Monday, August 16, 2010

Momentarily Free

"Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

"I do not know which of us has written this page."
--J.L. Borges, "Borges and I"



The above passage is an excerpt from one of my favorite philosophical essays, "Borges and I." I like it because it's short! But also because it accurately portrays the relationship between identity and forgetting. Borges describes how the true self operates not through memory, but through forgetting, through oblivion. The writing is always an attempt to make Borges anew, to break out of the cage of his older self, the other Borges, the one written. Somewhat paradoxically, it is through the loss of the self that the true self emerges. We become our true selves by breaking with the selves that we know, by forgetting them, and by stepping out into oblivion.

This is the case because the self is dynamic, an actor, a process, not a thing or an identity. In order to express this dynamism, the self must be constantly breaking out of the concepts, habits, and memories that threaten to keep it static. This is a process that must be endlessly renewed, however. Thus, in a weird way the new self must always be repeating encounters with its old selves, the remembered selves. We don't leave them behind, not permanently. Rather, they are jumping off points, their edges marking the void of new possibility.



Runners know this process well. Our training is a physiological activity, to be sure, meant to have an effect on our organs, our muscles, bones, and capillaries. But it is also a mental activity, a constant battle of memory and forgetting. Training is a way of working through the runners that we remember ourselves to be, and it is, as Borges shows us, both an attempt to shatter the memories of those runners and also an attempt to build memory anew.

This is, really, my fourth life as a runner. The first runner that I was knew nothing of training, times, distances, or records. Running was not an identity, but a pure activity. It wasn't something I sought or identified with. It was just what I did: down the hall in a new pair of shoes; after a soccer ball in the rain; chasing my friends through the woods. This runner was not a runner at all: but he ran.

The second runner ran in high school. This runner was concentrated on two things: competing and excellence. This runner had begun to conceptualize himself as a runner, mainly because he found in it a way to prove himself as a singular being. So, for this runner, running was about being exceptional, about being better--the best, even. It was about separating myself out from the rest of human beings and finding myself in this solitary act.

The third runner ran in college. He was not so distinct from the second runner, but beginning to expand the circle of exceptionalism. This runner was concentrated on the culture of running. Here, the running became conceptualized in the first person plural--we were runners. I wanted to find others like me, a narrow band of skinny brothers who found joy in being fast, in eating tons, and in bonding together on a Saturday morning in a blurred ritual of pain and glory. That's what running was for me then--I still never kept a log or thought a shred about proper training. But I damn sure showed up for practice and found deep layers of strength in competing for a team.

The fourth runner came after a break. This runner is reflective, and is always built in relation not only to running, but to those prior runners. For this runner, running is many things, but what it is most deeply is an ingrained habit. It's not a struggle to prove myself different, not an attempt to find a larger community, and it's not an unconscious activity. But because this runner finds himself in relation to these prior runners, this runner is essentially concerned with regaining something lost--or perhaps exercising something before it is lost. This runner sees time slipping away, sees the need to make himself new.

Because of this essential relationship with time, for the fourth runner running takes the explicit form of memory. I run because I've always run, because it's what I remember about myself. And perhaps this is why I write my running down, recording my daily runs and training paces. Maybe this is why I'm more concerned with running PRs, with being faster than prior selves, better than I was before--or at least as good. It's an activity that is meant to preserve the best of what I've built over this life. And perhaps make what I've built a bit better.

So, this final runner is essentially comparative. He wants to run as well than he did before. He wants to run with the same joy that he ran with before. He wants to remake his memories, to not let them be memories, to let those memories live again today.

But of course, this is impossible. That's what Borges was writing about. The memories we cherish were made in moments that were whole to themselves. The only sincere homage that one can pay to memory, therefore, is oblivion. Those moments we remember weren't reflective; they were originary, first-born.



This fourth runner finds those moments, too. They are there: cicada-evenings, riding tireless legs, or in those races in which one feels the full power of the self, that dynamic self. We still have a self that goes beyond memory, one that does not merely remember, but is also capable of making memories. Yes, that fourth self, the remembering, comparative, slightly obsessive and certainly analytical self can also find itself occasionally skimming along, running out of itself, absolutely oblivious and momentarily free.

Yes, impossibly, we find ourselves transformed, once more, by the thing we have always done but never finish: running.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Relevance and Immanence

Philosophers worry about most everything, but one of their favorite things to worry about is the relevance of philosophy to life. At a recent conference blogging was brought up as a way of connecting philosophy to "life." While this thought reminded me that I have been neglecting this blog and is part of the reason I am posting today, it also made me wonder a bit, as philosophers do, just what was meant by "relevant to life."

If a blog is what gets you closer to life, then you must be pretty far away to begin with. Which means of course that you are not in life at all. This is actually a strange thought, but it is also true. We are always alive, but we are not always in life.

So what is this thing called a life?

Deleuze says this: "A life is the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss." A life is thus that which has no outside. It is pure immanence: that which refuses to judge or reflect or act from a position that is not implicated through these activities. A life happens when its effects are transformations of itself, when there are no moments that come from far away, from positions of irrelevance.

Yes, I know. The above is, I'm sure, exactly the sort of overly erudite bloviating that calls the relevance of philosophy to life into question.



But I think I can draw on my running to put the same point in another way. There are many attitudes that one can take towards running. It is possible to instrumentalize running--to make it into a means to all sorts of ends that lie out of the experience of running. So, you can run to lose weight. You can run to make yourself happy. You can run for the friendships. You can run to try to achieve a new PR. You can run because it makes you feel strong and in control of your life. I've run for all these reasons and many more.

However, there is a point beyond this when running becomes more than relevant to life. Running is no longer something you do for a variety of reasons, but something you are. At this point, running finds its immanence to life, and this immanence is marked by the scrambling of means and ends. Am I happy because I'm running or am I running because I'm happy? Am I losing weight to run or am I running to lose weight? Am I running to have control over my life or do I control my life in order to make time to run? The running gets woven so intimately into everything else that as far as your life goes "there is no outside to running."

This all sounds, I'll admit, sort of oppressive. We need space apart from even our most beloved activities. There is another way to read this immanence, though. It provides a way of understanding how an activity that can seem totally absurd and irrelevant becomes meaningful. It does so by being intimately connected up with the other aspects of lived experience. Running becomes more than a means to certain desired ends. More than a way of controlling the other aspect of life or producing certain desired results. Instead, running shades these other aspects of life; it colors them in vivid ways, working not towards them, but through them, making them more meaningful. Through those intimate colorings, running becomes more meaningful as well.

In the same way, philosophy has to find its relevance through immanence. There is a way of thinking philosophy as a set of texts, an academic discipline, or as a set of inquiries in to abstract and intractable problems like "What is Real?" "Is there a God?" and "What is the Best Political System?" All of these ways of construing philosophy seem somewhat hollow to me. If we are asking how to make these things more relevant to life, we are asking the wrong question.

Relevant philosophy is of a different sort. Its relevance is immanence--the older, more connected, and more ordinary task of trying to be a bit wiser, to live a bit better. This philosophy is oriented towards the problems of ordinary living. Once it begins asking the question of how to get back to life, it's already too far gone, having been taken over by the hollow more bureaucratic forms.

The great philosophers were communicating, thinking, writing, and living in response to difficult and meaningful problems. Their philosophies were woven out of the vibrant strands of difficult lives, and their value can only be measured in so far as their philosophy contributes to making our own lives a little wiser, and little better, a little more alive. Philosophy done well gives us faith that a life shot through with intelligence and thought and reflection is better than one which is not. That these are qualities immanent to the good life, not merely means to an end. Like running, intelligence is best when it is the color of experience, when it is immanent to it, not standing outside of it in judgment or in reflection.

When philosophy can remind us of this: that intelligence completes life, giving it its complete power and complete bliss, it can affirm without shame its relevance. Running can also remind us, in small and probably incomplete ways, that the body, movement, sweat, and effort are not mere means, but also inextricably wrapped up in whatever strange and unimagined meanings our lives turn out, every now and again, to have.
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