Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Written Dialogue: Sense of Potentialities

Ethan: This is the sort of topic that I'm willing to let drift on the waves of our conjoined psyche, landing where it will. Perhaps on a lonely island, bereft of human touch. Perhaps on the loading dock of a world-wide intellectual trading hub.

It begins, though, with a simple premise, one that we have all experienced. You are walking down the street and you see a beautiful woman in the distance. As the two of you approach each other, a smile passes over her lips as your eyes meet. For a moment, you consider stopping. "Hi, what's your name," you would have asked. But you don't. Instead, the moment passes, as so many do, and she becomes nothing more than a memory...

Or is she more than that? 

Not HER, per se, but the moment, the decision, and their ramifications. What would have happened if things had been different? We all ask ourselves these questions, over and over again. Not only in the midst of that decisive moment, but also about the past. This is the first manifestation of what I call the sense of potentialities. It is nothing abnormal, nothing magical. It is simply the mental act of playing out these scenarios. We all possess enough common sense to figure out, more or less, the relative likelihood of events passing. Many would say to themselves, even if I had stopped and spoken to her, nothing would have come of it. No romance, no life together, no future. It would have been practically the same as what actually happened. 

But there is a small part of our minds that can entertain infinite potentiality. For we cannot deny the presence of this. Every decision we make, compounded by others, sends us careening down a path of infinite variety. It is only after the moment has passed that infinity becomes one and we are left with the sense that not all things are possible, that certain things are impossible, and perhaps in the darkest recesses of our minds, that all is pre-determined.

So yes, I am talking once more about free will, a topic that is so elusive, it very quickly begins to feel mundane, even as it subsumes nearly everything else we chat about. I am talking about the indelible flow of time, of possibility and probability. And I am talking about psychology. What do these questions do to us? What do the answers do to us? 

To set the conversation going, I will form a stance that has become my go-to thought-formation on most matters. It is one that combines the metaphysical limits wrought by post-modern philosophy, while simultaneously embracing the old notions of spirituality, mysticism, the collective unconscious, a universal and eternal permeating force that touches all at once. I believe that we have a real sense of potentialities that goes beyond the simple mental abilities we all acknowledge. I believe we can predict the future if we really try. Part of this is the uncanny power of self-fulfilling prophecies. But part of it is a true existence through all time. You are, all at once, what you were and what you will be. There are several mechanisms by which you are physically tied to the past and the future. And "sense" in the broadest sense can arise from any number of interactions, macro or micro, physical or spiritual, temporal or eternal. 

This is not to say that, in that moment, you can know exactly what will happen with you and the woman. For this would inherently deny the power of both players. What I am saying is that the reality formed in your mind is tangible in its own way. It must not be disregarded for being imaginary. It will persist just as much as the un-imagined reality will. Your sense of potentiality is strong, young one. You must be conscious of it, as you are of your other senses. Use it wisely, and the world is yours. But squander it, and all things will pass by without caring a whit for you. 


Zach: It begins, though, with a simple premise, one that we have all experienced. You are walking down the street and you see a beautiful woman in the distance. As the two of you approach each other, a smile passes over her lips as your eyes meet. For a moment, you consider stopping. "Hi, what's your name," you would have asked. But you don't. Instead, the moment passes,

What is the relation of this comment to the song You're Beautiful by James Blunt?

as so many do, and she becomes nothing more than a memory...

We're already in abstract territory. The fear I have about a topic like this is that it seems like a retreat into the realm of inexperience and psychic defense mechanisms. If the issue is not being able to have a woman, why not go straight into darker, but to me, more honest territory. Let's say that instead of repressing my sexuality, I go to the other extreme. The darkest, most horrific possible extreme. I see the girl, decide I want her, find a way to kidnap her, hold her prisoner in my basement for three weeks, and then dissect her on an operating table, having failed to convince her to love me. In this story, we have the same failure, but the sexuality is not repressed. It's the opposite of repressed. It's much more interesting to me. On the other hand, maybe you can keep it abstract and get away with it.

Or is she more than that? Not HER, per se, but the moment, the decision, and their ramifications. What would have happened if things had been different? We all ask ourselves these questions, over and over again. Not only in the midst of that decisive moment, but also about the past. This is the first manifestation of what I call the sense of potentialities. It is nothing abnormal, nothing magical. It is simply the mental act of playing out these scenarios. We all possess enough common sense to figure out, more or less, the relative likelihood of events passing.

My precious comment already addresses these comments.

Many would say to themselves, even if I had stopped and spoken to her, nothing would have come of it. No romance, no life together, no future. It would have been practically the same as what actually happened.

This act of repression is a little more interesting, because you get the free will versus fate dichotomy here, depending on the reason you repress yourself. If you repress the various possibilities as a psychic defense mechanism against the pain you would feel if she rejected you, then you're not really thinking about reality, you're simply substituting a story which prevents you from having to engage in a possibly awkward moment with a stranger. But it's possible that you actually know for a fact that nothing would have come of it. I for one have talked to and observed enough people to feel pretty confident about possible outcomes. While there may be much to gain and things to learn from talking to the woman, she may also be busy, tired, have prejudices against talking to someone on the street under these circumstances, or against talking to someone who looks and acts like me or you, or she might just be boring. The chances are indeed minuscule that she would be glad to get to know you better. They might be a little higher that she would be entertained by a brief conversation in the street. But then you'd have to ask yourself whether making her briefly happy was worth putting yourself out there like that.

But there is a small part of our minds that can entertain infinite potentiality. For we cannot deny the presence of this. Every decision we make, compounded by others, sends us careening down a path of infinite variety. It is only after the moment has passed that infinity becomes one and we are left with the sense that not all things are possible, that certain things are impossible, and perhaps in the darkest recesses of our minds, that all is pre-determined.

So yes, I am talking once more about free will, a topic that is so elusive, it very quickly begins to feel mundane, even as it subsumes nearly everything else we chat about. I am talking about the indelible flow of time, of possibility and probability. And I am talking about psychology. What do these questions do to us? What do the answers do to us? 

I just find the psychoanalytic topic of sexual repression much more interesting. This Freudian and Lacanian stuff has really been fun. What I like about it is that they start from the premise that sexual repression is a fact, and work from there. It has the great benefit of keeping the conversation on earth. Now you may be right about the world of infinite possibilities. But to me it feels like some 75-80 percent of what you're really talking about is sexual repression, and that all this highfalutin language is a dodge.

To set the conversation going, I will form a stance that has become my go-to thought-formation on most matters. It is one that combines the metaphysical limits wrought by post-modern philosophy, while simultaneously embracing the old notions of spirituality, mysticism, the collective unconscious, a universal and eternal permeating force that touches all at once. I believe that we have a real sense of potentialities that goes beyond the simple mental abilities we all acknowledge. I believe we can predict the future if we really try.

This is a specific psychological angle which is interesting unto itself. Unfortunately, I also have a psychological theory which may or may not bring it down to earth. For an ISFP, the third function they develop is Introverted Intuition ("Ni" for short). You'd have to distinguish between your generalized idea about predicting the future, and the mcuh more mundane process by which an ISFP develops their third psychological function. My brother's third function is also Intuition (though Ne the extraverted kind), but he definitely started talking about magical Deepak Chopra kind of stuff when he started dipping into it. In other words, what you call predicting the future is simply the use of the Ni function we all have. The type theory says that some people start with this one, only to acquire others later. Indeed, as an INTJ, I am an example. 

Part of this is the uncanny power of self-fulfilling prophecies. But part of it is a true existence through all time. You are, all at once, what you were and what you will be. There are several mechanisms by which you are physically tied to the past and the future. And "sense" in the broadest sense can arise from any number of interactions, macro or micro, physical or spiritual, temporal or eternal.

Have you seen V for Vendetta? It explores these themes in an "action movie" kind of way.

This is not to say that, in that moment, you can know exactly what will happen with you and the woman. For this would inherently deny the power of both players. What I am saying is that the reality formed in your mind is tangible in its own way. It must not be disregarded for being imaginary.

I actually like this. Most people live largely in a world of their own creation. One might get disappointed that people are so unable to live in the world of the Real, as Lacan calls it, but if you are simply willing to accept it as a fact, then it's easy to see why the internal "imaginary" drama could be as or more important than the external drama. Most people are just in a process of self-growth anyway. The woman on the street merely acts as a symbol, a stand-in, for a player who is part of a long running internal drama for the observer. 

It will persist just as much as the un-imagined reality will. Your sense of potentiality is strong, young one. You must be conscious of it, as you are of your other senses. Use it wisely, and the world is yours.

You're probably preaching to yourself more than anyone else, but who knows. Gurus do make careers out of saying pleasing things to people, with those who have ears for it becoming their followers.

But squander it, and all things will pass by without caring a whit for you.

Well said. The human instinct is very often towards being unconscious rather than conscious. So I try to preach the value of consciousness. You seem to be confirming that value here.


Ethan: Well, I did say I was willing to let this topic go where it pleased. And I also recognized the sub-topic lurking beneath the surface when I wrote the anecdote. At the time, I didn't exactly hone in on sexual repression. I was thinking more along the lines of loneliness, hope for love, faith, but also disappointment and despair. The sense of potentialities, then, is somewhat of a red herring, I'll admit. And yet, I'm not completely willing to let go of it. For I could have substituted a number of other anecdotes. Playing the lotto. Applying for a job. Cracking a joke, even. I am somewhat fascinated by potentiality as it relates to free will. 

I'll go on a bit of a tangent, and then maybe return. Maybe not. At one point in my past, I said that humans are like machines, but that machines have free will. At the time, I said that our conception of free will was simply lacking. I had somewhat of a realization on this front recently. What distinguishes humans from machines, and in fact, what distinguishes humans from animals for the most part, is the idea that humans are capable of taking the path less traveled, the hard road. Humans are capable of going above and beyond. I like the the metaphor of a short-circuit here. If you jam an electric system, it will short out, because that is what it does. It wants to release energy, so the quicker it can do that, the better. And for the most part, humans are the same. If we see an easy path before us, we will take it. But ethical theory requires us to challenge this view. It is precisely when we counter this norm that we find, in my eyes, ethical uniqueness and success. The whole reason to profess a theory of ethics is to account for this outer territory, this over-coding of behavior, if you will. Should I talk to the woman, though riddled with ulterior questions, is essentially analogous to: Should I work out; Should I write a chapter in my book; Should I start a podcast?

Perhaps we are not ready to tackle the rather difficult topic of free will and imagination. Perhaps we would be doing ourselves a favor by sticking to the ground, and going after a topic that we understand better. Namely, sexual repression and loneliness. Or, perhaps we can see this choice as advantageous. This is one of those things where I feel like you and I differ. I tend to favor the airy topics, the difficult ones, the challenging ones. I tend to want to press record before fully fleshing out a topic. I tend to prefer philosophy proper (ethics and metaphysics). Whereas you tend to prefer more practical questions, more manageable ones, a little more preparation, a slower pace. I wonder (suspect) that all this is connected, and that it comes down to our relative beliefs around the original question. What are our own personal senses of potentialities? How quick are we to explain away possibility? To assume we know what will happen? How much mystery do we still see in the universe? And, perhaps most importantly, how does all this relate to more practical matters, like joy and success?


Zach: I had somewhat of a realization on this front recently. What distinguishes humans from machines, and in fact, what distinguishes humans from animals for the most part, is the idea that humans are capable of taking the path less traveled, the hard road. Humans are capable of going above and beyond. I like the the metaphor of a short-circuit here. If you jam an electric system, it will short out, because that is what it does. It wants to release energy, so the quicker it can do that, the better. And for the most part, humans are the same. If we see an easy path before us, we will take it. But ethical theory requires us to challenge this view.

Your use of the term "ethical theory" causes reticence in me. I feel like "ethics" would be stronger, but even that feels abstract. While I can see where you're going, I wouldn't say "ethical theory." Theory implies it hasn't been proven, while ethics implies it has something to do with right and wrong. My view is that humans ability to use tools and their complex, symbol-making brain are what elevates them above most biology. Humans can defy "nature" because of their ability to replace the visceral onslaught of sense data with symbolic representations, and to experience those symbols instead, thus making it so that they don't always have to react directly to what's in front of them. I don't see rightness or wrongness in it, or even "theory" really.

It is precisely when we counter this norm that we find, in my eyes, ethical uniqueness and success. The whole reason to profess a theory of ethics is to account for this outer territory, this over-coding of behavior, if you will.

I wish I understood what you're talking about. 

Should I talk to the woman, though riddled with ulterior questions, is essentially analogous to: Should I work out; Should I write a chapter in my book; Should I start a podcast?

Perhaps we are not ready to tackle the rather difficult topic of free will and imagination. Perhaps we would be doing ourselves a favor by sticking to the ground, and going after a topic that we understand better. Namely, sexual repression and loneliness. Or, perhaps we can see this choice as advantageous. This is one of those things where I feel like you and I differ. I tend to favor the airy topics, the difficult ones, the challenging ones.

That's an insult, as I think your topics are easier than mine! You're daring to challenge the difficulty of my choices, then? I simply ask that you give me one area of real life which would change should the question of free will and imagination be resolved. You say they are difficult, but how is something where the answer doesn't even matter difficult? I am always looking for questions to which the answers matter for real people's lives. In general I have little faith in "airy" topics as a result. 

I tend to want to press record before fully fleshing out a topic. I tend to prefer philosophy proper (ethics and metaphysics). Whereas you tend to prefer more practical questions, more manageable ones, a little more preparation, a slower pace. I wonder (suspect) that all this is connected, and that it comes down to our relative beliefs around the original question. What are our own personal senses of potentialities? How quick are we to explain away possibility? To assume we know what will happen? How much mystery do we still see in the universe? And, perhaps most importantly, how does all this relate to more practical matters, like joy and success?

I have a Chinese proverb I like: The miracle is not to walk on water or fly in the air, but to walk on the earth. My attitude is that to be complete, a philosophy has to go to the end of the universe, and back, so that it can be used moment to moment in people's lives. I get no thrill from a fascinating thought anymore, only useful ones. Some of that might be an unwillingness to let myself fly endlessly because I don't believe in myself. But the rest is superior wisdom which knows that such thoughts are merely escapes. I don't really want to escape life, but to live it the most effectively that I can, and for that l need thoughts with uses.


Ethan: This is actually leading rather nicely into the territory covered in the next chapter of Deleuze and Guattari's "A Thousand Plateaus" which we have on the docket for philosophy meetup. It is all about semiotics! And since I plan on summarizing that chapter within the next week in preparation for the meetup, I will do a little preliminary summarization here with regard to your distinction between animals and humans.

D&G set up and describe four regimes of signs. The first is the "pre-signifying" regime of signs. This is a primitive regime, characterized by a heterogeneous mixture of gestures, rhythm, dance, and rite. It is more natural than the regime that we are most familiar with, the "signifying regime." In fact, they argue, the pre-signifying regime actually works to ward off the signifying regime. We'll soon see why. They use the philosophical persona of the nomad hunter to elicit this regime. But I also believe that animals make use of the pre-signifying regime. So I don’t really agree with the distinction you draw between humans and animals. I think animals perform much of the same symbolization of the world that humans do. Sound=Threat. Tree=Escape. Thunder=Rain. You’re right to cite tools and a sense of future-time as belonging solely to humans. But I believe the important difference is that animals never leave the pre-signifying regime. And that the cost of leaving this regime and entering the signifying regime is not worth the benefit of progress in the form of tools and a sense of the future. Unless, that is, one can truly go to the far reaches of the universe. That, we will find, is where we disagree the most. What exactly allows one to claim that he has made it there? If you ask me, you have to follow D&G to the end of the four regimes and beyond. All this stuff about animals and humans was merely an excuse for me to get there.

In any case, the signifying regime is characterized by the familiar pattern of sign referring to sign referring to sign ad infinitum. The persona they use in this case is the paranoid despot who sees in everything a sign for something else, who surrounds himself with a circle of priests to reinforce his interpretation, and they in turn attract a swarm of followers. They also classify a “post-signifying” regime that draws in the story of Tristan and Isolde, familiar to us from the episode on Robert A. Johnson's "We." They use the personae of passionate delusional lovers for the post-signifying regime. They spend considerable time discussing this regime, and have some very nicely laid out examples: Several stories of God-Prophet-People betrayals (Jesus, Cain, Moses, etc.); DesCartes’ cogito; and finally, 19th century psychiatry, the patient turning away from the psychiatrist who sits behind him, and the patient who does the sign interpretation. Finally, they speak of the “counter-signifying” regime, characterized by the fierce and war-like animal-raising nomads. The number is their weapon of choice.

To their credit, they fully recognize the artificiality of these categories. They could have chosen any number of ways to divide up and classify their "Several Regimes of Signs." They also recognize that every semiotic is already a mixed semiotic. It is not as if one chooses a regime and that is that. But regimes tend to dominate certain socio-political realms. And they tend to dominate people as well. Each of the four regimes is a self-propelling mechanism that garners power wherever it can, seeking to shut out and ward off the other regimes.

Why do I bring all this up? Because, as I was reading this chapter, I thought a lot about your philosophy and about what makes us different. I have always maintained that you and I hold fundamentally different views of the world, and that this difference (or these differences) has profound implications for our everyday lives, not to mention for our partnership. In this chapter of D&G, I found a new jumping off point for this discussion. I will speak now about what I thought while reading it, and subsequently. And fair warning, this is going to get personal.

You are a paranoid despot. It is no coincidence that you bring up symbols so much, for it is the primary sign in your regime. You see symbols in everything, and you reduce these symbols to arche-forms, in a very Platonic way. But I have always felt something was missing from your philosophy. In my eyes, it doesn't quite go far enough. You demand examples, and can only ever understand an idea when it is familiarized through signs, because they fit in your regime. Your regime is fed by the interpretation of signs. But even Socrates knew that an example of something is not enough to get at its essence. By insisting on demonstrability, you are short-changing the universe.

This does not mean your system fails. In fact, it works all the better for stopping short.The image of the paranoid despot is increasingly appropriate. Indeed, he gathers and maintains power, but at the same time, he closes off the rest of the world, forming around himself a tightly-knit circle. The result is a small view as opposed to a global-view. Just look at how you engage in discourse with me, taking parts of what I am saying and reacting to them. Failing to encounter what I am saying as a whole and thus failing to form a whole of your own.

There is another scheme that D&G sketch out. This is their answer to the inadequacies of all four of the regimes they lay out previously in the chapter. Replace the symbol with the diagram. Replace the root with the rhizome. No one says it better than them, and this in response to the Cartesian "I think therefore I am" as well as the passionate delusional semiotic of Tristan and Isolde: "Make consciousness an experimentation in life, and passion a field of continuous intensities, an emission of particles-signs. Make the body without organs of consciousness and love. Use love and consciousness to abolish subjectification: 'To become the great lover, the magnetizer and the catalyzer ... one has to first experience the profound wisdom of being an utter fool.' Use the ‘I think’ for a becoming-animal, and love for a becoming-woman of man. De-subjectify consciousness and passion."

Do I think my topics are more difficult than yours? Yes, and I think the difference (both from a substantial and a perspectival level) comes down to what we are each trying to do. Our respective regimes of choice. I think your topics are easy because they emerge as do the rantings of a paranoiac (a position I understand quite well, as I have had an episode of paranoid delusion where everything meant something and it all led up to a vast conspiracy encircling me). My topics are difficult because they are never finished. I am trying to sketch a diagram. This is one reason why I think these written dialogues can go on forever. You can easily cut off a chunk of a rhizome. You can end a conversation. You can say I am projecting. You can say it is all a defense mechanism. You can castrate a man! But you can never truly root him.

I am doing myself no favors staking out this territory, I am subjecting myself to attempted rootings at every turn. I believe that the difficulty most people find while reading D&G is necessary. It is par for the course. Because they are describing stuff that cannot be described. Deleuze himself hinted at this early in his career when he wrote "Difference & Repetition." You cannot think about the essence of difference without drawing in specific examples that call to the parts instead of the whole. Always, when thinking about difference, we are drawn to the two poles, and not to the space between. Difference is a difficult topic. A bold topic. And Deleuze chose to write his masterpiece about it.

When you adopt a regime of signs, or a philosophical mode, it informs every other aspect of your life. Yes, your sense of potentialities is undoubtedly squashed in the signifying regime. But so is your potential. I really believe that you are holding yourself back, Zach. And the only reason I state this so forcefully is that I think it is holding us back as well. I don't have much hope of changing you, but I will state it plainly nonetheless. I encourage you to drop the act, to let fly the loose tendrils holding everything in place, to adopt a more diagrammatic approach to thought, as opposed to a symbolic order. Kill the old guard. There are plenty of heroes out there!


Zach: It's strange. One or both of us must be projecting. You think I am holding myself back. I have arrived at a different conclusion. I think I am merely adjusting myself to your limitations. This is not the ecstatic release (and/or terror) one might get if one just disappeared into psychic oblivion by letting oneself go. I suppose you are disappointed that I identify so strongly with my "wise person" persona - that I simply do not trust you, the public, or any of my circle of friends to understand and accept what is really on my mind in the form it takes when I talk to myself. If this is what you're calling paranoia, then so be it. My experience is that nobody really understands me in my true inner form. I have learned to become my own best listener to myself. So I can't help but think you're projecting when you think I'm holding myself back - it's true, I admit it - I AM holding myself back, and there's no reason why I shouldn't.

The way I am with the show is almost always because I am trying to make a good show for the listener - for some reason, I am able to keep this listener in mind the whole time, and I think it is why our show is as good as it is. But that listener is not ME. It's possible that when I write my book, I will be talking as if to myself. But on our show, I actually have to keep the discussion within the realm both of what the audience can handle, and what YOU can handle. I have to adapt to YOUR range.

I've been making a separation in my head regarding what the podcast, The Ethan and Zach Trio, is about, and what I want to put in my other future works. If I ask myself, would I rather have the podcast I have, limited in range though it is, or no podcast, the answer is always that I'd rather have the podcast. Whenever I've tried to make solo videos, or other things (e.g. blog) I have run out of steam. I'm not saying that I'll never have the energy to do a show entirely on my own, but for now, I don't, which means that if I don't have a show with someone else, then I don't have a show at all. And as you know, I like what I have to offer. I wish I were asked to give my opinions on all sorts of shows. I think I have a rare voice and I wish all intelligent people sought it out. But I need the interaction. I need someone else to play off of. What this means is that the Ethan and Zach Trio is what it always was: it's what happens when one takes Ethan and Zach and puts them together. It's not who Zach is when he's alone, or who he would be if you combined him with anyone else.

My main task now is to continue to figure out, not what I would do on my own, but what specific things will make our partnership work best. That's kind of what I'm getting at with the loneliness episode, that it's the last topic I am doing which really does represent what I would do on my own. After that, the wound is healed. I can focus on what would be best for the show, taking both of us into account, not just myself.


Maybe we should do a series of episodes digging into Deleuze, where you try to teach me what he is saying, and I try to represent the down-to-earth listener who needs it to be explained in plain English, if possible. I don't really understand Deleuze. It might be a good way to proceed. But if you've been worried about my being paranoid thus far, prepare yourself for double the trouble, because I am telling you I am now adjusting what I do to what works best with YOU. It's no longer just me adjusting myself for the audience, but for you too at the same time. My own "true" self will recede even further into the paranoid mists.

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