Confessions of an Ivy League Dropout


Month: February, 2014


Late in his life, Foucault took up the Socratic idea of parrhesia: the act of exposing oneself continually to self-criticism and to scorn by openly expressing what one thinks. So, let us agree, or hope, that this is what I mean by confession: the practice of speaking my opinion in plain language, in the conviction that what I speak is true, in the danger, risk, or exposure this entails, as a duty to myself and others, knowing that I could choose to be silent but speaking as an act of freedom. That’s what I have in mind here: not confession in the sense of identifying something that deviates from the norm, and hence of asking to be normal, but in the sense of exposing oneself out of duty to a truth that no norm has ever encompassed. It’s not a truth that can be codified or quantified. It’s a dialogue, a discovery, a questioning.

In my life, there seems to be one paramount example of this. Meditation. As an Ivy League student, I studied world mythology, world religion, philosophy, critical theory, and literature. What seemed most potent and important at the time was critical theory. Lacan I found amusing, but that’s all. Derrida bothered me. Did I have to reject everything I loved in William Blake if I wanted to follow Derrida’s line of thought? French theory did have a word that connected to romantic joy or bliss, jouissance, which literally implies orgasm. In eastern thought, orgasm is one of those intense psychophysical experiences that temporarily dissolve the grasping sense of self-existence. I couldn’t put my finger at the time on what was troubling me about deconstruction, only the feeling that, contrary to what Derrida seemed to take as a premise, awareness definitely does involve something, a basic nature, that was free, unconditioned, or non-analyzable. Foucault’s contemporary, Gilles Deleuze, borrowed a term from Henri Bergson to get at this: “the virtual,” active immanence not yet reduced to the “actual”; the Leibnizian “fold” or David Bohmian “implicate order” from which things emerge; what Peter Higgs might describe as the background field, the excitation of which he described as the Higgs-Boson. The Gelugpa School of Tibetan Buddhism has a related notion: the clear light mind, or simply the unique, innate, original, clear light.

I suppose I instinctively recoiled from a hard line deconstructionism, a “linguistic turn,” that was simply another version of hard line Marxist materialism. Late Derrida did, of course, turn to a notion of the non-deconstructible that brought accusations of messianism and negative theology. Naturally, I put this roughly. Ironically, now, at the other end of the tunnel so to speak, I’m much more open than I was to the notion that there simply isn’t a foundation, along the lines of Bruno Latour’s “anti-foundationlist foundationalism.”

Maybe that was Derrida’s intent, or part of it. To bother me. Philosophers really can’t help it. A philosopher cannot resort to dogma, ever, so there simply are no comforting beliefs to fall back on. One can only undo, and undo. Such is the freedom of thought. The point is that he bothered me so completely that I turned toward meditation. If Derrida was going to critique western metaphysics, then why not turn to eastern thought? Until then, I had considered eastern philosophy synonymous with mysticism, and mysticism synonymous with esoteric practice that could not concern the ordinary person. One had to physically train oneself through advanced yoga and martial arts, I thought. Here then is the problem: in the university, we learn to take western philosophy, including critical theory, very seriously, but eastern philosophy remains a kind of anthropological field of study, an exotic system of thought unique to certain sociohistorical conditions that remain ‘foreign’, or even worse something assimilable as kind of quaint self-help.

Care of the self

What did Foucault say about confession? That it’s a way of converting ourselves into individuals. This is worth going into, because it’s such a paradox. Foucault belonged to that generation of European philosophers who, after the world wars, and during the cold war (when nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants actually still scared the shit out of us), subjected the bourgeois liberal individual to thorough analysis. Like the third century Indian philosophers of Nalanda, they realized that the ‘I’ is merely designated, a kind of linguistic illusion that organizes our experience in ways that are deeply problematic and suspect. From this point of view, to confess, and to individualize, is to make one’s personal narrative seem more real. More than that, it is to make that narrative knowable, subject to a kind of technocratic discipline: self-definition as self-policing. In our popular music, our films, our novels, feeling individuals seem to never cease to spill their guts, to confess. One doesn’t need to be a philosopher to feel a bit disgusted by, and suspicious of, this gushing. To feel that way isn’t a stoic denial of emotion. It’s a rejection of the call to identify, to recognize one’s incurable alienation in another, and to feel all the more real. Perhaps Foucault is responding to the bureaucratic social sciences, the civil servants or servants of the state (psychologists, lawyers, teachers) who identify people by their observable symptoms. To describe is to control, isn’t it? I seem to remember that for Foucault psychoanalysis was for this reason itself the manifestation of a kind of impulse to reify the identity, if not the state, the institution.

I say it’s a paradox because I believe we live in a time when intellectuals parade this common knowledge – the ‘I’ is socially constituted – and yet art has never been more about the uniqueness of the condition called ‘me’ than it is now. Some people seem to think that’s what Facebook is about. One has to reflect on all that when one is writing a ‘confession’. At least one has to remember that one isn’t defining oneself, and can’t define oneself. One shouldn’t even identify with oneself. But, certainly, one should feel. Some have criticized Foucault precisely for eventually turning to the ‘spiritual’ notion of “care of the self” – apparently a betrayal of his more rigorous (anti-consumerist) critique of the individual. However, and this is something one finds in Theodore Adorno and Cornell West, Foucault’s point is that philosophy is not a propositional endeavour but a way of life, a practice upon oneself, a disruption of closure, an ongoing critique that involves quite the opposite of what we have learned to mean by self-knowledge.

A memoir, of sorts

My first confession (and we all know what Foucault said about confession): I did drop out of the Ivy League, but I also did the unimaginative thing and returned to finish my degree.  I finished pretty well, too.  I was in the running for valedictorian in my senior year.  What I have to say is not so much about dropping out or going back.  It isn’t even about how the Ivy League, with its overinflated ego, its excess of wind, failed me.  I guess it’s about the tragi-comedy of being a complicated person.  I’ll share some memories here, some sketches from a life, and some very strange turns in the road.  Some of it’s humiliating, some of it’s surprising.  A memoir, of sorts, but a pointed one, I hope.  I wish I could say that Gandalf good-humoredly knocked on my door and maneuvered me into going on an adventure.  It wasn’t quite like that.