Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 4

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

In part 2, I talked about a lack of emotional sensation that I discovered during my counselling sessions.

In part 3, I blamed everything on boiled potatoes (and allowing my everyday life to become too bland).

Part 4: A History of Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy

Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy is a landmark text. Russell's position as its author - author of one of the most influential histories of philosophy - is a testament to his stature and import in the first half of the twentieth century. If anyone is the father of 'analytic' philosophy, it is Russell; at very least, he was the first patriarch of its fractious family.

History is written by the victors.

Russell's career was built, founded, on the strength (or at least the success) of his attacks on the philosophies that preceded him; the British idealism of his teachers, and the late phenomenology of Brentano and Meinong that paralleled it. By the end of the 1920s, analytic philosophy was well-established, with Russell at its head.

His opponents were not just defeated, they were dead; Meinong died in 1920, at 67. Bradley, greatest of the British idealists, hung on until 1924. Analytic philosophy delivered triumph after triumph in logic and language, most notably in modernising formal systems for logic which had languished in an Aristotelian mode long into the Enlightenment. Since those formal systems underpin the computation sustaining this blog post, we can hardly reject the analytic approach outright.

But it bears asking what was lost to its triumph. Analytic philosophy is a cold, clinical thing, characterised by abstraction, a devotion to clarity pursued by stripping an object of any context that might introduce ambiguity. This is the mindset that numbed my body to serve my mind. This is the approach that relegates emotion to a backwater, nothing more than a hazard to reason.

The archetypal rationalists of the early modern period - Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz - would have had no truck with this division. For them, there was no great conflict between mind and spirit (mind and body might be a different matter, but body-as-pertaining-to-felt-emotion would have been spiritual to them, not 'merely animal' if there was such a thing). Their tradition, and the work of those who inherited it, from Kant all the way down to Bradley and Meinong, is one of unified, harmonious worlds in which things can only be understood as they are in relation to one another.

It is very hard, when tackling the metaphysics of the post-Leibnizians, not to chuckle, not to view their spirituality as naive, archaic, a product of a 'less enlightened era' in which people still believed in wooly notions and lacked clarity of thought. It is easy to see these men as clinging to religion in the face of marching progress. To do so is, at the very least, to overlook how many of them flirted with outright heresy in challenging the established religions of their times; Spinoza was outright excluded from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, and their sanction against him stands to this day.

While it would be presumptuous of me to present this as an account of the origins of modern critical thought, there are definite links; Marx and Freud, for example, both draw on ideas from Hegel which are fundamentally legacies of Leibniz - ideas that are political, economic and psychological cognates of the metaphysics of Bradley and Meinong. Marx in particular went on to influence a broad range of modern critiques not just in matters of economic class but also the discourse around race, gender, sexuality and disability.

Even the fact that, in anglocentric culture, we view 'philosophy' as something esoteric and removed from daily life can be attributed to analytic philosophy, a product of a simplistic and privileging attitude to the academy and 'academics'. What I hope I have shown, or at least plausibly suggested, is that philosophy is lived, is at the foundation of how we live, is stitched through life and culture in a way that is shaped by but also helps shape everyone who participates in it. The shape it has fitted me into has not been kind, and I am in so many ways one of the fortunate ones.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 3

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

In part 2, I talked about a lack of emotional sensation that I discovered during my counselling sessions.

Part 3: The Problem with British Food

Boiled potatoes are non-food. Without either flavour or texture, they are sustenance without experience, matter without properties, as close to the Lockean idea of the bare particular (no, that's not a euphemism, though I've just realised I missed out on a hell of a joke lecturing about them last week) as occurs in real life.

At least, they are when I cook them. I'm aware that various interesting things can be done with boiled potatoes, but I've never had much success when trying. It all seemed more effort than the marginally-improved results were worth.


I ate a lot of boiled potatoes during my PhD years. Money was tight, and I am a coward in the kitchen. Boiled potatoes are a very safe option for student cooking - it's not like they can get any blander from being overcooked, right? Yes, I could have mixed things up sometimes with rice or noodles, but that would have meant keeping rice and/or noodles in stock - more diversity of food means more money spent.

And I didn't really care that they were bland. I viewed eating - everything related to sustenance, basically - as a chore, something to be minimised. That doesn't just mean the simplest cooking possible, it also means the least attention-demanding food. The blandness itself became a kind of virtue, a way of reacting against my limited means; 'I can't afford good food? Well I DON'T CARE, SO THERE!'.

(Sidebar: I wasn't poor - in all sorts of structural ways, from parental support to a fees grant without which I wouldn't even have been able to start the PhD, I was well-off. But I was strapped for cash on a day-to-day basis for most of the four-and-a-half years).

Lots of other elements of my daily routine were similarly, deliberately anemic. I didn't care about them. I cared about the things that I thought 'enriched' my life - my work, my studies, my writing, music and gaming. All those things did, of course, greatly enrich my life. They all mattered to me, and still do.

But the quotidian stuff isn't meaningless, and one of the things I learned in counselling was how much I couldn't 'rise above it'. Quite the opposite, in fact - it dragged me down. Initially, I clung to rigid domestic routines to keep my budget under control, a strategy that worked but at a cost. The routine itself began to the object of my clinging, though, and therein became a problem.

When the disruption of decorating began to stress me out last summer, I initially identified my shattered routine as the cause of my mounting anxiety. I felt that if I could just get things back in order, I would stabilise. Only after the discomfort had almost boiled over into meltdown did I start to think that perhaps the routine itself - a rigid sequence of bland, boiled-potato nonexperiences whose only value to me was their place in the order - might be the problem.

I'm not actually eating much more healthily these days (and indeed, I'm still eating some of the same stuff - no more boiled potatoes, though). But I do try to think about what I'd like to eat before making decisions about buying meals. It wasn't hard to start developing actual preferences again.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Piano

Sometime in the next month or so, it will be twenty years since I had my first piano lesson. That's the point I think it's reasonable to call the point at which I first played the instrument (or indeed any instrument), rather than just sitting at it and poking keys to extract sounds.

There was a piano at home before I was born, so I grew up with it there as a piece of furniture. I don't remember ever not being allowed to play it, though obviously my efforts at a very young age were at best unsophisticated. The family collection of 'embarassing/endearing stories about Rik's childhood' includes several of my 'compositions'. Whatever my ambitions, I was no Mozart.

I asked for piano lessons from pretty young; my parents didn't cave until I was seven. Probably wise, since I was a pretty faddy, impetuous child, and it was to be at least a decade before I stopped resenting having to practice daily.

Thinking about it, I really don't have many memories that I can clearly point to as coming from before I started learning piano. That's not claiming any miraculous memory-enhancing powers for music, just that my recollection is pretty scattered from being younger than 7.

What I'm getting at is that I've been a pianist for a long time - that part of my self-image is very deeply ingrained. It might have petered out for me when I left home and my parents' piano, but I asked for a portable, digital piano for my 18th birthday to take to university with me. The entire family clubbed together, to the tune of £800, to make sure I had a decent model.

Even that piano will have been mine for a decade this summer. She's sat behind me right now, and I still play pretty much every day (I'm - very slowly - working my way through learning Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', and after over a decade I've got about a third of it down). And playing has shaped my life in a lot of ways that might not be obvious.

It's not just that I love music, understand some part of how music is constructed and produced, enjoy creating music and find solace in the sounds. It's not just that some of my most important social relationships are and have been musical (pretty much the only way in which I 'get out of the house' these days is going to gigs).

It's also that the way I learn is shaped by a musical paradigm - regular, consistent practice, stepping up one cautious level at a time. I do not thrive when thrown in the deep end. I approach almost all tasks like performances, with meticulous preparation, often to a fault. It can drain my confidence and feed my anxieties, sometimes, since life often doesn't offer much preparation time, but it has its upsides too, when it works.

There's also the fact that twenty years of training my fingers to be clever and independent has real benefits (yeah, make your jokes - honestly, they give my sex life far more credit than it deserves). I never had to learn to touch-type; I just kinda picked it up as I went along. I never need to look at the keyboard anymore. Seven of the letter keys on this keyboard have had their markings rubbed completely off by time and I only struggle when I have to stop and think about where I'm putting my hands.

Manual dexterity shapes a lot of my attachment to video games as well. I get a real kick out of the way my hands climb around a controller in the flow of play. My favourite games tend to be those where the interface is slick enough that I feel like my fingers are extending into the game world, the game character's contortions a manifestation of my own prestidigitation.

I don't really have a message or an argument today. Just 'yay piano', I guess. That'll do.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 2

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

As for what boiled potatoes have to do with anything? Wait and see... 

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

Part 2: A Body with No Answers

I'm not going to go through everything I discussed in counselling. Not all of it is relevant, a great deal of it is probably extremely tedious, and the conclusions are likely obvious to all except the protagonist. My counsellor, Jules, was brilliant at drawing me out, getting me to reflect on myself without too much criticality. She didn't try to diagnose or explain, but let me draw my own conclusions and thus internalise each successive realisation.

I learned - perhaps it would be better to say 'reinterpreted' - a lot about myself in those five hours of discussions, but the standout experience is one that happened several times. When I was struggling, either for words or in discomfort, Jules would ask 'How are you feeling right now?' I never had an immediate answer.

In fact, I didn't really have an answer at all. Feelings are embodied things - they happen in the 'gut', the 'heart', sometimes the spine or the back of the neck. Jules would ask me, and (the first few times) specifically direct my attention to bodily sensation. I would frown, expecting an immediate answer (who doesn't know how they're feeling at a given moment?). When that didn't happen, I would interrogate my body, a technique I've learned for fiction writing.

And there would be nothing there. There were physical sensations - the chair, sometimes a headache or a dry throat, ordinary itches or aches - but no emotional ones. What I could identify of my emotions - usually a sense of dread about where a question might lead, how I might be pressured to change my behaviour - were 'head' things, and not sensory. It was the racing-thought, future-chasing anxiety seeded by stereotypes of therapeutic exercises ('Feeling lonely, you say? Okay, GO INTO TOWN AND START ASKING RANDOM STRANGERS FOR A HUG'), something that for all its unpleasantness is almost entirely mind, not body.

Trying to describe the silence in place of expected sensation is difficult at the best of times. I managed to be intellectually disturbed by the solid flatness of my chest - not cold or hard, like stone, just... there, like a well-plastered, plain-painted wall - but couldn't even feel afraid of it.

Occasionally, on the cusp of some realisation, there would be a vertiginous moment, a yawning, teetering on the edge of a bigger, more daunting perspective. That, at least, was a sensation, though mainly around the crown of my skull, sometimes spilling into my eyes as a headrush. It was all I ever managed to report to Jules.

I was self-reflecting the way I'd learned to reflect on everything else - Analysis, with a capital, historical A, a clinical process of standing outside an idea, surgically peeling away its context, tracing each vein and neuron one at a time. There's a time and place for that, perhaps, even when the idea is your own self, but it cannot, must not, be your only paradigm for thinking.

(part 3)

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 1

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

As for what boiled potatoes have to do with anything? Wait and see...

Part 1: To Paint a Comfort Zone, First You Must Destroy It

First, the journey itself, or at least the closing chapter of it. This, by the way, is not a dramatic or melodramatic story. Probably it's quite underwhelming. It has no histrionics, no blubbering collapses, and the longest redemptive journey involved walking round the corner from my department building to the university's counselling service.

Proportionately to that, it starts with decorating. Having made this rather optimistic post about how my bout of decorating last summer might go, things actually went pretty well for most of the process. The schedule was met, and by the Sunday of the week after that posting, I'd finished all the decorating work. All that remained was the carpet, which was to be delivered and fitted, along with a carpet for the adjacent bedroom, on the Monday.

And then, about lunchtime on Sunday, we spotted that the boiler, which is in the other bedroom, had leaked a few spots of water from what looked like a badly-corroded valve.

Obviously, there was no way we were going to put a new carpet into a room where a boiler might need a valve replacing (where, indeed, the whole boiler might turn out to need replacing - it's a pretty old one, though - *touch wood* - still reliable). And it was a Sunday, so reaching the carpet fitter to discuss arrangements with him was going to take a while.

I can't quite put into words how I felt about this (more on this point in a later part). But to resort to tired metaphors, a stone sank into my gut. My chest felt tight, and I found my jaw clenching a lot. Even thinking about the emotional state I was in then is making me feel a bit hollow now. In retrospect, it should have been a warning, but I was a little too self-absorbed to notice (if that even makes sense - too self-absorbed to notice my own emotional state?)

But it gets worse, because I wasn't the person dealing directly with any of the people who needed to be contacted about the carpet and the boiler. All that was handled by one of my housemates, the one whose bedroom had the boiler in it. I tried not to pester her, I promise I tried, but it still got to the point that I almost drove her to tears by passing my stress onto her.

Perhaps oddly, it was the break in tension that brought matters to a head. When she finally managed to get confirmation from the carpet fitters that they would be happy to come and fit just my carpet on the Monday, and do the other one at a later date, it was my expression of relief that finally pushed her to tell me to back off.

I spent the next fifteen minutes shivering in my temporary bedroom, fighting off a panic attack. A mild one, by the standards of some I've had. It was half an hour or more before I even managed to apologise.

AND EVEN THEN, I was only thinking about maybe seeking counselling, not really sure what I should be seeking counselling for. Being a rationalist is no guarantee of always being rational; being a lover of wisdom is no guarantee of always being wise. These revelations have a significant role to play in what's to come, but for now suffice it to say that I was eventually convinced to make good on the counselling idea.

(part 2)

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of) part 2

Actually, this time it's not just sexism - it's every other dimension of privilege as well.

I'm working on a lengthy and complicated thing about white male identity and 'gamers' - my identity, basically. What I'm trying to do with it is address self-identified gamers defensive of our identity on the grounds that it's the only thing we have. I examine why it's possible to feel this, and how to think more broadly about our identity.

But it's really hard to do that without feeling embattled. 'Gamer' is an identity with a lot of really toxic associations. 'White' and 'male' are even worse, both having a long history of oppression and brutality. The urge is always there to get defensive, to rationalise or try to explain away my association with those identities. It's the urge to mansplain, whitesplain etc. (I'm not sure that 'gamesplain' is a thing yet, or just regarded as a combination of 'all the above') -  call it xsplaing in general.

The problem with xsplaining is difficult to state succinctly. It's most problematic when a privileged person butts into a conversation about a problematic pattern of privileged behaviour to explain why - even if not done in an explicitly abusive way, this reinforces existing power dynamics by demanding that every conversation be limited by our comfort. It also equates our discomfort with the actual harm suffered by other groups, which is dismissive of their experience as well as flat-out inaccurate.

Another problem is in demanding 'they' solve 'our' problems - the attitude of 'if you don't like it, you tell us what to do'. We're adults. If someone criticises us, we've got to be able to take responsibility for that. Before demanding specific attention from someone - adding to the burden you've already imposed on them - do some googling, or at least some self-reflection, to try to understand the problem.

This goes doubly for issues of identity. The piece I'm writing is an attempt to collect some criticism of 'gamer' and develop from that a better model of the identity. I don't agree 100% with everything I'm quoting, so there is some editorialising, but my primary purpose is not to refute or dispute those criticisms; it's to identify what we can learn from them.

So I have to be very careful of where I'm pointing my arguments. How often do I have to check for xsplaining? Every. Damn. Sentence. That's really what I want to get at here (as with last time out); this isn't something to only worry about occasionally. It's not even limited to times when you're actively engaging with someone from a different background (though that's when it's at its absolute most important).

It's so hard to resist the urge to make excuses, to haggle, to move from addressing the problem to denying it. And this is in an article specifically addressed to our concerns - I'm not trying to join an existing debate (though I am responding to one). It's even harder when engaging with people 'live'. But you can't learn or grow while rationalising; xsplaining serves your ego at the expense of your mind - not to mention at the expense of other people's peace of mind.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Cultural Vertigo

A few weeks back, someone challenged me on Twitter to come up with a New Year's Resolution and I came back with 'Open some of the doors I've got my toe in at the moment'. That's a worthy, if slightly trite, answer, but since then I've come up with a better one.

I'll get back to that at the end of this post, by which time I think it will be obvious what I've chosen. I've had a year, particularly this final third of it, of learning a lot. There are personal and professional elements to that, but where I've learnt most, where I've been most challenged, has been from the Twitter timelines of people I've followed because gamergate targeted them.

Gamergate has been and remains terrible, but in listening to those fighting it, I've received a whirlwind tour of critical gender and race theories on a par with the experience I had a couple of years ago as an amanuensis on a university-level Special Educational Needs/Disability Studies course. It's forced me to reexamine a lot of my preconceptions about games, about feminism and civil rights, about myself as a progressive and a liberal, and about my species as a whole.

And I'm starting to realise that there's a characteristic emotional state that accompanies the best of this learning. It's not a pleasant one. It often hits when least expected - this piece challenging the player-centrism of established gaming, for example, challenged me much more than any number of pieces about how reprehensible gamergaters are (because its critique applies to games I love just as much as, say, Hatred). It involves a slight feeling of nausea, and a stronger feeling of panic, of being overwhelmed by how much change might be needed to accept the argument.

I think of it as cultural vertigo. It's one thing to say 'I support diverse perspectives in art!', and another entirely to actually look down from the cultural pedestal (or out from the cultural bubble) of being straight, white and male and catch sight of those perspectives for the first time. It has nothing, of course, on the terror and hurt that straight white men inflict on others worldwide, but those are terrors that I am unlikely ever to experience the like of.

Cultural vertigo isn't comfortable, but it can be inspiring, and it has been a pretty consistent sign of opportunities to make myself a better person. Since there's a lot of work to do on that front, my New Year's Resolution for 2015 is to seek out cultural vertigo as much as I can stand to.