Sunday, July 15, 2012

Faults of taste, and upcoming projects

Hello all, just a quick update for anyone who finds this blog. Enough people have found these rather desultory speculations useful enough to convince me to keep the posts all up, ashamed as I sometimes am of them or of certain of the thoughts expressed in them. Looking back on his criticism of Wordsworth, Francis Jeffrey once wrote that with respect to the treatment of the faults he found, he sometimes forgot "that, even on my own view of them, they were but faults of taste," and "sometimes visited them, I fear, with an asperity which should be reserved for objects of Moral reprobation." Something similar happens with faults in ideas that we find, especially when young, and you feel that you sacrifices nothing in throwing all one's energy into the proper thinking-through of a problem--if only because, in the beginning stages of committing oneself to the life of the mind, it seems as if sacrificing everything is almost what is required to think it through.

This is not a false assumption either, both because you are committing yourself to something, and you have to muster up the energy for it, and because, with the sorry state in which the pursuit of ideas is indeed held in this society, at this time, there seems so little recompense in going about it ...I hesitate to say purely, because I mean only impractically, with no foreseeable practical outcome or effectivity, yet even this is made out to be some sort of sham-recompense, which we find in dreams (I use the word with the tone of those who speak of "dream-houses," "dream-cars," "dream-retirement," and especially "dream-job," somehow the hyphen slinking itself in there, as if to insinuate that the substantiality of the thing to which it attaches itself was in some sense never really undreamlike, real, to begin with) of the cozy academic life, which allows you to settle down comfortably and think a lot and write and work whenever you want in pajamas and meet people for coffee and have influence over students but get to talk of popular cultural topics... a dream in which you have everything, and whatever sacrifice you make is not really a sacrifice, just another happy example of initiative, leadership, innovation, or any one of the horrible words we use now to degrade and devalue hard and often unrewarding work. That is (to come back to my point), you treat other people's ideas often too harshly, because you are involved in a process of self-definition, as well as a process of finding the proper degree of honesty and candor with which--not just to present, but to think through your own.

That's about as honest as I can be about the process, though I think it has the potential to sound a bit too harsh on the self there defining itself. I don't mean that what you do is find out how honest you should present yourself as--that'd be a flat out contradiction. What I mean is that you are in a process of finding out how seriously to treat your own ideas--and this is often what makes you attack others unjustly. For people of my generation, who grew up in the hugely dishonest environment of the culture-wars and are caught now in the middle of an age where all expressions of intelligence are treated as competing with the rest of those within the rest of the "discourse" considered, and very often the uber-discourse of "the media," as if an idea were only true if it could manage to fight it out against enough "bad" ideas, and as if everyone who wrote within "the media" (which, as you can gather from the TV news several times an hour, means, you horrible people who say what you mean on the internet, you actual people saying things, without any corporate backing or group-political angle) were a nut--for people who had to confront this way of regarding things, this way of talking about things, this way of conversing with each other, it is so hard to regard others as genuinely speaking as if they mean what they say, so that you come to doubt even if you mean or indeed could ever really mean what you say. And if you don't want to fall back into the position of self-parody, treating nothing that you think or say as serious, or as only temporarily serious (that is, merely useful, merely as a means to some end), then this puts you in a real bind. Moreover, it makes you incredibly sensitive to moments where you have seemed to extend your trust and it seems let down--that is, when you suddenly find out someone else treating an idea less seriously than you thought they might be treating it. And indeed, too often moments of genuine bewilderment in an author can be confused, in such an environment, with a lack of seriousness. But on the rare occasion in which it happens that someone you think is doing their best, and you find out in reality is just spouting bullshit, with a sort of ironic self-referential catchall which is supposed to get them out of the fact that they don't say what they mean--when this happens it can be really a hard thing to bear. If it doesn't poison your expectation of others, it can poison your expectations of yourself and how you treat what you think. This is complicated all the more by the fact that they genuinely are confused; they just also want to say that in a way we all are about the issue in question, and so that gives them to speak authoritatively as if they knew what they were talking about better than you. We are supposed to take the beginning of opening up the limit of a problem, as if it were the actual frontier of that problem. We are supposed to take the fact that all knowledge is gained gradually and the fact that at any particular moment one never knows enough about what they are pursuing, as a reason not to speak of it, not to pursue it further. Or some hope is held out that because we are more conscious of this process, we can fold it back into our own thinking, incorporate it systematically in our answer itself, in our knowledge itself--when this is best developed as an ethic apart from one's thinking, which hangs on a precarious, but only because fundamentally human and sympathetic, society of intellectual characters, neither hostile nor like-minded... and certainly not hostile merely because not like-minded.

But as you develop some surer sense of your own honesty, this situation goes away. And it seems better, on the whole, to treat others ideas that you disagree with, not unlike the faults of taste Jeffrey speaks about. Not that they are the less important for that. It is just that they are not at first, moral problems. You can still look back a little embarrassed at the whole ordeal you went through, though, in order to get to such a place. I've tried to sum up a little how I feel about them all, and what I think went into the parts I now find (as I disagree even with myself) distasteful, but I do also want to give some indication of what the struggle is in those moments which bursts out beneath the surface. We live in an age of such intellectual rage and hate, partly because everything is a matter of the intellect and nothing a matter of ideas--and therefore of feeling, real feeling, too. Belief in oneself and what one says, is not an easy thing to come by, or come to, especially if we understand what we are saying to be merely an indicator of what we do not, cannot quite know yet in full--that is, when one also has doubts. So while I do want to apologize for the harsh tones of some of the entries here--to come round to what I meant to say in this little note--I also can come to bear something of their harshness, looking back on it, as part of the struggle which others still find some use in.

Looking back on it too has also made me convinced it is good to write such occasional thoughts, and if not yet professionally (I hope one day to do some reviewing, alongside my academic work), then somewhere like this. I'm setting up a little blog where I will comment on some keywords I think are pretty interesting and come across while reading, which I'll put a link to here, when I have a couple entries written. I'm also setting up a venue for my fellow graduate students to write reviews of new books at our colloquium website, which should prove interesting for anyone in the field. So keep posted for those things, if you like.