On Being Outside, a meditation on precarity

Vinay Gupta wrote a piece recently, The Subtle Art of Precarity. It’s a nice article, and an interesting neologism, precarity. It relates to a familiarity and even comfort with being on the edge. His thesis, one I’ve long ascribed to, that as we get deeper into collapse the crises of leadership and expertise drive, and are driven, by the growing irrelevance of those held up as examples of either. What’s particularly frightening, especially to a child who grew up with an alarming concern that the adults around him were not doing their part, is that as these failed leaders and empty experts become increasingly irrelevant their hold on power appears to be getting more virulent. Not only is the bus driver senile and possibly drunk, but he’s also chaining himself to the wheel and accelerating to avoid capture!

So, since the main thrust of Vinay’s article is already familiar to me – It’s great to see the subject brought up at all! Don’t get me wrong! – what I tended to focus on was the way I am peripheral even within this circle of edge-living outsiders. Granted this is a group strengthened and held together by bonds of friendship built upon propinquity and frequent contact, social and professional; but I’m no stranger to them, as they are not to me.

So, to begin discussing this subject, I must confess to a continuing sense of aloofness and even exile from connections I had high hopes for only a short time ago. I must hastily accept a fair share of responsibility for this! I’m perhaps incapable of joining in properly with just about anyone, let alone when dealing with people who tend to be three thousand miles away! Still, I do feel excluded, whether that’s fair to anyone or not, whether it’s from just cause, or merely by accident.

And this position, this position of being outside the fringes, has been a state I’ve been in, comfortably or no, all my life.

Whether this extends extra credit to me as being über-precarious or not, or whether this brands me as such an extreme crank, or closeted Narcissist, that I cannot enter into any other relation; is, personally, a looming question, one I have to find some way through.

In following my mother’s example, a blend of crippled Narcissism resulting from a horrible childhood, way beyond anything I ever suffered – I do appreciate the way my parents were able to somehow edge their way back from repeating the extremity of the ways in which they must have suffered as children! – and a brave honesty that has always been willing to court any retaliation when she finds herself disagreeing with the powerful; I’ve felt a blend of these two impulses in my own instincts over the years. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle one’s motivations. At a certain point, we need to set aside the effort and just get on with things, if only to allow enough time, and hopefully circumspection, to elapse before we make another effort.

The part I keep getting stuck on is a sense that no matter how much in every day life I abhor conflict and go out of my way not to openly offend, when it comes to my writer/thinker persona as it appears here and elsewhere to my small public, I don’t want to make anything any easier, and do not go out of my way to grease the ways and make nice.

This could be a load of self-serving rubbish! If there’s anything to what I write that isn’t just a load of crap it lives or dies on my ability to turn my respect for the power of delusion on myself!

In a spirit of intra-personal dissensus, I have to give myself some benefit of a doubt on all this. The greatest power of self-censorship – I ought to know, I’ve done it enough over the years! – lies in maintaining a distrustful and hostile relationship with one’s own inner voices. I’ve long focused on disentangling these false-flag attacks on the self by the forces of Ego as it looks for a way to maintain control and dominance over a crippled and addicted self. “At least it’s a self I own!” claims the Ego, as it cruelly watches us sink lower and lower under its depredations. I do firmly believe that it is in untangling our inner sources of coercion and domination that we can begin to find ways to act in the world without falling back into the age-old traps of tit-for-tat.

None of this is that much “fun!” It’s not a sexy topic. It doesn’t lead to team spirit, or any form of easily digestible optimism. To me these are part of what’s important about doing things this way!

The result, at least when I’m closed off to my own failings in the matter, is that I equate being off the edge of the outside with staying true to the core of where I see my work to be.

Of course, this puts me into a bind, a meta-version of Groucho’s dilemma, rejecting membership in any club that would have him! In this version, I not only reject, but seem to preempt any invitation from being extended my way! Or at least that’s how it often seems.

I bring this up now, I hope for more than just fishing for pity to put alongside and bolster self-pity. I don’t feel pitiful! I do feel awkward about casting allies and well-met companions as potential villains! As I would say to anyone else in a similar situation, it’s not about them!

There are myths we all live by. One of these is that effort and quality will be recognized. Another, that springs to mind to perennial outsiders raised on Vincent’s Letter’s to Theo among other tracts, is that one can die unrecognized, and that external reward is a result of fickle luck, when it’s not openly courted in a direct campaign to sell one’s self out. These two views clash. One voice whispers continued gentle encouragement while the other flirts with leading one to court isolation as protection and proof of some hidden inner greatness. Over time, holding such a bind in balance without falling to either side can be an exercise in strengthening negative capability, or it can result in missing signs of some other way of going forward that sidesteps these barriers. At times like this we’re never far from Odysseus and his winning smile, his willingness to trick the Fates and go for broke!

In a time when Hubris has given itself a royal black eye, it can be difficult to accept a call to push ahead with renewed confidence! Especially, as I continually caution against the limits of confidence and the ways it can trick us into over-reach!

What this allusion to Odysseus brings to mind is the need behind my drive, from beyond the edge – no matter how accustomed or even comfortable I may be there! – is my need, and my greatest frustration, to have dialogues that allow me to share insights in a back and forth manner so that all parties can gain understanding not only of the other, but of our selves. It’s this image I’ve long held of wanting to use my instincts to look where the others are not looking, to form a part of a team of lookouts, each scanning different parts of our shared horizon, each able to warn the others of what they are invariably missing for good or ill – simply because we can each never have a full 360 degree view!

Don Corleone always counseled, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” What about giving this a different twist?

How about, “Consider your enemies with dissensus, and find friends who will tell you what you need to hear.”

Being outside is essential. If our attention is co-opted we are lost. But, being outside, we must find ways to be together; or else we will each succumb individually to the pressures of conformity or the bottomless pit of invisibility.

One of the hardest lessons my mother long ago put in front of me, has been to distrust easy friends and to hold onto difficult ones. This notion is at the center of what precarity means to me. This ties into the upside-down dynamics that surround us today. To find trust, and share it. To carve out space for life-affirming action. To make a living in ways that are not aggressively destructive. In all of this precarity is a virtue, though one tangled up in all sorts of potential traps, some external, and others internal, at least to someone habituated to alienation while always aware of a deep need for some form of healthy assimilation.

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