Some further thoughts on the difficulty of selfhood

Selfhood, or one’s being himself, is a difficult affair to cash out. We can, for instance, imagine the simple metaphor of a knot or a lattice. Each is held in place in virtue of a confluence of constituents. The “being” of it is thus, on one account, emergent. Here, insofar as the self is simialr, we face an issue of ontological priority — what is ontiologically primordial to the self, what is it that constitutes it as such?

Here we fall upon the dualism of Descartes in an inevitable way – there seems to be an insoluble divide between reality qua res extensa and res cogitans. However, insofar as we as “selves” are constituted by the res cogitans, we still face further dilemmas. What, for instance, is the internal structure, what is the form, of res cogitans? Clearly, we have no notion of the cognitive except in virtue of the material. That is to say, we cannot conceive of something except as it is experienced. And, insofar as the primary and secondary qualities of Locke are anterior to the tertiary qualities of Santayana, clearly the spatio-temporal, optical, and otherwise sensible are anterior to the emotional. But here, on one account, is a question – are these divisions of the cognitive real, or merely convenient? Can we, as does Dewey, propose a sensori-motor circuit which dictates that the emotional, as a Husserlian “noema,” is inseparable from the noesis (or thought-process) whereby it comes about? If so, is this the proper view to take? If not, what is that view?

These problems and divisions themselves depend on the a priori validity of “is” and “not” as thought-forms, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. Hence, cognitively speaking, if I attempt to affirm or deny a proposition, it seems that I must rely on affirmation and denial as primordial. Indeed, Aristotle claims something similar. But is the proposition the most primordial mode of human thought? Quine says no, Putnam says yes. Here again we run into an issue of ontological priority, but this time as concerns linguistic entities.

In short there are problems on problems as one begins his inquiries into the nature of the Cartesian res cogitans, not merely as to what it is, whether it is, but whether there is (in the Kantian sense) even a mere condition for the possibility of its being. This is a subtle point – here I am asking not whether the thing is or is not, but whether and “how” it is that such a question can even be asked. In asking this question, I necessitate it in a Derridean way, as I pose it in a way which recurs back onto itself. Indeed, whenever I ask “whether” I invoke the is/not dichotomy. Here, I lose the middle term – indeed I have no room for it. The pure dichotomy is part of the structure of even that which attempts its deconstruction. Thus, I ask it not as itself, but in Derrida’s “differance” – from itself, out of itself, away from itself. Here language becomes abstruse, nigh-empty, and extra-ordinarily difficult to understand.

I get an odd feeling in me when I think these things. It is a feeling of apartness, of being-not-ness, of not emptiness per se, but of some kind of attempting-to-grasp which not only does not grasp but, like some sort of aetherial stuff, passes through itself and intersects in manners it could have in no way forsaw. It is, in some sense, a feeling akin to the monstrosities constructed in renditions of the tower of Babel and, yet, like Gothic churches as well – edifices ever-increasing in size whose greatness demands architectural feats dependent on the failures of those already constructed. A continuous reconstitution, an infinite scaffolding. A city-like thing with constant repairs due to hack-job previousness. This is the feeling I find in me. I have in mind the notion of the flying buttress, in particular – a thing existent in the architecture for no other reason than to support the unwieldy behmoth already writ in stone.

If one need witness the self in all its splendor, I suppose the Gothic cathedral is something of a metaphor herefor. Here we find a dense mass of nothing, stones on stones heaped together in aesthetical-orientation, achieving nothing but the mere look and feel of grandiosity while, on another view, wasting resources. I was tempted to write that the waste is the reality of the situation, but this is to fall into the sort of thing I dislike. Surely there is a twinge of perspectivism here in such a move – if everything is always possible ‘on another view’ then it seems that what it is to say or to view at all is predicated on some relation. Sure – this is an intuitive notion, at least as concerns first-order acts of inquiry. But as concerns inquiries of the second order, I believe it means something similar.

Indeed, it seems to me to be something like this – there are no second order acts of inquiry. The second-order, the self, is a kind of empty knot of first-orderings whose realities have become so convoluted as to have wrapped around each other and mutually supported themselves in back-to-back weight. This is one account, I believe. I don’t merely wish to say that the act of conceiving of the self is incoherent. No, I wish to say that the grounds on which we ask the question is itself incoherent, as it attempts to ask a question which itself cannot be solved. Indeed, if we cannot solve the first-order questions, “who” “what” “when” “where” and “why,” how might we ask questions in the second order above them concerning whether or not such things are actually so? How can we pose some res cogitans, some mere self, when we have little intuitive understanding of what it is to be a rock? How, indeed, can we ask of the incorporeal (allegedly, at least) when the corporeal still so deeply eludes us?

I suppose I don’t mean to say that an inquiry into the self is impossible. Rather, I mean that the edifice of thought whereby we inquire into simpler entities is already in so great a disarray, already so heaped upon itself, and yet already so densely contorted to support itself on corporeal, first-order questions (of which it is most attuned) that for it to begin considering questions of the second-order is almost to hope for a miraculous movement of mind to heights divine!

Primordial “suchness” — what is this? We haven’t had a view towards it since Heraclitus and Parmenides. Indeed, all of Plato’s footnotes (and the text himself!) haven’t been able to find an answer either. Perhaps we might naturalize the question with Quine and recur to the natural sciences for our answer. But, bracketing off current problems with the integration of relativity with quantum mechanics, we still lack a means to know this affair as such. To know in virtue of an epistemological apparatus is not the same as to know in virtue of the many, as Socrates reminds us in the Alcibiades. Hence to “know” in this sense too falls into incoherence. But then how do we begin to do anything save in virtue of the special episteme, the special apparatus, whereby we know it? Incoherence again abides.

I’m tempted to say there is a base, a priori structuration of mind inculcated in us in virtue of our being born. I want to say that in times primordial, in the early Anthropocene, we somehow had set before us mechanisms of making meaning in the first order – experiencing the sensori-motor circuit, defining qualities where needed, etc. I want to historicize and say that modern methods of inquiry (and by “modern” here I mean those having arisen with Descartes, perhaps about 1500 onward) are of such a nature as to diverge from these. Indeed I want to further historicize and say that even ancient modes of inquiry such as the “studia humanitatis” are also divergent – they are attempts at the second-order, if far-less sophisticated than those we witness today.

I want to say that the a priori structuration inclines us to hypostatization, that we “take for granted” what in Heidegger’s words is “ready to hand.” He, of course, wants to say that this derives from the ontological primordiality of Man as Dasein, but I don’t like this move. No, it seems to me that our first “outward seeing” is primordially constitutive of Being as such. Hence Being does not flow from Man, but Man from Being. This is not Being as in God, an identity Heidegger wanted to do away with. It is, rather, that first sensori-motor experience, that primordial, very-first being-towards something. Perhaps there is no first such thing; perhaps instead it occurs to us in a bootstrap fashion and has no firm beginning, like Peirce’s recursion of signs. What was at the first is to the second incoherent, totally alien to the first. The second makes sense of the first in virtue of itself. The same is true of the third and the fourth, and so on and so on forever until what was at first is so small and insignificant seems, to the 10^1000, nothing at all. I mean this not merely in a literary or aphoristic sense. Rather, I mean that what Heidegger calls the Nothing is, perhaps, the beginning of that primordial being-towards. Here some basic contradictions of logic arise. I’m not quite sure what to make of them as yet – these thoughts are in the process of formation.

Hegel’s identity of Being and Nothing comes again, though I mention this only in passing. What I am attempting to get at is this – the experience of a Something is somehow primordially incoherent and that, if we attempt to explore it, we will only find incoherence. Only in the first-order, in the here and now, in the being-towards that Something are we to find any coherence. As Feynman said in discussing the famous electron-slit experiment, even Nature doesn’t know what she is doing. Of course, it is an inconsistent coherence, as the many foibles of mankind make clear. What we thought was always true turns out one day to be false – our legs are heavier, our eyes more tired, the sky not as bright as we remember it. The immense network of changes beyond us seems so diverse, so abstract, as to forever stupify us. We, as a “that,” as a Something in this infinite chaos, this temporary order, are not only ourselves akin to that Gothic cathedral, but in thinking we build that cathedral even higher as if it were our own personal Babel, each of our minds attempting to endure coherence in a world whose waves like those of the ocean are affected at a distance in occult fashions so hidden that we marvel when we hear of their reality. Who as a child wasn’t taken aback by the moon’s affectation of the sea? Who wasn’t confused when he heard that the sun was a star like those many puny things we see at night? Who even now doesn’t fully understand the techtonics and core of the world beneath him?

Of these and many more things I find myself wanting. I look and me and see Something, and yet Nothing. I am hungry and I want a hamburger. Yet, here I sit and write canvassing and attempting to spin together ideas from my last semester into something coherent because they weigh so deeply on me. Here’s the age-old, laughable duality of man. But I suppose the duality that I feel is even deeper, at least at this moment as I’m trying to explain it. It is the knowledge that we as real are temporal, that we will die. It is our being-toward-death. And yet, that being-toward is already prefigured, preambulatory, in the being-toward-the-world, our being-in-the-world, as it is right now. Hence in all time we are Nothing, though we are right now Something. A trite banality!

But I suppose I wonder these things not for any mere questioning, but for the sake of critical action. Indeed, if the self is so difficult, we might (must?) say that there is something deeply wrong with modernity. Indeed, there is something deeply amiss with all of human civilization except, perhaps, that of the Buddhists. For, the Buddhists have an ontology whose nature makes me feel much the same as I do in articulating this thought – not merely that the self is a trite illusion, but that Something qua Something is an illusion. The affair is deeper, infinitely so, than we could ever hope to say. Perhaps that’s why the sage in Lao Tzu does his work and simply retires — he listens to the river, thinking not of the days troubles. Perhaps that’s why Qohelet tells us in Ecclesiastes

Enjoy life with the wife you love, all the days of the vain life granted you under the sun. This is your lot in life, for the toil of your labors under the sun. (9:8-9)

What more is there?

Emptiness and Selfhood

I felt today and yesterday an absolute emptiness – a complete feeling of nothing, replete with all its trappings. It was as if I was not there, as if I was simply living through the motions of an inert mass, being through it, without exactly existing as if it were truly me.

I felt it when I went out to a party with my friend, Joe. It was a fine party — I saw many people that I knew. But what more did I find out about them? Little, if anything. I found out that one friend of mine is taking a class with a professor I’m relative friends with, so that was something. I found out that many of Joe’s friends are fond of jello shots, so that too was something. Yet I stood amidst both those I knew and those he knew, the latter group latently capable of becoming those I knew, and I felt something totally alien to me creeping on me and eating me out from within. It was as if there was no point to the thing, no purpose for my being amidst the people around me. Of course, I was there because Joe had invited me. I was glad he did so — he wanted a friend to go with him to the party and, me being the obliging man that I am, I had no difficutly agreeing to go with him when a prior friend of ours had chosen not to go. This much was fine — I was glad to go with him, since it seemed like he deeply wanted to go. And yet, on arrival, on presentation of me to the mass of men and women present, I felt no want of being there. There was nothing in me that said, that spoke from on high — “Go! Speak! Be with them! Here is a time and a place to talk!” For what would I have said other than that which I’ve recounted? New classes, new professors, new experiences, new “things.” This was the sum of potential experiences, and thus was all I did in fact experience. I found out nothing new of those whom I knew previously, other than that they remembered me and thought of me fondly. I said as much of them. But what was that exchange? I feel as if it hadn’t even happened at all. Surely I can, in fact, recount it here. But what of this? What difference has it made? Am I any happier? The difference — none. The happiness added — none whatsoever.

From thence dervied the feeling of emptiness in me as I existed amidst these people, these ribald men and women. I wish them all the best — for they feel a joy in simply existing that I know I do not. Perhaps if I felt it was joy enough to simply speak of being myself I’d be among them. But what joy is there in being me? What want of me do I hope to share with others who me are not? I have no desire to share with them yesterdays follies, or tomorrows potential blunders. It comes not to me as free flowing guyser, nor as gas-flow emitting. Neither spring from me, neither leap from my heart into my mouth. Neither of these make me want to say — “hello! Here is how I have been! How have you been, fine sir?” or “How have you been, fine madam?” What care have I as to how they are, when I rarely care how I myeslf have been? How am I to feel for others when I myself feel empty? I simply don’t know.

I struggle with what runs through my mind, and yet I struggle with how I am to feel with those who simply see my mind running from afar. It is as if they are spectators at a track meet or perhaps those entering a stadium from ticket purchase. All they see is the locomotion, the driving interconnection of sinew and bone. How could they feel as the runner feels when track hits home? When he with meat and organ hits the ground, when sweat trickles down his forehad as his lungs attempt with dire necessity to push oxygen through his capillaries? How could they ever feel this except as his outer appearence presents it to them? Surely they could never. So all they see is the performance — the me-being-seen as mask-wearing I smile, hiding inside tears as if glassy essence breaking I could be all that I wanted. But I could never!

For each moment hereby passing
demands of me a ready massing
of instant second septum sniffing,
eyeball access spying glistening
trinkets laid for ogling eyes
and grasped as please-touch children cry
when mother Mary and Joseph dear
relay that Christ had come not here
but rather dyed on oak-tree firm
the cross a stab-wound wormy squirm
as want of freedom from the ditch
of lecturn morose preaching bitch
bearing pups from jeering yelp
which offers none — hears no help.

I felt the same again today as I went to a club with some friends. Indeed I thought — why do I bother with such things? Part of me wants to feel no specialty —

“I am nothing, immolate!
How dare you stretch a funeral pire
to sacrifice mind ten times higher
than all around who might too hear
a thought which turns none but to queer
subjects, objects, and imagining
page-turn notes with turn-time lagging
as each flip from fourth to third
makes seven times five a thirty word
whose Isaac divisors decimate
the self-succored lie — immolate!”

Here I think — “I am nothing! I am no specialty! Do as the others are! Let not your mind wander far!” So I tell me to go along with them as they are, walking and acting as they do, without want of further feeling. Who am I? No one, perhaps.

But then I laid back in me and a sinking feeling stretched over as blanket on babe wrapped swaddled beneath the arms of mother Mary. He sat near her bosom and she held him tight, warm, against her. In me I felt such things as these, if not according to the specificity of the image, then according to the feeling which it evokes in me as I write it. These and so many others come to me and stretch me deep, I feeling my heart of hearts at any moment when it should come to pass that anything reminds of me what was, and tells to me what well might be. So there I stood and sat, seeing in the club so many semblances of ideas had, feelings foraging in me for berries sweet feeling and living lie jeering as I smote each in lightning strike, damning them down as Moses with Commandments 10 when Israel against him spat!

Levi! To your place!
Sword to Israel’s gut in haste!

I dug in me deep with each step, a burrow mole borrowing energy from the sun for deeper trench, for wonderment in the depth of depths. And yet, I found nothing. For who among me could understand such feeling? Who here could say to me — “Yes! I too experience your underneathness, your underselfness, your entering into you with deep heart pound and stomach sounding as your muscles ache and sweat drips! I feel me as you feel you, let all things be in concordance according to this!” What a dream! No, for around me sagged the drooping sound of trinket-toy words clinking and clanking as dice on poker table. Ha! There then was nothing to them but empty smiles, empty trials for each to show that he or she feels just enough to merit simultaneity, pseudo-love, emptiness.

It seems that so few want to hear of such depths. Perhaps I ought to up my antidepressant perscription, lest I feel more than the world around me tolerates. It seems this is the great subjection of man, or least it is in me — the freedom to feel ought be quashed under the boot-licking lie of pseudo-pleasure. “Drink! Smoke! Be merry! But don’t feel! Feel, and you transgress” Either I am a prophet against this sham life, or I’ll uptake serotonin until “me” is no longer. As Jefferson Airplane said:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small,
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all

Let me number the stars!