Lately I've been feeling sort of empty. Or unsure of what I want from life. Which is strange because just before that I was so sure that I just wanted to make a beautiful house and clothes and infrastructure. Beautiful in the Christopher Alexander sense. I was sure that I wanted to spend my time building a life where everything in my life was just perfectly tailored to me and my environment. I was sure that then I would be happy. But now I am not so sure that I was asking the right question, and in any case I can't bear to wait that long to be content. I can't wait for my perfect house/garden/wardrobe to be finished– I need to live in a way that feels full and meaningful now, as I work to that. So I need to figure out why I'm so obsessed with building a nice life.
Obviously I'm unhappy because capitalism, and I want to build a nice life because it will be nice. But none of the left-ish narratives of how to do life right— community organizing, labor organizing, self-care, rural commune-ism, Anna Tsing / grad school shit— feel like they will make life bearable now. So I'm left dreaming of utopia with no idea what to do with myself.
I want to start with non-humans, if only because that is where I feel the most gut-level urgency. If I had a beautiful garden full of plants I grew myself, with a beautiful house I built myself, full of furniture I made myself and a wardrobe that I sewed myself– then! Everything would be perfect! Even if this is not true (you obviously can't diy your way out of capitalism), I do feel it deeply and so it is probably a worthwhile place to start. The obvious flaw with my reasoning is that I can't do any of these things to change my relationship to nonhumans without necessarily building new relationships with people. I really want to start with nonhumans because I have already reflected endlessly on how I relate to people, and I feel that I might learn something new if I approach it from the other angle. The third angle would be how I relate to time, but we'll save that for later.
Ok so why does the thought of building my own world feel so liberating? I guess I must feel deeply alienated from the world around me. And by world I don't mean like abstract political forces, I mean the literal stuff that surrounds me all day- architecture, furniture, food, infrastructure, clothes, computers large and small. The vast majority of it feels meaningless. replaceable. I have no relationship to my world.
Cade says that we have been rationalized not just as workers, but as users. That our digital identities have become seamlessly interchangeable. Our rough edges smoothed by the clean lines of Arena and Twitter. I don't want to wander into a trite critique of consumerism, but that feels right for our relationship to our non-digital environments as well. The infamous cookie-cutter-ness of planned suburbs is ever-present in our world. The meaninglessness of place is the same meaninglessness of most *things* in my life and the same meaninglessness of our digital architectures. One could call it rationalization or atomization, but I feel that "meaninglessness" best captures the way it feels. An empty smoothness. No life or harmony or wholeness. No relationship to the thing. Utterly without meaning.
So that seems like a decent place to start. I'm wondering if I have ever not felt this alienation. And I think that when I was growing up in Nashville I did not. Not that I wasn't stressed by my environment— the clutter definitely became a focal point for my teenage stress— but I did feel like the world (house, furniture, restaurants, etc) around me had meaning. I had more of a connection with my environment, it felt more right and more *me*. I probably felt some connection because— 1) I lived in the same home my entire life and 2) my mom invested significant effort into making that home feel really nice in the way that I want my home to be really nice. I have a deep love for my Nashville house with it's periwinkle, turquoise, goldenrod walls and 100-year-old table that was given to my grandpa as payment for doctor services. Even though it is so imperfect (endless clutter, a horrible tv room, and a dinky garden that is rarely more than half weeds), that house means something to me in a way that no *thing* in my life right now does.
I have also been thinking about Christmas a lot as I waffle on whether to board a plane a schlep back for the holidays. We were never religious, but there is a ritual to Christmas that feels deeply meaningful. There is something about massive collection of ornaments that my mom has been accumulating since childhood or the extreme quietude of Christmas day when (at least as I imagine it) literally nothing is open and everyone is home enjoying a day of rest and peace. I hesitate to say it because it feels so unoriginal and obvious, but maybe the thing missing is tradition.
I started thinking about this because I realized I don't really *want* a world full of stuff that was made by me. I'd love to use a random fork that Darren made me or a hoodie that Juhi designed. I think having a deep relationship with the people who make my world is just as good as making it all myself. So I was imagining what it would have been like in the William-Morris-style pre-industrial utopia that my mind always returns to. In "News from Nowhere" he lovingly describes a "shop" chock full of the most intricate beautiful tobacco pipes one could imagine. The main character is stunned when a little girl (who is learning to make them herself) offers him one as a gift. (I may have misremembered please don't come for me).
This feels right; people would not have been surrounded by only their own handiwork, but by the most beautiful objects made by experts of every craft. Experts who were also their friends! It seems like labor can be specialized without Fordist alienation, and so every little community could be be full of expert craftspeople and thus beautiful everything. Each object would be imbued with meaning because of the love and intense expertise with which it was crafted.
And those objects (pipes, tables, houses, gardens) would be treated with care, repaired instead of tossed, handed down for generations. They would be so infused with love and history, that they could not help but to be meaningful. Christopher Alexander made it his life's project to work out how people used to create living buildings, and there is a small community of academic programmers trying to do the same for software+computers. But I want a more general model. It sounds stupidly obvious, but I think recognizing the dead-ness of all parts of our environment is crucial to an anti-capitalist politics. Maybe the Nature of Order volumes have some answers, but I am not sure (the first was almost entirely focused on form). I want to know a way of life *today* that creates more life within me *and* my environment in the immediate future *and* the long term.
Some part of this deadness must be related to the non-culture that is secular, white, postmodernist liberalism. When there is no sacred, there are no sacred objects. Every nonhuman is profane. But I do not know how to resuscitate tradition and thus my relationship to the nonhuman.
I have no real cultural connections or traditions that go back more than one or two generations. Sure I could go research my Dutch or Bulgarian ancestry but I think it would be forced; how could cooking apple pancakes and pretending to be Christian (or building Sukkahs in honor of my mom's estranged father) give me what I want? I am not Dutch or Bulgarian, but a middle-class "American" from Nashville born to a Michigander who made it out of his dinky auto hometown and a mother who jumped around North America her entire childhood. I don't know what lost culture could save me. Capitalism has so thoroughly fucked whatever semblance of *real* tradition might have been in my life. I mentioned some small family traditions previously, so I guess by "real" I mean old.
So in order to breathe life back into my relationships with nonhumans, I think I need to make my own traditions, and create sacred objects and sacred rites. Reminds me of Cade's formal dinners. And funnily enough I think that's what I need to enliven my human relationships as well. Maybe carefully planned parties are the right angle, but I think we need to create traditions that carry even more gravity. Parties are still a place for profanity, no matter how well-curated. Wonder how to do, and how to create sacred objects that fit the ritual. I also wonder what I should read to find answers.
Political theory hasn't helped, Anna Tsing did not help, Christopher Alexander and William Morris helped a little. HELP