Category Archives: Biography

Susan’s hope, my hope

Susan keeps asking if there might be an upside to the wokeness convulsion our society is undergoing. She hopes it might inspire people to have conversations they might not have otherwise had and to develop real empathy. I’m pretty sure this hope is an expectation widely shared among progressives.

I think the entire project is deformed by a conceptual solipsism that obstructs engagement with actual individuals. Drawing on Buber’s distinction between the social and the interpersonal — the former being the gamelike, rule-bound, role-bound structured interactions among types, and the latter being the rule-transcending, role-transcending dialogical interaction between persons in pursuit of mutual discovery of the uniqueness concealed within one another.

What our current mood does — and this is my primary objection to it — is politicize the personal by hypersensitizing people to categories (roles) and to impose constantly shifting norms upon interactions (rules) which are treated not as innovations in etiquette, but as universal standards of decency, binding not only in present snd future, but also retroactively. The constant changing of the norms, paired with dire and shameful penalties for violating them, and the fact that changes in rules are enforced retroactively leaves people in such a state of horrible tension, self-consciousness and horror at being judged, that even natural behavior, much less the intimate trust and risk required by dialogue is made nearly impossible.

This blend of deeply uncomfortable emotions is misinterpreted as guilt, or as the necessary pain of transcendence. It is stamped out by same mold Christians use to produce repentance, and this is why many former Christian Fundamentalists have become sucked into Progressivist Fundamentalism: it uses the same intellectual muscle memory.

The “dominant” category is eager to demonstrate extreme submissiveness, and the other will rarely resist the temptation to hubristically inflate to enjoy unchallenged dominance.

It is fascinating how a generation who despises, above all, awkwardness and cringy behavior has managed to produce some of the most unbearable spectacles of obsequiousness this century has seen. Everywhere you look intensely nervous, over-friendly NPR-types frantically smile and build bridges of understanding with POC-types, hoping others see their inspiring act and choose to do likewise. They are so unaccustomed to contact with individual personalities, no doubt they believe in this playacting they met a real person and found a real friend. Given the kind of company they find at work and on social media it probably compares favorably. Clifford Geertz’s description of the Balinese concept of lek comes to mind.

So — returning to Susan’s hope — I think that hope is entirely to her credit, and no doubt, she will fulfill it in her own personal actions — but I think most people will simply use this moment to reinforce their Fundamentalist Progressivist ideologies. They will act out their prescribed roles and they will watch other social actors acting out their parts, and everything will conform to the image of the world-in-their-head.

And anyone who arouses doubt, undermines the faith or defies this image and the Truth Idol who rules over it will be punished as severely as possible.

*

But!

I actually have hopes of my own.

(Full disclosure: I am reading Yuval’s beautiful annotated translation of the introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

Though few people understand what philosophy is or what it does, what we are undergoing is a philosophical event.

We are witnessing a mass philosophical crisis and deep philosophical shift. It is nothing less than a mass conversion. The problem is: conversion to what…?

What this mass conversion experience might ultimately accomplish — whether the convert is woke or red-pilled — is to help people see for the first time how much metanoia can transfigure experience, and help them understand how much possibility is buried within the world.

This reality is infinite and positively impregnated with new ways to conceptualize, understand, experience and respond to life!

The trick here will be to pry open the closed circle of ideology and open it out into a spiral capable of revering what is beyond it. This will not be easy: Every new convert naturally views their finding of new truth as ripping aside the Veil of Illusion, revealing the True Truth  glimpsed only by an elect few, and so on.

Every new convert awakes into a dream of buddhahood. Every new convert experiences a glimpse of omniscience, sees the world anew through God’s own eyes and experiences the intoxication of intellectual hubris.

It is a long, slow, humbling process to recognize how common this kind of awakening is, and how rare it is for anyone to want to sober up from the thrilling solipsism of apotheosis. (I call this conversion hubris “misapotheosis“.)

The inflowing glory of conversion, however, is better seen as the effect of allowing a little more of divine reality to flood into our lives — along with the awareness that there is infinitely more, and that this can happen repeatedly if we know how to live by that truth.

There are so many days that have not yet broken. — Rig Veda, via Nietzsche

…And most importantly, we must understand the source of these new truths is the uniqueness of every being — not in its identity with other beings, except in its fundamental belonging to the overarching uniqueness constituted of uniqueness: Adonai Echad.

It is through each of us, in our uniqueness, collaborating with unique others, refracting our being through this strangely overlapping interlapping world of ours that raises our sparks and shows us the value of life.

Consider how every individual is affected by an overall philosophical justification of his way of living and thinking–he experiences it as a sun that shines especially for him and bestows warmth, blessings, and fertility on him, it makes him independent of praise and blame, self-sufficient, rich, liberal with happiness and good will; incessantly it fashions evil into good, leads all energies to bloom and ripen, and does not permit the petty weeds of grief and chagrin to come up at all. In the end then one exclaims: Oh how I wish that many such new suns were yet to be created! Those who are evil or unhappy and the exceptional human being–all these should also have their philosophy, their good right, their sunshine! What is needful is not pity for them!–we must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it–what these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins! What is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword! And new philosophers! The moral earth, too, is round! The moral earth, too, has its antipodes! The antipodes, too, have the right to exist! There is yet another world to be discovered–and more than one! Embark, philosophers! — Nietzsche

Amen.

Raw experiential resources for my next book

I am making a list of some strange phenomena which are the daily fare of strategic designers, but which are seldom experienced outside the field, at least not in the way designers experience them. By designers, I mean anyone engaged in human-centered design. These phenomena do not occur at the same intensity and frequency in problems that do not explicitly contend with subjectivity. Designers must live with them at full intensity, for long durations, without any easy escape route. Here is the list, so far:

  • Dependency on conceptual models (which I will just call “models”) to guide the forming of a system that is experienced as clear and coherent to those who participate in them
  • Uncanny difficulties in agreeing on models among members of design teams, which render subjective differences stark
  • Difficulties in interpreting phenomena, and especially subjective phenomena, among different team members
  • Difficulties in weighing design tradeoffs among different team members
  • Existential pain associated with relinquishing (or even temporarily suspending) models that one has adopted — even in order to listen and understand another perspective — a phenomenon that can be called “pluralistic angst”
  • Dependence on profound respect, trust and goodwill among team members to navigate through and out of pluralistic angst
  • Tactics employed by well-intentioned people to avoid the pain and effort required to overcome pluralistic angst
  • The ubiquity and invisibility of models — and the best models are the most ubiquitous and the most invisible — not only in design, but all understanding, which only becomes detectable in pluralistic conflict
  • The miraculous way truths and unnoticed realities leap from nowhere (ex nihilo) when a different model is adopted and used
  • The weird way a change in a sufficiently foundational model can sometimes change (transfigure) the meaning of one’s life as a whole, even when the change is meant only to affect a localized problem
  • The fact that there are no determinate techniques, rules, criteria to overcome pluralistic angst (though there are approaches that can assist the process) — that people are thrown back into their bare unequipped souls to find the resources needed to overcome it together
  • The solidarity among team members which can result from overcoming pluralistic angst with respect, trust and goodwill

Anyone who has been through the harrowing experiences described about enough times 1) to recognize what is happening, 2) to find faith that these things can be overcome, 3) to understand the value of overcoming them, 4) to find the attitude of soul most conducive to overcoming them (which includes grace toward one’s own missteps, doubts and moral failings during the process) might start seeing similar phenomena everywhere, at all scales, from international politics to personal relationships to one’s own inner conflicts. Or, at least this is what happened to me.

I was driven deep into existential philosophy, including phenomenology and hermeneutics then into pragmatism and its offshoots in social science to try to understand the weird kinds of pain I experience as a designer. Philosophy has never been speculative or abstract to me. It is concrete, near and a matter of life and death.

As a result of this search for understanding, I have designed myself conceptual models to help me re-understand the human condition as largely one of conflicting conceptual models.

It is here that it becomes fairly obvious how philosophy and design connect and merge into something inseparable. That is what I plan to write about and publish next, now that I have crystallized my core conceptual models in the form I believe they deserve.

First sixteen copies of Geomentric Meditations

Yesterday, despite UPS’s best efforts I managed to get both boxes of the printed spreads of Geometric Meditations. I unpacked and organized the components, and assembled the first sixteen copies. I gave the first three copies to Susan, Zoë and Helen. I put the fourth in my library, in the religion section with the Kabbalah books. This is a book I’ve wanted in my library for a long time.

The process of making these books is labor intensive. Here’s the process:

  1. Collate the signature from six separate stacks of spreads.
  2. Fold each sheet.
  3. Use template to punch three holes (for sewing) through the signature fold.
  4. Measure 14″ of red waxed linen thread and thread it through the bookbinding needle.
  5. Starting from the top hole in the spine sew the signature, using a figure-eight pattern.
  6. Tie off the top and trim the threads evenly.
  7. With a craft knife (#11 Olfa) trim top and bottom edges in .75″.
  8. Trim outer edge in .75″.

I’m working on methods to streamline production, but it is still time-consuming.

If you receive a copy of this book, please take care of it. In each book is fifteen years of intense thinking, hands-on use and iterative design, five years of obsessive writing, rewriting and editing, one year of final editing and design tweaking, two months of production work and about half an hour of handcraft.

I made everything as beautiful as I could, and I am uneasily pleased with how it turned out.

Design-Centered Human

Someone asked me, with respect to my work, what I call myself these days. If people understood 1) what design is, and that 2) all design, done competently, is, necessarily human-centered design, I’d want to be called simply a Designer. Because this is nowhere near the case, I call myself a Human-Centered Designer.

At that point my friend Tim called me Design-Centered Human. That’s pretty apt.

Anomalogue Press

I’m told I’m a descendent of publishers (Scribner’s Sons). I certainly do feel book-craft in my blood. I care intensely about the best ideas being given the form they deserve, from conceptualization to language, typesetting, page composition, printing, and binding. I cannot believe that I can buy a life-changing book for less than the cost of a luxury car.

I keep fantasizing about starting a press dedicated to publishing the heirloom thoughts of great contemporary thinkers. I am imagining art chapbooks of about 24-36 pages, each containing one essay written in a rigorous, non-scholarly style for an ideal reader — intelligent, informed and critically sympathetic. The essays would not be popularizations — and in fact might be even denser and harder to read than a full book — but would be streamlined to exclude footnotes and references to other works. The point is to immortalize the thinker’s best idea in the most compact, most beautiful words in the most perfectly designed and constructed physical form possible. They would be letterpress printed, of course, on cotton paper and sewn into chapbooks.

In exchange for the content, the author would get half the copies to give to loved ones, and I would keep half to sell.

I would definitely want the first author to be Richard J. Bernstein, whose Beyond Objectivism and Relativism changed the course of my life.

Shelved: “post-post”

Today I shelved a draft of a post about a shift I have detected in our culture. In the first post of my “Shelved” series, I will attempt to summarize that post:

I believe the period we called “postmodern” ended about ten years ago. The primary reason this event has not been publically noted is because the kind of reflection that detects and confidently notes shifts in zeitgeist itself belongs to postmodernism. I would call the period we are in postpostmodern, except that the adding of the “post-“ prefix also belongs to postmodernism, and it feels stale.

The shift can be characterized as a shift from first-person perspective to third-person perspective. With this shift comes new style preferences, and this one seems to like acronyms. So I’ll try to name this new worldview something that fits its own sensibilities by calling it 3PP, short for 3rd person perspective.

It is no accident that among the material-turn philosophies, the one that assumes a first-person view is called postphenomenology, and the ones that emphasize a third-person perspective are called ANT and OOO.

Part of this shift to 3PP is a very strong sense that all personal reflection is just an emergent phenomenon of objective processes, and unreliable until it is backed up with solid objective research. There is nothing wrong with this, and much right about it, unless it grows aggressive and attempts to discredit and devalue personal experience, even in the first-person’s own natural habitats, especially art.

Establishing objectivity is very expensive. Not all people can afford it! Politically speaking, a requirement to objectively prove every kind of reflection and objectively justify every moral intuition, even those of personal experience, excludes quite a few less advantaged voices from public discourse. Here I will quote my own shelved post:

If one aspires to be heard and taken seriously, much less believed, one has to have the right kind of hard-nosed factual disposition and soft-hearted moral disposition, the right kind of extensive training in evidence-gathering, the right kind of expertise in how to detect and neutralize one’s own biases and unconscious motivations, and the right kind of work ethic (and the time and resources to live up to its demands). In short, one has to belong to a certain qualified class of professional to have a valid opinion on what is really real and really good, and therefore to have the right to determine what voices ought to be permitted to speak, which voices should be amplified and “always believed”,  and which voices must be suppressed or “de-platformed”. The reason for this  is self-evident: anyone outside of this fastidiously self-aware class is almost certain to be unconsciously driven by a desire for collective power, and will almost automatically fail to notice the insidious ways power and privilege produce worldviews that justify one’s own right to oppress others who seem to deserve or even require it.

*

Just as I suspected: my summary is better than the original!

Publication of Geometric Meditations

I am sending Geometric Meditations to the printer this weekend. I have continued to tweak the layout in vanishingly minuscule ways. Just about every word, every punctuation mark and every line break has been inspected, varied, experimented with, obsessed over.

I am posting what I think will be the final version which will be printed. If anyone happens to look at it and finds a mistake or flaw, please alert me. I know it cannot be perfect, but I’m pushing it as far in that direction as I can.

Once Susan gives it the last pass on Saturday and approves it, I am bundling it up and sending it off. I’m told the printing takes about fifteen days. After that, I will be hand-sewing each copy, and giving them to the people who participated in the development of the concepts and the design of the book.

Continue reading Publication of Geometric Meditations

Dealing with offense

My process for dealing with offense:

  1. Allow myself to be angry. (Not that I have an alternative.)
  2. Harness the anger to analyze the offensive behavior and identify the essential personal offense (precisely what is bothering me).
  3. Depersonalize and expand the applicability of the essential personal offense by abstracting from it a more universal principle of offense (something that would bother most reasonable people).
  4. Assuming I’ve committed the same or an analogous offense against others, dig through my memories of times people have been upset with me, in search of cases where I can accuse myself of the same offense.
  5. Using my own memory of my experience and true intentions, defend myself against my self-accusations.
  6. Returning to the present offense, apply the same defense to the person who has offended me.
  7. Look for opportunities to reconcile with other people, because mutual reconciliation is the only thing that definitively repairs damage. (Insights only diminish symptomatic pain.)
  8. Remember principles and defenses for future similar offenses, to avoid unintentionally offending others and taking lasting offense at other’s actions.

Generally, this approach reduces pain, partially or completely repairs damage and produces valuable insights. It also helps prevent compulsively repeating thoughts from metastasizing into philosophies of resentment.

Discussion Salon rules

A Discussion Salon is a structured discussion designed to produce substantial conversations. Basically, everyone brings short passages on some theme determined ahead of time. Participants take turns reading passages, and the group converses on that theme.  Susan and I did our first one back in 2000, and we’ve been doing them sporadically since then.

Here are the rules in case you want to do one:

  • The purpose of the Salon is to generate dialogue. We want to make it possible to express ideas that cannot be expressed in normal, everyday conversation.
  • Quotes will be used to seed dialogue.
  • Please come to the Salon with one quote that is connected with the theme of the event.
  • Quotes play a central role in the Salon, but the purpose of the Salon is not sharing quotes. They are a means to stimulate dialogue. Dialogue should not be cut off or rushed in order to give everyone their turn to read. Not all quotes will be read.
  • This is an intellectual safe zone. No opinion is prohibited. The only rule is respect. If you find an idea offensive, please challenge it using reason and constrain your emotions and moral passions. Please do not self-censor out of fear of upsetting someone with your ideas. (But again — be respectful!)
  • We want to be sure people are given a chance to finish their thoughts even if the thoughts are complex. Interruptions can be vetoed by the current speaker, signaled by raising their hand.
  • Contributions to the discussion should always address the ideas of the previous speaker. Evolve the subject, don’t change the subject.
  • Dialogue should be kept thematically close to the quotes and should refer back to them explicitly whenever possible.
  • As conversation progresses and develops, new quotes can be introduced to feed the dialogue.
  • If a dialogue comes to an end, we will restart dialogue with a new quote.
  • The Salon has many modes of participation. Some participants will do more listening and others will do more speaking. Nobody should feel pressured to speak if they wish to listen, or to stay silent if they have something to say.

 

Teaching 14

Hannah Arendt taught me that what we call “politics” is in fact the betrayal of politics, and that political life both presupposes and pursues the plurality of persons — (as she put it, it is human beings, not humankind, who live in the world together) — and that if we aspire to be authentically political we must resist indulging that damnable solipsistic urge to reduce our fellow human beings to abstract categories we ourselves have imagined living out grand political dramas we ourselves have scripted, and instead encounter and contend with them as the stubbornly real beings with their own stories, self-conceptions, and worldviews.

Teaching 13

William James taught me the impossibly elegant (and deeply American!) Pragmatic Maxim — which I like to think of as instructions for the Pragmatic Move, which goes like this: when attempting to understand the meaning of an assertion, rather than focus in on the assertion itself, instead expand out the practical consequences (what James crassly called the “cash value”) of the assertion’s truth, and this synthesis will give you the assertion’s meaning much faster and more reliably than analysis can.

Teaching 11

Martin Heidegger taught me the difference between an emotion and a mood — that is, the difference between a feeling toward an object versus a feeling of a totality — and, in particular, that mood called anxiety which is the feeling of nullified totality, a mood toward subjective nothingness — which Heidegger associated with death, but which I see as the mortal response to infinity in any its myriad forms.

Teaching 10

Eric Voegelin showed me an image of time, of past and future dropping away into inexperienceable darkness dropping away into inexperienceable darkness in two directions, and gave me my first clear understanding of metaphysics (to which I have added dimensions of space and awareness in my own model of metaphysical situatedness in my spark symbol in the pamphlet I’m preparing to get printed).

Teaching 9

Clifford Geertz helped me see that understanding (or, empathy) is not an act of directly experiencing what another person experiences (which renders understanding impossible, if not essentially absurd), but rather the ability to participate in their symbol system, so that we can understand a proverb, a poem or a joke — or, as I like to add, design something for them that they love with head, hand and heart.