Monday, 29 April 2013

Beyond Simple Acceptance

Prepare for a rambling post about epistemology/(post)modernism/belief which is probably only of interest to people who want me to write out what on Earth I mean when I call myself a tentativist or who want me to make some kind of a positive claim, for Pete's sake, and I kind of expect that group of people to be a null set. My intention for this post is to clarify my own thoughts for my own sake rather than yours...but if you, dear reader, do find this interesting, I would be mighty pleased.

I like quite a lot of what Eve Tushnet writes, but it really should come as no surprise to me (or anyone) that I will disagree with many pieces written for The American Conservative, even if Tushnet writes them. (In the AmCon's About Us section, they write, "Americans didn’t always think of themselves as conservatives. [...] 'Conservative' was a label for the backward and authoritarian, the most hidebound elements of Old Europe." To which I mentally reply, "That still is what the word means.") So when I read her most recent article for AmCon, "Beyond Critical Thinking," I was repulsed within the first paragraph, and I wound up being really unsure about it by the end.

My most immediate complaint is that I don't think people, broadly, are as good at critical thinking as she claims they are. She writes, "We teach students to find the undefended premises of an argument, or the contradictions in a claim. This is really easy." But based on teaching first-year students, and based on interacting with people in non-humanities or even "hard humanities" disciplines, I don't think critical thinking actually is all that easy or that we really teach students to do any of this. Or at least we don't do it very well: lots of students come away being skeptics, but they're skeptics in the sense of being contrarians rather than in the sense of trying to disprove a hypothesis until it looks plausible (a la the scientific method). Maybe what she's complaining about is the contrarianism rather than having certain standards of evidence, or (more probably) that when we teach critical thinking we only teach the half about disproving and not the half about accepting, so maybe my argument is more over what deserves to be called critical thinking than whether it's overvalued.

The bottom line for me, of course, is that people seem to be really accepting of rape culture and aren't thinking critically about consent (also patriarchy also white privilege also heterosexism also colonialism also free market capitalism also classism also etc.). Until critical thinking is more apparent around these issues, I'm not going to be able to take seriously the claim that we are, collectively, too good at critical thinking. (To be clear, I'm not saying that all people who are free market capitalists et al. aren't good at critical thinking. I'm just saying that I haven't personally met any who have demonstrated to me that they are thinking critically about economics. I don't imagine that these are the same things.)

So when Tushnet writes that, "We don’t teach how to tell when you’re sure enough, when you really should take the leap of faith, when you should say, 'Yes, my understanding is totally inadequate, but I believe,'" I'm not sure whether I agree or not. I may well have said the exact same thing myself once, so to an extent I agree entirely--one of the recurrent complaints my peers and I had about some of our English Masters classes was that, at the end of it all, we were afraid of making any positive statements. All we were doing was problematizing. But when all positive statements seem to do damage (to women, to Asian Canadian populations, to First Nations populations, etc.), the stakes are rather high; if I make positive statements about Hamlet, not much can go wrong (accept my transcript average, perhaps), but positive statements about minority populations can have catastrophic repercussions.

But I worry that we do too much accepting, or at least that we accept in the wrong way. I sometimes joke that I'm not a postmodernist but I am a tentativist, and here's what I mean by that: a proper postmodernist will act as if a thing is true without intellectually confirming its truth, and I'm quite similar in that I will tentatively accept things as true without committing outright to them. I will take them as true for now. I suspect that Tushnet has something different in mind when she describes taking a leap of faith, but I could be wrong; I sometimes use the phrase "leap of faith" to describe the tentativist style of believing. After all, one of the things that really can differentiate all-or-most postmodernists from all-or-most modernists is that they believe differently. Postmodernists do practice a kind of belief, but it is a kind of meta-belief; modernists lack the sort of self-consciousness that postmodernists cultivate (which in po-mo terms is called "irony," but as with all technical terms it may not always mean what you think it means). Or, at least, that's the story postmodernists tell.

What I suspect might be happening is that Tushnet reacts against the postmodernist style of belief by advocating the strongly modernist style of belief, an earnest belief, almost belief without doubt (but I only suspect this because most modernists react overdramatically these days, and the things that Tushnet writes sound very modernist of a certain stripe; however, I've been pinned as anti-creedal based merely on turn of phrase, so I realize the method is faulty). This doubling-down is attractive if you see postmodernism's style of belief as necessarily resulting in the Great Dragon Nihilism, but of course it doesn't have to result in nihilism; I'm not sure I'd call nihilism a species of postmodernism at all and even if it is, it isn't the only species in the genus. Anyway, I don't think modernism (as described by postmodernism) and postmodernism (especially not as described by modernism) are the only options on the table. Tentativism isn't belief-as-commitment or belief-as-play, but instead belief-as-working-hypothesis. I will believe such-and-such for now, and I'll tolerate some contradiction (after all, I don't think we can make many claims that lack différance), but at a certain point I will abandon a belief if it just isn't working. I think it was Wallace Stevens who said we need to ride metaphors until they break down; I will ride a belief until it breaks down. I generally see belief-content as metaphor anyway, so it's not even an analogy.

However, I kind of wonder if what I call "tentativism" is what Tushnet calls "acceptance" (though, given her paeon to obedience and other Catholic writings, I find it hard to believe). When I get into arguments with people about postmoderism/modernism/tentativism/belief and doubt/etc., I think what actually is happening is not that I disagree with my interlocutors, but that I frame my understanding of belief in terms borrowed from some postmodernism or other while they frame a quite similar understanding of belief in terms borrowed from some kind of modernism or other. Also, I think most people don't understand what postmodernism is; they think it is just relativism writ large, which is so oversimplified a definition as to be unusable. (Granted, some of the postmodernists you meet while getting your undergraduate degree could be mere metaphysical relativists, so it might be a fair error.) Keeping that in mind, maybe the only thing that differentiates my belief-as-working-hypothesis from Tushnet's belief-as-commitment is the attitude we have in picking up the beliefs; I hold mine lightly because I have it in mind that I might have to let go, and she holds hers tightly because she has it in mind that she might hold on for a long time. This doesn't mean that I will let go before she does. It's a difference only in approach, and that might be a distinction without a difference. Or it might not be. I don't know.

At this point it's obvious that I'm wildly speculating about what Tushnet meant; I'm not sure how much of the modernism I got from the essay was exegetical and how much was eisegetical. So it could be the case that Tushnet and I would argue for exactly the same thing, or basically the same thing, but in very different terms. Or maybe not. At any rate, I've stopped talking about Tushnet's essay and have instead been secretly in-my-head using "Tushnet" as code for a lot of people of differing sorts (the Less Wrong folks, the sorts of Catholics who post a lot on Leah's blog, Protestant evangelicals, bad evo-psych scientists, etc.) who I label "modernists" using my snarky voice: in other words, those who would think that I'm a mad relativist instead of whatever it is that I actually am. Realizing this, that I've traveled so far from the text I was pretending to write about that I'm merely ranting, I also realize that I should just stop writing now. 

(A note on terminology: I employ the terms "modernist" and "postmodernist" as I discovered them in The Truth About the Truth, edited by Walter Truett Anderson. In particular, Anderon's own essay, "Four Different Ways to Be Absolutely Right," was helpful to me in understanding how postmodernists understand modernism. If you happen to get your hands on this book, I also recommend Pauline Marie Rosenau's "Affirmatives and Skeptics," which might well make the same distinction I've been making between tentativists and postmodernists.)
(A second note on terminology: I made up the word "tentativist." If anyone else also uses the word, coined independently from my own minting, don't assume that my use bears any relation to theirs. Whatever intention of the term that is not obvious from the term itself should become clear-ish in this post.)

EDIT 30 April 2013: Eve Tushnet responds here: link. In general I think it answers everything I had wanted to know. Her major point, that these sorts of things matter in their particular cases, so the general analysis always looks super-weird, is I think where I got confused in her original post, but it's also something I've been guilty of. And further, I should have remembered the context: when belief is love, not just acceptance of a claim, everything's different.

EDIT 3 May 2013: Due to the fact that no one in the comments of Leah's response to this post seems to understand what I mean by the terms I'm using, I decided to write a whole new post defining them! For the tl;dr version, read the last 3-4 paragraphs instead of the whole post.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Other People's Mystery Novels

In a previous post I lamented that people did not write very many epics any more (though there are some if you can find them). I like finding out how an author uses the constraints of the epic's conventions to express their worldview. But there are other highly conventional genres, too, ones well designed to express particular worldviews. Two in particular come to mind: the mystery novel and the exploitation flick. In this post I'll talk about mystery novels.

The mystery novel tends to follow a particular pattern: the social order is intact, but then that order is violated by a crime; the criminal's identity remains secret, and until the criminal is identified the social order is threatened; a protagonist, perhaps a member of the police or perhaps a private investigator or perhaps a civilian, uses investigative methods to discover who the criminal is and, usually, what motivated their crime; this information is made public and the criminal is identified; the criminal is apprehended/killed/redeemed and the social order is safely restored. Off the top of my head I can identify three ways an author would make their worldview apparent in this form. First, the community: what is the social order which is imperiled? Second, the criminal: how would a person become a criminal--what constitutes a crime and what would motivate a person to commit it? Third, the investigator: what method should a person use to discover a criminal's identity, and who could use that method? If I imagine another person's mystery novel, I am forced to think about how they imagine the social order and how they imagine epistemology/knowledge.

I don't feel like I need to elaborate this or walk through examples as much as I did in the epic post; I figure you can probably do it yourself. More people will have read mystery novels than epics. For a brief example, Carl Hiaasen's mysteries are environmentalist and anti-corporate (and usually very accepting of sex workers); in his novels, the official police channels are involved in crime-fighting but civilian investigators are also involved, often breaking laws--even to the point of eco-terrorism--to catch the bad guys. In Agatha Christie's novels, it would be unthinkable to break the law in the pursuit of justice, since they're synonymous. Crime for Christie is personal, spontaneous, emotional; crime for Hiaasen is those things, but it's also systemic. So for Christie, the law prevents and punishes crime, and all of the elements of her stories reflect this. For Hiaasen, the law sometimes enables crime, and corporations demand it. For Christie, the society which crime threatens is antithetical to crime; for Hiaasen, the society which crime threatens is complicit in crime. (Also, for Hiaasen, the threatened society includes the vegetative and geological environment, too, specifically the Everglades.) I've written already about G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Knew Too Much, which often removes the punishment/rejection part of the standard narrative. In that novel, the social order is so complicit in the crimes that to expose those crimes and reject the criminal would be more threatening to the social order than the crime itself is.

Thus, like the epic, the mystery is well-suited to expressing particular worldviews. It is less grand than the epic; it perhaps contains less. But its highly tightened focus has other certain advantages, because what it communicates, it communicates clearly. And thus, like the epic, it's also fun to imagine what another person's mystery novel would look like. It is fun to figure out what different mystery authors think the social order is. What would a feminist mystery story look like? What would a communist mystery story look like? What would a Nietzschean mystery story look like?

But, again, I must repeat that in the end such easy labels don't apply. What's really interesting is to see how different elements of worldviews match up. How does a person's sense of social order relate to their epistemology? How does a person's feminism match up with their environmentalism? (Or does it? How do the different parts of their ideas snarl, strip gears, get mired?)

Those Ghastly Mountains

Today is Earth Day.

I am an environmentalist, though not as effective at it or active about it as I likely should be. Most of my environmentalism comes from the heart rather than the head, though, as always with me, it is greatly affected by the latter.

The truth is that I love so-called natural spaces: mountains, swamps, forests, rain forests, badlands, beaches, prairies. If I ever have the chance to visit steppes, tundra, saltflats, deserts, or dead seas, I'm quite sure I'll love those, too. I love red pines and pond scum and thistles growing out of pavement. I love pigeons and moths and butterflies and jumping spiders and centipedes and goats and giraffes and leeches and hagfish and lionfish and hoopoe. I find all of them beautiful, even those most people find ugly or creepy.

I heard a story once about Northrop Frye visiting Vancouver. Vancouver is surrounded by mountains and temperate rain forest; from pretty much anywhere in the city you can see those mountains, but of course some places have better views than others. Frye was visiting friends and sitting on their back deck, and someone said, "Look at the view of those mountains," and Frye said, "Yes, aren't they ghastly?"

To Frye, the wilderness is horrible because it is inhuman. He considers the natural world to be hostile to human efforts, but I'm sure if you pushed him on it he'd consider that it isn't really hostile, but merely indifferent. It does not care about us one way or another. Neither a mountain nor an ant acknowledges me; as far as they are concerned, I do not exist. It's not an issue of power, precisely; I could easily kill the ant, or pick it up and keep it in environments where I could manipulate its action all I like. But it would still not care at all about me. Nothing I do could make it spare the slightest attention for me. It is this which Frye finds so ghastly, but it's also what I love so much.

Animals, plants, fungus, geological formations: these are alien to me. Some have no life or consciousness at all; others have psychologies which are in some ways very similar and in other ways wildly different from human psychology. When I meet them I am meeting an Other more Other than any human could be. Such an experience is sublime (in its aesthetic sense, not the sense perverted and ruined by advertising, where it seems to mean something like sensual). But its indifference to me also forces me out of narcissism. It reminds me that much of the world does not care about me at all. I don't matter so much as I think I do. To someone as neurotic as I am, this reminder is always needed, and also always a relief.

It's that indifference that kills our Earth, though. The Gaia hypothesis is wrong in this way: if the Earth were truly concerned about self-regulating, it would be exterminating us much more vigourously. So as an environmentalist, what I seek to defend is the Earth's indifference, which by its own nature cannot make a defense for itself.

(But then, I also love dogs, who have evolved so that they can communicate with humans, and tigers, even when they are stalking humans--one of the most chilling sights, even when they're behind double-fences at the zoo--so it's obviously more than just indifference that I love.)

Other People's Epics

If you're here regarding Leah's Turing Test, you almost certainly want to take a look at this post about choosing the best genre for your beliefs as well as this one. It's the one she gets her question from. Don't worry: it's much shorter.

One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person's epic might look like.

As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: "early modern" is the new PC term for "Renaissance;" in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let's dive into a bit of history, shall we?

In early modern Europe, there was this group of artists and scholars called the humanists (who are different from the existing group of people who call themselves humanists). They believed in lots of things which were revolutionary for the time, like the idea that people's talents were formed through education rather than inheritance, and that the arts were crucial to intellectual and moral education. They were also pretty keen on the Classics, especially the newly-rediscovered Aristotle. (Or, at least, newly rediscovered in Europe; in Baghdad Aristotle was well-known.) Emulation (mimesis) and variation-on-a-theme/pattern were central to their pedagogy. Thus they emulated the ancient Greek and Roman writers.* One of the genres they embraced was the epic. In the Greco-Roman tradition, famous examples are Homer's Odyssey and Iliad and Ovid's Metamorphoses, though many humanists (most notably Edmund Spenser) patterned their careers on Virgil's. Dante was the first early modern poet to write a successful epic--The Divine Comedy--and Spenser introduced the form to the English language much later in The Faerie Queene.

The humanists liked classifying and defining poetic genres, and we have them to thank for a lot of the very rigid forms, like sonnets. So when they wrote epics, they codified conventions that their Classical predecessors included somewhat more haphazardly. For instance, early modern epics are usually divided into twelve books, because that's what Virgil did. Some of these conventions have become part of a formal definition for epics as you'd read in a dictionary of literary terms: they must include a katabasis (a descent to the underworld); they must include divine intervention of some kind; they are broad in scope, covering the known world, both geographically and intellectually (they almost always include references to recent scientific discoveries and inventions, reference to historical events, literary allusion, and so on); the protagonist must be aristocratic and must embody the virtues held in high esteem by the audience/author; it must begin in media res; it must describe an event that is of great historical or mythological importance to the community in which the epic was written. However, other traits became just as conventional, and just as necessary, in early modern Europe (or England, anyway). A professor I once had said that any poet who wanted to be somebody had to include in their epic a description of the dawn which beat out Homer's rosy-fingered dawn (or at least beat out their contemporaries' descriptions). Other necessities were a half-snake half-woman creature, a talking tree, catalogues of objects, and ekphrasis (a description of a work of art); all of these were drawn from Homer, Virgil, or Ovid. EDIT 24 July 2013: Another crucial convention is the digression. Epics almost always have long asides--sometimes these are flashbacks (pairing with the convention of in media res), sometimes these are history lessons, sometimes these are even premonitions of what is to come (oracles and prophecies are also epic conventions), but often the digressions are bits of plot that wander off from the main goal. Characters might get lost, or separated from their companions, or get kidnapped or imprisoned. They may have dalliances with seductresses or get distracted by red herrings. The coarse of a true epic never does run smooth. /EDIT

Early modern epics were almost always in verse, usually in heroic couplets. (A common way of organizing them was twelve Books divided into cantos, which were themselves divided into stanzas, which were themselves in couplets...but not all epics were like this.) In fact, strict definitions often insist that epics are written in verse, but many people allow for prose epics, and I'd argue that prose epics are still being written. Paradise Lost was the last great verse epic, as Milton himself declared; after this, most verse epics were mock epics. The Dunciad is perhaps the most famous of the mock epics, but I did once know someone who was working on a mock epic detailing the colonization of Trinidad.

(History lesson over)

Looking over the list of requirements, it should be clear that epics of this kind** are especially well suited to expressing their author's ideology. Of course all texts contain ideology, but epics do so very explicitly. The topic must be formative to the community and the protagonist must be exemplary of the community's values. The presence of the Underworld and the gods means that the religious and mythic sensibilities of the group are involved. The scope means that the epic gives a shape of the physical and intellectual world of the community. Epics are often nationalist. Thus Spencer was deliberately writing an English epic. Sometimes, however, epics are more religious than nationalist; Milton, who thought that England's climate made English culture tepid and generally worthless, avoided the national epic and instead wrote a Christian epic. But whatever group they represent, they do it explicitly and obviously. This makes them very good places to examine a particular worldview. Bakhtin (who I've mentioned before) says that epics have a single viewpoint; they are monoglossic, one-voiced. And as much as I've been talking about early modern epics, I think more contemporary epics exist: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and lots of other fantasy obviously fit most of the criteria (Tolkien was writing a saga, not an epic, but the two are similar and it seems clear that he was incorporating early modern epic conventions, too; while the Narniad did not start as an epic for Lewis, it seems clear to me that, by The Magician's Nephew, or maybe even The Silver Chair, he knew that he was writing one). But I also think that Wade Davis' nonfictional/historical/semi-autobiographical One River is an ethnobotanical epic. I don't think for a second that Davis intended to make it an epic, but it actually fulfills every single requirement, right down to the snake-lady and the description of the dawn. (Also, The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are film epics if you let Will's father-become-part-of-the-ship count as a talking tree--Ovid's and Spenser's talking trees were usually people turned into trees. I don't know what worldview the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are showcasing, though. That's something to puzzle out.)

What makes the epic so amusing to me, then, is that as a genre the epic is almost like a fill-in-the-blanks for ideology. You have all these empty fields which you fill in with content; once you've filled in the fields, you have an epic. What's interesting, of course, is to see how the different features change based on what worldview is slotted in. For instance, in Paradise Lost, the katabasis is Satan's flight into Hell after losing the War in Heaven. In The Faerie Queene, the talking tree is a man who was seduced by a witch (who signified the Catholic Church) and was turned into a tree when he discovered who she was, but in The Lord of the Rings, written by an environmentalist, the talking trees were Ents, early eco-warriors. In The Faerie Queene the hero is a gentleman-knight; in Lord of the Rings he is a hobbit, an analogue for the simple rural men-at-arms in WWI's trenches; in One River the hero is a revolutionary ethnobotanist who has what Davis calls a taxonomic eye, the innate ability to identify taxonomy at a glance. Good epics of course are not really just highly stylized Mad Libs; a skilled epic poet or writer will make creative use of the genre's constraints rather than be a slave to them. So what I like to do is imagine what different kinds of epics would look like. What would an environmentalist epic look like? (Probably a lot like The Lord of the Rings.) What would a Canadian epic look like? What would an Anglican, or Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim epic look like? What would a librarian's epic hero's virtues be, or an engineer's, or a home-maker's? What would be the Underworld in a Dutch-Canadian epic, an Asian-Canadian epic, an Inuit epic?

I also think about the sorts of world-views that make me uncomfortable. What would an Islamaphobic epic look like? A homophobic epic? A white supremist epic? An anti-feminist epic? This is less fun, but it might be a helpful exercise.

Ultimately, though, I realize that The Faerie Queene is not just an English epic; Spenser wrote it as a handbook on courtly behaviour. It is an English Anglican aristocratic humanist epic. Milton wanted to write a definitive Christian epic, but Paradise Lost is in fact an Arminian Copernican materialist Christian epic. Or, even more accurately, The Faerie Queene is Spenser's epic; Paradise Lost is Milton's. So as fun as it is to figure out what a feminist's epic would be, I really need to be thinking what a specific person's epic would be. What is my epic? What is, say, Stephen Harper's epic or David Suzuki's epic? What is your epic?

I wish people still wrote epics, because while imagining other people's epics is fun, being surprised to find out how another person used the snake-lady is even more fun. We must watch how we imagine other people's stories, because when we do so we run a terrible risk of reducing them. For this reason I would prefer to read them rather than imagine them, but since most people don't write epics, all I've got is the imagining.


*If all of this stuff about humanism sounds vaguely familiar and not especially noteworthy, it's because much of our culture is descended from humanism. It was radical at the time: the neo-Platonic monastic tradition was the real force in education and art prior to humanism's advent, along with a sense (among aristocrats) that high culture was exclusively aristocratic. To our eyes, the monastics come off as seeming rather silly (for instance, they believed that the names of objects were intrinsic to the object, while humanists believed that names were socially assigned to objects), but it's important to remember that in most circles the monastic tradition was taken as obviously true until the humanists showed up.
If you're thinking that it looks more familiar than just a vague permeation of our culture and instead sounds a lot like the ideas of the Inklings, or of W. H. Auden, or of T. S. Eliot, then you'd be correct; these writers are known as Christian humanists because of their affinity with Shakespeare, Sydney, Spenser, Wyatt, Marlowe, et al. Christian humanism is a lot bigger than neo-classicism, of course.

**I say "epics of this kind" because in a more anthropological or comparative-literature sense, the Greco-Roman and early modern European traditions of epics weren't the only ones. Lots of people count sagas and  puranas as epics; there's a whole system of designation between oral or primary epics and literate or secondary epics which includes lots of things that don't fit here. However, I'm focusing on the tradition I'm familiar with, that one epitomized by Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

To Exist is to Differ, Part Two

To Exist is to Differ

Difference as a Place of Study

Part Two

"I tend to see the similarities in people and not the differences."
Isabel Allende

A cursory look over my more politically- or socially-minded posts in the last few years indicates how obsessed I am with a proper attitude toward difference, even if I was not aware that this was a theme in my writing. In what is easily my most popular post of all time, "Sexy Bodies, Disabled Bodies," I introduce my interest in atypical anatomy, though at this time I was not aware of that term (which is Alice Dreger's). However, it is with my ill-fated (because unfinished) series on The Boundaries of Self that I insist that any definition of "body" or "self" must fully account for atypical anatomies without simply designating them "exceptions." The way I run with McCloud's Four Campfires, which is really a kind of structuralism, is to make it about difference rather than sameness. My most recent concern with ethics has been about meta-ethics, the ethics of addressing differences in ethical beliefs. When I talk about political axes (here and here), I get anxious about categories (left v. right) that ignore other ways organizing political belief and activity. I defend the existence of many denominations insofar as they address differences in congregants' needs. I consider myself a heretic in most communities (heretic: a person who has beliefs unorthodox to the community of which zhe insists zhe is a part). Also, if you were to pay much attention to what I say in the comment sections of those blogs in which I participate--Unequally Yoked, Experimental Theology, Elizabeth Esther--you'd probably notice that many of my contributions, and most of my arguments, involve me saying that someone or another is over-generalizing. What may have started out as simple contrarianism during my years as a teenager--when my Grade 9 English teacher said that a first-person past-tense narrator must always survive the story, I immediately wrote and submitted a short story in which the first-person past-tense narrator dies--has become for me a political and social commitment to the appreciation of difference.

I think my academic career has played a role in this, which I outlined in my previous post, as has my extra-curricular reading of post-modernists and continental philosophers. You could also attribute this, maybe (but only maybe), to my habit of hopping between Protestant churches, or my taste for speculative fiction, or my interest in psychology, or my habit of imagining what it would be like to be a non-human animal. (For instance, did you know that the Common Octopus has semi-autonomous limbs? The octopus's central nervous system instructs a limb to complete a particular task, but the limb works out how to achieve the task using its own local nerve cluster. While humans have something like this going on with our ganglia, octopedes' limbs actually do some of their own problem-solving, which is far more extensive than what our ganglia do. It would be fascinating to experience semi-autonomy of one's limbs.)

OK. So what do I mean by "a proper attitude toward difference"?

1. Epistemology. I don't fully know. I have only recently figured out, after all, that this has been a general issue in my thinking. I am also phobic of completion, or certainty, in my personal philosophy, so even if I had been thinking about this for years I doubt that I'd have come to any kind of conclusion.

2. Axiology. What I don't mean is some form of total ethical relativism. I don't think that different ways of doing things are all equally valid. I would say that there are multiple ways of doing things that are just as good, but that doesn't mean that all things are equal. Some ways of doing things are very bad. It's just that there isn't a single best way of doing things. (You might think of this as a few local optima, but none of those local optima are a global optima.) So while I'm not an ethical relativist, nor a metaphysical relativist, I could maybe called a weak cultural relativist.

3. Axiology. Of course there are certain kinds of difference which I would condemn. For instance, certain kinds of criminal behaviour are unacceptable deviations from typical behaviour. I wouldn't celebrate difference without qualification. But my condemnation is based on ethical violations; whether or not the behaviour is different--or, in a more loaded term, deviant--from other people's behaviour is irrelevant to my condemnation. By the same token, I am willing to criticize normative behaviour (for instance, capitalist materialism).

4. Metaphysics, Axiology. What I am willing to say is that a lot of differences aren't comprehensible in terms of good/bad, or good/better/best. Bodies, for instances, are never wrong; no body is better at being a body than another. Some bodies are in more pain than others, of course, and that might well be a result of differences in those bodies. Social conditions make certain bodies more comfortable than others. But there is no Platonic form of "body" from which any given body deviates. No body is more typical of body-ness than another body. Any claim you make about bodies ought to apply equally to all bodies; if it does not, your claim is false (or at least applies only to particular bodies, but that distinction ought to be clear and appropriate). A failure to account for atypical bodies, in fact, is easily the biggest reason why a lot of atypical bodies are uncomfortable to have; the body itself is often not uncomfortable (cf. Dreger's One of Us).

5. Axiology. I would also be willing to say that the failure to account for atypical bodies, or atypical psychology (or even typical but non-normative psychology, like introversion), is endemic to Western philosophy, politics, art...really just Western culture generally. It is also probably a problem in lots of non-Western cultures, too, but I can only speak about Western culture with any reliability. I opened this post with the Isabel Allende quote because it is an example of a common attitude that seems to be in support of inclusion but must result in a failure to understand, and thus to include, people who are different from me. Focusing on similarity at the expense of difference is not a moral good, but so many people seem to think it is a moral good.

6. Epistemology. In the end, I would say that, as with texts, to exist is to differ. Humans have a lot of similarities, yes, but we are also idiosyncratic. Whether those idiosyncrasies are for good or ill I cannot say, but any theory or program or attitude that fails to account for those differences cannot really explain human behaviour, human need, or human dignity. Such an epistemological failure cannot help but produce metaphysical and axiological failures as well. This, for me, is the bedrock of a proper attitude toward difference. (So, with apologies to Eve Tushnet, I actually am a special snowflake, and so are you.)

It's important to note that I have other commitments than just this respect for differences, and some of these commitments might trump the commitment to difference, but ultimately I don't think I can explain and understand my own ideas without at least addressing the above.

(tl;dr: Just as the differences between texts must be addressed in any explanation of those texts, so too must the differences between people be addressed by any account of human behaviour; failure to do so results in other failures, usually ethical or political ones; these failures are really common in our culture; there are a lot of different kinds of difference and it turns out that I talk about them a lot.)

To Exist is to Differ, Part One

To Exist is to Differ

Difference as a Place of Study

Part One

Recently I have been realizing that, for me, the proper appreciation and/or understanding of difference is one of the most important themes in how I think about social, political, and ethical matters. I want to think about this a bit over two posts, but I'll start out with some academic autobiography that might help explain why I think about things this way. The gist of it is that I was trained in the humanities, not in the sciences, but of course it's more complex than that.

Pierre Bourdieu, in "The Field of Cultural Production," writes, "to exist is to differ." What he means by this is that an artist, in order to be said to have produced art at all (by whatever definition of success, and these vary), must have a unique oeuvre (and a unique reputation). It also relates to Bourdieu's definition of art, which is anything that changes the field of art by participating in it with its own difference (roughly). As far as texts go, I take it to mean something a bit more obvious: in order for a text to exist, it must differ from other texts. If someone found a manuscript that was identical to Hamlet (let's say the B text, because it's a better play), then it would for all intents and purposes be a manuscript of Hamlet. Only if it were significantly different would it be a play unto itself.

(Of course, it is technically the case that having a different author is enough to make one text different from another. This may be the genius, or at least the only redeeming value, of Andy Warhol's work, in that all of his minor differences, like colour and contrast, emphasize the one difference he cares about, that between original and copy. An even better example of the copy-original difference, however, is Borges' excellent short story "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote", in which the titular character re-writes Cervantes' classic, which is exactly verbatim but nonetheless different.)

In order to understand a text, then, you must understand what makes this text different from all other texts. Of course it is useful to understand how it is like other texts, too. We divide things into genres for a reason; when gathering texts together based on certain similarities, their differences become more salient. A lot of work can be done with similarity, but in the end it is what makes a text different from other texts that really helps us understand it.

There have been schools of literary analysis that have attempted to study similarity rather than difference. One of the most famous, in terms of its former prominence in the field and its current notoriety, is archetypal structuralism (not all structuralisms failed in quite the same way, but lots of the failed because of an inability to account for difference). This is the school championed by Northrop Frye. His goal was to create a schema, or set of schema, on which all texts could be charted. (This webpage summarizes these schemes and also makes visual representations of them.) His work is really fascinating in the way that, say, the more convincing forms of Ptolemaic astronomy or Freudian psychoanalysis are fascinating: it is detailed, well-worked out, surprisingly plausible, and ultimately fantastic. While he had quite a few of these structures, his most famous involves what he called the archetypal myths: Comedy, Romance, Tragedy, and Irony, which cycle in a large wheel, each producing the conditions for the next. It is easy and kind of fun to take a text and plot it out according to Frye's structures, but it does not often tell you very much about the text itself. You get a sense of how the text relates to other texts (so, for instance, you see that Pride and Prejudice and As You Like It are both comedies; the first is a prose novel while the other is a dramatic romance), but you can't get a sense of how two texts differ in the case that they occupy the same space in his scheme (so, for instance, you can hardly tell Pride and Prejudice from Sense and Sensibility). A text is more than just a mode/myth/genre combination. Thus one of the ways Northrop Frye's archetypal structuralism fails is that it offers no way to discuss the sorts of idiosyncrasies that make texts what they are. Perhaps Frye's structuralism could serve as a tool to another form of criticism, but in the end it is of little use on its own.

A more contemporary, and even less plausible, school of literary analysis to have failed in the same way is literary Darwinism. Literary Darwinism is the attempt to use evolutionary psychology to discuss literary texts. Proponents say that the features of texts will be consequences of evolved human preferences (they're strict adaptionists), so we should be able to examine texts as a way of examining evolved human traits. In the end, literary Darwinism usually winds up saying that literary texts rehearse primary human drives, specifically the drive to survive and the drive to reproduce. Pride and Prejudice is about trying to fulfill the reproductive imperative, while Oliver Twist is about trying to survive. The sort of evolutionary psychology that is needed to support this claim (one that is strictly adaptionist and does not allow for the existence of spandrels) is pretty outdated and problematic in itself, but even if the scientific side of this method was sound, it would still be bad literary analysis, because it reduces all texts to "universal values". It has no way of accounting for the bewildering idiosyncrasy of texts other than claiming that they are irrelevant artifacts, obstacles to understanding the text's real workings rather than the actual subject of study.

Recently I noticed that one thing these schools of analysis have in common is that they all attempt to introduce a veneer of the scientific into literary analysis. (Frye's "Polemical Introduction" to The Anatomy of Criticism is an exhortation to make literary analysis more scientific; literary Darwinism's affinities with science are obvious.) It's really tempting to make literary analysis a science of literature because science has been so effective when explaining physical events. The scientific method has been one of the most reliable and just plain exciting epistemological devices we've ever hit upon, so cashing in on that is of course really tempting. But science works mainly by induction, generating universal laws from individual data. It moves from the particular to the general. Idiosyncrasy is not especially interesting to scientific research except as a test case for refining universal laws. As I argued using Bourdieu, difference is precisely what makes literary analysis tick. Texts can only be understood with respect to difference as much as to similarity, so trying to make the field scientific will doom it to failure. (Also, literature probably does not operate according to universal laws in the way the physical universe does. That's a hurdle.)

Of course, not all scientific fields are disinterested in idiosyncrasy. Human bodies are quite idiosyncratic, a fact of which the medical field seems aware. And not all of the humanities are interested in idiosyncrasy: a lot of analytical philosophy is all about universals, which is probably why English departments celebrate the continental philosophers which the more analytical philosophy deparments reject. Anthropology seems to balance between the two, but at its best, to quote Ruth Benedict, "[t]he purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences" (which is why I think Bones, of Bones, is such a terrible anthropologist--she universalizes anthropological observations far too much).

My training in this environment is, I think, part of the reason I am so invested in idiosyncrasy, in differences, in the particular over the universal. It is surely not a coincidence that I share the emphasis on the local over the global with most postmodernist thought, and is maybe why I sometimes get mistaken for an actual postmodernist rather than the appreciative outsider of postmodernism that I actually am. But I am attracted to structuralism more than many of my peers were, too. (Bourdieu is a structuralist, after all; my objections would apply as much to him as to Frye, in fact.) Very recently, I am suspecting that this has impacted my politics, as well. For the better, obviously. (That's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek.)

(tl;dr: Literary analysis only works if you can explain how texts are different from each other; such focus on difference is not true of science, and that's perfectly OK; I suspect that my own concern with the differences between people is at least in part a product of my studies in literary analysis.)

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Freedom of Labels

A Note on Depression

For the most part I am used to hearing people discuss labels as limiting devices. For instance, when discussing sexuality, labels are boxes in which we put people; this limits the kinds of behaviours that we expect from them. However, I have also heard people discuss how labels can be liberating rather than limiting. Elizabeth Esther, on her eponymous blog, frequently identifies as ENFP, and has explained how personality typing has legitimized her behaviour. When Richard Beck criticized the Myers-Briggs personality test on empirical grounds (and, incidentally, I support his criticism), he received a lot of backlash from people who found that personality typing to be hugely helpful (however, I cannot find that post again because I think the criticism was buried in comments somewhere; sorry). What's going on?

Among other things, personality types help legitimize certain cognition and behaviour. I have found that identifying as an introvert has been incredibly helpful in understanding my own emotional responses and explaining them to others. In many cases, explanation has the force of justification: what was previous seen as an overreaction, a sign of poor mental discipline, is now a facet of my personality. The labels that personality tests provide, even if empirically unreliable, can be a way of insisting on cognitive diversity. When my interlocutors assume that everyone should be like them, I can use personality labels to insist that I am not like them and do not need to be like them. (When I assume that everyone should be like me, my interlocutors can use personality labels to insists that they are not like me and so on.)

But ultimately I find that even personality labels come with limitations that outweigh their freedoms. One of the most insidious aspects of dysthymia is that those who have it often do not know they have it. Rather than knowing that they have a mood disorder, they think that they are simply melancholy individuals or that they are subject to varied but constant bad luck (see my history with dysthymia). When I had dysthymia, I believed both that I had assorted personal flaws and that I was repeatedly in unhealthy situations. It was only in discovering the term dysthymia that I was able to understand my problem not in terms of personal flaws or external forces but in terms of a specific and treatable mood disorder. Or, even if it is not treatable, to claim the term "mental illness" can be liberating in other ways. I felt the stigma of mental illness, certainly, but psychiatric (and pseudo-psychiatric) labels were helpful in understanding my behaviour and giving it an etiology outside the realms of blame and persecution (cf this post). In this way, I consider the labels of mental illness even more freeing than the labels of personality.

Of course, my experience is not generalizable. I might be in a minority. The label "mentally ill" has been used to disenfranchise people since the inception of that term (cf Foucault). I assume labels are liberatory in proportion to how much control the labeled have over them.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Storytelling is Power

Trigger warning: suicide, sexual assault, bullying.

A few different articles about the connection between storytelling and suicide have come to my attention lately.

Lucia Lorenzi in her post "People as Pixels, Daughters as Data: Thoughts on the Tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons' Suicide" discusses how the bullies that harassed Rehtaeh Parsons following her rape disempowered her by taking away her ability to tell her own story. This narrative hijacking is a common thread among the young woman who have recently taken their lives after rape and repeated bullying. The theft of authority over one's own life is a form of secondary traumatization, Lorenzi argues.

Dianna E. Anderson in her post "Other People's Reasons and Our Narratives: On the Appropriation of Suicide" discusses the way in which the stories of a person's suicide can be appropriated by other people to serve ends which do an injustice to the deceased. She critiques Emily Wierenga's post "The lost art of servanthood," in which Wierenga simplifies and thereby misrepresents the story of her grandmother's suicide in order to illustrate her point. Anderson argues that, by assigning motives to her grandmother that her grandmother almost certainly did not have, Wierenga denies her grandmother real personhood.

Doing literary criticism & theory has not usually been this politically charged or personally tragic for me, but one of the reasons I insist that narrative/text/story/language must be studied and taken seriously is for reasons like those above. When we communicate our lives, and so when we communicate ourselves, we do so through narrative. But in so doing we always necessarily cast those we know as characters in those narratives, and so we control their stories, too. These are deep problems, maybe intractable ones, but certainly ones that deserve our attention.

(This is also why I get cynical when people are gushy about "storytelling." Storytelling is an exercise in power. Having fun is permissible, yes, but take it seriously, too.)

Assigned readings: Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler; The Truth about Stories, Thomas King.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Being Unable to Value

A Note on Depression

Having depression is strange. It is likely the case that any mental illness will produce a breach in a person's sense of self, at least if they are self-aware enough to notice. What makes depression strange is that I find myself unable to value things. Or, more specifically, I am unable to trust my ability to value things. Because I am depressed I do not feel that many activities or goals are worth pursing. Activities that I may once have found satisfying no longer satisfy me. I suppose my seratonin levels are down. (I don't actually know that; I'm basing this on my rudimentary knowledge of psychology.) I am aware that my current feelings about certain things--for instance, my academic discipline, artistic endeavour, social encounters--are not the same as they would have been a year ago or will be a year from now. This puts me in a strange epistemological position; while I can trust my regular sensory and rational abilities (I'm not hallucinating or delusional), I cannot be sure my value judgements are accurate.

Because I cannot be sure what I will value in the future, I do not want to make many/any long-term decisions right now. In a lot of ways I have been stalling, waiting for treatment to start working before I look beyond my immediate treatment. However, I am reaching a place where I need to think about what my goals are. This period I am in is an opportunity to make changes in my life that will help me be a healthy, effective, and productive member of society. It seems I am in a bind: I find it difficult to make the value judgements that will be necessary for me to become mentally healthy again, which is a (perceived) requirement for making those value judgements.

In the last few years I have increasingly learned more about myself, a process which has made my own opacity to myself increasingly apparent. That is, by learning about myself, I realized that if I had anything to learn it must mean that I am ignorant about myself. Perhaps what is new is my realization that what I have to learn about myself is chronological as well as, say, unconscious. Being depressed has made very clear to me the fact that I am not who I was nor who I will be, and my decisions now will impact my life in the future. Normally I would see no problem in making those decisions according to my values in the present: I do not usually have a reason to suspect that my future values will be drastically different from my present values.  (I should clarify that I do not mean "values" in a moral sense but rather in the sense of gaining satisfaction from activities.) Right now, however, I do know that my future values will differ from my current ones. Further, those future values are inscrutable. Perhaps this bind is true at all times for all people, but it has only become apparent to me in these extraordinary circumstances.

Like No Other Animal on the Planet

I want to recommend the BBC Horizon documentary The Secret Life of the Dog, which explores the relationship dogs have with humans re: domestication. One of their theses (granted, not the primary one) is that humans and dogs co-evolved; our relationship with dogs has radically changed them, but it has also changed us--perhaps allowing for the agricultural revolution. Thanks to my reading of Haraway, this is something I now take as obvious.

However, the primary subject of the documentary is the way in which dogs are unique among all other animals in the traits they've developed which adapt them specifically to human interaction. For instance, when dogs look at human faces, they regularly look towards the left (so they look to the right side of the face), a trait they share with humans alone. (They do not look at the left side of anything else; left-biased expression is a human trait.) So they've developed a unique capability of reading human emotion and understanding human communication.

One of the more interesting segments is about the planned and systematic domestication of foxes as an experiment to learn more about domestication. Two things are remarkable: the first is that it was successful. While foxes may not be as incredibly domesticated as dogs are, it is nonetheless possible to domestic foxes to a remarkable degree. The second remarkable thing is that while the experimenters selected for behaviour, certain physiological traits followed: shorter legs, more white in the coat, curled tail, floppier ears. Specifically, the traits that physiologically differentiate dogs from wolves also developed in foxes over the process of domestication.

I highly recommend this video. The combination of clever scientific research, dogs, and mind-theory stuff will always interest me. The Secret Life of the Dog has an X-Files feel to some of it, which I found amusing; they play almost-eerie music when leading up to the sorts of things a really intelligent dog named Betsy can do which made me think of the psychic-of-the-week episodes, and of course the experimental breeding of foxes was reminiscent of the experimental breeding of clones that a certain Fox Mulder discovered. Perhaps this is why I considered wild sci-fi scenarios while watching the show: what if the next sentient life to exist on Earth was not AI but canine? And what other animals could we domesticate: lions? cheetahs? elephants? If we did domesticate them, what effects would that have on our own behaviour and development? In what ways (cognitively, behaviourally) would those domesticated animals differ from dogs? (I suspect that horses are another animal worth investigating re: domestication and adaptations uniquely suited for interaction with humans.)

Monday, 8 April 2013

Not Depressed Enough

A Note on Depression

On taking a medical leave from my studies for depression, I had the unpleasant and bizarre experience of trying to prove that I was mentally ill. To an extent the process felt like it might have been more of a formality than an actual determinant in whether or not I got my medical leave, but it still had a strange psychological effect on me. I had a number of appointments with representatives from different institutions in the university, including Health Services, Counselling, and Access & Diversity, and the purpose of these appointments was both to seek professional help overcoming my depression and to secure documentation to support my medical leave.  In other words, I was not just trying to get help from these organizations, but convince them that I had depression debilitating enough to warrant leave.

During this process I was highly conscious of the fact that the process is in place to prevent people from getting leave fraudulently in order to avoid the consequences of poor academic performance. I was aware that someone who, like me, was appealing to the doctors, counselors, etc. for documentation could be faking depression. So I worried about how to perform my depression persuasively. How do you prove that you have a mental illness? How do you show that you actually have an illness and you are not simply repeating the common symptoms of that illness for cynical ends? While I assume it would be difficult to fake it for long, I do not know that I spent enough time talking with those professionals for them to be really sure.

The epistemological problem of identifying real from false mental illness is not my main concern, however. Maybe because I also have anxiety issues, I became worried that I was not sufficiently depressed to warrant medical leave. While I was applying for leave I felt some of the secondary symptoms of depression (poor memory, poor concentration, low motivation, disrupted sleep, lethargy) very strongly, but I did not feel especially sad or melancholy. It became an issue not just of trying to prove to the officials that I was sufficiently depressed, but also an issue of satisfying myself that I was depressed enough to warrant a medical leave. I certainly did not feel up to doing much at all, but days would go by in which I was not particularly unhappy. If the weather was nice, I might feel positively enthusiastic. Even I was unsure of whether my inactivity was a moral defect (laziness) or a psychological one (the decrease in motivation and concentration consistent with depression). Whenever I felt happy for too long (ie. a few hours), I would begin to feel worried and guilty, as though I was committing the fraud I was trying to prove I was not committing.

As it turns out, I got the medical leave and my mood decreased dramatically in the next few weeks. What troubles me is that I was relieved about both events. Of course I should be relieved about getting leave, but it is probably detrimental to my well-being to feel that I should or must be unhappy or hopeless. Obviously the university's requirement that I document my depression is not entirely responsible for my worry that I was not sufficiently depressed, but it does feel like something a depressed person should not have to deal with. I'm not sure how to fix the system, but it is troubling.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Why I Do Not Like Telling People I Am Depressed

A Note on Depression

I see it is with you as with the birches:
I am not to speak to you
in the personal way.
Louise Glück, The Wild Iris

A comprehensive list of the reasons I dislike talking about my depression would be far too long, so I'll pare down to the most relevant.

1. This one only applies to blogging about depression. I was (am) hesitant to discuss my depression on this blog because I do not want to offend any IRL friends who might find out about my depression from this blog rather than from me. I also do not want anyone to feel offended because I am willing to write about this stuff when I'm not willing to talk about it. But I think both concerns are faulty because a. I cannot be expected to notify absolutely everybody about my depression and b. if I feel more comfortable writing about depression than talking about it, than that's how it's going to have to go. I don't need to justify my hesitation to discuss it with people in person. But I'm also probably not going to talk about feelings on this blog very much (see #2).

2. I never really want to talk about feelings anyway. By this I do not mean that I am actively unwilling to talk about them, but instead that I have just never felt the need to talk about feelings. Contrary to what some people might think, I am emotionally aware, both of myself and others. I admit my emotions to myself and take my emotions into account when making decisions. But I've never really felt like talking about them. I don't find talking about my own feelings very interesting and I usually assume that other people don't want to talk about my feelings, either. Maybe some of my disinclination is a gender role I'm performing, sure. But some of it is also that I don't equate self-expression with emotional expression. The self I want to express, generally, is the one composed of my decisions, not the one composed of my impulses. So when I want to reveal myself to people, I talk to them about ideas or books, I do thoughtful things, I help them and ask for help, or I do stuff with them. Emotions rarely have anything to do with it, at least not explicitly. But this means that I do not have much of a habit of talking about emotions, and since emotions are bound up with my illness, I can hardly talk about one without at least implying the other.

3. I am worried what people will think of me once they learn I have depression. I do not want people to think I'm weak, of course. That's not unusual. But I am weak, and I'm trying to admit that. What's even more galling than the idea that people might think I am weak is that people might fail to think of me complexly. I am probably being uncharitable, but I keep imagining that people have this complex, robust idea of who I am, yet as soon as they find out that I have depression they will start imagining that depression is the most important thing there is about me. They'll attribute all of my behaviour to depression. Then they'll probably not want to spend time with me because when they see me, all they'll see is depression. Who wants to hang out with depression? I know this is unfair, but becoming two-dimensional to other people still scares me, even more than appearing weak.

4. Of course, if we're being honest, most of my life and all of my decisions right now are impacted by my depression. In that sense I am kind of two-dimensional. So if we're being really honest, I'm afraid that I'll see myself as weak, as two-dimensional, as entirely defined by my misery, if I tell other people that I have depression. I do not want to see myself that way. It's easier to pretend that I'm OK if people don't treat me like I'm not OK (or if I'm not imagining that people are treating me like I'm not OK).

5. Weakness is a kind of power, and I don't want to wield that power over other people. I do not want people to feel obligated to treat me with particular kindness. Telling people I have depression feels like a kind of imposition. People might not be honest with me because they do not want to hurt my feelings. People might resent me because they feel like they have to do things for me they would not otherwise do. The kind of power weakness would give me is not a kind of power I am interested in. Of course weakness gives me other powers than just obligation: it could give me the opportunity to affiliate with people. That's a kind of power. But I can't access the second kind of power when I'm much too afraid of the damage I could accidentally to do my relationships with the first kind of power.

6. I don't know how to talk about depression! I am getting better at it, but in general I haven't figured out how much information is too much information. I don't want to make people uncomfortable; I don't want to violate social norms.

But you know what? I do want to violate social norms. I want to lessen the stigma of mental illness. I want it to be OK to not be OK. So I am going to try to talk about having depression more often. Or at least write about it.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Notes on Depression: A History of My Mood Disorders

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.
Louise Glück, The Wild Iris

I have depression.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about whether I would blog about my mental health, and it is with great hesitation that I have decided to go ahead with it. From my experience being depressed I have learned a bit about epistemology, about the mental health system, about myself. Since I am not yet cured I will likely have more experience and will likely learn more. Some of these topics should be discussed publicly and I guess that job is left up to me. I am not sure if this blog is the best place to discuss them--I have lost most of what core readership I once had, I am ambivalent about continuing with this blog at all and have been for years, I am not sure whether a semi-anonymous or poorly-anonymous platform is the best one--and I am not sure that now is the time to make these topics public. But I do not know of a better platform and I do not know that there ever will be a "good time" to release these ideas. Perhaps I will never generate enough writing (or good enough writing) to justify trying to publish a proper book on the subject. So I'll blog about it. (And, let me be clear, I am terrified by this decision.)

I have already written a number of notes on depression which I will post over time. For now, in preparation, I want to write a brief history of my mental health. (Do not worry; all of my other depression-related posts written to date are much shorter.)

Part I: Dysthymia

I have probably had a mood disorder for most of my life, but until recently I was unaware of my disorder because I never knew another way of being. I always attributed my unhappiness to my situation (high school, roommate problems, being romantically single, etc. etc.). Every time my situation changed (I started university, I moved, etc. etc.), I expected that the change in my circumstance would initiate a change in my happiness. It never worked. Finally I moved to Vancouver, and despite a very promising start my mood did not improve at all. I became more miserable than I ever had been before. I was so miserable that I felt I was sure I would not survive for much longer. When it got even worse I realized that in fact I would always survive. Somehow I had imagined that after a catastrophic implosion I would emerge from the ashes as a new and healthy person, but eventually it occurred to me that the accumulated damage might never annihilate me so efficiently. Instead I would just go on the way I was, but with increasing pain. The prospect of such a survival was so horrifying that I felt like that kind of life would not be worth living. That's not to say that I felt suicidal; rather, I became motivated to effect a change.

Around the same time I encountered the phrase "chronic low-grade depression," and for the first time I found a psychiatric term that adequately described my mental landscape. I had never entertained the possibility that I had depression because I knew the symptoms of depression and I did not have them. (While my diet was not the best, it wasn't disordered; I slept well enough; I had an excellent memory, decent concentration, and acceptable motivation.) Other mood disorders, including cyclothymia and bipolar disorder, also failed to explain my condition. So when I was re-reading an essay by Maureen O'Hara and Walter Truett Anderson and encountered the term "chronic low-grade depression," I was excited to find a term to describe me. (When I first read the essay, I was not looking for a self-diagnosis.) I Googled it and found the term "dysthymia," and while it does not exactly describe what I was going through, it was close enough that I felt I could act on it.

I went to UBC's Counselling Services in August 2011, was diagnosed with a mood disorder (Minor Major Depression, according to their schema), and enrolled in a mood disorder workshop. That workshop helped somewhat, but in October-November I was feeling like I still needed a lot more help, so I sought out a referral from Counselling Services and started seeing a therapist. Because I had a mood disorder since (from what I can tell) Grade Five or so, I needed to re-learn how to think. That takes time. With a deal of work, and the recognition that I probably had an anxiety disorder as well as a mood disorder, I felt healthy enough to stop my therapy in late February 2012. (My therapist agreed that I no longer needed therapy.) By the summer of 2012, I was happier and more emotionally capable than I ever had been in my life.

Part II: Depression

My first term of library school (September-December 2012) was a mediocre experience. I blogged a bit about my frustrations, perhaps tactlessly. I was bored for most of that term and struggled with feelings of arrogance. At the beginning of my second term (January in my program), however, I was no longer bored and superior but instead aggressively miserable. I felt out of place, I had difficulty connecting with the people around me, and I was constantly tired. I could not get to sleep at night, and then could not get up in the morning (or at least not as early as I wanted). I had trouble concentrating on my work and I was not motivated. I started skipping classes because I hated going so much (though I was a little bit sick too, so maybe "skipping" is the wrong word). I also began noticing that my memory was not as good as it usually was: I was forgetting assignments, and when I was counting collection after church on Sundays, I could not remember simple sums or do mental arithmetic.

I had started a vegetarian diet in January, so I suspected that some of these mental effects were a result of low iron or low vitamin counts. However, when I was discussing my symptoms and my dissatisfaction in my program with a priest (not the one at my church, but a UBC chaplain), she suggested that I might have depression. I thought it was unlikely because I had had a mood disorder before and this felt different: my frustration was clearly directed to an object (my program) rather than diffuse, and I did not previously experience the cognitive symptoms. However, in the first week of February, not long after talking with the priest, I had a catastrophic burn-out while trying to complete a work-intensive but otherwise innocuous assignment and I realized that she was right: I had depression, and this time it was not minor. Surviving the term was impossible given my mental state; before the month was out I would be flunking assignments.

I immediately stopped attending classes and told my supervisor that I was dropping out of the program (I had looked on-line and it did not appear that the university would grant leave after the add/drop date). He told me that dropping out was not the only option and helped me get started with a medical leave. In order to get that leave I visited a number of UBC services (Counselling, Student Health, Access & Diversity), which also helped me get started on treatment. I started seeing my therapist again (is there a way of phrasing that that is not parallel to a romantic relationship?). After a few rounds on the bureaucratic carousel, I finally got my medical leave. I am now looking for work, but my primary focus is on recovery. I am not looking to the future very much at the moment.

While I have been unable to get a professional diagnosis (that can only come from a psychiatrist, and the waiting list for psychiatrists is six months), all signs indicate that I have moderate depression. My bloodwork came back normal, so the problem is not chemical or dietary. I am not sure whether my depression is situational or clinical, but the former seems more likely. I now suspect that my program was not so bad after all and my incredible misery was a consequence of depression, but of course it is possible that I am not well suited to my program and the resulting stress caused my depression, at least in part. I still do not really know what caused this bout of depression, and I may never know. My treatment is on-going. I am hopeful that I will eventually be free of big-d depression, but I am not hopeful that I will ever really be free of mood disorders in general: it is likely that disordered mood will recur throughout my life.

There is of course a lot more to say about both experiences with mood disorders, and I will do some of that in later posts. Some of it I won't discuss with you at all because it is more personal. But I still think it is helpful to have this history written out somewhere in a reasonably complete form if I want to blog about mood disorders.

(My gratitude to Eve Tushnet, whose writing on addiction has encouraged me to write on depression.)
Blog Widget by LinkWithin