The Return of the SoCal Bloggers: Tomemos, Uncomplicatedly, Girl Detective, Surlacarte

Dear readers,

Happy new year!

Blogging is a reflection of brick-and-mortar communities, and it creates and sustains new communities of its own. Discussions begin through blogging that could never have happened otherwise, and friendships and relationships begun through blogging have the potential to be life-changing. I’ve just returned from New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, my birthday present from petitpoussin. We met through blogging in the fall of 2006; one year later, she moved out from Hawaii to join me here in Southern California, by far the most significant and wonderful development of 2007 for me personally.

It delights me when the leisure of the holidays permits academic bloggers living here to return to their keyboards. Surlacarte is back with two excellent posts, covering the disappointing end-of-year music lists and his own list of 2006’s underrated albums. Yes, it takes a particular kind of mind to sum up 2007 by writing about 2006, and surlacarte has that mind. My own music post is coming soon.

Meanwhile, tomemos, girldetective, and uncomplicatedly have written a series of posts on feminism and vegetarianism, with tomemos suggesting some points in common between the two conversations. Here’s your roadmap: start with tomemos’s post “Don’t you know that other kids are starving in Japan,” partly a follow-up to the recent debates at tekanji’s Shrub Blog mentioned in my earlier post. Tomemos has a very different take on the proceedings, and on Valenti and Friedman’s forthcoming book. Then check out uncomplicatedly’s response to tomemos, punningly titled “Making Friends With Salad,” and girldetective’s own version of and thoughts on the Night of Drunken Political Rebuke, “False Allies and Sexist Women.” Finally, tomemos responds in brief to both posts in “Omitofo.”

Vegetarianism is, in my view, a good way of life that I do not practice. The arguments in favor of it are immensely compelling: it is healthier, less cruel, and more ecologically sound to avoid eating meat, given the way most meat is produced and the overall environmental burden of sustaining a global human population exceeding 6.75 billion. With rare exceptions, I never buy meat at the grocery store, but I do eat what meat others cook for me, and I order meat dishes at restaurants.

I eat meat for three reasons: first, because of its aesthetic pleasures. Second, because I enjoy sharing that pleasure with other people, particularly when I am a guest. Third, because my schedule is prone to various disruptions — traveling first and foremost — and in those cases it is an inexpensive, convenient source of complete proteins.

Nonetheless, being vegetarian is eminently workable. Most reasonable people will accomodate vegetarian guests, and, as uncomplicatedly notes, so will most restaurants. There are, of course, other sources of good protein. Also, as vegetarianism gains adherents, the aesthetics of it are improving: petitpoussin is vegetarian, and for her birthday we went to a restaurant in Los Angeles that served better fake meat barbecue than I had eating real meat in the Deep South.

All that’s old news, and what is new in what uncomplicatedly and tomemos have written is very joyous: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself…” Yet I demur. Tomemos writes about deciding to eat fish tacos on his recent Mexican honeymoon:

In the end, though, I think this experiment ended up strengthening my vegetarianism. The fish tacos tasted good; they didn’t make me feel like I had been missing out on something amazing for fifteen years. At one point during our trip, I had a vegetarian tostada, and that was as satisfying a meal as anything else I ate in Mexico. Taste is possibly the most transitory aesthetic experience: even if you eat a meal that you remember for the rest of your life—and I’ve had one or two—it can’t make you want to live a different way. My feelings on eating meat are unchanged: for me, it is a moral issue, but not a moral absolute.

In her post, uncomplicatedly responded thus:

[Tomemos's final evaluation of eating fish tacos] was immensely reassuring, because it appeared that amazing things were happening on my family members’ plates [this holiday] and I was a little bit jealous. I’m sure they were great, but the truth was that I managed to eat pretty well.

In the grand scheme of things, the singularity of meat dishes is something one can forego. But that does not mean that it does not exist. The poached lobster and huckleberry venison I had in Mandalay Bay were amazing, and I see no justification for treating aesthetic pleasure so abstractly that I would be able to call a polenta strictly equivalent. It is very likely that what uncomplicatedly saw on those other plates was special indeed, and we can understand her jealousy without concluding that she should have bitten in.

Hindsight can lend a tidiness to excess, and reflection can corral it dialectically, and thank goodness — we might go out of our minds thinking about the possibilities of lives we didn’t lead, or for which we weren’t chosen because of lack of opportunity or talent. (For example, in my case, baseball.) There’s still the dust of Nevada on my shoes; Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is, as much as anything, a book devoted to restoring to fantasy its chaotic and terrifying force by unmasking the advertiser’s illusion that Vegas can fit comfortably into American normalcy via the cognitive dissonance of “vacation.” But an unacknowledged source of so much of our curiosity about other lives is the sorrow of our historical and material finitude, and the double bind of decisions that entail sacrifice. We cannot avoid making sacrifices as part of the devoted act of choice — that is perhaps the very meaning of becoming who one is — but we are, as H.D. once put it, permitted to wonder.

In following this conversation, I am reminded again of Thomas Wolfe’s opening to Look Homeward, Angel, that each of us is the sums we have not counted. Uncomplicatedly writes engagingly about the experience of getting to know a chef by making a special request for a vegetarian dish, and there are plenty of other versions of that pleasure. This Thanksgiving, my family had to make a vegetarian turkey (the “Tofurkey”) for the first time in our history, and doing so was a lot of fun. However, it is also true that plenty of people find vegetarianism alienating, or simply don’t have the ability to provide a very good alternative to what they know. The former are legitimate objects of satire, as in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but the fact remains that people enjoy communion. If you don’t drink, you can’t toast; if you don’t eat meat, there are certain dishes you can’t share. In my own nuclear family of three, being vegetarian would mean eating a separate dinner every night I’m home. Meanwhile, for one of my high school friends, being vegan and abstaining from alcohol meant that he was regarded warmly throughout his travels in the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia.

Uncomplicatedly continues,

One summer in college, I lived in a Buddhist monastery in Japan. One afternoon, I was assigned the job of sweeping out the spider webs from the temple’s windows. “But won’t that kill the spiders?” I asked. The monk responded, “We avoid harming other creatures when we can, but sometimes we have to. It’s not our intention to kill the spiders, but we need to clean our windows. You should bow to the spiders, say ‘Omitofo,’ and pray that they get reborn as humans.”

What is strange about this response from the monk is how it echoes certain Native American rituals performed on the occasion of a hunt. The spiritual practice of apology, as a complement to a postulated need, can be directed towards acts or victims of any kind, up to and including human beings. Uncomplicatedly focuses on the experience of having actually unintentionally caused harm by eating shrimp, and so makes good use of what amounts to a confused iteration of “If you want to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs,” one that tries to sever intention from admitted consequence.

***

Tomemos is right, I think, to see similarities between the conversation about vegetarianism and those about feminism and other political work: it is again a question of recognizing the importance of what is singular and what must, at least initially, tarry with the negative. Careers are not equivalent to one another; suggesting that volunteering in New Orleans is right for everyone, as the Tipsy Crusader did, is a form of madness. At the same time, tomemos does lose a lot of direct political efficacy by working as a teacher of English, something that Rich Puchalsky pointed out in comments to my Valve post on the year in intellectual blogs. There is some horizon point where these different kinds of service converge, but the requisite disposition and skills are so different, and the experiential quality of the work so variant, that the truth is in the singular differences as much as in one’s general feeling of solidarity.

The problem with Yes Means Yes is not that there aren’t connections between rape and sexuality, but rather that the authors are at such pains to identify the two — even in their initial call for contributors — that they sound like nothing so much as academics who strain to put a political point on every piece of criticism they produce. They over-identify the two things, and do it probably for reasons similar to those that turn academics into pundits: unconsciously, they feel that the standard version of feminist sexual revolution has already been done, just as most literary critics worry that regular ol’ literary criticism is an exhausted genre. That said, tomemos is right that yet another act of generalization, whereby some critics of Yes Means Yes want to use the book as an opportunity to declare their separateness from a mostly imaginary faux-liberal status quo, can create needless dissensions among progressives, as opposed to the necessary divergence of vocation.

Girl Detective points out that the present connotations of the word “liberal” are partly an invention of the Right:

The definition of “liberal” is a matter of semantics, not policy; it depends on who you ask, and people fighting for the same causes may give themselves very different labels. If you support religious tolerance, social welfare, environmental protection, and the eradication of racism, but hate liberals and everything “they” stand for, then you’ve been duped by the Right’s misinformation campaign. Also, I’m sick of people who call themselves allies – male allies to women, white allies to people of color, first world allies to third world nations – but are more concerned with boosting their ego by yelling at fellow leftists than with actually developing any strategies for change.

I assume that, in most of the cases to which she refers, these leftist critics are thinking of Martin Luther King, who wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” these words:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

So, in response, one is obliged to point out that King aims his words against moderates, not against liberals. Throughout his letter, King stands behind the constructive foregrounding of tension over and against the “negative peace which is the absence of tension.” There is no way to banish negativity and tension — the woman who cornered girldetective had to become an object of rebuke in turn. Calls for solidarity always entail strong words against dissensus, and girldetective and tomemos rise to the occasion here.

King writes, “Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal.” This, finally, is the spirit of my answer to what tomemos says about the transitory nature of gustatory pleasure, and the urge to live a different way. The aesthetic is a realm of exquisite tensions: between flavors, between lines of melody, between characters, between the different parts of a composed picture. It appears, not in the ethical determination to eat less meat, but in the scene that transpires between an unprepared chef and an inconvenienced patron, or in the moment of reflection occasioned by breaking a rule. It is inevitable that we should relax into the confidence of habit after the crisis has passed, but for me, to seek out the aesthetic is to beckon those pleasures to return, to feel break upon one’s consciousness what was still unguessed about life, and to experience in its bittersweet fullness the uncertainty that decides us, each to each.

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