How Anna made a philosopher out of me: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the Concepts
She taught me what I'm for.
Maybe I’m just weird—too self-important, too serious about things—but I’ve always taken seriously the question Why do I exist? I don’t mean in a cosmic sense, like how humans evolved or how come we’re conscious or whether and why a creator made us. I mean it, rather, in the individual way: “What’s my purpose?” That quest, being outstretched for that answer, feels universal. It doesn’t feel ego-driven or small-minded to want to know: What am I for? It feels natural, I think. Obligatory, even.
Some will tell you: People don’t have purposes, that’s not real. It’s a pretty myth, but a myth nonetheless, and the grandiosity of it drives you to obsession and despair. Then there are other people, moderates I suppose, who think individual persons have a purpose only insofar as some broader mandate for humans (or organisms, or sentiences) applies to individuals within its scope, distributively. Your purpose is like anyone else’s: to reproduce, or to be kind, or to follow this religion, or to participate in democracy or rational inquiry or some other universal project.
Thanks for reading The Addict Collective! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
But I was never satisfied with these answers. On the first view, my desire to reckon out what I should do with my life should be sublimated and ignored, which seemed super wrong. I couldn’t help imagining my life as a long-term project. On the second, the object of the desire was left unanswered. Okay, sure, there’s a universal project. But what is the universal project? The devil is in the details: what are my obligations to that project, devised in light of what I’m like and what I’m good at? I’m all for critiquing individualism. But the problem wasn’t that “your purpose is the Human Purpose” didn’t make me feel special. It was the vagueness. It told me what I am, not what I do.
I could never figure this out. But it seemed important, not least because even in a culture generally skeptical of the Mythos of Purpose, there’s always a way of describing purposeless people pejoratively. You can draw a line, I think, from Socrates’ notion of the “unexamined life,” to the sinners Dante describes chasing a white flag on the outskirts of Hell, to the modern concept of “NPCs.” Of course, cultural context changes. Dante seemed to think purposeless people’s problem was that they were vain cowards—suffering too much self-attachment, not too little.1 The current view frames NPCs more as uncritical and stupid than excessively self-interested. Most of all, we’re meant to think, they’re sad. And where there’s a cultural narrative of sadness, it will be populated with addicts: the people hypothesized to be deep-down miserable. Pop psychologists talk about “sleepwalking through life,” and—here it is!—a list of warning signs for it includes using drug dependence “to cope with your pain.” (I guess the person who wrote the list is just some guy with a website, but then again, I am also that.)
I felt purposeless. But sleepwalking wasn’t it, exactly. I felt awake; I knew where I was going. I wasn’t trying to escape feeling, numb experience. I felt myself moving forward intentionally. I was enthusiastic about it, even! But I avoided the decisions that would have been guided by a sense of what I was for, if I’d had one. I dutifully did what was necessary to clear each level, learned the layout of the next, and dove in. But the game was not of my design. That seemed like a lot of work, or maybe work of the wrong kind. I spent a lot of effort doing stuff—got a math degree, read long involved texts—but was committed to keeping things, overall, the same. I trimmed a half inch off my long ponytail with scissors over the kitchen sink every six months for ten years. I finished school, thought what now, and went for more school. I gave in with the faintest sigh to the thing that seemed minimally different from the way things already were. I always took the path of least resistance—which didn’t necessarily mean the more-traveled one; often I did highly unusual things. It was just whatever was closer.
This all makes it sound passive, like I was a leaf in the wind, generally unbothered. But complacency was an act of desperation. This was during my active use. A few years of being an addict, in the world as it is, just undid me. And this is me, a relatively well-positioned addict, so imagine how much worse it gets. My passion for things—not for doing things I liked, really, but for making things come to be, making myself be different ways—flickered out.
Basically I felt asynchronous with everything else. There wasn’t time for me to exist freely; it was hard enough to stay afloat already. I was dominated by sunk costs, desperately attempting to keep the state of the world minimally perturbed. I was tired all the time, confused, sometimes hospitalized, always getting in fights, trying not to make things even more unstable. When, years later, I gave voice to this addict malaise, I learned that others have given it names too. Waithera Sebatindira calls it “it’s-not-time,” the crip time of addiction. “I slice diagonally across the musical phrases that make up [others’] lives,” they write. They emphasized, when we spoke, the inability to participate in learning, or “in normal life in general,” as an active addict. Owen Flanagan contrasts the experience of well-positioned addicts to that of the addict precariat. “There are workarounds” for the former sometimes, but still you get the feeling nonetheless that your life remains dominated, out of your control. Anna wrote that addiction is a “full time job, truly a round-the-clock obligation…exhausting!” She described the impossibility of juxtaposing active addiction to an illegal substance—navigating procurement, carceral fear, medical care, withdrawal—with the constant expectations required to participate in travel and the hourly work economy. “You can’t do anything, can’t go on vacations, go to dinner, do normal things,” she wrote. “You feel so held back all the time—but the path of least resistance is this.”
You might think: Just stop using drugs then, you goddamn addicts! Well, first of all, go read another blog then. But more importantly, sobriety doesn’t fix the misfitting. It curbs some of the desperation—keeps you out of jail, maybe, wins you back some friends. But it doesn’t make you feel aligned. I think this is part of what people mean when they talk about “white-knuckling” or the “dry drunk,” and why, taken correctly, these notions can be subversive. To be an addict is, importantly, to be saliently misaligned with nonaddict society. It’s a weird, insidious sort of ennui: “Where is my corner of the sky?” It’s probably related to what I call the addict mystique. It isn’t a cause of addiction (I don’t care to speculate on what is). It’s rather a result of the oppression of addicts qua addicts. When you are on the margins—impoverished, fearful of incarceration or hospitalization, separated from your family and community—not existing tomorrow feels like a real possibility. “Maybe the sun just will not rise.” Time is fucking weird if your material conditions are precarious. I’m sure drugs don’t help, but abstinence doesn’t suddenly anchor you; you weren’t unmoored because of them in the first place. Plus, getting off drugs often involves long, monotonous stretches of inpatient treatment, where the days run together—still more timeless confusion!
This is to say: You don’t get out of my malaise, Anna’s round-the-clockness, Sebatindira’s it’s-not-time, by time traveling somehow. You don’t sync up with nonaddicts. You don’t glue the frayed edges together, restored to the linear order (if such a thing even exists). You do it by syncing up with addicts, or other solidarity groups. It’s precarity that makes things disjointed, and scaffold-building is a group project. We’re less buffeted as conjuncts than as individuals. Not because you’ve reentered straight time, but because companionship with others in crip time makes it comprehensible, constant—a logical, beautiful, self-sufficient system, a community. Someone throws you a buoy. And being hauled up, entering the space, meeting the eyes of people who will fight for you and for whom you will fight—you think: Oh. This is what I am for.
For me, one of those crucial saviors was Anna. I never really knew what I am supposed to do until I met her. She changed forever the way I relate to the world and to myself as an actor in it. She transformed the meaning of thinking, learning, scholarship in my life. Before, it was something I did just because, “well, here I am, this seems like it will minimize damage.” Can’t hurt anyone, least of all myself, if my head is down in a book. And, good God, that is distressing. I didn’t let myself understand its bleakness back then because what would it matter? But it changed, or rather, it was changed. I met her. My moving about in the world, my scholarship, became purposeful, endowed with a clear idea of what I am for, guided by my notion of right.
I’m a good talker, so people always thought I should argue. As a job, I mean. Be a lawyer or a politician or something. Debate. Convince. Overcome. Well, it turns out it is hard to win debates when you don’t live in linear time. And anyway I’m too hotheaded to reach across divides like Anna did. She knew that right away. I have a short fuse even in the best of times, when my loved ones make an argument I don’t like. I’m working on it, obviously, but Gandhi levels of serenity are just not in the cards for me. But I have some bitterness about this; I am inclined to despair. If I’m not good at increasing support for my community, am I worth anything at all?
Anna gave me a project that fit. She loved discovering and sharing the words and phrases others used. In the time I was lucky enough to love her, I learned dozens of concepts—Marxist phrases, drug idioms, and everything in between. Most of all she liked the feeling of Eureka! That’s it! upon finding a particularly applicable phrase. There’s a catharsis to finding a word you’ve been looking for all your life. You’re finally able to describe yourself by appealing to a phrase that has been on the tip of society’s collective tongue. She motivated me to just, fuck it, start coming up with new phrases as shorthands for our long-winded hypotheses of how oppression works. “Carceral-clinical seesaw.” “Oppression-by-attrition.” “Dampism.” This tickled her pink—a “hermeneutical lacuna” had been filled, as Fricker would’ve put it. She thought I had a knack for unifying intuitively vaguely connected things by putting an umbrella concept over them, and she encouraged me to lean into it. She made me come to understand myself as an intra-community hermeneutics creator: not a person who builds arguments, but one who puts concepts into words. Anna’s approval made me realize I am good at this, that it’s a role I can successfully fill in this movement.
This strength, which Anna identified in me, is in retrospect obvious. But I’d never have realized it otherwise. Devising definitions. Grouping things together by some shared feature that had been ignored before. “What would you call this?” she’d always ask after describing some one-off case of political oppression or other. “What’s it an example of?” Sober shelters discriminate against active addicts, but when they get shut down, more addicts end up on the street—even though they weren’t being admitted to those shelters in the first place. This doesn’t make sense by itself; is there some larger pattern of addict oppression it’s a data point toward? Or, presenting a slate of situations, she’d ask: “What do these things have in common?” Sports betting ads are inescapable, and also, look at these recent articles on how homeless people are participating in clinical challenge studies just for a safe bed. Those two facts seem unrelated, so what is it about them that feels alike? She loved dialectic, but she wasn’t just participating in it! She was facilitating my becoming the kind of thinker she rightly thought I was supposed to be.
They say the hard work of mathematics is in the definitions, and probably that’s just cope. Proofs seem harder. But I always found the definitions, the terminology, most interesting. It’s cool to see how things to line up just right. Identifying them. Take the negative whole numbers: -1, -2, and so on. The notion that the sum of 1 and -1 is zero is opaque until you understand that the definition of the additive inverse, the purpose of the negative numbers, is devised beautifully to make it precisely that way. The negative integers are just those values, those items, for which it is true that there’s some natural number that sums to zero with them. Carving out a collection of non-identical things, grouping them together, introducing terminology that captures how they’re alike and that contains in itself a hint of how some lovely solution is to be achieved: I take this as motivation for social philosophy.
Her being gone now has revived some of my old “what-am-I-for”-ness. Logically I know I can still work. I know I’m not just making bricks out of clay for no one to use, to stand in a pile until the rains erode them away. But coming up with ideas without her is unthinkable, she saw everything, she motivated everything. Part of it, yeah, is the sense that without her raw brilliance I can’t accomplish much. But most of it is just an emotional block. I called her every day when walking; my hand reflexively moves to my phone when I step out the door. For her not to be here is gutting, devastating—it is a way the world is now that I will never be okay with. We sharpened our steels against each other: her patient, precise argumentation, my definitions.
So now here I am, saying Anna empowered me to become this thing I call an intra-community hermeneutics creator: a person who looks for gaps in the knowledge of my community, collects pieces of wisdom and experience already known, and tries to refashion those pieces into caulking to plug the holes. I have made it sound cooler than it is, because I’m engaging in it now—putting a description this time to the very concept of this kind of work—and, she was right, I am good at it. But this is the first time I have done it without her around, without bringing it to her before anyone else. And that seems fitting, that this first attempt be my distilling how it is that she changed me.
Barolini writes that Dante holds “disdain for moral neutrality and pusillanimity,” and that “in order to signal his commitment to commitment itself, he conjures the theologically dubious idea of those who are insufficiently committed to evil.”