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What Comes First?
XHerakleitos - 8/20/10

Priorities are clearly out of whack, things aren't working. The slate is more blank than usual and here comes the question. We usually don't ask it so much as it comes at us with a harrowing, gut level aversion to creaking, rusty hinges swinging emergency's door wide open. Contingency can abound coarsely enough that no plan holds up, as if reality had a hole in every pocket. What comes first now? There's no quick answer. But if timing is everything, one can't tarry with it forever.

Sometimes you just have to move without a clear answer. And for the sake of the kids, one may need to pretend to know. When they're experienced, they'll understand that not even trial and error can gain purchase unless some moves are made.

One philosopher once made a similar point, characterizing another's fear of error as a fear of truth. In their own way each wrestled with first questions, what comes first, and how really to begin. Philosophy struggles to remain in the question... But, whatever that means, if we are really struck and stuck with this question now, what's more annoying than philosophy's inaccessible torsions, what's more obvious than its exorbitant irrelevancy?

Economic trauma nationally.. globally. The sublime confidence in markets and hyper-consumerism swept into a torrent of uncertainty. A climactic clusterfuck, where all of us catch up to scientific consensus that we've been unconsciously terraforming our own planet. Nuclear genies popping out of too many bottles - and a palpable sense that this is only one facet of a technological overload to any regulative faculties. Meanwhile, in a strange market for answers, religious extremism and slick bombast blooms in a petri dish bereft of any rational immunology. Science can't answer our deepest questions, 'politics' has become synonymous with 'bullshit', "breaking news" is broken news, and kitchens once alive in the art of healthy discourse are running wild with cockroaches and vermin.

"There's flies in the kitchen
I can hear 'em there buzzing
And I ain't done nothing since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say"

Can we fashion anything like an Angel from Montgomery, discover some transcendental pardon from this sentence, or are we doomed to believe in this living? Amidst bewilderment sliding into torpor, we want to believe there's a diamond hiding in the dust. I want to say there's an echo, maybe just a latent reverberation of what really makes us ourselves.

If we experience those unforeseen, beautiful moments where we see ourselves in another - and know with some crazy certainty that they see themselves in us, then we're both alive to something amazing. In the advent of that weird mutual ken, a kind of recognition we recognize even if we can't quite put a finger on just what it is, there's a solvent that cuts the rust of dogmatism and paint-by-numbers ideology. There's a catalyst for ritual, tradition, and language to rework itself. There's an answer to the question of what comes first now. We could be missing it, and dimly trying to find our way back to something we already know. But it's a damn good answer nevertheless. Because whatever the larger problems, getting out is going to take allies - or at the very least is in some manner connected to working with others.

Even with this provisional answer, we're thrown into philosophy like it or not. When things are so bad we're hit with terrifying intimations of the need to question and rework our most basic premises, philosophy throws itself at us. But oh no... its dated wardrobe of anachronistic costumes, the horror of the abstruse, of an alienated discourse inside museums where "infinity goes up on trial". And yet, insofar as philosophy tries to keep itself in the question, perhaps at its best it could mean nothing more esoteric than trying to hang on to a critically important pulse hitched alongside and running counter to any scheme of reason wherein we might get trapped - a cultivated infusion of the Mona Lisa's smile.

At some levels I think we all get this. Everyday we're moving in and about a constellation of ritual enactments, loose roles and figurative frames. Generally we see incompetence (and fear becoming prey to it) in two ways: Either someone is too engrossed in one frame, oblivious to shifting gears when appropriate, or too disengaged from any particular frame such that they can't get any traction into what is really going on. You can't get too drunk with the swill of any one joint, can't zone out altogether. We have to check either possible fate.

The secret sauce for that balancing act may be a challenge to talk about, but one can see it. It shows itself already in small children playing, almost naively able to negotiate the rules of role-play games, slide into the parts and bounce back out again. In one turn suspending and tooling the game, in another letting go and suspending disbelief. Amidst this dance, the kids who get stuck in either extreme aren't much fun to play with.

"You've heard the 11th Commandment haven't you?", my Grandfather would ask the bent out of shape Baptist Preacher in an oft repeated story. "No such thing", says the Preacher. "Oh yes there is: Thou shall not take thyself too damned seriously". Let's borrow a youthful spark of wonder and hold it like a vaccine against taking ourselves and any one story too damned seriously. Let's remember that mutual zone of recognition where the "we" happens, an ironic cogitamus ergo sum, a "we think therefore I am".

Up against all we face now, then we might really appreciate the truth of fiction, know ourselves better, and keep one step ahead of dogmatism. It could well be the first thing in learning to laugh again.

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