Horizons and Power to Act

We’re over one year into the pandemic and I only posted to this blog once in that time. But I’ve still been feeling an urge to write, to work things out, even though I don’t feel like I have the capacity to do that. All the writing I’ve attempted on a serious, long-term project has come out as unstructured word-salad whose preoccupations seem to change from one day to the next. It feels like I’ve just been treading water. So I’m writing this blog post, which will be very self-indulgent, to try to think about what the hell has been going on.

My COVID situation has been, admittedly, not bad. I’ve been working from home, in a mostly empty house, in a city where I don’t have much of a network yet. I’ve been able to limit, likely more than most, my risk of exposure to the virus. Yet I feel stupider than I did over a year ago, even though I’ve passed the academic checkpoints I’ve needed to in my degree. The predominant feeling of COVID isolation has been horizonlessness. I noticed this early. A few months into the pandemic I commented on a post in the grad philosophy Facebook group, half-jokingly, that I finally understood why Spinoza defined sadness as a decrease in capacity to act.

The notion of a horizon is one I’ve encountered predominantly in phenomenology, mostly in Maurice Merleau-Ponty. It’s a word many phenomenologists use without defining or characterizing, maybe because they think it’s meaning is obvious. And it’s true the definition isn’t hard to grasp. Like the literal horizon, a phenomenological horizon is something within perception that suggests that there is more to see. For Merleau-Ponty, when we see the edge of an object we don’t just see the limit to which that object extends in our perception (like the black lines of a cartoon character) but, in addition, we see that there is more to see, that the object has a side turned away from us. Merleau-Ponty’s more controversial claim is that this is not a cognitive or rational inference that we make: i.e. In my past experience, objects that have edges tend to have back-sides that I could potentially see, X has an edge, thus X has a back-side that I could potentially see. Instead, Merleau-Ponty claims that horizons are a feature of the structure of perception itself. I see immediately that there is more to see.

The concept of a horizon occasionally gets extended to describe all cases where we intuitively sense there is something more. This is more like what I mean when I say the isolation from COVID lockdowns produces a feeling of horizonlessness, or, more accurately, a great shrinking of horizons. It’s not that I literally see fewer horizons (though this is perhaps also true, since I’m leaving my house less), but that there are now fewer promises of something more.

I’ve been equivocating here. I’ve talked about Spinoza’s view of sadness as a reduction in capacity to act and Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the presence or absence of horizons as if they were the same thing. A feature of Merleau-Ponty’s account of horizons is that they’re immediate to perception; they’re not conceptually or rationally mediated. Just as I don’t deduce or induce that the object in front of me is red (its redness is, as is sometimes said, given to me), I don’t make a conceptual inference that the object in front of me has horizons. But is that still true when we start talking about the bodily world of capacities to act?

An obvious naysayer here would be someone like the Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. You may feel trapped, but if you evaluate your beliefs rationally then you’ll inevitably identify possible opportunities that you’ve missed. Spinoza may advocate for this, or he may not, I’m not sure. But it seems doubtful that he’d think you can, in all cases, reason yourself into increased capacities to act. Sometimes the cause is bodily, sometimes the cause is environmental. In that case, what is called for is not a change in belief, but a change in action and/or a change in environment. The latter two are not necessarily rational evaluations (though they may lead to them). But what is common to both Spinoza and the Cognitive Behavioural Therapist is that these non-perceptual horizons of potential change, a promise of something more, are not simply given to a standardized bodily or mental apparatus, but depend on a body’s capacity to act: the greater the capacity, the more we encounter obstacles as horizons rather than dead ends.

The things we can change are, in order of easiest to hardest: environment, actions, beliefs. This is somewhat of the motivation for my return to blogging. It is, in some ways, like changing both environment and action. Entering back into the blog “environment” and altering my writing activity so it’s directed towards some sort of publication. What’s motivated this move back to blogging, as well, was an unanticipated invasion of something from “outside” that has forced me to engage directly with the medical system (not COVID, but a less serious medical condition, more of a nuisance, that needs prompt treatment and a few follow-ups). It’s annoying that that is what triggered the latest change for me, but it produced a desired effect. I had to take responsibility for my body, contact others to make plans, and now follow through on those plans to accomplish a goal. It was like a forced stretching of horizons, reminding me that I am actually capable of acting to achieve some future goal not related to my immediate enjoyment (as much of the lockdown isolation has reduced me to).

The other motivation for a return to blogging has been diving into Xenogothic’s archives again, searching for his own writing on writing and blogging. I’ve always found Xeno’s commitment to openness and vulnerability admirable, even his openness about his anxieties about being so open. While I don’t think I’m able to go as deep as he does, I found (re)reading his post on “The ‘Value’ of Openness” invigorating, particularly the discussion of writing about what you’re working on:

And when I hear other people say they’d like to join that community but don’t know how or think they’ve not got the chops or whatever, I say bullshit. The best thing about blogging for me, and the best way to blog is: “show your working.”

“Showing your working” is exactly how I used to describe my old photography blogs. I’m all for big, somewhat secretive and long-term projects, but I think there’s a great benefit and excitement that comes from showing your working online, quite literally. And I really don’t mean this in the Instagram sense of showing that you’re busy. I mean showing your trajectory, your method, in all of its unruliness. I think of it a bit like a maths quiz, where just writing the right answer in the box isn’t really the point — half the marks are for showing your method in the margins and showing that it’s sound.

I see the same value in Xeno’s practice of photography and of cataloguing Twitter conversations. Because they all exhibit a strong documentary impulse that I think is freeing. (Though I also know he has, in a post that I can’t seem to find, criticized the reduction of photography to photo-journalism; acting as if photography only has aesthetic value when it’s documenting world-historical events). I think this documentary impulse is freeing particularly in an academic environment, thought perhaps also with writing in general. Within academia, specifically the humanities, there is a huge emphasis placed on insightful analysis, evaluation, or critique. It sometimes feels like simply documenting is worthless; straight exegesis is an exercise for undergrads. Or else one is sensible enough to realize that all documenting is already an act of interpretation and evaluation, and so before documenting we should reflect on the interpretive frame we bring to bear on our “object.” In either case there’s a resistance to even attempting to neutrally describe what is (physically or mentally) in front of you. In order to do any critical or evaluative work you need some handle on what it is you’re critiquing or evaluating. Unless, of course, you’re Hegel. But the corollary is that Hegel had to walk a path of falsehood and despair before arriving at his goal.

I think this impulse to skip the step of documenting is where a lot of my blockages have been coming from. In the past I’ve used a return to straight documenting to combat writer’s block. Early on this took the form of writing out, in as neutral language as I could, scenes from the graduate department. In class, in the hall, in the lounge. The attempt to neutrally report people’s actions and utterances produced unintentionally funny writing. So they weren’t neutral descriptions at all, but revealed a natural tendency of mine to find humour in banal moments; a tendency that I often end up repressing. So while I do think that neutral description without a simultaneous evaluation is (probably) impossible, what I don’t agree with is that we need to get our personal interpretive values critiqued and sorted out prior to any attempt to document. To do so is either very hard or even impossible; it either puts off the writing process for too long or else never unearths what would get unearthed by just ploughing ahead with writing. This is not to say that our interpretive values should never change or themselves be evaluated, but that this change and evaluation is much easier when you’ve discovered your values through trying to aim for neutrality and allowing yourself to be surprised by your efforts at simply documenting. By documenting what’s outside, you document yourself as well. Perhaps, in some way, Hegel was right: the best path to the truth is through the false (or sub in your own values for “true” and “false”).

I’m getting the sense that if I continue on things will fly off into abstractions more than I’m currently comfortable with; I think, with that last paragraph, I hit a writing limit. So I’ll end things here.

2 thoughts on “Horizons and Power to Act”

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