Volume VII – Author’s Notes

Caesura Letters Volume VIIToday I am pleased to announce the release of Affecting Cause — the seventh volume of the Caesura Letters. This is another quarterly compilation of thought experiments, propositions, and ideas, presented in hopes of inspiring new perspectives on life. As in other volumes, Affecting Cause gathers the last three months of the Caesura Letters  into thematic ‘bundles’, which dance between the arts, sciences, and humanities. This volume is divided into seven parts, exploring ideas about morality, balance, energy, mystery, crowds, leadership, and selfhood. Get ready for the summer: this volume should pair nicely with decks, cold beverages, and Adirondack chairs!

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Critique of Pure Happiness

This coming week (June 23-27, 2014) I am publishing a series of pieces on the Caesura Letters about happiness. Although dissecting happiness seemed like a rather counter-cultural idea at the outset, I was taken back by how many great thinkers and theorists over the years have said, in their own unique ways, “Pursuing happiness for the sake of happiness can’t make us happy.” I’m looking forward to the conversation this week. Join us.

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Politics is Toxic. Get Over it.

There’s a popular narrative that goes along these lines: the population is disillusioned with all the negativity of schoolyard, partisan politics. Therefore, if politicians would just clean up their act, citizens would re-engage with democratic process.

But what are the grounds for this proposition? Has there ever been a period in history when the political arena has not been engulfed in backbiting, backrooms, and backscratching?

Democratic governance has never had a golden age. And it never will. It can’t. And even if we achieved this hypothetical state of democratic glory, we could just as easily lose it all again in four years. That’s the nature of democracy. We love democracy because it guarantees the impermanence of our governors. But it is this very impermanence that guarantees a permanent state of scandal. The proposition that we might one day arrive at a nirvana of enlightened, competent, and permanently rational leadership is not a rational belief to hold, nor to propagate.

This discussion about voter apathy and disillusionment has nothing to do with the unscrupulous antics and stupidity of politicians. It has to do with a fundamentally flawed expectation and explanation of political process. We elect politicians in order to slug it out. Equilibrium in a democracy is not universal agreement or a collective love affair with an ideal (fictitious) politician. No, it’s a tedious combat between opposing ideological agendas. That’s the point of democracy: self-governance requires internal conflict. This is an intrinsic feature of any self-organizing system.

Our participation in our governance should have nothing to do with peddling, promising, or advocating a safe, sanctified, and sanitized version of democracy. It can never exist.

So why are voters disengaged? Maybe they’ve been told their governance it is only worth engaging in to the extent that politicians are worthy, upstanding, and moral role models. Let’s drop this foolishness. The underlying premise of democracy is that we are all sovereign, which means that any single one of us can choose to assert ourselves in the leadership arena. The point of democracy is not that we have an aesthetically and emotionally “pleasant arena” for making collective decisions. The point is that we govern ourselves. This means taking a few bruises in the arena, and accepting the fact that corruption in democracy is as sure as the wetness of rain. If you want a supreme Superman to protect you from the harsh manipulation and posturing of statecraft, stop looking in democracy, my friend.

Democracy is messy. Let’s drop the rhetoric that people will get involved if we clean it up. This belief is counterproductive to the vision of a citizenry who takes their own governance seriously. Lying to ourselves (and those so-called “disillusioned” citizens) about the nature of democracy is only making rampant “dis-engagement” more acute.


I Don’t Want to ‘Arrive’

I never want to stop discovering new things. I see this agenda and passion manifested in the writers I most love: it is pointless to consider yourself a compelling or inspiring writer unless you are, yourself, being compelled and inspired by what you are learning. In this sense, I never want to ‘arrive’ or ‘settle down’, or find myself rehearsing and rehashing my opinion like an automaton, droning on about some topic that I supposedly ‘know’ inside and out. No, I want to stay mesmerized by the curious allure of uncertainty, helplessly arrested by the intrigue of the human condition, and perpetually clinging to the coattails of mysteries I don’t understand. In other words, I don’t think I want to achieve or reach a particular, final ‘accomplishment’. That seems rather disappointing! Perhaps the most exciting part about writing for me is that I have no clue where I am going to end up.

(This post is an extract from my interview on Wired Writer’s Guild, from March 11, 2014)


Among the things I would tell my fifteen year-old self…

If you were starting today, what are some things you’d do differently?

I’d go back and tell my fifteen year-old self to keep a better bibliography of the books, lectures, and art that provokes and inspires me growing up. I would tell the little rascal that everything beckons discovery, and that he should stop arbitrarily pigeonholing life under the categories of ‘interesting’ and ‘uninteresting’. If I knew then what I know now, I would have started paying attention to all those so-called ‘uninteresting’ things much earlier. Few disciplines are more precious for a writer. Second guessing the obvious sits at the heart of it all.

(This post is an extract from my interview on Wired Writer’s Guild, from March 11, 2014)


Empty Signifiers

Words, said anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), are symbols of meaning. If I say to you, “I own a red car,” I have given you a set of symbols that you interpret in fairly concrete terms. More symbols — such as the exact brand, make, model, and year of my vehicle — will provide you with an even more elaborate understanding.

However, much human language is far more complex than this direct exchange of symbols and descriptions. Lévi-Strauss pointed out that many of our words are “floating signifiers,” meaning that “somewhat like algebraic symbols, [they] represent an indeterminate value of signification.” (Lévi-Strauss 1987[1950]:63,55)

For example, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014) described the word “race” as a “floating signifier”. One person might mean “race” as biological or genetic differences between people, another person means lineage and ancestry, another person means the social and cultural divisions of people, and yet another person assumes that “race” simply refers to the dissimilarities of colour and hair between people. (Hall 1997:6) What does the word “race”, as a symbol of language, actually signify? Historically we can see the meaning of the word is in constant transition — shifting, morphing, and evolving. Therefore, in Lévi-Strauss’ words, we could say that “race” is “devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all” (Lévi-Strauss 1987[1950]:55)

We interact with floating signifiers everyday: the coworker who raises his hand in a staff meeting and says, “Our office needs to become a better community“; the campaigning politician who announces that there is hope for the next generation; the patriot who declares their tireless devotion to freedom. What do community, hope, and freedom mean? Well, clearly it depends on who you ask.

This is the incredible power of floating signifiers: when used well, they can galvanize large groups of people to change their behaviour, even though the words themselves actually mean different things to different members of the group — even though “the signifier and the signified [come] to be constituted simultaneously and interdependently.” (Ibid 60) In other words: floating signifiers do not emit meaning — they absorb whatever meaning is projected on them.

Today, when you find yourself nodding readily in agreement, double check whether or not the signifier is empty.


Ultimate Questions of Personal Identity

As regular subscribers of the Caesura Letters know, we often (but not always) structure our weekly letters around themes. This coming week (May 12-16) is one such example: we will be exploring ultimate questions of personal identity. (Ok, ‘ultimate’ is totally hyperbolic: we’ve done our best to tackle the biggest questions, but clearly our list is up for debate!)

We are going to revisit some of literature’s most canonized declarations about selfhood (like, ‘Know thyself’, and ‘To thine own self be true’). We are going to second-guess prevalent, received wisdom about the virtues of sincerity and authenticity. We are going to take a critical eye to our popular narratives about uniqueness, specialness, and destiny. We will talk about ‘finding ourselves’, ‘being ourselves’, and ‘searching ourselves’.

Subscribers, I’m really looking forward to hear your thoughts and reactions to this mini-series. I would love your feedback, critique, and response.

And for those who have not yet subscribed, please join us!

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Paradoxes of Democracy

The more I read about democracy, the more paradoxical democracy seems…

Scandals grip democracies while systemic failings get overlooked. Democracies lack a sense of perspective. This produces repeated crisis as mistakes mount up. But it also enables democracies to escape from crisis, because no single mistake is ever conclusive. Democracies continue to adjust, adapt, and find a way through. This process is not pretty, and it creates a pervasive feeling of disappointment. In crises there is always the hope that something more fundamental will be revealed. The search goes out for real democracy, the true story concealed behind the mess of democratic life. This quest is invariably fruitless. The confusion that produces the crisis the same confusion that dissolves it over time. Alongside the disappointment and frustration comes a lingering sense of complacency. Democracies survive their mistakes. So the mistakes keep coming. (pp. 293-4)

democratic citizens demand, contradictorily, that their leaders be faithful servants who do their bidding but that they nevertheless demonstrate strong and capable leadership. This permanent ambiguity compels democratic leaders to assume a posture of habitual deference to the sovereign people even when they are undertaking strong acts of leadership. (p. 74)


‘Authors Should Just Write’ – Or, Maybe They Shouldn’t

The prevalent, common advice these days seems to go along these lines: Just write. No matter what, they say, just keep writing. This may be a heretical departure from common knowledge, but I don’t quite buy the proposition that the best way to become a better writer is to write more. The best way to become a better writer is to learn more.

So, aspiring writer, I propose that the quality and meaningfulness of what you and I do correlates with our willingness to consume, ponder, critique, and contemplate the thoughts of others. We are not little blobs floating in some sterile vacuum, and neither are we sitting at a typewriter in a whitewashed isolation cell. We only nurture our capacity to say something constructive about the world if we let the world in. So let’s invite history, the classics, and the canons of literature to demolish our pet illusion that we are embodiments of some self-contained genius.

(This post is an extract from my interview on Wired Writer’s Guild, from March 11, 2014)