Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Experience and Running

The French philosopher Michel Foucault writes that "experience is trying to reach a certain point in life that is as close as possible to the 'unlivable,' to that which can't be lived through. What is required is a maximum of intensity and a maximum of impossibility at the same time."

When he made this statement, it was as a response to phenomenology, which is the philosophy of experience: the sort of philosophy that looks to describe the ordinary experience of everyday life. Phenomenology is perhaps best captured by Husserl's demand to "return to the things themselves." Phenomenology as a practice of wisdom and truth thought its mission was to describe the reality of the events of ordinary life.

Running blogs can be read as rough phenomenological treatises. Their authors attempt through a variety of styles and genres such as the race report or the training plan or the setting of goals to articulate their experience of running. What makes much of this effort at articulation somewhat repetitive, tedious, and self-absorbed (count the number of times that the pronoun "I" makes its appearance in your standard running blog entry) is that most bloggers misunderstand the nature of experience: they think that it can be animated by certain schema that have been defined and determined in advance.

The primary schema that pretends to organize experience, but actually militates against it, is the idea of the process of steady improvement towards a goal race. We see the runner struggle through mild setbacks, through battles with motivation, time constraints, pernicious and vile bodily functions, and the ongoing specter of aches and pains, but we know all along that these are merely plot devices intended to carry out the main story, which is one of triumph at the goal race. This triumph in turn redeems and makes meaningful any and all of the struggles along the way.

In this way the experience of running is tamed, tranquilized, and essentially anesthetized. It is made intelligible and wrapped up into the larger myths of our essentially progressive and individualistic culture: we are here for the purposes of self-betterment, any difficulties along the way are merely tests of that larger project, and we are capable of building better selves by putting our heads down every day and working steadily even if absolutely blindly at whatever project life throws our way. Running is reduced to a sounding board for the dominant cultural mythology, yet another tabula rasa upon which culture incessantly scrapes its tired ideas.

When this happens, running is not an experience at all. Experience, contrary to the popular view does not just happen. It is possible to live for weeks, months, even years without experiencing anything at all. We only experience to the extent that the experience itself breaks through the monotonous drone of normality. This is what Foucault means: experience is an effort to break through, to carry life to the point at which it is unlivable, and there, in the purity of the rupture of the normal, to find life quite strange, and uncanny, pinned and struggling and wild.

If running is not to be simply the repetition of the normal, if it is not simply narcissistic and self-indulgent, it must work patiently, yes, and madly, yes, towards the obliteration of the incessant vision of the progressive and heroic self that plagues our lives. It is only in such obliteration that experience shows itself: in those moments when the world shifts and whirls and our own selves become not heroic but absolutely alien, trotting aimlessly down the empty pavement. Or when the effort is impossible and yet still gives despite our intents to stop, there at the maximum horrifying intensity. Only there is the experience: there alone is the possibility of renewal. Everything else is tired and brutal mimicry.

This is what I mean (see particularly 1:13-1:30):

Saturday, January 23, 2010


"In the end, one loves one's desire and not what is desired."

Nietzsche wrote this, and it is always important to remember that Nietzsche, famous as he is now, lived quite tragically in pain, depression, and quite unsure whether his books would be read or would survive. It is all too easy to go back to the authors who are now famous and believe that they believed in themselves as much as we now believe in them.

But of course, this is a myth. The meaning of life is obvious to no one, and though the name "Nietzsche" now designates an entire body of thought that has been worked over by critics, academics, and students until a variety of meanings have been extracted rather cruelly and disseminated much more broadly than Nietzsche ever imagined and surely more broadly than he would have hoped, it is also possible to imagine Friedrich alone in his study at night scribbling onto paper not out of the pursuit of profound philosophical meaning but because he was lonely and had only his writing as a means of marking time, that steady stream of ideas perhaps no more meaningful to him than the winking and pale blue lights of the television screens that now stream constantly before our eyes.

I'm drifting. The point of this current stream, which has mustered not quite as much materiality as the words on the printed page of Beyond Good and Evil but is at least not restricted to the small screen of my mind's eye is this:

"In the end one loves one's desire and not what is desired."

Let me explain. It is tempting to read this aphorism as a statement about the intrinsic selfishness of human beings. We are unable to love the other: the best we can hope for is to love our own love for the other. But Nietzsche did not love himself enough to hold such a theory. And it seems to me that even the slightest bit of introspection shows that we rarely love ourselves--that more often we are tired of ourselves, indifferent to ourselves, even hateful to ourselves. This is why the golden rule is a cruel joke: we treat others much better than we treat ourselves--mainly because we don't have to live with them eternally.

No, the aphorism is not a statement about the limits of the self at all. It is a positive statement about nature of love. We do not love objects or things or ideas or even people. Being streams of thought and moving bodies, what we love is desiring itself: being lost in the flows of our projects. Love is the loss of the myth of individualized self, that naked and static "I" that according to Kant accompanies all perception. Love is the return to the true nature of the self, a self that is not individualized at all but is instead caught up in and expressed by a multiplicity of flows. We move with our spouses and partners. We move in our jobs. We move our eyes across the page. We are caught in flows of conversation. To live is to be a succession of dispersive streams, a wild and teeming and nexus of streams, each with their own volumes and speeds and directions.

You runners know this. Think of all the flows that the act of running catches you in. There is the individual run itself, the way it can carry you along down the street and up and down hills until there is no "you" to assign to the effort, only the effort which is one and the same as the movement and the rhythm of your feet touching the pavement. This is one flow, and it varies: a tempo run, an easy run, a solo run, a run with friends, a run on the track, a race. Then there is the other, broader and less intense flow: the flow of self-improvement. The idea of the goal that pulls you out the door. The project of getting faster or of running farther, whatever name we give to that inexorable tug that is what it means to be a runner. And we can look back over our running careers as a series of swift currents and stagnant pools, wild rushes, deep currents, drought and flood. What we love is the desiring, the flow. The object of that desire is imaginary and only serves the purpose of generating movement. We are living creatures, and for us all existence--what is Real--is movement until it stops.

Oh, yeah, for those who care: my running is going well.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Certain Sportive Dimension

Philosophy ... is not the Universe, it is not even that close trafficking with the Universe which we call living. We are not going to live things, but simply to theorize about them, to contemplate them. And to contemplate a thing implies maintaining oneself outside of it, resolved to keep a chaste distance between it and ourselves. We are attempting a theory, or what is the same thing, a system of concepts about the Universe. No less, but also no more. To find those concepts which, when set in a certain order, allow us to say how much it seems to us there is, or what the Universe is. We are not attempting anything tremendous. Although philosophic problems, being fundamental, have about them something of pathos, philosophy itself is not pathetic. It is more like a pleasant exercise, a favorite occupation. It is simply a matter of marrying our concepts one with another, like pieces in a picture puzzle. I would rather put it this way than to recommend philosophy with qualifications full of solemnity. Like all great human undertakings, it has a certain sportive dimension, and out of this it keeps a clean humor and a rigorous care. --Ortega y Gasset, What Is Philosophy?

Philosophers are often taken too seriously by non-philosophers. This is why philosophy is often mocked, called worthless, impractical, and a waste of time. People disparage philosophy for these qualities and hope to get a rise out of philosophers because they believe that philosophers hold that the opposite is true: that philosophy is serious, immensely important, practical, and necessary. But here is where non-philosopher shows his ignorance of philosophy. What is most delightful about philosophy, what delights me still, is its playfulness, its zest, its naivete, its humor. To read philosophy--good philosophy--is to release the mind as if it were a trout into a mountain stream. A trout knows nothing of importance. It is all power and finesse, plunges and lines of flight. Philosophy reminds us of the extraordinary fact that we have minds, and that these minds can be put into what Ortega y Gasset calls in the passage above "a certain sportive dimension."

Runners are familiar with this dimension. It is gained for them through similar processes. What running gives the runner is a sense of distance. It opens up a sportive dimension in a life that sometimes gets too meaningful. Life presses in on us with responsibilities, cares, concerns, and it is good to attend to these. But without spaces of meaninglessness, spaces where not much matters, these meanings can tend to congeal around us, so that instead of being able to act as free agents, tending to our responsibilities as they come to life around us, we find ourselves plied and trapped by pressures, living lives that do not feel as if they are our own, each moment fraught with consequences, and so on. In such moments, life offers no distance, only scurrying, pleading, placating, a suffocating inundation of experience.

The sportive dimension can cure us from the press of life, but only indirectly. It takes a kind of Hegelian aufhebung. There is nothing worse than a serious philosopher. There are few kinds of people more annoying than the self-important runner. I should know. I've dabbled in these identities. No--it is the play that gives these activities their value, and play cannot be taken seriously. It cannot even be valued for its distance-creating effects. It's only when we let the mind go, when the body begins to move of its own accord, that the distance opens and we get a little purchase on life. Follow the trout as it swims, and it will take you places you did not know you had. You will find your mind to be stranger, larger, weirder, and more full of possibilities: expanding into the sportive dimension.

And this is how I felt on return from my run today as well. I braced myself as I headed out the door into the 12 degree air. My legs were tired from last evening's run, and the cold stung my cheeks. Ah, but I was a kind of tingling bullet as I roamed the Nashville streets, so much sensation, so much aliveness. There it was, again, life from a distance, reconsidered. Less meaningful and larger.

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