Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity

"Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals do not know what yesterday and today are but leap about, eat, rest, digest, and leap again; and so from morning to night and from day to day, only briefly concerned with their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment and for that reason neither melancholy nor bored. It is hard for a man to see this, for he is proud of being human and not an animal and yet regards its happiness with envy because he wants nothing other than to live like the animal, neither bored nor in pain, yet wants it in vain because he does not want it like the animal. Man may well ask the animal: why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only look at me? The animal does want to answer and say: because I always immediately forget what I wanted to say--but then it already forgot this answer and remained silent: so man could only wonder."
--F. Nietzsche "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life"

In this lovely passage, which is one of my favorite in all of philosophy, Nietzsche draws the line between the human and the animal in terms of the capacities of melancholy and boredom, linking them with remembering and forgetting. The human is the animal capable of leaving the moment--becoming melancholy, perhaps or bored, perhaps. This capacity of leaving the moment is closely tied to memory, of course, memory being the act of traveling with the mind, breaking the thrall of the moment and entering that dreamy realm of history, yesterday, and today.

When we run, we enter into the animal state--this is one of its allures. It allows us to escape our history and future with their attendant anxieties and enter into the protective thrall of the moment. Racing, particularly, is like this. Perhaps the reason we are able to find extra power in the race situation is that we have become animal for a short time. All of our capacities and powers are released into the present moment, and we are able to accomplish things that simply aren't possible in normal human consciousness--which always has some part of it reaching out of the moment in anticipation or memory.

When we train, however, we do so as humans. We place ourselves in a present that has a past and a future. John L. Parker described it as making yourself into an arrow in Again to Carthage. Animals race--they run down their quarry, they play together, dogs chase a frisbee or their owners. But animals don't train. Training requires a different order of intelligence because it requires memory--and out of that memory, imagination of a possible future. We make ourselves into an arrow that connects, or attempt to connect, the two.

Nietzsche worried that the confusion into which we are thrown by the vast and plural histories that fund our present would no longer allow us to imagine a future for ourselves. We wouldn't be able to intelligently draw an arrow from our multiple and divergent cultural memories to an imagined future. Perhaps this is a problem that plagues our current political process--we either regress to an overly simple view of America with a too-clearly-imagined-future or struggle to define a future because of over-sensitivity to all of the future's possibilities.

This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past.

Of course this very burden of awareness of the past is also an advantage for humanity. It gives us a task, makes the future possible. These ghosts of memory can spur us to try to recreate them in the future. We remember our best races and wonder what it would feel like to run even faster. We think back on our failures and imagine what might have been--and work to bring what might have been into actuality.
The arrow upwards can be equally thrilling or demoralizing.

This idea that we are all arrows pointing from the stories we tell ourselves about who we were towards the stories we tell ourselves about who we might be, this relation to the past and future, is what philosophers call our "historicity." We are, fundamentally, historical beings--this is Nietzsche's point.

Perhaps Nietzsche's most important contribution to philosophy was to look at history not as a series of facts about what happens, but as a collection of stories that creates an arrow that points towards possible futures. Nietzsche urged in all of his work the idea that as human beings it was essential to intelligently recreate these stories on behalf of our lives. In other words, Nietzsche understood the truth of history in terms of its effect on our ability to draw an arrow to a possible future arising out of that history.

This is a remarkable idea. But I think it is one that runners can understand well if they reflect on their own training. We all have goals for the future based on our pasts. Our training is oriented by these arrows. But sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about our running history can limit our future development. After each race, we place that race into the narrative of our lives as a runner. We connect it to other events in a way that makes sense. We historicize it. The question that Nietzsche poses to us is how thoughtfully do we historicize these events? Do the stories we tell about our racing limit us in certain ways? What futures do they create for us? And what futures do these stories prevent?

By giving us these sorts of questions, Nietzsche allows us to make a critical inquiry into who we are as runners. This is something that animals don't do. It takes a lot of energy, and it is not always a productive enterprise. It has its advantages (the possibility of new goals) and disadvantages (melancholy and rumination). People will say that you think too much.

But, Nietzsche reminds us, this sort of engagement with the past--this wondering--is what makes us human. Perhaps if we give ourselves to it completely, we can find in certain moments the animal in the human, the joy in reflection. In these moments, we philosophize with neither melancholy nor boredom, but with something like the thrall of the reflective moment. It's in these rare moments that we find the unique power of human consciousness--the possibility that we can make ourselves anew.

Isn't this the possibility that drives our running and indeed our lives?

13 comments:

  1. A wonderful post that has me ruminating on my progress (or setback) over the past year as I enter the meat of my 'season' which will run through the end of January.

    It is often hard to remember that the runner we want to become is intrinsically connected with the runner we are at the starting line. Often times I stress so much over my projected goals by looking at past results that I almost forget that the race has to happen first before any progress or setback can be noted.

    The magic is, as you say, what happens in those 16 ( or 18, if you are like me) minutes between the pop of the gun and the lunge across the finish line.

    One's history evaporates into the air during those moments, as you burst across the landscape as if to avoid it ever catching up to you. It is only once you have caught your breath and you are mulling over the results and that anything can be absorbed as fodder for the future runner you hope to be.

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  2. Hilson,
    I like your last paragraph. Thanks for the comment--and also for reading.
    Run well!
    Jeff

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  3. i am not driven by the possibility that i could make myself anew. i am curious about me and about other people and about the earth and sky and stars. i enjoy learning. i crave health and vitality. but i am not driven by constant reinvention, by setting and meeting goals. i am driven by the thrill of the day, by being open to possibility, by the serendipity of the moment, by the adventure of the unexpected. i remember with joy, and sometimes with regret, and i look forward with excitement and anticipation.

    or, am i fooling myself? am i not really what i think i am? or, if i am what i believe myself to be, am i such a minority?

    perhaps i am a nietzche-cow.

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  4. Hey ace, I have a hard time telling the difference between making yourself anew and being--in your words--open to possibility, serendipity, the adventure of the unexpected, remembering and anticipating.

    Aren't these the same thing?

    I kinda wanted to bring forward the tension between setting goals and being open to new experiences; I think this is the human/animal distinction that Nietzsche is driving at. We are BOTH human AND animal. We are the human kind of animal. So, I'd want to ask you whether you are really not ever a goal setter? Or whether your desire to be free of the goal-setting mentality that you eloquently express here is maybe an expression of resistance against a part of yourself. I agree that the goal setting mentality can be a bummer (the tyrant within), but I also think it's kinda necessary.

    Can we live without intelligently considered goals?

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  5. who the hell wants to live intelligently?!

    just kidding. just kidding.

    i am a professional goal setter. my job is planning and scheduling. i am a natural, very good at what i do, and sought out by others to use this gift of mine to make their lives easier. i am consistently amazed that folks cannot target the end and work backwards to break it into steps, determine how long each step will take to complete, and build a schedule. but, i have long since stopped telling people how easy it is because at best they think i am being falsely modest and at worst they get upset because they think i am insulting them.

    the world is obsessed with goals. 5-year plans, 6 month outlooks, strategy, tactics, where are you going, how are you going to get there, and when and with whom and what will it cost you. gah! enough!

    it's all pretend. it's all make believe. it's just a way to put a leash on life and tell it "sit. stay." but life doesn't work that way. life doesn't sit and life doesn't stay. you can't put life in a box. life is messy and mixed up. life really, truly is what happens while you're busy making plans.

    i see value in goals when i am at work. we could not build things if we didn't have a plan and because i don't live on a self-sustaining farm, i have to have a job, so might as well do something i am good at and get paid for it.

    it's this personal goal setting that i am not on board with. from new year's resolutions to marathon training plans... it's all just so much rubbish to me. could that be because i have never successfully completed a personal goal-path? because life has thrown me curve balls for as long as i can remember? is it all just sour grapes, because goals are for other people, the same other people who don't have sense enough to set goals and create a plan to get there? the same other people who rely on ME to set up THEIR lives in such a way that they can meet goals that they all march towards like a bunch of lemmings with blinders on, marching down a path that i created and demarcated for them, and put them on with a map and a flashlight in their hand, a path that will lead THEM to THEIR goals while i stand here and try to avoid getting beaned by another curve ball...

    wait. what was the question again?

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  6. no. i don't actually really truly think you can work a plan and be open to serendipity at the same time. the two are antithetical.

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  7. okay, so i played that up a little bit for effect. pretty funny, huh? haha.

    but, you said, "We all have goals for the future based on our pasts." and for me that's not true. i don't have goals for my future. in a goal-oriented society, i am the odd man out. intelligent people don't understand not having goals so they conclude i simply don't want to share my goals. but, it's the truth that i don't have any. well, i don't have any right now.

    i have had goals in the past, and i probably have as good a track (track, haha) record of meeting my goals as anyone.

    there's a distinction between life goals and everyday goals, and also, there personal goals and community goals. i wouldn't advise a community to live serendipitously because the constant distraction would lead to ruin.

    my beef with goals is that they shut down opportunity. when you're on that path in the woods, and you come to that fork, if you're too focused on your goal, you won't even see the fork. now, if you see the fork, the choice, maybe you'll take it and maybe you won't, but how can you live a rich life if you don't even see the fork at all?

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  8. Okay, ace, I also am frustrated by a goal-oriented society, especially when the goals are hollow or external. See, for example, my post titled "The Gospel of the Useful."

    The primary purpose of this passage on Nietzsche was to bring forward the idea that how we narrate our personal history influences the way we imagine our future. So, how we construct our past influences our future and can constrain our present. If we want to change our future, sometimes the best way to do that is to change our past through attention to events in the present that might allow us to rewrite our history It certainly wasn't a paean to goals.

    I attempted to explain this idea by looking at a simple analogy to a runner constructing goals for his future. This oversimplifies things when we extend the analogy to life because obviously the racing situation is a contrived situation structured around achievement, whereas life and experience is much more open and doesn't readily admit of a purpose.

    Also, I guess I'd just say that I see the relationship between planning and serendipity as less oppositional than you. Sometimes we have to plan to put ourselves in serendipitous positions. We might, for example, set a goal of blogging once a day just in case, serendipitously, something beautiful strikes us that day. Other times, we develop plans out of serendipitous occasions: something happens that allows us to work towards new opportunities.

    Certainly plans can shut down experience, openness, happiness, and can make us stressed out and ornery. But I'd just call those sorts of plans unintelligent and uninspired. They need to be broken apart, revised, or simply forgotten.

    Finally, I agree with your overall point that there is something in our cultural stew that tends to make us both overly goal-oriented and unhappy because of this attitude. It seems to me that running can be therapy for this because it gives us goals that we can (more or less) control, rather than goals that we are stymied by. On the other hand, you might see goal-oriented running as a symptom of an overly-goal oriented life, as one more moment of a sick and damaged life. I've seen my running both ways--maybe it has been both things.

    Thanks for taking the post seriously and honoring it with your disagreement!

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  9. "how we construct our past influences our future and can constrain our present. If we want to change our future, sometimes the best way to do that is to change our past through attention to events in the present that might allow us to rewrite our history"

    hey, to be completely fair, i did see this and was fascinated by it. i just chose to focus on a tangent instead.

    i AM on board with the whole 'we're arrows from the past to the future' concept - that we're each on a personal trajectory. and, history shapes us, yes, certainly. i am both who i am and who i see myself as being, and who i see is a reflection of who other people see. sure, i am intelligent, but because my first grade teacher singled me out for special assignments, i learned to see myself as intelligent. that shapes my choices, shapes how i view an opportunity or if i even see an opportunity at all.

    i do like the idea of reshaping ourselves, breaking free of what we've always been told or what we've thought about ourselves, seeing ourselves in a new light. you mention this can happen when we reflect on our history. i think this can also happen when we meet new people. it's part of the attraction of moving to a new city or dating a new person - putting yourself in a different context can put your entire past in a different context.

    finally, what kind of a lunatic would have a goal of blogging every day just to see what happens?? that's just crazy. (haha)

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  10. I was just rereading your earlier comment about being a professional goal setter. I think as a professional philosopher, my job is almost exactly the opposite--a large part of what I do with my students is break apart the goals that they have, criticize them, and ask them to think about them differently.

    This is of course a frustrating process for my students. Philosophy often gets a bad rap for having no point, but actually every now and then our lives get a little too "pointed"--and that's when we need some philosophical reflection to break them open. On the other hand, I am sensitive to the dangerous effect that philosophy can have on people. It breaks them too far open and can send them into a tailspin. We philosophers have to do better at the positive side of philosophy--not just criticizing "the herd" or common sense--but offering also alternative visions and new directions.

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  11. "I am sensitive to the dangerous effect that philosophy can have on people. It breaks them too far open and can send them into a tailspin."

    you've mentioned this sort of idea before and it's made me wonder then & now -- where's the line between philosophy and psychology, or philosophical discussion and psychoanalysis? i'd venture to guess the line is rather blurry or that it's a moving target or that it's different for different people, that it depends on who you ask and on what day you ask him.

    probably way too many comments on this one post to get into this here, but i didn't want to forget to tell you this is something that's very intriguing, this grey line between how we see the world and the effect that the viewpoints and labels we use have on our psyche. how much is philosophy and how much is psychology?

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  12. What I liked best about this post is the idea that our own preconceptions based on our remembrance of our own history may be causing us to shortchange ourselves and our current self's goal setting.

    I had a breakthrough moment in this vein last year, as I completed my second marathon and continued to claim that "I'm not really a runner." But then, when I immediately started pushing to better my time for the next marathon, and planning and looking forward to the next race, I realized that my history, not my then-denial, proved me wrong. And my views of how fast I was influence how fast I think I can become.

    A very nice post, and makes me long for the animal/nirvana/zen state which I think results in the most satisfying runs.

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  13. What I liked best about this post is the idea that our own preconceptions based on our remembrance of our own history may be causing us to shortchange ourselves and our current self's goal setting.

    I had a breakthrough moment in this vein last year, as I completed my second marathon and continued to claim that "I'm not really a runner." But then, when I immediately started pushing to better my time for the next marathon, and planning and looking forward to the next race, I realized that my history, not my then-denial, proved me wrong. And my views of how fast I was influence how fast I think I can become.

    A very nice post, and makes me long for the animal/nirvana/zen state which I think results in the most satisfying runs.

    ReplyDelete

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