Return to the Thing!

I am walking back to the former apartment building where are offices are with the woman of home mousemazecoming queen material, and she is lamenting that she has been trying the whole semester to teach her students the difference between the abstract and the concrete and she has failed, and I want to go, well, duh, you silly woman.  The students in their ignorance are telling us that it’s damn hard to tell the difference between the abstract and the concrete.

If Marx is correct, as I believe he is, our consciousness is informed through and through by abstractions; this massive thing that we call common sense (and take as reality) is socially constructed on the basis of economic and power relations.  One does not pile up examples of the concrete so that one may rise to the abstract, but the other way around, one must chip and chip away at befuddling abstractions to even begin to get a glimpse of the concrete.  History is made behind our backs and mostly we mouth unaware  what it says.

Perhaps too that’s why I read phenomenology so much.  Its motto was, “Return to the Thing.”  I was actually motivated by the desire to get to The Truth.  I didn’t want to live in darkness.  At college this desire got me into some trouble.  When for example we were asked to think about the difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance my desire to get at the truth was so strong, that I did extra reading beyond what we had been asked to read, trying to figure out the difference, and I got screwed up on the final essay exam because I knew more than I needed to answer the questions they asked.   

I had not learned one of the basic rules of being a good student: never think about anything more than you absolutely have to and seek especially to take classes where no thinking at all is required.  Thinking may lead to the uncomfortable sensation of confusion and the slightly humiliating sense that you don’t know what you thought you did.

My pursuit of the heroic ideal of truth mucked me up especially when it came to writing papers on literature.  One evening I was sitting in the stacks trying to write one of those, surrounded by piles of books, cast off first drafts, piles of papers and coffee cups, and a colleague came by and said, “Man, what the heck are you doing?”  And when I began to describe what I was trying to understand and how befuddled I was, he said, “Man, it sounds as if you are looking for the truth.  All they want is a gracefully written essay.”

This guy was a good guy and as they say “well-rounded” and unlike myself socially poised, and while he got really good grades, he was not viewed as some sort of proto-nerd.  Maybe because he really didn’t sweat it.  I should have listened to him but I couldn’t.  I had to believe that, to wade through all the shit I was wading through, coming as I did from a working class background, I was in pursuit of no less than The Truth.  Writing gracefully was not enough to justify my misery.  He however was the son of a College Professor and knew better.

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