My Dad and Me, Part 1

A Series in Several Parts

My wizened therapist leaned back in his chair with a mischievous smile, and in response to a complaint I was relating about my dad he said, “Yet your father’s siblings resented him,” which irritated me because I had wanted to tell him that.

“I never told you that!” I protested. “How did you know?”

“Of course you told me,” he contradicted me, very un-therapeutically. “You’ve also told me that an alcoholic is very close to you in your genealogy, if it is not you or your father; that I do not have the means to know.”

“My grandfather–my dad’s father!” I blurted out, powerless to resist this magician sitting across from me. “How did you know?” It seems I had asked again.

“Nothing to it,” he said. We shall call him Sausage, for that is what I want to call my therapist. His real name relates etymologically to the making of sausages, and I’m feeling rather uncharitable to the man who took the place of my father after my father died precipitously, and who has helped me immensely by introducing me to the concept of family systems theory. Sausage’s apparent strength is listening, but aren’t all good therapists good at listening? His real strength, which he hides until the time for striking is at hand, is a razor-sharp cutting tool, which resides in his mouth, which says things like, “So how does a son show mercy to a mother?”

April 2006 Tom Jack Deb

“Nothing to it,” he said. “Just about every family has an addict in its genealogy, and the whole family tree bends that direction. Its pull is strong on you…” and here it must be said again that, at the time, he was himself bending toward the autumn of his life, which he is now in, approaching the twilight of his days, a smiling, happy, content man who copes with his own filth in ways I only envy. He once called his sister after forty years of not speaking in order to make peace with her and to forge a new relationship which rides atop the forgery of blood.

“Roles,” he said. “An alcoholic system–a system centered on addiction–creates perverted roles, ironclad roles, because the essence of alcoholism and other addictions is perfectionism.”

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I can’t remember my father ever forgiving me.

When he died, my mother venerated him thus: “Daddy only thought of the Gospel. Every word out of his mouth was pure Gospel. Gospel Gospel Gospel Gospel. Daddy equals Gospel.”

I looked into my own heart and found no deposit of the gospel in there. None had been placed there. My father had raised all of us to be perfect, therefore without the need for forgiveness. Perfectionism, you see, is the anti-forgiveness.

The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

He forgave everyone everything, so long as they were not members of his own family. Yet I misspeak: his own brothers and sisters, who did him enormous wrong; his father, who beat him and abused him and them without mercy–these he forgave, in the Gospel sense, too, “Yet seventy times seven, Peter,” says his Lord. Yes, he did. His own offspring, and I think his own wife–these he never forgave. For the longest time we were perfect in every way, but at last, we rebelled, falling short, and we were the objects of his wrath.

“The alcoholic is near at hand,” Sausage says. “My grandfather,” I reply. “Of course,” Sausage says, mischief in his eye. “How did you know?” I ask. “You are bound to it,” Sausage says, chuckling, leaning back.

“Oh, come on, Sausage,” I said. “Can’t you fix it?” (We have that kind of relationship).

He laughed loud and long. He took his glasses off and wiped them clean, gaining control over his faculties in so doing, then he made yet another astounding declaration, as some sort of augur or prophet, a necromancer or spirit-medium: “Your grandfather was a messiah figure.”

Thunderstruck.

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My grandfather died six years before I was born, yet he looms as a gigantic figure (I have a picture somewhere of him at the end of his life, struck already twice by blood clots, still physically dominating everyone else in the photograph), towering over my ancestry, as a kind of mythical gatekeeper, a monster who must be either tricked or defeated by force of divine martial prowess. Only then may I progress into my genealogy to learn about myself. The stories my father and all his brothers and sisters tell of their time together begin and end with “Daddy,” my grandfather (as opposed to the person my mother still calls my father).

“You should read Edwin Friedman’s book,” Sausage told me. “A Failure of Nerve. You’ll learn a lot about yourself.”

And so I did, a few years after he suggested it. In the meantime, however, I tackled my grandfather, bringing him down so that I could deal with him man-to-man, identifying just what he had accomplished, creating, by the power of alcohol, an emotional world in which everyone in his orbit moved only according to his will, even his parents. This system, as it were, works (had a habit of working and still does), and it works too well, functioning much better than a healthy family would, functioning, that is, until the system itself encounters that which cannot be brought into orbit. A single man, no matter how powerful (and my grandfather, as you shall see, was indeed powerful), encounters his own finitude, and those limits are, in all actuality, near at hand, usually found on the lips of someone who sees things and can put a name to what he sees. The battle to fight the illusion of grandiosity, that is, that the illusion is indeed an illusion–this is an important distinction:

The system itself–emitted by its central figure, i.e., the powerful alcoholic–is at violent pains to preserve its world as an actual world, complete with its own received wisdom, traditions, precepts, and reprobrationary structure. It is the perversion of creation and procreation, punching outward to create space against the incursions of an unwanted outside world, the world which causes the pain against which alcohol medicates. My grandfather experienced, for example, a terrible wound received in World War One, his wife’s divorcing him, and his accidentally killing a young black boy. With bottle in hand, the system fights against manufactured grandiosity (it is, after all, a grand system involving the care of many) being named as illusory.

When the system encounters its limits, the edge of illusion, it shatters, only to be reconstituted by its several members in the same way it began: with fear, a bottle, and new satellites. It reproduces, but it does not procreate.

That’s family systems theory as I have internalized it. Almost every family has that particular dynamic within it. That is to say: how far away are you from the alcoholic or addict in your genealogy?

All right then, how do you fix it?

You don’t.

In a way, there is no hope for coming to existence within a healthy family life. There is hope, on the other hand, for existing in a healthy way within the family. That’s just the thing: you are born into relationships. Mother, father, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. And then, other relationships develop. Grandchildren, mothers-in-law, and so forth, a morass of tangled and tangling relationships within an arm’s reach, all influencing you, as influences in your childhood development, influences in your history, actually influencing you at this moment, each with their own gravitational pull. The unhealthy members are seeking to put you in orbit around them. The healthy ones are not. Simple, right?

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Spot the healthy members, if any, of this small section of a system.

In this series I intend to share a few observations, some of them formal, some of them anecdotal, about family, about how I came to use systems theory, how I find it useful in application to myself and to people I’m called upon to help–I think, most importantly, I’m going to be making the case that the general contours of family systems theory are a framework for best interpreting the world around you, not just in an analytical sense, but in a way to build, rebuild, and repair your relationships at hand. If you think about it, family systems theory might be considered a prime raison d’être of Embodiment and Exclusion.


Forthcoming Family Systems Posts On…

  • Institution-hopping
  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Friedman’s Relationship Triangles
  • Family Systems in Literature
  • Perfectionism
  • Creation, Procreation, and Reproduction
  • Death and Dying as Healthy Institutions
  • Marriage

 

The Loud Thing Quiet

Unquiet has crept into the warp and woof of my daily sensibility. Disquiet, perhaps. Restlessness in conscience.

I have settled firmly into middle-age. It began five years ago, on my fortieth birthday, when, just as my elders predicted, my eyes began to shut down. Let me qualify that: I still have perfect vision, 20/20, clear as Burl Ives’s Lipton Tea, up until about four feet in front of me, and at that distance coming in, I emit high-pitched yelps to determine location and motion.

After a period of mourning, I made my way to the local apothecary, made visual contact with the proper aisle from the doorway, then, as I approached the reading glasses section, I slowed down, the weight of middle-age anchoring my every step. Youth stood somewhere outside, waiting for the next gust of wind to carry it away. My hand reached out, fumbling for a pair of reading glasses, any pair that I might hold up to my eyes so that I could read the advertised power of magnification on the various offerings of the entire inventory of reading glasses. I found a pair which suited me practically: very narrow rectangular glasses over which I might peer at recalcitrant students. I scowled in the mirror at the sight: reflected back at me was an adult version of myself. Then, without having to move my feet, I reached over to pick up a bottle of analgesic (heh: he said “anal”), and I began to read it.

For the first time in a considerable number of months, I felt joy, and it was the joy of relief, for I could read once more, and I could read without suffering. The lights in the building suddenly flickered, and as I looked up, I heard a sudden gust of wind, a short, fresh breeze, and then it was gone.

reading glasses rectangle

The preparation of youth to ride on the career arc is a preparation filled with anticipation, a sack of doubts enclosed each by a little plastic egg of knowledge–Knowledge–the ground upon which we tread in order to shuffle around on this groundless mortal coil. Indeed, youth does somehow blossom, as experience teaches us failure and success, more or less, for some more or less than others, the pink blossoming yielding to rich green, perhaps a little money in the bank, a spouse, a house, a bigger apartment on the way to a suburban home in which to continue growing and prospering. The early stages of prosperity is our obsession, and our minds are ever fixed upon it. The first whispers are heard but not heard.

It is all for nothing.

“I am rising in my field of expertise! See, I have established myself! Even failure is a learning experience, a temporary setback, a springboard from which to leap up and forward, wiser, craftier, warier.”

The birds of the air and varmints of the earth find the fruit of your vine to be very sweet indeed, and free. New York State grins, saying, “Thank you very much.” The Treasury Department of the United States scowls, saying, “You should be grateful we leave you anything at all.” You find yourself thinking forbidden conservative thoughts, but you comfort yourself, saying, “‘Tis libertarian, dammit, not conservative.” As soon as you think those thoughts, the institutions which preserve for you a modicum of happiness and comfort approach, hat in one hand, other hand outstretched, eyes low, “Please, sir, your children thus benefit.” And you put money in the outstretched hand, and a little more in the hat.

It seizes you, the loud thing, shouting when you try to sleep, “IT IS ALL ASHES!”

“No, no. It is sweet fruit of my labor. I taste a little bit of it; it tastes of prosperity, of longevity, of fortitude! See? I can see it! I have reading glasses now!”

ASH!

Breath quickens and labors, the fruit of which is open eyes, aching shoulders, crazed twilight fantasies of an arc which is pointed downward. What seemed a gentle grade yielding after a length of time to the end of it all has steepened dramatically, ending in a sucking maw.

“Father. Husband. Vocation. Avocation. Citizen. They’re going to take it all away. All of it.” These are mere offices, at that, without any inherent malice in and of themselves; they represent how we even awaken to the rising sun.

The coil of mortality tightens ever so. It is the loud thing, sending whispers over every single thing you propose to do.

The mediocrity I can live with; the general futility troubles me greatly. I thought I was pursuing him, but it is not so; he has only waited for me, and I am his. I thought I would advance some ideal, even in mediocrity, just pushing the thing forward infinitesimally, along with all my peers, in the right direction, but there is no pushing the thing. It is ephemeral, a cloud, a deception, not even a coherent dream. It is, indeed, an arc which ends in utter meaninglessness. Why do we percolate so?  Why do we puff ourselves up over accomplishment? Why do we think we can see what is right before us?

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Helen Keller

Yet we say to ourselves: isn’t life so much better? See these graphs! Poverty is being eradicated the world over! But to what? Toward a sun which will wink out? To alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others to help endure the blink of an eye we appear? We are by far the most prosperous people in the history of the world, yet we are by far the most unhappy, contentious, childish wretches in the same measure. We are decidedly ungrateful, a spoiled lot of undisciplined toddlers, emotionally underdeveloped babies, despite all our self-praise through various international prizes and awards. How do we see ourselves in this way?

It is a malady of the human heart, I think, to know with absolute certainty that we are to make progress to a kind of permanent prosperity, but with equal certainty knowing that such permanence is fleeting. A notion of preserving something “for the children” is a noble one, but it is not anything at all. As Michael Jackson taught us, we are the children. What he never taught us was of whom we are the children. He did not because he could not. Not even he could see the object of our desire.

reading glasses 1

If I may speculate on the crisis which afflicts the middle-aged, we who eschew checking the clock in the middle of the night for the effort of finding one’s reading glasses, it is just this unanswered question: the days of being cared for are long gone; the days of caring for are waning quickly. And what then? I suppose one ceases avoiding the anxiety, standing to, representing in your body a piece of eternity, if there is such a thing, getting on with it because that’s what there is to do: get on with it.

As for me: it’s time for me to drive my kid to hockey practice.

Nihil Nisi Bonum

Death made an unexpected visitation upon one of our friends, and now he is excluded from our company, unless you happen to be of his faith, and then you are excluded from his company, for the time being, and, really, only by sight. As such, he has unfortunately embodied this website. Brock Cusick, requiescat in pace.

I was thinking about–can’t help but think about–our last conversation. It was…how shall we say…not one I wish was our last, but it stands as our last conversation, and it was unpleasant, so there you go. Until the great test of my faith shall come, it will remain standing as a monument to the ruin wrought by pettiness. How petty? How petty a conversation is it that mars the dignity of a perfectly innocent, genuine, kind, nihil nisi bonum fellow? He was giving me a hard time about my decision for my D&D character to roll initiative at disadvantage, and I was annoyed. That’s how petty.

I’m 45 years old with four children! He was 39 years old with three children! And all the responsibilities thereof, which we commonly consider of adulthood, requiring some measure of gravitas, sobriety, and maturity! It was so petty, so petty, but it was the last conversation I ever had with Brock. He private-messaged me, which annoyed me, but that was Brock. That was his way. And he was adorable that way, a wonderful teddy bear of a man, but I was so annoyed.

There was another important death in my life, one which I may or may not write about all the time, and I know without being told that his wife–the fellow who died importantly, his wife–I know she was in the room screaming at him about something, probably something important, and she walked away–he was standing while they argued, not at all ill, not visibly, accomplishing some chores around the house–she walked away, and when she returned a few moments later, he was dead on the floor.

And so we are excluded from each other. It is true.

Only in part, I think. A marriage of over thirty years, even a rocky one, has probably established some rather deep roots, giving life to life, a grandeur nourished to grow around a knot. Brock was kind to me, and I, to a lesser degree, was kind to him. In addition to the faith we share, we have nourishment in kindness which does not have to be overcome by the rot of pettiness. This petty conversation we had is no horrible disfigurement; it is a knot, character for the grand old living tree.

I was afraid to go to bed on Monday night, the day I learned Brock died. I was afraid in the realization that I could be so reaped by death, and excluded, leaving my wife and children excluded from me and all the roles I fulfill for them, along with friends, students, clients, and family. Unable to sleep, I wandered from room to room in the house, resolving to behave more gently, kindly, and, as it is with teenagers in the house, with long-suffering fortitude. I sincerely hope that I have been properly chastised, on the one hand, to act as fertile soil for the roots necessary for relationships to grow. I sincerely hope that I have been comforted, on the other hand, so that I can forgive myself for being so bloody annoyed at Brock.

I think it is childish and entirely selfish for me to have said, as I have been saying, “I never want to make another friend ever again.” For all the unnecessary hurt we dole out to each other, even by dying, kindness is far more nourishing towards growth, far more than withdrawal.

Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.

The Safety Razor

My friend Adam Gurri (who, if you didn’t know, adds excellent content to this blog on a regular basis) recommended, upon being asked, that I try a safety razor instead of a disposable razor. He recommended a particular style and brand, which I used as a basis to pick one for myself. When it came in the mail, I inserted the razor blade, tightened the nut, lathered up, and became grateful to Adam for the recommendation.

My father taught me how to shave, one of the greatest days of my life, that he should look at me and see that I need to shave, and that he should be the one to teach me. This was thirty years ago, I think, when I was 15 years old (I know without a doubt it was before I was 16). He demonstrated very clearly, using a not-inexpensive disposable razor. These were the days when a wet-shaving disposable razor had only two tiny blades embedded within.

“It’s your face,” my dad said. Now, we were not terribly poor, but neither were we rich. When he died, I discovered that he had basically kited credit card bills from that era unto the next one, which endured, say, fifteen years, just to float the family along in a lower-middle-class lifestyle. The four of us had the opportunity to go to college, in other words. Yet he was buying the expensive disposable razors.

“It’s your face, the first thing you present to people. You want to give them a well-groomed face, something pleasant to look at, not something pock-marked, scraped, and spoiled.” Then he showed me how to shave in the direction of my whiskers, even teaching me that it changes direction at certain spots on my neck. I must say, I had very few shaving-related blemishes throughout the remainder of my adolescence. On one occasion I sneezed and cut myself. I was late for school, bearing the cuts below my mouth, but that is all.

A year or two before he died, I discovered in the back of his station wagon (“Old Woodie” he called it) a sack full of the cheapest disposable razors available. I confronted him. He replied, “Aw, Dave, it’s just a face scrape. One scrape is as good as another.” He had just filed for bankruptcy after incurring some massive expenses due to the mental health issues of his adopted son–along with some other, er, irregularities that life had presented him, shall we say…

I did not believe him. As I have grown into middle-age, I have maintained his original philosophy of a well-groomed face as a presentation to the world. It is, first, love for self, which in turn becomes love for neighbor, and readily so. “Look,” I say when I present a groomed face, “I love myself, and I love you so much that I should care for myself to be in your company inoffensively, as inoffensively as I am lovingly able.”

In the meantime, disposable razors–or the industry thereof–has become risible. Not two blades! No, no longer two, but three! Three? No, four! Five! A million! And with comfort grooves here, flexion there, lubricating strips below! Were you just now comfortable with the last improvement? Now we shall reduce the quality suddenly and precipitously, in order to encourage you to move to the next, more expensive solution to face presentation.

But this is not necessary, is it? Men have been presenting their faces to the world, and in much more expectant societies than ours–for thousands of years! A proper razor is a piece of metal polished properly. That is all. The rest of the presentation is a little skill coupled with a little love.

Now for me, I am not brave enough to put a straight razor to my face, considering the fact that my father taught me with a disposable razor. I do wonder, however, how it is he abandoned the razor of his youth, the safety razor with its easy replaceable blade, a very cheap piece of properly polished metal, for the abomination that is known as the disposable razor. Was it the lure of the “space age”? The call of mid-Century ineluctable advance toward true technological utopia? Was it laziness? Was it loss of love?

I miss seeing his face, and talking to him. I’m grateful to him for teaching me to shave, but I’d like to ask him what it was that set him on a path, beginning with the disposable razor, leading to “one face scrape is as good as another.”

Whatever it was, he certainly traded away quality for it.

 

Reasons for Knowing Knowledge

There are many theories of what knowledge is. That is clear enough from the past 400 years of philosophy, never mind the thousands before that. What has drawn less interest is that there are different reasons we may wish to know what knowledge is.

René Descartes and David Hume were quite clear on why they wanted to know of knowledge. Though they had radically different theories of knowledge, each believed that epistemology was necessary to shore up the foundations of other fields. From this perspective, historians and physicists and linguists need to wait around for philosophers to sort out how they can tell if they actually know anything about their fields. That is the central conceit of the so-called “demarcation problem,” for example.

It is against this sort of epistemology that Richard Rorty framed his pragmatism as anti-authoritarian. Imagine historians thinking they were the authorities on statecraft or politics. It’s laughable. Much has been said about the value of knowing history so one doesn’t repeat past mistakes, but to think of history as primarily a source of practical insights is to seriously misunderstand the field. I have to wonder if anyone who suggests such a thing has ever actually read a history book. Or, on the flipside, perhaps they are a little too well read in history and too short on practical experience. In any event, one needs to be deeply disconnected from either history as it is written, or the practical affairs of the world, to think that the former could be a manual for the latter, or that historians are in a special position to tell practitioners how to do what they do.

To Rorty, the image of philosophers lecturing scientists on when they can know they know anything in their own fields is even more absurd than the image of the historian telling politicians and public officials how to do their jobs. Scholars and scientists did not wait around for the perfect theory of knowledge to be developed before getting to work. And the notion that outsiders to those fields are in a position to dictate the terms of inquiry for insiders is highly questionable. I won’t reconstruct Rorty’s argument here, but suffice it to say that he sees epistemology of the Cartesian and Humean sort as a sort of will-to-tyranny over other disciplines.

His pragmatism is cast as a liberation of the disciplines to pursue their own discourses on the terms negotiated by fellow practitioners, rather than by interfering outsiders. Its value is akin to the counter-punch in boxing; rather than making the first move, it comes as a response. If we imagine historians and physicists minding their own business and pursuing their work, when a interlocutor comes along with an argument drawing on philosophical positivism or related frameworks, pragmatism is the tool to get that interlocutor to back down.  It nullifies the stultifying effects of tyrannical philosophy, rather than offering a substantive alternative.

Because he deflates all of philosophy’s big claims to value, Rorty concludes that there’s little use for philosophy any longer, except as a field of caretakers for a set of classic texts. This is where I must part ways with him.

I look instead to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the pivotal figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Like Rorty, Gadamer didn’t see his theory of interpretation as a guidebook for the social scientists whose fields he discussed in the course of Truth and Method and other works. He had no interest in dictating the terms of inquiry for practitioners. And like Rorty, in as much as it has practical value, it is of the counter-punch variety. Unlike Rorty, however, Gadamer views hermeneutics as discipline itself, as legitimate a field of inquiry as history. Like history, it is a study of human doings. Yet as hinted above, the relationship between these fields and practical insight is a complex one. Gadamer no doubt underplayed the practical value of hermeneutics, but, as mentioned, historians and especially history enthusiasts too often overplay the practical significance of history.

The reasons for knowing knowledge, interpretation, or history that align with the spirit of inquiry in these fields is much more indeterminate than something as simple as generating practical know-how. It is more like satisfying intellectual curiosity, or attempting to deepen your knowledge of the human story, or simply taking pleasure in developing and exercising the skills of inquiry and argument in a specific domain. I would sum up this non-authoritarian (contra Descartes and Hume) but non-eliminative (contra Rorty) sort of reason as seeking wisdom. That is an appropriately vague and indeterminate answer for the question I wished to pose in this post.

Everybody Knows Me Now

“Look up here. I’m in heaven.” When Bowie wrote it, he at least suspected he was going to die. Ostensibly, when he recorded the video, he knew he was going to die. “I’ve got scars that can’t be seen. I’ve got drama–can’t be stolen.” Going to heaven is an introvert’s worst nightmare.

Perhaps he wasn’t writing about his own death. Perhaps he was writing about Stephen Hawking’s impending doom. The brainiac Science-worshipers, the moral elites, the dispassionate purveyors of fact-based justice–they demonstrated their chops at the maudlin: “He’s zooming around the cosmos, now,” demonstrating that their maudlin sentimentality is at least on par with the unchurched Presbyterian daughter, whose father just died, and who says, “He’s looking down and smiling, now,” demonstrating their desire for something after a bitter end.

“I’m in heaven!” is greeted by a chorus of guitars tuned to the dirge. We know Stephen Hawking did not believe in heaven. Did Davie Bowie believe in heaven? “Well, David Bowie is looking down on us now, now, our celestial Major Tom.”

Ugh.

He’d built quite a catalogue. Perhaps the near-certain spike in sales would pierce into the heavens themselves, where we might achieve a near-certain nirvana, living in harmony. It was supposed to be here. It was supposed to be in New York, where ordinary men can live like kings, ruling the world with a mere scowl, a sardonic quip, and an encroaching horizon. The encroaching horizon was welcome. The cancer was not.

He’s dead, and now I’ve reviewed his catalogue, and with the wonders of YouTube, I’ve seen every televised or otherwise visually-recorded interview with David Bowie, of whom I am a fan on-again, off-again. I’ve analyzed every tic, probed every Straussian utterance, and scrutinized every single transformation as he sought Transfiguration.

I mean, that androgyny bit was just shtick, wasn’t it? It was shtick to conceal. He wanted us to know him, but he wanted us to know that it was all just a show, and the shtick enabled him to sell more records and more tickets.

I don’t believe that for one second, and that’s what he dreaded in dying. His work becomes static without him. He rots away, and his catalogue lies in state. We’re going to know him now.

We know he was a type, and he was a noble type, though tragic. As for me, I was off-again when he said some particularly nasty things about my God, but, then again, my fellow-Christians did some things to sully the name of my God, so why wouldn’t he say some particularly nasty things about my God? Was he looking for God, but when he saw him, he saw those things which sully? Who will wipe up all David’s filth? “Look up here! I’m in heaven!”

Heaven is no place to be when you are fond of hiding yourself behind a fortress of your own filth. “Oh, no, everybody knows me now.” With knowledge is judgment. With judgment, there is no love, only merit. And merit scratched only reveals the fortress of filth. We all know him now, but we all already knew him. We were hoping he’d find a way for us. Instead, he backed into a casket which embraced him with its doors.

The song is called “Lazarus.” Lazarus was raised from the dead. Lazarus was carried up by the angels to nestle in the bosom of Abraham. “Look up here” is a taunt. From where are we looking? For whom is the dirge? Does everybody know him now?

3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

The Really Real

“There is no ‘we’,” was a catchphrase among the GMU econ company I kept when I went to grad school there. The only really real things were individuals, who made choices, had preferences, and had blood running through their veins, by God! Groups are not really real. They are a myth, a superstition, an excuse for the strong to continue the exploitation of the weak that has gone on since the first social hierarchy was established.

Years later, I explored the communitarians. They seemed to say that there could be no individual at all, without community. I talked with Catholic leftists who would spit out the accusation of “Thatcherite!” at the mere mention of the word “individual.”

The communitarians seemed to have some powerful insights, but the community which glued it all together and made these insights work eluded me. Every time I thought I had my hands on it, it melted away and I had to start anew.

I asked, “what is community?” I kidnapped Dave away from his loving wife and children, at any hour of the night or day, to demand an answer of him. I asked and I asked.

Benedict Anderson, a Marxist, made his legacy on the claim that communities are imagined. But this was not the claim of my GMU mentors, who insisted on the unreality of “we.” Anderson’s communities were imagined only in as much as they were so large, we can never meet all of their members, even though we strongly believe that they are there, and that we stand in a meaningful relationship to them. Anderson did not deny groups in order to embrace only the “really real,” and criticized Marxists who did:

With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Examples of these “styles” include vast networks of kinship, Christendom, and Anderson’s primary subject matter, the nation.

By the time I began scratching my itch to understand community until I drew blood, I had already been lead to view things through the lens of intersubjective relationality; or the language-games of Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But a community is not a game. So what is it? The grounds of the game, in some abstract sense?

The metaphor of the game was one way of approaching the question of human relationality. But there are many types of relations. In the wee hours, as I interrogated him for some sign of how I might understand this question of community, Dave modestly suggested that membership might have something to do with it. It took quite some time for me to listen to what he was saying.

One thing that helped crystalize this for me was reading Michaele Ferguson’s book Sharing Democracy, in which she attempted to discuss imagined community as I might have, before my many conversations with Dave. Here is the relevant part of my review:

Intersubjective relations are a useful starting place, but relationality per se is not very informative. There are many types of relations, with different implications in different contexts. One important relation that is absent from Ferguson’s analysis is membership. This relation is not between individuals, but between an individual and an entity—an “imagined” entity, in Anderson’s sense, though this is misleading. When the conditions are right, such entities are no more or less imagined than money. Imagined social entities in which individuals are members are precisely the collective agencies that Ferguson mis-defines.

I could not see the entity for so long. But it’s there, often explicitly acknowledged in the ways we relate to one another. We play various roles in our social games, and these roles relate to our standing as members in some common group – or of rival groups, or of cooperating but nevertheless distinct groups. The way our imagined communities shape our relations to one another as individuals is as real as the way money influences our behavior. Free will is not subsumed; I can choose not to accept money. I can choose to walk away. But the reality of what I’m walking away from is not changed by this; I could have taken that money, and I could have used it to acquire possessions or hire people to render services.

So too with the group – it is precisely because I am a citizen of the United States of America, living within the territory of its sovereign body, that I expect to be able to use dollars and not pounds to acquire my possessions. It is because I am an employee of a company that I expect they will let me enter the building and go into the area outsiders are not allowed to wander through unescorted.

Anderson makes reference to “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” which he excepts, tentatively, from being “imagined.” This is a kernel of the Romantics, who judged modernity as false against the really real of the authentically primitive. In the mouth of a Romantic, just as in the mouth of an economic individualist, “imagined” is spat, much like “Thatcherite” in the mouth of a Catholic leftist. It is an epithet against that which is not really real.

Perhaps it is time we loosened our grip on the really real, and grew more comfortable with the reality of the imagined.

Frameworks, Models, and Math

One could go mad seeking a vocabulary to speak of vocabulary, a language to speak of language.

A framework is a shared semantic web, a range of possible pragmatic moves to make in language-games played with fellow adherents as well as with proponents of alternatives. In short, it is a language.

A model is a much more regimented language; its moves are fewer but more penetrating, the domain of its meanings narrower but, one hopes, more illuminating if kept within those confines. In economics, all they taught us were models. Even at the not-particularly-mathematical George Mason University Department of Economics, there was no substitute for the value of a formal model. Simplicity in the model was pared with sophistication in collecting the larger menu of models; we were taught to be undoctrinaire about models that might add up to an inconsistent whole, so long as the application brought us closer to truth for the matter at hand. Somehow, though, these models all fit comfortably inside of a utilitarian framework, albeit the more qualitatively sensitive and uncertainty-emphasizing Austrian variety.

Models turn out to have an unusual portability. The economic models, as I mentioned, were clearly utilitarian in design. They existed in a hermeneutic circle with utilitarian frameworks; the model as the part and the framework as the whole. The law of supply and the law of demand, perfect competition or price discrimination, are all models that are seemingly incomprehensible without a foundation of utilitarian assumptions.

And yet, these assumptions can be relaxed. Perhaps not entirely eradicated. But a humanist like Deirdre McCloskey can comfortably turn these models into metaphors and integrate the “P(rudence)” values into a framework which includes “S(acred)” ones.

But such an integration has its costs, or at least its impact. McCloskey is no mystic. Integrating the economists’ prudent models transforms the framework they are integrated into, just as the models themselves must be transformed as they enter into a new hermeneutic circle with a different whole.

Of course, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding is a creative act, and transformative. All fusions of horizons leave both horizons forever changed. The utilitarian is transformed merely in the act of applying his model to a specific case, just as certainly as the humanist is transformed by integrating models of utilitarian origin.

As I thought about these things, my mind wandered to the question of math. Math, like models, is quite regimented. So much so that – again, like models – it requires a less regimented language in order to provide the resources to explain it, discuss what is going on in a given example, and so on. Nevertheless, there are few things more portable than math. Mathematicians do their work in a staggering variety of vernaculars. And their work can be understood without too much explanation by mathematicians who do not share a common tongue.

It is no wonder that math so dazzled the Pythagoreans and Platonists, seeming to transcend the contingencies of language as it does. But it does not truly transcend those contingencies. The positivist dream of a perfectly rational language is long dead; mathematics requires the resources of unregimented, highly contingent language in order to be understood and to be maintained (never mind further developed). Math itself is, as I said, a regimented language. But it is not just another language. There truly is something miraculous about it, and about the portability of models and of meanings, across the creative and transformative gulf of fused horizons.