Of Mountains, “Assault” and “Conquest”

A common reaction of mine when watching mountaineering documentaries is distaste at the accompanying linguistic package: the language of “assault” and “conquer”, directed against and at the mountain. Though many mountaineers have self-consciously forsworn such language (Ed Viesturs makes a point of noting such language in his books even though at times he slips back into it himself), it remains a hard-to-displace trope. After a weekend spent watching several mountaineering documentaries (80 Meters Below the Summit (recounting a Slovakian attempt to climb Kanchenjunga) Cho Oyu: West of Everest, and a World of Adventure Sports documentary on K2), I almost came to see some of its use as unavoidable; the mountaineer sees himself as pitted against an “adversary” or an “opponent” for better or worse, and once the summit is reached, it is hard not to view that task as having resulted from “overcome” or surmounted a “challenge” that has been “mastered”.

But this makes me think of the impoverishment of the language we employ for indicating human accomplishment: perennially pitted “against” something, as having been achieved in opposition to forces ranged against it. Perhaps we are stuck with that language. But mountaineering and the climbing of mountains can be reconceived, as some mountaineers have, as a matter of self-mastery instead (so the “mastering” and the “overcoming” remains but to assuage my clearly old-fashioned sensibility that baulks at conceiving of the mountain as an opponent, we change the “opponent” to an old and familiar friend: oneself).

Reinhold Messner, for instance, makes a great deal of the notion that a mountain helps him, rather than combats him in, fighting a very particular ‘inner battle’; the mountain is not the opponent any more; rather the mountain is the facilitative device by which the mountaineer gets to fight a unique personal battle. The mountain is not the other; it is that which makes the self-mastery possible. It becomes an aid, a partner, a co-author of a particular story told about oneself. Without the mountain, there is no personal story of self-overcoming. It would be silly in this perspective of thinking of having conquered the mountain. Rather, by climbing the mountain the mountaineer conquers something else in himself: fear most likely, but perhaps something else as well.

There is something hopelessly naive in this request for reconfiguration of the language. After all, to use the language of “overcoming”, “conquest”, and “assault” works because it props up so many other tropes and fictions: that the summit was possible without any partnership (human or technological) is perhaps the most vivid and urgent of these. Even Messner, who sought to return mountaineering to the domain of authentic man-versus mountain contests did not disdain every technological trapping that reduced the natural edge of the mountain; if oxygen reduces the height of the mountain, so does warm clothing. And neither did he disdain help in getting to the mountain and in various acts of support (minimal admittedly, but still).

So, in the end, what we really need to reconfigure is the notion of the human achiever and striver as a lonely actor, a desperate fiction at the best of times, but rendered even more transparently false when one considers the truly co-operative nature of adventure and exploration.

Greenblatt, Shakespeare, and the “Intensity of Individuation”

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare has been sitting on my bookshelves since about 2006, when David Coady, then visiting New York for a study leave, left it behind in my care as he returned to Tasmania (I lie; David’s wife, Diana, included it in a package I was supposed to either mail them or bring with me on my next trip to Australia, and I never did so; so the book is mine now; forgive me, David and Diana). But all that is prelude.

For today, I began reading this purported biography of the Bard, one that aims to make his art comprehensible. (My reading, began, quite naturally, as it does for many New Yorkers, on the subway; in this case, on the Q train, as I headed to Manhattan for some rather mundane chores). As I began, I was struck by the following passage (in reference to Shakespeare’s reworking of sixteenth century morality plays):

Shakespeare grasped that the spectacle of human destiny was, in fact, vastly more compelling when it was attached to not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people, people realized with an unprecedented intensity of individuation: not Youth, but Prince Hal, not Everyman, but Othello.

This is a fine point, nicely put.

First, I like the thought of “the spectacle of human destiny” being “attached” to people; almost as if human beings carried around a stage, a tapestry, of human affairs, fortunes and misfortunes with them, one revelatory of particulars and generalities, capable of telling stories and histories. And each human being, therefore, able to provide a particular perspective on the “spectacle.”

Second, Greenblatt makes us aware of the balancing act that Shakespeare is able to pull off: his characters are realized, indeed, with an “unprecedented intensity of individuation”, and yet, are able to convey the generality of the human spectacle. Indeed, Shakespeare is able to draw an exquisite contrast between the “intensely individuated” character and its ability to make us sense and comprehend broader, universal “truths” about us. As the contrast grows between the highly specific, idiosyncratic, unique character, and its simultaneous familiarity, we are entranced by the artist’s genius. He has managed to introduce us to novelty and particularity, to the familiar and the unfamiliar, all at once. And perhaps more to the point, he makes us aware each person is an “eye on the world” one capable of making us see.

Of Prescriptions and Suggestions

I’m a Crossfitter (if you don’t know what that means, Google can help); like most Crossfitters, I do my workouts at a box. And I happen to think my box, Crossfit South Brooklyn, is the raddest, baddest, box on the planet. Reason #53 for why they are so good is that on the home blog, our coaches (the raddest, baddest coaches..you see where this is going?) frequently post links that make me think a bit more about food, fitness, and sometimes the state of the planet.

Recently, we were presented with two links, each containing articles on the need to ‘scale back’ ego when confronted with the Rx for a workout i.e., the prescribed weight/reps scheme (Do x reps with y weight, for instance). The reasons for such self-effacement in the face of the specifications of a workout are very good, of course: know your limits, don’t injure yourself, get a good workout at a weight or distance or reps scheme that works for you and gets you the intended training effect and so on.

But it seems to me that this sort of reassurance is not going to be very effective when we take a look at the language involved in this affair.

RxD, remember, means “as prescribed.” That is, this is a prescription. This is not a suggestion (no matter how many times we are told by Crossfit coaches that this is “just a suggestion”). This is what we are prescribed. And when we do not do what is prescribed, we fail to abide by it. A prescription carries a normative weight with it: do this, this way. It doesn’t say: do this in some way you’d like. It is hard not to think that in not following the Rx, that one has, in some way or the other, fallen short. And that is precisely why in the context of Crossfit, to do a workout RxD turns into an aspirational ideal; the day you do it is the day you did the “real workout”, the “workout as it was meant to be”; it is not just the day you got to follow someone’s “mere suggestion.”

Crossfitters’ responses to RxD weights and rep schemes reflect their understanding of this notion of prescription. That is why people ask at their box “Who did this RxD?” And that is why people respond, in an admiring tone of voice, “X was the only one who did that WOD RxD“.

When we do not follow a recommendation or suggestion, we are easily and plausibly viewed as exerting a very good choice; when we do not follow a prescription, we can still have very good reasons for doing so (as in when I do not follow certain social or religious prescriptions) but my actions take on a different hue.

So, I think if the Crossfit ‘community’, such as it is, wants to get people to chill out about the Rx for WODs, it might be worth thinking about using language that discards some of the normativity of the Rx, and moves to something that captures a bit more of the intended “do the right thing for yourself within this framework (that of the WOD at hand)” flavor.

Blast From the Past: Asian Dub Foundation Live

A fine example of a dynamic live performance: the Asian Dub Foundation perform ‘Free Satpal Ram’. Deeder looks very young in this, almost child-like, and almost out of place on stage. But the sound is tight and the energy levels are kept high (as ADB always managed).

This video of ADB at London in 2000 captures an even better live performance (because one gets to see how ADB were capable of getting an audience really jacked up; their mosh pits should have been fun), but the sound quality is not so crash hot.

I think what both live performances capture well is the right mix of carefully, just-barely contained, energy of the music and the performer that always threatens to spin out of control. The sense of exhilaration we feel on watching this, is I suspect, grounded in some fear as well: we are fascinated by the possibility of the loss of control and descent into frenzy on stage, and thus, amazed and entranced by the live performer’s mastery in keeping his art and power channeled appropriately.

Nietzsche and Philosophy Discussion

Next week, on Tuesday, November 22nd, I will be conducting a discussion with the Brooklyn College Philosophy Department’s Philosophy Society titled “Without Cruelty There Is No Festival: Nietzsche and Philosophy”. This is the description I sent to our society co-ordinator Justin Steinberg (an amazing Spinoza scholar):

Rarely can there have been a philosopher as readable, controversial, infuriating (and possibly misunderstood) as Nietzsche. He earned little fame in his lifetime, spent the last years of his life insane, but ensured, through his devastating critiques of science, religion, morality and philosophy, a well-deserved and lasting fame as the father of post-modernism, the archest critic of the modern philosophical tradition, and possibly the most radical theorist of all time. His central doctrines of perspectivism, the death of God, the will to power, the OverMan, and the eternal recurrence, still repay close and careful study to unpack their metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical implications. In this discussion, I will attempt to introduce these doctrines and emphasize the continued relevance of studying Nietzsche.

The motivation for this discussion is to get students interested in a seminar on Nietzsche that I will be teaching in Spring 2012. Last spring, I had conducted a similar discussion on Freud in preparation for this semester’s Philosophy of Psychology class, and while I’m not sure that that discussion helped drum up vital registration for the class to run, it certainly helped me think a bit more about what I wanted to teach in the class, and how to approach its material. I’m hoping something similar will happen with this discussion on Nietzsche.

More fundamentally, I’d like more of our students here to be exposed to a unique philosophical style, and to a writer that sought to obliterate the distinction between form and content. There are many more reasons to study Nietzsche of course; one of them being, quite simply, that he is a very entertaining, thought-provoking read. If I can get any of my discussants next week to go out and start reading Nietzsche, I will consider myself successful.

In a future post, I will try and describe my experiences here at Brooklyn College, leading a faculty study group on Nietzsche.

David Coady on A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents

David Coady of the University of Tasmania recently helped launch my latest book, _A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents_, at a party in Melbourne, Australia. At the launch, he made a few opening remarks, which can be read here.

Welcome to EverythingUnder

This is the first post on my new blog. So, hello world. I’ve been blogging for a while now on cricket (yes, cricket, the game, not crickets). Here, I intend to blog on things other than cricket. What that might be will become progressively clearer once I commit myself to actual writing, as opposed to thinking about writing. But I expect there will be posts on books, movies, philosophy, teaching philosophy, the body beautiful and its not-so-beautiful demands, technology, sports; in short, the things that take up most of my time and hence demand attention and occasionally, opinions. I will be setting up the blog over the next couple of weeks, making it useful for myself and for my readers (hope springs eternal); the idea is to find a balance between pimping and Sparta.

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