If life treats someone in their twenties with relative ease there are innumerable possibilities. For many, life hasn't started clawing back yet, and many of our lives are still in the exciting phase of creation.
I am a twenty-something year old, and obsessed with the creation of my life. Not my birth, but the circumstances that I have control of moving forward. The anxieties, expansions, and forays into new territory have provided me with meaning. Every little artifact of life that I seem to excavate seems to fuel the next excursion to a new site to dig at. Many of these steps into new territories have been the aftermath of podcasts and books.
I've had an affinity for Nietszchean philosophy, and other existential thinkers, for some time now. Therefore, I was not surprised with my excitement when Stephen West, on the Philosophize This podcast, started to link the ideas of Nietzsche and Gilles Deleuze together.
West has been expanding on the philosophy of Deleuze (and his work with Félix Guatarri) for a few episodes, but in the last twelve minutes of pt. 5 in the series, he ties in a chorus of other philosophical ideas that sing to me. They didn't talk to me: the last twelve minutes were music that my mind danced to.
Being part five in a series of podcasts, there has been a long crescendo leading up to this important section of audio. West is describing the idea of an ontology of immanence vs. an ontology of transcendence. Immanence, meaning "existing or remaining within" generally offers a relative opposition to transcendence, that which is beyond or outside. Deleuze rejects the idea that life and creation are opposed to death and non-creation. He instead conceives of a plane of immanence that already includes life and death. Wikipedia. Immanance tends to appeal more to a secular audience.
West does a great job setting the scene for this convergence of ideas. I will try to take his abbreviated breakdown of philosophical concepts and shrink it to an almost inappropriate, but hopefully useful, segment. At the beginning of the twelve minute audio section, there is a description of machines, "...desire is not an imaginary force based on lack, but a real, productive force. They describe the machinic nature of desire as a kind of "desiring-machine" that functions as a circuit breaker in a larger "circuit" of various other machines to which it is connected. " Wikipedi, and the rhizome, "Deleuze and Guattari use the terms "rhizome" and "rhizomatic" to describe theory and research that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation." Wikipedia). Finally, after the description of the environment, and key terms, one is ready to step into the concept of identity.
Identity is described with the analogy of a trumpet player who mistakenly assigns "who he is" to the action of playing the trumpet, even though, he may get horribly injured and never be able to play the trumpet again (West attributes this analogy to Todd May). Inside, his identity is more fluid than a trumpet player's, and should resemble more of a free-flowing waterfall than a strict water feature in a garden. Identity is not rigid. His identity is not dormant inside him, but something that was created as part of his environment. It is, "entirely contingent on his identity as a machine seeking connections". The mind likes constants, and doesn't have the time to keep track of the changing variables that make up one's identity. It's easy to imagine a fluid identity, but to believe it is a different challenge.
Many people form their identity based on their environment. Given agency, people try to structure themselves in a way that they determine the most beneficial (identity) and then try to act (in their environment) in accordance with their minds idea of that identity. These paradigms for acting could come from their parents, or in the media. Why? It's safe and available. However, this could block the chance of potential new connections.
West, then, steps back to an older existential question which many people try to answer, "how should one act?" West—getting the words from Deleuze—states that man cannot answer this question simply.
There's a search, in philosophy, for truth. How can I improve my life to possibly find meaning? Well, maybe someone else can give me a plan and show me what life is really all about? Picking one aspect, and claiming it divine is not necessarily the most effective way to structure a life. West relays this observation from people that are skeptical about the applicability of philosophical ideas. Put another way, the famous historian,Will Durant once wrote that books on philosophy were like philosophers positioning themselves on the crest of a wave in judgement of the sea (The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant). If there's no clear maxim, how should a person actually live? Deleuze poses his version of this fundamental question changing only one word: how might a person live?
Juxtaposed against the historical question, how should a person live, this question is open-ended and inspires thoughtful inquisition. There's an emphasis on the anti-static nature. Continuing down this line of thought, West speaks of how a static view of identity can be coupled with unnecessary conformity. A person becomes a copy of the things, and actions, of the people around them. What if, someone were to fight actively against a static view of identity and "embrace changingness"?
There's power in this world view. As West says, "this entire world view is in many ways a call to action. A gauntlet being thrown down." I believe this is the first echo of Nietzsche in the podcast. Becoming an unoriginal copy in the environment is synonymous with being in the 'camel' phase. It's the process of breaking away from being an aspect of society that lacks agency. Accepting the challenge of uncovering how might a person live can bring on the metamorphosis into the lion, "On the Three Metamorphoses: There are three stages of progress toward the overman: the camel, the lion, and the child. In the first, one must renounce one's comforts, exercise self- discipline, and accept all sorts of difficulties for the sake of knowledge and strength. Second, one must assert one's independence, saying "no" to all outside influences and commands. Lastly comes the act of new creation." Sparknotes. It's a fundamental change in worldview, and in perspective, that can pull a person out of a restrictive paradigm.
West says that Deleuze's work is a call, "to embrace seeing the entire world in terms of difference, rather than identity. Because if the world is fundamentally immanent, in motion, and rhizomatic, then to embrace that immanence and [the rhizome]—is to affirm existence, to Deleuze, rather than negate existence. Which, would be to hide behind identities and hierarchical systems of thought that just over simplify things."
Looking at the world, in conjunction with one's own life, should be an exploration of embracing differences and changingness. "You've never seen it all." Someone who thinks they have seen it all may accidentally shut the door on possible new connections—the same way conformity can tie off new connections.
Part of accepting this worldview is being O.K with not knowing how things are going to play-out. West's analysis, at this part of the episode, is congruent to my own thinking on the future. Truthfully, I plan for the future to be a certain way. I predict my location and occupation. Why? Because I need something to aim at (important idea reiterated recently by much of Jordan Peterson's work). However, these are—in reality—mere predictions.
They all might be wrong. Per West, "when you're affirming existence, you can't know how your life is going to play out until you're actually doing it. And you can't know what kind of person you're actually going to be until you're actually living as a machine and can see the connections around you." There are too many variables to derive certainties. This is how people end up working seemingly strange jobs (they never imagined they would work) for 35 years, or how people end of marrying someone totally different than who they thought they would marry. Their 'ideals' were swimming upstream the whole time against the forces of chance and changingness.
Branching into neighboring philosophies, West recites my favorite line of the podcast: "When it comes down to it, the universe doesn't owe you anything." In a non malevolent—and surely, sometimes malevolent—way, the universe doesn't care.
My ears immediately detected the Stoics. One of the big problems with Stoicism is accepting everything begins to justify not trying. In a more complex analysis, Stoicism, in it's accepting of all outcomes (a viewpoint that is in alignment with how the universe doesn't care) doesn't necessarily prescribe the amount of effort that should be put forward, "...opponents have seen a difficulty in the Stoic contention that external states are "indifferent." For such a contention might make it seem senseless, once again, to put any effort into doing anything...There is room for disagreement over how successful their (The Stoics) explanation was." The Handbook, Nicholas P. White translation. As an aside, how similar is this to Buddhism in it's creed of acceptance? Clearly, the connections between Buddhism and Stoicism are stronger than I go into detail here. Regardless, the claim is that, despite the universe not caring Deleuze does not see this as a reason to concede. When Nietzsche is coupled with this justification for effort (despite the odds) there's a real reason to consider the following list, per Stephen West, with new eyes.
Checklist, described by West:
- "Try your hardest"
- "Have a plan"
- "Stay in motion"
- "But understand, and find peace with the fact that you can't know ahead of time where that motion will take you."
Safety, fear of ambiguity, is a failure to affirm what one has been given. Conformity is a lack, and a safety net can be a noose. West closes the podcast with a quote from Deluze and Guatarri's work:
"Have a small plot of new land at all times."
Deleuze and Guattari
I need to acknowledge some opposition. In the denial of conformity, and past ways of living, there is a caveat. Some of the current ways of living are a testament to the resilience of older ways of living. Or, as Jordan Peterson has said, "You don’t have to adhere to some external, arbitrary code of behavior (although) you should not overlook the guidelines of your culture. Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you)."(12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson). In acknowledgement of this statement, society and culture have moved very quickly over the last three decades. Traditional ways of life should be reevaluated, not written off expediently.
Unfortunately, like many ideas, this whole magnificent perspective that the podcast gave me faded into the background of my life. Until, it was rejuvenated by the book, Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I listened to this masterpiece on my drive back to Washington (the Exodus from my career in the golf industry).
In my mind I held a few thoughts, or suggestions, that were interrelated while listening to the book. Nietzsche said to take calculated risks. Deleuze explains the affirming of differences and opportunities in the denial of conformity. Taleb said, in the audiobook version, "Courage—risk taking—is the highest virtue: we need entrepreneurs."
Entrepreneurship is a hell of a way to affirm life. It's risky and requires courage. Being an entrepreneur supports Taleb's concept of 'skin in the game'. Entrepreneurs share the benefits, and most importantly, the consequences of their business results. Many people, tooling themselves with 'employable' skills, fall into someone else's plan (conformity) and join a companies' cause (which I cannot deny has it's own benefits). A concept Taleb mentions, is the idea of watching ones actions too closely in order to remain 'employable'. This is how 'employee' becomes 'slave'. A person becomes the ownership of their company. They can give up the connections that universe is offering to them.
How many excuses can a rational person, making a rational career choice, come up with to rationalize their current employment? I can, sometimes, agree. Some people are at a high enough position in their company to feel the pressures that Taleb is talking about. But, at the same time, they are behind the shield of the corporation. Starting a business, for the sake of starting a business, seems equally as dogmatic as staying a company for the sake of having the security of a large company.
There are real reasons to work for a corporation, and better yet, correct reasons to create one's own corporation. If what I'm writing now doesn't jive with your current life choices, no problem, the rest of this post won't mean much to you (and the preceding has probably sounded silly). I'm writing for all the people that sense something feels wrong in their current employment. They may be underemployed. The prospect of taking risk—only to put necessary pressure on myself—touches the conscious part of my mind that feels good. Not drink-a-beer good, but hitting-a-5-iron-from-197-yards-to-a-tucked-pin good.
I know from my recent past that being given a schedule, a time when I had to be in a certain place for a certain amount of hours, was eating at my day-to-day psyche. I have to fit the rest of my life around my work schedule. I'm making a trade that seems to work against my own—dare I say it—destiny.
What else is part of that trade? The companies problems can be easily shuffled into the imaginary folder, labeled 'Not My Problems' when a person leaves a company. Worse, many of the problems in the company become 'Not My Problems' while someone is actively working at the company. Taleb salutes the man that names his company—admittingly, egotistically—after himself. They are taking responsibility in a public way for their companies actions: good and bad.
It feels safe to be employable. To have benefits, paid vacations, and a consistent paycheck. I've felt it (truthfully, I'm nervous to leave this lifestyle) but the denial of my own potential—perceived or real—may sting more.
Here's what I can formulate to clear life up, and it's what may give a life even more meaning. The universe doesn't owe a person anything; an identity is dynamic; one is created by the connections in their environment, and people want to make connections; people should embrace changingness; make a plan; try really hard; take risks; accept everything as it comes; and there's "nothing without skin in the game"(Taleb, Skin in the Game)
This is the pull of entrepreneurship. Something that can push someone to 'set out on their own'.
It's strange to have confidence in oneself, only to quickly dismiss capabilities in the long-term. It's easy to see power in the hands of others, or possessed by other people. However, when making a bet on one's self—for example, writing a book, starting a business, raising a family—is the power not created, inside, at that very moment?
“For believe me! — the secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge! Soon the age will be past when you could be content to live hidden in forests like shy deer! At long last the search for knowledge will reach out for its due: — it will want to rule and possess, and you with it!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
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