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.


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. 

The Witcher and Star Wars IX; tempora cum causis (10)

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With the release on the same day (Dec. 20th 2019) of both the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher and the final installation of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, this week we got an object lesson on how cultural criticism works on a mass scale. Before we dive in to either of these, I want again to invoke Jia Tolentino’s analysis of social media as a commercially driven organ, designed to privilege negative or otherwise emotionally provocative content. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino writes that over time, personal lives transforming into public assets via social media meant that “social incentives — to be liked, to be seen — were becoming economic ones” (2019: 6). She goes on: “Twitter, for all its discursive promise, was where everyone tweeted complaints at airlines and bitched about articles that had been commissioned to make people bitch” (2019: 7-8). Looking at the internet as an exercise of performativity (one that extends and magnifies the natural human performativity of the offline world), Tolentino writes that “the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive” (2019: 8). In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell (2019: 18) discusses social media too, drawing in the remarks of Franco Berardi: 

“Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits ‘is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous.’ Instances of censorship, he says, ‘are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company.’ [Berardi 2011: 35] It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.”

The commercial incentive of online interaction is what particularly disturbs Odell; the communities and networks of social media are one thing, the design of such platforms to fulfill a capitalist purpose is another. Odell continues (2019: 60):

“Our aimless and desperate expressions of these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quicky outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.”

All of this has a bearing on what happened this week. When Netflix dropped The Witcher last Friday, it was met with some noteworthy and negative reviews. Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin’s “Netflix’s The Witcher is nakedly terrible: Review” (Entertainment Weekly) gave the series an F grade, with a 0/100 on Metacritic. These reviewers immediately, and justifiably, came under fire themselves given that they admitted that they did not watch the series in its entirety. Reponse to The Witcher has been divided: critics hate it, the public loves it. So is The Witcher any good? One of the barriers here is the general distaste for “genre” pieces. Some might avoid science fiction, fantasy, or romance just because it is labled so. Ursula K. Le Guin took on this problem in her essay, “Genre: a word only a Frenchman could love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter, 2019: 10):

“So we have accepted a hierarchy of fictional types, with ‘literary fiction,’ not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the ‘genres,’ are either listed in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a garbage heap at the bottom. This judgemental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of ‘If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction.'” 

In the preface to her (critically acclaimedThe Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin had already drawn attention to the fact that science fiction, like any literature, is about its present, not the future (1969/1999: xvi):

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of those metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”

The Witcher is not actually “about” magic and monsters; it’s about the relationship between storytelling and reality (Jaskier’s song vs. Geralt’s action), about the pain of isolation (Yennefer), about trying to live your life despite tempestuous circumstances (Geralt); it’s about assembling strange families, when biological ones fail (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri). Assigning an F to The Witcher because it successfully engages with its own genre, one which you, the reviewer, do not know or care enough about to situate the object of your critique within, removes the rich layers of cultural entanglement which may make such a show worthwhile to a viewer like me. Le Guin continues (2019: 10): “If you don’t know what kind of book you’re reading and it’s not the kind you’re used to, you probably need to learn how to read it. You need to learn the genre.”

I’m not coming at this from a neutral perspective, since I voraciously played and replayed, and loved Witcher 3. But is Netflix’s The Witcher “objectively bad”? No, it’s not. It has haunting performances from Anya Chalotra (Yennefer) and Henry Cavill (Geralt) is perfection. The fight scenes are incredible. And it’s beautiful to look at. Yes, they say “destiny” too many times. But, look, it’s a romp!

On to Star Wars, then. Since we kept up our tradition of seeing the newest Star Wars on Christmas eve, I was aware of an enormous amount of critical disappointment and fan anger regarding the latest installment before I saw the film itself. You know what? It was fine. Yes, it had a very fast pace, and it wasn’t seamless with the trilogy’s own self-mythologizing. The Star Wars universe is full of holes because of the method of its composition; to some extent the writing, and overwriting (if you think that’s what J.J. is doing) resembles the process of story development in the oral tradition of the Greek epic canon, and in its reception. Consider Odysseus in the Iliad vs. Odysseus in the Odyssey vs. Odysseus in Sophocles’ Ajax. Indeed, the empty spaces projected by Star Wars are part of its charm: it’s a perfect landscape for imaginative rethinking, whether in the form of fan fiction, fan art, or roleplaying games like Edge of The Empire. That Star Wars captures the modern imagination so strongly is somewhat ironically reflected in the strength of the vitriol against it (and in the fan art. Peruse #reylo only if you dare).

All of this might be fine if it really were so simple. The emotional economy of the internet has a role to play here, but in this case we end up in a different place than we did with The Witcher. Anthony Breznican of Vanity Fair recorded J.J. Abrams’ public response to the backlash against TROS :

“After a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, I [=Breznican] asked Abrams what he would say to those who are unhappy. Are they not getting something? Is there a problem in the fandom? ‘No, I would say that they’re right,’ he answered quickly. ‘The people who love it more than anything are also right.’ The director had just returned from a global tour with the film, where he also fielded questions about that mixed reaction. ‘I was asked just seven hours ago in another country, ‘So how do you go about pleasing everyone?’ I was like’ What…?’ Not to say that that’s what anyone should try to do anyway, but how would one go about it? Especially with Star Wars.’ With a series like this, spanning more than four decades, nearly a dozen films, several TV shows, and countless novels, comics, and video games, the fanbase is so far-reaching that discord may be inevitable. ‘We knew starting this that any decision we made — a design decision, a musical decision, a narrative decision — would please someone and infuriate someone else,’ Abrams said. ‘And they’re all right.'”

You can see how the viewers’ response to Star Wars might be taken as a reflection of contemporary political and cultural life in the US. In the New York Times, Annalee Newitz affirmed Le Guin’s view that cultural artefacts, sci-fi or not, are reflective of the society which produces and consumes them:

Star Wars became a new national mythos; it rebooted America’s revolutionary origin story and liberty-or-death values using the tropes of science fiction. Now, however, the movies no longer strike the same chord. Just as America’s political system is falling into disarray again, our cultural mythmaking machine is faltering as well.”

How and why we critique Star Wars may well reflect some deeper truth about the times we live in, but there’s another dark side to all this (get it?). To some extent the divided criticism is irrevelant, given that TROS earned an enormous amount of money. Indeed, the controversy only helped bring in the dollars (not to mention all the baby yodas hiding under the xmas trees this year). We entrusted our storytelling to a capitalist behemoth, and it’s disconcerting that cultural criticism has no impact on its forward march. Some have suggested that the F rating which Entertainment Weekly gave The Witcher was motivated by a desire to get more eyeballs (and more $) by artificially stirring up controversy. Given that the internet runs on divisiveness and ire (these are our social currencies), that might have been an economically shrewd move. But was it good cultural criticism?

Jenny Odell on Cicero, Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr.; tempora cum causis (9)

Ancient and Modern. In the De Fato (10-11), Cicero discusses whether it is possible for the individual to overcome their nature. Here comes the Loeb:

Stilponem, Megaricum philosophum, acutum sane hominem et probatum temporibus illis accepimus. Hunc scribunt ipsius familiares et ebriosum et mulierosum fuisse, neque haec scribunt vituperantes sed potius ad laudem, vitiosam enim naturam ab eo sic edomitam et compressam esse doctrina ut nemo umquam vinolentum illum, nemo in eo libidinis vestigium viderit. Quid? Socratem nonne legimus quemadmodum notarit Zopyrus physiognomon, qui se profitebatur hominum mores naturasque ex corpore oculis vultu fronte pernoscere? stupidum esse Socratem dixit et bardum quod iugula concava non haberet—obstructas eas partes et obturatas esse dicebat; addidit etiam mulierosum, in quo Alcibiades cachinnum dicitur sustulisse. [11] Sed haec ex naturalibus causis vitia nasci possunt, exstirpari autem et funditus tolli, ut is ipse qui ad ea propensus fuerit a tantis vitiis avocetur, non est positum in naturalibus causis, sed in voluntate studio disciplina; quae tollentur omnia si vis et natura fati…firmabitur.

“The Megarian philosopher Stilpo, we are informed, was undoubtedly a clever person and highly esteemed in his day. Stilpo is described in the writings of his own associates as having been fond of liquor and of women, and they do not record this as a reproach but rather to add to his reputation, for they say that he had so completely mastered and suppressed his vicious nature by study that no one ever saw him the worse for liquor or observed in him a single trace of licentiousness. Again, do we not read how Socrates was stigmatized by the ‘physiognomist’ Zopyrus, who professed to discover men’s entire characters and natures from their body, eyes, face and brow? He said that Socrates was stupid and thick-witted because he had not got hollows in the neck above the collarbone—he used to say that these portions of his anatomy were blocked and stopped up. He also added that he was addicted to women—at which Alcibiades is said to have given a loud guffaw! [11] But it is possible that these defects may be due to natural causes; but their eradication and entire removal, recalling the man himself from the serious vices to which he was inclined, does not rest with natural causes, but with will, effort, training; and if the potency and the existence of fate is proved…all of these will be done away with.”

In this passage, Cicero describes some of the quote-unquote defects which naturally arise in humans. Stilpo (4th c. BCE) reportedly had a natural proclivity for alcohol and sex with women; he was, according to friends, ebriosus (“addicted to drink”) and mulierosus* (“addicted to women”). But, Cicero says, Stilpo was able to master his nature with philosophical training (doctrina), and was never seen drunk again, and showed no outward sign of lust. Zopyrus (5th c. BCE), applied physiognomy, i.e. the theory that human character can be read in the condition of the body, to Socrates and concluded from the philosopher’s body that he could only be an idiot. Oh, and that he must also be “addicted to women” (mulierosus again). Cicero writes that nature may be responsible for giving us certain tendencies. But, he says, it is human agency that can overcome them: “will” (voluntas), “effort” (studium), and “training” (disciplina). This passage, of course, contains an oversimplistic attitude to addiction as well as an ablest assumption that bodily imperfection is a mirror of morality or intellect. It’s also quite clear that these anecdotes are designed to reflect male power in the context of elite competition: the detail that the notorious party animal, Alcibiades, laughed at Zopyrus calling Socrates names suggests a symposiastic setting (Phaedo’s dialogue, Zopyrus, dramatized a debate between the physiognomist and Socrates). Putting those things aside, what do we make of Cicero’s claim that we can overcome our nature?

In the recent (and superb), How to Do Nothing (2019)Jenny Odell cites this passage of Cicero’s De Fato (pp71-72) in the context of arguing for the creation of a “third space” of attention — one which reframes human interaction with reality as a kind of rejection of market forces and commercially-run social media. The book as a whole is a meditation on and a protreptic towards a modern kind of recusatio, i.e. the technique of saying “I would prefer not to.” Odell asks her reader to refuse to internalize the contemporary narrative of productivity, and to reclaim time and space to “do nothing.” (There are a lot of classical references throughout — Seneca, Epicurus, Diogenes. And Cicero’s cum dignitate otium is clearly a spiritual forebear.) Here’s what Odell says about this passage of Cicero (p72):

“If we believed that everything were merely a product of fate, or disposition, Cicero reasons, no one would be accountable for anything and therefore there could be no justice. In today’s terms, we’d all just be algorithms. Furthermore, we’d have no reason to try to make ourselves better or different from our natural inclinations. VOLUNTATE, STUDIO, DISCIPLINA — it is through these things that we find and inhabit the third space, and more important, how we stay there. In a situation that would have us answer yes or no (on its terms), it takes work, and will, to keep answering something else.”

The possibility of escaping (or mitigating) the frailties of human psychology and embodiment which Cicero suggests relies on the intentional application of the mind (or soul). Odell would have us apply ourselves in this way as an act of resistance against cynical structures of social influence. The concept of “will” (voluntas) invokes the notion of presence — or attention — the ability to be here in the moment, to have an appreciation for the moment in all its granularities. To “focus” (studium). As for the “training” (disciplina), this obviously could take a number of forms. But evidently self-awareness, and awareness of the churning forces around you, is at the core of this idea.

*Mulierosus is quite an unusual Latin word! It only appears in extant classical Latin three times. According to Aulus Gellius (4.9.2), quoting “mulierosus” as discussed by the Pythagorean magician, Nigidius Figulus, the Latin suffix –osus indicates an excess of the characteristic in question.


Excerpt. Suzanne McConnell on Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 2019: 134-135: “By its nature, literary fiction ‘teaches’: it shows how people feel, think, respond, vary; how circumstances affect them; how their brains, personalities, surroundings and culture make them tick. How an experiences strikes a particular person a certain way, and another differently. How a person feels inside as opposed to how they act or are perceived. And so on. All writing teaches — communicates something about something. [p135] Even bad writing. So if you’re writing, you’re teaching. You can’t help it. But then there’s intentional teaching through writing.”*

*Austin came into the room to point to a passage written by Vonnegut (on teachers and teaching) which was quoted on this page. So I thank him for the excerpt this week.

Daily Life. Max helped me grade.