Friday, July 31, 2009


It’s my third birthday, and we’re having a party in the courtyard of our apartment building. There is a cake. My parents tell me that it says “Happy Birthday, Karin.”

Karin, I think. That’s my name.

I once told my mother that I remember learning my name on my third birthday. “No,” she said, “That can’t be right. You knew it much earlier than that.”

Of course I did, I thought. That’s why I felt that strong wave of recognition when I heard it, a rush of new understanding. This group of sounds that I’ve been hearing for so long—it refers to me. It isn’t just any word. It is my word, my designated set of sounds and letters.

I suppose my memory wasn’t of learning my name, but of learning what it was to have a name. Out of all the types of words, names most pointedly symbolize the arbitrary nature of language, particularly first names. One of the basic rules of language is that words are meaningful because a community agrees upon a meaning. The choice of the word is arbitrary but customary. Even though the word chair has no inherent connection to the concept or material reality of a chair, and so is arbitrary in that sense, I still can’t just decide to call a chair a rocket ship or an air-chay if I want to be understood.

Names are different. Every person has a name that was given to them at some point, usually at birth, and that everyone else has to use to refer to that person. We can’t even refer to the person until we discover his or her name, so we have to learn new vocabulary every time we meet somebody. Naming children is one of the only opportunities we have for creating our own reference and imposing it upon the rest of the world, rather than accepting the set of words given to us by our language and culture.

Names are also different from other words because they are meant to have a unique referent; names refer to individual people, not types of people (such as doctor or diabetic). Most types of words refer to classes of things. Linguists like to use chair as an example, presumably because there is no inherent quality that makes something a chair other than that people think it is a chair (unlike a cat, which can be identified as a cat based on its DNA). Something is a chair because it shares similar features with other chairs: it has a seat, and usually legs, and perhaps arms, and you can sit on it, and someone built it expressly to be sat upon, and it might be near some other chairs or a table.

Names work the opposite way. I am called Karin, but this does not imply any similarity with other Karins, although we sometimes pretend it does, saying things like, She seems like a Karin.
Even though I may seem like a Karin, that’s not how I got my name. Our parents just choose them, and they are free to pick anything they want. It’s sheer meaningless luck that christens us Karin, or Isabella, or Amber, or Moon Unit. Yet this arbitrary collection of syllables will be unproblematically correlated with our identity, in most cases for the rest of our lives.

Sometimes names are chosen based on a system. In many African countries, names are based on days of the week; my friend Kofi’s name indicates that he was born on a Friday. Even so, when people say Kofi, they are not referring to the category of men born on Fridays. No one says, My friend is a Kofi, or Kofis are such nice people. The name still has a unique reference to whichever Kofi the speaker meant to describe or address.

We use names as though they are unique, although they usually are not. When I say Kofi, I am only referring to one particular person named Kofi, although I am well aware that the name presumably has other referents, at least three that I know of and presumably tens or hundreds of thousands that I don’t.

If you are the frequent illustrator of this blog, Adam Caldwell, then you recognize that there is another artist and art teacher named Adam Caldwell living across the bay from you in San Jose. If you are my coworker, Michelle Gonzales, your files occasionally get scrambled up with those belonging to a student at our school by the same name. And if you are my high school friend Sarah Johnson, then there is someone with the same name as you right within your circle of friends, so that whenever someone says Sarah Johnson, someone else inquires, Which one?

There are many other Karins, but I am the only Karin Spirn in the entire world; at least, all evidence indicates this to be the case. My last name is so unusual that, until recently, I was under the impression that only documented members of my family shared it. This impression stems from a childhood memory. Long before internet research was an option, my grandmother ordered a book that promised to list everyone with our last name in the entire country. I was at her house when the book arrived. She opened it with excitement, only to find that she knew every single person listed in the book. “Oh, there’s Uncle David,” she would say, thumbing through the pages, “and there’s my cousin Florence,” as my aunt and uncle looked over her shoulder and nodded in recognition.

In a prescient effort to make sure that I would be maximally Googlable, my parents added to this rare last name the unconventional spelling of my first name, and, incidentally, an unusually spelled middle name as well.

Growing up, many of my closest friends had unusual last names, so it never seemed odd to me. One of my best friends and I still reminisce about the substitute P.E. teacher who read our names off the role sheet with disdain: “Spirn and Tashker,” he said. “What ever happened to the good old days when everybody was named Smith and Johnson?”

Now when I want to know what my friends with unique names are up to, I can type their names into search engines and generate a list of information pertaining specifically to them. If I want to know what Sarah Johnson—either one of them—is doing, I’m pretty much out of luck.

For those of us with unique (as far as we know) names, the illusion of our name being inherently connected to our identity is complete. I know that the word chair is not inherently connected to the concept or object of a chair, because if I go to France, it will be called a chaise, and if I go to Mexico it will be a silla. But when someone says Karin Spirn, I imagine that this name encompasses my identity and is synonymous with me. I would be highly disconcerted to discover another Karin Spirn, or even a Karen Spirn, out there in the world; she would have stolen my identity.

What would it be like, I wonder, to have the anonymity, or perhaps I should say the omninymity, of Sarah Johnson? I like to imagine that I would be less narcissistic, less convinced of my own uniqueness or specialness. That I would have a greater sense of my fundamental similarity with other people, people who shared not only emotions and experiences with me but even shared, in some linguistic sense, my identity.

It’s hard to say, though—I can’t really envision what it’s like to be anyone other than Karin Spirn.

Thanks to the inimitable Adam Hunter Caldwell for the illustration.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We Live As We Dream, Alone: Part 3


My friend John only dates a woman for a year at a time. After a year passes, he starts to feel restless and depressed and needs to end the relationship. He is in his late thirties, and he has been following this pattern his entire adult life. I was curious whether this was a lifestyle that he maintains intentionally or whether he is just taking his time shopping for a more permanent arrangement.

“What is your plan?” I asked him. “To have a series of one-year relationships?”

“No, I don’t want to have a series of one-year relationships,” he said, repeating my words back to me in a wounded voice, like this was an insulting idea.

“So, what do you want?” I asked.

He shook his head and shrugged.

John is like many other people I know, taking the romantic middle path. He eschews the stagnancy and dependence of permanent relationships, but he doesn’t want to give up on companionship, affection, and sex. And so he is rather permanently situated in the state of romantic affairs known as dating.

At this point, for the sake of full disclosure, I must confess: I don’t understand dating at all. On my list of the most baffling cosmic enigmas, it is up there with mortality, the nature of consciousness, the purpose of life. If you were to look at all my journal entries on the topic, you would find a prevalence of entries ending with the words, I don’t understand.

Do you ever try to think about the universe and whether it is infinitely large, and if so, how could something be infinitely large, and if not, what would its boundaries look like and what could possibly lie beyond them?

That’s how my brain feels when I think about dating.

Dating makes logical sense as a way to shop for a permanent relationship. The goal is to stay together until you decided to get married or break up and go looking for someone else to marry. But what about people who don’t—necessarily—want that sort of relationship? People like John. When he begins dating somebody, he isn’t thinking, I will date this woman for a year and then we’ll break up, I’ll be alone for a while, and then I’ll go date some other woman.

Nor is he thinking, If things work out well, I will stay with this woman forever.

“What is he thinking?” I asked my friend Marie, who is very insightful about relationships, shortly after this conversation. “What does he want?”

“He doesn’t know what he wants,” she said. “When it comes time to decide what he wants, he gets scared and ends the relationship.”

Marie is married now, but when she was single, she didn’t understand the logic of dating, either. After a series of emotionally exhausting relationships and break-ups, Marie decided that she would date casually but never be anybody’s girlfriend. Temporary relationships seemed artificial and painful to her.

“Breaking up is horrible,” she said. “This person is like your family one day, and the next day you’re supposed to just cut off all those feelings and go back to being friends, or not speaking? It’s unreasonable.”

It does seem unreasonable, and yet, there do not seem to be better alternatives. No matter which direction we turn, the traps are set: denial of our independence and self-determination, denial of our physical and emotional needs, or some combination of the two. It’s a paradox that we can’t escape from. Ethical behavior calls for us to be independent yet socially connected, to be loving but not self-sacrificing, to honor some of our animal instincts and defy others. It’s complicated and confusing, but we don’t have a choice.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

We Live As We Dream, Alone: Part 2


The Dalai Lama—potentially the happiest person on earth—has been known to advocate celibacy, not just for monks or priests or ascetics, but for everybody. Sex, love, marriage, and child-rearing, he argues, are forms of attachment that lead to misery, and sometimes, as he points out, murder and suicide. We’d all do better just to call the whole thing off.

It seems odd that the most important behaviors for the perpetuation of our species, finding a mate, having sex, raising children, could be such impediments to our spiritual growth. If we all followed the Tibetan Buddhist path to enlightenment, our species would die out in a generation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, sex and romantic love are unhealthy addictions that should be relinquished, much like junk food or television. Like all worldly attachments, we value it more than its actual worth and imbue it with all kinds of meanings that stem from our own state of mind more than from the act itself.

Once we relinquish our unhealthy attachments, we see them for what they really are, unadorned by our compulsive fascinations with them. That box of cookies is a concoction of highly processed flour and sugar and chemically-altered oils. Those people on the reality television show are not our familiar acquaintances but particularly inane and narcissistic strangers.

And sex—well it’s really just a lot of groping and banging around of genitals that happens to cause a powerful wave of addictive chemicals to pour through our bloodstream, much like the cookies do. And as with the cookies, once we give up sex, and the chase that precedes it, and the commitment that follows it, perhaps our lives will be healthier. As with cookies and cigarettes and television and college, perhaps we will think of it wistfully from time to time, with that nostalgia we reserve for things that we once loved but which we now know were bad for us.

On the other hand, my other spiritual guru, sex columnist Dan Savage, believes that repressing or denying our sexuality can lead us to act out in inappropriate ways, like priests who molest children or closeted gay U.S. senators who harass young male interns. If these men would allow themselves—or if their respective institutions (the Catholic Church, the Republican Party) would allow them—to be in loving relationships with partners of their choosing, they would not feel the compulsion to impose their sexuality on innocent bystanders.

That is the fear about a life of celibacy, that in trying to maintain a healthy diet, we are in fact unconsciously starving our bodies and minds of something we need, a process that could turn us sicker than we were before we began trying to heal ourselves.

This raises the question: is sex and love something we can really renounce? Or is it something that will manifest itself in our lives in one way or another, something that will turn rancid if we don’t direct our energies towards healthy partners and relationships that make us happy? Is what the Dalai Lama advocates more like renouncing junk food or renouncing food itself?

Part 3

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

We Live As We Dream, Alone: Part 1


My friend Samantha has a husband whom she adores. I remember her raving about him from the moment she met him: he’s a math professor and he does drugs, she cooed. I wouldn’t have gotten married if I hadn’t met him, we were destined to be together, we’re soul mates.

I have often envied Samantha’s domestic life. Her house always seems warm, busy, inhabited, full of grown-ups and babies and dogs, her own and other people’s. She has people over for holiday meals, mostly other parents with young children. A lot of these parents are people she used to spend sleepless raved-out weekends with back in college. Now they spoon-feed their toddlers, pull their breasts out to nurse, talk about preschools and potty training. There are always actual beverages like juice and soda and coffee and beer, and twice as much food as we need. I eat until my stomach hurts, because it seems impossible to be disciplined or ascetic here, in this recreated womb, where all needs are catered to and I am pretending to be part of a family.

In comparison, my apartment is a bachelor pad. Everything is sparse, arranged solely for convenience. All signs of sentient life derive from me or my cat; when I return at the end of the day, no one will ever be there to greet me and everything will be exactly as I left it. There is never anything like juice or desserts in the kitchen. All the food will be eaten by me and nobody else, so there’s nothing nice or special.

I know that part of the reason Samantha’s house is so comforting is because she is a mother, and plays that role to everyone in the house, myself included. If I were the one catering to everyone’s needs, stocking the house with juice, feeding the dogs and nursing the baby and cleaning up after it all, the house would seem much less peaceful. Still, I know that mothers and fathers feel a comfort in their family life that is not unlike what I feel at their houses. What seems a holiday to me—lots of food, conversation, children running around—is their everyday life.

One day when I left Samantha’s house, she asked me where I was off to.

“I’m going to go do two hours of kung fu,” I said, feeling especially happy about this fact; I had been looking forward to the class all day.

Her eyes actually narrowed a bit as she said to me, “I’m so jealous.”

“You can do kung fu if you want,” I said to her.

“No, I can’t,” she replied.

Of course she could, anyone will say. She could go take a class, have her husband watch the baby for an evening, even get a babysitter so they could go together, as a couple. But it would never be her priority, and, more to the point, it would never be just her decision. The sacrifices involved in moving from single to double are not so numerous, but they are weighty: the loss of autonomy, of the ability to make decisions about one’s life without anybody’s approval, of the right to prioritize oneself above all else.

I try to imagine my life from her side of the fence. I can do whatever I want all day, and I don’t need to check in with anybody. I don’t have meals with anyone, which means I don’t need to have meals at all, which means I can grab toast and peanut butter and run out to a martial arts class or take advantage of any other opportunity for self-improvement instead of eating dinner. I can come home as late as I want, as drunk as I want, or not come home at all; no one will notice or care. And of course, if when I come home, I were to bring some drunken stranger with me, that would be perfectly acceptable.

These are all circumstances that I know Samantha sees as benefits of being single, whether or not I do, losses that she and her coupled brethren will lament when they are feeling bored, trapped, in a rut. But I know if she had the chance to trade lives with me, she wouldn’t consider it for a second, not for all the kung fu classes and one night stands in the world.

Part 2

Saturday, July 18, 2009


If you’re not a creative writing teacher, you might not have noticed that the adverb is under attack. Literary style guides encourage writers to scour their writing clean of adverbs, which reek, they say, of description.

While it might sound like a desirable thing to the uninitiated, modern trends in literary technique hold that describing something is the worst thing an author can do in a work of fiction. Show, don’t tell, the saying goes. The act of telling, we can infer, lacks credibility: it’s all talk, no action. It reminds me of another saying, this one beloved by hypermasculine athletes: Don’t talk about it. Be about it. It’s easy to disdain those who tell, those literary lightweights who deign to use descriptive words as some sort of cheap shortcut to describe things, things like characters and settings that should be making their attributes known through their actions and not the author’s words.

Based on this distaste for description, the style fascists preach all-out adverbial genocide: go through your writing and cut out all the adverbs, they instruct—mercilessly.

Detractors of the adverb use it as a way to shame the writers who rely heavily on its use. Elmore Leonard boasts, “I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs.’” Stephen King wrote that J.K. Rowling “never met an adverb she didn’t like.” He meant this as a criticism: a writer who likes words, but the wrong kind of words. Loving a strong, manly action verb would never earn her this kind of derision. Why did they never teach us about this hierarchy back when we were doing our mad libs and memorizing our parts of speech, that some categories of words are inferior, déclassé, that their use will relegate our writing to descriptive drivel suitable only for the unrefined masses?

When I read these attacks, I feel a maternal desire to protect the poor little adverbs, to defend them from the erudite bullies who want to terrorize them out of existence. Don’t listen to those jerks, honey, I want to say to them. You’re beautiful too.

How can we dismiss a part of speech that includes such graceful, succinct words as swiftly, curtly, cruelly? Or the luscious, gratuitous decadence of lasciviously, acrimoniously, presciently? Or the functional practicality of yesterday, tomorrow, soon, never?

I love adverbs for the very reason that makes them so detestable: they add a lot of meaning in a small space. The way they do this is seen as wrong: it is too forceful, too invasive, too representative of the author’s own voice and not the subject matter at hand. It’s prescriptive: telling us what to think rather than leading us to draw our own conclusions.

But I love this thick, opaque layer of meaning, painted in rough, heavy strokes. Adverbs add in the wry voice of the author, often at odds with the actions of the characters, in a lo-fi act of unapologetic commentary.

Here’s an example. Let’s start with a nice, spare, Hemingwayesque story without any description:

Fred kissed Joseph.

As far as I’m concerned, this story already has everything it needs: two boys with nice names kissing each other. But that caters to my specific interests; perhaps it’s a little too sparse for the general public. Imagine if we add an adverb:

Fred kissed Joseph passionately.

I still like this one, but I grant that it’s a little boring. It’s also a little redundant, since kissing might be assumed to be a passionate activity unless otherwise specified. In my mind at least, Fred and Joseph were already kissing with great passion, and lots of groping and tongues, well before I inserted that gratuitous bit of description.

But adverbs that contrast their verb rather than reinforce it can create their own stories. I love the stories created by these adverbs:

Fred kissed Joseph distractedly.
Fred kissed Joseph dutifully.
Fred kissed Joseph disingenuously.
Fred kissed Joseph miserably.

These sentences might be a little less sexy, but they show tension and conflict and the snarky voice of the author. I would never want to give up my right to prescribe that, as he kisses Joseph, Fred is miserable, distracted, or disingenuous.

My favorite adverb—in fact one of my very favorite words—is ostensibly. As in:

Fred loves Joseph…ostensibly.

This word might be the worst type of literary offender. It doesn’t even go so far as to describe anything, except the author’s doubt concerning the accuracy of the verb.

The government ostensibly has our best interests in mind.
My students have ostensibly finished reading Macbeth.
My love of kickboxing is ostensibly healthy for me.

It’s such an innocuous word and yet so snide, suggesting simultaneously that something is supposed to be the case and yet is likely not the case.

When I become famous and write my own guide to literary style, I will encourage authors to use adverbs flagrantly, exuberantly, unapologetically. We should appreciate their beauty as words, incorporate them lovingly into our prose. And most importantly, as with all the words in our writing, we should make sure to always use them consciously and deliberately.

Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the non-orthographic aspect of the illustration.

Friday, July 10, 2009


When I first read Roland Barthes' book Mythologies, which describes the mythological significance of everyday objects and events, the first thing I thought was that he had left out pills.

What could be more mythological, more like magic really, than a tiny, self-contained package the size of a fingernail, with the power to change all the complex chemical workings of your vast, expansive body? If it were food, it would be less than half a bite, a sixteenth of a bite, not enough to provide any nourishment at all. Yet this minuscule vessel holds the power to cure headaches, clear mucous from your nose and throat, lull you into a deep sleep, keep you awake through the night, correct the feeling that your life has no meaning, make you hallucinate, prevent the growth of a tumor. It could make you terribly sick. It could make you break out in a sweat, make your skin turn red or blue, send you into a coma. It could kill you. So much power in something so small that it would get lost in your pocket, something that needs to be carried around in special tiny bottles, something that can hide snugly between your back tooth and the inside of your cheek in case you get into a sticky spot and need to execute a hasty suicide.

It must be some sense of the connection between pills and magic that leads people to associate them with Alice in Wonderland, even though there are no pills in that book, just magical potions and cakes and mushrooms:

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice, when she was just small.

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

In the real world, we don't have enchanted cakes and potions and computer programs that instantly transport us to a different reality; all we have are chemicals.

When I was a child, I loved Alice in Wonderland and I thought pills were magic. They reminded me of the scene in The Secret of NIMH where the mother mouse carries packets of mysterious herbs home to heal her little mouse son, who has pneumonia. She pours the packets into a cup of hot water, where they fizz a bit and then settle into a steaming, volatile-looking brew. It reminded me that medicine was like magic, the magic of secret hiding places and chemistry sets and Native American remedies and poisonous plants and everything else that blurred the lines between the scientific and the supernatural.

When I was in high school, I carried my Advil and Pseudoephed tablets around in antique pill boxes that felt infused with the mystery and intrigue of their contents. I loved to pull the box out during class, swallow a pill without water, and feel like I was doing something illicit and covert, when in fact it was the most culturally sanctioned of activities, the easy solution to problems that could have been solved with more sleep, more and healthier food, and, ironically, less medicine.

The sickest I’ve ever gotten was from pills, specifically an antibiotic called erythromycin that I took for strep throat when I was fifteen. When my mother called the all-night advice nurse to report that her daughter was screaming in pain and couldn’t stop dry-heaving and vomiting water all over the floor because of a medicine she had taken, the nurse said:

“Was it erythromycin? It’ll do that.”

I was given a new antibiotic to take, but my bottle of erythromycin sat on the windowsill of my bedroom for months afterwards. It seemed like a shame to throw out medicine, especially such pretty pills: they were lovely translucent green capsules that shone in the light from the window.

Once over the phone, I told my friend Matthew that I had pills on my windowsill.

“I’ll take them,” he said.

“They won’t do anything to you,” I said. “They’re antibiotics. They made me sick.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’ll take them.”

I thought he was stupid, but I also knew why he wanted them. There’s an extra, scandalous thrill in taking pills that weren’t meant for you, your mother’s painkillers, your little brother’s Ritalin. They can’t be bad for you because they’re medicine, meant for healing. Even if you’re not sure what they’ll do to you, you’re ready for it. You’re brave, like Neo in The Matrix, prepared to face the unexpected, and whatever it is, it’s bound to be interesting.

Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Love, Magic, Logic

“I was reading this thing about love,” said a teenaged girl sitting behind me on a couch in the tea shop. She was telling her friend about a recent break-up, trying to get some perspective and make herself feel better. “It was about how you can’t go looking for love, that love is more a force that just comes into your life through different portals, through your own process of self-discovery.”

“That’s so right,” said her friend.

Their conversation reminded me of an anthropology lecture I watched recently about people who have schizotypal disorder, which is a mild version of schizophrenia. According to the anthropologist, people with this disorder are prone to metamagical thinking. This term, as he explained it, really just meant magical thinking, belief in the reality of unreal things: ghosts, angels, demons, gods, unseen forces, metaphysical realities.

Of course, as the anthropologist acknowledged, you don’t need to be schizotypal to engage in some form of magical thinking. Many of us believe in unprovable phenomena; it’s just that people with healthy brains secretly know that our beliefs are delusional, while the schizos really believe in them.

As humans, when we can’t understand some aspect of our own nature and the nature of the world we live in, we can search for meaning in one of at least two ways: through logical reasoning or through metaphysical beliefs. Logic is sort of agreeable in that it provides provable answers, reproducible outcomes. But since these conclusions can only be based on empirical evidence, they are not very emotionally satisfying.

In other words, the bare facts, what we can prove, can be pretty depressing. The facts about falling in love will tell that girl on the couch that her happiness is contingent on other people and that she can’t control those people. Those people will hurt her, leave her, betray her, or, failing all of that, eventually die, unless she dies first. So she wants to find answers that draw from what she can’t prove: imaginary answers to make her feel better about the grimness of the real. Love is a force; it comes into our lives through portals.

Much of our magical thinking stems from the classical flaw in logic, post hoc ergo propter hoc, after-this-therefore-because-of this. That’s how our superstitions work: “I broke a mirror yesterday and today I got in a car accident; therefore breaking the mirror caused my car accident.”

A lot of magical thinking follows this model:

Five hundred people performed transcendental meditation to end the Vietnam War; two weeks later, U.S. troops began to pull out.

I prayed to Jesus, and he cured my son’s Leukemia.

With this type of thinking, two known facts (I prayed, my son was healed) are connected in an illogical way (my prayer healed my son). But sometimes, our magical thinking is not based on any known facts at all:

We will be rewarded for our good deeds in a future life.

There is a god, and everything happens according to his plan.

Likewise, when we think about love, our magical thinking can follow a post-hoc model of reasoning, where we connect unconnected events:

Someone I know met the person of her dreams after she stopped looking; therefore I must stop looking.

Someone I knew met the person of her dreams after she decided to suck it up and try internet dating; therefore I should try internet dating.

But a lot of what we think is based on absolutely no evidence at all:

If we put it out to the universe that we are looking for love in our lives, the universe will send us what we need.

I will meet somebody when it’s the right time.

All of this reasoning is flawed, but there’s no better way to think about it. As with all the other types of pain that accompany the paradox of being both a mind and a body—death, hunger, illness, loneliness, longing—the cold, bare logic of love is too depressing to view objectively. We need make-believe stories to make us feel okay about our physical drive to mate with other people. No one wants to receive the Hallmark card that tells us the proven facts:

You cannot control whether somebody loves you.
Even if you work your hardest at making your relationship a success,
your partner could leave you, cheat on you, or abuse you.
Even if you have the most wonderful relationship in the world,
your partner could die. Therefore,
it would be prudent to prepare to be alone.
Happy Valentines Day!

It’s just like how we don’t want to tell ourselves: we need to eat other living things to survive, and we need to kill them brutally, and even if we don’t kill animals brutally, they will kill each other brutally; these are the facts of the world. People we love get diseases and get hit by cars and die and the only causal logic to explain it is, “We are mortal, and bad things happen.”

My sister the psychologist once told me that the schizophrenics she worked with didn’t want to take their medicine. “They love their hallucinations,” she told me. “They feel exciting and important.”

We need our delusions, because the facts make sense, but it is a depressing, empty, meaningless kind of sense. We need to believe that there is an order to all this, a meaning, that it is connected by some causal logic. There’s someone out there for me, we tell ourselves. It will happen when the time is right. It’s meant to be.

Thanks Brain for the lecture recommendation.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Critical Theory

There used to be a saying about LSD in the Sixties: once you get the message, hang up the phone. The same thing could be said for critical theory.

Both are good exercises in mind expansion. But too much LSD and you might end up like Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett, in a mental institution trying to convince a social worker that you are a carrot.* Too much critical theory might land you at the same mental institution, trying to convince Syd Barrett that the distinction between himself and a carrot is merely a social and linguistic construct.

I know I must define critical theory here, yet I feel reluctant to do so, because one of the key tenets of critical theory is that (I am fairly certain) a piece of writing cannot count as critical theory unless someone more savvy and well-versed in critical theory scoffs when they read it. Therefore, any definition must by definition be inadequate to be adequate.

Here is my attempt, which is certainly an act of crude reductionism. First there was literary theory. That was a technique of using strategies derived from other disciplines, such as linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, to analyze literature: fiction, plays, poetry. This developed into textual studies, which used the same strategies to analyze any type of written text, including newspaper articles, diaries, legal and religious documents, and most famously, laundry lists (who lists their laundry?). Then the definition of text was expanded to include non-written forms of expression such as music, film, photography, paintings. Then the definition of text was further expanded to include any event or occurrence, now called cultural texts. Finally, the term literary was dropped and the term critical was introduced to indicate the broadness of the field being studied, which included not just literature or texts but all things.

So, in a nutshell, critical theory entails analyzing everything in the world as though it were a text, using theories that were meant to explain the world and not texts in the first place.

Here’s an example: One of my favorite professors once told me that she didn’t like eating meals. “When I eat a meal,” she said, “I feel that I am doing something other than nourishing myself.” Here she took a physiological idea (nourishment) that had been extrapolated into a psychological idea (eating for reasons other than nourishment) and turned it into an idea about categorization and language (nourishing oneself versus doing something other than), and then applied it to its originally intended subject matter, physiology (eating). In other words, she was interpreting her eating patterns not as a physiological problem, nor as a psychological problem, but as a problem of definition and categorization, a textual problem: the problem of determining what it was she was doing when she ate meals, a question that she answered not in the positive but in the negative, what it was that she was not doing.

Lesson: Critical theory can make you read your own life as though it were a book and you were a character whose actions need to be mined for their symbolic meanings.

The ten years I spent deep into theory certainly expanded my consciousness and gave me a vast toolbox of unlikely ways to understand the world. But the signs of damage are there, too: the indirectness, the intertextual interpretations, the perception of the world as a secondary epic, the inability to see life as something other than a projection, a scrim, a simulacrum to be analyzed in absence of access to any thing-in-itself, if such a thing can exist.

Why else do I remember the particular words of a particular sentence spoken at a dinner party twelve years ago, complete with rhetorical analysis of the sentence structure and word choice? Shouldn’t I be remembering what a person meant, her point, the information she was trying to convey? “When I point at the moon,” my friend tells me, “you look at my finger. You should look at the moon.”

When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates decided to attend a book club that was for regular people. She was sorely disappointed by the experience; it turns out that regular people wanted to talk about aspects of a book like the characters, the story, how it connected to their own lives. My classmate, on the other hand, wanted to talk about the Foucaultian power dynamics in the text, the fundamental interchangeability of subversion and subjugation.

“I can’t turn it off,” she said. For the purpose of narrative drama, I want to say that she lowered her voice conspiratorially when she added the next part, but she didn’t; she said it loudly and with pride: “And I’m glad I can’t turn it off.”

I think about her sometimes, shaking my head and clicking my tongue. What a shame. I don’t know what happened to her, where she is today, that girl who couldn’t turn it off. I hope she’s okay; she was into some pretty heavy shit back then.

*This was the story that was always told at my high school about Syd Barrett; I'm fairly certain it's completely fallacious.

Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration.


It’s Thursday night at the tea shop, and the women’s knitting group has gathered at three of the small tables, which they have pushed together. One of the women has brought cupcakes to share. She’s testing them out for some kind of upcoming event, maybe a wedding. She has brought vanilla and chocolate cupcakes to sample with different colors and flavors of icing.

I watch her spread strawberry icing on white cupcakes. The pink color is lovely, especially against the fancy teal wrapper that she is holding up to the cupcake to check the effect.

This attention to detail is why they are knitters and I am not. Every Thursday, they sit for hours, talking pleasantly, showing each other pictures in knitting books, creating adorable fuzzy sweaters with intricate textures and embellishments. They show off their work to one another proudly. It’s an amazing amount of effort to put into something that you could buy at the store for forty dollars. Just like the cupcakes: the careful planning, the sampling, the color-coordination, all for something that will be admired for a moment and then gobbled up, distractedly, to become just a bunch of junky, non-nutritious calories in someone’s stomach.

Cupcakes are a precious kind of food. Adults like them for the same reasons that children like candy: they are self-contained and aesthetically pleasing. The visual contrast between cake, frosting, and wrapper provides the grown-up version of the tiers in a candy-corn or one of those giant striped lollipops that I once spent a month eating when I was five. The particular pink and teal combination being sampled by the knitting ladies appeals directly to that aspect of my six-year-old psyche that allowed me to spend a full half-hour staring at a plastic My Little Pony doll—purple, with a turquoise mane and tail—sighing to myself, “You are so cute.” The knitters are cooing over the cupcakes in the same way: “So pretty,” they say.

The flavors are just as carefully crafted for maximum grown-up fetishizing. The combinations at the trendy cupcake bakeries—lemon-rose, chocolate-chili, strawberry-mint—make us eager to try all of them. And we can, because this is not a cake, which provides a whole lot of one flavor, and is portioned out in little slices at events like weddings so that we are not allowed to go back for more—but a cupcake, a teeny single portion, so that we can get two or three, maybe some for later, especially since we can purchase them individually.

On this particular day at the tea shop, I have not been eating sweets for a month, which makes the cupcakes more appealing but also more egregiously unnecessary. As someone who sees food in a fairly perfunctory way, it’s difficult enough to fathom why someone would spend hours preparing a carefully layered lasagna when they could just dump a pile of noodles, vegetables, and cheese haphazardly onto a plate with the same end result. To expend so much energy on food with no nutritional value seems pornographically decadent, a flagrant disregard for the mores of my own subculture of healthy eaters. I take a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in watching them spread the frosting, peel off the wrappers, so reckless and debauched, seizing the day, because we could all be shot dead by takeover robbers in an hour and I would have squandered my final moments staring greedily while I sipped my sterile green tea.

Physically, these women are very different from me. I always notice it. Their bodies are soft and supple and padded. They don’t look like they spend a lot of time running sprints or lifting heavy things, although they might do these things. Sitting amongst their balls of yarn and padded knitting bags and colorful cupcakes, they look as soft and comforting as the fuzzy sweaters and scarves that pour from their needles onto their laps.

However, despite our differences, I feel a strong connection to the knitters. Maybe it’s because I see them every week, or maybe it’s because they, like me, choose to spend endless hours at a tea shop working on an artistic undertaking that will probably go largely unnoticed and unappreciated. I know in my heart that I am also a knitter, a cupcake maker, pouring my diligent effort into something that hardly matters to anyone but me. Then again, maybe that’s what we all do: spend our entire lives creating intricate little worlds that only matter to ourselves.

Thanks to Adam Caldwell for the illustration.