Turtles All The Way Down
 Spinning webs of significance since 1990
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Nancy Scheper-Hughes

I have used strong language at times—a phrase like neo-cannibalism isn’t going to make me any friends… This is how the interpretive anthropologist works. We work with language and subtext.

- “The Organ Detective: A Career Spent Uncovering a Global Market in Human Flesh,” Interivew in Pacific Standard Magazine (July 2014)

Joan Didion

Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception… However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves…

On Self-Respect in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)

A Thought On Returning

During an interview with The Believer, Joan Didion spoke about her writing process. In particular, she talked about her emotional relationship to the material she’s working on. Of her novel Play It As It Lays, she had this to say:

I was so unhappy writing that book because it was just a very hard book for me to write, and I didn’t realize until I finished it how depressed it had made me to write it. 

Further along in the interview, there’s an exchange that both fascinates and terrifies me:

BLVR: It always happens, for me, that I have a certain attitude toward the world for the time-period I’m writing a book—

JD: Right. You borrow the mood of the book in some way.

BLVR: It’s hard to find a book that’s safe to write. Because one always goes to dark or difficult places.

JD: Exactly. Sometimes you don’t want to go there.

BLVR: But then where can you go? I mean, it’s the only place to go, right?

JD: Right.

Like any Californian worth his salt, I’m obsessed with Didion. When I read her work (and it’s mostly the fiction), I’m in awe. Not because of her imagination, or even because of her style - though, admittedly, the lady has got some serious style - but because of the sharpness of her words. No one cuts to the point quite like Didion.

After a year away, coming back to the US has been interesting. There have been the grocery stores, the language, the people, and - above all - the sheer excess by which we live our lives. When I read Didion’s words (“You borrow the mood of the book in some way”), I get goosebumps, because it occurs to me that the grocery stores and all the rest of it are inconsequential.

It’s the coming and going that is the point. 

Carol Greenhouse

[T]he question of recognizing agency is necessarily less a matter of measuring its efficacy on the machinery of government than on decoding its signs and following their interpretive trajectories… Accordingly, political agency cannot be defined a priori but only in the specifics of its emergence.

Introduction to Ethnographies of Neoliberalism (2012)

I think my brain just exploded.

Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife

My Tumblr was hacked. Which is dumb, because… well, it’s Tumblr. In reality, it reminds me of that time someone in Pennsylvania stole my AmEx and bought groceries. 

What, no speed boats?

To quote Tom Hardy in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream bigger, darling.”

Stephen King

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit… One notable exception to the bullshit rule is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. There is little or no detectable bullshit in that book.

- 2nd Forward to On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2010 [2000])

A Recurring Thought

Back in college, I had an English professor who told the class to avoid using certain words when writing essays. “Just” was one such word.

"Nothing is ever just anything,” he said. “Don’t simplify.”

I’ve been hearing him in my head a lot lately, and I’ve been wondering why. Combined with the strange, if alarming dreams I’ve been having, his words tell a complicated story of what my first year in Paris has been all about: keeping secrets.

While it’s true that when you’re a stranger, people consider you with careful suspicion, it is equally true that they often naively identify you as an uninterested party. Consequently, you become the de facto keeper of secrets - the one they run to in order to vent about lives that you have, presumably, nothing to do with.

And the secrets build, creating a heavy weight of guilt that you carry around with you on a daily basis as you interact with people who, yes, most certainly do have something to do with each others’ lives and yours. When they make snap judgments, you hold back any attempt to correct their erroneous assertions.

"He’s such an asshole," they might say, referring to a mutual acquaintance who, stuck in an impossible predicament, made a difficult decision. 

"But…" you’ll begin, stopping as you consider how it is neither your place nor right to divulge the details of the mitigating circumstances. Of course, they’ll look at you strangely, wondering what you know, and you’ll try to change the subject as diplomatically as possible.

Well, he thinks you’re an asshole, too, you might think to yourself in an effort to calm the pangs of guilt and helplessness. At least you’re cut from the same cloth. And besides, it’s none of my business.

But, of course, it is my business.

As I enter my rather unexpected second year of fieldwork, I find myself contemplating the many ways in which being the keeper of everyone’s secrets has made me so terribly cynical about the world. More than that, it’s made me a painfully antisocial person who, in the absence of any good faith interactions, retreats to the calm and repetitiveness of solitude.

How I wish I could enjoy the simple pleasure that comes from passing judgment and from just being in the world, instead of standing beside it.

Fieldwork, Part II

The air feels different in Paris. It’s not like those few days in early March when the weather was lovely. No, that was just a few days. Now the trees are in full bloom, and the young ladies have even begun to wear skirts. Overly-dressed tourists pose for photos in front of buildings they have deemed historically and architecturally significant, in their professional, touristy opinions. They fill the air with their broken French and high-pitched English, drowning out the birds that signal the season is here to stay. I think one of them is even wearing… yes, denim stilettos. I duck into my favorite restaurant where the owner, a longtime friend, greets me with a steak skewer, potatoes, and a side of béarnaise sauce. I scarf it down as he smiles and comments, “Vacuum working perfectly today, eh?” I smile back and tell him my plans have recently changed, that he can count of me to be a loyal customer. Suddenly, the smile disappears, replaced by a blank stare and a sigh that trails off as he takes my plate to the dishwasher.

"Another year…" he mumbles.

Yes, Monsieur, and Paris is certainly lovely in the spring.

Andrew Porter

They had grown up inside this routine, had even begun to enjoy it, to take comfort in it, and as long as nobody there decided to break the spell, as long as nobody there decided the point out the simple fact that none of it was real, then it all seemed to work just fine for all of them.

- In Between Days (2013)

The “field” is so strange. No matter how much sincerity you approach every day with, there is always, unquestionably, the lingering knowledge that you are looking at a world that is not your own. Those around you are initially aware of this strange inability to commit, and they are right to not trust you. But, of course, with time, your disruptive presence insinuates itself into the rhythms of everyday life.

In those rare moments when I take time off from my research, I am faced with the realization that I have nothing that quite resembles a life here. So I sit alone and contemplate the life I have put on hold, and I try to keep up with it, and with the moral and emotional commitments I’ve consciously made to the people who, out of good faith, wait for my return.

But now, after almost a full year in Paris, I begin to let go ever so slightly of the notion that I still have a life to return to in a vague, undisclosed elsewhere; and I embrace, however tentatively, the delusion that suggests I may have a life here. And with this comes the knowledge that whatever provisional commitment I make to this place is overshadowed by the commitments people are beginning to make to me.

People here offer their help in “fixing the situation,” by which they mean my temporary status. They panic when I tell them my visa is coming to an end, and they lecture me on why I can’t be so irresponsible as to let it expire. I nod, mostly out of respect, and acknowledge to myself that I am making promises I can’t keep - the same promises I made to everyone back home.

My confusion oftentimes turns into righteous anger - a defense mechanism if ever there was one. Other times it turns to panic, as I consider the absurdity of living two lives that are, each in their own way, untenable. And finally, when everything has passed, I am left with the undeniable guilt of knowing that I will always be the one to go back on my word.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Had I not been so traumatized then, I might not have written this book today.

- Introduction to Death Without Weeping (1992)

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