Friday, November 28, 2008

A Walrus in the Tree

Say I am walking down a country road with a group of people, about thirty or so, with a beautiful forest on the lefthand side. Someone notices an animal up near the top of one of the trees. One of the men of the group, a rather boisterous fellow who fancies himself leading the walk, speaks up loudly, "Why I do believe that's a walrus up there." Not to be outdone, another man, just as proud and ambitious, says back, " My good fellow! Obviously this is not a walrus, for it doesn't have tusks! I can plainly say that this is a horse."

The two stop everything and begin an argument about it. Amazingly, the group becomes divided down the middle, with rougly half standing behind the one, and half behind the other. Right there in the middle of the road, there forms pro-walrus and pro-horse parties, raucous, passionate!

I had been enjoying the walk until that point, rather airily and dreamily taking in the country air, the country sights. However, I take one look at the animal in the tree...I know it is a squirrel and there is just no doubt about it. Now, there's a lot I don't know about squirrels, there's a lot I don't know about trees, there is a lot I don't know about this stretch of country road, etc. But I do know this is a squirrel in a tree.

I say, "Friends, this is neither a walrus nor a horse, but a squirrel."

The immediate response I get is, " You just can't say such a thing...Why, it doesn't fit...Your answer is entirely chaotic. We have a tradition of some length of categorizing this as horse or walrus, and we have vibrant healthy communities of opinion going where we affirm it one way or the other--these are what give our lives structure and meaning..."

I hadn't meant to provoke a reaction beyond simply pointing out the obvious and hopefully finding a way to get the group to continue on with its until-then pleasant walk. Having had some experience with being considered abrasive and divisive, I respond very carefully. I say, " Show me why I can't say this thing, ie, show me why I am wrong to do so, why saying it is a squirrel 'doesn't' fit. Show me why it is chaotic to say it is a squirrel while on the other hand it is traditional-community based to hew to the claim of it being either walrus or horse."

I have at this point a difficulty of explaining the course of events--I am at a loss of how to summarize the response of the walrusists and the horsisists to my questions, my request for clarifications. There are actually a variety of responses contained in their "one" response to me. They are concerned that they do not know my background; that they think I have a funny name; that they don't have enough, or perhaps anything, in common with me; that I don't have a sense of humor; that I am a Lockean liberal; that I need to get used to teasing; that I am irrational in wanting to get it straight on whether it is a squirrel or something else while I am simultaneously destroying their community, their tradition, by being rational...whatever that means. (And I notice one of the most important things is never to bring 'rationality' itself into sharp focus...That's even more out-of-focus than the squirrel-walrus-horse up there in the tree.)

Though I haven't done anything violent or even particularly provocative, the groups are in turmoil. Let's kill this whole "squirrel" heresy before it creates any more turmoil or gashes into profits, as surely it will. (It sure will! We had a squirrelist working for us a few years ago and we ended up with a severe quarterly loss because of it!) Then, the leader of the walrusists pipes up, in a voice stentorial and commanding, "Enough. We must cut down the forest and put all of the biomass in it and of it into my woodchipper over here."

There is silence over the dispersing groups, resigned to the "fate,destiny" of the forest, of themselves. An enormous caterpillar (John Deere D-10) begins to dig into the forest floor and overturn the trees. I am the only one continuing to watch. I see the squirrel scamper away. Then it comes to me...My God! I am responsible! I've been guilty of "naive realism."


Blogger Carl Sachs said...

What resonates with me about this post is about how much really goes on in the notion of "objectivity" and "experience" which is not well-served by those labels.

Those labels have become so thin and dry that don't evoke the richness and texture of what's involved in one's responsiveness to sensual particularity, or to one's responsiveness to the responsiveness of others, or (what
is your main theme here, I think) the remarkable capacity we have to
fail in our responsiveness to sensual particularity, and how difficult it can be to turn our attention to that failure -- to really get that failure in focus as a failure, and also the difficulty of beginning the reconstruction of one's (or of our) discursive practices (not only
of "classification" but also of habitual action, seeing something as something that calls out for treatment of a particular sort) in light of what is only now able to come into view as a failure of
acknowledgment of sensual particularity.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's something very poignant in this phrase of yours,

"the remarkable capacity we have to
fail in our responsiveness to sensual particularity, and how difficult it can be to turn our attention to that failure -- to really get that failure in focus as a failure, and also the difficulty of beginning the reconstruction of one's (or of our) discursive practices"

I think the connection you are making between recognizing failure and sensuous particularity may be a new one for me. (Because I think of cognition of failure in purely epistemological terms or ethical terms (in itself a weird combination) while I think of sensuous particularity as aesthetic?) This does suggest to me some ways to reassemble totality,critique, and enlightenment as reactivation of a philosophical ethos which I feel a strong desire to pursue.


12:40 PM  
Blogger Carl Sachs said...

Which is odd, because I'd thought you'd been seeing both aspects -- cognition and sensual particularity -- as simultaneously epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic all this time, and I thought I was only now catching up to you!

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that though I may have as a very clear goal--which I repeat a little too often-- to be able to see both aspects simultaneously,etc., this doesn't actually enable me to actually do so in each and every sensuously particular case I encounter.

Where I come across the challenge to do so--to think both/and--I come across a new particularity which presents me with what can easily be a failure of sensuous particularity (through the assumption or preconceived notion I already have an approach to this sensual particularity) unless I once again ask the question of how do I meet this particular challenge...As something new, as a new problem.

So, I think in some way or another I recognize, in your presentation of failure, a failure of my recognition of failure though I don't see my own way through this yet. Maybe rather than speaking of failure it would be better to speak of the recognizing (and in the recognizing, a creation, a cogno-recogno-creativeness) of a problem or a problematic. I think this is entirely relevant to our entire discussion. Thank you for the kind compliment, though.

What would really screw me up and get under my skin would be for someone to come in to the conversation and attempt to problematize my own certainty that it is a squirrel up in the tree, or the certainty that it is more likely a squirrel up there than a walrus or horse. Such a movement is often undertaken as returning the conversation to a philosophical stance--as if such a problematization were necessary to philosophy. (or, more crudely, a move the highest intelligence, sophistication, subtlety.) As if the greatest philosophers and thinkers of all time were doing nothing more than staring into trees, unable to really say for sure (or even unable to weigh probabilities) whether that's a walrus,a horse, or a squirrel. Thus, I see this problematization, which they urge with such profound satisfaction, as a deactivation of the philosophical ethos.


2:41 PM  

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