Humdrum aesthetics, ambiance, and everyday affect

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I’ve been off lately. Like a typist with baseball mitts on or a table with uneven legs. Finishing up coursework, graduating, moving back to my parents to prep for the next phase of life, I’ve been recalibrating my humdrum “average everydayness,” to use Heidegger’s term.

Doing so has left me lurching, back peddling, and out of sorts. Fortunately, I’ve been riding it out well, even thinking about my daily driftings, dustings, and feelings as they fit the humdrum aesthetics of everyday life.

I like looking at life aesthetically, as this view implies the ever messy, artful, and personal position we have. While we often talk about “building” a life or going on “journeys,” I’ve always pictured life like a canvas, gradually accruing layers of paint as we rub away and redraw our life into becoming. Talking in terms of poetry, Nietzsche puts it well in The Gay Science: “we want to be the poets of our life–first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters” (240).

So we paint our lives through “daily fidelity,” as Camus puts it, through little etches and big thoughts, baby steps and bounds, each day passing as we glide, slip, and work within our daily world.

But we aren’t alone in this process. We also have other people in our lives, immediate and present or steering from a distance. But other things, like weather, geography, and the objects that allow our habits, compose our canvas as well. To use a term I’ve been thinking about lately, our lives have “ambiance,” situated, embedded, and present in a broader cradle of being. I tend to side with Thomas Rickert on this perspective: that traditional self/world or subject/object dichotomies are flimsy and over simplifying, even wrong in a way. We are worldly and bodily, not simply a self in a body in a world.

Moreover, many of these things recede from our immediate perspective, but still exert an influence. For example, I ran out of tea recently. Normally an everyday object taken for granted, its absence skewed my routine, affecting my whole day. And through the move, my placement of everyday objects has changed, from my wallet and keys to my pants and socks. All these little differences from things long-since receded change my humdrum aesthetics. They change my life.

In Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, she maps and probes many of these “ordinary affects” and the largely diffuse and unconscious effect they exert. As she writes, worth quoting at length:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. (5)

Difficult to pin down, analyze, articulate, or even notice, these ordinary affects steer our lives. Stuff happens that we can’t fully articulate or trace, but we know that something is happening. Something is throwing itself together. Assembling. Doing. Changing. Being. And, often, this something catches us up in its folds. We resonate in mutual ambiance, distilled into becoming.

As Stewart describes, a biker couple enters a restaurant and mentions an accident, creating a conversation, creating a “we.” The greenery of a city increases well being. A collection of affect leaves me waking up at noon instead of 6:15, blinking at my clock, in a sprawl of blankets, dazed thoughts grasping at the wakefulness that gradually pools into a day, gathered up into a life.

“Grain upon grain, one by one,” writes Beckett, “and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”

In this together, but alone

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With the protests in Baltimore taking place, I’ve been thinking a lot about race, equality, and social media. I don’t post much on the subject, as I’m not sure how I fit in to the whole debate, but prompted by some conversations and thinking from this past week, I feel compelled to sort out my thoughts in a public or semi-public place. I don’t want to point any fingers or espouse any solution. Instead, I mainly just want to clarify.

In terms of labels, and the privileges traditionally ascribed to them, I’m high on the chart: straight, white, male, able-bodied, and upper middle class. I’m not part of the 1%, but I have never had to face any real discrimination. At most, I’ve had to curb decisions and trim back dreams due to constraints on money.

That said, I have felt “other” at points, whether through mingling in counterpublics or traveling to Egypt, where I was the minority at the station, in the markets, on the streets, etc. It is an odd feeling. A certain embodied and spatial self-consciousness, a sense of uncanny distance–even rejection–from the stuff and people around you. A sense of the exiled, alien, or intrusive.

With that in mind, I can’t say my experience connects to the experience of those alienated by the public sphere at large. My experience is vastly different from theirs, and I think that’s the key: find a multiculturalism that doesn’t try to erase the meaningful differences that do exist, but that provides a place where conversation can take place. Recognizing difference, but also recognizing relationship.

For example, Cornell West points out how many Black leaders become washed down or “de-odorized,” in his words. We see this with MLK, honoring his “I have a Dream Speech” without recognizing his widespread attacks on capitalism or militarism. Or, as with Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, many white Americans–and the media and textbooks I’ve encountered at large–stress the nonviolent turn they took, as if their violent actions were merely a muddy memory and not a meaningful response to the oppression they faced.

In more contemporary contexts, many white Americans might stress the “I recognize my privilege” narrative, while the victimized narratives of minorities–and the anger it expresses–becomes secondary. Some may attack the looting without reflecting on the anger, frustration, the institutional poverty that causes it, left over from hundreds of years of race relations, struggle, and oppression. On the converse, others may fixate on the violence, without looking at the nonviolence and cooperation that may take place on the sidelines. Or impose boarders that leave people alienated and uncertain. Or rely on unchallenged cultural assumptions and group dynamics, like the classic “rugged individualism” narrative.

Simply put, some narratives are more marketable or palatable than others. Some are easier to grasp, easier to hold onto, easier to repeat, easier to spread, or shout, or celebrate. Or, more bleakly, our own inborn biases–our confirmation biases, Dunbar’s numbers, and in-group proclivities–and our cultivation as individual people with limited access and viewpoints in an American milieu prevent us from seeing the whole stage. We get stuck, in a sense, caught up in simplification because the broader picture is so messy, uncertain, ugly, and inconvenient.

We are caught in a paradox: in constant relation, with constant separation. We are all in this together, but alone.

As I said, I don’t want to propose a solution, and though I unintentionally point my finger at certain broad perspectives, I’m pointing the finger at myself. I’m flawed. Even this thinking-through or “essai” may be fraught with errors, may be dangerous, may be constraining and insensitive.

If anything, though, I think we need a certain kind of sympathy, a certain kind of identification that traditional in-group out-group dynamics and bland #AllLivesMatter multiculturalism do not meet. Once upon a time, Americans were called “The People of Feeling.” Sympathy and “fellow-feeling” was a bedrock of politics and social relations. It was a scientific fact that filled all sorts of writings. Granted, as many scholars–like Julia Stern and Andrew Burstein–note, it often excluded many black Americans and women, but I think it still has some use for us today.

I know of few other things that highlight these affective ties and social relations as clearly and viscerally as sympathy. As Diane Davis argues, in order for unifying symbols–like language or culture–to develop, one must first consider an “always prior relation to the foreign(er) without which no meaning-making or determinate (symbolic) relation would be possible.” In other words, we are always in relation. We are always “being-with.”

With this in mind, we always have an ethical obligation to recognize our inherent relationship. But at the same time, that relationship always recognizes the inherent difference or “foreign” element of the other. Through “sympathetic imagination” and “emotional contagion” we may break down boarders, but a separation always persists for most of us. “I” can never be fully “you.”

So perhaps I lied (again), and I am putting forth a position, but it is a pretty basic  one: we are all different, each with different (inaccessible) worlds and stories, but we are also in the same communities, the same country, the same world.

With this in mind, I see the role of activism. I do not see myself fitting that role personally, but I think activism and the laws and tradition that allow such activism provide key resources. They are necessary. They are beneficial. But they also have a profound ethical dimension, because activism always addresses “our” world, not “my” world or “your” world. All of our individual actions ripple through the whole.

As one of my teachers would always say, “It’s complicated.” But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek progress or clarity. I think it just means we must do so with a clear sense of sympathy and “humility,” mindful of the “ground” where each of us stands and why.

Some thoughts about Objects and Expression

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Source: Food for the Hungry

Source: Food for the Hungry

I’ve been thinking a lot about objects lately. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that touched on a few of these ideas. At the moment, a friend and I are working on a panel proposal for the CCCC conference next April, centering the proposal around our object-centered and thing-related interests.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between people and our tools and interfaces.

A lot of this comes back to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), in which Heidegger sketches out an ontological landscape that maps all the “beings” that “are” and how “being” expresses itself more generally. Breaking down the abstractions, at one point, Heidegger uses the example of a hammer.

When we first encounter a hammer, it is “ready-to-hand” for the most part, meaning that we encounter it as a tool in use. We associate hammers with hammering. This defines the hammer, making it intelligible to people and to the world at large. This contrasts with “present-at-hand,” which places the being of the hammer in a more speculative, observed frame. With “present-at-hand,” I am studying the hammer, observing the smooth maple handle, running my hands along the metal hooks that pry. I may balance the weight. But I am detached in a sense.

In short, “ready-to-hand” defines the hammer as one uses it; “present-at-hand” defines the hammer more abstractly as a series of properties.

Tool-Being (2002) by Graham Harman takes up Heidegger’s broader outlook on these issues to explore the being of the tool more directly, becoming a flagship book in “object-oriented ontology.”

But I want to go back to the tools, back to the “things themselves” as Husserl would put it, being careful of the sort of interface  or relationship that develops as people encounter the tools. This may sound a little out there, but digging into this gritty, abstract question may have pretty dynamic consequences.

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Brain Vats and Jaegers

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Hey all. The philosophy club that I help out with at school has a weekly column now in the paper, so in place of my usual post today, I figured I would send a link to that to give it some traffic. It also is much along the same things I normally write about, so it fits well here.

Here is the link. Feel free to comment here or the school paper page, if you do wish to leave a comment. You may also e-mail a question to SBUPhilosophyClub@gmail.com. (I made a mistake with the e-mail in the piece, but there is the correct one right below).

The piece centers on reality: essentially, can we trust our sense or our mind? Until next week!

Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

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Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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Empathy and Videogames

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Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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Back to the Backyard

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Hey all, it’s been a while. I have finally decided that I am far enough on work and settled enough in my life to find my blogging rhythm again, and after a long departure–Oct. of last year–I am back to posting regularly.

I don’t have a particular theme for today. Mostly, I just wanted to check in, since a few changes have taken place since October.

First of all, my thesis is “done,” and by done I mean that I have given a copy to my readers for my defense next week. By “done” I also mean that I can’t stand looking at it for some time. Though I guess I should glance it over before the defense. *cringe*

It ended up being about ecological theory and fanfiction. So a brief explanation about both of those things.

Ecological theory, as its name suggests, has environment roots, but has more recently been used to complicate our expand our view of writing. While many people still look at writing as a solitary process–i.e., the lone writer at a desk “inventing” or “discovering” some text–ecological theory takes the opposite view.

In a “writing ecology,” the writer is just one participant in the writing process, which can also include other people, historical and cultural influences, and nonhuman elements, like the environment or technology.

For example, right now, I’m using my old MacBook, sipping water, listening to Hello Saferide, and sitting alone in a (somewhat) cold kitchen near a broad window. Moreover, I’m writing through an interface called WordPress, designed by a bunch of programers. This interface has certain ideologies and capabilities, like the ability to just grab something from online to make a point, like this:

 A different writing environment–a different ecology–would affect my writing, and that’s not even considering you, the reader, and your own access and influence.

So that’s ecology. Fanfiction, at its most basic level, is fiction written by “fans” of a particular source text. It is typically about popular culture texts and is typically done by amateur writers without compensation. Moreover, it is often a social endeavor.

Fanfiction has historical roots, like Gulliver’s Travels fanfiction in the 18th century, but has surged in prominence in recent decades through digital technology. These technologies have also changed how we look at fanfiction, affecting the ecology that gives rise to fanfiction texts.

Essentially, my thesis tries to explore fanfiction ecologies, showing how looking at fanfiction like this changes what fanfiction “resistance” and “literacy” means.

In other news, I’ve also been accepted into some great PhD programs for rhetoric and composition, with full funding, so that’s worth celebrating. Overall, it is a bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately affirmative and exciting, especially after the alienating application process of the past few months. I made it through the first few gates. Now I get some difficult choices for my next one.

With these changes in mind, I imagine my usual posts will also change. While I can’t foresee what that means, I predict that posts may center more on my current research, allowing me to think through things–and share these thoughts–in a less stifling setting. But I still hope to retain some of the feel from past posts, like their connection to daily questions. I can’t say this will always be the case, but it is my temperament, and something that I enjoyed doing.

With that in mind, I’ll end this here. I’ll be sure to keep up writing and apologize for the long (but deeply necessary) hiatus. I hope all is well.

Cheers.

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