Sunday, December 30, 2007

Song of the Potato

I empathize with the potato. What cuts the potato cuts me. I don't believe the potato has a mind. Therefore empathy does not require that the empathic person has a theory of mind (or ToM, as some scientific types put it). The empathic person does not posit but simply feels. Were science to discover that minds do not exist and that everything currently attributed to mind represents some other phenomenon or set of phenomena, the problem of empathy would remain what it is: what does it mean that a person can intimately feel what happens to the body of another living entity? (The problem of the autistic person's purported lack of empathy might appear differently were science to disbelieve in minds, but that's another story.)


What does empathy for the potato mean? There's a russet potato with some other russet potatoes hanging in a basket in the kitchen. I'm going to peel off its skin, cut it into chunks, toss the chunks into a pan with some onion, pepper and garlic, rub oil on the lot of them, and put the pan into the oven. Once it's good and roasted I'm going to eat the potato. Should I feel nauseated? If I reflect upon it perhaps it is just a little bit nauseating.


I'm not going to liberate the potato. What would that mean? Growing more pototoes? Just throwing it away? Although I have thrown away food, some force within me rebels against throwing away food, and I can't help but think of the potato as food. It would be better to be just a little bit nauseated than to throw away food. Empathy with the potato is thus a delicate balance between throwing up and throwing away food.


Am I worthy of this potato? Is my life so wonderful that I can just assume that I'm worthy of any potato, including this potato? I suspect that living my life fully means that I must interrogate my eating of this very potato. How am I going to live that I should eat this potato?


Why this potato and not another? Is philosophy capable of talking about the accidentality of existence, or must it abolish or suppress the accidental? Adriana Cavarero says that the accidental needs care, and she says, "To tell the story that every existence leaves behind itself is perhaps the oldest act of such care" (Relating Narratives, p. 53). How would you like it if I roasted you for supper, told the story of how you came to end up on my plate, and called that caring? Let's be honest for a moment about the psychology of kitchen stories, about the nausea and the brutality they conceal.


Is it really proper for me to celebrate this potato? Would it be too poetic to call attention to its chthonic existence? What about the stickiness of its milky blood on the blade of the knife? In my dreams I'm drawing close to Proxima Centauri. Were I to tell you about the dreams of this potato, huddled up against the stars in the Idaho night, you would be right to suspect me of prevaricating, of covering over a great catastrophe of being. So I shouldn't live for my dreams?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:59 AM.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

should we feel for each hair on our head when we cut them?

perhaps pathic relations can be misplaced? That's not to say that one should be judged or critiqued for having such empathy...good luck or bonne chance.

another take - even to be aware of pathic relation requires some self consc. and theorizing.
We might say that potatoes are/were living - but non-empysched - like toenails.
We might even say that potatoes are part of the hylozoic hiatus! (This statement would require a v. partic. kind of person...

We might even say that potatoes have no individual existence - one potatoe two potatoe...they have no cadacualtez...? They are fungible, bartarable, exchangeable - esp. when mashed with cream and chives, salt and pepper.
Best wishes for the new year.
In fact one could develop a whole phil course based on potatoe meditation!

Ps did you ever read Ouspensky's 'in search of the miraculous'? An account of Gurdjieff's early theories. He liked to tease philosophers - wiseacring.
P

December 30, 2007 9:35 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Happy New Year.

Our University library has Ouspensky's book so I'll check that out.

I am sticking to my guns so to speak with regard to the potato and plantlife in general. I feel a oneness with the potato. I do not posit it and then feel according to an idea. In becoming aware of a pathic relation possibly I mislead myself. The thought has occured to me. But I think there would be something untrue about closing the book on this feeling and not trying to grasp it for what it is, all schools and creeds in abeyance.

January 01, 2008 8:12 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"How would you like it if I roasted you for supper, told the story of how you came to end up on my plate, and called that caring? Let's be honest for a moment about the psychology of kitchen stories, about the nausea and the brutality they conceal."

I wouldn't like it.

However, whether I like it or not, someday I will die.

If it were to happen that in my death someone else could gain sustenance and a small amount of mirth or happiness, this would make me more happy than if in my death there was only sorrow, or more likely, indifference.

That life involves death doesn't make life brutal and nauseating, does it? If it did, I think this means life is necessarily brutal and nauseating; what I want to know, though, is who judges? Where do they stand to say this?

January 06, 2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

That life involves death doesn't make life brutal and nauseating, does it?

It's heterotrophy that's brutal. Hunger is also brutal. Those are the choices I face. Whether heterotrophy is nauseating, that's up to you to feel or not as you will. I think if you were to empathize with the potato your enjoyment of eating the potato might be affected by a wee bit of nausea but I can't know that. I sit at the table and judge based on my feelings of empathy for foodstuffs, but I don't believe I am saying that my judgements about what I'm feeling apply to you. I'm curious about your feelings, or the feelings of anybody who would be willing to contemplate eating a potato or the like. If you can empathize with the potato you can judge for yourself how it makes you feel and then we can talk. I don't even know yet if you can empathize with a potato. I expect that you could under the right conditions, but I cannot be certain that you will.

I am suspicious of kitchen stories. I am suspicious of cooking, though I do some cooking nearly every day. Am I judging humanity with my suspicions? I've practiced vegetarianism several times in my life. I have never tried to persuade anybody not to eat meat. Here's a judgement: vegetarians who point fingers at meat eaters are hypocrites. For this heterotroph there is no unambiguously good choice of food. You can't persuade me that eating a potato isn't ethically troubling, that it doesn't do violence to my feelings of empathy. You might be able to persuade me that there are worse things in the world, and I would listen if you said we should reserve words like "brutality" and "nausea" for much worse things than eating a potato. But I think my feelings are real and I've tried to name them honestly.

I may have intimated in prior posts that empathy doesn't amount to much. This is a judgement, I guess: I am not greatly impressed by the degree of empathy shown by people who study autism towards people diagnosed as autistic. I believe the mental prejudices of the researchers prevent them from empathically relating to the people they study in the fullest possible way. I believe therefore that their interactions are shrouded in dishonesty and misjudgement. But I am ambivalent about handing down such a judgement because it is quite possible that the people who study people with autism are so thoroughly empathically impaired that it simply doesn't occur to them that one can feel empathy without thinking up a theory of other minds and projecting a representation of this onto another living being. In which case I may be judging all of humanity for not being very empathetic, or for letting empathy be abnegated so easily. But I am ambivalent about passing judgement on this as well so I try to speak only for myself and my own thoughts and feelings.

I can say this: I wouldn't let you judge for me what eating a potato means; I would, however, listen to what you had to say about it.

What sort of talk do you suppose requires making judgements, Yusef?

January 06, 2008 8:19 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"What sort of talk do you suppose requires making judgements, Yusef?"

My opinion is that the making of judgments is irrelevant (misplaced) in cases where what is to be judged cannot be otherwise.

Here, I see the misplacement of judgment in the case of heterotrophy because heterotrophs cannot help but be brutal (if brutal it be) because heterotrophs cannot help but eat something else in order to live.

I appreciate the lyricism of your writing in this and other posts reminiscent of this one, BTW.

It is very uncertain whether your empathy affects the potato you shed it upon, but it is very certain your empathy does affect you - it sickens you (eg in your nauseation.)

Why then am I not showing empathy where it counts by saying to you this empathy which sickens you is not a true empathy?

January 07, 2008 12:26 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"I appreciate the lyricism of your writing..." Thanks. It means a lot to hear that.

"heterotrophs cannot help but eat something else in order to live"

Can I align myself with the vitalists if I recognize that suicide is always an option?

I'm checking the etymology of "brute" in the OED. They say brutus means "heavy, dull, irrational." Hmm. I wouldn't defend suicide as a rational choice. Many times it's almost certainly not completely rational. It might be rational however to remember that it's an option. But what I mean by "brutality" is the situation in which there are only violent choices. This is the situation of the heterotroph. (And thus it is vanity to assume that the heterotroph is a more noble form of life than the autotroph.) Have I passed judgement yet? I won't praise human existence at the expense of the potato, but will evaluate each on its own merits. I think I empathize with the heterotroph enough so as not to pass hasty judgements. Acknowledging the brutality of the situation is in fact an empathetic gesture. But I don't therefore forget my feelings for the potato. My empathic feelings are not a matter of social identity, they are not mutually exclusive. I don't believe eating potatoes should be taboo the way eating a clan totem is taboo. I can have mixed feelings. So you shouldn't worry if I report being "just a little bit nauseated" by my eating of a potato. Is my empathy even a form of enduring, diffuse solidarity? I would like my empathy to be recognized as something that could never be confused with "mechanical" forms of solidarity. When I talk about empathy I mean to point to the diffuse kind of belongingness, and more than that, immediate feelings of having the same flesh as another--for what it's worth.

You know, it strikes me that it might be useful to observe a food taboo or two just to allow for the exercize of empathic feelings.

January 07, 2008 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"Is my empathy even a form of enduring, diffuse solidarity? I would like my empathy to be recognized as something that could never be confused with "mechanical" forms of solidarity. When I talk about empathy I mean to point to the diffuse kind of belongingness, and more than that, immediate feelings of having the same flesh as another--for what it's worth."

Anthropomorphizing the potato?

Anthropomorphizing life?

January 08, 2008 12:11 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hmm. I'm not sure. I probably have an anthropocentric view of society, for what it's worth.

January 08, 2008 4:15 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"I don't believe eating potatoes should be taboo the way eating a clan totem is taboo."

I'd like to understand this remark because I think it is important.

Totem and taboo - the eating of a clan totem is taboo because incest is taboo.

You don't think eating a potato shouldn't be taboo because your thoughts on eating or not eating a potato is not tied your thinking on prohibitions of incest?

That makes sense, I think.

It really is interesting, though, when you tie your empathy for a potato to your feelings of a desire for oneness and commonality and for all beings to be of one flesh and solidarity, etc.

It could be read as desire for a lifting of the incest taboo, among other things.

January 08, 2008 5:23 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Hmm. Sometimes a potato's just a potato.

"[T]he eating of a clan totem is taboo because incest is taboo."

It's interesting that there's a parallel between the prohibition against clan endogamy and the prohibition against eating clan totems (it doesn't always work that way, iirc), but I'm not sure about causation. Also, I think there are notable differences between violating the rules of clan exogamy and violating universal incest prohibitions (sex with siblings, parents, children). To the extent that I would think of kinship with the potato and yet think of eating the potato I am thinking the "unthinkable."

"You don't think eating a potato shouldn't be taboo"

Do you mean I don't think eating a potato should be taboo?

"because your thoughts on eating or not eating a potato is not tied your thinking on prohibitions of incest?"

Initially my only thought of food prohibitions was a sense about certain varieties of vegetarianism that I didn't much care to make explicit, though I cracked pretty easily. And the thought that all eating may be "tainted." If I am thinking now about kinship with the potato then I must have room in my thinking for incest taboos. However, "kinship" may be merely a metaphor, as may be "society" and "flesh." Talking about kinship with the potato allows me to talk about love as "diffuse, enduring solidarity" and not talk about love as desire. That may be wishful thinking. I also mean to talk about solidarity in a paticular way, as not being grounded in a cognitive act, or needing to pass through cognition in order to be actualized, or anything dependent on cognition in any way. Perhaps that would in fact leave open the question of how empathy touches on cognition, which may actually be something that interests me.

"It really is interesting, though, when you tie your empathy for a potato to your feelings of a desire for oneness and commonality and for all beings to be of one flesh and solidarity, etc.

"It could be read as desire for a lifting of the incest taboo, among other things."

I think it's Lévi-Strauss who argued that exogamy actually strengthens solidarity among the members of a society. Anyway, I would keep my desire at arm's length just long enough to let my feelings breathe. Feeling a connection may or may not mean desiring a connection. I suspect you're putting it strongly to make a point, so inasmuch as it's interesting I won't object. Though I said it might be worthwhile to observe a food taboo, you read me as having indicating a desire to lift an incest taboo. Hmm. In fact I am really interested in potatoes.

January 09, 2008 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

Hey Fido,

I had a number of reactions to these last comments but I had to pause to think things over before replying.

I wonder: do you mind me continuing to want go over these items after you've passed on to newer things?

Can you explain what you mean by "thinking the unthinkable" in this comment,

"To the extent that I would think of kinship with the potato and yet think of eating the potato I am thinking the "unthinkable."

January 12, 2008 10:41 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

No, I don't mind. I had in mind cannibalism, eating a clan totem, clan endogamy (in cases where it is prohibited) or incest, but chiefly cannibalizing one's kin. Obviously it is thinkable. In what sense is it "unthinkable"? (I swear I'm not a structuralist, though it is tempting sometimes.) I think I meant something like "what must not be thought" as distinct from "what cannot be thought," which is why I put it in quotes. Maybe I have an attitude towards the prohibited that privileges/castigates thought. Anyway, you may find challenging the idea that thought is "enabled" by structurations of Mind, or that the must swallows the can.

January 12, 2008 12:46 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"Anyway, you may find challenging the idea that thought is "enabled" by structurations of Mind, or that the must swallows the can."

I wouldn't say I find this challenging if the challenge is to understand how this is the case.

If the challenge is to accept this as the case, then I'll grant there is a challenge for me here.

As a matter of fact, I think that the ONLY way we currently have to "enable" thought is by structurations of Mind, by letting must swallow can. It is that this continue to be the ONLY - that there are no conceivable or potential alternatives - is what I won't accept, and to create alternative ways to "enable" the mind is the real challenge.

Are you trying to persuade me there are none even conceivably tenable?

Think the unthinkable:

Desire the desirable: no problem; don't desire the undesirable: no problem; don't desire the desirable--big problem.

If to think the unthinkable is anything but a mock-heroic pseudo-paradox,some problematic is underlying whenever "think the unthinkable" is invoked.

The imposition of the taboos, the violation of which carried horrific penalties, are a solution of how to not desire the desirable. (Even: how not to desire the very most desirable.) The taboos are a structuration of OUR Mind. Clearly, must swallows can. And at what cost?

(I'm not pushing transgression of taboos as a way to think the unthinkable. I'm not saying we might as well go ahead and desire everything we do indeed desire because that would be true and authentic.)

January 12, 2008 10:44 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"Are you trying to persuade me there are none even conceivably tenable?"

No, I am not trying to persuade you. I merely wanted to suggest that this viewpoint about how thought it enabled, which is not my viewpoint, presents a challenge for you. Possibly you might want at least two definitions of thought?

Is it right to call revolutionary culture and pre-revolutionary culture by the same name?

Do you ever have mixed feelings, Yusef?

January 13, 2008 9:49 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"No, I am not trying to persuade you. I merely wanted to suggest that this viewpoint about how thought it enabled, which is not my viewpoint, presents a challenge for you."

I don't understand in what sense you are presenting a challenge to me with this viewpoint.

What is your viewpoint about how thought is enabled?

"Possibly you might want at least two definitions of thought?"

What I want is to think...I doubt another definition of thought is going to do me any harm, but how is it going to help me to think?

"Is it right to call revolutionary culture and pre-revolutionary culture by the same name?"

I don't understand what you are trying to get at here. Could you give me an example of revolutionary culture? An example of pre-revolutionary culture?

Does this relate back to totem-taboo, in that you might think there was a totem-taboo culture, and then later a new culture which broke with that( a new culture not structured around totem-taboo?) If there is a new culture which is not structured around totem-taboo, I'd like to learn more about it.

"Do you ever have mixed feelings, Yusef?"

I'm pretty sure that most, and perhaps all, of my feelings are mixed. But this condition of ambivalence is not something you wish to recommend to me as being healthy, is it?

January 13, 2008 11:29 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

"I don't understand in what sense you are presenting a challenge to me with this viewpoint." I figured you wouldn't want to accept that as the only alternative, as you said. My unschooled opinion is that just about anybody who pursues philosophy seriously as a profession or as an avocation would be challenged by such a view, and I have a sense of you as somebody who pursues philosophy seriously. But of course I am unschooled and this must be very old hat to you. I thought your initial answer was quite interesting.

"What is your viewpoint about how thought is enabled?"

I'm ambivalent, of course. I don't believe thought can go on without a body, if that helps. But I'm not sure that embodiment, however one approaches the problem, tells the whole story of how thinking is possible. I suspect there may be diverse activities that are all called "thinking" but that are enabled differently and unfold differently. I would wait a while before making any judgement as to which kind of thinking really mattered, or which kind should be talked about first and foremost.

"What I want is to think...I doubt another definition of thought is going to do me any harm, but how is it going to help me to think?"

I don't know for sure. It depends on your thinking. I might suggest aleatory thinking, revolutionary thinking, or meditative thinking as alternatives to Structure. But you know how this turns out. In a sense to even talk about the revolution is to betray the revolution, that is, to succumb to that which one rebels against by allowing one's rebellion to take a certain form.

"Could you give me an example of revolutionary culture?"

You're living it.

"An example of pre-revolutionary culture?"

Everything you want to revolt against.

"Does this relate back to totem-taboo, in that you might think there was a totem-taboo culture, and then later a new culture which broke with that( a new culture not structured around totem-taboo?) If there is a new culture which is not structured around totem-taboo, I'd like to learn more about it."

I wasn't thinking that, but it's interesting. Does philosophy rebel at the totemic in thinking, or does it only make gestures of rebeling? What happens to thinking when rebellion is de rigueur? Well if there is such a thing as a post-taboo culture, I might suspect that we'd be stuck with lagging indicators. Sorry, I don't have any pointers.

But this condition of ambivalence is not something you wish to recommend to me as being healthy, is it?

Is it authentic and true? I don't know about recommendations for living, but I am suggesting you consider that my feelings as I've reported them are authentic and true.

January 13, 2008 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

I suspected your reference to structure was hinting at my increasing inability to concentrate and focus, my growing internet delirium.

I think the only reason to blog or to read blogs is to interact; this isn't a good way ( a good medium for)to sculpt and shape ideas.

You are expressing your ideas clearly and succinctly here, but I personally doubt whether anyone can understand or know what you are trying to say, what you are getting at, without a great deal of questioning of specifics.

This questioning of specifics isn't something I observe happening on any of the blogs I read, and I think that's strange, and I do worry about internet exchange becoming, in spite of intentions otherwise, the medium of everyman's narcissism.

There's no criticism of you or the quality of your blog in this I hope you understand,BTW.

January 14, 2008 1:11 PM  

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