Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Cats Do Not Exist

Slavoj Žižek is a strange sort.  He would not dispute that.  As he speaks, he shakes, he waves his hands dramatically, he plucks at his own clothing and he inflects the syllables of his words in an accent that is hard on the pampered ear.  He is energetic to the extreme.  He waxes from one point to the next without breaks or pauses, so that rather than transitioning between topics he plunges, like a man with a bayonet driving at enemy after enemy.  He is intolerant, particularly of rules, particularly those that relate to time, order, civility or pretense.

He is best when he stands alone, unrestrained, professing, ninety minutes at a time or more.  Question periods are inconveniences forced on him by banal university functionaries - some of whom have been posted at the table next to him in the hopes that somehow they will be able to restrain him.  Of course they cannot.  Žižek has been threatened in the officers of commissars; a scholastic lackey is no peril.

He's wonderful - and yet, I think, unendurable to many programmed to expect their intellectualism dispensed in the sweet, dulcet tones of an ivy school cerebral.

In this lecture, Žižek struggles to make a point about facts as we understand them, specifically in terms of what we accept as facts and how we inherently ignore these in spite of knowing them.  I would offer a quote, except - well, I'll give it a try.  Word for word, from 13:19 to 13:58:

"We can also call this the mechanism of what Freud sometimes refers to as, er, izolacija [slov.], isolation, where you accept a fact, but don't take it, don't - you do not - what you abstractly know . . . you do not really - how shall I put it - on a symbolic or effective level, you do not really integrate it.  You just rationally deal with it as if this is the case, but again, you somehow suspend its, let's call it symbolic efficiency."

I can't blame him for the difficulty in getting this message across.  To express it myself, I'll choose an actual fact.  You know that cats exist.  Yet, knowing this, you live your entire existence as though cats do not exist.  Even when you see a cat, even when you acknowledge that the cat is there, you do not resolve the cat's existence beyond this acknowledgement.  To yourself first, then to others as the matter arises, you express your total disbelief in cats - even as you yourself recognize the stupidity of this assertion.

This sounds crazy, but it's not something I haven't noticed; clearly Žižek has noticed it also, Freud must have (whatever you think of Freud, he was at least observant) - and if you think about it, you will be able not only to recognize the characteristic in others, but also in yourself.

However, perhaps you would not be able to after all.  Were I to confess something presently that is in my own mind of this nature, then in admitting it I would also be on some greater conscious level integrating it into my condition, no?

Nevertheless, this wouldn't be much of a post if I did not make the attempt.  Here goes:

I have trouble reconciling my drive to role-play or work on my world with the reality of what I might have been able to do if I had chosen to apply my capacity to other pursuits.  It is easier, for example, to simply argue that of all the people born in the world, one or two of them will possess a natural inclination towards spending most of their life portraying a fantasy landscape - even if, in terms of the 'real world,' this is of very little practical value.  It is not defending the poor, it is not healing the sick, it is not defending the country or even helping build the country.

Granted, yes, I can point to the few people who express gratitude, but I realize that the gratitude I could have received as a lawyer or an educator - either profession I could have applied myself towards - would have been more intrinsically useful to society.  I can pretend to the contrary all I wish; I can pretend the same to myself.  I can equally pretend that I never chose to be a role-player, that I was only 15 when I was introduced and that I was somehow duped, that I never had a choice because I was too young to make a choice - and that by the time I was wise enough to know I was spending too much time on D&D, it was too late to spend time on anything else.

Truth is, I knew it as I was spending too much time on it.  And I didn't care.  I did not care that other opportunities were available.  I did not spend a moment applying myself to anything except my love of writing or gaming.  Where an income was necessary, I performed at the level of least effort whenever possible, knowing I was doing it at the time and paying no attention whatsoever to the fallout from that.  I sleep-walked through cooking, even though I worked as a chef in a five-star restaurant.  I quit jobs when sleep-walking wasn't sufficient, finding another job whenever I wished for one.  I cut classes, skipped, produced course-work material the night before and still managed between a 3.3 and 3.5 grade point average (peak is 4.0 in Canada).  That was sufficient to call myself an 'honor' student, which was as much of a joke as its possible to express.  I did not 'honor' anything about university except that it gave me reading to do, a library to do it in and the possibility of discourse with others who were also reading.

In writing about the hair shirt I know I've got to put on, I'd be remiss if I did not say clearly that I could have put the hair shirt on a month ago.  I could have been applying myself harder to the task. I could be out right now raising money from patrons to pay for further printings of the book to press them onto the shelves of more bookstores.  Instead I blithely go on designing my D&D world while pretending to feel satisfied that I've gotten ten books on one store's shelf.

But then, cats don't exist.  Isn't that the point?  Cats do not exist.  And working on my world is a fine way to spend the evening.  Because there's nothing else I should be doing right now.


Tim said...

I should be studying instead of reading the blog right now. But it's always a matter of choice: I can rationalize as much as I want and it's still because of my choices that I'm commenting instead of getting back to work.

I like to comfort myself by thinking everyone has the problem of "Could I have been more valuable to society?" in some form or another. I mean, if you're taught that you're an individual all your life and then you end up just doing the same boring thing forever, then you may feel a bit disappointed in yourself, like you didn't seize the opportunities presented to you correctly. And I imagine most people who consider this topic live in places with large service industries and a very minimal dependency on agriculture and which put less value on hard work than on fortune. Because then you find yourself with some free time to consider how you're doing so far, and people oftentimes focus on criticism.

I won't quote some lazy, inspirational tripe because I can't say myself whether or not it should matter that some activities are intrinsically less valuable than others. I would like to think that it probably does not matter (regardless of what I do, I'll still die and be forgotten after enough time) if I just lived my whole life blithely doing whatever I felt like (so long as it kept within the social framework), taking on little sugary activities in the short term and occasionally focussing on the long term. If I didn't, maybe I'd be very goal-oriented and keep the long term in focus at all times and strive to make the world better, and that does seem, however, like a life "better-lived." But there's laziness and selfishness and pessimism and the thick haze of "if I do something, what's the point?" If people are grateful, or if the world is improved, or if I'm happier, is it better?

We don't really know. And even if a god came down to the earth tomorrow and announced what the point of life was, I'm sure there would be plenty of people who continue to say "that god does not exist," accepting the fact by the mechanism of isolation as Žižek puts it.

Jeremiah Scott said...

I had the opportunity of watching Žižek freewheel and rant for about 90 minutes at one of those banal university functions a few weeks ago. He really is a surreal, marvelous character.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, Tim, agreed.

I call it a trap because I'm trapped in it. The key is not that I could have avoided the trap or even that I deliberately chose not to avoid it, but that today I isolate all of that out of my thoughts (though of course they are always there, non-existent cats, etc) in order to focus on that which the trap allows me to do now. And to get over the limitations of my fascination with the game, I struggle out of the bonds of design when I feel strong enough to send an email to a shop or wave the fact of the book at the media in the expectation that something significant will happen - which it does from time to time, as the Chapters event demonstrates.

G.B. Shaw could not even do this much; he was so helpless in the face of the social construct that we would not even have heard of him except for his friends and particularly the woman who loved him - who made possible much of Shaw's success. I have such a woman - her name is Tamara and she sustains me.

For her, cats are real. It is good that I have her.