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hazel, stuff
2004-05-09 - 3:19 a.m.

Ok, this is for-the-thesis type writing, there's a lot of it and if you're not into Bateson and/or Sartre, it may not make a lot of sense, but i'm very happy with it, which is why I'm sharing it with the world. Feel free to ignore it. :)

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I’ve just been thinking about something that Bateson says about alcoholics, which is that the reason they drink must be that when they are drunk something is “right” that would ordinarily be “wrong”, in their sober experience. The alcoholic’s own explanation tends to be something along the lines of self-blame, declaring that they are “weak”. But this doesn’t really make sense if we think of the human organism as being the product of millions of years of evolution, in cut-throat competition with any number of other organisms… if the alcoholic can hold down a job, form relationships, maintain friendships, fight off disease, and so on, even though it is less readily accomplished than by “normal” people, then it follows that they are a functioning animal. This weakness that the alcoholic refers to is really a reference to the failure of the conscious part of their mind to control the remainder of the system. But there’s nothing extraordinary about this; in fact, Bateson demonstrates very clearly that there is no such thing as a system where one portion is in complete control of the rest. A functioning system is made up of relationships, and the effect of “upper level” components on “lower level” components is always mediated by intermediate components, and indeed, by the feedback from lower levels to upper levels. For example, the steering wheel of a car does not exactly control the direction of motion, because the way that the wheel feels in the hands of the driver is a consequence of many factors, including the way that the road “feels” to the touch of the wheels.

Or, to give an example that’s a little closer to the alcoholic, then the person who drinks a glass of water is, in a sense, responding to systemic effects with very little resort to consciousness-activity, to a degree almost exactly parallel with the alcoholic drinking a glass of whisky. The reason one labels themselves as “weak” for responding to these systemic effects and the other doesn’t think to label themselves at all is that the subsequent shame at the consequences makes the event remarkable in retrospect.

For some reason I haven’t quite put together yet, it appears to me that “shame” might serve a valuable purpose in preparing a person to continue engaging in an activity which they need in order to be “right with themselves”, or somesuch, but which has social or personal consequences which they cannot rationally or consciously justify. The performance of the shame, while it may include loud protestations that the “bad” behaviour will never be repeated, in fact acts as a kind of preparation for that very repetition.

In some respects, the student who procrastinates, Victor for example, or me, or any of the innumerable first year students who write about it in their workbooks… the students who call themselves lazy, berate themselves… in calling themselves “weak” or “bad” they are indirectly asserting that the “bad” behaviour was inevitable and will inevitably occur again. This is an important aspect of bad faith that I think I’ve missed with a lot of the Sartre I’ve done, or perhaps Sartre misses it himself, because I’ve been reading bad faith as a misguided effort at self-protection through the integration of an inevitable alienation. But this reading has been somehow too “cold”, because it seems to indicate that the self-protective shame is a surface protection which allows indifference to survive underneath it. But I know my own experiences of shame and weakness, even when I’m building them up myself, working myself up into a “state” over some failure of discipline, then the tension of it, the “temperature” of the experience is not cool, I do not feel in control. My neck, shoulders, and forehead are tight, I am hunched, curled up, almost as though I were bracing myself in expectation of being hit.

What is happenning with the student who is procrastinating? They are calling themselves “weak”. They have discovered that there is an unconscious element to writing, that in order to write they need the assistance of angels, in a manner of speaking, because they cannot compel the pen to move or the fingers to type by force of will. There’s a… this probably seems a very silly image to be calling on but there’s a kind of stereotype of the villain, in pantomime or children’s cartoons, of a man with a moustache screaming in rage at his incompetent assistant, “Why am I surrounded by such idiots!? Can’t you do anything right!? Do I have to do everything myself!?” But this character, this little caricature of the impotent dictator, is the person that the blocked writer finds themselves becoming. The steering wheel has been jerked too hard and broken off in my hands.

The conscious mind is an arc, or is the awareness of an arc, in a circuit which is not of a homogeneous nature with the “visible” part of the arc. Which is to say, a water-wheel which is half-concealed by the flowing water that drives it, is a predictable arc, the parts of it that can be seen are the same as the parts that cannot, and so controlling the whole can be achieved simply by controlling the part which is visible. But a steering wheel in a car is part of a more complex circuit; the engine is much more complex than the wheel, and while the relationship between wheel and wheels and engine is comprehensible and functional, it is so only intuitively, ie, only because skills have been mastered to the point where they are unconscious and the relationships have been allowed to become “natural”, integrated… the driver allows the car to drive them. And so it is with the conscious mind and its relationship with the animal of which it is a part. However complex the action of the consciousness is, it can only imply or hint at the much greater complexity which supports it. The “steering” is intuitive.

The procrastination-and-shame system is, I suppose, what is called a “workaround” or a “jury-rigged solution” to the problem of impotent dictatorship over the “self”. It is possible to write with a pen clenched in the hand like a club, it is possible to type with the index fingers alone, but these solutions to the problems of writing are “graceless”, clumsy, they are… dangerous because we learn the randomly-acquired patterns of these workarounds and make them play the role of foundation, support, for other things, but if they are hastily put together than they won’t hold much weight.

The painfulness of the shame aspect of procrastination (and alcoholism, for that matter) is, perhaps, a sign of the brokenness of these solutions to the problems they address. All pain deserves to be taken seriously because it signals to the consciousness that the current method of integrating various systems is not graceful, is not dependable as a foundation for other things. But I’m also sure that “shame” can’t be taken at face value. Shame does not “battle” with the desire to reoffend; perhaps the tension in the shame is a sign of conflict between a conscious decision not to relapse and the unconscious necessity of that relapse. But the shame itself is a deep phenomenon. Sartre says something at one point about the impossibility of deliberately lying to oneself. I cannot just tell myself that my house is a castle while I’m on the bus home, and find myself expecting to see a castle when I arrive at the last stop. The consciousness cannot, obviously, lie to itself “horizontally”. Sartre dismisses the idea that bad faith consists of the unconscious mind lying to the conscious mind, but I suspect he does this because he is thinking of “unconscious mind” as a sort of closed compartment sitting beneath the conscious mind. But if we think of the “unconscious” and/or semi-conscious processes occuring in concert with the consciousness, it gives a much better idea of how a lie-to-oneself could come about. We need to stop thinking of the consciousness as an autonomous “thing” in order for this to make sense. The animal, that’s a better word for it, the animal nonself has an awareness of necessity which it can communicate to the consciousness only by means of… in the same way that a very young child who wants something can only communicate its desire by actually acting upon that desire, so the animal nonself makes you aware of the fact that you are thirsty by putting a glass of water in your hand. If it is necessary both to be a drunkard and to maintain work and family relationships, how can this be communicated to the consciousness? I’m not sure of the precise anatomy of it, but it seems that it is the playing out of this communicative act that results in the alternation between “weakness” and shame.

It does seem as though there is a certain amount of truth, though, to the image of the consciousness as an autonomous thing. Why? Because, it seems as though without this possibility existing then it wouldn’t be possible to become alienated. I-it and I-thou are both possibilities. There is truth in the description of the self in I-it terms, albeit an incomplete truth. Because, when I am watching TV, not-writing, performing the act of not-writing, ie, procrastinating, there is a “voice” speaking to me which “I” am not listening to. Strange terminology here, but when “I” am listening then there is no “I” that is listening, or what “I” am listening to is as much “I” as what is listening. But when I am not listening, there very definitely is an I. But the voice is still there, present, still speaking. The “I” of the I-thou is there, sitting beside me, speaking gently, and the “I” of the I-it stares fixedly at the television, unaware of or uninterested in this patient angel.

Shame… no, I’ve lost it. Addictive behaviour, compulsive behaviour, is work. This fits in with the line about depression being hard work. The metaphor of the pen clenched in the fist works very well here, actually. The child who holds their pen this way does not do it because they are “too lazy” or “too weak” to learn the graceful way to hold a pen. They protest that they are happy doing it this way, or that it’s part of their personality, like the students complaining that if they stopped procrastinating they would be robbed of something vital… in fact, in a sense, they are correct. Because to them… the image of graceful writing is a mirage, a lie, a false promise, other people can do that, but I can’t… if I pick up the guitar and play a few chords, and then hand it to someone else unpractised in the instrument and tell them that what I’ve just done is easy, that they can do it too, then… it is true and not-true. If they “hold” the guitar for long enough, then it will become easy for them also. And holding the guitar, gently, is itself also very easy. But no amount of “trying hard” will allow them to do what I’ve just done immediately. They will discover that they are too “weak” to do it. The child who cannot hold the pen gracefully is determined, though, that they will hold then pen – they grasp it hard, at once, and they can get a result. They can force a result. And, with time, they are able to acquire a kind of stumbling grace, a muted tunefulness, with this clumsy grip. To start over would mean to begin again, to return to complete incompetence, total clumsiness. Total childishness. Returning to the point where the relationships have not been developed which allow pleasure, facility, flow. In other words, a return to the same condition which created the dictator’s grasp in the first place. Just so with the procrastinator; learning better habits means beginning with a fall, a loss, a step back to childishness.

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"Hazel

Dirty blonde hair" - Bob Dylan


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