Why do you do the things that you do?
I’ve been thinking a lot about specificity recently.
I’m reading “Dark Archives” at the moment. It’s a book about the author’s research into books bound with human skin (including a large number that were alleged to be bound with human skin). So far I’m enjoying it, although I’m only a chapter or so into it.
Why am I reading books about human skin?
Well, Megan Rosenbloom appeared on Sean Carroll’s podcast, where I listened to her talking about the death positive movement, and her book was mentioned in passing and I thought it sounded interesting. Then, at a recent dinner party, I was talking to a friend about their work in archiving, and as naturally happens when hanging out with archivists and philosophers, the subject of Jeremy Bentham came up and the fact that the Wellcome collection has a piece of his skin (which is entirely separate from the autoicon, Jeremy Bentham’s taxidermied body, which is at UCL). Very normal dinner time conversation. Anyway this reminded me of the book and I bought a copy.
The more interesting question is why Rosenbloom did this research at all. Answering that is part of what the book is about (presumably not the main part, but I’m still in the introductory section which modern nonfiction conventions all but demand be autobiographical). The short answer is that she ran into a book bound with human skin, found that fascinating, and followed that fascination.
I admire that.
It is very unlikely that in some global ethical sense the best use of that time for her was researching anthropodermic bibliopegy (book binding with human skin). Anyone who can do that probably has “better” uses for their time. But this is what fascinated her, and so she pursued it, and I think the world is better for it - both that she did that, and that we exist in a world where people are able to do that.
I think that’s true in an instrumental sense that all ties in to the question of “What is basic research for?” - when you do basic research (i.e. research with no goal other than that you want to know the answer) you often find out incredibly useful things that lead to broad practical applications. Without basic research, you don’t get most of the things that make the modern world work.
But that feels like a cop out to me. To me, the reason you do basic research is that this is one part of what human flourishing looks like.
It’s not the only thing by any means - a dancer is flourishing just as much as a researcher is flourishing just as much as a novelist is flourishing just as much as a gardener1 - but a world in which people are able to pursue basic research questions just because they fascinate them is a world that to me is closer to flourishing, and a world where all research has to be justified in instrumental terms feels unbearable claustrophobic to me.2
The same is true of instrumental research of course, if you get to choose the end goal. What is important is that you are able to choose to do something because you personally feel that it matters and this feels like the most urgent thing for you to be pursuing, without having to justify that to others.
Part of why I’ve been thinking about specificity recently is probably related to why Rosenbloom is so interested in anthropodermic bibliopegy, which is a certain morbidity3.
I’ve turned 40 quite recently, and it’s definitely driving home the knowledge that we’re all going to die, and the thing about dying is that all of the things you were putting off for later don’t get done. All the optionality you’ve been saving up is wasted, that book you’re going to write one day never gets written, all the knowledge that is in your head is lost, all the things you might have done you didn’t.
We are finite beings, with finite time, and if we try to do everything with that time, we do nothing, because we spread ourselves too thin between too many choices.
The world does not flourish when everyone tries to be the ideal human. The world flourishes when we are messy, broken, and above all specific. I do this thing because it is my thing to do, not for universal reasons. If you are interested in it, great. If not, I’m glad you have your thing.
I think it’s natural to find this idea intimidating. Certainly I do. If your goal as a human being to find your specific thing, how do you know what your specific thing is?
Well, you don’t. You don’t have one. Specificity isn’t about finding the one thing that is the unique expression of your own peculiar soul, it’s about responding to the world in a way that embraces and channels it in your own way. It’s about path-dependence and contingency.
Life is made of found things, and specificity is about what you do with what you find.
A lot of this is about following a feeling. What do you see in the world that fascinates you and you’d like to know more about?
For me the feeling historically has been anger or frustration. I see a problem and it infuriates me and I want to destroy it. I think I need to wean myself off this.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s great fun. There’s a certain joy of combat to it. But I mostly only get that when it’s a problem that doesn’t matter very much - mathematics or programming is good for this for example - with human problems it tends to just leave me frustrated and tired to keep doing that over and over again.
Among other things, it ends up with me writing things that spark no more feeling in me than a sort of “ugh, why do I have to be the one explaining this? This is so obvious! Surely someone else could do it!”. I don’t think that’s actually true - it’s usually things that are obvious to me because I’ve read and combined like five different fields and thought about it far more than seems reasonable - but it’s still the prevailing feeling, and either way the material is pretty far from joyous.
Part of my resolution to that is to write more at my cutting edge, which this piece is an attempt at. I can’t say that it’s bringing me joy, but it definitely feels better than writing something I find painfully obvious.
But going forward, I think I need to be better at cultivating and following fascination. I don’t currently know how, but I suspect it won’t be that hard once I allow myself to do it.
You’ll know if it happens, because my writing will get much more specific.
In their ideal forms, anyway. Often in practice the world is set up to screw people over in very industry specific ways that get in the way of that flourishing.
Unfortunately we are much closer to the latter than the former.
It’s gauche to psychoanalyse authors, but when someone writes about books bound with human skin and is a founding member of The Order of the Good Death, I think it’s OK to ascribe a certain interest in death to them.