Saturday, February 25, 2012

Remembering the Possibilities

In his essay on Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that "Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was.  Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again" (Potentialities, Stanford UP, 2000, 267).

Remembering is thus both a return to and a psychological re-tooling of the past.    It infuses possibility into already-completed events in a way that reopens the question of the permeable relationship between what was and what is.

Although the events may be over, as anyone who is troubled by memories of the past can tell you, things aren't ever really "over."  They are re-lived in a way that is distinctly different from their first incarnation, but they are re-lived nevertheless.

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, as he comes to terms with the fact of his complete paralysis, Jean-Dominique Bauby acknowledges, "I am fading away.  Slowly but surely.  Like the sailor who watches the home shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede.  My old life still burns within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory" (77).

Bauby compensates by cultivating imaginative propensities designed to transcend his bodily imprisonment: this is the counterpoint between the "diving bell" of his body and the "butterfly" of his mind, testified to in the title of his memoir.

Previously a "master at recycling leftovers," Bauby "cultivate[s] the art of simmering memories" to compensate for the fact that his meals are now delivered via a feeding tube inserted into his stomach (36).

If, as Kwame Appiah has argued in The Ethics of Identity (Princeton UP, 2005), "[t]o create a life is to create a life out of the materials that history has given you" (19), what role does memory play in narratives of physical disability?

Appiah argues that "the measure of my life, the standard by which it is to be assessed as more or less successful, depends, if only in part, on my life's aims as specified by me ... my life's shape is up to me (provided that I have done my duty toward others), even if I make a life that is less good than a life I could have made" (xii).

Appiah's assertion of a life's goodness--both its creation and its assessment--overlooks the notion of bodily impairment, difference or degeneration.  In such cases, what is one's "duty" to others?  Has it changed, and if so, how? 

Although Appiah notes that "a plan of life is not like an engineer's plan," but is instead comprised of "mutable sets of organizing aims" (16), it is nevertheless premised upon merging conceptions of possibility with facts of material existence. 

And in that conception, disability (whether through age or injury) is never addressed as a relevant factor.  The questions of ethics and the phenomena of disability is ever-present in our culture, I think, but nearly always goes unasked.

We'd rather not think about ourselves as anything other than able-bodied.  And yet, as Rene Leriche has noted, "[a]t every moment there lie within us many more physiological possibilities than physiology would tell us about.  But it takes disease to reveal them to us" (qtd. in Georges Canguilhelm, The Normal and the Pathological, [New York: Zone Books], 100).

Able-bodiedness is the "norm" of physiological (self-) assessment, and yet it is also an ideological vanishing point: it never actually or absolutely exists.  Our bodies are always functioning otherwise, but we only notice the alternatives to able-bodiedness when illness makes us aware of them.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that it is not simply the case that disability can interrupt an individual's life-script and radically alter the organizing aims of a formerly able-bodied individual: at the same time, the remembrance of former able-bodiedness typically "interrupts" narratives of disability.

We re-live the life we no longer have.  We re-live the life we thought we were supposed to have, but didn't.

We understand who we are by thinking about who we were and who we have always wanted to be.  Disability and injury radically alter the stakes of this self-assessment.  The notion of a "good life" changes and--perhaps most disturbing for those who are still able-bodied--this change forces all of us to recognize that this definition of life's "goodness" is relative, and by no means absolute.

Agamben addresses the (potential) moral implications of this realization when he notes that "[t]o believe that will has power over potentiality ... is the perpetual illusion of morality" (254).  This never-ending illusion of inherent human control over contingency and materiality is at the heart of Western ethics.

As Georges Canguilhelm has noted, "[f]or a man whose future is almost always imagined starting from past experience, becoming normal again means taking up an interrupted activity or at least an activity deemed equivalent by individual tastes or the social values of the milieu" (119).

In essence, physiological "normalcy" is determined by our sense of our past and our understanding of our future.  We seek to overcome the "interruption" that has occurred, as if it were merely a question of will-power.

As Agamben argues, "Our ethical tradition has often sought to avoid the problem of potentiality by reducing it to the terms of will and necessity.  Not what you can do, but what you want to do or must do is its dominant theme" (254).

I would like to think about the multiple and manifold variations on the theme of will-power that can be witnessed through the lens of disability.  Not what is to be done, but what can be done, and how the concepts of will, contingency, necessity, and disability interrelate in discussions of Western ethics and identity.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Expecting Kindness

"Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness..."
--Naomi Shihab Nye

I've been reading Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations (1861) for my 19th-Century British Literature class.

I won't give the entire plot away, but one scene has been on my mind for the past several days and I finally have a chance to blog about it.

At a crucial moment in the novel, the protagonist, Pip, confronts the elderly (and very strange) Miss Havisham about the fact that she has led him on with regard to his hopes for the future.

When the truth comes out, he asks her quite frankly, "Was that kind?" (360).

"Miss Havisham," Charles Green, c. 1877
8 x 4.9 inches
Dickens's Great Expectations, Gadshill Edition
Her response is to strike her ever-present walking-stick on the ground and wrathfully shriek, "Who am I, for God's sake, that I should be kind!" (360).

Who indeed?

Miss Havisham operates on the assumption that there is no call for her to be kind to Pip--or to anyone, for that matter.  She blames her past (more or less), but I think her response begs the question of whether she ever was, in fact, kind.

To anyone.

And what about Pip?  He has expected kindness from Miss Havisham, although at key points in the novel, he too is less than kind to others.

The questions that I've been thinking about for the past several days revolve around this notion of expecting kindness.

What happens when we assume that others will be kind, only to realize that they aren't and--perhaps even worse--that they never intended to be?

I'm fascinated by the idea of kindness in general, and I'm particularly intrigued by the phrasing of Miss Havisham's rhetorical question: "Who am I ... that I should be kind!"

Why does she link kindness--or in this case, the lack of it--to her very identity?

I have a few vague ideas that may or may not make a lot of sense at this point.  On the one hand, I think kindness is an interesting aspect of self-definition because it revolves around how a person chooses to relate to others.

Pip expects a degree of kindness from Miss Havisham even though he doesn't always show the same to others in his life--as he ultimately (and ashamedly) realizes.

To an extent, realizing that his expectation of kindness has fallen short of the mark with respect to Miss Havisham is the source of his growing awareness of the value of kindness itself.

Other people's cruelty can teach us a lot about who we want to be and about the ways in which we ourselves have been (deliberately or inadvertently) cruel.

People have been cruel to Miss Havisham and she opts to respond in kind instead of responding with kindness.

In Pip's case, however, another person's cruelty inspires him to strive to be kind and to recognize the impact of his own unkindness on others.  In effect, his disillusionment and the loss of his financial "expectations" teach him the value--the inherent "greatness"--of his emotional expectations of others.

In the end, Pip learns that, in the words of John Ruskin, "A little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money."

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Finding Your Fate

I've been teaching Turkish folktales this week, and I have a particular favorite.  It goes something like this:

There was a man who was a failure at everything he tried to do.  No matter what the job, he never seemed to be successful.  He decided there must be a problem somewhere, so he decided to find Fate and ask how to fix his life.

So he set out on a journey to find Fate.  Along the way, he met a wolf who constantly suffered from a terrible headache.  When the wolf found out that the man was going to find Fate and ask for help with his difficulties, he asked the man to please ask Fate how to cure his headache.

The man agreed and went on.

Along the way, he met a watchman who was guarding a vineyard.  When he told the watchman where he was traveling and why, the watchman said, "I took this job as a watchman, but I don't really like it.  Can you please ask Fate how I can find what I want in life?"

The man agreed and continued on.

He came to a river and saw a fish.  When the fish asked the man where he was going, the man explained his trip and its purpose.  The fish said, "If you'll tell Fate my problem, I'll carry you across the river."

The man agreed, so the fish told him that, all his life, he had been unable to close his mouth.  River water was constantly running through it, so he wanted to know what he could do to fix the problem.

The man crossed the river and found Fate sitting on his front porch.  He told Fate about his problem and Fate spun the Wheel of Fortune for him.

He then told Fate about the wolf.  Fate told him that to cure his headache, the wolf should eat the head of the stupidest man alive.

He told Fate about the watchman.  Fate told him, "Buried in the vineyard where the watchman works, you'll find two jars of gold.  If you work together and find it, you'll have enough for both of you to live on for the rest of your lives."

He told Fate about the fish.  Fate said, "Its mouth is blocked with two precious stones.  Take out the stones, and it will be able to close its mouth."

The man thanked Fate and started on his way back home.  He met up with the fish and told him Fate's solution.  He took the stones out of the fish's mouth and saw that they were diamonds.

"You keep them," the fish said.  "I have no use for them."

"I don't need diamonds," the man replied.  "Fate has spun the Wheel of Fortune for me.  That's all I need."

He arrived at the vineyard and told the watchman about the buried jars of gold.  "I don't know where to find them," the watchman said.  "Why don't you help me look, and then each of us can keep one?"

"Fate has spun the Wheel of Fortune for me," said the man.  "I don't need gold."

Finally, the man met the wolf.  He told the wolf Fate's remedy for his headache, and the wolf said, "I'm not sure how I'll know who is the stupidest man alive.  I'll have to give it some thought.  In the meantime, how was your trip?  What did Fate tell you?"

"Fate didn't tell me anything," the man said.  "Fate just spun the Wheel of Fortune, and that's all I needed.  But I did get some help for a watchman and a fish."  And he told the wolf about the other two.

When he finished, the wolf said, "Oh, I see."

And he ate the man's head and cured his headache.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


A beautiful essay by Arthur Kleinman in The Lancet.

Foghorns & Lighthouses

I awoke to the sound of foghorns on the Bay.  I love waking up in a place where you can know the weather just by listening.

In heaven, there will be foghorns.  Not right next to me, obviously, but in the distance.

If you're at all interested in the history of Rhode Island lighthouses--and really, you should be--there are a few good links out there, in particular, at Lighthouses of the U.S. and the U.S. Coast Guard's website.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the metaphoric sense of foghorns and lighthouses, I've been reading Arthur Kleinman's book, What Really Matters: Living A Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger (New York: Oxford UP, 2006, Kindle Edition).

Kleinman argues that we typically overlook or deny the extent to which "ordinary experience" involves "troubling circumstances and confounding conditions that threaten to undo our thin mastery over those deeper things that matter most" (3).

In particular, he suggests that a "classic American cultural coping response" involves assuming a "[m]agical belief in technological supremacy over life itself" and "facing only problems that reach the crisis level one at a time" (6).

In essence, we assume that when it all hits the fan, it will do so in small, measurable increments.  And only come from a single direction.

As anyone who has been alive for more than five minutes knows, however, it just ain't so.

Kleinman notes that "financial advisors, insurance salespeople, surgeons, psychological counselors, security experts and many other professionals have a vested interest in selling the comforting but fundamentally misleading notion of certainty about control over human affairs" (6).  This is the "society-wide myth" of "risk management" (6).

At the same time, however, as I suggested in a previous post (Being Patient), there is a parallel trend of "selling" dangers that don't actually exist in order to convince consumers that they can buy certainty, somehow.

As Kleinman suggests, "Our pervasive consumer culture is founded on another myth of control--the belief that we can solve our problems through the products that we purchase" (7).

It would be nice, obviously, but again, it just ain't so.

So what's an existentialist to do?  Obviously, if we all thought about the radical danger and instability in our lives--the fact that I could reach for my cup of coffee right now, fall over, bang my head on the corner of the desk and never blog again, for instance--we wouldn't get out of bed.

It isn't possible to face that kind of radical uncertainty at every moment of every day, I don't think, without going nuts.  At the same time, however, we do ourselves a disservice if we count on a predictability that simply isn't there.

Life really isn't fair sometimes.  Stupid things happen, and sometimes they're followed by approximately 512 more stupid things, none of which you actually "deserved" in any sense of the word.

As Kleinman points out, in the Bible, Job refers to his state of mind in the wake of his troubles as "vexed" (in Hebrew, "ka'as").

Satan stole all of his property (500 oxen, 500 donkeys, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels), killed his children (7 sons, 3 daughters) and, when that wasn't enough, afflicted him with boils.

As he sits among the ashes, scraping his ulcerous skin with bits of broken pottery,  Job acknowledges he feels "vexed."  His wife tells him he should just "curse God and die."  (Hey, thanks, honey.) 

Admitting he's seen better days, Job nevertheless reproaches her for her lack of faith.

The story of Job possess such resonance because we all know of people who have been wronged who have  in fact done nothing wrong.  Their stories frighten us, because they could so easily be ours.

We prefer, however, to pretend that they couldn't be.  As Kleinman suggests, "The fear seems to be pervasive that if we admit what our condition is really like, we will fall apart, both as individuals and as a society" (10).

The alternatives however, are not necessarily an either-or of despair or denial.  Kleinman argues that "seeing the world as dangerous and uncertain may lead to a kind of quiet liberation, preparing us for new ways of being ourselves, living in the world, and making a difference in the lives of others" (10).

I've seen this development in my own life over the past several years.  It is extremely difficult to frighten or intimidate me at this point, simply because I've been through a lot and I realize that there's no guarantee that more might not happen any minute now.

Anger and bitterness have always been options; so too has panic.  I think you have to experience all of these moments as well: you have to be royally pissed at everything and everyone, you have to acknowledge that you didn't frickin' deserve this, and neither did the people you care about.

And you have to have a major freak-out or two, if the situation warrants it.

But then, yes, you slowly gain a new sense of perspective: some days, a sense of the senseless of it all can be overwhelming.  But for me, the result of those moments is realizing that, if meaning isn't inherent, it can always be made.

We can construct lives of quiet significance, by refusing to allow the anger and chaos and bitterness of other events and people determine who we are and how we will be.

Even if we heed the foghorns and lighthouses of life, we'll still find ourselves totally wrecked from time to time.  But then, we navigate differently and find ourselves wiser for our experiences.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Having and Being

I've been reading the work of German psychologist, sociologist and philosopher Erich Fromm. In To Have or to Be? (1976), Fromm argues that modern culture is marked by "having," to the exclusion of "being."

In particular, Fromm notes how "Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume" (23).

I doubt that anyone in the United States today could dispute this observation. I think we'd just suggest he eliminate the word "may."

I witnessed this firsthand when I recently upgraded my cell phone. It had all kinds of fancy apps and options, but the battery ran out at lightning speed the minute you tried to use any of them.

I was advised to turn off all of the latest innovations and, if necessary, put the phone in "airplane mode" to conserve the battery.

With no sense of irony whatsoever, I was told to bear in mind that doing so would mean that I couldn't send or receive calls, but it wouldn't matter since the phone often had trouble connecting to a cell tower anyway.

Meanwhile, my five-year-old flip phone was languishing in a drawer. It worked fine, its battery was fine, and over the years, it had apparently developed a good working relationship with quite a few cell towers.

So I told them to reactivate my old phone, and I sent the new one back.

In short, I actually "downgraded" my cell phone.

Funny thing is, after two weeks of sitting in a drawer without being charged once, it worked fine. I didn't even have to charge it before I could use it again.

What was disturbing to me was how many people on the various discussion boards simply accepted the fact that they had to accept the "upgraded" phone as-is, because they didn't want to switch brands or get another new one.

No one even thought of simply going back to an "old" phone that probably worked just fine.

One consumer wrote, "Well, I guess I'll have to get one phone for work and one for outside of work, since the battery on this one doesn't last long enough. It's not optimal, but I guess it's what I'll have to do."

This is his logic: my one cell phone doesn't work well enough for me to use it in the way that I want, so I'll have to get two.

There is not a doubt in my mind that all of these people had a fully functioning, albeit deactivated, cell phone already in their possession.

And my guess is, their phones probably weren't even as "old" as mine.

As Fromm notes, prior to the First World War, "everything one owned was cherished, taken care of, and used to the very limits of its utility. Buying was 'keep-it' buying" (59).

By contrast, in modern culture today, Fromm observes (and bear in mind, he's writing this in 1976),
Today, consumption is emphasized, not preservation, and buying has become 'throw-away' buying. Whether the object one buys is a car, a dress, a gadget, after using it for some time, one gets tired of it and is eager to dispose of the 'old' and buy the latest model. Acquisition --> transitory having and using --> throwing away (or if possible, profitable exchange for a better model) --> new acquisition, constitutes the vicious circle of consumer-buying... (59)
Who does this mentality ultimately benefit? The very corporations we all denounce for having such a stranglehold on American politics and the economy. What do we do? We blame China or various third-world countries for stealing American jobs and then selling Americans nothing but crap.

Insisting that products would be better made if they were all made in America is beside the point, in some ways. We're not buying to "keep it," we're buying because what we have is "old"--at least according to the corporate marketing we're constantly subjected to.

And we're not even engaging in a "profitable exchange for a better model" anymore.

Would we keep what we have longer, if it lasted longer? I doubt it. The trends and tendencies in contemporary global consumerism suggest otherwise: cars and gadgets and clothing aren't "worn out" anymore, they're just "old" (i.e., last year's model or style or color).

By contrast, Fromm advocates "being" over "having," and argues that modern human society must begin to shift its orientation if it hopes to survive: if we don't, greed and consumption will, for lack of a better word, consume us all.

As Fromm observes, "The mode of being has as its prerequisites independence, freedom, and the presence of critical reason. Its fundamental characteristic is that of being active, not in the sense of outward activity, of busyness, but of inner activity, the productive use of our human powers" (72).

So many of us are outwardly busy, but inwardly inactive. By contrast, Fromm suggests that truly "productive" people "animate whatever they touch. They give birth to their own faculties and bring life to other persons and to things" (75).

In order to do that, though, they have to see "things" for what they are: inanimate objects that are in no way as valuable as human experience itself.

Ultimately, Fromm offers a provocative analogy for considering the distinction between "being" and "having" in an observation about the phenomenon of color.

When light waves come into contact with an object, the color of that object is determined not by the color of the light waves that are absorbed, but by the color of the light waves that are not absorbed.

The quality of color is determined for an object "not for what it possesses but for what it gives out" (72).

The same should hold true for the quality of human life.

Value resides not in possessions and having, but in being--in what we experience and what we give out.