Critical is Sexy

When I was younger, I rolled with what came my way.  I'd drink and hang and eat and consume this and that with all sorts of people, some of whom I loved; some of whom I thought amusing; some of whom I found downright annoying, if not distasteful.

After college, I swore off such things. From then on, I'd lead a highly vetted life. And I've been quite successful. I don't spend time with people I don't enjoy thoroughly. I don't go to events that are not absolutely delectable.  But, alas, now that I am no longer married, I find myself occasionally dallying with forces and people I'd rather not — that is, if I want to, uh, enjoy female company.

Mind you, I retain my diligence and have a very low tolerance for behavior or events or anything, really, that doesn't suit me. I can see how old men become curmudgeons. But the other side of this is I can see how old men become wise and blissful: nothing but goodness.

Why settle for less?

Which brings me to my vetting criteria.  I like a certain beauty, of course. But I like smart more than beautiful. Which makes no sense as smart is beautiful.  I like funny. Funny is beautiful — and much rarer and hence more beautiful. But, above all, I like critical — not negative; not kvetchy; not whiny: critical.

What is critical? It is a will — a desire — to question everything, to root out one's own assumptions, to ask if this or that feeling is a feeling worth having, whence it comes, if it should be pursued or not. And I appreciate when this critical eye is aimed at everything — what we call politics, news, films, gender, me, words, life. And even better when its aimed at "us": what a relationship is and how it can go.

Now, I don't need or want this to be aggressive. I don't want someone constantly interrogating me or even interrogating themselves — out loud. And, often, a critique can end with: "Well, I just believe that because I believe it!" Which is a glorious thing. No, what I want is not someone who is afraid to commit to a belief but someone who assumes that critiquing their assumptions is a good thing, a skill worth honing, and is willing to consider the world anew.


Well, I turn, for a moment, to McLuhan and Foucault. McLuhan argues that we live in what he calls environments — which are very different than what the news and such call the environment. For McLuhan, the environment is the set of invisible assumptions we make, the actions and things and words we use that, in fact, use us: they coerce us, set the limits of what we can say and think and do.

An example he gives is the alphabet, an environment we don't even know to question. But consider it: each letter is a discrete unit;  to make sense is to move linearly — and to be visually decipherable (as distinct from, say, acoustically). Most people don't question the alphabet: they're taught the song at two years old and that's just how the world goes: A, B, C. But once you do, wowzer, the world brims. Why not acoustic space instead of visual space? Is there a writing that moves in all directions rather than linearly? What was hieroglyphics, anyway?

Foucault writes of discourse. There are words and modes of behavior that are, as Foucault says, "in the true." Say something outside of this and a) you have to explain yourself ad nauseum, literally; and b) you're immediately positioned as a pervert, asshole, or lunatic. It's really a that drives me crazy; b is just part of my life.

It is frustrating and exhausting for me to participate in discussions with quasi-strangers. The discourse that dictates how we talk and what we talk about is so limited and limiting — at best, I find none of it interesting and, at worst, I find it dangerous.  What sorts of things? Well, things like the presidential election; marriage; parenting; movies — pretty much everything.

I just don't use the same terms so what am I to do?

I can participate on existing terms: "Yeah, Obama let us down but he's better than the alternative!"  Jesus. I'd rather put a bullet in my head than utter such a thing — not because I have an opinion about Obama but because the very assumptions this utterance enjoys begin from a very different place than I begin.

I can try to change the terms of the discussion: "Well, what do we want from a president? Are these things even possible? What is the role of the government?" But then I'm exhausted and feel like a douchebag — probably because, in that situation, I am one. Such behavior is not socially acceptable.

I'm not saying I know any more than other people. In fact, I know less. I'm just saying that it would be nice if, in general, our collective discourse embraced a certain criticality in which questioning assumptions wasn't met with so much hostility and, worse, annoyance and befuddlement. Imagine, just for a moment, if you went to a party of strangers and the very way in which people discussed life — love, politics, art — was surprising! And you were invited to have your own strange perspective!

So why do I enjoy — desire — this critical will?

Because it is a will to see the world differently, to shed habit and cliche and engage the world as it emerges, as something to reckon rather than something to be known, mastered, and confirmed.

Because being an individual means being different and being different means seeing the world from your own perspective — and expressing that difference.

Because life is more beautiful and exciting and lively when you don't know what's going to happen, when you invite questions not just about the most hallowed truth but about the least likely ones, as well — those truths you didn't even know were truths you could question.

Oh, to be critical is to be alive, to affirm the flux of life. And what is sexier than that?


Linz said...

You're a very polite person. Can you talk about the difference between politeness and speaking "in the true"?

I think you could describe politeness as a certain healthy distance. And I think you could describe boring, predictable conversations in much the same way - you don't get to connect with someone if you're speaking in platitudes. And yet politeness is a strangely intimate kind of distance - its affirmative and kind. And "in the true" conversations feel cold and dead and exhausting. What's the difference?

Daniel Coffeen said...

I am a fan of politeness because it is a great technology to navigate physical bodies in the social world. That is, politneess is the oil that helps a crowded world of colliding bodies and exchanging goods function. Please, thank you, excuse me: these are gestures that move bodies. I don't think politeness is kind — it's wise and well heeled but it's outside the category of kindness. Which is to say, one can be a polite meanie.

Here, I'm talking about more than just encountering a body trying to enter the same building in which a simple, "You first," suffices. I'm talking about more intimate interactions, modes of behavior that resonate beyond my body in the social but my being in the social. Here, the stakes are higher and the demands more insidious and difficult to negotiate.

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