August 13, 2012

Being Positive

When I decided to leave academia, it was a tumultuous period emotionally and intellectually. It was a time of personal transformation and expansion of horizons. It was also a time of some unclarity and not being able to even think about some basic issues. Such as what other job I was going to have. I resigned without looking for another job. Without even thinking about an alternate career. And I didn't even know exactly why I was resigning. There were reasons I gave myself (I didn't enjoy the contorting I felt I had to go through to put my thoughts in publishable form), but even to me it was unclear why such reasons had to imply leaving the profession. After all, if I wasn't enjoying what I was writing, perhaps I could write in a different way. Or on different topics. Or seek to go to different conferences. Why leave the profession altogether? It was hard to answer these questions when colleagues, family or friends would seek to raise them, because I myself did not know the answers.
What I felt though was that making this decision and following this path was something I absolutely had to do. Even though I could not give clear reasons to myself for my decision, what I felt strongly was that down this path lay my intellectual and personal growth. That somewhat down this path I would better understand the reasons, but that at first it was imperative for me that I make the choice and plunge into this path.
I firmly believed that what I was doing was not irrational. That it was a perfectly rational action, which was being guided by a grasp of reasons which in principle could be shared with other people. However, I also strongly felt at the time that I couldn't express those reasons clearly to myself or to other people. What I felt was that I was grasping and being moved by reasons which I was still unable to grasp clearly in thought. That I would be able to grasp them in thought only by allowing myself to be moved by an intuitive awareness of the reasons. That a life transformation motivated by a fledgling awareness of the reasons was necessary before I could be able to articulate them more clearly. That I had to act now, and that the reasons would come to the surface in the ensuing years. As if my leaving was like a seed which had to be planted and that the reasons for leaving were like the branches of a tree which would grow from the earth over many years.
What I felt strongly when resigning was that this was a decision I was actively making. That it was a positive action, a movement towards growth and not merely a reactive decision. That I wasn't leaving the profession out of resentment or anger or lack of confidence. That I was leaving because I felt it was the right thing for me to do in better understanding myself and the world.
In the past year, however, it was not always easy to think of my leaving as a positive action. Suddenly bereft of a career, and still thinking all the time about philosophy and so not having much energy for thinking of a new career, it was natural for me to cast about trying to understand this decision I had made. Unable to hold on at times to the sense that I choose to do it, it was natural to feel that circumstances had driven me out of the profession. That the profession was unjust! Close minded! Arcane! That a great ill was done to me, and that somebody or some institution has to be held accountable for it! Filled with sadness and bitterness at my fate, I felt at times that I did not so much choose to leave as that my pain in the profession made me leave. And with this thought deep seated and long hidden anger, frustration and resentment rose to the surface of my consciousness. I mourned for the Bharath I could have been, the Bharath I imagined when I was twenty that I would become, the essays and books I felt I would write as a professor, the classes I would teach, the changes I would help make from within the profession. Even after leaving the profession, my desire for that path was still strong and it seemed at times as if left to my own volition I would have never made this decision. That the decision was so unnatural and so contorted that it could only be a reactive decision. A decision made only out of pain and not out of joy. And the more I felt this, the more the anger and the resentment got a grip on me.

From this space of pain I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. Not the blog first, but an autobiography for myself. Something through which I could make sense of my path. Something through which I could grasp some contours of reason in my life trajectory. Some sense of natural progression, as opposed to the unnatural sense of break and brokenness which seemed to characterize my life on the surface. The writing was exhilarating. And desperately needed. Though I was writing out of anger and resentment, I was also writing so that the anger could be channeled just into the writing rather than being indiscriminately aimed at people around me. And it was tiring even to myself to say that my reasons for leaving could not be fully understood at this time. I wanted to understand them. The way a person keeps prodding at the space of a missing tooth, I kept prodding at my unconscious to grasp the reasons which were guiding me. Unable to wait for the planted seed to grow into a tree in its own time, I tried to move along the process by reaching into the ground and pulling up the budding stem. I was worried that in this process the plant might become misshappen or maybe not even survive, but at times the patience to wait for the tree to grow in its own time seemed beyond me.
After a time writing only to myself lost its charm. It suggested that I still was not grasping reasons since I was not seeking to communicate with others, or not seeing such communication as a possibility for me. I started to feel that if there are reasons to be found in my actions, then those reasons must be articulable. That more than a year had gone by since I resigned. And that to wait indefinitely before I tried to express the reasons might be just as bad as trying to rush the process. That some attempt, however rudimentary, had to be made to articulate the reasons I felt I was being moved by.
This was the motivation for the blog. A space for thinking out loud so as to distill from my thoughts the reasons why I left. Reasons which could be shared with others in a spirit of rational inquiry. Reasons which others could grasp as reasons even if they themselves might not agree with them.
As I started to blog it was fun to rediscover the voice of rational discussion. To think about ethics classes or Rorty or Wittgenstein or philosophy just form a space of reason, attempting to understand those topics with a certain abstraction and emotional detachment. But there was a certain tension in the blog as well. For what I was building up to was rationally thinking through a deeply personal and traumatic event: my leaving the philosophy profession. The more I tried to speak in the blog about my life the more worried I was that I might end up just speaking from a space of pain and falling prey to blaming people or institutions in a knee-jerk way.
Once one has acquired certain skills of arguing, finding problems with other people's thoughts or ways of living is not that hard. It is not easy exactly. It too requires thought and care. But it is something one can do on auto-pilot--that is, without oneself growing in the process. I was intent on avoiding this when blogging. I didn't want the blog to just become a space for ranting. The temptation to rant is strong and clear. But the pitfalls of doing so equally strong and clear. For ranting has the look of reasoning without actually reasoning. Reasoning involves a crucial element -- engaging with thoughts one disagrees with in a spirit of openness and respect -- which ranting forsakes. Ranting assumes that the hard work of reasoning has already been done, and that what is left is to simply convert by force of speaking (loudly, belligerently or indignantly) others who are deemed too dumb to see the obviousness of the reasons. A philosophy blog I have frequently followed (Leiter Reports) often has elements of ranting in this sense, and I was intent on trying to avoid that.
Besides the fact that ranting can be a form of hooliganism, there was another, more practical reason I wanted to avoid it. And that was that in my situation ranting can look as if I were being irrational, as if I had gone over to the dark side and am wasting my capacities for reason on small minded sniping at others. Given that I had left the philosophy profession, which on the surface seemed irrational, ranting wasn't a viable option for me to move in the direction of seeming rational. Someone like Leiter can rant and it can appear as a form of rational discourse because he is embedded within an institutional structure which gives him the appearance of being uber-rational, or of living an exemplary life of being committed to reason. No matter which person or group he calls dumb or ignorant or stupid, it can appear as if these judgments are a part of reasoning, since his blogging is a part of an overall life which has the appearance of being guided by reason. What I had lost, on the other hand, was just this appearance that my overall life was guided by reason. To others and even to myself at times there was the appearance that my life choice and so my resulting life was not quite rational. Hence if I ranted it threatened to only underline the seeming irrationality of my life rather than help overcome such an appearance.
So instead of ranting in my blog I tried to express as rationally as I could the limitations of the current philosophy profession. I gestured at what I took to be methodological problems with how philosophy is taught, or the limitations of the meta-philosophy often assumed in the profession, or how the philosophy profession wasn't connecting to everyday life. I even took issue with how one might leave the profession in the wrong way, as I suggested was the case with Rorty. In these cases I wasn't ranting, but it felt to me that the spirit of ranting wasn't too far beneath the surface either. I knew I couldn't rant explicitly and expect people to see me as rational. So I tried to put a veneer of pure reason over my ranting.
This autobiographical confession doesn't take away from those blog posts. I still enjoy reading them, and think there is something interesting there. But it highlights a different issue, which is what it was like for me at times to be writing them. And what I was perhaps trying to do unconsciously through them.
After two months of blogging, an unexpected thing happened: I got tried of my own pent up anger, frustration and pain which I had been feeling in a unadulturated form for more than a year. Once I expressed the crux of the issue I had hidden even from myself for so long (the segregation of my home philosophy from my school philosophy), it was as if my wound had a puncture in it and all the built up venom starting to drain out. The frustration and the anger which I could feel myself choking on when I felt that I couldn't express my basic situation as a person suddenly started to dissipate. Precisely because now here I was giving expression to my basic situation as a person!
The situation was exhilarating. But also confusing. It seemed as if what was propelling my blogging was my pent up anger and my indignation that the philosophy profession was unjust, and that it had to be changed, and that I was contributing to that. And yet my very ability to blog suggested that there was nothing unjust happening in the vicinity of my life, for look no one is stopping me now from writing whatever I want! The academic philosophy police aren't coming and shutting down the blog! No 1984, big brother type of situation was unfolding. The fact that I could blog and express whatever I wanted suggested that perhaps there was nothing wrong after all.
In a way this was a soothing thought. But in another way it was a suffocating thought. For if there was nothing wrong after all, then why the hell did I leave the profession? Suddenly it started to seem as if the blog in which I wanted to articulate the reasons why I left the profession was starting to show that there were no such reasons to articulate after all. There seemed to be a kind of inner contradiction in the blogging. If I can blog, that shows that I have a certain freedom to express myself and no one is stopping me, and more pointedly, that no one is oppressing me. But if no one is oppressing me, then there is nothing unjust happening with respect to me. And if that is true, then my leaving the profession seems like just an idiosyncratic decision on my part, resulting from whatever peculiar personal issues I might have, but which have no real claim on a public level.
I found myself now facing a choice. On one side was anger, frustration, a sense of injustice, moral indignation, revolution, and blogging. On the other side was freedom, a sense of openness, no oppression, peace, and also blogging. On the first side, blogging was a way to give voice to the frustration and the moral indignation. On the second side, blogging was a way to give voice to freedom and peace. How could blogging be both of these things at once? Unable to answer this question, my mind blanked. The very concept of the blog seemed rife with tensions and contradictions. Suddenly now the blog started to seem to me a riddle mocking my intelligence, something simple which in my characteristic way I seemed to have made much too complicated, so much so that I had navigated myself into a state of mental paralysis. Yet again. Just like in college and grad school when I tried to write. And it was that "yet again" feeling which was the real kicker. The sense that perhaps even after leaving the profession, here I was still having the same problems of expression defeated me. What did it all mean? The problem must be with me. Since I am no longer part of the philosophy profession, it cannot be the problem. So it must be me.
Suddenly this is how I started to experience the blog, as if it were whispering to me: "You, Bharath, are the problem. You are the confused one. Confusion follows you wherever you are. You think it is the world's fault, but the fault lies in you which you project out onto the world. Get a grip on yourself. Get it together." Unable to yell back at the blog that it is not my fault, I responded with the only power I had on the blog. I deleted it.
Through most of the summer I didn't blog. I took a break from it. Was unclear what the blog meant. Even whether it was a positive thing. It felt as if I broke up with the blog. And yet I missed it. Missed that space of reflection. Missed that space of expression. Missed that space of peace and rational discourse.
After taking time from the blog, a new clearing started to open up. One in which I could be both positive and make sense of my leaving the profession. One in which to make sense of my leaving I didn't have to take a combative relation to the philosophy profession. One in which I could affirm disagreements with the philosophy profession without seeing that institution as unjust and oppressive.
All last year I felt that in order to make sense of my leaving the profession I had to explain how the profession is bad, as if the badness of the profession is the best reason for my leaving. It was partly with this spirit that I started to blog. That was why I couldn't see the blog as a space in which I could engage with the philosophy profession in a positive spirit. Because implicitly I wanted to wage war against the profession, and I sought to use the blog to do that. And yet, I also wanted to use the blog as a space of rational discourse and a space for cultivating spiritual peace. After the first few months of blogging, the tension in these two aims of the blog became explicit to me. And it stopped me in my tracks because I didn't know how to choose only one of the options. I wanted the peace. But I also longed for the war. And that tension split me in two, and unsettled the sense of speaking with a unified voice which was what I enjoyed the most about the blog.
How to be positive while thinking through the intellectual disagreements I have with some conceptions of the philosophy profession? How to treat those disagreements as intellectual and not as personal, as not reflecting poorly on anyone's good intentions? How to be kind to myself without blaming others?
I have come to think that there are no easy answers to these questions. And that the only way to make progress on them is to continue to engage with them in a positive spirit.

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