The singular, ever-changing process closest to me is I.
Currently, that usually means “I” as “Dissertating Actor.”
As an aspect of the present-day industrial instruction networks—typified by compulsory learning in primary and secondary schools as well as disciplinized instruction in higher education—the dissertation stands as both productivity and landmark. As product, a dissertation becomes the work required to fabricate a sustained argument that shows some originality of thinking on the part of the author. As a landmark, a dissertation signifies a place that has to be surpassed in the social superstructure on the way toward certification of authority.
The notion captures in this way two interpretations of its original sense. Deriving from Latin dissertatio, ancient Romans and medieval Christians would have meant “argument” or “debate,” the term describes a kind of public discourse. Around the middle of the 17th century, with the rise of the Republic of Letters, the notion of it as a kind of sustained essay made its debut. Two centuries later with the rise of the research university, schools in Europe (after 1870) and the Americas (after 1890 in the USA) formalized (empowered) the notion as a required component on the path to a Ph.D. Such work demonstrates both an argument by the author and a debate with other thinkers who have come before.
More fundamentally dissertating implies the breaking up (dis-) of a usual arrangement [-serere].
Rather than necessarily inserting oneself into a prefabricated institutional structure, the notion left open the possibility that thinking could very well break free from any delineations confining the thinker. More than a gate-keeping lock—complete with chains such as holding the thinker accountable to the status quo, promoting the terror of unoriginality, and/or floating implicit threats of being excommunicated from the academic community forever—the activity might be a key process for opening up the chains of unnecessary social obligation.
In order to dissertate properly as I, my-ownmost-self, maybe asking “How is I?” will jump things off.
I in many ways presents as Archimedean point: an apparently unmoving spot around which the world turns. To call I unmovable spot posits “Self-Awareness” as the one axis for which humans as a whole are cognizant. It is not to say that there is one overriding, universal SELF nor to admit that there is in each of us an unchanging, substantial I—a la Rene Descartes. Such an assertion must also consider that there will be a variation in how strongly such an axial point gets highlighted in diverse cultures.
An empirical experience of I manifests a fluxing awareness wherein embodied consciousness links actual past events with possible future events. While Buddha and Heraclitus bear witness to this opinion in their own ways, David Hume’s objection to Descartes’ immortal Ego represents a great jumping-off point to situate an evolving I. At the time of Hume’s publication of A Treatise Concerning Human Nature (1738-1740), the minds of Europe and a young America were considering the arguments of Descartes toward some concrete self-identity; moreover, they as yet had not fully shaken themselves from holdovers of medieval essentialist philosophy not to mention the “common sense knowledge” of those humans less critical in orientation:
There are some philosophers, who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our SELF; that we feel its existence and its continuance in existence; and are certain, beyond the evidence of demonstration, both of its perfect identity and simplicity.D. Hume, A Treatise Concerning Human Nature, Vol 1, A Critical Edition. Eds. D. F. Norton & M. J. Norton (New York: Clarendon / Oxford Univ Press, 2007), 164.
Yet Hume cannot account for how anyone would be able to make a philosophical claim such as this without it being pure assertion. Certainly it is unreflective of what is demonstrable within the realm of basic experiential communication. This is probably Hume’s purpose: to put the idea of self back into the rules of language rather than continue flights of speculation. That is, I performs as a tool for how we communicate with each other. A sign. A cipher.
The whole of this doctrine leads us to a conclusion, which is of great importance in the present affair, viz. that all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never be possibly decided, and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical difficulties. .. All the disputes concerning the identity of connected objects are merely verbal, except so far as the relation of parts gives rise to some fiction or imaginary principle of union…Ibid, 171.
There is a fluidity of probable causal relations which human imagination sews together into a complex, almost quilted whole. This whole is of such a unique quality that each individual’s reflected and resemblant memories take on the appearance of sameness called “self-identity.” But he admits that it is interesting how this idea, which is very much dependent upon the personal perceptions of the individual, allows for humans to “extend our identity beyond our memory” to other people (Hume 2007: 171). Herein he finds the imagination the key factor to the linking of the memories and extension of the memories. The linking is a purposed act of the imagination to ensure that the individual does not fall into the stream of consciousness and drown.
Comprehending the paradoxical fluidity of the Archimedean I—which no person can deny but which they may choose to ignore—discloses this:
- I grasps the passing of I.
- I reflects the event of I.
- I projects the coming of I.
- I as inward boundary situates I within time: the past as this has been experienced and the future as this may be experienced.
- I as outward boundary situates I as being-in-the-world with others: the Not-I, the alter..
- Alterity as Not-I surrounds and supports, interacts and interchanges I as Archimedean point of communicative reference.
In all of these cases I deals with objects; only objects can be known or apprehended. Even the I is being considered as a known object although it is also the knowing subject. Establishing a notion of fluid-self can ensure that the abilities to perceive, conceive, judge, and imagine do not succumb to a static (absolute) view of the world—itself always already in flux. Whatever problem solving may really be, surely it is weakened to the point of useless dogma when it becomes a monocular world view. Beholding any situation as singular and unchanging from the individual perspective stumbling blocks in the way of answers. Discourse among the perceivers allows that which is perceived-if it is dangerous, unhealthy, unaesthetic, or unethical-to be obviated by explanation and/or description. Yet this calls for human beings to look at the world as though continually climbing up and down a step ladder. To communicate with the world, within the mind, and among each other.
So… who am I and how have I avoided drowning?
In quick summary, as a queer youth growing up in Texas, I became an autodidact in many areas to expand my horizons beyond a worldview that not only marginalized but condemned my very being. I especially dedicated myself to exploring religion and spirituality since it was the worldview of fundamentalist Christianity which condemned how I love as well as informed the laws that made illegal all physical expressions of my desire. These researches ultimately took me into the realm of tarot, a special pack of playing cards originally created as a kind of trump taking game that slowly evolved into a form of divination. Over the decades that I have used the tarot, I learned that the immersive structure of playing the game encourages hermeneutic practices and existential reflections. This encouragement to discover the world through creative play will be the thematic focus of my research. Creative play, or playfulness, should be understood as the immersion of the subject in a nexus of meanings whereby they attend to whatever new possibilities arise from a variation of their being-in-the-world. This is distinct from everyday games—or playing-at-games—which function as an extension of the workaday world by being a temporary distraction from the stresses of daily life.
As an extended reflection upon my journey, I am not sure that I was any more playful than other kids my age growing up although I know I was often the instigator of the games my cousins and I invented together. Children are playful beings. They learn through play, and they grow through diverse kinds of games that can teach them self-confidence, openness to others, and hopefully that playing is not about beating an opponent but creatively engaging the world through a kind of wonder.
After my family moved from Abilene to Waxahachie, Texas, in 1969 not long after my fourth birthday, mom and dad stopped being the avid church goers they had been. My parents had grown up in a small Pentecostalist community in Abilene, but they could not find a similar community in our new home which was dominated by Southern Baptist and the Assembly of God communities. As time went by, we stopped even looking for a new church. So evangelical Christianity only hovered on the edge of my life as I grew up. My brother had dropped out of school when he was sixteen. So my parents were very encouraging of me in any outlet that kept me engaged in learning. For that reason, I was allowed to watch a lot of public television beyond Sesame Street and the Electric Company. I started watching Masterpiece Theater, Nova, Connections, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
From the age of eleven onward—because of the influence of “costume dramas” on Masterpiece Theater—I voraciously read histories and biographies. It was around this time that I saw The Naked Civil Servant, a biographical drama about Quentin Crisp, an iconic gay author. I finally understood that my devotion to a couple of my male friends went deeper than regular friendship. I was gay, and I was attracted to them in the way that they constantly talked about their attraction to girls in our class. Crisp’s life—which had a few rather brutal moments and stints in jail for being “indecent” and “corrupting” good British youth with his gayness—told me I could not express who I really was, especially to my family. I began playing a part, asking my parents to buy me Farrah Fawcet posters and going on about Jaimie Summers, the Bionic Woman. Simone de Beauvoir would call this taking on the “lie of the serious,” masking myself behind the acceptable (The Ethics of Ambiguity 1948, 35-73). In a sense we all adopt a role, but most youth do not do so at such an early age. How much does playing a part involve finding a kind of play that more within my own control?
Needless to say, by 1980 when I was sixteen, I did not feel very connected to my family traditions because I saw them in light of three thousand years of human oppression. Toward fall of that same year, I bought a Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck from a Barnes & Noble book catalog that had been providing me with many of my biographies and histories. My parents never opened my packages since they knew by now I was spending my allowance on books to further my education. But I was a bit concerned that they would find out I had purchased some kind of satanic fortune telling cards. The day I got the package (unopened by my dad), I hid the cards in the bottom of a box in my closet like most teen boys would hide pornography. It was me further hiding myself in the closet.
At first, the only way available to learn how to read the cards was with the booklet that accompanied the deck. It gave a few layouts as well as the particular meaning of each card. My resources were rather thin. I couldn’t buy more books until after Christmas, and Waxahachie’s local library did not have a lot in the way of esoterica or the mystic arts. But, I did get enough information to know that there was an intuitive relationship that should be built between a reader (tarotist) and their cards. I quickly found that doing spreads for myself and others gave me more focus on the development of my own worldview, helped me feel comfortable with the deck, and made me more appreciative of sacred art.
In 1982 at the age of eighteen, I converted to Catholicism after a long trek “around” the world’s religions with the tarot always at my side. Doing spreads became more sparse; in a sense, Catholicism—with its iconography and ritual—became a kind of living tarot in which I immersed myself behind a priestly vocation. So the cards were not brought out much from 1982 to 1985 while I wore a mask of traditional normality. But disillusionment with the Church and no longer caring to be normal, from 1985 to 1987 I floated spiritually adrift.
Too lazy to study the tarot, I just picked up whatever new age text might help me put some purpose to being alive: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Carlos Castaneda, Elizabeth Claire Prophet, and others. (I cringe at how many of these popular authors were discovered to be cultish personalities if not actual cult leaders in the lives of those who were their close acolytes.) But in 1988, after I came out to all of my friends and brother along with his wife, I discovered Joseph Campbell and through him Carl Gustav Jung. From that point on, I became more intrigued with exactly what might be the working mechanism of tarot (the power of myth displayed in symbols) as well as their fountain of meaning (the archetypes of the collective unconscious).
From 1988 onward I also began to run into more folks who studied magick broadly and tarot cards specifically.
After moving from Waxahachie to Denton , Texas, in 1993 to attend the University of North Texas, the number of folks I met familiar with the tarot increased to almost every other person. During my studies at UNT, I became the student of Richard Owsley, a philosophy professor whose area of specialization was existential phenomenology. Working with Dr. Owsley, I began to see how adopting Jungian explications was actually getting in the way of my experience of reading the tarot. I was hiding my lived experience not only behind the assumptions of the tarot as an ancient esoteric device but also behind the presuppositions of Jungian analysis and Campbell’s hero’s journey.
What I began to see after turning toward phenomenology in the 1990’s was how much playing with the cards was an immersive experience that involved my whole embodied consciousness. That made me return to those with whom I shared long discussions about tarot. There was something significant not only in the words of interpretation gathered from the physical contraposition of the cards against each other on a table. There was something to how we shuffled the pack: every person had a different technique. The concern was that the cards were randomized well from their last use. Some washed the cards—spread them out all over the table and mixed them around until they believed the pack well reordered. Others would just cut the cards over and over. Those who did standard shuffling had to learn to work with cards much larger than a standard poker deck.
We also had developed different techniques for drawing the cards from the deck. Some dealt from the top of the deck. Others fanned the cards out on the table and drew at random from the line. Again, this had to do with maximizing chance. Considering how many of us found the cards to reveal some aspect of the future—that is to tell of a person’s fortune—it is striking how concerned we all were with making sure the cards were shuffled and dealt to increase the unpredictability as much as possible.
A spread requires a flat surface on which to lay the cards out, but it does not necessitate that such a surface be large. Some will throw out a reading wherever there is room. Others would only read on top of a special cloth set aside for the tarot. Almost all would make sure whatever surface they choose is cleaned before just laying out the cards. All of this connects the tarotists to where they are reading as well as with whom if there is a querent. There is an invitation from the surface and the cards to stoop our bodies over and see what can be seen.
Even taking tarot to be descended from a game in Renaissance Italy, they are not necessarily a frivolous distraction. Interpreting the cards for myself and other people since a sophomore in high school, my notions have evolved to a significant degree concerning what the cards are and what they can do. I am not one who believes that the tarot are directly connected to the fickleness of Dame Fortune nor are they an ancient wisdom handed down to us from the ancient Egyptians. I am never without a tarot pack wherever I go. I do not read them for others much anymore, but I take them out to just play with them and see what can be seen. When I need to clear my mind, I take out diverse decks to do a spread. I get more out of this than meditating or playing a distracting game. I find a creative way forward for my day or my life.