Wednesday 12 March 2003

Riding easy in harness

[This long entry consists mainly of quotes from other weblogs, which I’ve assembled primarily for my own benefit, since they articulate what is perhaps my most central belief.]

In the last couple of days I’ve received—courtesy of Burningbird, Trevor Bechtel, and The Happy Tutor—a quick refresher course in How Context Shapes Meaning (a subject in which I’d mistakenly imagined I had some expertise).

In her passionately argued essay, Uncompromising Individualism, Burningbird quoted a paragraph from Trevor Bechtel’s Against Independence:

Isn’t the cultural narrative of communities much more powerful than any personal self-knowledge I, or any individual, might posess. Surely I must assent to aspects of one or more communities representations of the world and this in turn shapes the community but the articulation is at the community level first and always most strongly. I may struggle mightily with a community, even one I feel deeply committed to, but it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all. Culture moves us forward not in an inevitable march of progress but simply because it forces us to stand on others shoulders. There is no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge. And even if there was, who would want to?

I’d already found myself in deep disagreement with Trevor, along the lines that Burningbird expressed when she wrote:

To make of each of us into nothing more than a puppet to the community’s whims and actions would still see me back in a small town in the middle of nowhere, married with a dozen children, racist, bigoted, and afraid of anything outside of that which is comfortably familiar. However, lest you think it was exposure to another community that changed me, think again. It was my own uncompromising individuality that started my discordant communion with my ‘community’.

The “communities” that immediately sprung to mind midway through reading Trevor’s argument were those in places like Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda—“communities” riven by long-standing religious, tribal, or racial conflict; “communities” defined by generations of bigotry, racism, hatred, violence, and killing.

It wasn’t until I read the The Happy Tutor’s defence that I realized I’d completely misunderstood what Trevor had said. Here’s the “offending” paragraph as I originally perceived it:

Isn’t the cultural narrative of communities much more powerful than any personal self-knowledge I, or any individual, might posess. Surely I must assent to aspects of one or more communities representations of the world and this in turn shapes the community but the articulation is at the community level first and always most strongly. I may struggle mightily with a community, even one I feel deeply committed to, but it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all. Culture moves us forward not in an inevitable march of progress but simply because it forces us to stand on others shoulders. There is no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge. And even if there was, who would want to?

In a series of insightful posts and comments, The Happy Tutor redirected my attention to the phrases I’d missed (again the emphases are mine):

cultural narrative
understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative
stand on others shoulders
no scratch from which an individual could start an articulation of self-knowledge

The Tutor on Individualism as Moral Insanity:

Well, Crusoe thought he could succeed in isolation, so did Descartes, so do many entreprenuers - deluded souls! There is no Private Language, or if there is it is tantamount to insanity. Individualism is the most group-think concept of our American Heritage, our communal illusion, like the oxymoron, Free Market.

The Tutor On Humility of Spirit (Or, Kiss my Whip):

When AKMA speaks of his own teachers, he does it with reverence and humility. Each is taught and teacher in turn. The current passes as from a powerful magnet through a chain of iron rings, each holding the other. Original? Trevor is not original, he is different, and faithful. “Christian humility” — think of Dr. Johnson on his knees.

The Tutor on Community and the Individual Talent, if Any:

The self is a prison house. The only escape from the self is mastery of a tradition, to become through years of subordination, accepted into a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice. Through that mastery we achieve not our own voice, but the voice of something greater that may once or twice in a lifetime speak through us. Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof, but say but the word and my soul shall be healed.

Jim’s comment on Individualism as Moral Insanity

Well, I would agree with your view that individuality is largely illusive. But the view that originality is just a mirage? No.

It’s real. Elusive, rare, but real.

It is visited upon us occasionally, exclusive of will. Infuses this sorry bag of bones. Dissolves the boundaries of tissue. Steals the common breath. Leaves us gasping, instead, with HOPE.

That we might be gifted momentarily with a less limited vision. That we might *approach* God. This is a constructive and merciful illusion. Let it be.

The Tutor’s response to Jim’s comment:

Excellent, and much on point. The way you put it is exactly right, “We are visited by….” We are visited by the Muse, the Holy Spirit, the tongues of flame, the burning coal, the vernal breeze, the volcanic force, by “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” To others it appears that speaker is original. To the speaker it feels like letting go, while the voice of something greater takes over… the voice of the community, so that you are speaking not just to them, but for them, the voice of a tradition, or, in prophecy, the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe Randall Jarrell, one of the best 20th century critics, and also a poet, put it best. He said a poet is distinguished from a craftsman in that in a life time of standing out in the rain, he manages to get hit by lightning once or twice.

Originality, authenticity, voice — so many blather about these, but do all they can to avoid the lightning, that would shatter the self they so cherish.

I’m not religious, though like The Tutor “I stand respectfully, and feel a kind of awe, in the presence of that faith.” So when Trevor Bechtel writes “it is only in understanding my life in the context of a communal narrative that I can understand life at all” and The Happy Tutor adds “the only escape from the self is mastery of a tradition,” I immediately recognize and acknowledge that these beliefs have always informed my attempts to understand and practice the two crafts that have imbued my life with meaning: photography and writing.

When The Tutor describes “a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice”, I recall my nineteen year struggle to become part of a photographic tradition that starts (for me) with Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan’s images of the 19th century American landscape and runs through the 20th century in the work of Diane Arbus, Eugene Atget, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, W. Eugene Smith, and Weegee.

I know the all-too-infrequent feeling of “letting go, while the voice of something greater takes over”, of discovering on a contact sheet something beautiful and true and of having no recollection of “taking” that picture—rather the photograph had “taken” me, in the sense that the subject took possession of me, expressing itself through me, as a spirit speaks through a medium.

Jackson Browne, in the song Fountains of Sorrow (from Late for the Sky) expresses the complementary occurrence when he sings:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you

In this case, the same spirit takes possession of the viewer and puts him or her in touch with what captured the photographer at the instant the picture took itself.

I feel similarly about the craft of writing and the debt I owe to certain Japanese literary traditions, particularly the zuihitsu, nikki, and shishosetsu, as well as to Fielding and Sterne, to Agee and Sebald, and—as The Tutor recognizes in his entry How He Rambles! - Freedom and Craft—to the classical English essayists: Addison, Chesterton, Hazlitt, Johnson, and Lamb. In other words, to writing which, in Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.”

Enough! I’m rambling. Allow me to finish by acknowledging the truth of The Tutor’s quote from Frost: “Freedom is riding easy in harness.” That’s because a shared cultural tradition turns out to be a considerate as well as a firm master so that the harness eventually becomes light, and soft, and comfortably worn.

Or, as the Japanese say, The further one travels along a narrow path, the wider it becomes.

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Comments

Some of those quotes are too deep for me this early Wednesday morning. I'll come back later and re-read them when my brain wakes up some more, hopefully it will though. ;-)

Posted by Blaine on 12 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Yes, I am too dense and foolish, too shallow to understand all this fully, But then, I am only a computer geek.

Posted by Burningbird on 12 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"Only a computer geek"?

To the contrary, Shelley, I've always regarded you as a gifted, passionate *writer*.

Posted by Jonathon on 12 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Again, I find I'm with Shelley on this. I have incredible difficulty understanding you on this, Jonathon, and I understand this "Tutor" person not at all.

In the quotation you cited above, he makes "the muse" into "the voice of the community." How can he or she know that this is so? What is "the voice of the community?"

And later, he or she writes with what appears to be hostility to any notion of an authentic self. What is the source of that hostility? "blather" and "so cherish"

To me, the voices to be a part of "the community" are all too strong today. The community being the group of people who consume products and work for wages so they can consume more products. The community that feels that making war against Iraq is just and patriotic and rational, and that those who oppose it support tyranny and are unpatriotic and irrational. The community that feels that today's newer and shinier toys will solve all the problems that yesterday's new and shiny toys failed to solve.

The freedom you describe is the freedom of the indifferent, the "go along to get along," the "fake it till you make it," sort of freedom.

The difficulty Trevor writes of in trying to fashion some understanding of the self outside of the context of community is real, and it may indeed be something that can never be ultimately achieved, but does that mean it is not worthwhile? Does Reason itself rely on a cultural context?

Perhaps I am biased. Of late I have come not to trust in "community." That's not to say I wish to live as a hermit, though sometimes, and with growing frequency, the thought does cross my mind.

From my perspective I have lived most of my life fully escaped from my self, performing my role as dutiful cog in a number of larger engines. It was the discovery that the mere performance of duty in a those engines that cared not whit for me, was not alleviating my growing unhappiness that propelled me to undertake something of new path. I could no longer persuade myself that it would get better when...fill in the next wicket to make in life as outlined by the community's idea of the "good life."

I guess that's all just a long-winded way of saying, "I don't understand."

Posted by dave rogers on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Isn't a matter of emphasis rather than an either/or situation?

There's no denying that we all stand on the shoulders --unless we happen to be crushed under their feet -- of those who have gone before us.

The more important question is what happens then? Do we simply accept the teachings of society, of the church, and accept a static, formed society?

Or, do we feel that change is more important than accepting what society tells us? And change only takes place when individuals refuse to merely accept what they've been taught.

Personally, as an "I"NTP, I'd favor Shelley and Dave's view of the importance of individual choices.

Posted by Loren on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I've always considered my individuality to stem from my ability to choose which shoulders to stand on and which community to associate with at any given time.

Posted by Larry Burton on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dave, I suspect our positions are much closer than you imagine. However, I don't agree that Trevor "makes 'the muse' into 'the voice of the community'" -- or rather, that's not how I read the paragraph I quoted. In fact, the phrase "the voice of the community" does not appear at all (nor does "the muse" although I accept that it's implied in what he wrote). I believe he is suggesting that "the muse" arises from what he calls "the cultural narrative of communities" (then later the "communal narrative"). I take this to mean the cultural tradition to which The Tutor refers: "a succession of masters under masters going back generations within a living community of practice."

As regards "an authentic self," I'm less certain. I've spent much of my life searching fruitlessly for "the authentic self" (in the sense of a "unitary self"). When I read Antonio Tabucchi’s "Pereira Declares" (http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/000289.html), I realized that the idea of a confederation of souls under the government of one ruling ego made more sense to me.

I agree with everything you say about the community of consumers -- I feel just as alienated as I imagine you do from the community of consumers, who express their individualism by choosing to drink Pepsi rather than Coke or by repeating secondhand, thirdrate opinions as though they were the epitomy of originality.

The freedom I describe is not the freedom of the indifferent, it is the hard won freedom that comes from devoting oneself wholeheartedly to a practice (in my case, photography then writing). It is not a "go along to get along," "fake it until you make it" sort of freedom. It is hard, lonely, demanding. It requires every ounce of passion and commitment once can discover within one's own meager resources. It is only occasionally rewarding in the conventional sense (fame and fortune) but infinitely rewarding in many other ways.

I do not know whether it is possible "to fashion some understanding of the self outside of the context of community." I would agree with you that the attempt is worthwhile although my personal preference is to work within a cultural tradition.

I have little trust in community, in the terms that you describe it. Nor would I necessarily wish to live as a hermit, though my mother, my sister, and my closest friends would tell you that I already do.

I place all my trust in the community to which I feel connected, most of whose members are physically dead but who live in and through me (and others) through the agency of tradition, language, and -- most of all -- practice.

I know that you practice a martial art. The kind of cultural tradition that The Tutor writes of and that I relate to seem little different from the traditions that inform the various martial arts. I have always assumed, from reading your weblog, that your practice is grounded in a certain tradition, that the techniques you practice week after week are based on techniques that have been practiced by others for years or for centuries, subtly refined and altered over time. I'm really not talking about anything other than commitment to tradition, commitment to practice, and commitment to the language in which the tradition and practice are transmitted.

Loren, my apologies to you (and everyone else) if I've appeared to suggest that "we simply accept the teachings of society, of the church, and accept a static, formed society." For me, the cultural narrative that Trevor describes is dynamic and change occurs when individuals build on what others have created before them by refashioning and reinterpreting the tradition they've chosen to follow.

Larry, you've said in a sentence what I couldn't manage to communicate in nearly 1600 words.

Posted by Jonathon on 13 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Apparently I've failed to convey my ideas accurately, Jonathon. I certainly never meant to imply that I thought you or others I've read on this topic would accept a static, formed society, certainly not the imperfect one we find ourselves in at the moment.

I believe that either approach can lead to positive changes in society, or negative changes for that matter.

Though I follow the individualistic approach, I don't think that my view is too far from yours.

Posted by Loren on 14 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

It's deeply humbling to have one's words taken as seriously as you take them in your post and especially your comment in response to loren and dave. It's even more humbling to feel understood, which I do. Thank you

Posted by Trevor Bechtel on 14 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, I've apologized offline, but want to do so online in addition. My response to your posting was churlish and inappropriate. I was still in a reaction mode from a comment in another weblog, and reacted here -- completely out of context.

I think your viewpoint and the comments here -- other than my own -- have added to this discussion.


Posted by Burningbird on 16 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

>>>
In the quotation you cited above, he makes "the muse" into "the voice of the community." How can he or she know that this is so? What is "the voice of the community?"
>>>

I assume the "stand on shoulders" is a Newton reference, inspired by Issac Newton's remark, "If it seems that I have come far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants." He was reffering, of course, to Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.

The remarks about tradition and community, I have to assume, are meant in the same sense of intellectual tradition that Newton meant - he was a member of the community of astronomers, and when he wrote he became "the voice of the community" at least in part because he was the best practitioner of the craft of that community during his lifetime. The only other interpretation that could be given to words "voice of the community" would be a dark and conformist view of a strangling traditionalist communitarian idea, and the conversation here seems too intelligent to dabble in that. Therefore, given the intelligence of the remarks, I take it on faith that the words weren't meant in some reactionary tradionalist way.

Given the overall brilliance of this conversation, and its freedom from cliches, I have to say this was disappointing:

>>>
I agree with everything you say about the community of consumers -- I feel just as alienated as I imagine you do from the community of consumers, who express their individualism by choosing to drink Pepsi rather than Coke or by repeating secondhand, thirdrate opinions as though they were the epitomy of originality.
>>>

This is a straw-man and a cliche. Who expresses their individuality by buying Pepsi? Can you speak from 1st hand knowledge here? Do you have a close friend who does this, and are they willing to defend the practice? Or is this just something you've read about happening somewhere else?

President Nixon once said, "Some people say, that when you're on the wrong road, when you're going down the wrong road, you should just stay on the wrong road. Don't change, they say. I say, when you're on the wrong road, it's time to get off that road, it's time to find the right road."

This is my favorite straw-man example. Nixon was a genius at using straw-man arguments. I'm reasonably certain no one went around actually saying, "I think we're on the wrong road, and we should stay here." Certainly, those were not the words that Nixon's real opponents used during the 1968 campaign.

At the risk of being off topic, I'd like to suggest that it is impossible to be "just as alienated as I imagine you do from the community of consumers" because there is no community of consumers. Or if there is, or you feel there is, you are using the word "community" in a very unusual way, and differently than you use it elsewhere on this page.

One way to define a consumer, the broadest way, is to define it simply as someone who consumes. By that definition, we are all consumers. That's a real group of people, certainly, though I don't know that I'd call it a "community."

To proclaim that one is against consumerism seems to be a popular stance in America. I don't know anyone who defends consumerism (though I know a lot of people who defend the free market, is that the same?).

I've seen people denounce consumerism, though engage in strange forms of it. I live in a house full of women and three of them are strongly political and anti-cosumerist. Nevertheless, they shop quite a bit for clothes, but only at thrift stores. They seem to think they are being anti-materialist and anti-cosumerist because the stuff they buy is used and cheap. For them, consumerism is buying things that are expensive. That's a perfectly legitimate way to define consumerism, although some people might think that owning less stuff is the only real measure of being anti-cosumerist. The women at my house still end up owning a fair amount of clothes they never wear.

People occassionally have fetish cravings for particular goods or services. I've had friends express almost irrational love for their iMacs, their BWMs, or the service provided by Google. They can reasonably be defined as belonging to a community of users for that particular good or service. However, they don't link their consumer preference to their individualism. (Possibly, over time, to their self-indentity, but that is, to a large extent, an expression of the fact that we are shaped by our skills - thus a Mac user has a different self-indenity than a Linux user, because they have different skill sets).

You could have meant that you felt alienated from that community of people who occassionally have strong consumer preferences for a particular good or service - but if that's the way you define it, I assume it is a community that you at least sometimes a member of.

I'm sorry that my response here is possibly off topic to the subject of hand, but I'm made wary when something is universally condemned, and consumerism in America is something that is, truly, universally condemned. I have not heard Ralph Nader or Rush Limbaugh argue "people should define themselves by what they buy." I'm not sure why the denuciations are so intense, or what is driving the universalism.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner on 16 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I won't speak for Jonathon, but I think the rap against consumerism as he offers it is on target. Perhaps "consumerism" is the wrong word, because as you point out, we all have to be consumers. What is ultimately corrosive about the process of getting people to consume products is that the messages encouraging us to consume are becoming nearly all-pervasive and increasingly sophisticated. These marketing messages, I think, increasingly insinuate themselves into people's belief systems and it is unclear, at least to me, how many people feel the desire or even perceive the opportunity to craft their own sense of identity amid all the demands or suggestions from others, be they companies with a product to sell, or "communities" with an agenda to advance.

A Ford commercial has a jingle with a deep-voiced country singer offering something like, "I'm a Ford truck man, that's what I drive, don't like no boundaries, I don't compromise." Now, perhaps market "research" reveals that the "target demographic" views themselves this way, and this is the best way to appeal to them to identify with Ford trucks. But is that the case? Or is the identity of the target demographic really the product of repeated pitches like that over many years on television, radio and in print? So the guy who buys a Ford truck, does he embrace this notion that he doesn't compromise? Well, I don't know, but I think it's at least possible that these kinds of messages get repeated often enough and they substitute for real reflection and introspection. Apple's "The Crazy Ones" and "Think Different" campaigns are similar. Do Apple users really "think different?" Or do they just think they do because they buy Apple computers? Not all marketing messages make these sorts of appeals, a lot of them are simply harmless, but they do serve as distractions that keep us from thinking.

Does this matter? Well, I think it does because our economy seems to depend on ever-increasing levels of consumption, and the corporations have to become more and more efficient at manipulating people's beliefs to get them to buy more and more products. There has to be an upper limit somewhere, I think, but I'm not sure we've reached it yet. Even in our schools where we probably don't do a very good job educating our youth, there is increasing pressure to inject marketing messages in the classroom, or at least the hallways and cafeterias for now.

So where does one ever encounter the message to think for oneself? Even if we were doing a better job of teaching critical thinking skills, would anyone have much of an opportunity to employ them? This seems to explain the nefarious appeal of "community," and the most egregious examples would be cults, but there are others, like militias and political parties and the like. None of them invite you to think for yourself, they're all very much about presenting messages that are designed to appeal to you and are easily digestable, just like the sound-bites we get in our "news." Assuming one could even make the time between doing all the things our belief system tells us we need to do to be happy and successful, why should we when someone has already gone to the trouble of doing it for us, and we merely have to shop around and pick the one that seems to suit us best?

Now, do I believe all people are sheep and just sort of robotically go through life performing the tasks programmed for them by their corporate and political masters? Well, I'm not sure. I think we're closer to that vision of reality than one where people genuinely think for themselves, to include asking themselves if they need all those clothes whether they buy them new or used.

So I'm not sure what to name this phenomenon, except it seems to have it's roots in consumerism, and that works for me until someone offers a better one.

Posted by dave rogers on 16 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I don't begin to approach the intelligence and understanding of the dudes here before me. But I have an observation, or perhaps question. I was going to blog it, but too hard to lay the context out from scratch.
I get the stuff about community and shared vs private language. I understand the tradition of the masters. But, I think this is about the language we use, not the intrinsic individual expression within. Put that thought to one side for the moment. Then, you quoted a number of things like: "hit by lightning"; "spirit takes possession of the viewer "; "the subject took possession of me, expressing itself through me, as a spirit speaks through a medium".

I see a distinction here: the language we use is a shared language, and meaning for others is a function of that shared language. BUT, I have a notion of some intrinsic, personal, individual expression of emotion. The language is an imperfect vehicle for the truth of that expression. And the truth of that expression comes from the individual's connection/dance/oneness with the universe/fate/destiny/god. Ugly expression I know.

So, ultimately, we are individual in our expression of the truth of the universe. Community gives that expression context and meaning for others. Escape from ourselves by mastery of tradition is a way to open ourselves to the muse. It's about taking away the conscious self to let the real, connnected-with-the-universe self see and speak the truth. Is all that contradictory? Probably. I'm struggling big time here to put into words what I intuitively know to be true.

Posted by Andrew on 17 March 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour