Comparing the Effects of Wilderness and Cultural Adventures: A Peace Corps Experience


This is more or less a companion piece to my earlier essay on the backcountry experience and defining nature. Except this is about living abroad instead of up in the mountains…

The things I enjoy most in life trend towards two different groupings: the fruits of culture (music, food, literature), and the sublimity of wilderness excursions. Of course, friends, fulfilling work, and romance are also of great importance, but in terms of cultural values I identify most with, as mentioned above, richness and adventurousness prevail. In these regards, Paraguay is far from being my ideal place. Though the people are amicable and for sure tranquilo, the culture steadfastly grips onto familiarity and indirectness. Paraguay in many ways feels like the Midwest of South America: there’s a lot of soy monoculture, it’s flat and humid, it’s landlocked…

So why am I here? Considering the contrast — seemingly dissonance — between my own personality and this place I’ll call home for the net two years, it’d be easy to become bogged down in how this is far from my ideal society and environs (not to say the United States is either). However, there are more important processes to identify, especially considering the circumstances under which I’ve found myself here and how such an experience as Peace Corps — not only radically immersive as I’m off to live in a very rural, isolated community as the only non-local, but incredibly humbling, not least because I have to learn two new languages, Spanish and the difficult indigenous language Guaraní. Such an experience can push me to reevaluate my own needs and values, and see how challenges can be quite a lot more worthwhile than comfort. And the opportunity to explore a new way of living — for me the rural agrarian campo of Southeast Paraguay — offers a chance to cobble together a unique identity consisting of parts of my U.S. culture I now realize I enjoy — adventurousness  diversity, certain aspects of individualism, ambition, striving for innovation — but at the same time sever ties with aspects I don’t like — the stress, disconnect, certain other aspects of individualism, materialism — and embrace parts of Paraguay’s culture — the importance of family and tranquilo attitude, for example — I find myself actively drawn to, even as I seek to maintain aspects of myself I enjoy.

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The relaxed Paraguayan culture in which people often spend hours sitting in their yards and drinking an iced maté beverage called tereré throughout the day is a pretty extreme contrast to the type A, rugged individualist American mind (though that’s obviously quite a generalization), hell bent on a full day of work. I’m here for 27 months of Peace Corps service as a sustainable agriculture volunteer, and I’m definitely enjoying the experience, not as much because of the identification I feel with the geography and cultural manifestations, but instead the richness of a cultural exchange and the incredible opportunity I have to teach about the subjects I’m passionate about: sustainable agriculture, environmental protection, public health and nutrition, and more. Not to mention the fact that my future house (below) is a small cabin with mountain views next to an incredibly pastoral creek I’ll be bathing in, with plenty of room for my garden and agricultural demonstration plot.

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The ability to gain distance and thus develop perspective of one’s life and surroundings is one of the reasons I enjoy travels and outdoor adventures so much. Although cultural and wilderness experiences may sound almost like opposites, in reality both allow me to arrive at similar outcomes of perspective gaining (imbibing in the social associations of others vs. imbibing in a lack of social associations in a wild, dehumanized environment), assuming I’m willing to put in the effort.  By going to different places I can observe other people and interact expanding my cultural horizons; by exploring wilderness I’m left only with myself and can gain perspective on my own humanity — the externality of my surroundings contrasted with my own ephemeral being, the ascetic followed by sublime satisfaction of climbing a mountain, the animality, rawness of the climb, alien means of communication, quite bereft from the comfort zone. So thus wilderness adventure and cultural exchange both offer a different powerful lens on selfhood: wilderness in relation to raw human experience removed from literal human constructions: man against his society, his species, contrasting with a power less human from his environment. Both also allow for a change of venue as a  means to start fresh without past associations of environment, etc. putting pretensions to rest.

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With this new Peace Corps experience I can visit a new country not as a tourist imbibing in ephemeral distractions and tasks but a temporary resident empathizing with a different people and developing a new sense of selfhood: self defined against culture, culture defined against a new different culture. Both types of adventure — wilderness and cultural — refresh and immerse, and like while stepping into a river, no two people’s experiences can be the same, just a the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said, a man cannot step in the same river twice. Radical contrast to one’s usual life creates definition, and personal growth springs from leaving one’s comfort zone.

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Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Nietzsche’s Self-Styling, or How to Become an Aesthetic Phenomenon

Friedrich Nietzsche identifies art as a way to gain perspective on our existence and ease existential nausea, writing in Gay Science 107 (full text available here), “As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable to us,” creating a front between us and the “nausea and suicide” we realize due to honesty. Honesty (and thus nausea) finds its source in the realization of the inherent meaninglessness of the world of appearances as its witnessed through science and empirical observation — the naturalized perspective Nietzsche argued for throughout his work — instead of a religious lens. Nietzsche’s human is “filled with Dionysian joy and pride in his own artistry,” because without intrinsic order he is led to “the absence of a designing god [leading in turn] to a heightened joy in the artistic possibility of man” (Nussbaum 58). Art helps to bridge the gap between the role of religious order and the chaos that comes once the order is revealed as a delusion (see: “God is dead”); however, the art cannot just exist for its own sake. Art — the right kind of art — and an adaptation of its techniques in the creation of our own identities allows some room for optimism about the human condition because it permits us to create meaning.

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An issue remains: Exactly how can we make ourselves into an “aesthetic phenomenon,” as Nietzsche writes in GS 107? The primary solution is self-styling: the use of artistic techniques to craft the self. To make the world, including the self, into an aesthetic phenomenon, not just must the techniques of artists must be copied, but their effects must be integrated into the self as well. Thus, not just the world but the self must be made aesthetic (Young 99). Artistic means are able to achieve this through self-styling, which allows self-deception and artistic perspective, countering honesty and meaninglessness.

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Recently perused articles

  • First up, an analysis from Yale Environment 360 on the permanent damage from “megafires” caused by “megadroughts” in the American Southwest, due to a changing climate that’s causing extreme weather patterns.
  • Even as we’re seeing more evidence of the effects of anthropogenic climate change, global climate change hardly registers as a threat for Americans, as only 40% view it as a serious problem. The rest of the world doesn’t fare much better, according to Pew Research, with only Latin America being a region where climate change is the top issue.
  • President Obama proposed new climate change policy last Tuesday. How do water issues factor in? This National Geographic column analyzes his speech for answers.
  • Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been shrouded in smoke recently, as slash-and-burn agriculture pollution from Indonesia has found its way to its neighbors, much like Japan’s been experiencing China’s less savory airborne exports, leading to record levels of smog. Palm oil production and timber harvesting industries are the main culprits in this case. Indonesia — in particular its rapid deforestation — presents some interesting environmental issues, so I’ll be writing a full-length post on it soon. Apparently, according to this BBC Q&A,

“300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour” across the globe to make way for palm oil plantations.

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On Backcountry Cabins and Defining ‘Nature’

I’m an avid backpacker. I particularly enjoy the meditative aspects of solo treks, particularly into the mountains, where the challenging geography provides more opportunities for solitude and exciting adventures, and the onslaught of adrenaline and riddance of distractions nurtures an ascetic self-awareness. Most every time I venture out onto the trail, or cross-country, I’m able to construct another piece of my relationship with myself and the world around me. My most recent expedition involved a one-night stay at the backcountry Hidden Lake fire lookout in Washington’s North Cascades, built in 1931 by the U.S. Forest Service and now a backcountry destination and first-come-first-served residence thanks to the Friends of the Hidden Lake Lookout. Needless to stay, the views were stunning from atop the 6,900′ peak, and well worth the steep snowfield climb where I learned to love my ice axe (especially when glissading down the slopes).

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The lookout. (Click to enlarge any picture.)

Much as I enjoy a primitive campsite, with the reminders of civilization contained within my backpack and tent, there is some comfort in backcountry cabins, beyond the obvious shelter amenities. Long have I fixated upon homes in isolated, scenic locales, such as those featured on one of my favorite websites, Cabin Porn. They provide the best of both worlds — the human and nonhuman seemingly fused together. Up at the lookout, I came to reflect on this further: the presence of something as simple as a 10′ x 10′ box seems to quell some degree of the even entirely welcome trepidation that comes with being separated from the familiar (other humans, technology, creature comforts, etc.). Not that I would’ve minded pitching my tent on a small rock slab, but how could a small piece of civilization bring such comfort? The backcountry cabin, yurt, or other domicile allows retention of a slice of civilized comfort, even if someone is miles away from other reminders of society. Such a combination of rustic repose and rugged peaks, with the sharp contrast of several hours of highway driving fresh in my mind, prompted me to contemplate the nature of our concept of “nature”…

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Bed at the Hidden Lake lookout.

A most scenic eating area.

A most scenic eating area.

Wilderness is not where we feel the most whole. Instead, it provides a ground for our figure, illuminating the contrasts between us and our geography, or us and what the obsessors of civilization would call nothingness. And in the wilderness, we may feel a nothingness amplified, not because there is a dearth of content ostensibly outside the realm of society, but because we become aware of a nothingness within us. As we escape the trappings of our fellow man — and machine — returning to some sort of primeval form, albeit equipped with nylon pants and waterproof maps, and a lonely primeval being at that, suddenly made aware of not only the world without us (more or less) but us without the world in which we spend our time most, and frames our consciousness: the highway, office hallways, and couches we call home and the people who make them both bearable and dreaded.

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Recently perused articles

  • In light of the new NSA surveillance programs being unveiled (though not at all a surprise), The Atlantic has an analysis of threats to America’s livelihood — such as health issues and car accidents — which (also) not surprisingly pale in comparison to deaths from terrorism, which in no way has limited the post-9/11 culture of fear. Wouldn’t it make more sense to give up liberties to save the most lives possible, if we’re to give up liberties? Like, say, imposing taxes on sugary drinks that we’ll all have to shoulder the collective economic burden for once obesity and diabetes develops in those who chose to partake in unhealthy treats? No, that’d be too fascist and draconian. Better to just wiretap the entire fucking country.
  • Here’s an article from The Nation on Nietzsche’s apparent “children,” conservatives like Friedrich Hayek whose Austrian school of economics ideals shape the predominant  capitalist ideal today. Oh and here’s a dissent in Dissent that’s critical of the link between Nietzsche and neoliberal economics.
  • The New Yorker commemorates the 200th birthday of few people’s favorite (proto-)existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard:

Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher of subjectivity, would have been two hundred years old on May 5th, and, looking back, we can see that ironic, angst-ridden modern literature begins with him. Strindberg, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Kafka, Borges, Camus, Sartre, and Wittgenstein are among his heirs—and without him, where would Woody Allen be?

  • Apparently, neuroscientists led by Henry Markram are trying to build an exact replica of the human brain. The EU is betting $1.3 billion that he can. Here’s a chart from Wired on the computational power that’ll be required to do so:

    Source: Wired Magazine

  • Rounding up the bunch, another Atlantic piece on China’s economic growth. Is it sustainable? Do we even have to ask this question? When it it we ended the debate on whether “development” (in the building dams, buying cars, getting a new phone every 6 months way) is a good thing? Was there ever a debate? Who’s to say? (No; maybe; too early; not really; whomever).

Reflections on Food Systems From an Agricultural Island

I’m working full-time on organic farms on Lopez Island in Washington State this summer, which is why I haven’t had much time to post. It’s a small but friendly community here, about 2,000 people on 30 sq mi of land. It’s also a microcosm for organic farming. I work at one farm that has sheep, pigs, and vegetable growing three days a week, and a strawberry and fruit farm one day a week, which I prefer since I get to eat strawberries while working, which is fantastic. If you’ve never had fresh, non-grocery store strawberries and have farms nearby, I implore you to go pick some. It’s a whole ‘nother world.

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My island home from June through August.

Spending eight hours a day in fields and with animals has definitely given me perspective on agricultural issues in our society. Even as a child starves to death every 10 seconds, modern, post-Industrial people (myself included to some extent) are by and large very disconnected from where their food comes from, and even in many instances ignorant of what it’s composed of. What the hell is Taco Bell beef anyway? (Hint: mostly not beef). Or chicken nuggets — how much further can you get from an animal’s true form than a ball of ground meat-like product deep fried and incrusted in chemically-assured deliciousness? To top it all off, these are the products many children, who have no choice in what they eat, are introduced to as examples of food. Hey, and I haven’t even gotten to my rant about non-meat food products.

Anyway, my point is, like the developed world’s disconnect from the outdoors, i.e. land without roads and big boxes with TVs in them, our desensitization and ignorance about what our food is and where it comes from has drastic consequences. In the case of the lack of immersion in wilderness, we (as a society) are less attuned to the reasons we should care about the non-anthropogenic, non-mechanically developed world, and don’t even have a conceptualization of such an ideal drawn from real world experience. The form of “nature” isn’t informed by phenomenal experience, and thus remains an abstract ideal, often even reserved for those fortunate to be educated about it, although often still lacking the essential experience. In the same way, our notions of the essence of our food are similarly poorly informed. Unless you are of have been at some time an avid food researcher or farmer, this is probably true for you. It’s time for all of us to get our hands dirty in addition to trying to stay as informed as possible. We can live without iPhones and cars, but certainly not nourishment, so it’s difficult for me to conceive how the most valuable companies in the world and the apparent nexus of modern American life hold more attention and scrutiny (although not enough in the latter respect) than the cornerstone of our survival of a civilization, and a species.

Even more deplorable than the modern man’s detachment from his food and geography is the fact that 1.4 billion people have too much food to eat (i.e. are overweight) while almost 3 billion are hungry and malnourished. The rapidly developing countries like China in addition to the industrialized societies like the U.S. threaten the food security of the people lacking enough food altogether. It’s easy to forget that even though we may have plenty to eat, a third of our fellow humans don’t have nearly enough, and our seemingly boundless consumption impacts them greatly.

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‘Ought’ vs. ‘Need’: “Mad Men” and Cultural Shifts Represented by Changing Language

How much has language usage in America changed since, say, the 1960s? Sure, there’s the inclusion of various colloquial terms, a relaxing of grammer, and everyone’s least favorite lexical evolution, textspeak, but what about the more fundamental word usage? An Atlantic article on the historical inaccuracies of word usage in the television show Mad Men, set in the ’60s, piqued my interest by describing a fairly dramatic shift from the occurrence in media (TV, movies, books) of the phrase “I need to” over the phrase “I ought to,” which reigned supreme before the cultural revolutions of the ’60s.

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Recently perused articles

  • In Democracy Journal, a review of Jared Diamond’s (of Guns, Germs, and Steel fame) new book, The World Until Yesterday. The article explores how we can learn from traditional societies, and preserve cultural diversity and our environment.
  • On Brain Pickings, an article on the grim state of employment satisfaction, citing that “Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs.” It explores the idea of satisfying work. This is an interesting issue given that prior to the 20th century there wasn’t a whole lot of choice involved in what jobs people held, as one was more or less born into their line of work correlating with class. Especially since the emphasis on personal growth and leisure time since the West’s cultural revolution in the 1960s and onward, finding happy and fulfilling work is more of a concern — for myself included. Whether even the majority of people can live up to this goal is another matter altogether.

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Is Stephen Colbert America’s Aristophanes? The State of Satire Today

What is the role of comedy in the political life of a democracy? In Ancient Athens, comedy took place at festivals in which civic engagement was supported and the drama was penned with an entire audience in mind instead of an individual whereas American comedic appreciation takes place passively in front of the television or movie screen. The communal nature of Athenian theater also connected it to the democratic society, where citizens (albeit a minority of the population) were expected to engage in the public realm of politics and cultural life. Comedy was used as a tool to hold public citizens accountable, although not always fairly, as was apparent with Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates in his play “The Clouds.”

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A sharp contrast with the Ancient Greeks, there is no special ritual surrounding American absorption of entertainment: no festivals, more an individual or small group immersion in leisure. What are the particulars of the gap between Greek theater and entertainment, so linked to a communal democratic society, and the American approach, as typified by television? In his essay, “Aristophanes in America” (available in part here) Euben lists voyeuristic, private, consumerist, passive, cosmetic, power-centric (although the “workings of power [are] invisible”), utopian, homogenous (catering to lowest common denominator), and ahistorical as qualities of the American television culture (107-8).

While television shows like The Simpsons, as Euben writes about, provide entertainment and an outlet of escape for Americans, they lack the “interrogatory role in our public life” to delve deep into the social conditions (116). While I agree with Euben’s evaluation of mass audience shows like The Simpsons or South Park, which may offer nuanced social commentary but will largely be taken purely for entertainment, to the right minds political satire like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show or the Colbert Report or certain other comedic outlets might not only spark an interest in political issues but also provide an engagement that could inform a wide public audience. Continue reading

Why We (Still) Need Philosophy

Philosophy. Noun

  1. The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

What’s Wrong With Philosophy Today? The Source of Irrelevance 
Contemporary academic philosophy today, at least in the English-speaking world, is too rooted in idealism, and removed from the experiential, removed from real world problems, too fixated upon studying issues so far removed from our own lives and social issues that we fail to take it seriously. For those reasons, academic philosophy is on the decline. Ever since the material sciences seemingly removed philosophy’s relevance to understanding the physical reality humans inhabited, we’ve drifted away from seeing philosophy as a relevant way to grapple with issues in our world: instead we turn to the social and natural sciences, and, in cases that strike us as more perplexing, religion. Over the past few centuries, Western intellectuals have adopted a scientific, empirical view of the world, seemingly stripped of ideological perspective, or so they reasoned. All the while, philosophy in America and Britain shifted toward the Analytic camp, toward grappling with notions of logic and language, a more ‘meta’ view of intellectual constructs, and the discipline of philosophy’s influence on non-academic life fell by the wayside. A key process encouraging this development was the divide between Analytic and Continental philosophy, the former of which predominates in universities in Anglophone countries, and is more concerned with logical problems than tackling grand profundity of human experience and the issues surrounding it. Today, we need philosophy (less so from the Analytic tradition) more than ever as a guide through which we can interpret what science and direct experience tells us, as well as comprehend the essentially value laden nature of those experiences and empirical structures. The former more significantly, we must have a framework through which we can understand varying ontological perspectives and act accordingly with our own value systems. Integrating a more philosophically rigorous approach to decision-making, whether at a personal or societal level, requires not only allowing for philosophical education, but also bringing philosophy down from its ivory tower and away from the almost pointless goals its found itself entrenched in (my bias against fields such as philosophy of language is clearly showing here, and let it do so).

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