Helping Mark Allan Ohm translate Garcia's magnum opus was probably the second hardest thing (after caring for a newborn) I've yet done, and it's tremendously validating to get a pat on the shoulder as well as to see that other people agree with me that it was not time wasted.
To be clear, if you had to translate a one hundred seventy thousand plus word metaphysics tome from its original French, you could not do better than to translate one by as preternaturally gifted a writer as Tristan Garcia. But it's still a lot of moving pieces you have to juggle for sustained periods.
Wendy's chili convinced me to give up on a certain kind of traditional Platonism.
Backstory. There weren't that many fine dining establishments in the Montgomery Alabama of my youth. There was the Elite (pronounced "ee-light"), the place at the country club (racial minorities, Jews, and members of the U.S. military and dependents not allowed even as guests), and chain restaurants. On the rare times there was enough disposable income to go to eat a fancy meal, we would go to the Steak and Ale, or Pasquale's Pizza, both of which had cloth table cloths (and the former no windows) and so were hence fancy. A couple of times while going through Birmingham, we went to Bennington's, which we didn't know was owned by the same chain that owned Steak and Ale. I don't even know if we knew they were chains.
My older brother's first real job was at the first Wendy's to come to Montgomery. Everyone bought into all the hype about the owner naming it after his daughter, just like we bought into the hype about what a great guy Sam Walton was just as he was systematically shutting down all of the little towns in the state. Anyhow, for some reason there was all this buzz about Wendy's chili. This was weird, because lots of Alabamans are capable of cooking vastly better chili. But I think in those days we messed up with the comparison classes. Just because the chili was significantly less disgusting than the oily fair you would get at church potlucks and because it seemed more like real food than the stuff you got at other fast-food restaurants, it was therefore something to be excited about.
So I was excited about it. Every time we had enough money to eat out I would order the Wendy's chili. I don't know exactly what it represented to me. . . maybe sophistication? An enlarged set of possibilities (again, relative to church potluck nausea)? The ultimate justness of a world that would contain something so great, yet sometimes affordable? All these things and more. I believed the hype. It was a big deal to get it.
But over the years of my childhood, as books, music, movies and whatnot further extended my sense of the possible it slowly dawned on me that Wendy's chili was not in fact that great. There were at least three years of cognitive dissonance where I kind of knew this, yet couldn't give up on the Idea of Wendy's chili, which I still loved. But finally, in a way that I think only Hegel has really ever understood, the particular defeated the universal, the Idea itself shifting.
And this has become a theme of my life. Here are some other things where my love of the Idea of the thing blinded me to the sucky nature of the thing:
Instrumental solos- Angus Young once said he didn't know why people considered him a heavy metal guitarist, because heavy metal guitarists get up on stage and play scales really fast up and down the fretboard. Young noted that he could play scales up and down the fretboard really fast, but that was called practicing. For all these years I played in bands where at some point in the show each musician would do a solo. I'm so far beyond that that I don't even have a clear concept of what the Idea used to be where I think that would be remotely worthwhile.
95% of Post-Bop jazz music- See 1 above. For decades I'd go to these boppish jazz concerts and for the first ten minutes convince myself that I was in a Jack Kerouac novel. It was great, but then the eleventh or so minute would come around and I'm stuck for two hours as these jokers on stage just played scales really fast. The final two hours were the revenge of the particular on the universal.
Chain restaurants that claim to make good hamburgers (Burgersmith, Five Guys, Fat Cow, etc.)- This is the latest iteration of Wendy's chili. Don't fall for the hype. A rare hamburger with high quality fatty meat is a thing that inspires religious awe. You won't get that at any of these places. Just because their fare is slightly more foodlike than McDonalds doesn't mean it's actually good.
I also have a lot of friends who are victims of the same pre-Hegelian mindset, abstracting the Idea of something from the particular so much as a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance of pretending to actually like the particulars.
Humanity versus actual human beings- It's been my sad experience that the more someone takes it upon themselves to save the human race, the nastier they are capable of being to actual humans. This is a vice of both the left and the right, but in academic philosophy the leftists are much, much worse about this. Just read our blogs or facebook pages!
The Idea of New York City-I know a handful of people who are miserable that they live in flyover land (or, as we call the American South sometimes, "flee from land"). Here the Idea of New York City is used to explain their unhappiness at living elsehwere. In an effort to cheer them up, I try to get them to google "New York City is a shitty place to live," (try it!) but it never seems to help.
Academia versus actual academies- The percentage of academics who make themselves miserable because they didn't achieve their Idea of academia is at least as large as the New York City contingent. Instead of changing the Idea once exposed to the reality, they think they would be happy if they were just in a higher ranked department. The weird thing is, I know people who have this kind of unhappiness at all levels of the hierarchy (non-Leiter ranked depts with 4-4 loads, to top ranked school). I also know people who don't have it at all levels of the hierarchy. The people who don't have it somehow manage to keep that original love of philosophy alive, when you're seventeen and reading Marcuse in the tub after a day of working at KMart, and you feel like you are doing what you are meant to be doing. This too is Hegel. You reading in the tub night after night is matter becoming spirit, the universe becoming self-conscious. If you are in the biz for any other reason than this Hegelian one, it's going to let you down. I mean, if that Idea can be sustained in light of the reality of working package-pickup in a big retail store then it can stand up to unfavorable teaching loads, administrative nonsense, and whatnot.
Honestly, if I wanted to further put on the obnoxious Vonnegut martian anthropolitist hat I could include just about anything under the sun, e.g.: outdoor festivals, sports, countries, pets, Trader Joe's, automobiles, politicians, children. . .
This being said, I still think it's true that any strategy for avoiding self-inflicted misery requires: (1) reconciling your affective stances towards a univeral and instances of it, and (2) recognizing the dialectical interaction between particular and universal (at least insofar as "universal" names something graspable to humans like us). I'm sure there's all sorts of other things that I think I like but don't really like. Hopefully I'll gain greater wisdom in this regard.
Today I'm reading Solomon Maimon's fascinating autobiography and he relates a great story about what happened after he sent Kant a manuscript for his first book Transcendental Philosophy. Kant wrote him back a fantastically glowing letter full of praise. After repeating some of the letter Maimon writes,
It may easily be imagined how important and agreeable to me was the approbation of this great thinker, and especially this testimony that I had understood him well. For there are some arrogant Kantians, who believe themselves to be sole proprietors of the Critical Philosophy, and therefore dispose of every objection, even though not intended as a refutation, but as a fuller elaboration of this philosophy, by the mere assertion without proof, that the author has failed to understand Kant. Now these gentlemen were no longer in a position to bring this charge against my book, inasmuch, as by the testimony of the founder of the Critical Philosophy himself, I had a better right than they to make use of this argument.
A couple of thoughts: (1) This is like a real life version of that scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is irritated by a pompous windbag in front of him who keeps going on about Marshall McLuhan. When he complains to Annie, the guy turns around and arrogantly announces that he teaches a class on McLuhan. Then Woody Allen produces McLuhan in the flesh, who proceeds to take the piss out of the hapless professor. Here Maimon is Woody Allen, Kant McLuhan, and the Kantians of the day the irritating professor in line in front of Maimon. (2) This was kind of a synchronicity. A few days ago in THIS POST I was thinking about various ways to be philosophically obnoxious, and one of the key ones is to take it as a priori that anyone who disagrees with your favorite philosopher therefore misunderstands that philosopher. It's really weird to see how old this very tendency is, that in fact early disciples of Kant employed it. And how nice it is to see that Kant helped disarm it, providing such strong support to some of his earliest and most incisive critics. Can anyone imagine Heidegger or Derrida doing such a thing? I realize that great philosophers can be nasty people, and this is depressing. But it is likewise joyful when great philosophers show genuine humanity. Remember that at this point Maimon was an unknown Polish Jewish autodidact living in poverty in Berlin. For Kant, during the time he was teaching a ton of classes and writing the Third Critique, to read and study Maimon's manuscript and write a public letter (at that point in history it was common for letters to be publicized, cf. the Hume-Rousseau imbroglio) of such powerful praise is really a testament to his humanity.
During my first miserable years of graduate school in Columbus, Ohio I would sometimes visit old friends and family in Austin, Texas.
On one such visit I got dragged along to a party by my college friend Ira. The house was really depressing, everything covered in a layer of cigarette dust and dirt: shag carpets and linoleum in your field of vision no matter where you looked. The keg of Shiner Bock (which had already entered its post Corona buyout slide) was somehow dripping on the yellow and lime green kitchen floor, creating a muddy puddle that slowly expanded during the course of the party. A filthy dog would periodically walk over and lick at the mud. The only furniture in the house was a T.V. on a milk crate and some mattresses in the denizens' bedroom. The fifteen or so people in the party just sat around on the floor and smoked cigarettes.
The smoke was so bad that it made me think of those old Viking longhouses with the hearth traversing the center of the whole house. It must have really sucked to be in one of those places with all the smoke. Viking legend has it that it was acceptable during fits of depression to "live in the ashes," which involved burying oneself in the three foot high piles of ash on each side of the fire and sneaking out to steal food and drink periodically. According to New Age writer Robert Bly (or was it Joseph Conrad?), Leif Erikson supposedly did this for two or three years prior to washing himself off and discovering the new world.
I guarantee you that nobody at that party went on to discover a new world.
We were all three or four years out of college, at the point where the bad diet and slacker lifestyle finally started to rob a generation of their youthful looks. Through the cloud of smoke I noticed how everyone's skin tone went from blanched to greenish, and how we all looked puffy, somehow both overweight and undernourished. It was technically a "party" I guess, but nobody was festive, and the conversation drowned in unclever attempts at ironic distance.
Even worse, I'd just reached the point in my life where I'd already heard a lot of what many people had to say, and didn't quite know how to deal with that. Going to cafes and eavesdropping or getting into conversations with new people had just begun to lose its charm. So I sat there on ash soaked carpet and drank my beer, thinking dark thoughts.
Between sips, it occurred to me that the functional organization of groups maybe foisted personalities on people, sort of like how in war movies there's always the wise-cracking tough guy Sargent, the earnest and scared brainy kid, a couple of ethnic stereotypes, etc. . . The narrative of a war movie seems to demand this. I started then to worry if really life was the same way. So let's say you got in a new group of friends who hadn't yet filled the "funny guy" spot, and because of that it's your job to be the funny guy, even if you aren't really funny. Maybe this was why you can often observe groups of friends laughing at somebody's unfunny jokes?
While pondering this, one of Ira's friends introduced me to a slightly overweight bearded person who plopped down next to me. Ira's friend said something like, "You'll like Bill, he's an intellectual like you." This women didn't know I was in graduate school. I think for her "intellectual" meant someone who wasn't a meathead (and Kurt Cobain's true cross was looking out in the audience and realizing he was performing for the same kind of meatheads that beat him mercilessly when he was a child in school, just that some of these meatheads now listened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and wore flannel shirts).
Bill's skin was kind of waxy and the sweat rolled off of him. He was so drunk he could barely speak. In between periodic bouts of drooling, he talked about himself. The first thing he said was "My life is Kafkaesque." I responded flippantly (and unfunnily), "Dude, you've got an apple stuck under your right wing on your back," and he just stared at me through bleary eyes. I wanted to ask him how he knew his life was Kafkaesque without him having read any Kafka, but I'm actually too polite to do stuff like that. After more drooling he said (very slowly), "I work at Burlington Coat Factory , I help build the new coat factories," and began crying. I said, "Whattaya crying about? That's a good job. Hey! Hey! People need coats." But he kept crying and mumbling, and my praise of outerwear garments didn't seem to help much. Finally he snuffled in and solemnly proclaimed, "I should write a book."
This mawkish display went on for about fifteen minutes and there was nothing I could do to cheer him up. He was just too drunk and pathetic. Plus the crying I think was part of his view of himself as a tortured genius forced to labor beneath himself.
When my friend Ira came over, Bill started mumbling incoherent, yet loud, things about Plato. "Oh crap" I thought. Ira is such a sweet person (he will help anyone with anything) that I thought we'd be stuck there all night listening to the drunk windbag. But as soon as the guy mentioned Plato, Ira said, "Dude, you're full of s**t and you don't know what you're talking about; just sit there and shut up while we leave." And we did. We went and then got some really good Mexican food.
Ira's curse was the last sentence of the last generation X/slacker party I attended. I haven't even been to a party with a keg of beer (this was over a decade ago) since then. Nor do I want to. Saint Paul was pretty much right about kid stuff being for kids and grownup stuff being for grownups. Grownup stuff is actually a lot more fun and rewarding. So is Mexican food.
Since being diagnosed with hypertension, I've changed a lot of things in my life for the better. No caffeine, a lot less alcohol, more olive oil, and a lot more exercise. One of the things I do for exercise is to try to walk a lot. Sometimes this leads to problems.
A few Thanksgivings ago I woke up early and decided to take a walk to the Mississippi River levee in downtown Baton Rouge, less than a mile from where I live. It's really pretty down there early in the morning and it's also a good chance to check out all of the neat construction in downtown Baton Rouge.
As I walked along Third Street an old car with the name of a church painted on its side (it was one of those off-brand churches with a name like "New Covenant Fellowship" or something) slowed alongside me. The driver was a woman who had that kind of smile only worn by evangelicals and people who take massive doses of protease re-uptake inhibitors. Thinking she wanted directions somewhere, I ambled over to the car.
She said, "Well hello there, Sir! The Breakfast is just down the street!"
I said something like, "Huh?"
As I leaned down she said, "Just right down third street and keep going straight. You'll see the sign." Then she took off.
During my four block trek along Third Street, two other cars did the same thing, all driven by people with the weird Prozac/evangelical grins urging me in the direction of the convention center. I felt like I was in a zombie movie.
So, in my sadly predictable Milgramistic way, I shuffled to the convention center to see what was going on. Once there I was confronted by a long line of bearded men, half of them wearing fatigues, and a couple of women. The ammonia reek of the dried urine saturating many of their clothes was nauseating. I still didn't understand what the heck was going on until I finally noticed a sign that said, "Line for Free Thanksgiving Breakfast Starts Here." The gathered bums, so bad at everything else in their mentally ill and booze and drug saturated lives, were surprisingly good at standing in line for a free breakfast. This really amazed me, and I thought that if these people were so good at lining up, maybe they wouldn't stay homeless forever. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that, like so much else in their lives, the line was not in fact the result of their innate disposition to self-restraint.
My first thought was, "Oh, those women thought I was going to volunteer to help with the breakfast." Unfortunately, this was shattered when one of the smiling, sweater bedecked, Christians came up to me and said, "Sir, the back of the line is over there. If you just wait there we'll start letting people in soon."
I tried to explain that I was just going for a walk, but the woman was kind of nervous from dealing with so many bums, and she just kept telling me that I needed to go to the back of the line. Finally, a police officer walked over and told me I needed to "move on, immediately." Though thoroughly cowed by the police officer and evangelical Christian, the bums still had it in them to laugh at me as I wandered off.
think the last time I went to see live music was a year ago when Weird Al Yankovic played downtown. I just have almost no motivation to see most bands today. Reasons: (1) I don't want to add to my hearing loss, (2) I always get a sort of hangover from cigarette smoke inhalation the next morning, (3) bands start really late in Baton Rouge, and (4) I find the mating rituals of human beings in their early twenties to be really depressing, and I don't enjoy witnessing their early stages in bars.
In college I saw a pretty good amount of live music, and it was at once such concert that I actually won a fistfight. Henry Rollins was touring to support his second solo album, I think called "Lifetime." This was I think probably right before the patina of true rock and roll (from his time as Black Flag's lead singer) had worn off him, and when you could also still see him in a tiny bar. Even though I don't really like any of his music from "The End of Silence" onwards, and am pretty equivocal about his other creative endeavors (with the exception of the good works he's done for Hubert Selby Junior, for which Mr. Rollins gets a place in heaven) the concert was phenomenal.
Unfortunately, the tiny club I saw him at (then called "The Cannibal Club" in Austin) featured "slam dancing" which is when stupid kids run around in spastic circles and bang into each other. Although I didn't partake in the dancing, a drunk skinhead slammed into me and tripped. I didn't think much of it and turned around.
Here's where I got very lucky. Skinheads both in Britain and the U.S. are really fond of traveling in groups and assaulting people as a pack. This skinhead was solo that evening and (even more lucky for me) very, very drunk. I felt this pop on the side of my head, which caused my glasses to careen into the mosh pit, only to be crushed under a hundred pairs of combat boots and Dr. Martin's. I turned around and by squinting could make out the light shining off of the jerk's bald head. My night vision is so bad without glasses that I didn't see him swing again though. But the gods of the rock and roll pantheon were with me. His fist missed my head and the momentum pulled him forward onto the concrete floor, on which he caught himself with his face. He just lay there in an expanding pool of blood coming out of his very broken nose.
Security grabbed my arms and escorted me out. Once we got outside they bummed me a cigarette and one of them said, "Finally someone took that a**hole Scuff down. Man, he had it coming." I didn't have the heart to tell them that it was really the slippery floor of the club combined with "Scuff's" drunkenness and low I.Q. that "took him down." I just enjoyed that brief and to me genuinely alien moment of male camaraderie and then never went to that club again.
Last year when Emily and I were crossing the street in our neighborhood a car came very close to running into us. The car was some kind of old Ford (does Ford still make cars, or is it all "light trucks" now?) and the driver was a dowdy, middle aged African American woman. Emily and I had been crossing at a corner that had a stop sign. If the woman hadn't slammed on the breaks to avoid hitting us, she would have sped through the intersection without stopping for the sign.
I was standing in the middle of the road having one of those freeze reactions that prey animals (and humans were prey animals long before they were predators) have evolved as a response to predators who attack moving things. As my adrenalin calmed down a little bit I noticed the driver was waving her hands and screaming.
Emily and I moved out of her car's way, but the woman just kept screaming. You couldn't hear what she was saying because her windows were closed. When I finally figured that she was mad at us for having the temerity to be on foot and in her way, I pointed at the stop sign. At that point she threw her door open and ran out of the car.
Uh oh, Jerry Springer time, except without the bodyguards to separate us. The woman was literally snarling and she kept screaming things like, "Don't tell me you didn't see me coming." Of course, my response was to say, "I really didn't see you coming" (we really didn't).
Emily remained calm and said, "The sign says 'stop.' It's not optional. You have to stop, whether pedestrians are in the street or not."
This went on, and I finally said, "Hey, don't be mad."
She was briefly taken aback, silent for a moment, before again snarling, "You give me one god-damned reason why I shouldn't be mad?"
Her animosity was so misdirected, and I'm such a natural pedant, that I was going to attempt to explain to her why it was in fact Emily and I that should be mad, with the driver apologizing to us. I knew that would be futile though, so I tried to think of other reasons not to be consumed with anger. I opened my mouth, not knowing how I was going to answer her, and what came out was "Because Jesus loves you." She paused, stepping back. I smiled and held open my arms in case she wanted a hug, raising my eyebrows and nodding my head in encouragement.
She screamed, "Oh f**k this!" waddled back to her Ford and drove away.