Deep Assignments

> Spielberg returned to Shanghai for _Empire of the Sun_, an eerie sensation for me — even more so were the scenes shot near Shepperton, using extras recruited from among my neighbors, many of whom have part-time jobs at the studios. I can almost believe that I came to Shepperton 30 years ago knowing unconsciously that one day I would write a novel about my wartime experiences in Shanghai, and that it might well be filmed in these studios. Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences. (_The Atrocity Exhibition_, p. 11)

The mind is in large part bibliographic. (Biography recapitulates bibliography?)

It is not precisely that we are what we read, but there is a nontrivial relationship between what we read (or, more specifically, what we will subsequently be ready to admit having read) and our basic interests, dispositions, methodologies, etc. So, there is a certain correspondence between the sources of our personal bibliographies and the sources of ourselves. Assigned reading is part of one’s intellectual origin story.

I am sometimes surprised or disconcerted when I am recalled to the earlier parts of my own bibliography — not because I read horrible trash (although of course I did) but because sometimes the foreshadowing seems obnoxiously heavy-handed.

One of the more extreme examples is Nancy Frankenberry’s _Religion and Radical Empiricism_, a book which brings together James and Nagarjuna, among others, not to mention Quine’s “Two Dogmas.” I read it in high school after buying it on a whim because I happened to see it on a local bookstore’s shelf at a time when I was thinking a lot about the word, “empiricism.” (The reason I was thinking about “empiricism” is that I had been embarrassed not long before because I had not known the word’s definition.)

I flipped through it, was briefly turned onto William James as a result, and then subsequently forgot all about it. In subsequent years, I became deeply interested in pragmatism — as an extension of problems in philosophy of education — and in some of the more skeptical variants of Buddhism — as an extension of internal consistency problems in my new-age upbringing. Later, when I once again flipped through a copy of Frankenberry’s book, I felt…horribly presaged, I suppose.

It is impossible, of course, to say what precisely the chain of causality here is. Some of the underlying concerns and approaches are fairly fundamental; it may have been inevitable, given interests and concerns that go back far deeper than my high school years, that I should be drawn later to thinkers like James and Nagarjuna, or the glee with which I took to, especially, Nagarjuna and Quine, may have been a direct result of the subconscious memory of some of those connections I’d seen in Frankenberry’s book.

More likely the truth is somewhere in between, but in any case, I find it acutely unnerving to feel that such interests–which are closely tied to very fundamental aspects of my intellectual process and disposition are in some way fated.

I’m having a similar feeling now as I read through Ballard’s _The Atrocity Exhibition_. This is another book that I read when I was of high school age. In this case, it was loaned to me by the only person I had met (up to that point) who was not only better-informed than me about the things I was interested in, but manifestly (and significantly) smarter than me in ways I valued. I read it and enjoyed it, up to a point, but I was (and largely am) too literal-minded to fully appreciate that kind of work. Certainly I did not anticipate that, after setting it largely aside, I would later find it directly useful in approaching an intellectual problem (ruin porn, to be specific) in photography.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of juicy photographic thinking in The Atrocity Exhibition. I just never made the connection before, because when I first read it, I had zero interest whatsoever in photography. This is worrisome, because my _photographic_ origin story is so absurd (it involves my previous hobby of knitting, and my long-undiagnosed poor eyesight, among other factors), that I had pretty much taken for granted that it was entirely discontinuous with my previous intellectual history.

That being said, Ballard’s photographic interests are largely confined to areas of photography that — well, it’s not that I don’t approve of them, or don’t like them, so much that I think of them as someone else’s problem or task. I think no causative element can be found here, just a reminder that…while the world appears to become a more complicated and information-rich place as we mature, it is actually just that we (all too slowly) acquire the ability to perceive and appreciate the complexity that was always there, even in our own experiences, even in those experiences to which we may have given our full attention.

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