Category Archives: Biography

Topics and subjects

I wish I could send Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces back in time to my 33-year-old self. Based on one comment (which I still despise), I’ve had Campbell totally wrong, but this is unsurprising if you remember how etic reading-about/knowing-about is never the same as emic reading/knowing. The former is knowing about a topic, the latter is knowing a subject. Subject here is meant in every sense of the word. Objects are known. Subjects are known-from.

First-person identity

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately, and how identity relates to language, specifically to pronouns.

I think I might have a different perspective on identity than some others. It is fascinating to me that so many people naturally think of themselves as a “he”, or as a “she”, or as something between or outside the culturally-defined gender gamut.

This excessive focus on gender seems to me to be distracting us from a much more problematic issue.

When I reflect on my own thinking about myself, it is clear that I have never thought of myself in gendered terms — nor, for that matter, in third-person terms.

Whenever I think of myself, it is always in the first-person. This fact is consistently reflected in my speech: Whenever I refer to myself, I invariably choose the pronouns “I” or “me” or “my”.

However, people invariably ignore these obvious language cues and without asking, presume they can refer to me with second-person and third-person pronouns.

When they do this the implications are impossible to miss. 1) They are assigning me the status of an object of experience in their world, not the experiencing subject of my own world. 2) They are relegating me to the periphery of their awareness — and possibly other people’s awareness as well! — and denying my centrality within my own awareness. 3) Worst of all they render me interchangeable with any number of he-/she-/ze-/they-objects, and in doing so deny the uniqueness of my own self-same identity and perspective.

Not only are these implicit impositions entirely contrary to my self-understanding, they are profoundly disorienting, alienating and threatening.

For all these reasons I am respectfully asking everyone to honor my pronoun preferences, and in the future to address me as I/me/mine.

I am aware that this language change might feel unfamiliar at first, but I assure you that this discomfort is minor compared to the anguish of constantly being made to live among people who refuse to recognize that I am not just some thing or person, but I.

Thank you in advance for your compliance with my choice.

Joseph Campbell (and some weird rambling)

Joseph Campbell’s most famous quote, “follow your bliss”, might really have been a careless remark of an old man well past his prime. For years I refused to take Campbell seriously, and even posed him against an antithetical motto, “follow your angst.” But reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I do not see any hint of facile hedonism, and substantial evidence of tragic insight. He’s another of those thinkers whose Nietzschean inspiration shows through in every sentence he wrote.

If I’d read this book back in 2004, at the height of my mandala obsession, he would have been one of my heroes, because his theme of the hero’s journey is just looping and relooping the path from West to North to East to South and back again to West (or, alternatively, as discussed in the chapter I’m on currently, “refusing the call” and trying to loop back from West to South and paying the steep price for exalting base things over higher destinies. “One is harassed, both day and night, by the divine being that is the image of the living self within the locked labyrinth of one’s own disoriented psyche. The ways to the gates have all been lost: there is no exit. One can only cling, like Satan, furiously, to one­ self and be in hell; or else break, and be annihilated at last, in God.”)

I don’t think it is any accident that my thoughts are returning to the themes of the early-aughts, because events in my life are feeling like they are rounding a circle and bringing me back to where I was. For one thing, my company has relocated to the same neighborhood where I worked from 2003-2007, and I have returned to cycling the same path to work. Seeing the same scenes has recalled vivid images and I’m accessing memories of thoughts and feelings from that time. Another thing: A generous gift of tea a friend brought home from her travels to the East has inspired me to replace a broken teapot I’d purchased in one of the Chinatowns North of Toronto on a very dark, dry-frozen winter day at the tail-end of 2002. I remember the drive, looking out at myriad identical gray brutalist apartments standing in gray slush under a gray sky against gray air. The gloomy glory of this memory was condensed for me into a yellow, speckled teapot we bought in the tiny tea shop we’d set out that day to find. When the pot was smashed exactly three years later on the way out the door to visit family on Christmas, it had acquired a ruddy glaze from the accumulated layers of tea that had been poured over it in the course of gongfu tea service. The taste of Alishan oolong, and thinking about this legendary lost teapot places me in 2002 and 2003, which was the pivot-point of my life. There are other things, too. Susan has had an awakening of her own, and I am finally having the kind of conversation I’ve desperately needed (begged for, on occasion) for the last sixteen years. Finally — and maybe most crucially — I feel a work-induced crisis nearing. The same weight, the same claustrophobia, the same profound boredom mixed with intense anxiety of the least productive kind, impending soul-balk… I can feel it: there is going to be a summons.

Reading Campbell and John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion, I’m gaining some still inchoate insight into what is common and what differs between my understanding of religion and other attempts at viewing religion from a non-superstitious angle. Campbell is typical of his times in that he wants to explain the force of religious insight in psychological terms. Hick is less obvious at this point, but I’m detecting an opportunity to “replatform” his comparisons and contrasts of varying religious traditions on a material-turn-informed metaphysics, which I find incredibly difficult to doubt, and only slightly challenging as more nourishing ground for religious faith and practice. I’m sure when I’m done I’ll discover that I’ve only rethought Whitehead and reinstaurated Process Theology, but that’s just how the humiliating method of philosophy works.

I’ve said this a zillion times, and they might even be my own words: Philosophy is an exercise in humiliation.

Philosophical insights can only be known firsthand. Whatever symbols are used in an attempt to convey an insight, they remain incomprehensible until the epiphany comes and insight breathes life into the forms. But when epiphany comes — and it comes only when it decides to, perhaps long after words are heard — you are always the original discoverer of the insight, the first to really understand. If you like that feeling, to the degree you are impervious to loneliness, you are perfectly free to bask in singular, solitary genius forever.

That’s what’s on my mind today.

“Hearts”

In May 2006 when I wrote the verses below I worked downtown and bike commuted along Edgewood every day. Since my company moved to the same neighborhood, I’ve returned to my old bike route, and pass the location where I witnessed this scene:

The helmeted surgeons
Transplanting the heart of the street
Did not need to return my greeting;
Because I could not see their eyes.
They had the hearts laid out
beside the hole they’d opened
in the sun-softened asphalt;
The old one, chipped and orange,
and the new one, burnished and gray:
Cast-iron conches a man could pick up
and hold in his hands.

 

Curriculum

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite this scattered in my curriculum or quite this solid in my own philosophy. Mostly I am jumping around trying to connect my philosophy of design with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. I want to try to organize the leads and strands, so I can keep track of it (or maybe just note my intentions, in case I later want to map out what turned out to go somewhere, versus a dead-end or a road not taken).

Most material-turn thinkers seem to find the metaphysics of A. N. Whitehead to be compatible and supportive of their work, so I definitely want to dig further into his thinking, most likely continuing to use Stenger’s Thinking With Whitehead as a guide.

Stenger and many others refer to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, so when I spotted an episode on them in the completely fantastic podcast “Philosophize This!” (so fantastic, in fact, that I joined Patreon, just to help fund it) I decided to listen. So far, I’m finding their last collaboration What Is Philosophy? to be very close to my views on what philosophy is/ought to be and do. I anticipate finishing this one, before tackling Stengers.

I’m also bumping into Gregory Bateson quite a bit these days. I ran into a reference to him in The Design Philosophy Reader (would also like to finish this this summer, or at least this year, since I’ve decided to root my own philosophy in the bizarre and intensely uncomfortable experiences that permeate a life of strategic human-centered design) — and again in an article on futures literacy, which I plan to finish reading this week.

Last weekend I finished an intriguing paper Latour wrote (translated by Graham Harman — more on him later) on Souriau, which convinced me that I will have to read The Different Modes of Existence soon, which might help me actually understand Latour’s own magnum opus An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.

Regarding Harman, I’ll probably make myself read his introduction to Object-Oriented Ontology, if only to eliminate OOO as a possible area of study. OOO is the one material-turn philosophy that seems almost preposterously wrong-headed, and it is also the hottest philosophical movement in the world right now, embraced by many brilliant people — so what am I supposed to do with that? As I’ve said before, philosophy is a schooling in humiliation, and my reaction to OOO — especially its self-evident foolishness — shows signs that I am failing to understand it. I continue to cautiously reject OOO until I can pin down precisely where it is failing, or until I convert and realize it was right all along. (Until then, however, I believe OOO’s entire trajectory is determined by a fundamental moral confusion endemic to the progressivist regions of today’s popular philosophy, namely, a passionate belief in selfless altruism. I deny not only that it is possible, but that selfless altruism is even a good unattainable ideal. I think the notion of selfless altruism is a result of a conceptual failure and pursuit of the ideal has disastrous moral consequences: it produces an incapacity to develop real relationships with real others, an incapacity to find genuine value in one’s life, and most of all an incurable moral irritability saturated with ressentiment. OOO wants us to try to leave our persons behind in order imagine our(not)selves into the undetectedly withdrawn life of noumena, like inhabitants of Calvino’s imaginary city of Baucis.

Vastly better, in my opinion, generally but especially for the purposes of human-centered design, is postphenomenology. I’ve read part of Robert Rosenberger’s collection Postphenomenological Investigations (Langsdorf’s essay is what reignited my interest in Whitehead as the material-turn metaphysician of choice) and I definitely need to finish it. I’ve already read Verbeek’s What Things Do. I’ll likely read Moralizing Technology next, and then start reading the works of Don Idhe (the founder of postphenomenology) from latest to when he turned his attention to human-technology relationships.

And, speaking of Verbeek — His attacks on Jaspers’s views on technology got me interested in Jaspers work, and strangely, led me into an existential detour earlier this year. I still intend to read (at least) his three-volume Philosophy (which I got scanned and OCRed, so I can read it on my iPad.) Also, Jaspers concept of the Axial Age, has intersected with an obsessive intuition I’m harboring that “we have come to the end of this kind of vision of Heaven”, and might now be starting to move beyond the 2,500-year-old understanding of religion which is so predominant and ubiquitous that we find it difficult to imagine that religion could be anything else. Not to propagate posts in this post-post moment, but I am interested in what post-Axial religious praxis can look like (which would include material-turn ontology set in a panentheistic metaphysics) and I’ve even managed to find a book on it, which, I, alas, also must read, and which threatens to barge in at the front of my reading queue. And of course there’s a whole world of Process Theology out there, based on Whitehead’s thought, which might, for all I know, already be exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve read one book on Jewish process theology, which did not connect with me much, but I don’t think it exhausted the possibilities.

I have a lot of reading ahead of me. I’d love to turn the work into a publicly-acknowledged post-grad academic degree of some kind, but what department in what university would ever award it?

Beetle green

I just had a vivid memory from my early childhood in Pennsylvania. We had a row of rose bushes in my back yard and the roses attracted a certain kind of large iridescent turquoise-green beetle. The only other place I ever saw this color was in my grandpa’s house. For some reason he owned a lot of items — stamped metal toys, fishing reels, outboard motors — painted in metallic beetle green. In the early 90s they started painting cars this color, and suddenly the color was ubiquitous. Then it went out of style and I rarely see it anymore.

My gut says this color will be back in the zeitgeist soon.

African Frog

I really thought I’d written up my story of the African Frog. I was just looking for it, and it’s not here. I will rewrite it now, because this is one of the key mythical tales of my life.

When I was a young boy living in Brockway, Pennsylvania I had a beautiful tank of tropical fish. My folks would occasionally take me to the pet store over in Dubois and let me pick out a new fish to add to my tank. On one of our trips I spotted an African Frog. I had to have that instead of just another fish. When we brought it home and let it out it seemed pretty happy swimming around in there with the guppies, swordtails and neon tetras. Except, a few days later we noticed one of the fish was missing. Every day or so after, there’d be one less fish. Eventually, the only thing left in the tank was the African Frog. Then one day the African Frog was gone, too. We found him a few weeks later, mummified in a ball of lint.

x = y zillionths

Zillion is a funnier word for myriad, which happens to be my favorite qualitative number.

For me, any exact quantity is only an approximate fraction of zillion.

If x is an exact value, x = y zillionths.

*

Qualitative math. Operations performed on none, some, few, many, myriad…

*

I suppose I’m still thinking about math today.

Little known anomalogue trivia: I have a shelf of math books, primarily about chaos theory (what Darwinism was to the 19th century and relativity was to the early 20th, chaos was to my itty-bitty generation) .

(Philosophical hermeneutics can be seen as a qualitative chaos theory.)

I also have a bunch of statistics for nonstatistician books (statistics seems worth knowing but not enough for me to actually do the work of knowing it), a few classics on teaching math and some flaky ones that explore mathematical aesthetics.

(If mathematical aesthetics interests you, see my “handsome math” Pinterest board. I love Pinterest. Because it emphasizes our responses to the world around us instead of enabling us to project our alleged personas (now known as “personal brands”!) to the world, Pinterest is where you can see a person’s individual axiologic (to me, the very seat of the soul) in their tastes and hopes, rather than watching their boring attempts to compete for medals in the cramped ethnomethodic olympics of our times. I learned a lot about my own aesthetic seeing collected together and juxtaposed all the pretty stuff I spontaneously liked and collected together.)

*

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” — Saint-Exuperie

I had exactly this same thought 20 years ago, and was startled to discover that someone had said it almost the same way, word for word, which probably means I saw it and forgot about it. It is a beautiful, true, neglected insight.

 

 

Coping strategies

I’ve met people who cope with life’s stresses with distraction, with narrowness, with willpower and with inspiration.

Distraction and narrowness are both avoidance strategies. Distraction often takes the form of a “work hard, play hard” life, oscillating between extreme busyness and extreme entertainment that never leaves time for sustained intensive reflection and the discomfort that attends it. Narrowness does the same thing with different means. Narrowness focuses all attention on a defined region of activity or knowledge, a subject that occupies one’s mind without pushing it past its own limits and producing discomfort.

Willpower does confront discomfort directly but pushes straight through it in order to achieve goals, and to develop skills for overcoming discomfort and maintaining control, focus and equanimity.

Inspiration can go multiple ways. Inspiration can seek sources of meaning that make discomfort seem worthwhile in the context of a meaningful life. It can also look for meaning precisely in the places that produce discomfort, so that sources of discomfort and meaning are the same, but the meaning outweighs and redeems the suffering. Finally, one can seek meaning precisely in suffering (or at least certain forms of suffering), so now the suffering isn’t balanced against meaning but is viewed as a signal of potential meaning and a path into meaning.

I’m sure there are more coping methods, but these are the ones that came to mind first. I’m watching many of my friends moving from avoidance strategies to willpower strategies through the practices of stoicism, and it’s sensitized me to differences among approaches.

Existential FOMO

A lot of longing for freedom might be best explained as existential FOMO. It is a fear of committing to one concrete future self and missing out on all the other future selves who could have been.

I’m reminded of an insight from Nietzsche, where he says something to the effect of: don’t tell me what you want freedom from; tell me what you want freedom for.

The problem with the freedom that existential FOMO craves is that it excludes the positive freedom of being someone, not only because being someone requires sustained effort and discipline, but also because substantial relationships with other people depends on us being someone who can be counted on to be there when we are needed.

A person who seems to be one person one day and another person the next… a person who values very different things depending on context and mood… a person who daydreams of one life one day, and another life the next… a person who’s constantly revising their autobiography and recasting characters (making heroes into villains and villains into heroes to suit the trajectory of the plot, or reassigning stars to bit-parts and bit-parts to star roles to fit the theme of the story du jour)… such people can be friends only with people who care little enough about relationships to skim over the whimsical inconstancy. Such lite friends can be very chill and easy to hang with, and they’ll give you all the freedom you want to be whoever you want to be in the moment, but they are as likely to relieve existential FOMO as a double shot of bourbon is to relieve craving for alcohol. That hollowness and that irritability that says you need more, more, better, better will intensify.

It is difficult to find that one future self you want to be. It doesn’t irrupt into your life as a grand fully-formed epiphany and blueprint. Nor does it appear as a person standing across the room — whether it’s that person you’ve waited for your entire life, or just someone who looks like the next fascinating nut to crack. Nor is it being discovered — first someone, then everyone! — finally realizing who I really am. If you are discovered this way, chances are you’re a by-product of someone else’s delusional self-discovery.

Too much chasing of this kind of self-actualization makes you lose your taste for everything that can make you into someone. Eventually you run out of time, energy and hope.

Being someone worth being takes alertness, sustained attention and a good eye, ear and nose for quiet and subtle hints of love — seeds of meaning that can be nurtured, grown, disciplined and made the core of life worth full commitment.

Design Instrumentalism

The best name for my approach to philosophy might be Design Instrumentalism, a variant of John Dewey’s Instrumentalism. According to Wikipedia,

Instrumentalism is a pragmatic philosophy of John Dewey that thought is an instrument for solving practical problems, and that truth is not fixed but changes as problems change. Instrumentalism is the view that scientific theories are useful tools for predicting phenomena instead of true or approximately true descriptions.

Design Instrumentalism differs from Dewey’s Instrumentalism in that it focuses on ideas as instruments that ought to be designed intentionally employing design methods and to be evaluated by design standards, such as Liz Sanders‘s famous triad of Useful, Usable and Desirable:

  • How well does the philosophy help its subscribers act effectively in response to concrete situations and produce good outcomes?
  • How well does the philosophy define, relate and elucidate ideas to allow subscribers of the philosophy to articulate clearly an account of reality as they experience it?
  • How well does the philosophy inspire its subscribers to value existence in whole and sum?

Philosophies, too ought to be designed as person-reality interfaces, which are should not be viewed as collections beliefs, but rather the fundamental conceptions of reality that direct attention,  guide responses, shape beliefs and connect everything together into a comprehensive worldview and praxis.

Obviously, Design Instrumentalism has a lot of arguing to do to justify its legitimacy, but luckily most of this legwork has been done by Pragmatists and their various intercontinental offspring, and it all solid, persuasive and boring to rehash. I prefer to just skip to the bottom line, and rattle off some key articles of faith, which are basically the vital organs of Pragmatism.

This is a good start of a list of Pragmatic presuppositions. I’m guessing some are missing, and many more could arguably be included. Phenomenology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Materiality Turn philosophies and, at least for me, Nietzschean ethics also figure heavily, but I’ll err toward underspecification to leave maximum room for variety.

One more thing about Design Instrumentalism: It is, like all ambitious philosophies, a meta-philosophy. It might be useful, usable and desirable for some thinkers, but it encourages the design of philosophies for those who do not find Design Instrumentalism itself valuable, and focused “single-use” philosophies for specialized purposes, such as finding frameworks that support the resolving of design problems.

Doing just this kind of reframing in the context of professional design strategy, in combination with my private philosophical work is exactly what drove me to this view of philosophy. For me, none of this is speculative theorizing, but in fact my best attempt to equip myself with the ability to explain myself, to function effectively in the situations I find myself in every day, and to infuses my work and my life with a sense of purpose. Something like an inarticulate Design Instrumentalism led me to articulate Design Instrumentalism.

You didn’t have to convert to do that!

I interviewed an Israeli woman earlier this week as part of the work I’m doing. Of course I had to tell her I’m a recent convert. She immediately brightened up and demanded to know why I did it. I tried to answer her, but everything I said she shot down with “you didn’t have to convert to do that.”

“You could observe Shabbat without converting.” “You could have your Jewish friends…” You could read Jewish thinkers…” “You could celebrate the holidays…”

Somehow I didn’t feel like she was doubting my decision. It seemed like maybe she was honoring it. Because things were immediately different between us when I told her. Kicking my ass with such familiarity, cheer and warmth, she was showing me my best answer.

Renaissances suck

When we realize our popular philosophies — each, in fact, an antithetical half of one shared popular philosophy — have come to the end of the road, and that they can go further toward explaining the very conditions they have helped produce, some alarming consequences come to light.

First, few are unlikely to allow themselves to suspect the role their obsolete philosophies are playing in their current state of mind, but instead “double down” and use their philosophies more and more obstinately, anxiously and passionately to diagnose what has gone so hellishly wrong with the world around them.

Second, if a critical mass of people do finally discover that the source of trouble in their own philosophies, they will for a time (who knows how long?) suffer collective spasms of dread and reckless renunciation and social chaos will ensue.

Third, a profusion of intense but unstable replacement philosophies will contend to replace the ground of agreement lost in the earlier renunciation. Most philosophies will flame out under their own non-viability, but the ones that don’t will not have the resources to recognize the others and negotiate a coexistence.

Finally, if one philosophy capable of uniting and making mutual sense of the rest emerges and begins to predominate by providing some common ground for agreement and civil disagreement, it will have an entire reality before it to rethink. This comprehensive rethinking is its process of maturity. On its way to adulthood the society itself will be marked by both good and bad characteristics of the young, including the most essential youthful trait — the conceit that one already comprehensively understands what most needs understanding, a phenomenon I like to call “microomniscience“.

My best hope is that this whole revolutionary process actually began decades ago, and that somewhere, or here and there, pockets of practical thinkers and thinking practitioners have already begun maturing a philosophy that the masses can adopt.

Approval or love?

When I was in my early 20s I made a sharp distinction between what I loved and what met my approval, and I noticed my music taste split along those lines, and the best of both tastes conflicted with the other taste. I did not love what I found most acceptable and what I loved was unacceptable. At the time I decided to emphasize what met my approval, and shortly after that I fell in love.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

Evaporated

Around 1994 I had a horrifying dream about a melancholy girl who lived in a tiny apartment above a Ducati showroom. In my dream, she decided to annihilate herself by feeding herself into a transparent tube (like the pneumatic tubes used in bank drive-throughs) which ran from the corner of her room, down the building and into the city’s underside. She just evaporated into vagueness and seeped away.

I never could drive past the real-life Ducati showroom without experiencing loss. Whenever the dream comes true, the sadness is ready.