Back when I was young, dynamic, full of piss and vinegar, I set off to college to become a teacher. Originally enrolled as a math major, I called the campus about a month before semester begin and changed my major to English. I had decided that even though I found math fascinating, even invigorating (an inclination I’ve not lost to this day, making me, in contrast to many of my colleagues then and now, less intimidated by scientific, mathematical, and technical discourses), it was too restricting to my ever expanding mind. We should recall that these were those hopeful, heady, revolutionary days of the late 60s.
Developing a senior project, that grand initiatory armament with which you would gird yourself as you sallied forth to redeem the fallen world of adolescent education, was of course one of the unavoidable boxes to be ticked. Mine was entitled “The Search for Self”. When graduation came and went, my girlfriends, fraternity brothers and sundry fellow "comrades-in-arms” went off to do whatever they set off to do. I, however, through just another in a long series of seemingly never-ending twists of fate found myself an actual comrade-in-arms, for Uncle Sam had fingered me.
Swallowed by the military Leviathan, it was physical training, German-language training, and interrogator training (yes, that was my military occupational specialty, as it was called in those days), only to be spewed forth into the nebulous realm of overt (military) intelligence collection — The Spy Who Came Out from the Warm, so to speak — at the very edge of the Free World as we knew it (I was stationed a mere three miles as the crow flies from the East-West German border) a stranger in a strange land.
Jordan Peterson wrestled long and hard with the thought of the threat of nuclear annihilation and built his entire career as a psychologist on it. Here, at the Edge of the Free World, we in the military knew that if “the balloon went up” (the technical jargon for Ivan’s cossackian onslaught against all that was good and right with the world), our life-expectancy was 20 minutes. That was the armoured cavalry’s mission here on the border: at the cost of 100% losses, to slow Ivan’s advance by 20 minutes. I, however, with all my intelligence (so believe me) it was expected that I and my fellow intel weenies would survive and “go underground” and rally others around me to make Ivan’s life miserable, to make him sorry he had stooped so low. The real problem with the scenario — as became public even in the 80s — the reason for delaying the Russians was so that the other US forces could retreat a bit, so that the empty space created by the non-advancing attackers and retreating defenders could be filled with so-called “tactical nuclear devices”. Yes, here, where I was living, with all these nice people with whom I worked and had personal contact, the girl I would eventually marry and who would mother my children, her family and friends and their friends’ friends were simply inconsequential placeholders in a hollow zone that Uncle Sam had decided was expendable and could safely and easily be filled with nuclear devastation and radiation.
You might think that I had forgotten all about that silly senior project. I mean, what does not pale in comparison with total annihilation? But I hadn’t forgotten? I found myself thinking about it even more. I found myself asking questions like “Who comes up with shit like this?” and “What kind of self finds joy in destruction … on this, or any other scale?” or “Who are we — as a species — that we can claim that such insanity makes sense?” Finding out who we are became a central theme in all my life. I believed then, and still believe now, that getting something of a handle on who we are can be worthwhile, hell, even have survival value. Back then, though, I still thought I’d do my time (if the balloon didn’t go up), go back home (which is what soldiers do), get that teaching job and get to work. Of course, being young and naive, and still full of more piss and vinegar than was probably good for me, I hadn’t grasped that twist-of-fate thing, for I never managed to go home again.
Because I apparently signed up for the Cosmic Twist Of Fate Tour, though I can’t remember when or where, I’ve ended up living in a lot of places and in each and every one it was up to the family and me to make the house the home, so to speak. It turns out that my totem animal is the tortoise, which is a good thing, considering but I’ve learned along that way that the Cosmic may be a trickster and have more than a wry sense of humour at times, but It is also not without Compassion. We’re given what we need, but we have to figure out how to use it and how it all works. In other words, the place, the space, doesn’t matter. Why do you think I was so elated when I encountered Gebser and found here’s a guy who’s given this all some thought and came to the conclusion that space-freedom is probably a good thing. Makes my life living in a Cosmic Nomad’s Tent a lot more comforting.
What I learned — and it’s just me, I’ll admit — is that we are wherever we are whenever we are. Period. There was me then in the nuclear annihilation zone. There was my wife’s family near-by and us in a boarding school near the East German border. There was the immediate family in Silicon Valley. Then a part of that family still together in Stuttgart. My wife and I are more or less back where we started. The spaces have changed, but it wasn’t the spaces that made the difference. It was just us wherever and whenever we were.
The self I was looking for way back when has engaged, merged, separated, recombined and grown with, for, against, and because of some core other selves who have always been intensely close and a myriad of other selves who have shared time and space with our own. The key to sanity-keeping throughout this journey has been the others: the constancy, their fickleness, their changeability, their adaptability, while all the while still remaining somehow the same. For although all of those selves are shaped and formed and molded and influenced by the the times and spaces of their experience, they still maintain a core constancy that allows all of us to recognise each other every time we re-meet. And that’s enough of a something, for me at least, to keep that search going.
For you see, Johnny, the result of all of this is that I do have an identity. It’s the I who I think, believe, feel, and experience me to be. Just between you, me, and the chickens in the chicken-coop here, it’s a work-in-progress, to be sure, but it’s something, not nothing, and it serves me relatively well most of the time when I encounter other, let me say, works-in-progress. Because from my own nomadic experience: the times and places change a lot, but there have always been others there with whom I interact to turn places into spaces and times into events and happenings. I feel pretty comfortable with mine. I can trust it to look out for me when I’m not otherwise paying attention. It’s good at telling me “I told you so” when I ignore its admonishments. It’s not perfect, that’s for sure, but I can live with him.
And since this is flowing along the lines of a confessional, I might as well add a few other small items that may be relevant. They’re assumptions really. None of us functions without assumptions, but we don’t often think about them or search them out for ourselves. I think it can be helpful and here are two that are essentially fundamental for me: (1) I’m not all that different from anybody else. Sure the details are different, but essentials are the same. And (2) everyone is searching for themself, consciously or unconsciously, actively or passively, constantly or sporadically … it doesn’t matter. Every one of us human beings suspects we have one and at some point in all of our lives somebody for some reason blurts out at us “Just who do you think you are?” and we all, at least once, stop and think about it, even if only briefly.
But it is the engagement with others in all times and places, even here online, that constitute the defining and meaningful elements of my life. I think it’s great that we can, and do, talk with one another civilly and politely. I think it’s exhilarating to share what we’ve studied and learned with one another (… it’s one of the advantages of being human that we’ve made vicarious learning possible). There are times as well when a not-so-civil and not-so-polite engagements can be fruitful as well, though at my age, I’m glad they occur less frequently. I find it as disconcerting as you that we also belong to a species which may soon delete itself, but it is nevertheless worth stopping to wonder how it is that it will have been we who have developed the button which we will push to effect the process. Who was that?
And it is because of all of these things that I wish I simply knew what Mr. Sloterdijk was saying. I don’t care if he’s right or wrong. If he’s like the rest of us (which I’m guessing), he’ll get more wrong than right. So what? I would just like to know what he’s saying. I think you will agree that style is one thing, but style is not everything. And even though, by your own admission, you may read what I post because of my style, I, on the other side of the text, can begin to express how great it is that you respond to the content. Somehow some of it apparently manages to get through. I realise that I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier of this particular reading group and I’ve never been the brightest bulb in any chandelier I’ve ever hung with, but I would have liked to thought that I merely overlooked something, that the wire was at least still connected to the socket. But so far, reading Sloterdijk has been for the most part like watching a Peanuts movie in which only adults do the talking.
So let me just add this: once again Johnny, you’ve been an invaluable help. I do seriously, sincerely and deeply appreciate your thoughts.