Self-care Soup is a short column where Moriah Mylod and M. Perle talk about vibes in the ether and self-care strategies.
M. Perle: Aries season is a time when we think about our power. What it’s like, how we use it, where can it get us. We can misuse power, but let’s think about how we can…not do that. In my book rec of the month I cite an instant DIY classic: Sandhya Rani Jha’s Transforming Communities: How People Like You are Healing Their Neighborhoods. Power can mean saying, “I’m gonna just do it myself!” Mercury is in retrograde until the 15th (tomorrow!) which signals a time to reflect. After that, as SNAP! said in their seminal hit “I’ve Got the Power,” “Dinging like a cymbal, rhyme devil on the heavenly level/ Bang the bass, turn up the treble”! What if we do have the power?
Mercury Retrograde has made me revisit the role friends have had on my life path. I found myself on Instagram thinking about people who have passed through my life and felt an extreme tenderness. So I followed them. Reconsidering these formative times reveals how much others shape our lives. How many have passed through your life, shown you things about yourself, make you miss home, lead you to the home in yourself? Admit there are people around us who move us to feel, to act. Watch how you speak about others. Are you treating them harshly because of your own feelings of unworthiness?
Moriah M. Mylod: In honor of the season of change from Old Man Winter leading us slowly into the welcoming embrace of Maiden’s Spring, we can gently invite ourselves to celebrate these shifting seasonal changes within us! As the first Crocus of buds gently greeting us and Spring Showers pouring on us, we may find ourselves to be in place of acceptance, resistance or perhaps both. Change is inevitable- it’s not necessarily a good or bad thang…it just IS, right?! It’s about how we can muster up or discover the strength through these discomforts perhaps difficulties that change has brought to our door steps. It seems easy for some of us to recognize our weaknesses before our strengths when confronted with an opportunity for transformation and that’s OK…at least we recognize! So, in the light of Aries’ Power, let’s take a look at our personal strengths and hey our weaknesses too, but most of all give recognition to the heart of who we are in our strength of strengths which is our Archetypal Hero/Warrior in our life on a day to day basis. As a matter of fact, Carl G. Jung has proclaimed to us that “only one who has risked the fight with dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard—“the treasure hard to attain!”” (Collected Works of C.G. Jung 14 by Gerhard Alder, par. 746)
Moriah M. Mylod: Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, Chapter on Joy & Sorrow
Music to Get You Through
M. Perle: 2 Unlimited “No Limit”
Moriah M. Mylod: “Another Night” by Real McCoy (European Version Video Clip, 1993)
M. Perle: Listen to 2 Unlimited. Close your eyes and think of jabbing and grabbing all the non-human obstacles standing in your way. Now sing Sonique “It Feels So Good” to yourself and wrap your arms around yourself (hug yourself!). It’s a short meditation because: it’s Aries season! You know we don’t have time for patiently mediating!
ART for Mind, Body & Spirit
Moriah M. Mylod: Invitation to go outdoors to create an Earth Mandala with a special intention. Mandala mean ‘Sacred Circle’ in Sanskrit’—it is indeed circular shape in form usually created from the center of the circle outward or vise versa. What will your reason be for creating today? What is it for? What do you need in your life right now? Think of something specific and begin picking natural objects that appear available and interesting to you (ex. flowers, leaves, sticks, stones, etcetera) thinking of line, shape, texture, and color, in mind. Once you’ve collected enough things, search the area for suiting place to set them down. Is it a dirt or rocky ground? GOOD! Feel free to crouch down to the ground or in a position that’s comfortable for you and begin placing those beauties down. Think of some patterns of how you wish to arrange them. It takes a lot of work constructing these, lots of thanks and gratitude to the trees for allowing us to pluck their leaves off or flower’s petals if we want to utilize them. Perhaps you quietly thank the Universe for your hands, your mind, your health, your happiness, your sadness, your pain and your experiences– to be able to make something beautiful out of something that wasn’t there before. Did you know you can do that? Make something beautiful out of “nothing”? How do you look at things?
In literature, it is the reader who gives meaning to a text.
The process of creating this meaning is in the dialogue between the reader and the text itself. Giving it meaning is their way of understanding it. We should recognize that the text, once birthed, becomes a separate entity apart from its writer, much like a newborn from their mother. The writer’s significance should remain unquestioned, as it is they who has created the text, but they do not hold the power to set a standard meaning for their work. The text speaks for itself; it is no longer the writer’s words, but rather of its own. Should the writer attempt to put meaning on the text, they become a reader. We can assume that the text would encounter several readers, and consequently, have dialogues with several minds; therefore, a plurality of meanings would be created. Some of these meanings may be deemed as the common interpretation of the text, but none could claim to be the right meaning. In fact, there is no right meaning, as it would always be a variation of interpretations created by different people with different experiences.
What we can say, however, is that, without these interpretations and the readers that created them, the text is meaningless. It is but a compilation of words that follow the basic rules of grammar, but it has no essence. Nevertheless, a reader can give meaning to a text without fully acknowledging that the text is meaningless without them.
This is almost similar to finding the meaning of life in spite of its apparent meaninglessness.
The famous poet Francois Rabelais mentioned, in his last words, a “great perhaps” he shall go seek. In my opinion, most of us, if not all, go to seek a great perhaps, for our own set of reasons. This is why we find or create our own meanings of life. Humans seek for meaning because we want so badly to make sense of all things around us.
This desire to understand even encompasses things that are beyond our intellectual capacities. We obsess over reason, which result to numerous theories that remain hypothetical because, in actuality, there are things that we cannot provide definite answers to. Immanuel Kant’s concept of mind-independent external world, which he defines to comprise things that we cannot know, must be deemed relevant. Kant claimed that humans “cannot make a cognition of things in themselves, but only as they appear to us.” Rene Descartes agreed by saying that “the mind-independent external world is mediated only through the ideas of it” and thus, we can only ever know it indirectly. John Locke further suggested that human beings only understand things as how we perceive them to be, and never as they are. Therefore, we can only hypothesize about things that fall under the mind-independent external world, but we can never be able to pin an exact definition to such. An example of which is the origin of everything. How the world came to be has been a lingering question in the fields of science, philosophy, and religion. We understand that, no matter how many theories we propose, we can never truly verify whether or not it is right, and yet, the curiosity among us remains, though we are aware that knowing more about it would not be beneficial in our personal lives. This obsession with finding explanation is less of an effect of innate curiosity than a product of fear to fully embrace the reality that everything is in fact meaningless. This fear may be something we experience either consciously or unconsciously. We fill the void of meaninglessness by interpreting life as such in relation to our existence.
Using the lens of existentialism, we can view life as having no inherent meaning, just as human beings have no inherent purpose. It is us that give life essence; further, it is us that set our purpose as beings. How we create this meaning depends on the dialogue between us and life itself, in the form of our experiences. Jean-Paul Sartre abridged this thought when he coined the statement “existence precedes essence”, the central idea of existentialism. The statement suggests that the mere existence of an individual is more fundamental than his essence, and that his essence is dependent on his existence. Man is not born with a purpose nor value; it is something he creates for himself, whether or not he is aware of the process.
Richard Taylor’s interpretation of Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus gave two ways in approaching the problem of discontent in life: The first one is finding meaning “from the outside,” or in the significance of the product of what one is doing with his life. The second, and the more favored, is finding meaning “from within oneself,” or simply conditioning oneself to enjoy whatever he currently has in life. By giving meaning in life as such in relation to one’s existence, we subscribe to Taylor’s latter suggestion. Taylor even wrote: “The meaning of life is from within us, it is not bestowed from without, and it far exceeds in its beauty and permanence any heaven of which men have ever dreamed or yearned for.”
In essence, to give life definition is not solely to absolve one’s self of its meaninglessness, but rather, also a way of making life matter, which R.M. Hare defined as a word that “isn’t intended to describe something that things do, but to express our concern about what they do.” It is a way to show that life as such is our concern.
However, coming to grips with life’s meaninglessness is not a requisite for an individual in order for him to give meaning to his life. The fear that drives us to find reason can either be a conscious thought or something wired within our unconscious. In most cases, the latter is the more realistic scenario. Furthermore, very few would even entertain the thought of life’s meaninglessness; it is not an idea suited for everyone. Just as a reader does not have to acknowledge the fact that a text’s meaning is entirely up to him and, without his interpretation, the book is meaningless, people can give meaning to their lives even without recognizing life’s apparent meaninglessness.
*Previously published in The Cerurove, October 2017 under the title: “On finding what never was”
Instead of creating a “Best of” list, I thought I would just complete everything I had intended to do this year. I don’t see much of a point of looking at what was “best,” but in my mind, I believe it may be important, particularly this year to look at and ponder what is necessary in order to survive 2018 with vigor and achievement.
My reading lists are born out of what I find going on my way through life. This Winter Reading List is full of books about Black women intellectuals, Black women’s oppression, existential thought through academic findings.
This year has been an interesting one for Black American women. It’s been a year where we’re beginning to find our voices and our places in intellectual, political and activist realms of American culture. I’m frankly fascinated by it because I’ve been a Black girl and woman all of my life. It is interesting for the world to have an opinion, and even more so, think that it’s their choice to open doors for us, or give us “places in society.” As if it is someone else’s “choice” to pay us fairly or to talk about how we win or lose or behave in the media. I’ve decided observe this winter.
“My mother said a white silk dress is a symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips; but by the elegant laps of a white silk dress.”
Embedded in the above closing statement from the film White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông) is an illustration of how sacrifice, which Keenan said in the Question of Sacrifice, is understood in our society as necessary passage to, in this particular case, beauty and a new life in general. While it alludes to the popular idea of beauty which rest its criterion on physical appearance, the idea of beauty the film tries to convey is the one I call archaic and masculine, which we tend to forget for one reason or another.
Set against a backdrop of poverty, the film offers a demeaning portrayal of female education, women’s rights and woman in general. Although the film is set in during the late French colonial rule of Viet Nam, such issues continue to persist during the film maker’s time and nowadays, and doubtless spurred Director Luu Huynh; a Vietnamese-American who is known to advocate the rights women and other disadvantaged groups, to make this film. In this film he clearly urges the public to be mindful of the plight of the under-privileged groups, while at the same time rejecting a narrative of inescapable victimhood by reminding those groups that they are; despite their societal disadvantages, capable of changing the course of their life histories.
The film focuses on three women: Mrs. Dan and her two daughters, Anh and Flood; and much of the narrative portrays their struggles to maintain the precious áo dài, a white silk Vietnamese national dress. The dress is precious for several reasons. Firstly, it is an historical embodiment of Vietnamese values, especially modesty, which is often signified in some religious traditions through the form of dress code. Secondly, in the case of the film, the dress was a gift for Mrs. Dan from her boyfriend Gu, a fellow servant who asked her to marry him in front of a Buddha statue. It was on that unconsecrated wedding night that Gu gave Mrs Dan the white silk dress. Not long after their unofficial marriage, Gu’s master was assassinated by anti-French mobs. Worried for their lives, they fled to the South of Vietnam and resided in the city of Hoi An, where they raised their daughters. At this point, the dress now constitutes the only precious property of the family.
The journey to keep the dress began with Anh and Flood’s teacher who asked them to wear silk dress to school just like other students. Not having money to buy the dress material, Mrs. Dan tried to borrow money from a wealthy lady in their neighborhood. Instead her request was rejected and Mrs. Dan was insulted for her poverty. She then received and accepted an offer to breastfeed a very wealthy elderly man. This plan did not work either; her husband found out and deplored it as a “whore-like” act. Finally, Mrs. Dan sacrificed her only white silk dress, cutting it up to make a new one for her daughters.
The challenges, however, did not stop there. The family needed to risk their lives twice to save the dress from fire when American troops bombed the city. They lost her daughter Anh in the war and later Mrs. Dan drowned when the river where they look for snails to sell flooded.
The film ends with the end of the war, with Flood wearing the dress and uttering her experience of living the philosophy behind her mother’s remark that their countless hardships and horrific experiences resulted in the maintenance of the beauty of that dress. Through traumatic hardship, through horrific destruction caused by countless wars, the Vietnamese white silk dress still maintains its beauty.
Struggle is what make these women beautiful, even in the absence of the ability to whiten their skin or to redden cheeks and lips, which remains the popular trend in South East Asia to this day. The beauty of a Vietnamese woman cannot be characterized by white skin, rosy cheeks and red lips. But to Mrs. Dan, beauty is not only defined by such external qualities. Instead, her idea of beauty is rather Hegelian; in that it is understood as the ability to engage with life’s difficult moments and yet find oneself stronger at the end. Thus, it comes as no surprise that she sees the dress as a tangible symbol of Vietnamese women’s immense suffering as well as their generosity, which resulted in the elegant laps of a white silk dress. This vision of beauty through suffering, and an unwavering belief that toil and hardship can, or should produce something of beautiful is optimistically applied to her children, who she believes could attain a better social situation if only they can strive to gain an education.
This idea of beauty through cathartic struggle is implied in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel alluded that life [or beauty] emerges as a result of “looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it.” The negative can loosely be understood as things which potentially refrain us from achieving our ultimate goals, ranging from concerns as seemingly trivial as procrastination to other more significant obstacles to happiness. Tarrying with it, then, means defeating such stumbling blocks, or simply sacrificing short term goals for the sake of long term one. Thus, once we have defeated this negative, we can expect a glow that emanates from us as the result of being-ness, or life that has manifested itself in us, as Hegel would say. In this light, we can see that beauty, as it is presented to our eyes is actually a result of a herculean battle against those things [the negative] which prevent “beauty” from entering into our lives. Even for the most delicate flower, its beauty [or life] comes from its wrestling with the fear of pain inherent in blossoming, as Anais Nin puts it. At this point, it’s safe to say that Hegelian beauty is very much characterized by struggle or “tarrying with the negative”; indeed, Hegelian beauty is predicated upon, and cannot be achieved without this painful exertion of effort and will.
This “tarrying with the negative” as the precondition of existence is also what our ancestors believed to be the way to freedom from the private life of the household & family, as discussed in Arendt’s The Human Condition. According to Arendt, the ancients thought emancipating oneself from private life is important because this private realm is ruled by bodily needs, essential for individual maintenance and survival of the species. Accordingly, everybody within this realm is constantly enslaved by labor, either to meet others’ need, or their own. Also, to achieve these corporeal ends, the use of violence and force is acceptable. Thus, the ancients advised people to move on to the political life of public sphere which is reserved for equal and free folks. This move is also characterized by Hegel’s tarrying with the negative.
To the ancients this “tarrying with the negative” means making sure that one has mastered their own bodily needs already, so that they might be capable of ascending to higher planes of consciousness and being. For those who have the means to meet their bodily needs without labor or toil, as in the case of those born within propertied family or people who receive external financial support this end is of course more readily attainable.
Nowadays of course, as my sounding board friend Fitzpatrick reminded me, many people have escaped the tyranny of those bodily pressures of “private life” described by Arendt (the need for food, clothing and shelter) by getting a job and surrendering much their free time to corporate wage slavery. To him, this modern alternative offers for most of us; in addition to protection from starvation and death from exposure, a shallow (albeit demeaning) imitation of “public life”, in so far as we are able to work hard and potentially move up within the capitalist system towards a role that entails a decision-making capacity. However, he added, this piecemeal form of “mastery” creates new problems that mirror those that faced our ancestors in surprising ways. For example, a skilled subsistence farmer could be in control of their own destiny, only to have their designs scuppered by drought or flood; similarly, an obedient wage slave may find that the fickle winds of the market, or other economic fluctuations have left them homeless and hungry. Even when capitalism has consistently provided one with the means to live comfortably, consumerism in turn provides us with a galaxy of seductive products to literally consume the fruits of one’s labor, which might otherwise allow one the time to focus on things, other than bodily needs, such as self-realization through art or education, which supposedly benefits the doer and other people.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, the mastery task has never been easy – especially in our days. Therefore, it’s no surprise that character Mrs. Dan in this film did not fully escape from private life herself.
Yet, I see it as no reason to dismiss Mrs. Dan’s achievement as not fitting the category of Hegelian beauty, although my former professor argued otherwise. I assert that Hegel would have agreed with calling it Hegelian beauty; as he himself stated that the course of spirit [being/life] to itself is not a straightforward matter; it is instead a gradual process. In each stage of development, one does achieve something meaningful [or beautiful].
Yet, Hegel warned, one must expose that transitional achievement to constant examination and revision so as to keep moving. Only by doing so, we can get closer to the final goal: full self-manifestation. If we ponder on our own journey to become somebody we desire to be, we could see this gradual nature of this process. Before we can complete each transition, for instance, in the case of physical beauty and self-development, we must ensure that we have managed to address all physical beauty flaws and psychological baggage we have been carrying. Yet, as we grow, we keep examining what else to work on; what cosmetic beauty could we use to address, for example, our wrinkles; what psychological technique might help with newly discovered issue. Another example of the often difficult struggle for self-development come from the figures of Jain women, as anthropologist Whitney Kelting documented in Heroic Wives Rituals, Stories and the Virtues of Jain Wifehood. They are similar to the character Mrs. Dan in that they occupied and attempted to be free from private life. Yet, they did not make it. Nonetheless, their fellow Jains see [Hegelian] beauty in their existing achievement and, in turn, built temple as remembrance of their attempts and achievements. They worship these women for those achievements, and now these women serve as a reminder for others that the struggle towards self-manifestation and the attainment of spiritual beauty is a never-ending one.
Improved social status, or even having temples built in ones honor (like those Saint women of Jainism) and other more humble forms of life comfort were indeed sometimes the reward one could gain for the herculean struggle of renouncing private life, which required “courage” and, was thus considered a “political virtue” back then. In the past, supposedly most of them who were able to make it to escape private life and move into public realm were men and, thus, the life [or beauty] that comes out of it is often characterized by traits of masculinity. In addition, as my professor reminded me, patriarchy invariably defined women’s social roles “as enslaved, and thus defined female beauty, and for that matter courage, as submission to and acceptance of that enslavement.”
Nonetheless, the thought that beauty is closely tied to pain is far from new, because even the beauty defined by outer appearances is built on hidden foundations of pain and sacrifice. This includes the pain inherent in waxing, manicures, pedicures and other beauty care today, including exercise and body sculpting or wearing foot-numbing spike heels. Furthermore, as my professor recalled, in the past feminine beauty has required such practices as foot-binding, tight-laced corsets, and poisonous cosmetics. Supposedly one cannot fully escape from the economic idea that everything has its price; and more generally one must be willing to sacrifice short-term gains for any kind of long term or final progress we desire to attain in the course of our lives.
In White Silk Dress (Áo lụa Hà Đông), we see the character Mrs. Dan willing to put herself through difficult situations: giving up her desire for her own material beauty, accepting the humiliation of breastfeeding an elderly man, and ultimately sacrificing her precious dress. This is because she sees being educated as one of beauty’s essential features, something that can potentially change her family’s life in future. Of course, her conception of beauty is subjective, much influenced by her life circumstances. Yet, the fact that beauty requires elements of sacrifice is pervasive; and this moral of “No pain, no gain”, in whatever capacity, is doubtless applicable to our own individual journeys towards self-manifestation and “beauty.”
I’d like to discuss Diana Tietjens Meyers’ look at the edifying value of victims’ stories in her 2016 Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights in comparison to José Medina’s suggestion of ‘resistant imagination’ in his 2013 The Epistemology of Resistance. I suggest Medina’s concept has the potential to facilitate how victims’ stories can be morally motivating narratives.
Meyers explores the importance of listening to and understanding victims’ stories, and explains this merits changes not just to theoretical accounts of what exactly such stories are and what they do morally, but also to their legal and political use. I’ll focus on the former, and Meyers’ proposed update to our concept of narrative structure.
In traditional accounts of such structure, narratives with moral urgency must begin with a “steady state” of morally neutral (or acceptable) circumstance that’s disrupted and then repaired. Meyers shows, with vivid examples, that the “very conditions that others regard as legitimate and ordinary are the cause of their victimization.” In distinction to those traditional accounts of structure, their stories ex vi termini begin and end morally fraught.
As Meyers points out, the change to our theoretical account of narrative structure must include a form of narrative closure that isn’t a resolution but “a moral void” and “a moral demand.” These stories are morally complete narratives, and the sort of moral completion they involve is a response of “moral self-examination,” where readers are lead by the all-around fraught narrative toward a “clarion moral appeal.”
Medina explores the serious imperative of our “need to reimagine our categories . . . so that our reconceptualizations redirect our ordinary practices and our ways of relating to each other.” The personal and political effects of injustice and oppression merit more than merely working within the common and accepted practices of knowledge creation and production, but going further, so as to leave open the possibility of an effective and proactive response to the experiences of others who live (let alone work) within those practices that are not common or accepted.
Medina offers various concepts we might use to better understand this need from the point-of-view of someone who is outside those othered experiences, with the key concept being the imperative for resistant imagination.
If we are to critically examine and morally improve how we engage with others, if we’re to look closely at our daily practices and what we habitually recognize as permittable and unacceptable possibilities of social growth and melioration, one area that can be relevant to opening up latent conceptual space is our imaginative sensibilities. Medina directly positions his account of resistant imagination as direction for this potential.
Exploring the concept of imagination, he begins in the context of fiction, a common area for such exploration, and initially asks a question drawn out of the work of Tamar Szabo Gendler:
Why do we experience such resistance when invited to entertain fictional scenarios that violate our moral intuitions and values, and not when asked to imagine fictional worlds that violate our factual sense or the laws of physics? (Medina, 254)
We have a difficult time with the invitation to imagine a moral world different than ours, especially if that world conflicts with our own, or even causes us to imagine ourselves with more culpability than the ‘real’ moral world we feel comfortable and live in.
This causes us to develop what Medina calls imaginative resistance, where rather than the usual hypothetical reasons we use in other forms of reasoning (“cold counterfactuals”), we’re presented with scenarios where our affective and sociopolitical realities are put into serious question (“hot counterfactuals”).
Presented with a fictional scenario that implicates us in moral harm, our imagination itself becomes resistant, and places us further away from the possibility of that world to sustain our individual ‘real’ world stability.
This sort of response is exactly what Medina suggests we switch out: imaginative resistance for resistant imagination. Instead of our allowing our imagination to control how we react to moral scenarios that are uncommon or harmful to our sense of stability within our real “positionality and relationality,” we can instead use these fictive differences to instigate what he calls “epistemic counterpoints,” where the difference we experience itself becomes a cause for moral education and the possibility of better understanding what we have yet to experience ourselves.
The resistance of our imagination not to the transgression of its limits but, inversely, to the limits of our transgression where “what is to be avoided is letting one particular imaginative horizon or frame rule the day and become hegemonic . . . and making the subjects who grow under their influence become insensitive to the blind spots of the frame.”
Medina suggests this sort of resistance can move beyond our engagement with fictional worlds, and expand into our engagement with the real experiences of others who live lives we can only imagine, so as to be vigilant towards and repair “the circulation of ways of imagining collective subjectivities (e.g., racial or sexual identities) that demean them and prevent their inclusion in the community or their equal standing within it.”
Medina’s concept of resistant imagination, then, seems relevant to and useful for Meyers’ account of how we might better approach and engage with victims’ stories.
To reimagine our categories, as Medina suggests, in order to include those different than us, one (admittedly rather small) part of this is to reimagine our category of narrative structure.
Victims’ stories can be both complete narratives and morally motivating accounts. An explanation of how to imaginatively resist the thought that narratives must begin and end with morally positive (or neutral) circumstances, the idea that motivation can come from a story’s ending morally fraught rather than morally resolved, is located within a combination of Meyers’ and Medina’s insightful books.
If the victim’s story ends with implicating the reader themselves, even, that reader can realize this as a chance they have to imagine what it’s like ‘on the other side’, to realize sometimes it doesn’t get better, that it still hasn’t, and that there’s a need for their work towards a real world that matches up morally both with their own experiences and those of others, even and imperatively when such a possibility seems unimaginable.
Diana Tietjens Meyers. Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights. Oxford UP. 2016.
José Medina. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford UP. 2013.
Most people do not place much faith in bus schedules. Congestion and traffic lights always conspire to delay buses by five minutes or more. When I moved to London, Ontario, I learnt quite swiftly that the arrival and departure of buses in this city do not follow any logical system. At least their randomness allows me to practice the art of waiting and thus cultivate the virtue of patience.
I do not have a car or a driver’s license, so the bus is the only mode of transportation that can take me from my neighborhood to the university campus. I expect that I will regret my decision not to take a driving test when I am shivering at a bus stop in the middle of the harsh Ontario winter. Then again, I am a dangerously incompetent driver. On my very last driving lesson, my instructor advised me never to get behind the wheel of a car ever again. He assured me that lives were at stake. Driving, like filing your taxes or installing your Wi-Fi router, is one of those things that needs to be done right or not at all. I suppose that waiting at a bus stop is the price one must pay for not committing any acts of manslaughter through clumsy driving.
While I look down the road in the hope of spotting the approaching bus, I think idly about the set text for today’s seminar: Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. The book’s editor, Ronald Beiner, compiled Arendt’s lecture notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgement to supply a surrogate for the book that Arendt never finished. According to Arendtian lore, a sheet of paper was found in her typewriter after her death that bore two epigraphs and the title Judging. It was the first page of the final part of her trilogy The Life of the Mind. So, what is judging?
Judgment has a bad reputation nowadays. Being judgmental is perceived as a vice and conjures up the image of an entitled prig who believes that his opinions are unquestionably superior and meritorious. Moreover, judgment is too closely related to prejudice (Latin. praeiudicium—“prior justice”) for anyone to think that there is anything redeemable about it.
Nevertheless, I believe that we can rescue the exercise of judgment from accusations of judgmental-ness and prejudice. After all, stubbornness of mind is not an inherent quality of judgment. In fact, Arendt quotes a letter that Kant wrote to his friend and pupil Marcus Herz in 1770: “You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with the intention of merely refuting them but that in thinking them over I always weave them into my judgments and afford them the opportunity of overturning all my cherished beliefs.” Judgment cannot take place without an open mind. Since we share the world with others, no one can make a claim or present an argument without encountering someone else’s opinions and objections. Furthermore, Arendt argues that this acknowledgment of the existence and intelligence of other people is already weaved into a judgment. She explains that imagination—the capacity to make present what is absent—enables us to anticipate the responses of others and imagine why they might agree or object to our opinions. In a sense, imagination enables us to host a roundtable discussion in our own minds.
It is apt that I am thinking about judgment on my way to a seminar. Whereas lectures present authoritative answers, seminars provoke curious discussions. Incidentally, the word seminar originates from the Latin seminarium— “breeding ground, plant nursery”— which, in turn, derives from seminarius— “of seed.” No one is expected to present a fully-grown tree of an idea in a roundtable discussion (Truthfully speaking, few scholars seek definitive answers unless they are consulting the O.E.D.). Every remark or question is a scattering of conceptual seeds that might grow into an offshoot that takes the conversation into an unforeseen direction. There is something playful and rewarding about seminars. Debates remind me of games of chess, in which two combatants must compete until one of them emerges as the victor. Seminars, on the other hand, evoke the image of several friends jogging together in the park on a Sunday afternoon. No one needs to win; there is no score. Just as jogs exercise body, seminars broaden and sharpen the mind.
Although scholars are usually caricatured as solitary and unsociable types, we crave and cherish the company of our peers. Even when we appear to spend too much time in silence and solitude, we are never completely alone. Whenever we quote a statistic or reshape an old idea, we enter a genuine relation with our predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Yet, I fear that this joyful and spirited play between history and the future is under threat.
Like many others, I have puzzled over the meaning and purpose of a scholarly life in the age of revitalized fascism. Times of crisis can inspire feelings of futility and fatalism. I worry that someone who is prepared to plow through a crowd of innocent people in a sports car may not be bothered about the fact that graduate students attend and participate in seminars. Nonetheless, something as simple as sitting in a room with others and discussing a topic respectfully is antithetical to fascism.
Fascism offers a simple explanation of the world for those who cannot confront the unpredictability and complexity of modern life. Different groups are cast in the roles of the good guys and the bad guys. Nothing is safe or sacred whenever fascists plait their ideology into the texture of life. Anyone who publishes an inconvenient fact is accused of spreading fake news; anyone who stands up for the rights of others is ridiculed as an “SJW.”
Fascism overpowers imagination with delusion. Whereas imagination requires the humility to admit that someone could rightfully disagree with you, delusion requires the staunch belief that anyone and anything that contradicts your worldview is objectively wrong. Everyone knows that it is easier to delude oneself than imagine the perspective of someone else. Novelists struggle for years to grasp the essence of what it means to live and act as a human being before they can craft fictional characters that “ring true.” In this light, one can understand the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels to right-wing libertarians. Her characters are nothing more than mediums for competing ideologies. No depth, ambiguity, or mystery is permitted in the system of Rand’s objectivism. Think about the rape scene in The Fountainhead. Under fascism, intimacy and tenderness can play no part in sexual intercourse; there is only abuse, aggression, and domination. That’s why contemporary fascism is so keen to defend our pernicious and pervasive rape culture. Fascism refuses to accept that people deserve dignity even when they are inconvenient. Women deserve respect even when they withhold consent. Protestors are not terrorists just because they disagree with you.
Riding on a bus teaches me a lot about living with others. As much as I would like everyone on this bus to be quiet enough for me to read Simone Weil in peace, I do not suffer from the requisite megalomania to think that I should force them into silence and submission. People cannot be manipulated like pixels on Photoshop.
Noise is just a part of public space.
I think about a counter-protest that I attended recently in opposition to the gathering of an anti-Islamic group that claimed to promote the right to free speech. While they yelled their hateful speeches into a megaphone, we banged on drums and blew on whistles to drown them out. Later, a member of that group approached me and asked why I wanted to deny his right to speak freely. I told him that our confrontation had nothing to do with free speech. Given the authority, their group would have ordered the police to arrest every single participant in the counter-protest. They did not want us to listen. They wanted us to be silent.
Fascism cannot tolerate the existence of seminars, because they prove that the alt-right’s conception of the right to free speech is just a pale facsimile of the real thing. Seminars reveal that coming closer to the truth requires conversation and collaboration. Broadening one’s mind means opening oneself up to the sacred inconsistency of the world. In a more mundane sense, it means waiting for a bus even when it is a few minutes late.
I am sitting in the seminar room now. People nod in recognition whenever someone new enters the room. There is casual chatter about the reading for the week. Someone scribbles a few prompts into their notebook to remind them of significant points to raise as soon as the discussion gets underway. Someone starts the seminar with a question and someone else offers a tentative answer, then someone refines the answer with stipulation, which, in turn, prompts someone else to pose another question. As I listen, I think: “Fascism has no home here.”
I’m literally sitting writing this reading list in a Hugo Boss jacket that’s a bit too large for my small feminine frame. I found it barely worn in freshly dry cleaned in a “giveaway” box in my neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood leaves books, clothes and appliances out to share and trade. Some neighbors are a bit more well off than others. It’s not uncommon to find a wealthy student’s small collection of hand-me-downs that are clean, expensive and barely a year old. I almost like men’s jackets more than I like books, but as the season begins to change, and Fall makes chills the air crisp and chill, I can enjoy both at the same time. No need to choose.
These books are a combination of favorites, like my friend China Martens epic zine anthology, Future Generation and the enthralling Womanist literary effort, Hope is in the Holler: A Womanist Theory and a collection of books I’ve compiled while preparing for my feminist lectures and writing workshops like “Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions.” I rummage through libraries and independent books stores like Red Emma’s Books to find just what I need for my never ending literary pursuits.
The fall season is perfect for learning new things and growing our minds and perspectives, especially since school is now in session.
A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2002 Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze movie Adaptation, which seemed to be playing at the local cinema as part of a Nicholas Cage retrospective. Cage plays the screenwriter Kaufman as he struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book The Orchid Thief into a movie. The structure of the book, described as “that sprawling, New Yorker crap that doesn’t really go anywhere,” does not lend itself easily to a film adaptation. During one of Kaufman’s attempts to start the screenplay, he describes an opening scene that stretches from the beginning of the earth to his birth in mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Finding a plot (as a verb, to make plans; as a noun, a patch of solid ground) in this sprawling life—that does not really go anywhere—is one of those mammoth mammal tasks that appears so insurmountable that someone invented the snooze button on alarm clocks just so we could ignore this responsibility and return to sleep for a few more precious minutes. I am reminded of the thoughts of Blaise Pascal as he tried to describe this condition:
“We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and hold fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us.”
We are trapped between the infinitely large and infinitesimally small, engulfed by the impenetrable secrecy of life. I suppose it is no wonder that people like bookmarks: to know that you have a place somewhere in the enormity of everything. Considered in this light, dog-earing the top corner of a page is forgivable. You wish to leave a trace of yourself in the copy of a book that left an impression—evanescent or indelible—on your mind and heart.
I promised my mother I would not buy any more books until I returned to England. Back in September 2015, I expected to live in Portland for no more than a year. One of the two suitcases for my first transatlantic flight to Oregon was crammed with books, and I assumed that they would easily satisfy me for a year. I was wrong.
From what I recall, I broke my promise within the first week. The irresistible temptation came from a David Shields’ novel called Dead Languages, which I bought at the famous Powell’s City of Books. When the transaction was complete, the cashier slipped a complementary Powell’s bookmark between the front cover and the title page. The bookmark bears the addresses and contact information of each Powell’s branch on one side, and, on the other, lists their “buying hours” and implores you to “sell us your books.” During my frequent visits, I have spotted several people with cardboard boxes full of books which they hope to exchange for a wallet-wad of dollars.
I am leaving Portland soon. Every so often, I look at the messy piles of books in my apartment then glance at a nearby Powell’s bookmark to check their buying hours. You must book an appointment for an employee to sift through your books and decide whether anything is worth enough money to take off your hands and sell in the store. I think that process discourages me. I could not bear the humiliation of standing in public while someone judges my literary taste before they hand me a few dollars for two boxes of books. Walter Benjamin observed astutely in his breathtaking essay “Unpacking My Library” that “to the book collector . . . the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves,” so I am reluctant to return half of my collection to the coercion of commerce. They will become just another commodity to be repriced, reshelved, and resold.
Luckily, the other half of my collection will endure and travel with me. Unlike Benjamin, I am still in the stage of packing my library—choosing the right volumes and facing the Tetris-esque challenge of fitting them neatly into boxes. Some of them still contain their Powell’s bookmark, ready to help me find and keep my place.
The history of the bookmark takes place inside the history of the book. Before the Big Bang of the Gutenberg Galaxy, books were rare and written by a meticulous scribe. The rarity of these texts, writes A.W. Coysh in his 1974 Collecting Bookmarks, demonstrated the “need for some device to mark the place in a book . . . Without bookmarkers, finely bound volumes were at risk. To lay a book face down with pages open might cause injury to its spine, and the crease on a page that had the corner turned down remained as a lasting reproach.” One could put a bookmark between the pages and remove it without leaving a trace. Bookmarks used to be predominantly made with silk and leather, but, as the mass-publishing industry made books more available and affordable, they were made with cheaper material like thin card. The new availability of paperbacks meant that the bookmark became less of a way to protect the pages and spine of a book, and functioned more as an artificial memory aid. It anchored the reader in the text.
And so, I take another tome from my shelf and decide whether it is headed toward my new home or the Powell’s on Hawthorne. Just as every bookmark belongs in a book, every book belongs on a shelf. When I was younger, I dedicated hours to arranging my bedroom library in alphabetical order. Eventually, I ran out of space to organize them into neat rows. Stacks of randomly ordered books rose to the height of my wardrobe, and, occasionally, tumbled to the floor. Benjamin explains that one’s library maintains “a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.” Regardless of the obsessive order of your books (alphabetical, chronological, thematic), they will fall into a familiar disorder as soon as you take them off the shelf, place them in your lap, and forget to reshelve them according to their original arrangement. An excessively neat library is the mark of the unenthusiastic reader.
Right now, my library is neater than it has ever been. Two different piles for two different fates. Reflecting on his own library, Benjamin opines that the collector desires and respects singular copies of books rather than the book-in-itself. I have not possessed and read Shields’ Dead Languages, but only my own copy of that book. Each copy in these piles is a belonging that I have taken to the various houses and apartment buildings where I have lived over the past two years. Even though I paid the rent to put a roof over their spines, these tales and treatises formed a dwelling—as Benjamin put it, “with books as the building stones”—in which I found peace and purpose. It seemed that I belonged to them more than they belonged to me.
Copies of Dead Languages, Race Matters and Silent Spring that were once mine will soon fall into the hands of someone else. Like Don DeLillo writes in White Noise, “Maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” Each book bears the bruises of previous owners: creases in the spine, smudges of dirty thumbs in the margins, a scribbled birthday message from a close friend on the title page. The history of the book encompasses the histories of each individual book and each individual reader. Whenever someone turns to a new page and starts to speak with that faint voice inside their head, they are alive. Maybe I will feel less remorse about taking my books to that desk in Powell’s if I understand that I am sharing the opportunity to feel alive with people I will never meet or know.
Once again, I move from one city of strangers to another. I doubt that I will make the same promise to my mother. We have both learnt that books overrule oaths. Speaking of my books, they’re all sorted into their separate boxes and addressed to different destinations. I am going to take them out tomorrow. One trip will take me to the Post Office; the other, Powell’s. I expect one last complementary bookmark. After all, I read a lot of books and I do not want to lose my place as I turn from page to page. I like to follow the plot wherever it goes in this sprawling, New Yorker-style crap of life. I fold over the corners of pages occasionally to remember where I have been and to remind myself to return there in the future. In this way, all the places I’ve been stay with me wherever I go.