Saturday, June 30, 2012

The shape of thoughts, part 2

The old house was a one-floor, low ceilinged, 70s, wood-paneled pre-fab. One bathroom. Two bedrooms. We converted the master bedroom into a study, where the two of us would work. The 2nd bedroom became our master bedroom -- and we shoehorned various dressers and bureaus in there along with our full-sized bed. All but the kitchen and 2 other walls were ensconced in dark wood paneling. The house itself was conveniently located. The rent was low. We had a yard. When all was said and done, it wasn't a bad temporary place. We figured that within 5 years, we'd either get other jobs and move elsewhere, or establish roots here and buy a house of our own. As soon as my wife was tenured, we realized that our next move would be to a house of our own in town.

As soon as the two of us reached the mutual conclusion that we were in Gunnison for the long-haul, the house suddenly felt much, much smaller.  We'd bang into doors, doorknobs, and walls.  We'd get frustrated by our lack of space (and privacy) in the shared study.  We found it increasingly difficult to keep the place clean.  What was once a sheltering little island in the midst of uncertainty had become cramped, dark, and annoying.  In one of our deeper intellectual conversations, we realized that we had "outgrown" the house.  I think my exact words to my wife were "we're bigger than this house now."  In retrospect, I should have said, "our thinking is bigger than this house now."

Suddenly, the term "big ideas" became a bit more literal.  My wife was about to become the Chair of my department, and I was on the verge of some major changes to the Philosophy program -- as well as moving full-steam ahead on tenure.  The things we were thinking about -- logistical, professional, personal, and intellectual, had a broader scope.  And that might explain why the house with which we ended up falling in love (something you're not supposed to do), was brand new, had an open floor plan, and an interior composed of dramatically high ceilings, sweeping angles, and was flooded with daylight.  We never envisioned ever liking a place like this.  We had always been attracted to darker homes with lots of nooks and crannies, filled with alcoves and hidden spaces.  Luckily, all the houses like that we saw in town required a least $100,000 worth of remodeling.  We stepped into the new house on a whim and some advice from a co-worker.  As we walked in, I expected my wife to immediately hate it, since neither of us was really into the open floor-plan model.  But as I turned and saw her more wide-eyed than I'd seen her in years, walking and making a complete 360 while staring at the cathedral ceiling, I thought we might be onto something.

I have thought a lot about whether or not the effect of living in the new space was just an emotional response.  It was our first house.  It was so dramatically different than our old one.  We had budgeted for new furniture as well -- so there was just such a sense of new-ness to everything; of course we'd be more psychologically happy.  It had been a very long and hard road through grad school.  We had "made it."  On top of that, our building on campus had just received a complete renovation.  So every space in which we worked or thought was completely different than it had been.

But, for me at least, there was a clarity in my thinking that I hadn't had before.  I was able to think about more things without getting too freaked out. Even the fact that we had just written the largest check of our lives and committed to a mortgage that my feeble math skills said we could afford didn't send me into any panic attacks.  I had a better perspective.  And the scope of that perspective seemed to grow steadily as we settled in at the new place.  In retrospect, my thinking changed most dramatically in my capacity to make connections.  I was now more able to connect my own research with class material.  I was also better able to help students dealing with their own topics in my philosophy classes.  I was even seeing improvements in my pedagogy, and seemed to spontaneously emerge from a few "teaching ruts" into which I knew I had fallen.  There was -- for lack a better word -- a different texture to my thinking.

It's out of this desire to describe that "texture," or the topography of thinking in material spaces which is currently driving my work.  This is also why Andy Clark's work is so resonating with  me now.  I don't think the new living/working space(s) I occupy are affecting my thinking in a way one object affects another.  I think that the spaces I'm occupying comprise my thinking itself.  I'm working with the idea that what we call a "self" is actually woven into the material spaces our bodies occupy.  What we call thinking is as contingent upon topological spaces traditionally located "outside" of the self as it is on our biological bodies.

So these last three posts have served as a kind of extended introduction to how I got where I am.  Time to move beyond the explication.  And there's so much beyond it.