lessons from quarantine // “how to”

After it started, I was basically non-verbal. I found reading impossible and lived in a daily fog. Eventually that changed. I found myself preoccupied with details. When you can’t go outside, you go deeper inside. Suddenly I was reading a lot.

In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (chapter 5), we get a lesson on reading:

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“Is there anything on your family bookshelves that might help you if you were stuck outside?”
“No.”
“You answer too fast. Go home and look again. And like I said, use your imagination. Any kind of survival information from encyclopedias, biographies, anything that helps you learn to live off the land and defend ourselves. Even some fiction might be useful.”
She gave me a sidelong glance. “I’ll bet,” she said.

Every part of human experience needs guidance, needs theorization, needs contextualization. This doesn’t seem to be true at first because it often feels so easy to step out into the world without actively having to situate yourself in it first. And certainly we get a lot of advice, a lot of messaging, a lot of conditioning about how to be in the world, whether we actively seek it or not. These lessons may or may not also come in textual form. Sometimes those didactic processes — active or passive — end up doing a lot of damage. We focus on some things, and not others. We relate to people in ways that are harmful. We learn to hierarchize human worth.

How to Look After the Body.
How to Cultivate Healthy Desire.
How to Keep Connected with Family.
How to Grow and Tend to Friendship.
How to Maintain Boundaries with the Internet.
How to Relate to and Respect Yourself.
How Not to Disappear into Your Work.
How to Use Your Voice Without Fear.

Some imagined book titles. There are so many “how to” books out there; so many of them advise constriction, though. And so many of them are aimed at reducing or changing external appearances. If I’ve learned anything during this time (…debatable), it’s the lesson of paying attention to the interior. There are details there that often don’t get attention. Once you realize something is there, however, you might find yourself wanting to learn more about it. To learn to look after it. Once the tide of regular life has gone out, leaving behind the artefacts of the sea floor, you might begin to take stock of what was always present but not yet in view.

Note on Adrienne Maree Brown “Emergent Strategy” // Future Ancestors

Adrienne Maree Brown (2017) Emergent Strategy. AK Press. p14.

Adrienne Maree Brown’s work is oriented towards the future. This futurism draws deliberately on the imaginative possibility of science fiction, as she writes in Emergent Strategy (p16):

I would call our work to change the world “science fictional behavior” — being concerned with the way our actions and beliefs now, today, will shape the future, tomorrow, the next generations.

In particular, Brown draws on the work of Octavia Butler, whose science fiction dramatized the present moment by extending it into the future (p17):

Octavia wrote novels with young Black women protagonists meeting aliens, surviving apocalypse, evolving into vampires, becoming telepathic networks, time traveling to reckon with slave-owning ancestors. Woven throughout her work are two things: 1) a coherent visionary exploration of humanity and 2) emergent strategies for being better humans.

Brown’s work likewise asks us to orient ourselves towards the future. One piece of this is her interest in framing ourselves as “future ancestors.” I am struck by this phrase, with its time travel implications. Because on the one hand, naming myself a future ancestor opens the possibility of imaginatively investing the shadowy figures, the precursors of the past, with the flesh and blood, the intellect and the emotionality, which I currently possess, which in turn does something to complexify the notion of ancestral authority: personalizing it, humanizing it. If can see yourself in those who came before, crucially, you might be able to see both your debt to, and your impact upon, those who are still to come. In this way, the past and the future are kept in relationship via a kind of tensility — and a live wire. What we do now simultaneously draws on the past and shapes what comes next. We’re usually pretty good about paying attention to how the past influences us; and we’re certainly accustomed to invoking the past to give meaning to what we do in the present. But how we relate our present actions to the future is something that takes some conscious effort. Brown asks:

How can we, future ancestors, align ourselves with the most resilient practices of emergence as a species?

In addition to adjusting our vision to more actively include the future as well as the past, Brown asks us to broaden out the very notion of ‘ancestry.’ In this context, being a “future ancestor” does not mean simply considering the mother of your mother or the child of your child, but the generations of humanity as a community, i.e. “as a species.” In fact, understanding the family unity as something beyond a bloodline is a crucial component of the kind of future vision Brown asks us to use; an attachment to a narrowly defined idea of family is an invitation to other the humans who are not included in that category.

Roman carnelian intaglio set in a ring, 1st c. BCE/CE. The Walters Art Museum. Aeneas carries his father, Anchises, and leads his son, Ascanius, away from Troy as it burns (cf. Aen. 2.707). Present facilitating both past and future. Note that Aeneas did abandon his wife, Creusa, to achieve this…
https://art.thewalters.org/detail/24095/intaglio-of-aeneas-with-anchises-and-ascanius/

Toshi Reagon, on the Octavia’s Parables podcast (Ep. 10, Aug. 24th 2020; 55:10):

“Every ten years of your age, there should be somebody ten years younger than you…The annoying one that’s always asking you questions and correcting you from something you said before which you can’t remember and who’s bringing in the latest technology that you need to move on to. That person needs to have real agency in your life. So now I have somebody in their twenties, somebody in their thirties, somebody in their forties, ’cause that’s how I’m rolling. And you do start to see that you don’t do a disappearing. An evolution happens around, over, and beyond you.”

A note on the next year

untitled — h č-b

As the new academic year approaches, I intend here to set some expectations for myself and others who work with me, or might wish to work with me. For the next year, thanks to a BUCH Junior Fellowship, I am on a research leave, which means I am not teaching and I am taking a step back from a number of things.

To be honest, being able to take a research leave like this would have been an immense privilege even under regular circumstances. But in the face of the coronavirus crisis, and how it is being handled across the country, it is a miracle. I know how lucky I am, and I don’t take any of this lightly.

Inspired, in part, by Adrienne Maree Brown’s recent discussion of what it means to take a sabbatical (part 1 | part 2), I am taking a conscious step back from some of the spaces which I regularly inhabit, including digital ones. In some cases, this will mean less visibility, in others more. After I finished a big project this summer, I unexpectedly found myself naturally disconnecting from twitter, which has always been a place of community and collaboration for me. At the same time, instagram has interestingly become a renewed site of creativity and communication. And as I reconsider my own relationship to writing in the wake of finishing the project to which many years of my life were devoted, I find myself wanting to write here on the blog more and more. In essence, I expect there to be a kind of hybridity to the presences and absences of my leave taking.

Living in the context of the pandemic has been a revelatory experience for me in many respects. As I wrote here a few days ago, the conditions created by the coronavirus have exposed for me the ways of thinking, doing, and being that do not serve me or the communities which I am a part of. It is with the mindful spirit of recalibration and renewal that I go into this next year. Yet while I may be less present, and at times less available, than I am accustomed to be, there are still a number of ongoing projects which I am involved with and will continue to give my care and attention to. At the same time, I will likely be less responsive to new requests, and I am thankful for your patience when that inevitably ends up being the case.

Note on José Esteban Muñoz’ “Ephemera as Evidence” // Letting go of things that do not serve us

Rigor mortis

José Esteban Muñoz (1996) “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.Women and Performance. Vol. 8, Iss. 2. pp7-8. 

This week I was reading the above cited article by José Esteban Muñoz, when I was struck by the passage which I have excerpted and marked.

At the beginning of the coronavirus, I had this feeling that we were all in a stage play, wearing our costumes, holding our props, and speaking our lines from a well known script. All of a sudden that script, those words, vanished. And we were left holding ourselves in absurd postures, wearing costumes that did not fit us. At that initial moment of crisis, back in March, it felt strange, and often wrong, to be going through the motions. The starkness of crisis revealed the contours of intellectual structures and practices that we have irresistibly carried with us, but not consciously wished to do so. Cultures, traditions, structures of thought persist through repetitions, internalizations, citations; these are living and embodied practices. When the coronavirus revealed what it was we were actually doing — when the national uprisings in the fight for Black Lives underlined what we have been doing, what we are still doing — these were and are moments to reframe how we relate to ourselves and to each other. To return, then, to Muñoz’ words:

“This is true despite the fact that, on the level of publishing and not much else, alterity is currently in vogue… (I can not begin to count the times I have been advised—or I have advised—friends, colleagues, and students to make their projects look ‘straighter’: conservative in thematics and rigorous in methodology. Rarely do I suggest that someone ‘queer up’ their application for a fellowship or play up the heuristic or performative dimensions of a book proposal. Academically [p8] and institutionally the communities of scholars that I live in are often in the position of ideologically and theoretically dressing down.)”

In my field as much as any other, we are rooted in scholarly traditions and practices and proceed with these prior works as guides to our own thought, carrying these weights with us to load down and substantiate our own work. Yet, moments of rupture such as the ones we are currently experiencing reveal that there are other modes and practices which we desperately need. “Alterity” as a process seeks — not just “otherness”, and not just the “counter-cultural” — but, specifically, putting our eyes and our attention where it has not gone before. This means broadening our horizons, including texts and artefacts we haven’t considered before, citing the work of scholars outside of the gravitational pull of the citational traditions we currently have. But it also means examining our own interior commitments to structures which ultimately do not serve us.

Muñoz refers here to the process in which scholars and students learn to mute themselves, to form themselves into commodities based on the marketplace of scholarly desire which rewards presentations of comfortable sameness. Yet the image we’re supposed to be reflecting and performing is obsolete, artificial; the standards and shapes we replicate in our bodies and our thoughts are dependent upon eras in which we ourselves did not live, and which had values we no longer share. Muñoz wrote these words in 1996, but these processes are still happening around us and within us. Sara Ahmed wrote in Living a Feminist Life (2017: 4) about how feminist work must operate at the most interior level:

I began to realize what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all the way down, to the letter, to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was.

We are living in rupture. Many things are shifting, opening, falling away. What stays and what goes? What inherited beliefs about scholarly and pedagogical practice — ideas and behaviours which never quite sat right with us in the first place — are we going to get rid of? What new words and new thoughts are we going to use?

Res Difficiles Conference 2020: videos now available

UMW BU

Joseph Romero (University of Mary Washington) and I co-organized the Classics conference: Res Difficiles. See the original CFP here: https://resdifficiles.com/cfp/. Due to due to COVID-19, the event took place in an entirely online format on May 15th 2020. If you missed the conference, or would like to revisit the proceedings, you can now watch the video recordings from the event on the conference website: https://resdifficiles.com/

Thank you again to all of the speakers and all of the attendees. Joe and I would like to do #resdiff again next year. So as you’re (re)watching the videos, think about what you’d like to see discussed and then send in an abstract 🙂

Stardew Valley Twitch Stream FAQ

Every evening this week, I live streamed my play of the very soothing, very satisfying game, Stardew Valley, on twitch. Instead of a regular newsletter for this week, let me tell you more about how and why I’m doing this.

During the stream, we talk a lot about books, games, podcasts, and food we like. I’ve been collecting the recommendations here, in a google doc.

Stardew Valley close screen

Why are you live streaming? During this time of social distancing and self-isolation, live streaming presented itself as a sane antidote to anxiety and loneliness. I had started making videos for my now online undergrad humanities class, so I was already beginning to reframe my relationship to an audience that is distant, and thinking about how to create active community when individuals cannot gather together physically. (Certainly, I have a lot of experience with this — twitter has been a place of community building for me for a long while now, and I had a long history with the internet even before that. But these new circumstances do change things: not having the option to meet physically adds a certain urgency to online community.) When we made the collective decision to isolate, I started thinking about the “tend and befriend” stress response phenomenon described by Rebecca Solnit in The Mother of All Questions (2017, pp18-19):

“Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit. Some species of trees spread root systems underground that interconnect the individual trunks and weave the individual trees into a more stable whole that can’t so easily be blown down in the wind. Stories and conversations are like those roots. For a century, the human response to stress and danger has been defined as ‘fight or flight.’ A 2000 UCLA study by several psychologists noted that this research was based largely on studies of male rats and male human beings. But studying women* led them to a third, often deployed option: gather for solidarity, support, advice. They noted that ‘behaviorally, females’ responses are more marked by a pattern of “tend and befriend.” Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process.'”

It strikes me that some things which, under normal circumstances, are considered superficial are right now truly vital — and probably always have been vital. Spending time with people — in whatever ways work best for you (I say this because, despite my need to perform, I am otherwise mostly an introvert) — is not a luxury but a necessity. We are all right now focusing on public health. And mental health is health. So we should be making sure to find and make opportunities for socializing not because we want to but because, actually, we need to. I come from the world of academia where there are few models of contentment and happiness — indeed, we default to the image of performative suffering and punitive self-restraint. In that context, unhappiness is virtue. However, I urge you to take this moment of global distress to shed some of the scripts that we have been running even unwillingly. I quote here the wise words of Adrienne Maree Brown in Pleasure Activism (2019, p14): “When I am happy, it is good for the world.” In this stream, I am consciously trying to activate interconnected goods: 1) the social is good; community is good, 2) play is good.

What is Stardew Valley? Will you be playing any other games? Stardew Valley (2016) is hit indie game originally produced by a single developer, Eric Barone (@ConcernedApe), who had at the time never made a commercial game before. To describe it simply: it’s a farming simulator. You wake up every day, plant and tend to your crops, and the seasons pass. There is a town nearby, where you can buy supplies and talk to people. There is a beach. There is a mine. There is a community center (inhabited by forest sprites). But there’s so much more to this game. Barone designed it as a deliberate meditation upon productivity (I recommend the Vulture article by Jesse Singal on this topic), and as a protreptic towards the disruption of notions of productivity (which is why I keep talking about Jenny Odell on the stream, whose work, How to Do Nothing, I have written about in the newsletter several times). And on top of that, it’s an extremely chill game. It both looks and sounds beautiful, and there are many opportunities for a meditative moment. It is the right game for right now. I might play other games in the future, but for now this is it. By the way, if you want something to help you relax right now, you can also play Stardew Valley even if you don’t consider yourself much of a gamer. It’s currently available on a wide range of platforms, including your phone.

When are you live streaming, and why that time? I’ll be streaming for a couple of hours every weekday starting at 8pm EST. I’m streaming in the evening not just because that’s a natural time for both me and you to relax, but because I wanted to make sure I did not torture myself with the news right before heading to bed. As is becoming clear by now, I am doing this as much for myself as for others — streaming this week has been the thing which gives me the greatest sense of relief, and puts a pause on the dread which I — we — naturally feel right now.  I will also sometimes be streaming in the morning during the weekends so that I can hang out with my UK pals: the first morning stream will be Sunday 22nd March at 11am EST/3pm GMT.  Currently things are a bit ad hoc, but I see a regular schedule emerging very quickly.

How do I tune in and take part? All you need to do to tune in is head over to my twitch page at 8pm EST: https://www.twitch.tv/hecvb. If you are fine with simply watching or listening (it’s usual practice to have a twitch stream on in the background, maybe while you yourself are playing video games! rather than the sole point of focus), you don’t need to have an account. If you want to join the chat (which I encourage you to!), then you should make one. The chat is where it’s at. Talk to others and to me, and I’ll respond to all the hijinks going on there.

Will you be talking about Classics? Not really, aside from the incidental reference here or there. There are twitch streamers out there who take a more academic approach, but I am doing this to relax, not to make more work for myself. That said, if there’s some aspect of academic work and life that you want to talk about, you can certainly raise the issue. Mostly we talk about nothing of consequence, and it’s amazing.

Do you have any particular goals in mind with your game play? I am not setting out to make the perfect farm. Indeed, quite the opposite. This is going to be a meandering, explorative play, not a goal-oriented one. This is the chill stream.

I am one of your current or former students, is it okay for me to join in? Yes. I understand if it might be strange for some to see me in a less formal environment, so I get it if you don’t want to take part. But you are certainly welcome.

What tools do you use to stream? Can I do it too? I am playing Stardew Valley through Steam on my Mac, and I’m using OBS (free and open source) to broadcast the feed. It probably took me about half an hour to set up the stream on the night I decided to do it. Honestly, I just googled “twitch stream on Mac” and the rest came together quickly. So yes, you can and you should!

Which other twitch feeds should I be tuning into? Deirdre Donlon is a cast member over at WanderingDM. Professor Steel has been playing Apex Legends and Control. Hamish Cameron started streaming the Classically themed Apotheon last night. Earlier this week, frequencydata was live streaming the composition of ambient music. Daniel Libatique streamed some of Pokemon Shield earlier this week. (Please help me keep this list updated!)


*Note: Solnit (p19) later adds: “Not only women do this, but perhaps women do this more routinely.” Solnit’s emphasis on “tend and befriend” as the behaviour of women comes out of the fact that in this piece she is trying to shine a light on the alternatives to traditional theorization of speech, thereby showing that women have always had their own communicative strategies, even if they have been by necessity operating under the radar. For my purposes here, the gendered aspect is not necessary. All of us can tend and befriend, and benefit from it.

New York visit; “Countryside, The Future”; Will Allen on farming; tempora cum causis (18)

Ancient. This week I was in New York visiting the Classics department at NYU. On Thursday (5th March 2020), I talked about my primary research interest at the moment, Cicero and the Latin poets. Big shoutout to the NYU Classics grad students who invited me and are doing very important work right now to make the field more inclusive. Handout to the talk below:

While in New York, as well as stopping in at ISAW, I headed over to the Guggenheim, which is currently showing a very interesting exhibit, “Countryside, The Future” by AMO/Rem Koolhaas. This is an installation which looks at the earth from a global perspective and underlines the necessity that human beings living right now closely examine our relationship with the ecosystems into which we have inserted ourselves. It’s an ambitious and important project which turns the interior of a major art museum in one of the most monumental and complex cities on the planet into a microcosm of what’s happening outside of cities right now around the world.

A careful observer will find a number of classical referents throughout this exhibit. The invocation of the Roman concept of otium (i.e. time off from duty) in the countryside, paired with the contemporary ancient Chinese idea of xiaoyao (“blissful repose”), represents, for the creators of this exhibit, moments of human history where reverence for the creative and contemplative spaces of the countryside facilitated respect for its rhythms and boundaries. In the modern era, they suggest, these ideas of restful contemplation have developed into intensely rapacious spatial practices, where the natural world is cannibalized under a commodified idea of “wellness.” The inclusion of ancient testimonia in this exhibit does something that Classicists often fail to do — namely, to situate our understanding of antiquity in broader movements of not only textual transmission, but environmental processes. Naturally, there’s a sense of urgency to this exhibit. (And I experienced it through a further layer of complexity — walking around with hundreds of other people while holding within me anxiety surrounding the spread of the coronavirus.)

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Modern. So here’s a question which I find myself struggling to answer. Are academics allowed to “be themselves”? An unspoken aspect of scholarly training is that, in addition to developing the various skills and deepening your research interests, you are also expected to internalize certain social practices and academic ways of being. I have already written about how much I despise the “professor” trope in pop culture — one that, sadly, is consciously reenacted by some flesh and blood professors, who present themselves to the world with horn-rimmed glasses and elbow patches despite the fact that they are 35 years old. Listen. It’s not actually the aesthetic that I have a problem with. It’s the fact that this is a costume which we feel that we have to put on to do our jobs properly, to be taken seriously as scholars, even to be identified as scholars.

The trouble, of course, is that if you don’t look and sound a very particular way, it’s impossible to bridge that gap. I’m a younger woman and even if I put on some elbow patched tweed, it would still never be enough for some people to ascribe intellectual power to me. This happens to women, of course, and it happens if you’re not white, if you deviate in any way from perceived gender norms, etc. etc. (Actually, this brings up an old New York memory. I was walking in Central Park when an English woman, who turned out to be an academic, asked me directions which I, of course, couldn’t give. When she realized I was visiting too, she asked if I was a student. “No,” I said, “I’m a Classics professor. I gave a lecture at Columbia last night.”)

And obviously the academic “costume” goes far beyond dress — it includes what your interests are, how you talk, and, basically, everything about how you interface with the world. Okay, so. Given that there is no physical way that I can present myself in the form which is considered authoritative, my question is this: will people want to hear from me in the way that it is natural for me to communicate? I have come from my own particular circumstances, had my own particular experiences, and all of these things, of course, have an impact on my intellectual powers. So to some extent denying what comes natural to me in order to constrict myself into a very confined space, one which I could never fully occupy anyway, is not just a moral problem but also an intellectual one. Scholarship wants — or it should want — intellectual plurality. This makes the work more interesting, and, frankly, it makes it better. But it’s going to be hard to achieve this if we keep constricting ourselves into these artificial shapes in order to be identified as a scholar in the first place. It’s going to be hard, but we — all of us — have to do some work to widen our field of vision, and put effort into consciously ascribing authority to those whose faces, bodies, and voices do not look or sound like the models of the past.

Internet. 

Excerpt. Will Allen, The Good Food Revolution (p18): “Farming had taught me to have trust in the unseen. You plant for a harvest that you hope will arrive but that is never guaranteed. The opening of Will’s Roadside Farm Market required a similar kind of faith. I hoped it would be rewarded. Yet farming had also taught me to expect the unexpected. Two days of heavy rains could wash away a crop that you had worked on for weeks. A cruel drought could choke your plants, and they would come up stunted or withered. I didn’t know yet what would become of my dream.”

Daily life. A different writing perspective than usual.

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Forms of focus; tempora cum causis (17)

In The Content of the Form (1987), Hayden White discusses the Annals of Saint Gall’s chronicle of events from the 7th-10th centuries CE. White focuses upon entries for the 8th century CE (pp-6-7):

Saturday.jpg

This year-by-year list of events is interestingly selective. Many years have no entries despite the fact that, presumably, things did happen during that time. But not ones considered necessary to include. The criterion for inclusion also embraces different kinds of event, particularly moments of destruction: bad crops (but also…”great crops”), flood, death of elites, battles. In 732 CE, there was a battle “on Saturday” but no other information is given — not date, not month. The significance of these events is indeed emphasized by such selectivity — the act of omission puts these particular moments in sharper focus. But it’s hard to look at this and not see anything other than a partial record.

In Allusion and Intertext (1998), Stephen Hinds described how focusing upon an aspect of a whole has a “fragmentizing” effect (p103):

“A reading of Virgil which ‘fragments’ the Homeric model into discrete events ‘alluded to’ may reflect nothing more (and nothing less) than a basic interpretative imperative felt by the Virgilian reader to ‘freeze‘ Homer, to hold him still for a moment so that he can be contemplated from a Virgilian point of view.”

Here we have the idea that discussing, or in any way narrativizing, a point of reference is to freeze and hold that referent from a particular point of view, but also to break it off from its original context. An equivalent might be: pressing pause on a video shot from one person’s perspective. So despite the fact that we might be longing for wholeness — indeed, might even be subjected to a kind of wholeness on a daily basis — our perceptive and intellectual faculties create a kind of fragmentation even when we simply try to engage with the reality which surrounds us.

This week, I read (or rather, inhaled) Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020), which has just come out. (A few weeks ago I read about it in the New York Times review by Parul Sehgal.) This novel captures the dread of living in the present moment as an individual facing a future fragmented by climate change. The book itself proceeds in fragmented form, each entry a small paragraph:

These paragraphs might remind you of a number of things. Diary entries. Tweets. Words scribbled on the back on an envelope, or into the notes app. Offill’s novel, proceeding fragmentarily, argues like Hayden White: there is reality, it is happening, but our telling of it is distinct from that reality, and can only ever capture something partial. All narratives, White would argue, have to reckon with this. But Offill’s novel dramatizes this narrative problem, using it as a tool to bring to the foreground the movements of a internal human psychology as it responds to a variety of threats, from the banal of the everyday to the threat of climate destruction.

In my ancient women class this week, we were discussing the fragments of Sappho. Sappho (7th c. BCE) is an interesting figure, of course, because she has loomed so large and for so long in the imaginations of so many, despite the fact that, historically, her readers have only been able to access her work in partial forms. On twitter, there is a bot (@sapphobot) which periodically sends out verses of Sappho as translated by Anne Carson; these tweets are fragments in a number of senses — fragmented by textual transmission (via quotation or shattered papyri), by translation from Greek to English, by twitter’s character limit. In class, the students argued that fragments are more alluring than surviving wholes, and they are right. One student noted that people like “bite-sized” things now, miniatures of culture which can be easily consumed, and easily shared. The combination of ephemerality and immortality is potent. A fragment of Sappho can contain an expression of desire so profoundly human (it can also be a banal list of things). A tweet, an instagram story, captures something real (or something insignificant), and then it’s gone. Text and technology reflect the inherent process of fragmentation via focalization.

 

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A newly made piece of papyrus in the foreground; fragmentary papyrus from the 2nd c. CE (P. Oxy. 2288) containing Sappho poem 1.

Notes on “perfectionism”; tempora cum causis (16)

Villa_of_Liva_—_Triclinium_(14602772417)
Garden fresco in the Villa of Livia. Image: Wikimedia.

In the Brutus (71), Cicero, tracing the trajectory of Latin literature, writes: nihil est enim simul et inuentum et perfectum,Nothing is fully developed at the moment of its invention.” The Latin verb perficio, from which the English word “perfect” derives, means “to bring to completion” or “to finish.” In a different work, On the Nature of the Gods (2.35), Cicero, speaking from a Stoic perspective, describes this process of completion or finishing in terms of a natural growth which irresistibly strives beyond its current state. Here comes the Latin and the Loeb translation: 

neque enim dici potest in ulla rerum institutione non esse aliquid extremum atque perfectum. ut enim in uite ut in pecude nisi quae uis obstitit uidemus naturam suo quodam itinere ad ultimum peruenire, atque ut pictura et fabrica ceteraeque artes habent quendam absoluti operis effectum, sic in omni natura ac multo etiam magis necesse est absolui aliquid ac perfici. etenim ceteris naturis multa externa quo minus perficiantur possunt obsistere, uniuersam autem naturam nulla res potest impedire, propterea quod omnis naturas ipsa cohibet et continet.

Again, it is undeniable that every organic whole must have an ultimate ideal of perfection. As in vines or in cattle we see that, unless obstructed by some force, nature progresses on a certain path of her own to her goal of full development, and as in painting, architecture and the other arts and crafts there is an ideal of perfect workmanship, even so and far more in the world of nature as a whole there must be a process towards completeness and perfection. The various limited modes of being may encounter many external obstacles to hinder their perfect realization, but there can be nothing that can frustrate nature as a whole, since she embraces and contains within herself all modes of being.

Each of these discussions of “perfection” in Cicero suggests that the thing which is “perfect” is one which has been worked beyond an initial beginning of some kind — the event horizon of “invention” (inuentum), or the young tendril of vine — and imagines the possibility that such a start could be brought forward to its logical conclusion, its completion. Essentially, “perfection”, in these terms, requires a distance between the beginning and the end; an end cannot coexist with its beginning. It requires growth. Yet the fine line between the simplicity of completion, and the politics of “perfection” is blurred by Cicero too. The natural world may follow its own script, leading to the growth of plants and animals, but Cicero includes human artefacts in the same category: painting, architecture, “technology” (ceterae artes…). The idea that the perfect thing is the completed thing is a problem. Because, well. When is anything finished? There is a difference between completion (the point of fullness beyond which further growth is impossible), and a stop (a breaking off point). But what is it?

The English term “perfectionism” — i.e. the refusal to accept any standard short of “perfection” — did not arise until the 1930s (according to the OED), yet there is a shadow of this idea even in Cicero. In certain circumstances, Cicero writes, obstacles may arise which stand in the way of even nature’s “perfect” course. The anxiety of not meeting completion is there. Such anxiety enters at the moment when the concept of an “end” is complexified by judgement. A critical eye complicates the notion of completion, questioning the possibility of wholeness. The social phenomenon of perfectionism inserts a difficulty into the concept of the “perfect” as the completed thing, because perfectionism refuses to see completion.

As an antidote to a social disease which invalidates moments of closure (i.e. what even an “end” might mean for us), we might reconsider what it means to “begin” something. In How Societies Remember (1989), Paul Connerton figures the “beginning” as something more complex than a single moment of inception (p6):

“All beginnings contain an element of recollection. This is particularly so when a social group makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start. There is a measure of complete arbitrariness in the very nature of any such attempted beginning. The beginning has nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is as if it came out of nowhere…But the absolutely new is inconceivable. It is not just that it is very difficult to begin with a wholly new start, that too many old loyalties and habits inhibit the substitution of a novel enterprise for a new and established one.”

The beginning does not come out of nowhere. To some extent, a “fresh start” is impossible. All beginnings grow from old soil (to extend the horticultural metaphor). If the beginning is a blurred line, so too can the end be — that horizon line of “perfection.” If completion is not a full stop but a lingering note, then perfectionism may lose some of its power. There are, too, lots of moments of fullness along the way towards that blurry wholeness. The full embrace of perfectionism also means accepting the argument of teleology — that what comes next is inherently superior to what preceded it, that human culture is marching towards a pin point of perfection. Teleological thinking blinds us to points of significance outside a narrative of progress. Rejecting such thinking allows us to consider what it is, exactly, that we’re progressing towards.