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  • Mark 8:24 am on July 3, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Nietzsche,   

    The light we steal when we write our books 

    “Books and drafts mean something quite different for different thinkers. One collects in a book the lights he was able to steal and carry home swiftly out of the rays of some insight that suddenly dawned on him, while another thinker offers us nothing but shadows – images in black and grey of what had built up in his soul the day before.”

    ― Friedrich Nietzsche

  • Mark 11:01 am on July 21, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Nietzsche, , ,   

    Nietzsche on the narrow chamber of human consciousness 

    From the Third Treatise: What Do Ascetic Ideals Means of On The Genealogy of Morality:

    Much more frequent than this sort of hypnotic general suppression of sensitivity, of susceptibility to pain – which presupposes even rarer forces, above all courage, contempt of opinions, “intellectual stoicism” – is the attempt at a different kind of training against conditions of depression, one that is in any case easier: mechanical activity. That this relieves a suffering existence to a not inconsiderable degree is beyond all doubt: today this fact is called, somewhat dishonestly, “the blessing of work.” The relief consists in this: that the interest of the sufferer is thoroughly diverted from the suffering – that is continually doing and yet again only doing that enters into consciousness and, consequently, that little room remains in it for suffering: for it is narrow, this chamber of human consciousness! Mechanical activity and that which belongs to it – like absolute regularity, punctual unreflected obedience, one’s way of life set once and for all, the filling up of time, a certain permission for, indeed discipline in “impersonality,” in self-forgetfulness, in “incur Sui”-: how thoroughly, how subtly the ascetic protest knew how to use these in the battle with pain.

    Today we see mechanical activity pursued with even greater vigour, heavily individualised though no less regimented. This is exactly what I’ve been trying to express in the last few years in my writing on cognitive triage: how we embrace the narrowness of the cognitive chamber, losing ourselves in movement in order to blot out the existential challenges which otherwise impinge involuntary upon our consciousness.

    (Translated by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Seensen in a 1998 Hackett Publishing edition)

    • Sourav Roy 11:07 am on July 21, 2018 Permalink

      Yet again, just the words I was looking for, but didn’t know I was.

    • landzek 10:14 pm on July 21, 2018 Permalink

      I thought that he was expressing the relief of suffering upon the realization that the suffering is not due to some sort of moral lack, Or better that morality is not attached to whatever sufferingis going on. Like he is indicating that suffering is basically a self-centeredness, in so much of self-centeredness is based on the idea that consciousness is some based in some sort of transcendence, some sort of essential beyond human Ness. The discomfort is then just take it in stride because one knows that it is an automatic feature of ones being for that period or the moment. One realizes that whatever thinking is going on could not have been any other way and neither could any sort of suffering occur in any other way. It is a contradiction but I think he was really talking with in contradiction, not rejection of it. Within the contradiction of suffering lies no suffering.

  • Mark 9:06 pm on May 5, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Nietzsche, ,   

    When writing is hard 

    I’ve spent the last week struggling to finish a book chapter which I had assumed I could sit down and complete in an afternoon’s work. I’d forgotten how frustrating writing can be. In fact I can’t remember the last time I found something this difficult to write. I’d forgotten how weirdly gruelling it can feel, as each paragraph feels like a battle with the page:

    The pen is stubborn, sputters – hell!
    Am I condemned to scrawl?
    Boldly I dip it in the well,
    My writing flows, and all
    I try succeeds. Of course, the spatter
    Of this tormented night
    Is quite illegible. No matter:
    Who reads the stuff I write?

    – Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude: 59

    I think Nietzsche is talking about pushing through this frustration, simply getting words down on the page and refusing to obsess about their quality. This is what I’m doing now simply because it feels rude to do anything else for a chapter that’s five days late. But I really don’t like writing like this.

    Writing can often be an enormously energising activity for me. It can sometimes feel like something that balances me, in the sense that it gets ideas out of my mind into the world, leaving me with more mental space to think about the world rather than the ideas. However writing past a deadline just feels mechanical. I also write so much more slowly under these circumstances. This is remarkably frustrating to me at the moment. 

    • Marie-Pierre Renaud 9:31 pm on May 6, 2014 Permalink

      You and me both!

      It’s hard finding motivation and creativity when it’s not there, and pressure makes things worse as you say. Blogging becomes a great temptation because it is so easy in comparison to writing a chapter. It always helps me to check The Thesis Whisperer of Doctoral Writing SIG, or take a minute to remind myself why it actually matters that I write.

      Good luck with your work!

    • Mark 3:17 pm on May 7, 2014 Permalink

      this is very true! –> “Blogging becomes a great temptation because it is so easy in comparison to writing a chapter”


  • Mark 9:53 am on February 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , character, , Nietzsche, , virtue ethics   

    Nietzsche, Consciousness and Virtue Ethics 

    I was recently intrigued to encounter Nietzsche’s evolutionary account of consciousness and find how completely I agreed with it. I would use different language but the point is pretty much the same: a faculty slowly emerges from our biological nature which, as we attain awareness of it, comes to be seen as constituting our essence (partly because, as I’d add, it becomes increasingly important for everyday life as human systems grow in complexity):

    Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and unstrong. Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary, “exceeding destiny,” as Homer puts it. If the conserving association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish of its misjudgements and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity – in short, of its consciousness; rather, without he former, humanity would long have disappeared.

    Before a function is fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and it is good if during in the interval it is subjected to some tyranny. Thus consciousness is tyrannised – least by our pride in it. One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate and most original in him. One takes consciousness for a determinate magnitude. One denies its growth and its intermittences. One takes it for the “unity of the organism”.

    • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One: 11

What I find more difficult to understand is the normative account Nietzsche develops on the back of this. He seems to argue that taking “consciousness for a determinate magnitude” which is the “unity of the organism” leads to a lack of attentiveness to the possibilities inherent in the capacity of being conscious. In taking consciousness as self-present and self-grounded, we fail to recognise the potential for change and growth (self-transcendence?) inherent in possessing this capacity:

This ridiculous overestimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all too fast development of consciousness. Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it; and things haven’t changed much in this respect. To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernible; it is a task that is seen only by those who have comprehend that so far we have incorporated only our errors and that all our consciousness relates to errors.

  • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One: 11

What really intrigues me is this notion of the “task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive”. Surely this was the psychological foundation of virtue ethics? My understanding of Aristotelian ethics is that it rests on the cultivation of virtuous dispositions i.e. becoming someone who habitually acts in ways which embodiy the virtues. So the point is not that virtue rests on a passive reproduction of dominant norms (i.e. being socialised to act ethically and then consistently doing so) but rather that it is an achievement, in which we develop the right habits of action but also our understanding and enjoyment of them. It’s an active process in which we cultivate our character, rather than an escape from activity through the inculcation of habit. There’s a nice passage in Andrew Sayer in which he discusses the projects of self which such activity can give rise to:

We may intermittently “take stock” and evaluate our virtues and vices, or more simply our character […] We may feel we must be more assertive, more outgoing, less lazy, etc, and try to change ourselves through repeated practice in the hope that we become habituated to acting in these ways, so that it becomes “second nature”. This can be difficult not only because of the inertia of our existing embodied dispositions but because it may fail to bring the hoped-for effects and positive feedback.

  • Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to people, Pg 131

Everyone who has attempted to change their behaviour has likely experienced difficulties in doing so. We are not infinitely malleable. We are often not malleable at all. It is our character, this assemblage of embodied dispositions, which enables and constrains this malleability. I can’t make any sense of Nietzsche’s discussion of “incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive” unless this is what it’s talking about: we can act back on ourselves and change who we are. For instance this is what I take him to be doing in Ecce Homo. Furthermore, the notion of consciousness as the “unity of the organism” undermines our propensity for doing so, with the ghostly subjectivity it implies working to hide this (limited) mailability of our character.

But these aren’t new ideas. Surely Nietzsche the philologist would be very much aware of this fact. So have I missed his point? Is this simply overstatement on his part? Are the distinctively neo-Aristotelian concepts through which I’m making sense of this much more modish than I realised, such as to be unrecognisable to Nietzsche when he looked back through the history of ideas? If that passage were rewritten as a claim about ‘modernity’s man’ then I can understand it perfectly. As it stands, I’m slightly baffled. I’m fine with things I don’t understand. I’m fine with things I do understand. I get intellectually frustrated when I feel I understand something and yet also feel that I don’t.

The same is true of the talk of ‘errors’ at the end of the passage. Am I just too wedded to the ideas through which I can’t help but interpret this? If so that would be an interesting example of dispositionality. But the only sense I can make of “we have incorporated only our errors” is an accusation that character-cultivation has thus far been entirely a matter of prohibitions, encompassing what we should not become rather than what we should. But again, it’s the same problem. This seems obviously untrue to me.

  • Mark 12:44 pm on February 23, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Nietzsche, non-linear creativity, ,   

    Writing with One’s Feet 

    Not with my hand alone I write:
    My foot wants to participate.
    Firm and free and bold, my feet
    Run across the field – and sheet.

    • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude in Rhymes: 52
  • After spending much of the last three days cutting up my PhD and putting it back together again, what I take to be Nietzsche’s reminder here of the embodied nature of writing really speaks to me. My neck hurts, I feel sluggish and my back is stiff. This is my body being forced to participate in an aspect of the writing process which is, well, shit. It’s tedious but necessary. In Ecce Homo, his quasi auto-biography, Nietzsche describes how,

    my muscular agility has always been at its greatest when my creative energy is flowing most abundantly. The body is inspired: let’s leave the ‘soul’ out of it… I could often be seen dancing; in those days I could be walking around on mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of tiredness. I slept well and laughed a lot – I was the epitome of sprightliness and patience.

    Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, pg 70

    In this case the body is wilfully participating in a creative process, rather than being dragged along unwillingly. Writing can feel good in an embodied way. I find it hard to recognise this in my own experience beyond registering discomforts but I’d like to understand it more than I do. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating writing as somehow disembodied, even if you would reject such a claim upon reflecting about it. It’s also easy to see writing as a much more exhaustively cognitive process than it actually is.

    This could manifest itself in a lack of attentiveness either to your self or your environment, struggling on with the writing in such a way as to aggravate the difficulties which are causing you to flag. So we see problems with ‘writing’ that are actually issues emergent from our environment and/or what we have brought to the task of writing. When we frame creative tasks in terms of problems to be solved, it can often occlude an important dimension to them, which I tend to think of as ‘non-linear creativity’:

    Another example in a very specific area is given by a client in a follow-up interview as he explains the different quality that has come about in his creative work. It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

    Carl Rogers – On Becoming a Person Pg 152

    We can become focused on linear structure (I do X then Y then Z) in a way that occludes the potential forms incipient within what we’re producing. We block the “flow of creative energy” by trying to think our way through difficulties we’ve encountered rather than, as Nietzsche might suggest, writing with our feet.

  • Mark 9:22 pm on February 11, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Nietzsche, ,   

    The pen is stubborn, sputters – hell! 

    The pen is stubborn, sputters – hell!
    Am I condemned to scrawl?
    Boldly I dip it in the well,
    My writing flows, and all
    I try succeeds. Of course, the spatter
    Of this tormented night
    Is quite illegible. No matter:
    Who reads the stuff I write?

    • Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude: 59
  • Mark 8:32 pm on February 3, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: affectm, , , , inspiration, , Nietzsche, ,   

    Some auto-ethnographic thoughts on the phenomenology of writing 

    How do you find time to write? I’ve become fascinated by this question in recent months. Implicit within it is an understanding of ‘writing’ which I’m coming to see as deeply problematic. It treats the creative activity of writing as a matter of temporal budgeting. But how much time does writing take? It obviously depends on what we mean by ‘writing’. According to the typing test I just took, my typing speed is 120 words per minute, which is pretty fast in population terms but not exceptionable for someone who has been touch typing for a long time. At this rate I could type an 80,000 word thesis in around 11 hours. Except I obviously can’t and not just because of the debilitating RSI that would no doubt ensue. In the touch typing test I’m transcribing from on screen text into an on screen text box. In my writing I’m creating something new. So what does that act of creation require? At its best, it relies on inspiration:

    The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

    • Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Hommo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)
  • I feel like this sometimes when blogging. In the past I’ve described it as thinking-through-writingAs I put it last summerthere’s a certain experience of immediacy and urgency in writing which has always been one of my most valued creative experiences: when an inchoate idea is at the forefront of your mind and the process of rendering and externalising it feels like one of the most natural (and important) things in the world. But this only seems to happen if I blog immediately. I grasp at the ‘feel of an idea’ and immediately begin to try and elaborate upon it, drawing out the form incipient within it (or less pretentiously: I put it into words straight away). This is when blogging is really fun. It’s also fast. When in the habit of doing this, I often find I can write a 1000+ word post in 30-45 minutes. But it’s the role of the habit here that I don’t entirely understand. Partly I think it’s a matter of routine. There’s something about immediately grasping an idea and giving it form which will tend to engender the experience of inspiration. Hearing and taking, rather than searching and asking. So perhaps it’s getting into the routine of responding to ideas in this way as and when you encounter them.

    Last summer my enthusiasm for blogging suddenly and surprisingly deepened. I say ‘surprising’ because I’ve been blogging in one guise or another for over a decade. But I’d always seen it as a useful and interesting diversion, whereas I suddenly found it began to matter to me as a form of creative expression that I found intensely liberating, as I began to acclimatise myself to pursuing a career in the academy after an experiment in full time web editing that made me realise that being anything other than a sociologist would bore the shit out of me in the medium or long term. Blogging was a release from all the structural pressures corroding the creative impulse that had led me to wonder if I actually did want to be an academic. Embracing the lack of constraint attached to this blog (for me) and making it my main vehicle for intellectual exploration, which I guess it had been becoming anyway, helped me make my peace with the jumping through hoops that a modern academic career unavoidably entails. If I can write whatever the hell I want here then I come to feel better about subjugating what I want to write to instrumental considerations elsewhere.

    In terms of more formal writing I’m an archetypal binge writer. Until recently, I’ve tended not to write for weeks at a time and then write flat out for one or two days. For a brief period of time I become utterly engrossed by what I’m writing. This absolute immersion in the task at hand tends to eliminate any propensity to self-censorship and I usually find I can write a great deal, often articulating new ideas and drawing out new connections, in a very short space of time. This worked hand-in-hand with a technique I picked up from a Bertrand Russell book years ago:

    My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of vigour and intensity is put into it. most of the unconscious consists of what were once highly emotional conscious thoughts, which have now become buried. It is possible to do this process of burying deliberately, and in this way, the unconscious can be led to do a lot of useful work. I have found, for example, that if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity – the greatest intensity of which I am capable – for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered his technique, I used to to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress: I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.

    Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, Pg 49-50

    So until recently I’d found writing largely unproblematic. I read, I blogged, I talked and every now and again a few thousand words would pour out of my brain in a way that was often quite enjoyable. Deadlines helped but they weren’t essential to this. The problem began when the process of trying to squeeze too much into the rest of my working life (particularly a full time job, commuting from the midlands to london and setting up a training business) led to the rapid disintegration of this comfortable, albeit occasionally manic, routine of creative production. I made very little progress on my PhD for six months and struggled to get back into a writing groove, not least of all because I had to deal with my masses of data, which in a way I’m still not back into. Binge writing is unreliable: it’s a little scary how much time can elapse before you realise that you’ve not had a serious session of writing for a long time.

    It’s because of this PhD delay, as well as my impending deadline, that I’ve been trying to force myself into a daily writing routine. Frankly, I hate it. It makes me self-critical about the intellectual content of my writing in a way I have never been before. Largely because I previously edited my work but didn’t assess it. I’d read it through, note points that needed developing or consider ones that should be removed. But these considerations were post hoc and practical, immediately feeding into the next stage or the next project, rather than leading me to say “this is shit” to myself. Forcing myself to sit down and write for a set amount of time every day completely takes the fun out of it. It leads me to try and write when the ideas aren’t ready to come out. The only occasional experience of inspiration I’ve had in this period has been when I’m working intensively, over and above the daily goal, to meet a deadline I’ve agreed with my supervisor.

    So I can see that I’ve bounced from one writing extreme to the other. A complete draft of my PhD is days away (if that). I’ve then got a bit of work to turn a complete draft into a finished draft. After that I want to find some middle ground between my unreliably organic binge writing and this stultifying imperative to sit down and write every single day. But I’m not sure where that middle ground is. It involves inspiration. But does it involve habit? Or is what I’ve been thinking of as ‘habit’ actually a matter of attentiveness, recognising the potential emergence of inspiration and responding to in a way which gives it maximal expression? Perhaps it’s also a matter of cultivating the conditions necessary for this attentiveness? But what are they?

    Edit to add: this post was an example of the experience I’m talking about. I’ve had these thoughts spilling around in my head all day. So when I sat down to articulate them, it took well under an hour. Whereas if I sit down for my ‘minimum of two hours daily work on my PhD’ it could easily take me twice as long to write half as much.

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