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. 

Meroë Augustus, “Outer Worlds”, Maurice Blanchot; tempora cum causis (4)

Ancient. The Meroë Head of Augustus (British Museum). 

It’s hard for me to say that I have a favourite art object from the ancient world, but one which I come back to somewhat regularly is the head of Augustus (27-25 BCE) from Meroë which is now in the British Museum. This is a striking example of a phenomenon which occurs so much with objects (and texts) from antiquity; an act of ancient destruction ironically preserves the artefact into modernity. Strabo (17.54) tells us that in the Roman period, statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them when they raided Roman forts and settlements in Upper Egypt in 25 BCE. Most were later returned as a result of negotiations between the Meroitic Candace (Queen) Amanirenas and the Roman general Gaius Petronius. This bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus was excavated from under the step of a shrine of Victory in the Kushite city of Meroë. It is thought to have been ritualistically placed there after the head was deliberately removed from the rest of the statue, as a symbol of Meroitic victory over Rome. The history of this object documents a history of defiance. And the x-rays are totally creepy. See more images from the British Museum. 

Modern. This week we’ve been playing the newly released Outer Worlds. We’re only a few hours in because, as elder- and middle-aged-millennials, we find ourselves too tired after our day’s work to be able to focus for very long on our beloved video games. As I play, Outer Worlds makes me think about some very dear favourites: the suite of companions and the resulting cross-chatter calls to mind the Bioware games I love (the original Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age: Inquisition in particular); the layout of the Unreliable resembles the interior of the Serenity from Firefly (and there are correspondences between the crews: e.g. Parvati/Kaylee; the presence of a priest-figure: Vicar Max/Shepherd Book); and, of course, the visual aesthetic, sound design, game design, and textual components of the Fallout games. (Although, I will say this: while Fallout games felt immeasurably vast, full of adventure, Outer Worlds feels small; deliberately, claustrophobically small.) The moon-headed Spacer’s Choice person reminds me of Futurama’s moon-headed Luna Park person (“Craterface“); which itself recalls the Man in the Moon in Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902).

I’m sure it has been said before that some video games function like literature. In Classics, we regularly talk about literary intertextuality: i.e., when one text draws (usually consciously) on a prior text. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 14.814 is a verbatim verse of Ennius’ Annales 54 (Skutsch; cf. Hinds 1998: 14-15), consciously pointing out the fact of allusion in the act of making it. This is indeed how Stephen Hinds in the famous Allusion and Intertext (1998), introduces textual reflexivity (p1):

“…alluding poets exert themselves to draw attention to the fact that they are alluding and to reflect upon the nature of their allusive activity. Certain allusions are so constructed as to carry a kind of built-in commentary, a kind of reflexive annotation, which underlines or intensifies their demand to be interpreted as allusions.”

It strikes me that this recursively citational mechanism is something that also happens in video games, but we don’t usually name it as a good thing. Too much of a precursor in your game makes you derivative, not a cleverly tongue-in-cheek auteur who knows well what came before and is trying to outdo, or signal respect towards, the past even in the act of alluding to it. What I’m trying to say is that the intertextuality of video games is an inherently interesting thing. Reframing the relationship of games to one another within the context of  literary intertextuality allows us to observe a conscious response to how culture is absorbed and redeployed. Sci-fi has the tropes which belong specifically to itself, and so new artefacts in the science fiction genre will have to deal allusively with that enormous baggage: sifting out which references to forefront, which to reject. The sampling and referential nature of Outer Worlds has invited me to reflect (pleasantly) on how video games build on and subvert one another, as well as the broader traditions which inform them. There’s another dynamic here as well: yes, games take stories from precursors; they also take mechanics. If one game has pleasing and satisfying play, then another might adopt parts of that gameplay not only as an allusion, but an acceptance that the embodied nature of play is moving in one direction over another, based on user experience. Citationality is an operative part of video game design, and when it’s done well it can be very good indeed.

Internet.

Excerpt. Maurice Blanchot 1995: 2 (Ann Smock trans.): “The circle, uncurled along a straight line rigorously prolonged, reforms a circle eternally bereft of a centre.”

Daily Life. I started my little lending library in my office! I will be adding so many more books soon. 

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