Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Re-establishing Comms: a short intimate bibliography

I've been struggling to write lately. Some of it has to do with the seemingly unending months of sleep deprivation that began with the birth of our son last summer. Some of it seems normal enough for someone trying to write their dissertation. I'm hoping that a return to the ol' blog will help limber me up.

Writing, I'm told, is similar to distance running: you have to warm up in order to get your stride going. And, if you've not run for a while, your warm ups are likely going to be longer than your runs. That's how I feel today. Yesterday was really difficult: after a couple of hours of actually trying to write, I managed to push out about a paragraph. I have to remember that I have completed a marathon and that was only possible because I committed to small runs several times a week. I'll complete this project in a similar manner.

Writing a PhD dissertation is daunting. It's a creative activity in so far as it's the creation of a new expertise—no one else will be an expert on your topic, you will actually "write the book" on the matter. In order to minimize that, I'm trying to organize my task into smaller pieces that are more readily wrangled. Probably familiar to others in my position or that have been in my position, I despair at the feeble scaffolding that I've committed to the page when I try to organize my work.

So, what am I writing about? I think I'm writing about the origins of the concept of addiction and the role that Chinese philosophy played in that historical formation.

I imagine that this is to some degree a conversation about cultural techniques (kulturtechniken, techniques du corps) as well as comparative philosophy and I'm, of course, looking to some recent scholarship in the area to help gird my arguments. Following Thomas Kasulis' lead established in his excellent introductory text to comparative philosophy, Intimacy or Integrity, I'll share a brief "intimate bibliography." An intimate bibliography has the virtue of foregrounding the reading of a book at a particular time and in a particular environment and intimates the atmosphere in which these ideas came into contact. Rather than writing a bibliography that establishes that I've exhaustively searched the relevant material for sources that exist (this would be the more traditional integrity-oriented bibliography), I'd like to share the story of how I came to think of this topic.

My initial thought was that I would write something about appropriation. How does a public space become appropriated by a public? How does a space become appropriately understood as private? What is grasped when an object is appropriated? How does one learn what can be appropriated appropriately? Other than my own opinion that Ames and Rosemont's translation of li 禮 as "ritual propriety," I didn't really know what to do with those questions. Early on I thought I'd look to Rancière or Derrida or Barbara Johnson, but I didn't really know what to do with that.

Thanks to my wife's review of a manuscript under consideration at a publishing house, I was able to score a copy of Bernard Stiegler's What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. When I first entered graduate school I was a member of a research team investigating methamphetamine use in the region and my task had been to analyze the data and find compelling interpretations for understanding the hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews we'd collected. It was during an afternoon of random clicking that I first came across Stiegler's Ecole de philosophie d'Epineuil-le-Fleuriel and this image from Gilles Barbier L’ivrogne:
I'd told myself that I had to read more about Stiegler's treatment of Derrida's thinking on pharmakon and finally the chance had come. Stiegler's book, for all of its problems, got me to thinking about addiction as a problem of forming the appropriate relationship to a technology: whether that technology was a narcotic, a video game, or a food.

I'd long been thinking about the secular rituals of social life, the "social conventions" that make civil society possible even though we never convene to decide what these quotidian performances will be. Among those social conventions was smoking. I had smoked tobacco for about ten years before I quit and the process of quitting smoking was immensely difficult. I frequently likened it to a mode of suicide because my social life disappeared. I couldn't hang out with my friends because they all smoked. I couldn't go to my favorite clubs to see my favorite bands because you can smoke in those bars. It was immensely difficult to eat my favorite foods without wanting to complete a meal or a cup of coffee with a habitual cigarette.... 

I'd learned how to smoked as a teenager outside of Richmond, Virginia. My parents smoked throughout my childhood, but I didn't really know how to start. It was a production: how to light a lighter, how to do the "French inhale," or how to tamp the tobacco by "packing" the box. I had to hold the cigarette just so, I had to cultivate the careful carefreeness of keeping smoldering tobacco at my face without burning myself or looking like I was too concerned with how people looked at me smoking.

All of these were informal lessons, a bit of habitus, if you will. It was also the way I understood Ames, Hall, and Rosemont were arguing for the importance of learning Classical Chinese philosophy. Smoking was an ars contextualis. The way you learned to bum a smoke off somebody on the street, the way you learned to light someone's cigarette in passing, the way you learned to start a conversation when you sat down next to an ash tray at a party—these were moments of li 禮 and it was how I wanted to talk about drug addiction more broadly. Some of the things I'd thought about addiction had gotten published in some journals, but I wasn't clear on how to bridge the gap between addiction sciences and Classical Chinese philosophies. Then I got lucky.

I have a part-time job working for a contemporary arts publication and I am responsible for their circulation and distribution. One day last summer, while delivering magazines to a local bookstore I happened to find an old copy of Herbert Fingarette's Confucius—The Secular as Sacred which I'd seen referenced a number of times by Ames, Hall, and Rosemont. It's a great monograph and I after finishing it I wanted to know more about Fingarette. That's when I learned that he had also written a very influential book about alcoholism, Heavy Drinking. This then led me to also get a copy of the festschrift dedicated to Fingarette.

At about this time I was also re-visiting Avital Ronell's book Crack Wars and I think I started searching for links between her and Classical Confucian philosophy. Ronell's work has influenced and instigated discussion across a broad spectrum of disciplines and so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to come across Keith McMahon's The Fall of the God of Money: Opium smoking in nineteenth century China which explicitly states a debt to Ronell's perspective on addiction as a mode of being (Being-on-drugs). I reached out to McMahon after finishing his book and was so thrilled to know that there were others (better than me) that were also pursuing this kind of work. McMahon suggested that I also read the exhaustively researched Narcotic Culture: A History of Drugs in China by Dikötter, Laaman, and Xun. Where McMahon's book helped me interpret opium use as a response to colonial Europe's obsession with becoming "Modern," Dikötter, et al. present a thorough report of who was saying what when and where during the 19th century in China.

It was during that period that I also became aware of a special issue of Theory, Culture & Society dedicated to presenting seminal essays on "cultural techniques" guest edited by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Ilinca Iurascu and Jussi Parikka. In this excellent introduction to the field, Bernhard Siegert lists Ronell as among one of the earliest voices in the development of the body of literature (along with her friend Kittler, of course). Weirdly enough, this was around the time that I became aware of and read Ori Tavor's article in about Xunzi's ritual theory in Dao.

Well, I've not really delved into much detail about what I read in those sources, but you get the sense of how the timing and the dumb luck of my discovery process. It's now after midnight and I need to get some rest before the baby wakes again.

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