The Limits of Understanding, pt 2

I can write all kinds of things about ecstatic experience. I can visit shamans, watch them dance, levitate, or whatever it is they do. I can go to raves and see people lose their proverbial shit as they get jiggy for hours on end, smiles as big as the sky across their faces. I can write about their postures, how experience makes them move, inflects the body — and vice-versa. I can reference Bataille and write about the excess that tears the bourgeois body, the bourgeois order, asunder. I can be a scholar of the ecstatic, lecture on it at length, publish books, probably even get tenured.

But does any of this mean I have ever experienced ecstasy?

I, for one, have found myself talking at great lengths about meditation. I've said things like, "Meditation is not about relaxing. It's about achieving a state of relaxed alertness, a posture of poise, leaning neither back nor forward, ready and accepting of all that comes while remaining still." I've even talked about the role of posture, how the way the body holds itself and is held in the world inflects the meditative practice, how posture affects and realizes poise.

But what is more hilarious, more absurd, than a man who understands meditation without ever doing it? I am that comical, absurd man. My first instinct is always to understand — and then to explain, often to the chagrin of those around me (which is, for the most part, just my son. Poor kid. He's had to  suffer through so many lengthy explanations about capitalism, the nature of power and bourgeois discourse, how the ecstatic can pervade the everyday if you allow it...and more!)

Ecstatic states and meditation both rigorously deny — and, in some sense, exclude — understanding. They are practices, actions, that begin where understanding leaves off. This is how Kierkegaard describes faith: "faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off." Which is why he says faith demands a leap: it demands an action — leaping, not understanding. Because Kierkegaard's faith — like ecstatic states and meditation — resists, eludes, and beguiles understanding. Where Kierkegaard uses the paradox to lead understanding to its limit, Buddhists use the koan. (I am not conflating Kierkegaard's Christian faith and Buddhism; I am just trying to show how various folks approach the limit of understanding.) There is an infinite chasm between understanding meditation and meditating.

What about understanding ideas? Sure, ecstatic states, meditation, and faith elude understanding. But what about Nietzsche's idea of ressentiment? Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome or plane of immanence (which Derrida says neither he nor anyone ever understood)? Or Merleau-Ponty's flesh?

Well, I have met many petty, resentful shitheads who quote Nietzsche. And I've met many, many who believe they have the definitive take on Deleuze and Guattari. This, alas, is the main reason I continue to distance myself from the academy. The most conservative people I met at UC Berkeley were professors known for their radical ideas. The madness was more than I could bear! (And more than they could bear, alas. It wasn't exactly like they wanted me there.)

Of course, there were some ideas I understood and was then done. Kant's categorical imperative comes to mind. It's interesting but hogwash to me. And Hegel's dialectic. I'm with Kierkegaard on Hegel: Hegel gives us an understanding that vigorously flushes out every corner of life, digesting it all in one (albeit a triad) gulp of comprehension — and never offers a living moment. But Nietzsche and Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault and Kierkegaard: they threw down the gauntlet. They were never satisfied with understanding. They asked for nothing less than for their readers to be remade, recast, reoriented, reborn. They never wanted to be understood. In fact, they want you to do anything other than understand them!

I don't want to knock understanding. I love understanding! Give me anything, anything at all, and I'll do my darnedest to understand it. Car engines, distributed and masterless data schemas, Taoism, economic models, calculus, synthetic biology: I love understanding them — or at least trying to. My favorite part of how I make my living — I consult to companies, helping them understand (ha!) and articulate what they do — is the beginning of the process in which I have to understand their product, their business model, and the historical state of the market. I've ghost written white papers on best practices in workers' comp insurance.

All this understanding has at least two major effects on me. One, it just plain old gives me pleasure. There's a certain erotics as all this new information streams into me as I handle, assemble, and massage it just so into a moving shape in which all the parts flow productively together. It's a sensual, beautiful practice.

And understanding all these different things expands me and how I see the world. When I think or hear about any product, all my various understandings from all my various clients come into play. I begin to imagine their server architecture, their use of data, how they insure their workers, the role of their real estate holdings. Thanks to understanding, the way I see the world is much more complex, nuanced, rich than it otherwise would have been.

And no doubt this pleasure and this worldview are both kinds of practice. They have real, palpable effects on my body, my thinking, my life, my relationships in the social. Understanding is a kind of doing, absolutely.

But there are limits to what understanding can do. Understanding is a layer that runs through existence but by no means ever encapsulates existence. It can never throw its arms around the life, however hard it tries, however ardent its protestations to the contrary. Which may sound obvious but the problem with understanding is that it is often given this power — and often believes in its own power, as if understanding is enough. Picture traditional schools: students just sit while someone talks at them and then tests their understanding of math and spelling. But it all amounts to nothing, more or less, if these students have no practice of learning, of critique, of engagement.

Understanding can be a critical moment within the practice of self-transformation (or transforming into something other than a self: into a trans-self, a multiself, an unself, a post-self). For me, after I understand something, after I've assembled it into some kind of little machine, I like to test how it can and might flow with me, with my style, my metabolism, my digestion: my way of going. This is complex in that my way of going may very well be inflected in the process, find new ways of going, be sent astray, be destroyed. Hopefully, at least.

But understanding is a crucial step — for me. I'm not sure it's always necessary. But understanding is a powerful function, a way to feel something, to feel for something, to assess its weight, its way of going. The trick is not to stop there, not to stop when understanding washes over you in a warm, luscious rush. Because it's only after that that things start to get interesting.


Lindsay Meisel said...

I like this. It articulates something so obvious it must have been difficult to see: that understanding has been a kind of guiding principle in your life. I think you had a phase of thinking about seeing, and a phase of thinking about doing, and maybe now you're in a phase of thinking about understanding.

Also, isn't meditating nice?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Fuckin aye: understanding has been my go-to, my tonic, my intoxicant, my ground, all at once. And, yes, meditation is incredible. But — or and — I have to resist my temptation to understand it and be done. The doing is so so so different than the understanding. Which may be obvious to everyone else. Sometimes, I'm just a slow idiot like that.

Lindsay Meisel said...

The reason to meditate seems the same to me as the reason to write. If you understand an idea completely, it's already a bit boring to write about it, no? Something happens during the writing that I used to think of as a process of more fully understanding the topic at hand. But now, after reading this post and thinking about understanding in the context of meditating, it seems to me that writing sometimes belongs more in the "doing" bucket. Or maybe this is what you're already getting at when you bring up Nietzsche et al.