Monday, 7 January 2013

To Begin Again

I have after much quibbling and procrastination decided to start this blog. The reasons for this are multiple. One of them principally being that after the end of my post-graduate studies it’s become desirable to have a place where the ideas and concerns I used to work through in my papers and studying can be pursued with at least the implication of a potential audience. An actual audience isn’t as important as writing with the intention and discipline a possible audience encourages. It might also be useful as a place to knock around ideas that I’m working on for a possible PhD proposal.  I have in the past been quite hesitant about starting one, and I think explaining the reasons for this might help in illustrating my hopes for the blog and the sort of ‘self-writing’ which I wish to avoid. 

But first, what about the title? Áskēsis is an ancient Greek word, perhaps more familiar to philosophers, especially those versed in ancient philosophy or the late work of Michel Foucault. It does from the outset however invite accusation of pretentiousness; although that the very fact of using old languages or serious words should invite this is in my view a symptom of the modern will to stupidity. Bear in mind it could be worse. Some of the names I previously considered included Progressive Misanthropy and The Bald Rooster! The latter I still think has merit, but I worried about a potential deluge of interweb perverts drawn by the hitherto unknown potential for innuendo contained in such a title. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried since I’ve been reliably informed that regardless of the title or content your blog is likely to be inundated by persons demanding to know “WHERE ARE THE TITS!?”. The bald rooster in question if you were wondering was the one supposedly held up to Plato by the cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope as a means of debunking his general definition of Man; Plato had suggested “featherless biped!” 

Áskēsis itself is the archaic rendering of ascesis, a concept we have more familiarity with through words like acetic and asceticism, both of which have something of a bad reputation in our more permissive times. I’m not sure what an acetic blog might be like; perhaps the routines and daily goings on in some sort of seminary or other religious institution? Perhaps even a litany of temptations refused, or worldly pleasures forsaken in pursuit of a transcendent holy life or profound inner peace? “This week I mostly abstained from fried fish and female company. Next week no shoes”. It doesn’t sound like much fun in any case. I’m using the word in its older archaic meaning which denotes not so much a rejection of worldly pleasures aimed at a regime of self renunciation, but rather a practice or exercise of self on self; in this case using writing as its means. This understanding of the concept originates in pre-Christian antiquity and was a major theme running through the last few years of Michel Foucault’s work.   

There are numerous treatments of this concept to be found in Foucault’s work as he analysed its influence and mutation from the Hellenistic world through the high Roman Empire and onto the practices of the aforementioned Christian ascetics. The one I find most attractive and which inspires me greatly in attempting any kind of philosophical writing is to be found in the preface to The Use of Pleasure, the second book in his History of Sexuality: “But what therefore is philosophy today – I mean philosophical activity – if it is not the critical work of thought on itself? And if it does not consist in undertaking to know how and to what extent it would be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what one already knows?...the “essay” – which one should understand as the “assay” of oneself in the game of truth and not as the simplifying appropriation of others for the purposes of communication – is the living body of philosophy, at least if the latter is still now what is was in the past, that is to say, an “áskēsis,” an exercise of oneself in thought.”

The conflation of the “essay”, which is more the form of writing I’m aiming at with this blog, with “assay”, a term more frequently deployed in the analytical sciences, is an attractive one. I was originally trained in the natural sciences and have spent most of my working life performing assays of one kind or another. I also developed a form of assay during my undergraduate project on diabetes treatments, for testing the efficacy of a carbohydrate compound in inhibiting the uptake of glucose into the blood. So for me the idea of treating an essay as a kind of assay is to treat the writing not as the confirmation of some already established knowledge or of reiterating to oneself experiences and forms of thought that have already occurred, and to seek in the presentation of them in writing a kind of validation from outside, but rather it is to treat the writing as a space for experimentation and practice with little or no certainty in the outcome. That this runs the risk like all experiments of this kind of producing error, or at least having a particular practice rendered inconclusive, or even evincing undesirable effects is part of the fun. And even if I end up writing some nonsense, or attempting experiments that lead nowhere, it still has the useful function of an exercise and in producing some kind of practical knowledge, at least of things I would wish to avoid doing in the future.

So given all this what sort of writing am I keen to avoid? Well broadly speaking I think I can identify two types, or perhaps it’s better to say two poles of blog(ish) writing both of which I want to avoid, and both of which I think correspond to what in the quote above are described as “legitimating what one already knows” and “the simplifying appropriation of others for the purposes of communication.”

First there is the sort of confessional day to day record of events and reflections on a person’s life that probably makes up the majority of blogs. This is the sort of thing that used to go into private diaries and journals, but now spills out all over social networking sites in concise bite size pieces, often to be distinguished from the latter by the replacement of unguarded honesty by an odd kind of irony or detached commentary. This kind of writing of course takes the author themselves as its object. Not in the mode of an exercise or experiment, but purely as an object to be presented and confirmed. The self that writes purportedly coincides with the self that is written about (now there’s a statement to get the Lacanians in a spin!). The reader’s function in this is the act of recognition or validation (or perhaps even condemnation?).

The other pole is trickier to pin down. Its most important characteristic is that for the most part it takes as its object something other than the author. For example the industry a person works in, Rock music, American politics, Indian restaurants in South East England, all that sort of thing. This writing functions more as comment, not on the life of the author who can attempt to efface themselves to whatever degree they want, but on the object they take to be worth writing about. This is the form of blog writing that has in recent years blurred the lines around journalism, and has led to the writing of blogs being set-up as a potential route or apprenticeship into paid work in established print or online media. It’s this type of writing that has spawned on the websites of practically every major news outlet a variation of the “Comment is Free” form of Op-Ed journalism, which in addition to the author’s contribution invites “discussion” in the form of anonymous comments on the article (usually abusive as I’m sure you’ve noticed). 

Aside from what I think is the very detrimental conflation of opinion and journalism inherent in the spread of this stuff, and the absurd spectacle of pages upon pages of ignorant abuse which follow them, what I take as particularly undesirable to the form of writing I’m interested in is my observation that this type of blog/journalism takes into itself an almost compulsory need to speak on popular issues and news stories. I lost count of the number of op-ed and independent blog articles written last year on the subject of Julian Assange and the debacle of his residency at the Ecuadorian embassy.  It was no surprise that it turned very quickly into a bun fight between various persons on the Liberal and Far Left. And as the waters muddied (with no little contribution from our lizard dodging Ickeian friends) between supporting women’s struggle against sexual violence and fighting American power, what became clear to me was that the sheer number and immense verbosity of opinions available precluded any possibility that a coherent position might ascend. How well the Right has come to depend on the Left’s disarray and inability to establish consensus! Under such conditions it seems to me that the best strategy would have been to absent oneself and remain silent, lest adding yet another clamoring voice would further submerge the possibility of the Left establishing a coherent position. Silence is a virtue appreciated ever less.

So in short it’s not so much the conflation of opinion and genuine journalism that I resent, but rather how that conflation leads to the pressure to have the subject of one’s output dictated by current events and public opinion. As if whatever makes it onto the opinion pages of the Guardian by itself has any objective worth rather than just reflecting the editor’s perceived view of what their readers want to see. This observation is often made regarding rags like the Daily Mail and the Sun; it cuts both ways.

So what am I going to write about? Well philosophy and politics are certainly going to be included, although I very much doubt I’ll be engaging in a running commentary on current affairs or the latest Twitter catfight between adapts of the liberal commentariat (I do like that expression). Often I think current affairs might better be illuminated by a discussion of the underlying concepts or historical framework that goes into its presentation as current. For example the recent coverage of gun control in the US might be covered obliquely by discussing the historicity of the concepts of positive and negative liberty, and how a “gothic” idea of personal liberty (as Quentin Skinner has put it) has over time displaced the classical republican idea of liberty which greatly animated the founders of that nation. I prefer the idea of tackling current events obliquely or of using a constellation of seemingly unconnected concepts and perspectives to offer an unusual take on an issue. My writing on contemporary events will most likely take this form.

Otherwise I’m sure there will be the odd book or music review or even some hackneyed attempts (perhaps even more hackneyed than what I’ve just written!) at sagacity! I’m very fond of the form of Seneca’s letters; little discussions on the virtue of walking by rivers or the annoyance of compulsory enjoyment at festivals. Small things like that which contribute greatly to making life worth living are I think very important and greatly neglected in contemporary thought; well at least by those not charging for instruction on meditation or handing out the incense! I’ve also had a fascination with the form of ‘fragments’ favored by the early German Romantics. I can’t remember which one of them it was (perhaps Friedrich von Hardenberg or it may have been Schlegel?) who said that in each of these little suggestive philosophical fragments lay the possibility for entire systems of thought; systems within systems as they arranged them in books. Here’s a lovely one from Friedrich von Hardenberg’s Blüthenstaub (Pollen):

“Before abstraction everything is one, but one like chaos; after abstraction everything is united again, but this union is a free binding of autonomous, self-determined beings. Out of a mob a society has developed, chaos has been transformed into a manifold world.” 

So there’s lots of scope for experimentation and probably much hilarity and silliness. And if I do end up making a fool of myself I will fall back on an overused quotation from Beckett much beloved by my friend Josh White, who I am grateful for in encouraging me to start this thing.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. 

Note: I won’t be enabling the comment function; the reasons for this should be obvious from the above. If by some strange turn of events someone wants to comment on what I’ve written then they may use the old fashioned technique of email. It takes no effort for a thousand people to drunkenly swamp a piece of writing of whatever quality in a deluge of one liners consisting of monosyllabic guff and abuse. Worthwhile comments lose nothing from not being aired in public.