Friday 15 March 2013

Temperance, intemperance and the fevers of conversation

Temperance, oh temperance.  I am not emotionally invested in philosophy.  I've never studied it properly; I'm an amateur enthusiast at best – like one of those half-witted nineteenth-century gentlemen who netted and dissected butterflies to no particular end.  If I'm 'trained' in anything then it's social science, political science more particularly.  Within that hazy constellation of epistemic practices I've always gravitated towards the theoretical and philosophical.  But, nevertheless, I am not emotionally invested in philosophy – I am simply not competent enough to suffer from such an attachment

The tagline to this blog is "In which I form strong opinions about things I don't know enough about" – strong but not especially gut-felt; polemical, wry but, I hope, never rude or aggressive – these are the low standards to which I aspire.  I say this not to cast aspersions against those who are emotionally invested in philosophy and who get correspondingly fiery and confrontational when discussing it.  This is not judgemental, just confessional.

I frequently write things that I later regret because I realise them to have been stupid and ill-informed, though I don't regret writing in general.  There's a pleasure that comes from looking back over old posts and realising 'hey, that's not bad.'  Occasional cringe-worthy stupidity is the negative externality of that positive process.

I'm congenitally shy but I've always found a way to speak up in classrooms, seminars, conference fora, etc.  These situations invariably induce a profound degree of nervous excitement in me; raised heart-rate, dry throat, clammy palms – on edge.  This tension at once pulls me out of the conversation – since the thought of having an entire room's eyes and ears trained on me makes me dizzy – but also draws me in – the fight-or-flight infusion of heat, purpose and adrenaline makes every word and thought stand out as if outlined with a sharp, black marker pen.

This contradiction, this critical disposition can go either of two ways: frantic silence or eager loquation.  The trick is to break the fever early on – jump in head first, say whatever is on your mind.  There's always a good chance that these initial rat-a-tat-tatting bursts of first impressions will, like so many blog posts, later be regretted for their inchoate pretension – but they set the conversation, the dialogue, the dialectic into chuttering, whirring motion – they set aflame the fuel that fear and anxiety provide.  Stupidity, it seems, is the practical precondition of wisdom.

But it's not just social anxiety – disagreement too, even when imagined, is fecund for thought.  Bickering, however, is not.

The things we love enfever us.  Our nervous energies draw us in, sharpening our wits, forcing us to think; but they also pull us apart, closing our throats and raising our hackles.

All too often we choke.