Post by Category : The Self

The Sands of Time

I was several blocks from home on my Sunday morning run when I realized that I had left my Fitbit at home. I did not turn around and go get it (though that option crossed my mind). Instead I tried to process the implications of its absence. I began to rumininate on self empiricism, magical thinking and the sands of time.

My friend Steve introduced me to the Fitbit. He is a music producer who works at home sitting at a console. The caveat du jour -“Sitting is the new smoking”- got under his skin and prompted his purchase of a wearable tracking device. He knew he was sedentary but when his Fitbit tallied a daily step total many thousands of steps fewer than recommended by the American Heart Association, he was truly shocked. Our psyche cannot be an objective observer or a reliable interpreter of bodily signals. These are the main reasons to contract with a third party to surveill your sorry ass. (n.b. Unlike Facebook, Fitbit is up front about the the fact that it is all about surveillance.) I am in my 7th decade and I jog in order to help me stay in shape to play squash. I do not love to run. As I pound the pavement, I am not filled with the joy of living and eagerly awaiting the rush of endorphins. When I am running my body/mind is always sending me signals to stop the madness. This is when I use my Fitbit. If my heartrate is above 140, I give myself permission to walk it down. If my heartrate is lower, that means I am simply feeling puny and I can accede to the puniness or push through it. Fitbit lets me calibrate my willpower.

To what end, you ask, do I attempt do direct my feckless will? My father lived most of his life feeling the precarity of an elevated heart rate. I have a resting heart rate that varies between 47 and 53 (according to Fitbit). Though I find this information soothing, I believe that only continued exercise will keep me soothed. I am not a cardiologist or an epidemiologist so I have no technical knowledge about any of this. My calculation is simple: the fewer beats per minute, the longer I will last. Magical thinking. I could die of a thousand different causes tomorrow, but today I get to feel like I have some agency in the determination of my life span.

Finally, there is the question of how we verify that a tree has fallen in the woods. My self and my self-conscious self have invited a third party to bear witness to our life. There is now an Other with awareness of my activity; interpreting my bodily signals, comparing them ceaselessly to abstract, objective standards and, finally, archiving them in the Cloud . When that witness is not in its usual observatory, I am no longer counted. I no longer count. There will be no record of my Sunday morning run in the digital Library of Alexandria. My version of Ratso Rizzo- “Hey, I was runnin’here!”- goes unobserved and unremarked. This Sunday’s run will not be immortalized.

Why, then, do it?

Reality Bares its Teeth, Postscript

During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.

The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.

Real Life Bares its Teeth

Recently, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man as part of the New School for Analytic Psychology’s Film series. Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell who spent 13 summers camping in the backyard of Alaskan grizzly bears. At the end of his 13th summer, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were eaten by a grizzly. Herzog’s documentary stitches together interviews with people who knew Treadwell, Treadwell’s own video selfies and readings from Treadwell’s journal. I saw the film weeks ago and I am still trying to psychically metabolize the dog’s breakfast of emotions it left in me.

Dog’s breakfast part one…
To be perfectly candid, I was mostly repelled by Treadwell. In his last summer in Alaska, I saw him as a vain 46 year old man with a blond Prince Valiant haircut. I watched him giving 1200 pound grizzly bears names (like “Rowdy” and “Mr. Chocolate”), and, from very few feet away, baby-talking to them as if they were skittish Schnauzers. Treadwell was not an autodidact naturalist (like Audobon or Darwin) trying to add his own field observations to the store of human knowledge about grizzlies. Though he filmed himself “living with the grizzlies” and cast himself as their friend and protector, he had no real interest in the bears except in so far as they related to him.

The bears tolerated him for 12 full summers. What I would view as indifference on their part, he took to be growing acceptance. He seemed to see himself as the producer, director and star of his own reality TV show (Timothy’s Love for Bears?). To hear him tell it, his was a grand enterprise. He returned every summer to “protect” the bears (in the protected enclave of Katmai National Park?). He details on camera the terrible damage a bear could do to him and goes on to make the claim to his audience that his campsite is the “most dangerous place in the world”; a secret place to which he alone has earned access. He preferred his summers with bears to life with people and was known to greet the odd human trespasser into his summer territory by huffing and bluff-charging like a bear.

He films a chilling fight between two male grizzlies over a female. Immediately afterward and only 20 yards away, he films himself reassuring “Mickey”(the losing bear), that he, Timothy Treadwell, was not going to try to take the female for himself …”yet”. To how many other creatures on the planet could such a thought occur? He so desired to be absorbed into Ursine Nature that he talked as if the timeless boundary between human and bear was a mere social convention subject to change.

Part two…
Though it is a struggle for me to excavate some more generous insights, I do have some. (more about that in part 3…).
Prior to his rebirth as grizzly man Treadwell had been another rootless American youth, fruitlessly seeking stardom in Hollywood. Painfully rejected on the cusp of stardom (he believed he just missed being cast on “Cheers”), drink and drugs almost killed him. He attributed his sobriety and recovery to his connection with the bears. He had found a higher purpose. Wouldn’t we all like a calling which is a union of our values, our passions and our action in the world? Treadwell found his calling. His affection for the bears, however bizarre by my lights, seemed genuine. He lived the way he wanted to live. Though he clearly desired recognition for his “work” (he appeared on David Letterman twice), he did not monetize his calling. There is something in all that to admire.

Though he left us over 100 hours of video footage, perhaps his major accomplishment was that he survived his own naivete for almost 13 summers. And for that, he earned a Wikipedia entry and was “immortalized” by Werner Herzog. One comes away from the film suspecting that Treadwell would have been satisfied by this legacy.

part three…

There is (and was) an undertow of shame to my reaction to this film. I am repelled by Treadwell’s delusive self-invention because it triggers a shameful memory of having lived a delusion of my own. As with Timothy, conversations with myself about the risks of my delusion went unheard. Such superficial rationality is swept aside by the overwhelming pull of one’s fantasies possibly coming true; the tug of life as you always imagined it. My delusion (All Grief Annealed in the Fountain of Youth?) did not put anyone’s life at risk but its shattering demise felt like a kind of death. As Timothy Treadwell found out, all delusions are death defying until they are not.

Simply put, “shame erupts because one is simultaneously “oneself” and something else”. We are beside ourselves and we don’t like what we see. We are not as smart as we think we are; we cannot control what will happen next; we are not as moral as we like to think we are. Though our consciousness is how we experience the Divine, our conscious self is both captious and credulous, determinate and inconclusive. We sidle away from the examination of our limits until Real Life bares its teeth and shreds our illusions. Part of me is sad for Timothy Treadwell. He was bereft of the communal resources needed to help him shape and find the limits of his self-determination. As a consequence, the death of his delusion was horrific. We are all profanely, shamefully mortal whether we cop to it or not.

Neoliberalism, Part 3, I’m gonna buy me a Mercedes Benz!

As Americans we are awash in the ‘freedom’ to choose; retail opportunities abound. We can select from a teeming cornucopia of entertainment options. We find it difficult to imagine life without the shallow but narcotic ‘liberty’ of channel surfing. We revel in the niche markets created for us because we have the ‘liberty’ to adopt the styles (of life, of clothes, of self expression) that we use to individuate ourselves; to create our personal brand. Thanks to an innovative, entrepreneurial ‘free’ enterprise system, we are deluged with what I will gloss as lower case ‘freedom’ (I will get to ‘Freedom’ later). As long as there are no barriers, we have ‘freedom’. We are free to buy cigarettes (if we are older than 18) and we are free to smoke them (in someplaces and not in others).

Because we have come more and more to define ourselves in terms of these narrow (and primarily commercial) ‘freedoms’, Americans are wont to object strenuously when we encounter any abridgement of our liberty. This very second, some Americans somewhere are outraged about a liberty denied or circumscribed: that they are required to purchase health insurance or can’t smoke in bars or can’t buy pot legally or can’t graze their cattle for free on public land or can’t take their AR-15 to the supermarket. Any political decision abridging a ‘freedom’ can be seen as an embarkation down the slippery slope to statism and slavery.*

The rhetoric of neoliberalism equates the freedom of shopping choice with political freedom; capitalism is talked about as economic democracy. Even a brief look at recent history and the world around us should disabuse of this naive view. The Bush administration and its avatar Paul Bremer were dumbfounded that the laissez faire “free enterprise zone” they created in Iraq failed to unleash Iraqi entrepreneurialism and provide the backbone for Iraqi democracy. A “free” market does not a polity make. The Chinese now have many of the economic ‘freedoms’ that Americans enjoy. No one is stopping the Chinese from buying a Biagio bag or a Mercedes Benz. But the Chinese people do not live in a democracy and do not have a soupcon of the political liberties that Americans or most Europeans enjoy. Capitalism does not a democracy make.

While I am “free” to buy a Meredes Benz, this freedom exists in a particular social, political and economic context. All Americans are ‘free’ to travel around the world; but how many Americans can afford this ‘freedom”? Much of the support that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Brexiters mustered, comes from the dawning recognition that the government does not care that most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Of what value is ‘freedom’ if your society has not fostered the kinds of social and economic conditions that allow “freedom” to be meaningful. If you are a poor American you are ‘free’ to stay that way and so are your children:

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

To borrow a trope from Yeats, surely there is a greater “Freedom” at hand?

*This is a long lived American political meme that Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” of American politics and my Dad used to call “fluoride libertarianism”.

Art and Self

Night Fishing at Antibe

Night Fishing at Antibe

I learned… to construct an ongoing narrative of the self, composed of what the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller calls “microdots” …“the consciously experienced moments selected from the whole and arranged to present a point of view”.

The Self as a kind of narrative construct has deep resonance. As I have noted before, we are agents. We are intelligible to ourselves and others. We have intentions, we act, we exist in a social milieu, we cause stuff to happen and we do all of this as time runs out. These are the key elements of any plot line. Our agent-Self is the writer (“I am going to put myself in this risky situation”). The Self is the reader (“How am I going to respond to this situation?”) and the Self is the critic (“What the fck am I doing to myself and why?”). Maybe some of us live inside a totalizing epic narrative but most of us dimly discern trajectories linking some of the thousands of short stories of which our lives have been composed.

The Self is the protagonist, the through-line moving between moments. At any of these moments our main character-self may encounter a “microdot” of memory; a rich compression of sense data, affect and scripts that vividly re-presents a lived experience. Such a terrific mixed metaphor! The Self as a story constructed by a Super-Pointillist; a composition by Seurat or Roy Lichtenstein in progress, in real time, in the always now of the Self.

Let’s mix the metaphor some more, the Self as hero of the always now is the melody, seeking in each succession of moments a resolution of chords….wanting to hear in the dense harmony of notes atemporally stacked above a reedy now a fullness that will stop time. When I look at Picasso’s Night Fishing in Antibe, I am held in such a moment. I re-experience the joy of color. I feel the vibrancy of another mind’s confusing intentions. I remember the smell and feel of warm nights in Mediterranean cafes. I feel acutely embodied and curiously detached from my physical surroundings.

How we experience art helps us describe how we experience ourselves.

Oh yeah, Proust.

Re: Comments & What I Told Myself

Laplanche Afterwardness  Image courtesy of  L.J. Whitsitt

Laplanche Afterwardness
Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

(This post is just a brief pause from the project of wringing the polysemy out of “zombies”.)

It seems, at times, that our world bombards us with one way broadcasting. Everyone seems to be broadcasting out. It took no small amount of effort on my part to talk myself into joining the cacophony. My most strenuous wrestling match was with my own super-ego. Why should I join the chorus? I cannot bring the cultural brio of James Wollcott, the wonkish brilliance of Ezra Klein or Nate Silver, the skewering wit of Charles Pierce or the professional competence and rigor of Brad de Long. But – I told myself – in the aggregate, the advantages of the democratization of “intellectual” discourse should outweigh the putative disadvantages (i.e., if everyone is a movie critic, there is no room for a Pauline Kael) Plus – I told myself – writing the blog would help me discover what I think (until we make our thoughts objective and observable through mouth or pen, our own thoughts are not fully known to us). So – I told myself – it didn’t matter if my blog went unread.

But the recent comments posted on my blogs have brought me back around to acknowledge the truth. (Here my philosophical slip starts to show…) I am not an encapsulated self, a social atom in a Newtonian social universe where we all bump into each other like billiard balls. We live immersed in a world of socially constructed meaning; a world created by Ourselves with Others. Every communication is performative, we put our thoughts into some kind of action (verbal, somatic or written) and play them out in a social theatre intended for some audience. Every communication is an action within a relationship.

I have had 177 spam comments and 4 comments from very important people in my life. It really does matter who reads my musings because, really, I write them to you. Thank you for reading and taking the time to think back with me.