Category Archives: Ideas

Shells and pearls

This is a series of rewritten, streamlined posts on the theme of shells and pearls, which I’m considering incorporating into my pamphlet. I’ll link to the originals. If you have time to compare, let me know if you think anything was lost in the chipping, sanding and polishing.


Evert

Announcing an exciting new vocabulary acquisition: evert. I have needed this word many times, but I’ve had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning things inside-out.

Evert – verb [ with obj. ] – Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out: (as adj. everted) : the characteristic facial appearance of full, often everted lips. DERIVATIVES:
eversible (adj.),  eversion (n.). ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’

With this wonderful new word I can say things like this:

“An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.”


Irridescent Irritants

Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.


Nacre

You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?


Father-of-Pearl

(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.

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Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

That galut in the pit of your gut: everted Eden?

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A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.


The earliest mention of pearls from this blog was posted on December 14, 2008.

Nacre

Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.


The earliest use of this mother-of-pearl metaphor I can find in my stuff was posted on another blog platform in December, 2006. (Again this has been edited. In my opinion, the original was uglier and more opaque. I’ll post it in the comments.)

Transcendence, non-understandings, misunderstandings

An unresolved understanding becomes a live question — an existential irritant. To ease the pain of non-understanding, the question is coated with an answer, like a pearl. Such answers re-explain away ideas which were never offered as explanations. What ought to be known internally and poetically is known about externally and factually.


Any surprise that the mezuzah I placed on the doorpost of my library is encased in mother-of-pearl?

Hanging the mezuzah inspired me to clean up my office! It’s nice to be in here, again.

 

Reenlightened or Snuffed

Here is our choice: 

a) Update how we as a species think, act and feel so we can finally reach some fundamental agreements that permit us to continue to enjoy the fruits of our blessed artificiality…

or

b) Refuse to update — making agreement and coordination impossible and a new profound Dark Age inevitable, starting with a violent thinning of the herd by the most brutish, backward and “natural” half of the species, and concluding with the snuffing of the survivors by Earth herself.  

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Humankind is not the species it was 50,000 years ago, and if the last 200 years of progress is amputated from our history, it would be better described as decapitation. 

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Fundamentalists are slaves of symbols they cannot understand. 

America is philosophically diseased

America is philosophically diseased.

Most Americans perceive, believe and intuit using 19th and 20th century modes of understanding which are 1) are incompatible and irreconcilable with the others, 2) mutually hostile, and 3) inadequate for making theoretical, practical and moral sense of the realities we face.

And every one of these obsolete and broken-down philosophies assures the mind it binds that there is no need for philosophizing. Doing, not thinking, is what is needed now! Thinking is useless enough, but thinking about thinking? — That is the most pointlessly abstract, idle and meaningless thing any person could do.

The only way out of the crisis we face — (a crisis much worse than an unphilosophical mind can know how to know!) — is to learn to conceive truth very differently than we do today. We are desperate for a new popular philosophical platform, not to make us all come to the same conclusions, but to support our differences and to help us navigate them peacefully and productively.

We need, at minimum, an upgrade in a) our epistemology (and ontology), b) our ethics (and metaphysics) and c) our political practices. My own prescription is a) Bruno Latour, b) Emmanuel Levinas, c) Chantal Mouffe. But before we can build we need demolition (Friedrich Nietzsche) and ground clearing (Richard J. Bernstein).

I look at this list of thinkers, and I love seeing them together like vertebrae in a backbone.

Here is a suggested core curriculum for regeneration of philosophy for our times:

 

We are diplomats

Whether we like it or not, when we act as the individual Who we know we are, we represent a What others believe we are. 
Each of us is a diplomat of the categories we are to others. 

Hannah Arendt said “No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.”

Alternative wisdoms

The wisdom of the romantics: “Close your ears to distracting and deceptive voices and obey your heart’s commands.”

The wisdom of the liberals: “Listen to the voices of the others around you and educate your heart before you trust its commands.”

The wisdom of fundamentalists:  “Listen only to us who know and love the Truth, train your heart for obedience, then with ears closed to distracting and deceptive voices, execute righteousness.”

Contained and comprehended


If Levinas is right — and I believe he is — it is no accident that the person I know whose formula for intellectual victory was to “contain and comprehend” the other was also among the most amoral people I’ve known. Whether he behaved admirably or despicably, the only judgment that weighed on him was how his soul experienced his own soul as he acted before it.

Neither argument nor morality are about self-satisfaction of reason, and when this basic fact is misunderstood all other highfalutin “spiritual” concepts and practices become solipsistic puppet play. 

You cannot vault over the ordinary transcendence of other people’s minds and arrive at some communion with superhuman Transcendence. The failure to make the leap, and the fall into the abyss of immanent dreaming of transcendence is “experienced” by oneself as spiritual success.

The desire to reduce all phenomena to the terms of self and to protect these terms from whatever attempts to impinge by effecting repentence (metanoia) is, if not the origin of all evil, at least one key tributary. 

Two kinds of othering

According to Wikipedia “when the term the Other is used as the verb Othering, it labels (distinguishes and identifies) someone as belonging to a category defined as the Other. The practice of Othering is the exclusion of persons who do not fit the norm of the social group, which is a version of the Self.”

It is interesting that of all words, we use this word to designate reduction of other individuals to mere instances of categories, which are mental extensions of one’s own self. It is precisely otherness — that of their being that transcends our minds — that we deny others. Seen this way, it would make more sense to call it Selfing.

It is also interesting that many so-called “religious people” are the quickest to reduce everything to the terms of their doctrine, which, contrary to their doctrines, is precisely denial of transcendence, not its affirmation. The greatest reduction of all is the ultimate Other, God, who becomes a personal possession — a mental idol worshiped as God in place of God.

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I see two categories of othering. The usual negative othering (or anti-othering), such as racism, sexism or xenophobia is contemptuous disregard of those categorized as instances of despised groups. The disregard will be underpinned by different styles of justification, usually essentialist on the illiberal right and sociological on the illiberal left.

Positive othering (or philo-othering) is the same reduction of individuals to instances of categories (and in the process, depriving the other of otherness), but the value assigned to the other is affirmative. This process still denies the transcendent reality of the affirmed other, but awards the dehumanized other favorable status. By this way of thinking, reverse-racism should not be used to designate hatred of white people by black people (that’s simply racism), but rather that strong inclination of white leftists to view all people classifiable as “people of color” in a favorable light, instead of approaching individuals as the individuals they are.

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Liberalism seeks conditions to allow each individual to self-classify — to choose they groups they represent — and to adopt whatever intersectional identity they wish to have, not those imposed by others. As long as these classifications are imposed, liberalism still has work to do. It is unclear to me that philo-othering or affirming equal-but-opposite anti-othering is helpful to this cause.

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Fundamentalist philo-othering of God denies God’s reality at least as much as atheist anti-othering of God. When I hear debates between fundamentalists and atheists see anti-otherers and philo-otherers collaborating on a worldview where religion has no place.

Dying of disrespect

Americans generally believe it is good not not care what other people think.

Saying “I don’t care what you think” is often seen as a sign of independence, toughness and spirit. We say it with a tone of pride, as if we have demonstrated a virtue. When we are bothered that someone thinks poorly of us, we scold ourselves for caring so much what others think. We shouldn’t care about that.

But not caring what others think is a formula of disrespect — almost its definition. Look at the etymology of re-spect: back + look. If I look at you and I see someone who looks back and sees me, I respect you. If I look at you and see something whose seeing is irrelevant, I disrespect you.

When we say someone has disrespected us, what we mean is that they have *demonstrated* disrespect. But the disrespect was there prior to the act, and the suspicion that we are not respected is profoundly alienating. The sin of disrespect is committed in the heart before it is committed with word or action.

I find this exaltation of disrespect alarming. I am alarmed not only because disrespect is painful to the disrespected and degrading to the disrespectful, but because the institutions most vital and essential to our way of life are all ones that depend on respect to function and flourish. How is it that a nation so utterly dependent on respect has embraced disrespect as admirable? Can we really adhere to an ethic of disrespect and hope to thrive as a nation?

If you doubt that our national institutions all assume and require respect, here is a list of some key examples:

  • Our market, at least when it functions properly, is a place where companies work to develop products and services that customers prefer over other possibilities. When competition gets fierce enough, companies will go to extreme lengths to figure out exactly how their customers see the world in order to do a better job of appealing to them. This is an extreme kind of respect.
  • Our democracy, when it functions properly, forces candidates to figure out what their constituents want from them and to explain to them how they intend to deliver results. The incumbents must demonstrate how they have delivered or explain persuasively why they did not deliver or risk being voted out of office. The candidates must care how their constituents think and what they think of them. In a healthy democracy, disrespect costs a politician their job.
  • Our judiciary system also requires persuasion. A lawyer attempting to persuade a jury of peers is by proxy attempting to persuade the public of the truth of her case. Again: respect.
  • Our legislative process, despite what so many Americans have come to think is a collaborative design process performed legislators of differing opinions. All design processes require extreme respect among collaborators, each of whom looks for novel resolutions to apparent obstacles which permit miraculous possibilities of alignment where before there was only mutual objection and frustration. But our public — who believe a good politician is one who already knows what is best, who grandstands on Uncompromising Principles, and obliterates opposition through sheer force of will, and who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it — elects leaders who exemplify the disrespect ethic, effectively hurling human monkey-wrenches into our delicate political mechanisms. Is it any wonder things have stopped working in Washington? And it seems that many of us think the solution to this problem is to find new, even more potent forms of disrespect so overpowering that they can just sweep aside what remains and get things done autocratically in the manner of a sole proprietor of a private business, who calls all the shots, makes hard calls and… doesn’t have to care what anyone thinks about it. “My way or the highway.” (Where is the highway in a nation? Deportation? Jail?)

These are some of our key liberal-democratic institutions, but it is not even a complete list.

Can we  afford to continue to exalt disrespect? Is it possible America’s worst troubles are symptoms of disrespect? Are we perhaps even dying of disrespect?

And can an individual citizen do anything about this?

I think much of the damage is done individual-to-individual. Like it or not, when we converse with other people, we represent our political positions. When we show someone disrespect, we do so on behalf of who they think we represent. When you converse as a member of a political party, a religion, a race, a profession, a generation, a philosophy, a stance on some issue, or whatever — you represent a group. You become a concrete experience — a touch-point, as we call it in the design business — of something otherwise abstract and intangible. To represent your group is an enormous responsibility if you think about it.

If you are persuaded at all by what I am saying, you might want to meditate on three questions:

  1. How often do you catch yourself admiring disrespect?
  2. Have you reflected on whether disrespect is a good thing to admire?
  3. How many times a day do you feel or show disrespect, versus feel and show respect — especially to those who disagree with you?

I think this is the most important thing I have to say right now. Struggling with disrespect and overcoming it is more complex and difficult than it seems on its face — it is, in fact, a discipline on the order of religion — but simply questioning the ethic of disrespect is a crucial first step.

Worldview referendum

Our national elections are no longer about which person is most qualifed to lead or which candidate’s policies will work best in our pluralistic but unified nation. 

Increasingly, our elections are referendums to determine whose worldview defines our national identity, and consequently which of us are real Americans and which of us are imposters who wish to degrade or pervert it. 

Darkness, blindness, distraction, obscurity, remoteness

Perception can miss a reality because of darkness, blindness, distraction, hiddenness, or remoteness. 

  • Darkness is obsurement due to absence of medium. Absence of light makes dark. A vacuum makes silent. 
  • Blindness is a failure of reception. Failure of sight is blindness. Failure of hearing is deafness. 
  • Distraction is a failure of attention. The eye is stimulated but vision doesn’t see. The ear is stimulated, but hearing doesn’t hear. 
  • Hiddenness is a concealment of a reality by other realities. An object is hidden behind another object. A sound is masked by noise. 
  • Remoteness is a vanishing in distance. A faraway object is too tiny to see. A faraway sound is too faint to hear.

Understanding can also miss a reality because of darkness, blindness, distraction, obscurity, or remoteness. 

  • Darkness is an absence of medium — ignorance — lacking language or concepts needed to comprehend. 
  • Blindness is a failure of reception — stupidity — mental weakness. 
  • Distraction is a failure of attention — inattention — non-detection of patterns and connections. 
  • Hiddenness is a concealment of realities by other realities — confusion –interference between unconnected concepts and confusion of categories.
  • Remoteness is a concealment by distance — incuriosity — failure to see relevance. 

Trapped in transitivity

The root cause of today’s conflicts is what has been the root cause of conflict since the dawn of human existence: we do not know how to relate ourselves intellectually, practically or morally to that whom we are not. We do not understand metaphysical relation. 

Because we do not understand metaphysical relation we do not know how to think metaphysics, and we make the dire category mistake of thinking about metaphysics. Because… how else do you think anything besides thinking about it? And with mistaking failure to answer for receiving an answer we are trapped in transitivity, like a chicken trapped behind a chalkline. We do not know how to know otherwise, so we know the only way we know how, and that way is utterly inadequate. We cannot step over this chalkline, so we stand with our backs to it and look in the other direction. 

That is, we turn our backs on God. 

That is, we succumb to fundamentalism, that miscarriage of religion that cannot imagine it is not the epitome of religion. 

I am paraphrasing Levinas again.