Tag Archives: ARTSYFEELS

The Fantasy of The Snail

11 Apr


Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snail_in_house_with_hair.jpg

Reading Annamal’s blog got me thinking about stuff. I mean things. You know, material possessions. Crap. I have an interesting (and listening to her write about it, probably woefully under-explored) relationship with stuff.

When I was a kid, I had this totally impossible fantasy of having one room, my bedroom if you like, which I could keep in my pocket or summon to me whenever I liked. That room would have everything in it that I really, truly cared about or needed. It wouldn’t have to be a terribly large room, though it might be a bit overstuffed. When I had that, I wouldn’t need anything else. I would be able to walk around totally unencumbered, but also totally unconcerned. I could carry my little safe space and all my things with me like a snail carried its shell.

I come from hoarders. Not my parents – for all their angst about it, our house was always pretty reasonable. Full but not bursting. It was clean and bright, and most things were piled neatly on shelves. But my father’s family, particularly my uncle and grandmother, were always amazing hoarders. I think it would be hard for most people to actually envision what my uncle’s apartment looked like. It was pretty big for New York, two stories. You couldn’t see the walls in most places. My uncle used to be a trapper and there were pelts and skeletons lining the walls, dreamcatchers, statues of wolves, action figures, steel cages, twenty year old plastic snow globes from Coney Island. It felt like some combination of being in a hunter’s cave and the inside of someone’s pocket. It was incredibly dark.

My grandmother was somewhat more reasonable; she hoarded the way grandmothers do, oversaturating their house with jewelry and lace. When she died, the stuff become an enormous factor for the family to contend with. I won’t go into that whole tawdry story, because it isn’t the point. Suffice it to say, some of it came to me. Mostly things everyone thought I should have, as the female grandchild. The major items were five or six jewelry boxes, stuffed not just with the delicate, classy things that were her mainstay, but also with broken beads, bits of glass, and plastic bracelets.

I kept every single one.

About 5 or 6 years ago, I wrote this about it: A watch of mine broke today. It meant more to me than anyone can imagine who hasn’t seen someone they loved reduced from a human being to an epigram and pile of small objects whose only merit is that the person you miss touched them day to day. There’s something precious in the belongings of the dead, some stamp of routine that added rice-paper layers to the thing, building up an essence which resounds just below the surface, unnoticed until the source is gone, like a candle in front of the sun.  

I still feel that way in a general sense, even though I’ve learned that you shouldn’t, can’t, imbue every little bit of detritus with meaning. I have similar urges with objects I found during particularly happy or sad times in my life – I think in hoarding there’s always some desire to stop time and keep things that can’t be kept. My little snail fantasy as a kid was rooted in a fear that I would lose all the things I loved if I wasn’t looking at them right now, along with a desire to no longer be burdened by looking.

I used to get into panics, as a wee one, if I couldn’t remember where I’d put some arbitrary object. It wasn’t that the object was particularly special to me, just that I would suddenly not know where Nippy the Cat was and the not-knowing terrified me. There was an inexplicably existential panic associated with losing or destroying things for me. Getting over this was very liberating and very necessary, but there are probably still some objects in the world that could trigger it.

I also always thought everything might be useful later. I hated waste with the sort of illogical, over-applied hate of an environmentalist’s daughter, and I thought I was a tiny MacGyver.  I always wanted to be prepared – the paper clip could be a lockpick if I was trapped somewhere! I could fold the receipt into a swan! Don’t throw that string away, what if you are in a situation where you desperately need string!? The pockets of every winter jacket I ever owned broke with the weight of the things inside them, pouring paper clips, mints, and scraps of paper into the lining.

In college, when I started playing RPGs, I indulged both impulses even as I tried to shed them IRL. RPGs are kinder than life and let you do that; my character needs this many things to do his job, to define himself, and they are all in his pockets all the time. My characters are all snails in a way that people rarely can be. They have always lost almost everything, irrevocably. Thus they have few enough possessions that what they do have all fits in their pockets, backpacks, or maybe a car. This way nothing can ever be taken from them again, until they die, and they’re always as ready as they’ll ever be.

In a manner of speaking, my bedroom back in the house I grew up in is my real life little snail shell. Or maybe more like a hermit crab shell, since I abandoned it to live in a new one? But it still has all my things in it, sorted into neat piles. I have a very visual memory and I can navigate through it in my head, remember which of grandma’s necklaces is in the enameled wood jewelry box with the flowers on it, sitting on the third shelf down on the southern wall. Every object there is a touchstone in the house of memory. Occasionally my mother moves something and when I return, things aren’t exactly the way they were before and I’m not sure if or why it matters. Also like memory.

I don’t clutter my current shell the way I did my old one. Partly I have Squiddy to thank for this. She will look at my pockets full of ticket stubs and all the tiny plastic animals on the shelves and ask me if I really need to save them, and nowadays that’s usually all it takes to get me to say no and throw them out. Also, I’m a cheapskate. I mean this as a good thing – I don’t kick up a fun-killing fuss about it, but I don’t like spending money, except maybe on experiences. So I own fewer things and I feel a bit lighter.

Sometimes I forget all my good intentions and get unduly upset about damage to one of my things – I’m still capable of being unreasonably upset that cups break and clothes tear – but more often I know that the things that matter can fit in my pockets if they have to. But I also know that room at home exists. Sometimes, instead of throwing something out, I take it back home and leave it there instead. I haven’t even seen some of the stuff in there for years. Maybe I don’t even want to see it, just to know that it’s there.

Jargon and Infinity

14 Mar

I have a conflicted relationship with jargon. In academia and the workplace, it’s easy to hate on. It raises the access threshold to many topics significantly and often ends up obscuring the ideas it’s trying to convey to anyone who hasn’t spent five years painstakingly learning the field. People learn to despise it or be intimidated by it – or conversely to deploy it wantonly for reasons more related to ego than intellectual need.

A good friend and mathematician, who has asked to be referred to as Recursion Goat, eventually showed me the value of jargon. A large swath of the population doesn’t like math, in large part because it’s incredibly poorly taught. Most people are never introduced to higher math and end up thinking it’s all about algebra and moving numbers around, which is a shame. Even if they are introduced to higher math, the jargon scares them away.

Recursion Goat is a bit of a mathematical evangelist. He makes a point of explaining big, jargon-y concepts in accessible terms to anyone who will hold still long enough. He eventually got me to revise my lifelong antipathy to math by making me realize that I didn’t understand what math actually was.

Now, R-Goat does a kind of math that is truly, mind-bogglingly self-referential. He essentially does math to the notion of doing math — examining what kinds of problems are too complex to be solved by computers, extrapolating backwards from proofs to premises, using entirely different logical frameworks to think about thinking. Good stuff. He has helped me understand a lot of truly arcane concepts, without even making me feel particularly handicapped by my ‘well, you passed’ grade in calculus.

But I eventually realized a lot of the work he does actually depends incredibly heavily on jargon. Jargon lets you make huge things – complicated ideas – small enough to manipulate. Once you have the concept of what a poset  is (a notion that itself assumes the whole idea of a set), you can use them in forcing to answer questions that quite frankly would be too complex to even state if you had to build them from the ground up every time. A basic forcing proof would be the size of the encyclopedia britannica if it had to define every single word fully. Knowledge condenses to produce more knowledge.

This is cool because techniques like these let mathematicians make statements about how logic works with rigor. There is an answer to the why-question for a lot of mathematics – every time a teacher said just-because, they lied. There is totally a way to answer why addition is true (okay, actually that’s a complicated question, but it’s interesting), why first order logic is the easiest to work with, what happens if you decide you don’t want to accept all the premises they taught you in school and want to do math differently. Math can totally use a different set of assumptions than the ones you know. If you want, you can abandon the notion that things are either true or false! It’s difficult, but you can work with it. The only way to do that through is jargon.

It’s common, when trying to do math to infinite things the way R-Goat often does, to talk about local similarities. Does the infinite thing have an internally repeating pattern? Is something that’s true of this chunk in the middle of it true for all of it, or most of it? Jargon is sometimes like that;slicing the infinite in ways that lose some of the truth of the thing, but make it possible for us to interact with it at all.

So clearly, I have accepted jargon in STEM things. It’s in Altlandia that jargon sometimes concerns me. *

On the one hand, it’s so hard to talk about things you lack a vocabulary for. The phrases enthusiastic consent or microaggression collapse a set of two or three paragraphs into a word, so that you can talk about how these ideas affect the culture in a persuasive, adroit way and use them to create yet more complicated ideas. It’s mighty difficult to examine a phenomenon when you can’t speak its name.

On the other, labels are very popular in Altlandia in a way that I don’t think is entirely positive. Many Altlanders hit their jargon development all at once and in the rush of realizing that these things they’ve thought and felt are 1) real 2) only the first step in developing new ways of interfacing with the world, turn into those math guys who use jargon wantonly without stopping to think – is this necessary here? Is this adding clarity and/or enabling previously-impossible thoughts?

Lots of people start eagerly checking boxes: cis/trans/genderqueer, gay/straight/bi, romantic/aromantic, sexual/ace, kinky/vanilla – the list is long and I won’t embarrass myself by trying to be comprehensive and missing something. All of these things are real, important things that have been woefully underexplored and disregarded until the jargon moment. The existence and use of these words is good.

But I think we Altlanders could sometimes benefit from looking at ourselves and our relationships and wondering if the closest-approximation jargon is accurate enough – or if we are best-served by collapsing these things into one word instead of giving them their three paragraphs. For an example, bisexual is one of my words. This jargon fits me and I don’t have any qualifications to make to it. I might pick a number on the Kinsey scale for lols, but really I feel like my sexual preferences are locally isomorphic. Which here means they are the same everywhere, no matter where you slice them. Bisexual isn’t disguising any complications for me.

On the other hand, cis doesn’t feel quite like mine. Nor does trans, or even really genderqueer, genderfluid, or any of the other many bits of jargon we’ve come up with to describe the places where gender identity doesn’t behave in a straightforward way. I am uncomfortable with gender. My feelings on it are a complicated three (or three dozen) paragraphs and I don’t think they are well-served by being collapsed into genderquestioning or some sort of catch-all word for unsure.

As R-Goat would say (about totally unrelated math-things), sometimes you want to blackbox the complexity in order to get the proof done, but sometimes you really need to write out every step.

Also, some things are true about me that still don’t constitute a major part of my identity. Which isn’t to say they can’t or shouldn’t for someone else, but sometimes I just don’t want a fact about me to be part of my tagline.

The obvious answer to that seems to be ‘so don’t make it part of the tagline, silly, no one’s playing identity twenty questions with you’. But that can lead to problems. [Tag] might not be a major part of my identity, but sometimes I will want to talk about it. In the world of pervasive jargon-taglines, it can be hard for someone who does not regularly say they are a [tag] to still join the conversation about [tag] as a person with a valid, non-outsider point of view. Jargon constructs insides and outsides and even if they make conversations more manageable, they can exclude a lot.

Saying that you can be X or you can be Y is a huge step forward. It’s so much better than being told, ‘You can only be X. X is all there is.’ But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that you can also be XY, or 22% X and 78% Y, or Z, or POTATO. There’s someone in the world for every box, and that’s awesome. You can’t name them all – nor should you. **

In my gender example from above; I can’t join a conversation about being trans, cis, or genderfluid as an insider and definitely shouldn’t try. I would be appropriating experiences I don’t share. But I would like to be able to approach a conversation about gender as someone who is none of those things, yet still isn’t automatically other-than-you. I would like to talk in a non-labelled space about the whole infinite subjectivity that is happening there.

The rationalist’s urge, which I totally share, is to see something that’s not named and say, well name it! Problem solved! But I think that obscures the deeper problem – some concepts fall through the cracks in labeltown and no matter how many labels you have, some things will still always fall through the cracks. It’s turtles all the way down. Jargon is really useful as a practical tool. But it’s a tool. Taxonomy is not truth; it’s a way of grappling with infinity.


* I am ignoring the fact that it is funny in this context that I have just invented a word for the broad community of people who are kinky, poly, gender not-normative, ace, feminist, anarchist, or are otherwise living and defining themselves in opposition to The Mainstream Cultural Narrative.

** This paragraph courtesy your friendly neighborhood RoboSquid 🙂

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