Letter 6

Dear Alanna,

There is a book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. On its cover, it’s billed as “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” I never finished reading this book, but I definitely made it past page 152, on which the author demonstrates his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek)

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

^^^^^

Due to a series of complex and pervasive internal tendencies and environmental events, I spent most of my adolescence and early twenties wishing I could avoid doing or being anything at all. The options with which I had been presented had always seemed undesirable, and I was becoming increasingly aware of how incompatible I was with them. At the same time, I had been taught to endure things rather than to seek better alternatives – any deviation from a particular definition of the norm was not so much unacceptable as impossible. It took a long time to unlearn this, but I think I still did so on a kind of fast-track, by virtue of becoming insane.

When one becomes sufficiently mentally ill, a lot of ordinary pressures are immediately lifted (although, obviously, a lot of other pressures become immediately more apparent). When one is judged to be medically ‘incurable’ with a life-long disability that is expected to render one unfit for almost all of the activities commonly regarded as ‘productive’, then suddenly one’s failure and inadequacy become, in the eyes of many, not a feared possibility but an inexorable certainty. This conclusion is arrived at not due to any real understanding of one’s situation or potential, but simply by habitual definition.

My previous letter’s description of failure as an untrodden field, rather than a deep hole from which to escape (which seems to be a more common conception), comes from what I’ve learnt about language and social expectation as a result of being seen (by many, though not by all) as someone who is trapped in a dark pit, from which I could not even see the pit, much less the surface.

Although I agreed with this pit-definition (or peat-bog-definition, perhaps?) for a time, eventually I began to question this assumed relation between other people’s definitions and my tangible reality. I began to enjoy ‘being sick’ because it allowed me so much freedom to define my life and work in a way that made sense to me. The mental-illness-as-pit-of-eternal-woe conception I encountered in others became a kind of disguise. The more insignificant I appeared according to ordinary definitions of usefulness, the more space I had to explore the world in my own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of my actions.

I also realized that the act of appearing productive is often the only method we have for judging productivity, even within ourselves. I had been largely absolved of that particular responsibility, and yet I felt that my time was much more fruitful now that I had no reason to care about its actual or apparent products.

Things are a bit different for me these days, but the insights I had then are no less pertinent now. All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of answering your questions

When are you getting things done?
When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

The short answer to the latter question (and possibly also the former question) is: “probably always.” The short answer to the former question (and possibly also the latter question) is: “I don’t know, because I’m not entirely sure what I’m even trying to do in the first place.”

Your quote from Quentin Crisp provides an even shorter expression of my thoughts:

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

^^^^^

I’ve been constructing a little darkroom in the basement, taping cardboard over all the sources of light. I thought I’d blocked it all out until I sat in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, at which point all the little glowing spaces became visible. I called Adam down to confirm to me that there were still gaps for light – that I wasn’t just imagining them because I’d been down there too long with nothing to look at – but he couldn’t see them. He hypothesized that this was due to his eyes not being properly adjusted to the darkness, rather than me being in the dark for so long that I had to imagine there was something there, when really there was nothing.

^^^^^

Your comments about Slack Time and Against the Rage Machine made me think of an incredibly prescient book I’m reading at the moment, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It was written in 1985, and starts off like this:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
[emphasis mine]

Postman wrote this before the internet came into public use, and he died in 2003, before the explosion of social media, YouTube-comment wars, and Twitter #protests. His book, a discussion of the way in which the content of discourse is changed (he thinks damaged) by an image-heavy, context-poor medium, was based upon an analysis of the epistemological assumptions inherent in the medium of television.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, so I don’t know precisely what the author’s conclusion is going to be. I do agree that Huxley’s dystopian vision is closer to our reality than Orwell’s. But I also incline towards the idea that part of the problem is the unquestioned definition of irrelevance as detrimentally murky or unproductive – something to be overcome, a hole out of which we are constantly trying to escape. Perhaps irrelevance has proliferated, but I don’t think our knee-jerk definition of it has changed, even though it seems we are all feeling increasingly bogged down by irrelevance’s necessity.

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

worm mrow

Advertisements

Letter 5

Dear Katherine,

To quote you: ‘systems and dependable harvest were not our original goals’.

Last week at my yoga class the teacher was talking about the time it takes for something to be achieved or just to happen, a process you have to be patient with. She was using the analogy of pregnancy, standing there as she was with her protruding belly and saying that however impatient she may be to meet her child there were steps her body had to take before she could. Although the foundations of the spine are lain in week 4, the body takes much longer to build it’s little bricks.

The analogy made me think of how frustrated I get with my perceived slowness of my achievements, projects etc.  Although we agreed to write this bog every week I kept on putting off writing this letter, like I was not ready for it and perhaps my mind was building blocks quietly in preparation (or was I just giving into to my semi-permanent internal feeling of un-readiness?)

I – suppose – I – mean – When are you getting things done? When are you rushing the process? When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

I’m not sure if this is what you are thinking about in terms of pointlessness and failure. Your description of the word ‘delirious’ makes failure sound more like exploration, adventure.

I really enjoyed the article you mentioned “Against the Rage Machine” . The bit when the writer said after his analysis of the way facebook makes everyone into erratic rage machines;

“We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation.”

I like the idea of having freedom not to care, not to engage, because indecision and indifference (is there another word for indifference that I could use here that doesn’t suggest negligence?)  are as much a part of life as passionate direction. The article reminded me of another one called ‘Slack Time’ (just me linking words to words) about Moyra Davey in Afterall, Markus Verhagen writes about photographs she took of her unkempt home;

“Her images have no use for the immediacy of the photograph, its hold on a ‘slice of time’. In her work, nothing happens. The moment is always already over: the coffee cups are empty, the dust has already settled. The precise interruptive operation of the news photograph or snapshot gives way, in her work, to a slacker time — to a time without tension or striving.”

I think the romance of this article for me rests on this phrase “a time without tension or striving”. I feel little fists of anxiety release their hold  when I read those words, it makes me think of useful afternoons gazing out windows and the fortunate breaks in busy days such as the mindless chewing of lunch sandwiches. The article goes on to describe the presence of dust in the images, relating it to the descriptions of dust in Sebald’s ‘The Emigrants’

“Here, too, dust is a crucial metaphor. In his account of the life and ancestry
of a painter who settled in Manchester, Sebald describes the artist’s constant 
painting and scraping, drawing and erasing, and the dust and grime that carpeted his studio

…the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust […] This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continually fell and which, as he was coming to realise, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well dusted house…”

This passage seduces me to the appeal of a life ineffectually lived, where all you’re left with is a house full of dust. In a BBC doco made about Quentin Crisp, the interviewer remarks;

“Your house is all a bit dusty Quentin.”

and Quentin replies;

“It’s true, unkind friends say that I have the dust sent in from Fortnum and Mason’s, but that’s not true I merely don’t clean the place. And I have a message of hope to offer to the house wives of England, it’s this: don’t lose your nerve because after the first 4 years the dirt won’t get any worse.”

Perhaps I’m not brave enough to be a dust gatherer, because I’m not really like that at all, I’m more a machine of awkward, disorganised production. Such as turning innocent letter writing between friends into a weekly blog/bog exchange.

bogs

Meanwhile, the internet describes a bog as

“An area of wet, muddy ground that is too soft to support a heavy body.”

The bog is clearly one of nature’s many metaphors. It reminds me of something I read in a self-help book  The Happiness Project “It’s easy to be heavy, hard to be light.” and also that I once had a boyfriend that told me that I was too SERIOUS, and another who told me that I was too cheerful. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to deduce from those conflicting observations. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on failure, and also more of your thoughts in general.

Best,

Alanna