Sunday 29 February 2004

Kankei: relationship or connection

Contrary to expectation, drastically reducing my consumption of alcohol triggered a corresponding decline in my weblog output: my previous post was a couple of months ago, at exactly the time I decided to drink less. I stopped doing other things too—watching television in mid-December and drinking coffee in early February—but the connection between blogging and alcohol seems too strong to ignore.

I wasn’t even a particularly heavy drinker. A beer and a couple of glasses of wine or a couple of beers and a glass of wine is as much as I ever feel like drinking. Over dinner recently, when I told my friend Willem that I’d started on a plan to drink less, he said: “But you never drank much anyway.” It wasn’t the quantity that bothered me as much as the regularity. Drinking was a habit, like watching television had been, and I was curious about whether I could break another habit as easily.

It’s important to understand that I had no desire to quit drinking. I quit a couple of years ago, for six months, without realizing any profound benefits. I thought I would be more productive, that I would make some substantial progress on the book I was writing. But I was disappointed. The quality and quantity of my writing hardly altered. The book remains unfinished, or unstarted, depending on how you look at it. Which I haven’t, for a while.

I respect the resolve of those who, around the same time, decided to quit but I was after something different: I wanted to drink less and, when I did drink, I wanted it to be from choice rather than habit. For me, quitting would simply mean replacing one type of obsessive-compulsive behavior with another.

Since I don’t socialize much, usually about once a week, it made sense that I would drink a lot less if I didn’t drink at home. So I stopped drinking at home. And still had my usual one/two beer(s) and two/one glass(es) of wine when I went out with family or friends. It didn’t take long to realize that—at home at least—I preferred the feeling when I hadn’t had anything to drink to the fuzzy glow that enveloped me after a few drinks. I slept more soundly and woke up with a clear head. Perhaps we’re only meant to consume a certain amount of alcohol during a lifetime and I’d already reached my quota. One day, looking across King Street at the Vintage Cellars liquor store, the Japanese phrase kankei ga nai (“that’s nothing to do with me”) popped unexpectedly into my head. When I had dinner with Nana the other night and the waitress asked if we wanted to see the wine list, I looked at Nana, she shook her head as if to say “Not for me”, and I realized I didn’t feel like drinking either.

Maybe not watching television made it easier. Someone wrote on the We Quit Drinking discussion board:

The worst cravings have been at night when I am watching tv. How do you conquer those cravings?

Not watching TV worked for me, since one habitual behavior (having a few drinks to unwind at the end of the day) appears to have been inextricably associated with another (watching television to while away a couple of hours at the end of the day).

It was also clear that the “don’t drink at home” policy suited my introversion: for someone who finds frequent socializing too much to bear, the penalty attached to drinking socially makes it unattractive to go out merely in order to drink. On the other hand, knowing that I can drink alcohol on occasion subverts my obsessive-compulsive tendency to seek all-or-nothing solutions.

I’m not suggesting that this approach might be useful to anyone else—perhaps it’s not entirely useful to me—since, as I said, not drinking precipitated at least one unhelpful side-effect. I wanted to write about it because the process that led me to lose interest in alcohol remains a mystery to me. Though not to my friend Karl. When I asked what he thought had happened, he replied without hesitation: “You simply substituted one kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior for another.”

I’m not sure that’s true (admittedly I’m ill-qualified to judge). I had expected that drinking less would release a wellspring of energy: not only would I post more frequently to the weblog (and write the entries in less time), but I’d also resume work on my book project and see a dramatic improvement in my Japanese reading skills. Instead, the opposite happened. I was afflicted by a kind of malaise that, at first, reminded me of Dino, the protagonist in Moravia’s La noia (Boredom). The frontispiece blurb in the NYRB edition of the novel starts:

Dino is approaching middle age, and he is consumed with boredom—not just a lack of interest in life, but a feeling of profound disconnection with the world at large.

That wasn’t quite it: life continued to fascinate me. I didn’t stop writing. In fact I wrote as much as I ever had: about movies, pornography, historical events, shunga, Dr Phil, the photographer Diane Arbus, the Japanese stories I was reading… it’s just that I could never bring myself to finish anything.

Nor did I withdraw from my immediate world—rather, in the words of manga artist Takeuchi Akira—I “surrendered to the demands of my social relationships”.

It was more that my feelings of “disconnection with the world at large” had amplified (symbolized initially, I suppose, by detaching the antenna cable from the TV set in December). Outside the tight circle of my family, friends, and interests, the sense of kankei ga nai (“that has nothing to do with me”) had expanded from the Vintage Cellars store to the world at large and then leached back into whatever I wrote.

Partly, this has to do with being in a similar situation to Stavros: him in South Korea, me in Australia, each of us “half a planet away from all the action”. But, unlike the WonderChicken who was cranking out angry, witty, heartfelt posts (like this, this, and this), I found myself succumbing to the kind of dreaminess that nearly overwhelms Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter:

…toward the end of our marriage I became lost in some dreaminess. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and open my eyes to X lying beside me breathing, and not recognize her! Not even know what town I was in, or how old I was, or what life it was, so dense was I in my particular dreaminess. I would lie there and try as best I could to extend not knowing, feel that pleasant soaring-out-of-azimuth-and-attitude sensation I grew to like as long as it would last, while twenty possibilities for who, where, what went by. Until suddenly I would get it right and feel a sense of—what? Loss, I think you would say, though loss of what I don’t know. My son had died, but I’m unwilling to say that was the cause, or that anything is ever the sole cause of anything else. I know that you can dream your way through an otherwise fine life, and never wake up, which is what I almost did. I believe I have survived that now and nearly put dreaminess behind me, though there is a resolute sadness between X and me that our marriage is over, a sadness that does not feel sad. It is the way you feel at a high school reunion when you hear an old song you used to like played late at night, only you are all alone.

“A sadness that does not feel sad.” Something like the feeling one has on returning home after spending time abroad and realizing that, although much has changed, nothing has changed at all. More to the point, the society you were raised in and retained some residual loyalty towards has managed quite well (or badly) while you were away and it hits you that your presence or absence would have had little impact either way.

I didn’t stop reading weblogs. In fact, thanks to FeedDemon, I probably read them more than ever. I kept myself appraised of the “issues du jour”: the Orkut Juggernaut, the Shaming of Marc Canter, the Rise and Fall of Howard Dean, the Rise and Rise of Joe Trippi, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Community, the Echo Chamber… and, underpinning everything, the growing belief that technology—particularly weblog technology—offers a solution to almost any conceivable social, political, economic, or even interpersonal problem. I took it all in, from a distance, dreamily thinking: “Omoshiroi kedo, kankei ga nai…” (“Interesting, but nothing to do with me.”)

Then this morning I read a review of Elisabeth Sifton’s The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, a memoir of growing up as the daughter of the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. She wrote about her father:

All his life, he fought against conservatives because they usually disregarded the imperatives of social justice, but he was also skeptical of liberals because they usually radiated implausible optimism…

It’s happening here too, it struck me, so many weblog technologists radiating that same implausible optimism. As Steve Talbott wrote in an article Lago linked to yesterday:

Technology pushers too often fail to recognize the difference between solving a problem and contributing to the health of society. Solving problems is, in fact, one of the easiest ways to sicken society. A technical device or procedure can solve problem X while worsening an underlying condition much more serious than X.

Actions have unintended consequences. As in: I pretty much stopped drinking and immediately fell into a dreaminess that left me disconnected from the world at large and from something—weblogging—that I thought I really loved.

Earlier in the month, responding to Shelley Powers’ Community Member or Writer essay, Loren Webster wrote:

In its better days this blogger felt like he was joining a conversation with Jonathon, Jeff, Shelley, Dave and others who joined in spontaneously. The discussion not only made me consider other’s opinions, but made me rethink my own position so that I could share it with others.

Loren’s right. Something changed. Stavros nailed it in his marvellous, passionate post Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Wonderchicken:

Your $500 blog conferences, your NeckFlex For President consultancies, your sad tawdry whoredances with the old media moronocracy devil, your repetitive linkery to the same tired wanna-be self-declared pundits you met at the last convention, your careful management of a media face that is, in the end, marketable, it makes me want to puke. It kills the spirit of this thing that I was so in love with, and turns it, as avarice and self-regard always does, to shit.

Jeneane Sessum too:

Yes, I do think a divide is emerging within a medium that attracted us initially by its flatness—no one really wielding any more power than another except through the quality of their writing and ideas and the strength and power of their individual voice…

Now bloggers fly hither and yon for conferences, for meetings, to campaign for the latest answer to humanity’s (that’s US humanity, of course) ills. And the physically connected bloggers create this new hyper/physical space where they talk and move and network and exchange money—and where does that leave our online space and those of us who choose not to ride the blog train?

And Shelley Powers:

We talk about the power of this medium, and how it’s going to be an influence in politics and journalism. “Power to the People!” Yet it is also the most vulnerable to pressure from the ‘community’, and therefore the least reliable. Weblogging as a community tool is no different than any other social organization — there will always be subtle, or not so subtle, clues about how you should adjust your behavior to stay a part of the community. Adhere, and you’ll be rewarded; ignore them enough, and eventually you’ll find yourself cut adrift.

And Dave Rogers:

Most of the discussions about “echo chambers” and “group-think” and “community” are carried on within a very narrow set of beliefs which have been cherry-picked to make us feel as good about ourselves as possible, even if they don’t adequately describe the phenomenon they’re trying to address. As long as we can feel “good,” whether that’s advocating for “emergent democracy” or “smart mobs;” or railing against sexism, elitism, or whatever other “-ism” that has provoked a response, then we’re not going to be inclined to look much further into our own behavior, our own beliefs, our own reasoning. It is superfluous to the goal of maintaining an interior state of homeostasis - usually a feeling which can be described as “good” if only by noting its absence as in “I don’t feel comfortable with…” Or, “I’m offended by…” Which is ultimately why we do the things we do: Because it feels “good.” For the most part it works. But at the edges, it doesn’t, and more and more we’re finding ourselves living at the edge. And woe be unto he or she who challenges what makes us feel “good.” They will be made to feel “bad!”

And Lago:

Ernest reminds us that people who are claiming to help others or seek answers to problems may in fact simply be maintaining illusions that achieve positional satisfaction for the members of the community supporting the claims. This brings up an interesting thought exercise, which is to select any particular idea put forward by a group or community (say, “social network software”) and then figure out what it would take to maintain the illusion of that idea, without assuming any particular truth or falsehood. Follow up by asking who gains from the maintenance of such an illusion, and who loses if that illusion is broken. Might we find that the very people who spend the most effort enforcing hegemony are the ones who have the most at stake in maintaining the illusion, maximizing positional satisfaction without regard for the greater context of their activities? And if, as Gellner claims, most people are engaged in this activity, how can we then break out of these illusions that give us so much satisfaction?

What’s also changed is that this kind of pushback is now dismissed as “negativity” because it doesn’t meet some nebulous definition of polite discourse. I couldn’t help thinking of Stephen King’s observation:

It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

There’s no way of happily resolving the argument. What Stavros described as

the steady transformation of this new thing of ours, this weblogging, webwriting, webwrangling thing, into a mirror of the same old evil topdown medium of the kind that has failed us all so miserably in the past

will continue unabated—it’s led, and supported, by good people with the purest intentions, albeit with a shaky grasp of the Law of Unintended Consequences. But the spirit of this thing we were all so in love with—which for me, in its best moments, has always been a celebration of the beauty and sadness of everyday life—is indestructible (as long as the dabs of grit keep seeping into the oyster shells).

So the WonderChicken’s lament that

The weblogging gangs of old, the ones I felt a part of, well, they still are loosely bound, but the threads are so thin now that they are almost invisible.

is pretty much the only thing he’s written lately that I can’t wholeheartedly endorse. The threads might be thin and almost invisible but they remain resilient and strong. They’ve drawn me out of my dreaminess and reconnected me, replacing kankei ga nai with missetsuna kankei ga aru (“I’m intimately related to this”). And if, like Frank Bascombe, “I have survived that now and nearly put dreaminess behind me”, it’s thanks to the insistent tugging of those golden threads.

We’ll see how it goes.

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Comments

It will continue unabated, true, but as long as there's a little corner for me to play in I won't worry about it so much. I guess I never expected all this to change the world, at least not much, so I'm happy if a few well-chosen words change my afternoon. As yours have.

Glad to read you again.

Posted by steve on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back, Jonathon.

Not being much of an emailer, I'm glad to read another of your thoughtful entries.

For me,it's been the absence of you, Dave Rogers, Jeff and Shelley for extended periods that made me question whether I really wanted, or needed,to continue blogging.

But, then, we introverts always have had a smaller circle of friends, virtual or otherwise.

Posted by loren on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome home, brother.

Posted by jeneanae on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Yes, welcome. Like my fellow steve, I never expected this to change the world, and as long as I have my online friends to exchange ideas with I don't much care what the "A-listers" get up to, so the whole anguished controversy pretty much passed me by, but boy, am I glad you found a way to return. O-kaeri nasai!

Posted by language hat on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I like to think that my favorite bloggers would write regardless of the vagaries of the medium. And they do.

Posted by Matt on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I've got a fine bottle of South Australian shiraz that needed a suitable excuse to drink. Thanks, Jonathan, I'll be toasting you tonight.

Posted by Allan Moult on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Indeed. Welcome back Jonathon, your writing has been sorely missed.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Glad to read another of your marvelously well crafted essays. Thank you.

Posted by Frank Paynter on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back Jonathon. Like I said elsewhere, you have been missed.

Posted by stavrosthewonderchicken on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

You nailed it.

Posted by Joe on 1 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

For some reason, I can't get the image of Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! out of my head:

"Looks like I've picked the wrong day to give up drinking."

I'd say welcome back, but then I never thought you'd left.

P.S. "And stop calling me Shirley!"

Posted by dave rogers on 2 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back, Jonathon.

Posted by Mike Sanders on 2 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back, Jonathon. You've certainly been missed.

Posted by John on 2 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Welcome back indeed. You write too well to deny your readers.

I find your comments on the obsessive behaviours interesting: I too am an introvert who stopped drinking for a while because it was at an excessive level. The effects of stopping for me were rather more damaging than for you and, for that reason, I have resumed drinking. But this is the obsessive bit: I either drink my normal quota -- more than you, but less than before I stopped -- or deliberately organise things so there is no booze to be had and I go without. Moderation does not seem to be an option.

As for the rest of it, I'm heartened by people like you and Stavros. I write neither well nor prolifically and I'm too reserved, fumbling and slow to keep up with the "in" crowd, however much I might have wanted to. Yet I'm in this thing because I crave conversation, the exchange of thoughts and ideas. (Sure, I get that through email, but only with the people I already know.) And, as I slowly grow in confidence, I'll learn to use it more for self expression for its own sake, for my own creative needs. It's good to know that there are many other like-minded souls out there, good to know that art and emotion are every bit as sucessful in this place as playing the social games.

Posted by andrew on 2 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

I gave up blogging some three months ago. My drinking has neither increaded nor decreased - I tend to consume two really fine beers and a glass of Black Bush and call it a night - but my perception of time certainly has changed. Like some of the commentors here I wasn't aware that you had gone away. Really. I mean what's two months?

When you blog, two days is an angst filled eternity.

So maybe it's not a big block party anymore. Maybe it's not daily alehousing after work. Maybe it's a glass of wine every once in a while.

Maybe the rush will be in the getting together. not in rushing to get together.

Posted by brian moffatt on 3 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

"Like some of the commentors here I wasn't aware that you had gone away."

Um, actually I think you're the only one. But hey, you found out eventually!

Posted by language hat on 4 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry. "Unlike each and every commentor here...."

L Hat., clearly, irony is dead. You stickler you!

My point being Jonathon, I'd rather read something once every two months, than not at all.

No strings - or ties - attached.

Here's looking at you

Posted by brian moffatt on 12 March 2004 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (spam)]

Posted by olya on 26 May 2004 (Comment Permalink)

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

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour