Virginia Woolf On Autobiography And Not Writing ‘Directly About The Soul’

In Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature, (New York Review of Books, 13 August, 2015), Joyce Carol Oates writes:

[Virginia] Woolf suggests the power of a different sort of inspiration, the sheerly autobiographical—the work created out of intimacy with one’s own life and experience….What is required, beyond memory, is a perspective on one’s own past that is both a child’s and an adult’s, constituting an entirely new perspective. So the writer of autobiographical fiction is a time traveler in his or her life and the writing is often, as Woolf noted, “fertile” and “fluent”:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in. [link added above]

I will freely confess to being obsessed by autobiography and memoir. Three planned book projects of mine, each in varying stages of early drafting and note-taking, are autobiographical, even as I can see more similar ventures in the offing; another book, Shapeshifter: The Evolution of a Cricket Fan, currently contracted to Temple University Press, is a memoir; yet another book Eye on Cricket, has many autobiographical passages; and of course, I often write quasi-autobiographical, memoirish posts on this blog all the time. In many ways, my reasons for finding myself most comfortable in this genre echo those of Woolf’s: I find my writing within its confines to be at its most ‘fertile’ and ‘fluent’–if at all, it ever approaches those marks; I write ‘fast’ and ‘freely’ when I write about recollections and lessons learned therein; I find that combining my past sensations and memories with present and accumulated judgments and experiences results in a fascinating, more-than-stereoscopic perspective that I often find to be genuinely illuminating and revealing. (Writing memoirs is tricky business, as all who write them know. No man is an island and all that, and so our memoirs implicate the lives of others as they must; those lives might not appreciate their inclusion in our imperfect, incomplete, slanted, agenda-driven, literary recounting of them. Still, it is a risk many are willing to take.)

Most importantly, writing here, or elsewhere, on autobiographical subjects creates a ‘couch’ and a ‘clinic’ of sorts; I am the patient and I am the therapist; as I write, the therapeutic recounting and analysis and story-retelling kicks off; the end of a writing session has at its best moments, brought with it moments of clarity and insight about myself to the most important of quarters: moi. More than anything else, this therapeutic function of autobiographical writing confirms yet another of Woolf’s claims: that “one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.” Sometimes, one must look at the blank page, and hope to find the soul take shape there instead.


Parenting As Philosophizing

My daughter turned five a little over two weeks ago. Like most ‘new’ parents, my wife and I duly made expressions of surprise at how fast these five years had rolled away: long days, short years, and all the while, a rapidly transforming human being and person to marvel at. My daughter has changed physically and psychologically; her metamorphosis in this half-decade has provided adequate basis for the claim that personal identity is a mystery, a chimera to only be helplessly grasped at; her physical appearance and dress, which still provokes many to ‘misidentify’ her as a boy, speaks eloquently to how we may construct gender through minor changes in external presentation. Her verbal capacities have grown, and so a steady stream of pronouncements that amuse, perplex, delight, and confound us, issue forth on a daily basis; she has elementary reading and writing skills, and is thus pointing in the direction of a whole new world that she will begin to explore this year. There is much here to wonder at, clearly.

She’s not the only one changing though. My daughter has been changing me even as she does. These changes cannot be captured by the usual ‘look at all the gray hair I have now’ proclamations; many of them are merely tiny moments of astonishment at oneself, at coming to face with a capacity or incapacity or cruelty or kindness not hitherto noticed; yet others are quieter, slower transformations into a newer way of understanding my place in this world now that so many of my older priorities, anxieties, and urgencies have been reconfigured. Some are made sharper and more demanding and insistent; yet others have been quietly relegated to obscurity and irrelevance. Some anxieties about unrealized professional ambitions have eased; I have found new objectives in parenting to draw me onwards and upwards. I have stopped cursing the lack of time for reading and writing; I have learned to recognize that I read and write differently–and often, better–now because of the presence of my daughter in my life; this is a blessing not to be discounted. (Needless to say, reading Freud as a parent is a novelty all its own.)

My daughter is, most crucially, making my philosophizing an actual lived activity; in bringing up my daughter, I have had a chance to see philosophical doctrines that I have only theorized about previously spring to life; I understand them anew as a result.  Indeed, the truth of some is only ‘conclusively’ established in the laboratory of parenthood; the child is where all too many philosophical theories come to grief. My many political standpoints are informed by my role as a parent, as are my ethical ones. I find occasion to wonder, all over again, about the central existential issues that drew me to philosophy in the first place, and notice that my deliberations are marked by an acknowledgement of the meaning and value that my daughter has already brought to my life. I see things differently now; I’m a different kind of philosopher, interested in directions and possibilities I had not considered before, possessed of a voice and imagination that seems new to me; I thank my daughter for making me so.

The Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

States To Feds On Weed Policy: Cash Me Outside How Bow Dah?

‘Tis true, Jeff Sessions is a serious downer, a buzz killer for the ages. As long feared, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is revoking an Obama-era directive–the so-called ‘Cole memo’–that restrained enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that had legalized it. But things are not going to be so easy for this dastardly ve-haf-ways-to-make-you-stop-smoking Sessions brigade; the proverbial genie has escaped the bottle. The national bowl has been packed and too many people–rich and white–are toking on it it. Morals and laws and principles and a great deal else often gives way in the face of lucre of the filthy kind. For a long time, the War on Drugs was prosecuted with as much zeal as it was because it was fueled by both racism and by the financial gains that flowed directly to law enforcement agencies’ budgets and operations. The tide turned on that front–thanks to a combination of fatigue, common sense, increased public awareness of the War on Drugs’ racist components, and finally, the plain, simple, uncontrovertible financial common sense of declaring a ceasefire and going over to a domain of decriminalization and legalization and subsequent tax revenue collection instead.

Several years on from Colorado’s landmark decision to legalize marijuana for recreational use, that financial common sense has been confirmed:

Marijuana Business Daily, an industry trade publication, estimated last year that legal marijuana employed between 165,000 and 230,000 workers, or between two and three times as many people as the coal mining industry. Last year a market research firm for the marijuana industry, Arcview Research, estimated that it generated $6.7 billion in revenue in 2016, and projected sales to climb to $21 billion by 2021. Those sales are generating significant tax revenue in states with legal recreational pot. In Colorado, for instance, marijuana sales between 2014 and 2017 brought in roughly $500 million in taxes, roughly half of which has gone to the state’s public school system. Washington state collected about $280 million in marijuana taxes in fiscal year 2017, with half of that money going to fund health-care services for people without insurance coverage.

Unsurprisingly, such numbers are backed up by popular opinion–close to sixty percent of Americans support legalization in some shape or form for marijuana, whether recreational or medical. But balance sheets speak far louder than opinion surveys, and this time around, the War on Drugs will be the War on Legal and Extremely Financially Lucrative Pot Business Run By Largely White Folk. Those whose interests will be affected by this new declaration of hostilities are considerably more financially and politically empowered than the ones targeted in the last legal crackdown on marijuana; those folks were darker, they lived in housing projects, and were easily made the target of a penal crackdown. This time around, the support is fueled by dollars and Democrats and the donor class alike. The official Twitter account of the Colorado State Senate Democratic Caucus should have the last word on this–and I suspect it will:

We’ll give Jeff Sessions our legal pot when he pries it from our warm, extremely interesting to look at hands.

Ramachandra Guha On The Lack Of Modern Indian Histories

In India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (HarperCollins, New York, 2007), Ramachandra Guha writes:

Of his recent history of postwar Europe, Tony Judt writes that ‘a book of this kind rests, in the first instance, on the shoulders of other books’. He notes that ‘for the brief sixty-year period of Europe’s history since the end of the Second World War – indeed, for this period above all – the secondary literature in English is inexhaustible’. The situation in India is all too different. Here the gaps in our knowledge are colossal. The Republic of India is a union of twenty-eight states, some larger than France. Yet not even the bigger or more important of these states have had their histories written. In the 1950s and 60s India pioneered a new approach to foreign policy, and to economic policy and planning as well. Authoritative or even adequate accounts of these experiments remain to be written. India has produced entrepreneurs of great vision and dynamism – but the stories of the institutions they built and the wealth they created are mostly unwritten. Again, there are no proper biographies of some of the key figures in our modern history: such as Sheikh Abdullah or Master Tara Singh or M. G. Ramachandran, ‘provincial’ leaders each of whose province is the size of a large European country. [p. 13; links added]

Guha’s analysis here is, sadly enough, almost wholly correct. Guha’s own ‘opus,’ cited above, runs to over 800 pages, and yet it is barely more than a sampler, an appetizer, a pointer to the many corners of modern Indian history that remain unexplored: in the face of a historical project as imposing as that of modern India’s, even such large works can do little more than gesture at their own insignificance. I’m not a historian by trade (and professional historians have accused me of being an amateur) but even my ‘casual’ efforts have resulted in my encountering the lacunae in historical scholarship that Guha writes about. In the realm of military history, for instance, my co-author Jagan Mohan and I found–while working on our books on the 1965 and 1971 air wars  between India and Pakistan–few to none published works on Indian military history, and had to rely largely on personal accounts–autobiographical and biographical–with all of their inherent frailties as sources of information. Official archival stores were hard to access, their points of entry blocked sometimes by official legal strictures, sometimes by bureaucratic inflexibility. Moreover, to add final insult to injury, there simply wasn’t the readership–the all-critical market for publishers–for such historical works as ours. Quite simply, the failure that Guha speaks of was manifest at every level of the historical enterprise: actual histories were hard come by; historical sources were meager; interest in histories and antiquities was only marginal.  Under these conditions, the production of written history seemed intractable at best.

This state of affairs is especially peculiar in the context of the Indian popular imagination–one which finds its national pride grounded in tremendous antiquity of India’s civilizations and cultures. It offers a stark reminder that the nationalist imagination all too often outruns the actual national enterprise.

Neil deGrasse Tyson And The Perils Of Facile Reductionism

You know the shtick by now–or at least, twitterers and tweeters do. Every few weeks, Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s most popular public ‘scientific’ intellectuals, decides that it is time to describe some social construct in scientific language to show how ‘arbitrary’ and ‘made-up’ it all is–compared to the sheer factitude, the amazing reality-grounded non-arbitrariness of scientific knowledge. Consider for instance, this latest gem, now predictably provoking ridicule from those who found its issuance predictable and tired:

Not that anybody’s asked, but New Years Day on the Gregorian Calendar is a cosmically arbitrary event, carrying no Astronomical significance at all.

A week earlier, Tyson had tweeted:

Merry Christmas to the world’s 2.5 billion Christians. And to the remaining 5 billion people, including Muslims Atheists Hindus Buddhists Animists & Jews, Happy Monday.

Tyson, I think, imagines that he is bringing science to the masses; that he is dispelling the ignorance cast by the veil of imprecise, arbitrary, subjective language that ‘ordinary folk’ use by directing their attention to scientific language, which when used, shows how ridiculous those ‘ordinary folk’ affectations are. Your birthday? Just a date. That date? A ‘cosmically arbitrary event.’ Your child’s laughter? Just sound waves colliding with your eardrum. That friendly smile beamed at you by your school mate? Just facial muscles being stretched. And so on. It’s really easy; almost mechanical. I could, if I wanted, set up a bot-run Neil deGrasse Tyson Parody account on Twitter, and just issue these every once in a while. Easy pickings.

Does Tyson imagine that he is engaging in some form ‘scientific communication’ here, bringing science to the masses? Does he imagined he is introducing greater precision and fidelity to truth in our everyday conversation and discourse, cleaning up the degraded Augean stables of internet chatter? He might think so, but what Tyson is actually engaged in is displaying the perils of facile reductionism and the scientism it invariably accompanies and embellishes; anything can be redescribed in scientific language but that does not mean such redescription is necessary or desirable or even moderately useful. All too often such redescription results in not talking about the ‘same thing’ any more. (All that great literature? Just ink on paper! You know, a chemical pigment on a piece of treated wood pulp.)

There are many ways of talking about the world; science is one of them. Science lets us do many things; other ways of talking about the world let us other do things. Scientific language is a tool; it lets us solve some problems really well; other languages–like those of poetry, psychology, literature, legal theory–help us solve others. The views they introduce of this world show us many things; different objects appear in different views depending on the language adopted. As a result, we are ‘multi-scopic’ creatures; at any time, we entertain multiple perspectives on this world and work with them, shifting between each as my wants and needs require. To figure out what clothes to wear today, I consulted the resources of meteorology; in order to get a fellow human being to come to my aid, I used elementary folk psychology, not neuroscience; to crack a joke and break the ice with co-workers, I relied on humor which deployed imaginary entities. Different tasks; different languages; different tools; it is the basis of the pragmatic attitude, which underwrites the science that Tyson claims to revere.

Tyson has famously dissed philosophy of science and just philosophy in general; his tweeting shows that he would greatly benefit from a philosophy class or two himself.

Keep Your Child Safe: Direct Them To Women If Lost

In Protecting The Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) Gavin De Becker writes of the safety rule–for children–described as ‘If you are ever lost, go to a policeman”:

Here’s another popular rule that rarely enhances safety….All identifying credentials…are above the waist….A young child cannot tell the difference between a police officer and a security guard….I don’t believe in teaching inflexible rules because it’s not possible to know they’ll apply in all situations. There is one, however, that reliably enhances safety. Teach children that if they are ever lost, Go to a woman.

Why? First, if your child selects a woman, it’s highly unlikely that the woman will be a sexual predator….Next…a woman approached by a lost child asking for help is likely to stop whatever she is doing, commit to that child, and not rest until the child is safe….The fact is that men in all cultures and at all ages and at all times in history are more violent than women.

This is a pretty damning piece of advice, resting on an equally damning evidentiary foundation. Think about it: when giving advice to your child on how to look for help when they are lost, you don’t need to specify–in your directive to your child that they approach a woman for help–a policewoman, an older woman, a younger woman, a black woman, a white woman. Any of these will be, on the odds, safer than any man you could specify as a type. Look for a woman; you will be guaranteed that you will find a ‘safer human being’ than a man. An escaped female convict or criminal of some kind might be more dangerous than many men, but the relevant odds still make it the case that the advice under consideration retains its rationality. Look for a woman, and you are at least partially on your way to safety. There are no guarantees, of course. Women rob, rape, and kill too; but we act on the basis of probabilities and the probability is that your child–if helplessly looking for succor–will be safer with a woman than with a man.

I’m not sure how men, as a gender, can, need, or should respond to this kind of claim; it isn’t clear to me what form such a response could take. Still, at the least, this should induce some kind of reckoning–men have, through their actions over the years, made themselves into the more dangerous gender. I read the passage above as a parent, and I did not hesitate to internalize its advice and transmit it to my daughter. She knows, that if she is ever lost, she should go looking for someone that looks ‘like a mommy.’ That was the only specificity we could add to the advice and we qualified it with ‘if you don’t find a mommy, find a girl.’ We still did not tell her to approach a man, and the fact is, we won’t. It’s just too dangerous to tell my child to ever trust any kind of male stranger; even if she is lost. She should hold out for a woman.