On ‘self-care’ and ‘mindfulness’; Hayden White; tempora cum causis (12)

Modern. When new terms enter the contemporary lexicon, it’s natural to find them kind of annoying at first. (I remember when ‘selfie’ was new and now I have no shame in using it, or taking them.) I’ve been annoyed with two in particular: 1) ‘self-care’; 2) ‘mindfulness.’* Yes, part of the annoyance is that when new catchwords arise they seem to be everywhere; the combination of their novelty and their ubiquity is probably what really rubs me the wrong way. But also: a new term needs time and repeated use to develop meaning, and that process of negotiation can reveal subtleties which complicate the word’s original intent. And there are some reasons to be distrustful of ‘self-care.’ The whole point, as I understand it, of self-care as an idea is that you disrupt your work habits (which you’ve feverishly developed in order to become, or remain, gainfully employed in the unstable economic landscape of 2020) in order to spend some time doing things that you actually like, which make you feel rejuvenated, and return to you some of your innate creative abilities. Okay! Well, obviously, the first issue is that time to yourself – the time to contemplate, to ‘do nothing’ (see: Jenny Odell), should, by all rights, be a bigger part of our lives in the first place. Secondly, self-care is often pitched not as a rebellion against the commodification and infestation of our private lives, but rather as its tool; i.e. self-care is supposed to rejuvenate us so that we can get back to work. At the “Facing Race” conference (Nov. 2016), Roxane Gay put it well (paraphrase via live-tweet): “I can’t stand the phrase self-care. It’s what women can do, but don’t do. We do it so we can work, but what comes next?”  

Lastly, self-care is regularly figured as a consumerist activity; you should try searching “self-care face mask” in twitter. Self-care as the deliberate derailing of learned habits of overwork is itself a good thing, I think. But it’s hard to practice. And as a result, self-care has entered the zeitgeist as something quite frivolous, a superficial manifestation of something that is mostly invisible; a negotiation with yourself, and your self-perception. Likewise, ‘mindfulness.’ The point of this, again, as I understand it, is to consciously pay attention to what is happening in the very moment; including, if not particularly, your own internal, emotional landscape. To put it oversimplistically, we only really have what we are experiencing right now. Sure: we have indications of the future; and we have records of the past. But we are experiencing the present. Mindfulness as a practice is intended to remind us of this, and to encourage us to engage in the present fully, and to perceive its granularities. And to give us the ability to understand when we are being drawn into behaviours which are not totally within our control.

When it comes down to it, I love twitter. Over the years it has brought me community and a sense of belonging in a field that is often quite severe towards its members. I like its pluralism; I thank it for giving me more perspectives on certain issues. I think it can be empowering. In Classics, it’s where a lot of the social justice work starts. And because my personal life is deeply intertwined with my professional life, it has also been good for my work. I never want to write a screed against its use, and indeed, despite its documented toxicities, I still find myself encouraging people to use it so that they can get their work out into the world. But for all its functionalities, I don’t always like how I feel when I use it. I don’t like mindlessly scrolling; and I don’t like the possibility that at any given moment of casual scrolling, I can be made to feel all sorts of negative emotions that were not there seconds ago (and twitter privileges emotionally volatile content). It’s a turbulance which I volunteer for, but I don’t have to. I don’t have to participate in the parts that are engineering me.

I don’t want to leave twitter. I did a hiatus last summer to work on my book, and I hated it. As much as I want to have time that is my own, I also want to engage with the internet soul. So, here’s what I’ve been thinking. Snail mail (physical letters! some things, they tell me, still exist in “material reality”, whatever that means) only arrives once a day. You check it, and then you know what you’ve got, and there won’t be another thing to check till tomorrow. You get on with your day. But twitter (and email, don’t get me started) can come for you whenever you open that app. Sometimes, I think about social media in terms of the functionality of Stardew Valley. Long story short, this is a very charming, and calming, farm simulator, which operates on a calendar with days and seasons. Every morning when you wake up in game, the fruits and vegetables whose seeds you had planted previously have produced new growth, which you can harvest. But this harvesting should only take up a little part of the day. After which, you can explore the world, talk to the characters, maybe go fishing or mining.

Yes, it’s a farming simulator, but even this game understands there’s more to life than your occupation! I want to treat social media and work emails like this. Harvest (i.e. open, and deal with?) once or twice a day. What I’m doing right now is letting every twitter or email notification take my attention whenever it sends me something, and this is the equivalent of virtually sitting in my field and staring at my crops until they tell me I can harvest them. Actually, the more I think about it, video games in general have a built-in mindfulness which reality sometimes does not. You, the protagonist, receive missions, but you choose in which order, when, or even if you want to do them. You can dissent from tasks given to you, you can (usually) take your sweet time and indulge in as many side quests as you want. We can learn something from this. There’s an intentionality which we often (or at least I do, I’ll speak for myself) willingly give up. But you can always get it back.

* ‘Self-care’ as a term actually appears with the meaning ‘self-interest’ as early as the 16th c., where it was used by the English poet, George Turberville‘s translation of Ovid’s Herodes (specifically: 19.205). ‘Mindfulness’ too has a long history, appearing in English as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something; attention” in the 16th c. (see Oxford English Dictionary). These terms are ‘new’ to the extent that they have reappeared in the context of a specific socio-cultural moment, in which the modern human life is structured according to 21st c. philosophies of productivity.

Internet.

Excerpt. Hayden White 2010*: 114: “The kind of understanding we get from following his story is different from the kind of understanding we might get from following his arguments. We can dissent from the argument while assenting, in such a way as to increase our comprehension of the facts, to the story itself.” 

*repr. of “The Structure of Historical Narrative” (1972)

Daily Life. I recently fell in love with cycling again because of Boston’s city bikes. It’s good stuff. 

Tom Habinek, realism vs. the ‘glob’, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (11)

Ancient. Last weekend was the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies. Since I was still back in the UK with my family over the New Year, I missed most of it, but I was there for the last day to take part in the panel commemorating Prof. Tom Habinek, who sadly died last year. Tom was my PhD advisor, and a major influence in the field of Roman Studies. The event was very poignant, but fitting. On Sunday evening I posted my part of the panel, which you can read here: “Tom Habinek on ‘generativity’.” 

Modern. In an essay originally published in 1971, “The Culture of Criticism”, Hayden White describes the frustrations of Ernst Gombrich, Erich Auerbach, and Karl Popper (respectively: art historian, philologist and literary critic, philosopher of science) with the avant-gardists as typified by, for example, the abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock. Each of these scholars held an attachment to realism; in some cases considering realism, in historiography and art alike, to be a means of resisting authoritarianism, with its power to overwrite the experience of reality by means of ideology. White (2010*: 105) writes that for these critics, historical, literary, or artistic realism, i.e. an attempt to represent reality as it actually is or was “results from the controlled interplay of human consciousness with a shifting social and natural milieu.” In the face of the fact that realism is supposed to reflect the human perception of reality, the avant-garde is taken by these critics to be a frustration of perception rather than a refinement of it. More than this, this break with tradition is a challenge to perception. White writes (2010: 107): 

“The surfaces of the external world, so laboriously charted over the last three thousand years, suddenly explode; perception loses its power as a restraint on imagination; the fictive sense dissolves — and modern man teeters on the verge of the abyss of subjective longing, which, Auerbach implies, must lead him finally to an enslavement once more by myth.”

(The fear of “myth” — figured as an antitype to so-called “rationality” in tandem with “realism” — has probably produced a number of negative results itself.) By the end of this essay, White (2010: 108-110) points to one of the real comforts of realism, one which lies in its hierarchical nature. Realistic art or narrative reflects a grammatically syntactical worldview, i.e. a mode of composition which privileges certain ideas over others, and arranges information around that privilege; whereas artefacts of the avant-garde might be interpreted as paratactical — presenting discrete elements “side-by side” (= παρά) in a “democracy of lateral coexistence” (2010: 109).

In Washington DC last weekend, I found myself face-to-face with Hans Hofmann’s Oceanic (1958) in the Hirshhorn Museum. I was really struck by the large heaps of paint in certain parts of the work, which I have now affectionately come to call “globs.” It feels appropriate!

Inspired by that visit, when I returned to Boston I wanted to go and look closely at more oil paintings in the MFA. Last night we got up close with some more excellent globs from Lee Krasner (Sunspots, 1963) and Joan Mitchell (Chamonix, c. 1962):

Digitization is vital, and I depend on it for my teaching and my scholarship, and I would never want digital resources to be taken away from me. But there is pretty much nothing like looking a glob straight in the eye, if you get the chance to. You can get a general sense of texture from a photograph. But the glob is just so noticeable IRL. Krasner applied oils straight from the tube onto the canvas for Sunspots, and you can tell. Looking at that painting tells the story of its making. As for Mitchell’s Chamonix, you can see the movement of her body in its wide, energetic strokes. Each is a record of embodiment, one which figurative, narrative, and supposedly veristic accounts tend to leave invisible. Back to Hayden White (2010: 110) one last time:

“The avant-garde insists on a transformation of social and cultural practice that will not end in the substitution of a new elite for an old one, a new protocol of domination for the earlier ones, nor the institution of new privileged positions for old ones — whether of privileged positions in space (as in the old perspectival painting and sculpture), of privileged moments in time (as one finds in the older narrative art of fiction and conventional historiography), of privileged places in society, in privileged areas in the consciousness (as in the conservative, that is to say, orthodox Freudian psychoanalytic theory), of privileged parts of the body (as the genitally organized sexual lore insists is ‘natural’), or of privileged positions in culture (on the basis of presumed superior ‘taste’) or in politics (on the basis of a presumed superior ‘wisdom’).”

* “The Culture of Criticism” (1971) is reprinted in The Fiction of NarrativeEssays on History, Literature, and Theory (2010), edited by Robert Doran.

Internet.

Excerpt. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1987: 44: “I thought about myself and art: that I could catch the likeness of anything I could see — with patience and the best instruments and materials. I had, after all, been an able apprentice under the most meticulous illustrator of this century, Dan Gregory. But cameras could do what he had done and what I could do. And I knew that it was this same thought which had sent Impressionists and Cubists and the Dadaists and the Surrealists and so on in their quite successful efforts to make good pictures which cameras and people like Dan Gregory could not duplicate.” 

Daily Life. We spent New Year’s Eve walking along the shore at Troon. 

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