Wednesday, 26 August 2009

the moment of choice (part ii) - 18,825 words

- i am not the wise old fish - david foster wallace -

Thought I’d better post before I headed off to London for a week. I’m moving the day after I get back and who knows when things will be sorted enough to make blogging viable. BT willing, service should remain uninterrupted, but yeah, who knows?

When I last talked about choice, I discussed the idea of (audio-/biblio-/)cinephiliac moments, and how they might be linked to a distinction between experiencing the sublime and feeling a connection with the world. The link was predicated on choice: choosing to see details instead of spectacle, choosing to find ourselves in the world, rather than other to it. I’d like to add to that discussion of choice with a consideration of elements from David Foster Wallace’s This is Water.

Delivered as a speech to the graduating students of 2005 at Kenyon College, This is Water represents a distillation of Wallace’s notion of choosing to live a compassionate life. Once he is done dissecting the traditions of the commencement speech itself, he begins to question where we get our ‘templates for belief,’ our ways of orienting ourselves to the world. These conceptions, he argues, are not somehow fixed, but selectable, programmable, and continually plastic.

The simple way to live, however, is to develop a default position that relates to the way we physically view the world due to our embodiment, the ‘ontology of our apparatus’ perhaps:

“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of…Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real


The importance of education for Wallace is to develop a critical awareness that tells us not what to think, but how to think, and what to think about. This education, I suspect, was not equated with the classroom in his mind, despite the graduation speech format. A ‘liberal arts’ education can, at best, introduce us to the materials which might make us see the world in a new way, to start to question our default assumptions, but the act of learning, of educating ourselves ‘how to think’ is surely the work of a life, not a degree (I digress). When we cease to make ourselves the centre of the world, apart from it, but instead look for moments of connection, and importantly for Wallace, of compassion, then we can be truly free. When someone wrongs us in some petty way, or when a grindingly mundane situation seems unbearable because of all the damn people that are making things difficult, with their stupidity, their thoughtlessness, their bile-raising selfishness, then it is only by choice, by moving away from assessing the world only in its relation to ourselves, that we can avoid becoming subdued and psychologically damaged by the everyday. We wouldn’t be asking to be walked over if we were to give people the benefit of the doubt a little (a lot?) more - maybe they’ve had a far worse day than we have; maybe this situation feels a whole lot worse for them?

The point is that “[t]his is not a matter of virtue - it’s a matter of…choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of [our] natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through the lens of self.” And the pay-off is profound:

“I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out…It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”


I offer up these thoughts from This is Water because the idea of an active-compassion, a choice-based irreligious faith of sorts, is incredibly appealing to me. The world may be how we choose to see it, but we have to work hard to exercise that choice. Art is a catalyst which can make that decision making process that much easier - it opens us to new lives with its content, and new ways of seeing with its form; it forces us to slow down and consider anew. This isn’t a new way of thinking about art, of course, but maybe attempting to recognise the link between choices within art, choices about art, and choices inspired by art would be time well spent.

My previous post on choice posited that a -philiac moment was a choice to engage with detail rather than spectacle (a default position), and that to seek connection, rather than experiencing the sublime (another default), was again a choice to be made. Wallace sought to tell that room of students, and us, that the process of choice can apply to every aspect of everyday life, and that we need to teach ourselves how to make every moment a -philiac moment of sorts, a pleasure in the details that might only occur to us. If we’re lucky, that life will include abundant art works and interactions, connections, with the natural world, alongside the fitful shopping trips and office meetings where we must work hard to achieve compassion, if only to maintain our own calm and project a little back into the world.



- from some ideas about print-based thought in chapter 2 -

“In much the same way as we might look at a typical countryside image and think that it is ‘natural’, forgetting the centuries of human landscaping that have often gone into its construction, so have many readers consumed printed books, and reported that they appear to model their thoughts accurately. My contention is that, perhaps, they should have asked if their thoughts have in fact been modelled to fit the printed page. As Sergio Cicconi puts it:

‘[c]hirographic writing, and, later, typographic writing, [has] strongly modelled the organization of our thoughts, so much that now we tend to think of the linear and propositional structures of printed books as the most faithful representations of the way we organize thinking. But in spite of the paradigmatization of the ‘printed-thought’, a printed text is a very vague (and artificial) approximation of the flow of our thoughts’

We think in a ‘print’ way, not because that’s our ‘natural’ way to think, but because our society has developed a secondary heuristic of codex reading, with structures in place to select for its strengths in a very specific way. This has modelled our minds, and also our societies, so that organised, linear thought has long been prided as intellectually superior, as a sign of the brain working at its peak. New research into creativity and play has revealed what has long been appreciated by artists, designers, musicians, and anyone who produces ‘creative work’ (as if any product was ‘uncreative’) on a regular basis: linear thought is certainly rare, and probably an illusion. There is no doubt that organising one’s thoughts into a cohesive narrative is useful, and often essential, but to suggest that it’s our default, or even most productive state is a folly sustained by the equating of mental efficacy with the inflexible drive forward of the printed word"

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