Sunday, January 15, 2012

Life as a Mundane War as an Agent of Order in a Universe of Chaos; or, How You're Going to Spend Most of your Life Cleaning up After Yourself

Every so often I get in a particularly restless, philosophical mood. That occurred this morning, when I spent the better part of the morning contemplating whether or not humanity's prevailing opinions are determined by increased understanding of the available evidence or by shifts in desires and interests (but I just posted about bingo because at some point I grew very angry about the fact that I've only ever won one game). I am also in the middle of moving into a new house and moving my possessions from my last place to this one. When I woke up this morning, the rest of my day was spent straightening and cleaning.

Move things from one room into another. Situate things into more space-efficient arrangements. Bring things back into the room. Vacuum the floor. Throw away the trash that didn't seem worth throwing away when it first became trash. Make the clutter look like something that surrounds a living human being.

Now, had I already been in a brainless mood, this would have just seemed like mundane work that has to be done sometimes. I was not, though. I was thinking about cosmological arguments, epistemic justification, the possibility of faith being made sensible, and the challenge that ethical nihilism poses to the idea of rationality. But I wasn't doing anything about any of those thoughts. I was arranging furniture and trying to decide if my elephant lamp looked better next to the monkey butler lamp or across the room from it as a counterpoint. I was concerned about the fact that the depths of thought that the human species has already plumbed meant that it was unlikely that a person would be a meaningfully innovative thinker without also being specialized to such an intense degree that he could only be an authority in a very narrow sphere. But I was trying to get a stubborn shred of paper to go up into the vacuum. So when my mind finally took notice of what I was actually putting my effort toward, I had to find some pretentious way into making what I was doing seem like part of a grand cosmic effort instead of just being a routine part of moving.

I spent most of my life living with someone who spent her entire day cleaning. She did yard work as well, she cooked meals, but her life was essentially spent maintaining a house. A tiny spot of land that she devoted her life toward protecting from chaos and clutter. She always left an impression on me. It seemed to me so easy to fall into that kind of life, the kind of life that feels like it is making progress because it sees immediate results, but that is ultimately futile because it does not go anywhere beyond trying to maintain a status quo of general tidiness.

It wasn't until recently that I discovered that, unless you devote a significant portion of every week to it, chaos will overwhelm you before you even realize it. Organization is easily assassinated. If you are not constantly and consistently doing some kind of maintenance, then your world is falling apart. For the most part, I don't mind the world falling apart as long as I have what matters to me handy. And yet, I find that the things that matter most to me are themselves influenced by how I keep my little sliver of the world. Organization is how we make sense of our possessions.

It's mundane, and in a strange way, it's one of the highest expressions of humanity. You have a concept of order, and you're going to expend your energy trying to make some part of the universe operate according to your concept of order. Lamps sit on tables. Food is served on plates. Objects belong on top of raised platforms, not on the carpet. Beds are to be covered in additional fabric that make them softer and keep you warm. Walls have working outlets.

And every time the universe proceeds in its natural course and some part of your order is violated, it's up to you to restore it. Expend more energy. Spend more time. Bring things back in line. Fight the chaos. Wage war against clutter.

You could end up spending your whole life fighting that war.

And yet, even though it seems like, from the point of view of the death bed, that the whole endeavor was a waste of time and effort, you can't really recommend not doing it either. People don't want to live in chaos, it's our natural inclination to impose our order on our surroundings. Even if you don't want to get so abstract, it's obvious that people prefer clean floors to stubbed toes and creative walks. We organize because failure to do so reduces our quality of life.

Also, you could end up with dead cats under your couch.

I suppose no one wants to see a picture that's more relevant to that last sentence....

I don't really have a conclusion for this one. It seems obvious to recommend a middle path or a golden mean between wasting your life and living in filth, but that doesn't seem practical to me, given the sort of people I've met in my life. Perhaps I just haven't met the right kind of people, but it seems to me that middle ground is hard to occupy on this topic. People either wind up preferring free time to order or preferring order to free time (or perhaps they just hate the chaos?). It seems to me that the reasonable thing here is not to occupy the middle ground, but to try to cling to someone who balances you out. If you're going to spend an excessive amount of time cleaning anyway, why not clean for someone who is doing work that you consider interesting or beneficial? And if you're not going to spend your time cleaning, why not find someone who is inclined to clean anyway and is willing to clean up after you?

And as soon as I contemplate such an arrangement, I see the immediate problem. Those who spend much time cleaning will inevitably resent those who don't. Soldiers fighting the mundane war will hold those occupying their time with more interesting matters in contempt. It would not be possible for people to cling together in this way, the cleaner person has nothing to gain from the arrangement.

So, either you find a middle way, or you deal with the downside of your disposition. As for me, I'll continue in my slobbery. But maybe I'll be a slob with an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of animal lamps in my room.

Or just creepy as hell

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