I don’t necessarily respect those chosen views.

And this is where it gets funky, because we tie a person’s views to our own view of that person. If you hold to views I find abhorrent, I’m not going to respect you. And given that I think respect IS important, that bothers me a bit. But I also have a fairly wide range of views outside of my own which I find worthy of respect, so I’m not too worried that I’m going to whittle my interactions down to people who are just. like. me.

That could, and does, happen, of course: align with me, or be gone. And if that happens too often or infects too much of our civic life, that could be problematic. But on the personal level, well, who we want around us is going to vary from person to person. Some want family near, others, far. Some seek many friends and colleagues, and others choose to cultivate a few. Whatever. The point is, we use our judgment in determining who we want around, and, on a personal level, that’s as it should be.

Hm. I think I’m still missing a piece of a response to Lucretia. I’ve talked about a kind of constitutional or generic respect for persons, and about intimates, but what about those strangers or acquaintances with whom we interact in the social sphere? More acutely, what about those demands from citizens for respect for their views? Not generic persons, not friends, but fellow-travellers in the polity, in the social sphere? How do we meet demands for respect for mutually-exclusive beliefs? Ah. I thought I captured this in the idea of creating space against an overlord, but I didn’t: this is how we treat one another within that space.

Getting at that is gonna have to wait. It may be a matter of reiterating respect for you, but signalling disagreement with your beliefs. But I don’t think that’s sufficient, either.

Damn. And I thought I had a handle on this. Maybe not.