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Philosophy

I’m not much for live radio, so I never heard any of David Cayley’s radio documentaries when they aired on CBC Radio’s Ideas, but the podcasts of those shows played a significant role in my post-university intellectual life. They introduced me to the work of Ivan Illich and Rene Girard, and they deepened my appreciation for a number of other thinkers, like Simone Weil, Charles Tayler, and Richard Kearney.

Cayley was also gracious enough to meet with me in person a few years ago, and though our conversation was unexpectedly shortened, I have always looked back with appreciation on his willingness to sit and talk with an absolute stranger about Ivan Illich and homeschooling. Our very brief interaction left me with the impression of a man characterized by what I call intellectual hospitality, by an openness to ideas as a place for people to share themselves, and there are few greater compliments that I can offer.

So I’m truly pleased to see that Cayley has launched a new website to host some of his radio shows that are no longer available elsewhere. The shows are free and include the the ones on Ivan Illich and Simone Weil that I enjoyed so much. There are also links to additional shows hosted by other sites, a blog of long-form essays, and information about Cayley’s books.  There is a lifetime of shared ideas here, and you could hardly spend your free time better this holiday than by sharing in those ideas yourself.

There is no perhaps in God.  God is and is not and is to come and may be and in every case surpasses our human categories of being and time, but there is no perhaps in God, because every perhaps is limited by happanstance.  There is perhaps only in the human.

I’ve been reading Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil again, and I was arrested this time by her idea of thickness, where what lies between us and God is the infinite thickness of time and space. 

In the section called The Cross, she writes, “God wears Himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. […] It has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of Him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it.” A little later she says, “We have to cross the infinite thickness of time and space — and God has to do it first, because he comes to us first,” and then again, “God crosses through the thickness of the world to come to us.”

What I find in this idea of thickness is a particularly apt description of how I myself experience the universe, time and space, being, or any of that whole constellation of ideas, how I experience the impossibility of self, of universe, and of self in the universe. It feels to me that there is a thickness to all of this, not just in the sense of breadth, but also in the sense of texture, the thickness of layers and complexity, the thickness of fog and cloud, of bog and mire, of wind and forest, a thickness of idea and description and experience.

What this thickness describes for me is the texture of the universe’s impossibility, not the impossibility itself, but how the impossibility feels as I make my way through it, as I run my hands over its surfaces. It describes how I experience the impossibility of everything, from roasting coffee, to loving my children, to sitting on the toilet, all of it too full of otherness and specificity and complexity and ambiguity, too full of thickness to be possible, and nevertheless here for me and in me.

Any approach to the universe, whether through the gods of religion or of atheism, must account for this thickness, because to cross it, or to make the attempt, is constitutively human, even and especially if the attempt is impossible, if the crossing must be made from whatever lies beyond the thickness of space and time, a whatever that comes to us, comes first, to reach and captivate us.

I am very slowly making my way through Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, and I came across a quotation that I want to explore at some greater depth.  It occurs in an essay called, “Transsexuality”, a word that Baudrillard uses much more broadly than its usual sense.  As he draws his argument to a conclusion, he says, “Since it is no longer possible to base any claim on one’s own existence, there is nothing for it but to perform an appearing act without concerning oneself with being – or even with being seen.  So it is not:  I exist, I am here! but rather: I am visible, I am an image – look! look!  This is not even narcissism, merely an extraversion without depth, a sort of self-promoting ingenuousness whereby everyone becomes the manager of their own appearance.”

The book was originally published in 1990, well before the ubiquity of social media, but the phenomenon that Baudrillard describes has found a powerful expression in the ways that people present themselves online.  Social media are often described as a way for people to stay connected, but the kinds of connections that they provide are of the type that used to exist only between people and their media heroes – singers, actors, athletes, politicians, socialites – that is, connections between people and the images that some people are able to portray of themselves by means of media mediation.  We all know (or most of us do) that these connections are unreal, that they do not constitute relation in any real way.  We consume the images of these people.  We interest ourselves in them.  We do not know them.

The explosion of social media, however, allows us all to participate in that same mode of connection as well.  Now we too are able to use the media to create images of ourselves for the consumption of others.  Now we too consume the images that those we know create of themselves.  We appear to each other.  We manage our appearance for each other.  We do not even try to exist.  We only strive to be visible.  We emulate our media heroes, not by doing what they do, but by appearing as they appear, by being visible as they are visible.

Now, this appearing to each other is often (though perhaps less and less) complicated by the fact that we also know each other, not in our unmediated selves (which is always an impossibility), but in the selves that are not mediated by our social media — to use Baudrillard’s language, our appearing to be comes into conflict with our being seen.  This is an important distinction, at least to me, because it recognizes that although it is never possible for me to be to another, there is something worth striving for in allowing myself to be seen by others rather simply appearing for them.

I would say that on this distinction hangs the future of relation.

 

I have been reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, not for any very good reason, just because my particular university education made me an addict to a certain kind of theoretical style, and I needed a fix.

At the end of the first essay, “After the Orgy”, Baudrillard says, “One day the image of a person watching a television screen voided by a technicians’ strike will be seen as the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century,” and this reminded me of a curious incident in my own experience.

Once, during my MA, I walked into the University of Guelph’s McLaughlin Library, intending to study at my carrel on one of the upper floors (fourth or fifth, I can’t remember anymore). On my way I had to pass the computer pool on the main floor, a bank of computers set row by row, and I was met by the sight of seventy or eighty students all staring blankly, fixedly, at their screens, not typing, not working, just staring. It only took a glance to realize that there had been some sort of power outage or something, and that all of the computers were rebooting at once, but the effect was so eerie, so disconcerting that I decided to skip studying altogether and go find a beer instead.

My discomfort was with how the void on the screen seemed to have revealed a similar void in the people looking at them, as if they were only capable of activity when they were reflecting the activity of their monitors. Baudrillard describes this through the metaphor of an electrical circuit, where communication requires messages to circulate without interruption, and where silence breaks the circuit, revealing that it is only an “uninterrupted fiction designed to free us not only from the void of the television screen but equally from the void of our own mental screen.” In other words, our minds are now as void as our monitors when the electrical circuit of constant communication is broken, so that we now require this communication in order to maintain the illusion that we have any content at all, in order to keep us from staring blankly at our screens as they stare blankly in return.

I have just finished reading William Golding’s Free Fall, and among many other things that I should but will not write about here and that I will certainly talk about with anyone who wants to have coffee when I get back from PEI, there is a short sentence in a paragraph about how a child perceives the world. It reads, “A doorstep is the size of an altar,” and it reminded me of Heidegger’s discussion of the pain of the threshold, an idea that I have written about several times and have explored at length in several ways, including a longish poem.

What I like about Golding’s contribution to this idea is the attention to the physical similarity between the the doorstep and the altar step, where we are, in both instances, brought to the step before the threshold, to the uncrossable and yet constantly crossed threshold, but where we are most often prevented, unless we have some sort of special status, from crossing the altar step, are made to kneel on it instead, and it strikes me, not that this kneeling is too much reverence, that it should be done away with, but that our easy crossing of the doorstep should perhaps be more reverent, that we should be made to kneel, if not physically at least by word or gesture, as we pass the doorstep, because there is something sacred in it, a resemblance to the altar step that we no longer sufficiently recognize.