Tag Archives: meaning


What do people need?

each other

In recent months, I’ve revisited Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and some of the Zen ideas and teachings therein have wended their way into my consciousness. Reminds me of snippets of Buddhism I’ve absorbed over the years, such as the interconnectivity of all beings.

“A person pokes up from the world and rolls along like a wave, until it is time to sink down again.”

A Tale for the Time Being, p.194

A wave is a person is alive is dead is the same thing. The narrator goes on to lament that one cannot hold on to water, to the people we love. “…still I gripped her fingers a little more tightly to keep her from leaking away.”

More recently, other ideas about how fleeting human life is in the scale of geologic or universe time have bubbled up. I wish I could cite the articles or podcasts that resurfaced this idea, but it’s not uncommon. Perhaps it was this:

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

Lao Tzu (as quoted in Frugaling’s Ownership Isn’t Real, We Rent This Life)

And I’ve picked up another of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novels, and so have remembered Aurora, and the perils of a generation starship. What are we preserving, when we rocket a probe into the stars?

We are all star stuff.

Carl Sagan

Another idea that’s gained prominence in my mind recently is the emphasis, in some cultures, not on individuals or even the group, but on the culture itself. The peoples’ practices.

In high school, I hit upon the belief that the point of life is to defy extinction. I’ve come back around to this, with some additions.

The point of human life, broadly, is

To defy extinction
To perpetuate the species
To make meaning of existence
To reproduce culture

So…what is our culture? As families, as communities, as municipalities, as states, as a nation? (USA context, here.)
What is worth reproducing? Passing on? Changing? Leaving behind?


And what role do we play, as fleeting time beings? Given that most of us are unremarkable outside of those who know us, I’ve started to believe that what is important is family, chosen biological or otherwise. That is where our attention can make a difference. Where we transmit values and cultural practices. Where we make meaning.


Ozeki’s work reminds me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower ~ the only lasting truth is change ~

“Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.”

A Tale for the Time Being, p.408

[I mistyped “flows” as “flowers” just now. A freudian typo?]

So many people have lived
small lives
Time Beings

And what does it mean,
to truly “live our lives”?
What life is worthy of living?
How do we fully honor, appreciate
the privilege
The unlikely circumstance
of living?

now, this moment, mindfulness meditation, and its capitalist twisting, unrooted from its Buddhist origins*, how can we be present for one another, make meaning together, create something lasting knowing that lasting is relative and relatively hopeless beyond a few generations ~ we last, endure, relationally, with our relations ~

“human consciousness is neither more nor less than the clouds and water, or the hundreds of grasses”

A Tale for the Time Being, p.409

we are all star stuff

*Listen to the Upstream Podcast’s conversation with Ron Purser for more on “McMindfulness



Filed under Contemporary

Wait! Before we eat…

Amateur food photography is nothing new. What else can be said about the now mundane practice of pausing before a meal to document it so the image can be shared and admired? Perhaps nothing, but I’m going to share the following experience, anyway.

About a month ago, I treated myself to a day at the Huntington Library. After wandering the gardens and visiting the Reformation exhibit, I decided to have some lunch in their upscale cafeteria. I took my tray outside to what I’ll call the veranda, because I like that word, and sat happily alone amidst people of various ages. That day there was a high school group visiting, probably a private school judging by their uniforms. The girls wore sweaters and skirts. (What’s with private school uniforms and skirts? Beyond the scope of this post…)

So there I sat, eating a passably tasty veggie wrap and enjoying the fresh air and the murmured conversation that filled it, when into my field of vision walked a trio of private school students with their own lunch trays. They selected a table at the edge of the veranda that overlooked the gardens, set down their trays, and sat. But as soon as they had done so they were standing again, each of them taking a step or two backward with their smartphones held aloft, attempting to properly frame their respective meals. After taking satisfactory pictures, they sat and proceeded to eat.

I took out my notebook and made a sketch of the scene, along with a few notes:

Huntington lunch man 2018

Daily documentation — visual — as cultural practice. The three girls photographed their curated collections of comestibles, making the quotidian significant, adding a layer of ritual (visual documentation) to another type of ritual (meal sharing), which will in turn be ritually disseminated on social media (sharing of the visual documentation of meal sharing — nay, meal plating).

Or does the ubiquity of such a practice mean that the quotidian is just that, and layering these rituals temporally is no longer in itself significant? When so many snap pictures of their food to share them in the pursuit of technologically mediated attention, is that not simply a mundane cultural practice?

No less meaningful, but meaningful in a proscribed, ritualized way.

I suppose I mean to say that it’s no longer art.


Filed under Art of all Kinds, Contemporary, Technology

The Problem with Identity

This is a series of questions that circle back on one another. I do not have answers.

Anthropology seems at odds with itself. As a discipline, it’s charged with understanding people from their own cultural perspectives, maintaining that meaning arises from use. Thinking through these tenets, it leads to a tension between intention and interpretation. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of identity and personhood–who someone is, how that “who” comes into being, and who has the power to determine who the “who” is.

Continue reading


Filed under Gender Trouble, Power

Poetic Interlude the Third



Words I am tired of hearing
Of using

Use made meaning
Made meaningless

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Filed under Wordplay

As Seen on a Greeting Card

A lithographed drawing of a cow, with the text:

“You’re useful and delicious.”

And now for some analysis…

The Humor Angle

So one reason humor “happens” is when two usually unrelated things are presented right next to one another. In this case, the cow is being simultaneously given subjectivity by an unseen speaker (the card/speaker addresses the cow in the second person–you) and is immediately objectified (made an object by the card/speaker telling the cow how useful it is as food and whatnot). So the humor is in the unexpected collision of these two states of being that are bestowed upon the cow: it is given subjectivity only to have it taken away in the service of a human smile.

It is also funny because it combines admiration and brutal honesty. The narrator of the card is writing this ode of appreciation to the cow because it can be killed and used for food and clothing and other human needs. The narrator is defining what the cow is in human terms. It is appreciating it for its lack of agency–its lack of subjectivity–even as it ironically addresses it as if it is a subject, not an object.

Expanding the Analysis

Of course, the entire card objectifies the cow–an icon both standing for itself as an individual who can be addressed (although not easily interpellated*) as a singular subject, as well as a representative of an entire category of non-human animal. The cow is an object that conveys humor to the reader, the consumer of the card. Who is a human. Who identifies with the sentiments expressed on the card in the act of chuckling at their meaning. Haha, cows are delicious and useful! That cow doesn’t know what it’s in for…ha! The narrator could be interpreted as tricking the cow, first lulling it into a false sense of camaraderie (you implies that the speaker and the addressee are equal in the sense that they can communicate with one another as individuals), and then destroying those expectations built just moments before by putting the cow in the place of being a mere representative of a type. A class of animal that humans have categorically created to be the very things that the narrator is seemingly praising the individual cow for being: useful and delicious. See cow? You aren’t a person. You’re just an object. A thing with desired characteristics.

It’s quite an instance of animal cruelty, when you think about it. Albeit a funny one that only the humans are in on. Which is in turn exclusionary and therefore rather mean.
*I use interpellation here in the Althusserian sense, although I’m also twisting it. For Althusser, the subject is always already existent, created by social processes. While I think the subject still has to interact with the social situation in order to become a subject of the interaction (uptake/use makes meaning!). Althusser contends that the social interaction itself creates subjects; that the structure makes subjects of what the structure hails. Maybe…I’m a bit fuzzy on this, actually. Grad school was a while ago.

ANYWAY, since I am of the nihilistic relativist opinion that there is no way to absolutely know whether or not you are communicating with another species–or even another human being who is ostensibly of “the same” culture–it would be very difficult indeed for the narrator of the card to claim that the cow it is addressing was interpellated with the narrator’s use of “you,” even if the cow chose at that moment to serendipitously look over at the narrator.


Filed under Animals, Bovinity Infinity, Contemporary