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November 28, 2015

Heidegger on living aware of death: Maybe not

I’m on a Heidegger mailing list where I get to lurk as serious scholars probe his writings and thoughts, and, not infrequently these days, his politics.

Recently, a member of the list I highly respect suggested that “Heidegger’s phenomenology of ‘Sein-zum-Tode’ [Being-toward-death] amounts to living each day of our lives with a sense of our finitude, our mortality, that unifies and heightens the meaningfulness of each and every moment.” He equates this to Michel de Montaigne saying that “it is my custom to have death not only in my imagination, but continually in my mouth.” This is great wisdom, said the list member.

I don’t want to argue against those who find wisdom in living “with the taste of death” in their mouths. But I also wouldn’t argue for it.

My understanding, such as it is, of Heidegger’s idea of Being-toward-death is that our temporal finitude is constantly present as a horizon: we look before we cross the street because we know we can die — “know” not as an explicit thought but as the landscape within which our experience occurs. We make long-term plans within a horizon of possibility that we number in decades and not centuries.

But that’s not what I take Montaigne to mean. And if that’s what Heidegger’s concept of authenticity entails (as I think it might), then that’s just another problem I have with his idea of authenticity.

Why is keeping explicit the awareness of my impending death preferable, wise, or phenomenologically true-er? Because only I can die my death, as Heidegger says? I’m also the only one who can eat my lunch or take my shower. [Frivolity aside: these are both instances of “Only I have my body.”] Because it makes our experience more precious? It doesn’t for me. For example:

We have a four-month-old grandchild, our first. (Yes, yes, thank you for your good wishes :) When I am caring for him–playing with him–my death is always present, but as an horizon. I’m aware that I’m 65 years older than he is, that I am in my waning years and he is just beginning. That is part of the deep joy of a grandchild, and it is definitional: if I thought I were immortal, the experience would be very different; if I didn’t have the concept of one life beginning and another ending, my experience of children would be incomprehensible. So, phenomenologically I think Heidegger is right about our death (finitude) always shaping our experience as an implicit horizon. Our stretch of time only extends so far before it snaps.

But, beyond that implicit horizon, do I need to keep a taste of death in my mouth to make the experience of our grandson more precious? On the contrary, the explicit thought, “Wow, I’m really going to be dead someday” would distract me from my grandson, and keep me from letting the adorable little phenomenon show himself as he is.

That’s a charged example, of course. But here’s another: I’m eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake. I do so within the horizon of my finitude, but that horizon is probably quite implicit. Perhaps it’s a bit more explicit than that, but still horizonal: I’m only eating half the slice for health reasons. But then I have a vivid taste of death alongside the chocolate: “Crap! I’m going to be dead someday.”

Does the cake taste better? I guess maybe for some people. For a lot of us, though, the realization that death is surely a-comin’ would make the cake turn to ash. Who cares about cake when I’m going to be dead sometime, maybe in a minute or a day? We’ve been pulled out of the experience and out of the world by the vivid intrusion of what is undeniably a truth. Why do you think Roquentin can never enjoy a nice slice of cake?

We can complain that such morbidity is inauthentic, but as far as I can tell that’s a value judgment, not philosophy and certainly not phenomenology.

My intention is not to argue against Montaigne on this. If keeping the fact of death explicitly present helps some of us appreciate life more, who am I to say otherwise? Seriously. And if someone goes further and seeks out death-defying experiences because she feels most alive when she is most at risk, who am I to judge? That works for her. Good! (I feel bad for her parents, though.)

But valorizing keeping death explicitly present seems to me to be more personality than philosophy.

I understand that Heidegger’s putting death front and center was a radical and healthy move for philosophy. Western philosophy, after all, has spent so much of its energy pursuing deathless wisdom and eternal Reality as the only truths. But as a reader of Heidegger, I put much of what he writes in Being and Time about death into the same bucket as what he writes about destiny, das Man, authenticity, and German peasant romanticism: It’s (to put it mildly) phenomenologically non-disclosive for me — part of the price of reading an ontologist whose methodology, at least initially, was phenomenology.


September 19, 2015

Transliterating Heidegger

As a result of lurking in a mailing list’s conversation about whether and how to translate Heidegger’s use of the ancient Greek term φυσις, I did some poking around at Google.

φυσις does not translate easily, which is why Heidegger scholars like to use the original Greek. (Meanwhile, I can’t even find an html character for the upsilon with a diacritical, and the raw Greek character failed in the preview of this post in Chrome.) It’s usually translated as “nature,” but that’s the result of a 2,500-year-old-game of “Telephone.” For Heidegger, it has something to do with what shows itself as having its own way of becoming or emerging. Richard Polt aand Gregory Fried in A Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics take a stab at it by referring to it as the “emerging-abiding sway.” Anyway, that’s not the point of this post.

Here are the results. Have fun making sense of them. They are wonky in ways that indicate that I don’t know how to do Google queries.

Search logic

Actual search terms







φυσις AND heidegger

“φυσις” “heidegger”



phusis AND heidegger

“phusis” “heidegger”



physis AND heidegger

“heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND phusis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “phusis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger BUT NOT phusis

“φυσις” “heidegger” -“phusis”



φυσις AND heidegger BUT NOT physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” -“physis”



heidegger AND phusis BUT NOT φυσις

“heidegger” “phusis” -“φυσις”



heidegger AND physis BUT NOT φυσις

-“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis”



φυσις AND heidegger AND phusis AND physis

“φυσις” “heidegger” “physis” “phusis”


Semi-interesting factoids based upon faulty research and poor quantitative reasoning skils:

  • Hardly anyone who uses the Greek bothers to point out that there are two ways to transliterate it.

  • A fifth of all mentions of the Greek term also mention Heidegger.

  • If a work mentions Heidegger and the Greek term, it’s three times more likely to transliterate it as physis.

Fun minigame: How many of those did I mess up?

Google’s search syntax documentation is not great, and the results sometimes seem wonky. Here’s some documentation:


January 6, 2015

Been working on something (and it’s not this poemsicle).

I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been working many, many hours a day on a project that’s set to go live on Thursday at 10am EST, or so we hope.

Hopefully you’re going to love it or hate it.

In the meantime, here’s a tiny poem that is apropos of nothing. (Seriously. It’s not a clue to something – just something I woke up with.)

The hole in a teacup
is not for the tea
but for your finger.
Thus does a nothing
give intention a lift.

Be the first to comment »

December 7, 2014

[2b2k] Agre on minds and hands

I recently published a column at KMWorld pointing out some of the benefits of having one’s thoughts share a context with people who build things. Today I came across an article by Jethro Masis titled “Making AI Philosophical Again: On Philip E. Agre’s Legacy.” Jethro points to a 1997 work by the greatly missed Philip Agre that says it so much better:

…what truly founds computational work is the practitioner’s evolving sense of what can be built and what cannot” (1997, p. 11). The motto of computational practitioners is simple: if you cannot build it, you do not understand it. It must be built and we must accordingly understand the constituting mechanisms underlying its workings.This is why, on Agre’s account, computer scientists “mistrust anything unless they can nail down all four corners of it; they would, by and large, rather get it precise and wrong than vague and right” (Computation and Human Experience, 1997, p. 13).

(I’m pretty sure I read Computation and Human Experience many years ago. Ah, the Great Forgetting of one in his mid-60s.)

Jethro’s article overall attempts to adopt Agre’s point that “The technical and critical modes of research should come together in this newly expanded form of critical technical consciousness,” and to apply this to Heidegger’s idea of Zuhandenheit: how things show themselves to us as useful to our plans and projects; for Heidegger, that is the normal, everyday way most things present themselves to us. This leads Jethro to take us through Agre’s criticisms of AI modeling, its failure to represent context except as vorhanden [pdf], (Heidegger’s term for how things look when they are torn out of the context of our lived purposes), and the need to thoroughly rethink the idea of consciousness as consisting of representations of an external world. Agre wants to work out “on a technical level” how this can apply to AI. Fascinating.

Here’s another bit of brilliance from Agre:

For Agre, this is particularly problematic because “as long as an underlying metaphor system goes unrecognized, all manifestations of trouble in technical work will be interpreted as technical difficulties and not as symptoms of a deeper, substantive problem.” (p. 260 of CHE)


June 10, 2013

Heidegger on technology, and technodeterminism

I’m leaving tomorrow night for a few days in Germany as a fellow at the University of Stuttgart’s International Center for Research on Culture and Technology. I’ll be giving a two-day workshop with about 35 students, which I am both very excited about and totally at sea about. Except for teaching a course with John Palfrey, who is an awesomely awesome teacher, I haven’t taught since 1986. I was good at the time, but I forget the basics about structuring sessions.

Anyway, enough of that particular anxiety. I’m also giving a public lecture on Thursday at the city library (Stadtbibliothek am Mailänder Platz). It’ll be in English, thank Gott! My topic is “What the Web Uncovers,” which is a purposeful Heidegger reference. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write this, and finally on Sunday completed a draft. It undoubtedly will change significantly, but here’s what I plan on saying at the beginning:

In 1954, Heidegger published “The Question about Technology” (Die Frage nach der Technik). I re-read it recently, and discovered why people hold Heidegger’s writing in such disdain (aside from the Nazi thing, of course). Wow! But there are some ideas in it that I think are really helpful.

Heidegger says that technology reveals the world to us in particular ways. For example, a dam across a river, which is one of his central examples, reveals the natural world as Bestand, which gets translated into English as “standing reserve” or “resource”: power waiting to be harnessed by humans. His point I think is profound: Technology should be understood not only in terms of what it does, but in terms of what it reveals about the world and what the world means to us. That is in fact the question I want to ask: What does the world that the Web uncovers look like? What does the Web reveal?

This approach holds the promise of letting us talk about technology from beyond the merely technical position. But it also happens to throw itself into an old controversy that has recently re-arisen. It sounds as if Heidegger is presenting a form of technodeterminism — the belief that technology determines our reaction to it, that technology shapes us. Against technodeterminism it is argued quite sensibly that a tool is not even a tool until humans come along and decide to use it for something. So, a screwdriver can be used to drive screws, but it could also be used to bang on a drum or to open and stir a can of paint. So, how could a screw driver have an effect on us, much less shape us, if we’re the ones who are shaping it?

Heidegger doesn’t fall prey to technodeterminism because one of his bedrock ideas is that things don’t have meaning outside of the full context of relationships that constitute the entire world — a world into which we are thrown. So, technology doesn’t determine us, since it takes an entire world to determine technology, us, and everything else. Further, in “Die Frage nach der Technik,” he explains the various historical ways technology has affected us by referring to a mysterious history of Being that gives us that historical context. But I don’t want to talk about that, mainly because insofar as I understand it, I find it deeply flawed. Even so I think we want to be able to talk about the effect of technology, granting that it’s not technology itself taken in isolation, but rather the fact that we do indeed come to technology out of a situation that is historical, cultural, social, and even individual.

So, how does the Web reveal the world? What does the world look like in the Age of the Web? (And that means: what does it look like to us educated Westerners with sufficient leisure time to consider such things, etc.) Here are the subject headings of the talk until I rewrite it as I inevitably do: chaotic, unmasterable, messy, interest-based, unsettling, and turning us to a shared world about which we disagree. This is very unlike the way the world looks in the prior age of technology, the age about which Heidegger was writing. Yet, I find at the heart of the Web-revealed world the stubborn fact that the world is revealed through human care: we are creatures that care about our existence, about others, and about our world. Care (Sorge) is at the heart of early Heidegger’s analysis.


October 28, 2012

[2b2k] Facts, truths, and meta-knowledge

Last night I gave a talk at the Festival of Science in Genoa (or, as they say in Italy, Genova). I was brought over by Codice Edizioni, the publisher of the just-released Italian version of Too Big to Know (or, as they say in Italy “La Stanza Intelligente” (or as they say in America, “The Smart Room”)). The event was held in the Palazzo Ducale, which ain’t no Elks Club, if you know what I mean. And if you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is that it’s a beautiful, arched, painted-ceiling room that holds 800 people and one intimidated American.

genova - palazzo ducale

After my brief talk, Serena Danna of Corriere della Serra interviewed me. She’s really good. For example, her first question was: If the facts no longer have the ability to settle arguments the way we hoped they would, then what happens to truth?

Yeah, way to pitch the ol’ softballs, Serena!

I wasn’t satisfied with my answer, which had three parts. (1) There are facts. The world is one way and not all the other ways that it isn’t. You are not free to make up your own facts. [Yes, I’m talking to you, Mitt!] (2) The basing of knowledge primarily on facts is a relatively new phenomenon. (3) I explicitly invoked Heidegger’s concept of truth, with a soupçon of pragmatism’s view of truth as a tool intended to serve a purpose.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching The Heidegger Circle mailing list contort itself trying to understand Heidegger’s views about the world that existed before humans entered the scene. Was there Being? Were there beings? It seems to me that any answer has to begin by saying, “Of course the world existed before we did.” But not everyone on the list is comfortable with a statement that simple. Some seem to think that acknowledging that most basic fact somehow diminishes Heidegger’s analysis of the relation of Being and disclosure. Yo, Heideggerians! The world shows itself to us as independent of us. We were born into it, and it keeps going after we’ve died. If that’s a problem for your philosophy, then your philosophy is a problem. And for all of the problems with Heidegger’s philosophy, that just isn’t one. (To be fair, no one on the list suggests that the existence of the universe depends upon our awareness of it, although some are puzzled about how to maintain Heidegger’s conception of “world” (which does seem to depend on us) with that which survives our awareness of it. Heidegger, after all, offers phenomenological ontology, so there is a question about what Being looks like when there is no one to show itself to.)

So, I wasn’t very happy with what I said about truth last night. I said that I liked Heidegger’s notion that truth is the world showing itself to us, and it shows itself to us differently depending on our projects. I’ve always liked this idea for a few reasons. First, it’s phenomenologically true: the onion shows itself differently whether you’re intending to cook it, whether you’re trying to grow it as a cash crop, whether you’re trying to make yourself cry, whether you’re trying to find something to throw at a bad actor, etc. Second, because truth is the way the world shows itself, Heidegger’s sense contains the crucial acknowledgement that the world exists independently of us. Third, because this sense of truth look at our projects, it contains the crucial acknowledgement that truth is not independent of our involvement in the world (which Heidegger accurately characterizes not with the neutral term “involvement” but as our caring about what happens to us and to our fellow humans). Fourth, this gives us a way of thinking about truth without the correspondence theory’s schizophrenic metaphysics that tells us that we live inside our heads, and our mental images can either match or fail to match external reality.

But Heidegger’s view of truth doesn’t do the job that we want done when we’re trying to settle disagreements. Heidegger observes (correctly in my and everybody’s opinion) that different fields have different methodologies for revealing the truth of the world. He speaks coldly (it seems to me) of science, and warmly of poetry. I’m much hotter on science. Science provides a methodology for letting the world show itself (= truth) that is reproducible precisely so that we can settle disputes. For settling disputes about what the world is like regardless of our view of it, science has priority, just as the legal system has priority for settling disputes over the law.

This matters a lot not just because of the spectacular good that science does, but because the question of truth only arises because we sense that something is hidden from us. Science does not uncover all truths but it uniquely uncovers truths about which we can agree. It allows the world to speak in a way that compels agreement. In that sense, of all the disciplines and methodologies, science is the closest to giving the earth we all share its own authentic voice. That about which science cannot speak in a compelling fashion across all cultures and starting points is simply not subject to scientific analysis. Here the poets and philosophers can speak and should be heard. (And of course the compulsive force science manifests is far from beyond resistance and doubt.)

But, when we are talking about the fragmenting of belief that the Internet facilitates, and the fact that facts no longer settle arguments across those gaps, then it is especially important that we commit to science as the discipline that allows the earth to speak of itself in its most compelling terms.

Finally, I was happy that last night I did manage to say that science provides a model for trying to stay smart on the Internet because it is highly self-aware about what it knows: it does not simply hold on to true statements, but is aware of the methodology that led us to see those statements as true. This type of meta awareness — not just within the realm of science — is crucial for a medium as open as the Internet.


December 4, 2011

[2b2k] Truth, knowledge, and not knowing: A response to “The Internet Ruins Everything”

Quentin Hardy has written up on the NYT Bits blog the talk I gave at UC Berkeley’s School of Information a few days ago, refracting it through his intelligence and interests. It’s a terrific post and I appreciate it. [Later that day: Here’s another perspicacious take on the talk, from Marcus Banks.]

I want to amplify the answer I gave to Quentin’s question at the event. And I want to respond to the comments on his post that take me as bemoaning the fate of knowledge in the age of the Net. The post itself captures my enthusiasm about networked knowledge, but the headline of Quentin’s post is “The Internet ruins everything,” which could easily mislead readers. I am overall thrilled about what’s happening to knowledge.

Quentin at the event noted that the picture of networked knowledge I’d painted maps closely to postmodern skepticism about the assumption that there are stable, eternal, knowable truths. So, he asked, did we invent the Net as a tool based on those ideas, or did the Net just happen to instantiate them? I replied that the question is too hard, but that it doesn’t much matter that we can’t answer it. I don’t think I did a very good job explaining either part of my answer. (You can hear the entire talk and questions here. The bit about truth starts at 46:36. Quentin’s question begins at 1:03:19.)

It’s such a hard question because it requires us to disentangle media from ideas in a way that the hypothesis of entanglement itself doesn’t allow. Further, the play of media and ideas occurs on so many levels of thought and society, and across so many forms of interaction and influence, that the results are emergent.

It doesn’t matter, though, because even if we understood how it works, we still couldn’t stand apart from the entanglement of media and ideas to judge those ideas independent of our media-mediated involvement with them. We can’t ever get a standpoint that isn’t situated within that entanglement. (Yes, I acknowledge that the idea that ideas are always situated is itself a situated idea. Nothing I can do about that.)

Nevertheless, I should add that almost everything I’ve written in the past fifteen years is about how our new medium (if that’s what the Net is (and it’s not)) affects our ideas, so I obviously find some merit in looking at the particulars of how media shape ideas, even if I don’t have a general theory of how that chaotic dance works.

I can see why Quentin may believe that I have “abandoned the idea of Truth,” even though I don’t think I have. I talked at the I School about the Net being phenomenologically more true to avoid giving the impression that I think our media evolve toward truth the way we used to think (i.e., before Thomas Kuhn) science does. Something more complex is happening than one approximation of truth replacing a prior, less accurate approximation.

And I have to say that this entire topic makes me antsy. I have an awkward, uncertain, unresolved attitude about the nature of truth. The same as many of us. I claim no special insight into this at all. Nevertheless, here goes…

My sense that truth and knowledge are situated in one’s culture, history, language, and personal history comes from Heidegger. I also take from Heidegger my sense of “phenomenological truth,” which takes truth as being the ways the world shows itself to us, rather than as an inner mental representation that accords with an outer reality. This is core to Heidegger and phenomenology. There are many ways in which we enable the world to show itself to us, including science, religion and art. Those ways have their own forms and rules (as per Wittgenstein). They are genuinely ways of knowing the world, not mere “games.” Nor are the truths these engagements reveal “pictures of reality” (to use Quentin’s phrase). They are — and I’m sorry to get all Heideggerian on you again — ways of being in the world. We live them. They are engaged, embodied truths, not mere representations or cognitions.

So, yes, I am among the many who have abandoned the idea of Truth as an inner representation of an outer reality from which we are so essentially detached that some of the greatest philosophers in the West have had to come up with psychotic theories to explain how we can know our world at all. (Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, you know who I’m talking about.) But I have not abandoned the idea that the world is one way and not another. I have not abandoned the idea that beliefs can seem right but be wrong. I have not abandoned the importance of facts and evidence within many crucial discourses. Nor have I abandoned the idea that it is supremely important to learn how the world is. In fact, I may have said in the talk, and do say (I think) in the book that networked knowledge is becoming more like how scientists have understood knowledge for generations now.

So, for me the choice isn’t between eternal verities that are independent of all lived historial situations and the chaos of no truth at all. We can’t get outside of our situation, but that’s ok because truth and knowledge are only possible within a situation. If the Net’s properties are closer to the truth of our human condition than, say, broadcast’s properties were, that truth of our human condition itself is situated in a particular historical-cultural moment. That does not lift the obligation on us poor humans beings to try to understand, cherish, and engage with our world as truthfully as we possibly can.

But the main thing is, no, I don’t think the Net is ruining everything, and I am (overall) thrilled to see how the Net is transforming knowledge.


September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.


September 3, 2011

[2b2k] Re-reading myselves

When I run into someone who wants to talk with me about something I’ve written in a book, they quite naturally assume that I am more expert about what I’ve written than they are. But it’s almost certainly the case that they’re more familiar with it than I am because they’ve read it far more recently than I have. I, like most writers, don’t sit around re-reading myself. I therefore find myself having to ask the person to remind me of what I’ve said. Really, I said that?

But, over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve re-read myself in three different modes.

I’ve been wrapped up in a Library Innovation Lab project that we submitted to the Digital Public Library of America on Thursday night, with 1.5 hours to spare before the midnight deadline. Our little team worked incredibly hard all summer long, and what we submitted we think is pretty spectacular as a vision, a prototype of innovative features, and in its core, work-horse functionality. (That’s why I’ve done so little blogging this sumer.)

So, the first example of re-reading is editing a bunch of explanatory Web pages — a FAQ, a non-tech explanation of some hardcore tech, a guided tour, etc. — that I wrote for our DPLA project. In this mode, I feel little connection to what I’ve written; I’m trying to edit it purely from the reader’s point of view, as if someone else had written it. Of course, I am oblivious to many of the drafts’ most important shortcomings because I’m reading them through the same glasses I had on when I wrote them. Things make sense to me that would not to readers who have the good fortune not to be me. Nevertheless, it’s just a carpentry job, trying to sand down edges and make the pieces fit. It’s the wood that matters, not whoever the carpenter happened to be.

In the second mode, I re-read something I wrote a long time ago. Someone on the Heidegger mailing list I audit asked for articles on Heidegger’s concept of the “world” in Being and Time and in The Origin of the Artwork. I remembered that I had written something about that a couple of careers ago. So, I did a search and found “Earth, World and the Fourfold” in the 1984 edition of Tulane Studies in Philosophy. (It’s locked up nice and tight so, no, you can’t read it even if you want to. Yeah, this is a completely optimal system of scholarship we’ve built for ourselves. [sarcasm]) I used my privileged access via my university and re-read it. It’s a fully weird experience. I remember so little of the content of the article and am so disassociated from the academic (or more exactly, the pathetic pretender to the same) I was that it was like reading a message from a former self. Actually, it wasn’t like that. It was that exactly.

I actually enjoyed reading the article. For one thing, unsurprisingly, I agreed with its general outlook and approach. It argues that Heidegger’s shifting use of “world,” especially with regard to that which he contrasts it with, expresses his struggle to deal with the danger that phenomenology will turn reality into a mere appearance. How can phenomenology account for that which shows itself to us as being beyond the mere showing? That is, how do we understand and acknowledge the fact that the earth shows itself to us as that which was here before us and will outlast us?

Since this was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and has remained a topic of great interest to me — it runs throughout all my books, including Too Big to Know — it’s not startling that I found Previous Me’s article interesting. And yet, Present Me persistently asked two sorts of distancing questions.

First, granting that the question itself is interesting, why was this guy (Previous Me) so wrapped up in Heidegger’s way of grappling with it? To get to Heidegger’s answers (such as they are) you have to wade through a thicket wrapped in profound scholarship wrapped in arrogantly awful writing. Now, Present Me remembers the personal history that led Previous Me to Heidegger: an identity crisis (as we used to call it) that manifested itself intellectually, that could not be addressed by pre-Heideggerian traditional philosophy (because that tradition of philosophy caused the intellectual conundrum in the first place). But outside of that personal history, why Heidegger? So, the article reads to Present Me as a wrestling match within a bubble invisible to Previous Me.

Second, my internal editor was present throughout: Damn, that was an inelegant phrase! Wait, this paragraph needs a transition! What the hell did that sentence mean? Jeez, this guy sounds pretentious here!

So, reading something of mine from the distant past was a tolerable and even interesting experience because PreviousMe was distant enough.

Third, I am this weekend reading the page proofs of Too Big to Know. At this point in the manufacturing process known as “writing a book,” I am allowed only to make the most minor of edits. If a change causes lines on the page to shift to a new page, there can be consequences expensive to my publisher. So, I’m reading looking for bad commas and “its” instead of “it’s”, all of which should have been (and so far have been) picked up by Christine Arden, the superb copy-editor who went through my book during the previous pass. But, I also am reading it looking for infelicities I can fix — maybe change an “a” to “the” or some such. This requires reading not just for punctuation but also for rhythm and meaning. In other words, I simultaneously have to read the book as if I were a reader, not just an editor. And that is a disconcerting, embarrassing, frustrating process. There are things about the book that pleasantly surprise me — Where did I come up with that excellent example! — but fundamentally I am focused on it critically. Worse, this is PresentMe seeing how PresentMe presents himself to the world. I am in a narcissistic bubble of self-loathing.

Which is too bad since this is the taste being left by what is very likely to be the last time I read Too Big to Know.

(My publisher would probably like me to note that the book is possibly quite good, and the people who have read it so far seem enthusiastic. But, how the hell would I know before you tell me?)


July 11, 2010

Sunday funnies

In the comments to my post about understanding Heidegger in translation, Seth Young reminds us of this video, which I had in fact seen before but forgotten.

And, oh, what the heck….


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