Blowing it

This was what I was going to post on the 11th after I had been on the train all day sleeping but I fell asleep in the middle of writing it. Sometimes sleep just leads to more sleep–you know how that goes?

Two [ed.: yeah three since this one passed too] days pass without an entry and now I suppose that means I have “blown” NaBloPoMo but this is one those situations where I will dissent from the common vernacular and say for myself that I have not “blown” anything as long as I continue to post every day that it is at all practicable–i.e., every day that I’m not with friends 24/7, which should pretty much be the rest of the month with the possible exception of Thanksgiving although I must admit I have not yet received my invitation to Lingerie Thanksgiving so I am not sure it is happening this year which would be tragic but you know things change sometimes. That is things change all the time.

The point of doing the post-a-day challenge was to give my blog a reason to exist: for the regular posting of some sort of textual, visual or aural object that represented an effort to think around some sort of kernel of an idea. The blogosphere is not exactly a world of academic essays or unassailable arguments but that was not the point either. I was not trying to produce something “publishable” every day. As Gertrude Stein pointed out, not everything you say is literature. But if she had waited 75 years she could have blogged it all!

I did not blow it this year so long as I can continue to produce something every day that I have a chance to do so. The last three days were spent traveling to San Diego, hanging out in San Diego, and traveling back from San Diego. In fact I am still traveling back from San Diego but I am near an outlet on this train and so can write although I may have to start looking out the window while typing lest I develop motion sickness from gazing at a screen which gently bobs this way and that before my eyes which are bobbing in different directions from those of the screen and you put it all together with the inner ear doing some third thing and boy do I feel pukey all of a sudden.

I know people who are doing NaNoWriMo as well who have said that they are never going to make 50,000 words by the end of November but they are still writing which is all that is supposed to happen anyway. None of us has “blown it.”

How more American could it be to insist that one day missed blogging means you have blown the whole thing–just as eating that piece of chocolate cake means you have blown your diet, as though you could not resume it immediately, or that having that drink or pill means that you are no longer “clean” and have lost all control over your actions when in fact you could simply not have another drink and/or pill. You could! Many do. Honestly, our Puritan roots sometimes are so painfully obvious that we should all run around wearing one of two t-shirts emblazoned either “good” or “evil,” or maybe “servant of god” or “servant of satan” or some other variation thereof. It would be mandatory to wear a t-shirt like this every single day and you had to choose one and only the “good” people would be allowed to, I don’t know, open checking accounts or get into the movie theaters (of course I am well aware that a “bad credit” t-shirt can ruin your chances at a new checking account; maybe better to reflect the real foundation of our Puritan ideals the t-shirts should say “rich” and “poor”).

And of course we would have to wear the “bad” t-shirt immediately and for all time once we had thought something untoward about a neighbor or had stolen a pen from the bank. Why would anyone object to this? If you have done nothing wrong then you have nothing to worry about, right? Well, not necessarily.

This is sort of old news and maybe we think with the Democrats in charge we will soon be safe from the far right politicians who engineer this type of investigation into the lives of civilians who have done nothing remotely blamable. But I would not count on it. People with power rarely give it up, and the federal government has been handed a crap load of authority to barge in on the lives of whomever they please.

But to stay somewhat on-topic with what I was sort of beginning to talk about, here is an especially chilling quote from the above-linked article which, if you didn’t click, told of a Maryland State Police action to classify “53 nonviolent activists as terrorists and [enter] their names and personal information into state and federal databases that track terrorism suspects.” This happened under a Republican Governor who appointed this Hutchins fellow police superintendent. They are out of office now, but here is what Hutchins had to say about the incident:

The former state police superintendent who authorized the operation, Thomas E. Hutchins, defended the program in testimony yesterday. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists “fringe people.”

Fringe people. You know, there have been times when I would gladly take on that designation–especially when reading articles like this one and suspecting for the nth time that I do not belong here or at least not now–but sort of like the word “queer,” it is not ok when someone else calls me that. Not that I am in Maryland or on that list, but I am a non-violent activist and blogger and I am quite certain that should I ever garner an appreciable amount of attention I will be watched by somebody who has decided I am anti-American, because I am anti-capitalist and religiously extremely unorthodox, not to mention as queer as, say, a housecat who does what you ask it to.

This urge to place oneself in a group of “good” people by defining that group so that it excludes others who are, for whatever reason one wants to make up–and they are all made up–unworthy of membership in the “in” group is one of the oldest tricks in the Anglo-European tradition. That is not to say that variations on this theme do not exist in other cultures, but often times you will find that dichotomy in other cultures does not work nearly as exclusively as it does in ours, or that whatever exclusiveness there may be tends to be modulated when thinkers allow that “opposites” often involve each other, to the extent that they cannot be said ever completely to exclude one another.

But this rarely happens in Western metaphysics. Since Plato on the heathen side and Abrahamic traditions on the religious side, there has been a millennia-long campaign in Western culture to “purify” the positive pole in any given oppositional pair: good must be cleansed of evil, for instance; purity must necessarily exclude impurity. This is not necessarily intuitively obvious: as one moves further from Europe, across Asia and into Hindu and Buddhist ways of thinking, the opposition between “opposites” begins to be more nuanced, and at times is on the point of obliteration, but not with the result being a perfect, unified “synthesis” of opposites, as the more simplistic interpretations of Hegelianism would have it.

Instead what we find is something like an infinite variety of possibilities, none of them diametrically opposed to any other of them, and none of them completely disentangled from the rest of them. This is an oversimplification of a number of schools of thought, but I am only trying to outline broadly what might be an alternative, or an infinite number of alternatives, to dualistic thought. Interestingly, perhaps, Western thought itself starts to diverge from dualism when it is moving in more esoteric regions: Jewish mysticism sometimes casts off the dualism of orthodoxy for something more difficult to articulate, and some post-modern theorists–the ones everyone loves to hate but nobody actually reads–also poke around at the supposed impregnability and mutual exclusiveness of logical opposites.

But I do not want to get too abstract here. Why have I even gone off on this tangent? There are lots of reasons why it appeals to me to think about things in this way, but one practical result of deconstructing the urge to dichotomy is to break down the barriers which have been erected along the boundaries of society–even now and even still, when it seems as though we should have moved past absolute dogma years ago, while it continues to lurk in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to retake the popular imagination. In fact, I do not think the popular imagination in the culture I was raised in has ever seriously questioned the idea that there are but two alternatives when categorizing things: that is, there may be more subtle and interesting ways to distinguish between acts, persons, and ideas than “good” or “bad,” or “us” vs “them,” to name two instances, but I do not see much evidence that my fellow Americans have ever given these possibilities a whole lot of thought.

One of my favorite moments in teaching (nestled in there among the labyrinth of anxiety and fear that keeps me from continuing to teach) was when, during a visit to my office, a student had a particularly spectacular “a-ha!” moment. We were talking about whether it was possible that something could be neither “true” nor “false”–we were not being very specific about what the thing was, but I think we could have been talking about statements more than any other thing–and I drew a diagram with a circle around dots representing “true” statements, leaving “false” statement-dots outside the circle. And then I drew a bigger circle around the false statements and asked “What about those statements that fall outside of this true/false system?”

She was quiet for a moment. Suddenly her eyes got really big and she said quietly, “Oh my god.”

She looked more relieved than if I had told her I had talked the registrar into bestowing her degree on her the next day. Now, drawing an exclusive circle around an exclusionary thought system does not do justice to what it actually means to deconstruct dichotomy, but for there to be an “outside” to a system still requires in most American students’ minds that there be a boundary around that system to be “outside” of. In actual practice, that is not how it works at all. I only had two dimensions to work with very quickly, though. Perhaps I should have hovered my pencil above the paper and said “what about this point up here,” but I am not always quick on my feet–see labyrinth of anxiety and fear, above.

But so yeah, no. I haven’t “blown it” and there is still good reason for me to claim to be participating in this blog-a-day marathon. I am not one of “them” and nobody who has missed a day is unless your explicit goal was every. single. day. But if that were the case, I would ask why. I know one response is “I like the challenge,” but the challenge is still there after your missed day: keep writing. That is why we are here, is it not?

I think a good exercise for darned near everyone might be to think of a moment when they have been most seduced by exclusive thought: whether it has been in thinking anyone who does not believe in your god is “lost” or if it has been in believing there are always two easy alternatives to every question, and all one has to do to live a “good” life is to choose the right one, which will be self-rewarding and thus self-reinforcing. A concrete example of the last might be blaming the poor for their own poverty. “If they just worked harder”; “If they just made the right choices”; “If they just valued education the way I do”; etcetera. Nothing is that simple. Life is a complex interaction of circumstance, materiality and will–to name only three of many other things–and often all the will in the universe cannot overcome circumstance, or whatever cluster of abilities it is that we call “ambition” or “good attitude” is not meted out evenly between different individuals. Life itself takes its toll on resolve and energy, and who knows, unless one asks, where life has compelled one to surrender or to hesitate or to back down.

Exclusionary thought is often a shortcut to making oneself feel superior for whatever good fortune one enjoys, but it rarely accounts for reality and it almost always shuts out possible approaches to take towards the complexities of daily life, approaches that would turn out to have greater practical value because they take more variables into account than just “p” vs “not-p.” What else can you imagine as a method for defining things? Anythings? “p” and “not-p” and “q” and occasionally “m”–sometimes I think that a multi-dimensional way of figuring the world is possibly more promising than just about anything else we could do for ourselves.

I will write something else tomorrow. If I can.

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