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Friday, February 19, 2010

Time, Space and Stupidity

First let me say that it's a thrill to be asked to contribute to the blog of such an exemplary scholar. I remember when Jonathan first started sharing his motivational tricks over at Bemsha Swing, and I always liked the, well, stupidity of them. As Jonathan explained,

Basically, you don't need to be particularly smart to follow them, and many might sound silly or very, very obvious. Also, many of the tricks discussed here will not be original with me. The idea is to take care of the mechanics of organizing time and space in order to free yourself to do your writing. Often times that will mean tricking yourself out of certain cognitive habits that are holding you back.
Indeed, most often the obstacles to writing, at least in an academic setting, are not all that deep. Too often we cultivate an illusion that something other than a lack of brute discipline and basic orderliness is holding us back. That illusion of philosophical depth, that famous "difficulty" of "the problem of writing", is a very formidable one. It can't always be dismissed with a simple call to order. But perhaps there is a way both to respect and to transcend some of our philosophical pretensions in that pregnant phrase "time and space". Let's see.

Gilles Deleuze begins his discussion of stupidity by pointing out that "Kant's idea of inner illusion, internal to reason, is radically different from the extrinsic mechanism of error" (Difference and Repetition, p. 150). When we are stupid we are not just making cognitive mistakes, not just engaging in errors of judgment. What we are doing is nothing less than "not thinking". What could that mean? Well, for Kant, really thinking, really applying concepts, meant subsuming experience under the transcendental categories of "pure reason", and the most transcendental categories of all are, of course, time and space.

But what if your time and your space is a horrible mess? What if you never have an hour to yourself to sit down an focus on your research? What if you have people coming in and out of your office at all hours of the day? (Or what if you don't even have an office?) What, in short, if you are yourself moving haphazardly through time and space? Well, then you can't think. You become subject, if you will, to an intrinsic mechanism of error. Frankly, you become stupid.

Now, to suggest that you would have to do something very intelligent to stop being stupid would be to beg the question. Fortunately, there are a number of sufficiently stupid tricks that can help you get your act together, to rise above the stultifying conditions that are famously making academic life miserable for everyone from freshmen to professors. Such tricks, of course, are only the seeds or spurs of new cognitive habits, new ways of thinking. Let's think of them (if we can) as stupid ways to transcend stupidity.

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