A bold confrontation with unintentional neutrality and carelessness
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Living with Indifference
By Charles E. Scott
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2007 Charles E. Scott
All rights reserved.
Speaking of Indifference
* * *
If men were able to exercise complete control over their circumstances ... they would never be prey to superstition. — Spinoza
Philosophy is a matter of texts, of texts that began the problems and ideas of a tradition, of texts that changed the course of traditions or deepened and widened them, of texts that turned away from traditions in the impact of new problems and ways of thinking. That, however, is only part of philosophy's story, because it also arises out of and reflects the texture of people's experiences, the vast and intricate intuitive network of symbols, practices, and manners of feeling that give experience its intensities, rhythms, kinships, and differences. Texts are only a part of philosophy's fertile ground, and we would limit unwisely the discipline and passion of philosophy were we to restrict it to texts.
Without texts, on the other hand, we would lose touch with lineages of reflective formulation and determination. They provide centers of perspective and interest, molding and shaping the intuitive, experiential grounds, giving limited voice to all manner of observations and feelings. Texts give places of speech and teaching and control; they make possible disciplined orders. In this remarkable strength we find also the vulnerability of texts: In their orders and disciplined networks of careful articulation they make evident the chaotic differences of experiences — the differences that limit and exceed philosophy's care, order, and language — streams of experience entirely different from philosophical virtues, mute where order and good sense prevail, merely neutral before the great figurations of ideas, beliefs, and value: dimensions of indifference in human experience in which philosophy ceases. And not only philosophy ceases. What we in the West broadly think of as humanity ceases, human control and influence cease in the dimension of indifference that accompanies all human engagements. I expect that all philosophical texts in the Western traditions carry a more or less muted sense of something like a region of indifference in their determinations and regulations. Scarcely marked, it hovers in thought on time, chance, beauty, imagination, freedom, violence, and virtue. I will note many of those texts and thoughts as I address the indifferent dimension in our lives. I will also turn to manners of expression that in their deviation from philosophical order find access to indifference that most disciplined philosophy ignores and does not see.
This book is about the dimension of indifference that appears with emphasis in experiences of beauty, contemplation, transformation, dissolution, inevitability, objectivity, and, I shall say, most markedly in experiences of freedom and goodness.
How might we speak of indifference? In the context of a book, that is partially a question of texture. Does the topic require a weave of interconnections that forms a unity of regulated interacting concepts, a unified whole? That kind of system would make a self-standing construct, an individualized and identifiable entity. What if indifference were not a self-standing entity? Wouldn't the texture of such a book mislead and at best present badly its subject matter? And if I intend to speak of a dimension of living things — in this case, a dimension of indifference — and not speak of something called indifference itself, wouldn't a definitive and differentiated position that shows no indifference be an embarrassment? Something like missing the point?
If there were a point. Indifference is not something with a point. It doesn't take place like a culmination of many things. The problem is that the happening of sheer neutrality is not a thing at all. "It" lacks specific determination, and that makes thinking and speaking of indifference awkward. My guess is that the most appropriate address of indifference is indirect and that directness regarding indifference is at best preparatory for another kind of perceptiveness.
The texture for this address needs to function like a wave-link attuned to an indifferent frequency. It needs to develop a resonance with the persistent unraveling of orders, with an unruly dimension in living that seems apparent in the permeability of borders, that is like a space of differences, and that gives no order to simultaneous events in a regulatory Now.
So if I am to make a systematic presentation of indifference I will need to find recurring and interacting issues and questions regarding the dimension of indifference. Those would help to constitute a texture and would be issues and questions that compose a linking resonance and hold off balance expectation for a completed whole as well as the implications of "a" and "the" when they modify "indifference," hold the pronoun "it" questionable in its application to indifference.
How could we formulate a resonance with indifference, since indifference lacks a fixed shape? The texture of this book has many representative statements, many values and perspectives expressed in it, but it does not find its subject matter in them or in a unitary force. If the book finds an equilibrium, it will not be in a group of dominant values or direct claims but in a poise that is unmoved by the several persistent elements that define the book's values and concepts, a poise by which space appears that is undefined by those values and concepts, a poise that is resonant with such space as it defines its own determinate shape. If the book succeeds, its texture will comprise that kind of equilibrium — a formulated and determined resonance with the dimension of indifference that is the book's subject matter, a dimension of indetermination that appears to accompany the determinations that define our lives and our world. It is a dimension that challenges discursive, performative adherence to it, "challenges" in the sense of "provokes and holds in question." It is especially provoking because regardless of the transitive verbs I just used, "it" doesn't do a thing. The book's texture does not adhere to indifference, but it does intend to find its "place" by maintaining attention to the indifference of its own space and occurrence without turning such space and occurrence into any thing that is identified or fixed.
Throughout the book I highlight several meanings for "indifferent." Its basic philosophical sense is "not different" — the prefix "in-" functions as a negation. Its pervasive sense of "undifferentiated" may be nuanced by an implication of neutrality and impartiality, by an absence of interest, care, or intention. It might describe a lack of connection or importance: an indifferent matter or quality, for example. It can suggest neutrality regarding good and evil, or lack of an active quality.
"Indifference" suggests more explicitly than "indifferent" a lack of feeling for or against anything: the vast indifference of the universe, for example. Or inertia where will is concerned, want of sufficient importance to constitute a difference — an indifferent presence — pervasive heedlessness, and, as noted above, lack of connection.
But the word, stemming as it does from difference and differre, also suggests possibility for change and movement toward unspecified differentiation. It suggests possible determination without partiality and with neutrality toward the outcome — quite different from teleological intentions. This sense of indifferent force as opening to determination will play an important role in the following chapters. In this context the book engages senses and concepts of necessity and chance, especially in relation to experiences of beauty and figurations of spirit. Experiences and concepts of limitation, probability, dispersion, inconstancy, and space also have their parts to play as we approach the indetermination of indifference. And throughout the book freedom and goodness will appear as axes in many human experiences in which dimensions of indifference make their appearance.
This book is not primarily about the attitudes of people, about whether they care passionately about values and lives. But it is nonetheless about attitudes, attitudes that form when people have a disturbing sense that something important is hidden from them. In such instances we might try to reproduce the hidden "reality"; but rather than finding the secret, we find the stock-in-trade images of our ordinary lives, shadowed still by something hidden, perhaps mysterious and seemingly important, and especially important if the hidden doesn't seem to be like a real thing with determined identity. Dimensions of indifference in many instances, given certain expectations about reality and mores based on those expectations, figure "something" hidden and important. The very happening of these dimensions threatens some large views of the world and often disturbs the hopes and comforts we take in situations of stress and pain. Patterns of denial can develop; for example, insistence on personalized and intentional universals that are free of indifference, teleological speculations about the world's continuity, and ethics of attachment. In such instances, indifference in the occurring of lives can become a negative preoccupation in the positive meanings of people's lives — like a dark specter of meaninglessness that requires well-tended vigilance at the deepest levels of affirmation and hope. Often in those situations one finds insistence on systematic tightness, emphasis on definitive closure, passions focused primarily by shared identity, and a dominance of values of conformity in conceptions of community and commonality.
I have seen the eyes of indifferent people, as I am sure you have. Their cold preoccupation, their blindness to compassion, their failure to notice or care. This book is not about them and is largely indifferent to them. It — the book — is rather about aspects of indifference in living events, not about a kind of character described as indifferent. It is about dimensions of occurrence that are utterly neutral and without intention. And it is also about some of the differences that paying attention to such dimensions makes. It is preoccupied by differences in sensibility that can arise when people are aware of dimensions of indifference throughout their lives, and, far from traumatized or obsessed by them, accept them and themselves with them, and develop, perhaps, values that take constructive account of those dimensions and the departures and beginnings that they occasion.
I turn now to a different texturing of this introductory chapter in anticipation of the chapters that follow. The purpose of this different form of presentation is to introduce both a sensibility that appears attuned to dimensions of indifference in living events and highly disciplined articulations of this sensibility.
* * *
Consider this statement by Jerry Fodor:
It's very hard to get this right because of our penchant for teleology, for explaining things on the model of agents with beliefs, goals, and desires is inveterate and probably itself innate. We are forever wanting to know what things are for, and we don't like having to take Nothing for an answer. That gives us a wonderful head start on understanding the practical psychology of ourselves and our conspecifics; but it is not of the (no doubt many) respects in which we aren't kinds of creatures ideally equipped for doing natural science. Still I think that sometimes out of the corner of an eye, "at a moment which is not action or inaction," we can glimpse the true scientific fission: austere, tragic, alienated and very beautiful. A world that isn't for anything; a world that is just there.
According to this observation, when people experience the world as "just there," our penchant for explaining things on the model of active subjects will likely lose some effective force. Lost too, presumably, would be the force in images of ourselves as thoroughly agential, thoroughly purposeful, rightfully exercising dominion in the name of good and true purposes. In the language of this book, things happen with a dimension of being good for nothing. That's a dimension of their lives — of our lives. When we catch a glimpse of moments "which [are] not action or inaction" we see another possibility: life other to purpose and differential caring, indifferent life, "austere, tragic, alienated, and very beautiful."
* * *
In a different idiom, e. e. cummings:
what Got him was Noth
ing & nothing's exact
ly what any
one Living(or some
like even a Poet)could
hardly express what
I Mean is
what knocked him over Wasn't
(for instance)the Knowing your
damned)life is a Flop or even
& hoped &
months & weeks & days & years
& nights &
forever)is Less than
Nothing(which would have been
Something)what got him was nothing
Indifference "is" not a thing. That's one of the reasons why the question of the book's texture is hard for me because texture determines things in their weave. I'm addressing "not different" in the occurrences of differences, "not different without action or inaction," and addressing too a sense of indifference that is not at all foreign to Western judgment and sensibility and that often has functioned as though it were a secret or something threatening and effecting a destructive emphasis on subject-like projection and control. Nothing especially mystical and nothing systematic, but nothing that gets to us, scares us, or shocks us (certainly doesn't humor us) and leaves us wanting to Do Something about the fragments, detachments, and chances of living. To cover over the spaces, as it were. To bring it to definitive expression. To exact it in a texture of images and discourse. And not, I suppose, to think it differently, holding firm as it were to its indetermination and giving the lie to what some people think of as mystical in the sense of "it doesn't fit our interpretation of 'intelligent.'"
* * *
In The Book of Illusions Paul Auster writes of silent films:
They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audience of their time. We watched the same great chasm of forgetfulness, and the very things that separated them from us were in fact what made them so arresting: their muteness, their absence of color, their fitful, speeded-up rhythms. These were obstacles, and they made viewing difficult for us, but they also relieved the images of the burden of representation. They stood between us and the film, and therefore we no longer had to pretend that we were looking at the real world.
Relieving images of the burden of representation is hard, and I think a fundamental shift in sensibility and attitudes is often necessary for that relief to happen. Auster finds that what makes silent films arresting and allows them to speak deeply to us is what makes them difficult for us: their detachment from us, their muteness, their absence of color, and their fitful, speeded-up rhythms. These films are difficult in part because most of what we consider real in the world doesn't happen in them. The movements of the characters and animals, subtitles, the speed of transitions, the silence — not like the world really is. But in their illusory quality — illusory in comparison to the nonpoetic world — something else happens that is not subject to the staple of reality: representation. Auster doesn't say "bad representation." He says "not representable." Silent films open a dimension that seems illusory in our usual way of knowing things, and in this opening a sensibility begins to emerge that is not directly presentable. He writes from it and of it — not of angels or other figurations like that, but of an illusory, palpable aspect in the occurrence of things that makes the boundaries of ordinary clarity seem relative and limited, sometimes protective and overassured.
Excerpted from Living with Indifference by Charles E. Scott. Copyright © 2007 Charles E. Scott. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
1. Speaking of Indifference, 1,
2. Helen, Truth, and the Wisdom of Nemesis, 11,
3. Pythagoras, Indifference, and the Beautiful Soul, 22,
4. The Indifference of Finitude: Arendt and Heidegger, 33,
5. Another Look at "Soul": Mimetic Geist, 49,
6. Indifferent Freedom, 60,
7. In the Name of Goodness, 92,
8. Indifferent Love, 106,
9. Trauma's Presentation, 125,
10. The Appearance of Public Memory, 135,
11. Wal-Mart and the Heavens: The Factor of Indifference, 145,
What People are Saying About This
No one should be able to finish this book without having been moved to reconsider issues that are both sophisticated and existential.
A refreshing reminder of what philosophical practice is capable of setting forth.
"A refreshing reminder of what philosophical practice is capable of setting forth."(Jason Winfree, California State University)
A refreshing reminder of what philosophical practice is capable of setting forth.
"No one should be able to finish this book without having been moved to reconsider issues that are both sophisticated and existential."--(John Lysaker, University of Oregon)