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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza Take 4: Perfection(ism)

Though it is tempting to wax lyrical about last Thursday's salon evening - to see in this particular coming together of lively minds and creative energies and adventurous spirits a felicitous happening that came close to, well...Perfection! - there is something about Baruch Spinoza's take on the "P" word that makes one wary of throwing it around too blithely. Certainly, a sobering qualifier like "close to" is required. For to call the evening pure perfection would be to fly in the face of Spinoza's key assertion about perfection: that only infinite Nature can lay claim to such a state; that to say we've attained perfection is akin to saying that we have the whole Big Picture sussed, that there's nothing left to learn, that it's game over...time to pack up our bags and call it a day.

Spinoza is pretty confident that that day never comes - that knowing everything there is to know about everything is, well, a pretty tall order, nay an impossible one, for us humans. Spinoza also feels pretty safe in assuming that perfection is just one of those destinations we're never going to arrive at: not in the context of a wwp salon evening; not in any of our respective lives. This isn't to say that we shouldn't keep trying to get there. Indeed, for Spinoza, our very striving to understand the true nature of Nature - to think through what makes it Real (with a capital "R") and hence, what lies at the very heart of its perfection - ensures that we ourselves become more perfect. In fact, this thinking ourselves towards ever more knowledge about Nature's perfection (or Reality) is what making yourself a 'good life' is all about. And perhaps it is here, in this very Spinozist notion of actively thinking yourself into a good life (as opposed to living up to some craggy old philosopher's ideal of the good life) that we get closest to Spinoza's conception of perfection, and incidentally, to the original meaning of the word itself.

Perfect: from the Latin roots for per - "thoroughly" - and fect - "to do, to make".

So here's the big question: why is it that what we have come to understand as perfection (and certainly perfectionism) in today's world has to a large extent lost this vital Spinozist aspect of doing, of making, and become focused on the more obsessively compulsive thoroughly instead? If unpacking the "P" word was a collective task we embarked upon early in the evening, our discussion of what happened as we nouned it, verbed it, adjectified it and adverbed it shed important light on perfection's journey from those original etymological roots to the anxiety-ridden perfectionist who can never quite make it thoroughly enough.

To help us with this task we drew on a number of prods, prompts and props. Youtube videos of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' as delivered by artists ranging from Susan Boyle to U2's Bono eased us into the topic at a visceral level. The myth of the 'deliberate imperfection' as expressed in the 'humble blocks' of Amish quilters, for example, allowed us to explore perfection's fallible (albeit debatable) flipside, as well as celebrate those mistake-makers who serve as important 'moral exemplars' for girls and women. I'm thinking here of Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna who, in her rebellious riot grrrrrl Bikini Kill days, saw hitting a sour note up there on the stage and carrying on anyway as sending an important feminist message to aspiring female musicians whose fear of failure was stopping them from at least giving it a go.

Prompted by one of our Scottish members, Kim, who participates from afar in our various wwp activities, we turned to a clip from Oprah's Super Soul Sunday: an interview with Dr. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown's suggestion that our fear of being seen by others to be anything less than perfect means that we not only refuse to show our real selves to the world, but that the cloak of perfection becomes our "20 tonne shield"  protecting us from that world, led us to speculate on the contrasting place of 'the Real' in Brown's version of perfection, and in that of Spinoza. If Brown's striving for perfection found her becoming less true to who she actually was, driving her further away from her own reality the more she propelled herself into the wider world, it was clear that an increase in Spinoza-style perfection would have the opposite effect: making Brown truer to her own reality, propelling her closer to her own nature and - because she and Nature share the same Substance in Spinoza's metaphysical understanding of the human psyche - closer to that wider world as well.

Enjoying Spinoza's liberating spin on perfection and seeing in it a possible way to 'treat' the pathological perfectionist, we built some text book 'patients' out of selected quotes and props and, working in pairs, created first a psychological treatment plan for them, and then a philosophical one. If this exercise triggered some interesting discussion around why we tend to go to a psychotherapist with our personal 'problems' rather than take them to a philosopher, it also allowed us to explore how philosophy might provide an eye-opening and life-enhancing alternative to the more traditional session with the 'shrink'. After four weeks of exploring Spinoza together, most of us seemed ready to go the metaphysical route and ask our doctors for a reference to him.

Certainly, Spinoza makes life into a wonderful puzzle: our primary task being to use our power of thinking to tease out the most elusive details of what makes Reality real; our reward coming from the sheer joy - or as he would see it, that passage to greater perfection - that the activity of thinking tout court affords us. In treating life as a puzzle - as some great tantalizing mystery that objectively exists 'out there' and that is ours for the taking, if only we take the time to figure it all out - Spinoza is not alone. Austrian mathematician Kurt Godel - he of the two "incompleteness" theorems - saw mathematics in this way: as a whole slew of numbers actually flying around out there like Platonist Forms in some abstract but tangible reality, just waiting for a good logical head to come along and figure out as much about that reality as could humanly (and therein lies the fallible incompleteness of it all) be grasped. Physicist Albert Einstein saw the "utterly surprising physical reality" of light beams and speed of sound and gravitational pull that exists "out yonder" in much the same way: as some "great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking"*.

There is something about each of these meta-thinkers that sets the seemingly static world into beautiful poetic motion: that makes you want to hop onto a passage to greater perfection or a curling '2' or a beam of light and go for a ride. Such journeying will be the subject of the next salon evening, on April 18, when we take a look at the Spinozist 'unleashed traveller'. In the meantime, we want to thank Marianne for suggesting the topic of perfection(ism) to us, and all of our wwp salon participants for stretching their minds in such elegant style last Thursday. In Spinozist terms, I think we all became just that little bit more perfect as a result of pooling our power of thinking and generating some collective joy.

*Rebecca Goldstein, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, 2005, 42-43.