1.23.2017

The Limits of Understanding

This book refuses understanding by offering no concepts.
This book belies understanding by proliferating concepts.

I've always enjoyed understanding things. Frankly, I'm good at it. I usually understand things quickly. That is how my metabolism works: I take something in then process and distribute it swiftly. I've always been skinny.

Except when it comes to much of math. I understand some algebra and arithmetic. And I get some big ideas of calculus, maybe. But too many numbers and my understanding fails; things don't add up. All I see, all I "get," is a blur.

But, for most things, I can size up a situation, an idea, a process and begin to figure out what questions to ask, how it all might fit together. Inevitably, I miss something; such is the way of learning. But even the things I miss make sense. Such is the way of understanding.

For most of my life, I've relied on understanding. It's a powerful mechanism. It's made me feel wise, in control, and superior.  Like I have things figured out.

I'm not alone in bestowing such power on understanding. This is one of the premises of a certain psychoanalysis: understand whence your symptoms and the symptoms will disappear. Understanding, in this scenario, becomes the way to health.

And yet I've never quite been content with understanding. Sure, I invested a lot of my life into it, ensuring I could grasp almost anything. Indeed, this is what the university system asks of us: to know and understand. I remember constantly being frustrated in grad school by peers of mine who'd size up an idea with a ready, Oh, that's just Deleuzian repetition. Or: That's Lacanian lack — as if naming it and knowing its mechanics were enough! Which, for me, it often wasn't. I yearned for those ideas to undo me, thrill me, titillate me. I liked being moved, in every sense, by an idea.

But being moved has no place in the academy. Being thrilled and titillated has no place in the academy. And being undone sure has no place at all. The entire institution is committed to the opposite: to sealing up, to mastering, to owning through knowledge and understanding. This is why the academy focuses so much on scholarship rather than thought: it wants to know ideas, cite them, not live through them.

Here's the funny thing, or not so funny thing, as the case may be: I've understood that understanding doesn't suffice. I'm still in the realm of understanding. I'm still in the realm of seeing how it all fits together, being able to articulate it, even with an air of weathered wisdom. My will to understanding is insidious and voracious: it wants to transform everything into itself — which is to say, into a neat, effable package.

A book that's long stymied me is the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. It does not offer a philosophy or dogma. It offers situations and ways to navigate those situations. The only overarching principle I can make out is that you live every day as the day of your death. After that, the book never adds up — at least in understanding. The way of the samurai is precisely a way: it is a practice, a doing, not a knowledge or understanding per se.

Meditation makes this all  clear. We can talk about meditation — what it is, its different theories, meditation as mindfulness, meditation as critical inquiry, meditation as transformation, as nihilism, as joy. I've definitely come at meditation with many different understandings. But all that vanishes when I sit down and meditate. Which, of course, is one effect of meditation: it is not something to be understood. It is something to be done.

Yes, understanding is a doing. But it is a different doing than, well, doing doing. And this not to say that there's something wrong with understanding. On the contrary, it's great to understand things! There's a pleasure and there's something else, too: there's a foothold, something to step into, a place and a way to step outside oneself. The trick, however, is not to let the foothold be the end because most ideas demand eliminating footholds all together. To only understand an idea is not to finally grasp that idea.

The beautiful thing about meditation is that there is no place for understanding in the act itself. Of course, an understanding is part of it. For me, it's how I might situate myself — why I might practice a certain way. But this understanding quickly reaches its limit and the demand for a practice takes over. It's no longer a question of why you're doing this but of how you're doing it. It's all performance, all a doing.

Meditation, then, is not a not doing. Even wu wei, action through inaction, is not not doing. Both are quite demanding as a practice, as something you do with your body, your mind, your time. They demand a posture of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world — and with yourself. This posture is as visible as it is invisible. Meditation is not just sitting there. It is a state of poise, relaxed and alert. It's a matter of holding your shoulders, your arms, your head a certain way — not because of a dogma or understanding but because such is the way to facilitate the end of understanding.



Of course, this is not just true of meditation and Taoism, though they provide such perfect models. It's true of, say, Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus. There are a lot of ideas in that book; it produces and proliferates concepts at a dizzying pace. In fact, it's so abundant that understanding becomes overwhelmed — and, at some point, silly. The book disorients and reorients, introducing a different practice of making sense, of understanding. It's a practice of multiplicity, of play, of generosity. After all, what could be more absurd than someone being adamant about multiplicity!

This doesn't stop the academy, of course, from trying to suck the life — which is to say, the practice — out of Deleuze and Guattari. Fortunately for me, I'm no longer an academic. I don't have to understand anything anymore.

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