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Hypothesis: Means--and the World--Arise from Interrupted Ends
Belatedly, I offer you a Hypothesis on Means and Ends. This meeting has no date (October is long gone), but will be scheduled for some Tuesday if enough people sign up. In the meantime, there is Show Your Work ( This essay is intended to be an example of a serious thought experiment. It's not necessary to comprehend the whole thing to profit from a discussion: you might choose to ruminate on a single paragraph, finding alternate examples, adding detail, or drawing implications. (Or spot song references.) An extreme interpretation of the undebate choice (of which comes first, Ends or Means) is that we accept only one or the other. Okay, what if we say there are only ends? What then arises to fulfill the function of means? (This approach is closely related to histories based on incongruity: means and ends seem opposite and yet inextricable from each other, so we presume one or the other as original and see how the other might have evolved from it.) It's not difficult to imagine that there might be only Ends: we think something--and it just happens! The mode of Habit suppresses awareness of means; thus animals, supposed to be creatures of habit, might be ends-only beings. Of course it takes time for an intention to be accomplished, so we might visualize this sort of consciousness as occupied mostly by a kind of sleep, or if we don't like blank spots in our awareness, then our interior lives could be imagined as a slide show. (This is a thought experiment, not a mental model, so let's consider just one intention at a time.) We see the world as through a camera shutter, except each static picture is of what is coming to be, rather than of what was last. Thinking only of ends doesn't guarantee success, however. The picture changes...but sometimes differently. Rather than assume some method or computation of expectations (which would be to jump straight to means), let us merely register that something went awry: the picture now before us isn't the one from last time. While we might feel our will was thwarted, we need not identify with the intention; it may be that each new intention is not "free", any more than is the failure of the intention. All the failed intention yields is an extra snapshot, one marked "Surprise!", which is important because it suggests danger. This extra snapshot, this different ending to the imagined end, is the first mean. The prototypical westward expedition from Chicago has L.A. as its end, and Joplin, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Gallup, Flagstaff, and the rest would be failures to "wake up" at the desired destination. The picture of "progress" that we call Route 66 is a rationalization of successive failures, of means subordinated to an end. As if mistakenly waking up in Oklahoma City was too horrible to contemplate, so we pretended temporarily that it was our destination all along (after all, it looks mighty pretty!) This will of course be necessary if we again decide to take that California trip, in which case the same series of "accidents" will be repeated. The failure designation becomes an "in progress" indicator: "not there yet, but don't worry." Reaching the beach is then a matter of persistence, of stubbornly replacing failures with a vision of perfection. We do NOT say that we are going to Barstow today--otherwise, we wouldn't get out of bed! Note how such towns and nameless streets are described as "mean", synonymous with base or low. The route to Shangri-La does not--can not--pass through some place that is better than Shangri-La. Means must be endured, connoting both hardship and duration, the passage of time. The waiting, as they say, is the hardest part; certainly it is the unavoidable part. The family trip is hardest on the kids because they have no duties to distract them (which is why they're happy to be counting blue cars). Jumping to an historical perspective, it is exactly this persevering intentionality that handsomely rewarded the first farmers. Watching crops grow must have been a psychological trial for former hunters. (Though stalking wild game also requires endurance, the prey absorbs our attention.) Having to maintain intention over long periods of time created a different kind of human being, one significantly constituted by institutions. The nomad, having been forced by the depletion of game to make himself stand in one place, invented means to withstand the inevitable waiting. As kids count cars to distract them from the tedium of being between places, men civilized themselves by inventing the calendar; instead of road trip bingo, adults played endless games in which they accumulate the ultimate intermediary, money; children are kept occupied solving puzzles, whereas their elders problematized life's mysteries as religious stories. The trappings of civilization reliably remind us why we are here, while emphasizing that we aren't yet where we ought to be. Some aspect of the "in progress" indicator reinstates the picture that "failed" to materialize: our day planner has our to-do list; coins were embossed with the image of the ruler to whom taxes were to be paid; the moral of the usual story is that we could do better because others have. As a day planner offers an estimate of the tidiness of a mind, the inventory of in-progress markers might be used to predict reliability or industry. The world is our memory. Our homes are more than means of mere expression--a home is the medium in which the instructions on how to be ourselves are inscribed. Thus it is vital that we each have some space that can be ordered according to our personal codes. Some people will have more space than others, but their larger territory also serves to order the lives of others (who, it is often argued, could use some guidance); thus helping others to stand increases one's "standing". The more pressing situation, however, is competition for space. After having been partitioned by fences and borders, a region can support still more inhabitants if they yield to one another according to subspace (kitchen, garage) or function (entertainment, bookkeeping). The diversion of attention away from diffuse anxieties and onto mementos that sustain intention allows a greater number of independent agents, each with a narrower gaze, to be efficiently packed into any given space. Thus specialization increases the carrying capacity of a habitat; by keeping our own end in mind, we automatically stay out of one another's way. Historically, more than a few societies have increased their density by stratification into classes: distinct categories of activity are assigned to designated social classes, such as nobles, clerics, warriors, peasants, artisans. The design of a society is a collection of signs: we learn how to pick out those intended for us and then follow them. The design of a society, or a home, emerges from a long series of tiny adjustments to the environment. Our mental environment consists of habits; the physical, of constructions. The smallest pieces of furniture in either setting require minimal inventiveness: anybody can use a stick to prop open a window; a four-year-old can distract herself from the tempting ice cream, given sufficient motive to do so. The stick is a means of interrupting the fall of the window; a consciously summoned image is a means of interrupting the draw of the sweet tooth. We don't normally think of the window passing through a series of intermediate points, but there was that time it got stuck halfway down; while any number of obstacles have interfered with gorging ourselves on a treat, that time our brother used a decoy to separate us from it is especially irksome because the intermediate point that failed us then (our attention) was inside our own head! That is, innovations must emerge from preventing completions, because incompletion is the only other end we know; we add only the intent to fail, so as to end up in a different place--even though the first time we landed there it was by mistake, we did manage to get out! Ends used as means (gramatically, imperfect) have become pure signs that are obeyed only partially, exploited for direction only: we follow a compass, not intending to reach the North Pole; if a dream leads us on, it has fulfilled its mission to get us off the couch. Our sweet tooth fails us (in the modern world) because we succeed too quickly in satisfying it. The complexity of civilization requires many, many more incompletions than completions (of the original motivating goal). There are a lot of stops on the way to sunny California, but each one is an end, a destination, to someone. (To allege that there's no "there" there is to dismiss that someone as a nobody.) Completion becomes a dubious memory, a farfetched dream of Heaven, and instead of a solitary thread to navigate the labyrinth there is a fabric that reminds us of other travelers with their other goals. The litany of Route 66 becomes part of the map of an interstate highway system that binds us without itself going anywhere. You can meet me in St. Louis, a place neither of us is from or has an independent desire to visit, but a compromise upon which is based a relationship--a mean between the extremes of disparate identities. As the many roadtrip movies that accompanied the rise of modern transportation attest, community is the ultimate travel diversion, even to the point that some people feel more "at home" on the road (again). At which point, perhaps, might inveterate gypsies undertake a phenomenology that posits only means?

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