Building on the Premises
Updated: Jun 21
an assertion or proposition which forms the basis for a work or theory.
a house or building, together with its land and outbuildings, occupied by a business or considered in an official context.
(Oxford World Languages Dictionary Online)
I’ve been thinking a lot about the premises. Hard not to, given that, like everyone of a given sector or demographic, I’ve been in the same premises for 16 months, moving from bed to chair to desk to chair to bed. The premises remain unchanged. I love the space I’m in, this little anchor point, this ark perched on Mt. Ararat, waiting for the sea to subside. There’s a solidity to it, a comforting predictability. Outside, it continues to rain, and the author of this storm, God or the virus, remains inscrutable, comes off as capricious, mercurial, vengeful and “out there.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the premises. Hard not to, given that the deluge of the past year has set everything awash and revealed how very leaky the premises are, how vulnerable and how foolishly anchored to brittle ground.
Digital inequity. White supremacy. Xenophobia and isolationism. Classism. Racism. Genderism. Ableism. Climate crisis. Culture wars. Capitalism. Scarcity doctrine. Labour exploitation. Neo-liberalism. Meritocracy. Toxic individualism. Self-help.
I keep thinking about Noah, the only one in the story who got to make a boat. That seems unlikely, doesn’t it? One guy in all the world, a world full of fishers and seafarers, and only he and his family and the animals (not unicorns, though) get to float? Where is the flotilla of ships and dinghies? Where are the skillful uninviteds? What of the ones with hidden gills who were waiting for conditions to change so that they could finally breathe?
Black Lives Matter. Me Too. 2SLGBTQ+ rights. Climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion. Abolish the Police. March for Life. Water defenders. Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mutual Aid Societies. Basic Income and Living Wage Reform. Refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers.
The premises are leaky and the sea is teeming with boats.
As we are scanning the horizons looking for familiar landmarks of the “normal,” we are asking what practices we can bring with us from our years at sea. Work from home? New methods of interacting like zoom or MS Teams? Spanky, shiny means of surveillance and tracking productivity? So much self-help to make us resilient when the world goes to or relentlessly continues to be shit?
My question for the coming days is: What are the consequences of changing our practices without changing our premises?
Have we shifted premises at all? Have we interrogated our definitions of work, our valuations
of essential labour, or only found ways to invite the time and motion man into our homes to count our keystrokes while making invisible those whose physical presence in grocery stores and delivery vans enables “our” withdrawal into WFH? Have we questioned our notions of health, or only found ways to fold it into our discourses of productivity and efficiency? Have we done close reading of the metaphors that define our ability to share space with one another? Have we thereby challenged the concept of scarcity, or only grudgingly agreed to cut the so-called finite pie of privilege into smaller and smaller pieces? Have we challenged our notions of merit or rigor, or only found technological means of entrenching a moralist premise that everyone will cheat and, no one really wants to learn anything? Have we taken to task the Neoliberal cant that the point of education is to be “marketable” not wise?
And on and on. The deluge comes, and instead of moving off of the flood plain, or learning to swim, we keep building new houses on the same foundations.
As John D. Caputo says, “it is the most liberal version of a fundamentally conservative idea” that “allows as much movement and play as will not disrupt the ageless truths of the tradition or cause it too much difficulty” (Radical Hermeneutics 115). He’s talking about Gadamer’s hermeneutics but the statement is broadly applicable to the discourses of the moment. It’s all well and good to talk about making a world safe for mermen and paddleboarders, we’re told, but the reality is that things are what they are. In his call for a new, radical hermeneutics of kinesis, a moving forward into risk and play, Caputo is speaking about a particular metaphysics. But his words, set free to play in a new context (Derrida would approve), are an indictment of this entrenchment in familiar premises: “waving one’s hand in passing recognition that, after all, one cannot do what one says one is doing, is at best a dream, at worst a kind of bad faith” (128).
At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were working to respond to the rise of proctoring software in universities forced to “pivot” online, a colleague fearlessly shone a light into the basement of our house when he asked:
“What are you protecting that is worth sacrificing the dignity of your students?”
This question cut to my heart and to the heart of education right now. This is a question I want to bring to every meeting of the university Senate, every planning task force, every Twitter thread about building back better. What are your premises? What ground are you standing on? Is it hospitable and sustaining? Is it even habitable by human beings? Who will you allow to drown or starve or suffocate so that you can defend it?
And so, to move forward, I have to shift the ground, change premises, travel from Ararat to Eden (and then further).
See Adam and Eve working hard to keep the natural abundance of the garden in check, binding up the vines, staking the vegetables, making the green world “Luxurious by restraint” (Paradise Lost 9.209). It’s a golden world protected by a golden wall. See the golden wall, protecting the garden from whatever inchoate stuff is “out there."
See Satan winding his way into Eden to corrupt humanity. Hmm. A tale-oft-told.
This perfect place is not impermeable. Cherubim watch at the gates but the wall is open to the river Tigris that “at the foot of Paradise / … shot underground, till part / Rose up a fountain by the Tree of Life” (9.70-2). It is along this life-giving river that Satan travels, rising with the fountain as a mist into the garden. This seems like a pretty significant flaw in Edenic security. Either the designer was lax or, maybe, the garden was never meant to be hermetically sealed in the first place. Maybe life is only nourished by something from outside.
Perfection is nice but it’s static. For these humans in their comfortable gated community, Paradise goes nowhere. Their task is to keep everything in line, since that greeny “wonton growth derides” daily constraints, “Tending to wild” (9.211-12). Be fruitful and beautiful, is the premise, but not like that. Be free, but don’t leave the premises.
Satan, for all kinds of complex personal reasons, invades the premises, asks a lot of uncomfortable questions. Although Milton is very clear that his version of Satan is jealous and prideful and self-interested, maybe he’s something else, too. Maybe he’s a principle of kinesis, that kick, that knocking at the door that gets the whole human project moving.
What if Paradise, this first human premise of a particular cultural imaginary, is not something lost, but a paradigmatic escape? Adam and Eve, newly conscious of their own capacity to choose right from wrong, are thrust out of the gate into the “out there” where they have to work. The world they get is the world they make from all the chaotic raw materials lying around. The given is abandoned for the made, a world they must build from the ground up.
The deluge. The “new normal.”
What, then, is this “ground” from which and with which we build?
The statement: This is where I will stand. This is where I will build. These are the premises: Equity or disparity? Generativity or scarcity? Hopefulness or retrenchment? An ethics. A tradition. A roadmap. A horizon of possibility that shapes what we see as desirable and doable, that informs the scope of our practice.
We live on these premises, all the while never forgetting that this plot of land will become too small, or that the soil won’t grow something sustaining for everyone on it, that it may be upended by cataclysm or that it will be infiltrated by the righteous wickedness of a smiling devil who will push us to the very limits of our premises, our axioms, our presumptions, asking us wickedly and relentlessly whose dignity and well-being we are willing to sacrifice to protect that ground.
Going forward out of Paradise, from the given to the made, from the present to the becoming, particle to wave, from ark to arc, we are forced to build, knowing that the horizon is not a wall, although it looks like it sometimes, but a further curvature toward new spaces. We are, as Caputo likes to say, “on the move,” shifting premises, going places.
And it is not safe. It’s not comfortable. It demands that we see all of the others traveling with us. Our job is not to invite everyone into our perfect, immobilized, tamed and guarded paradise but to make a new world with all those “out there” who may have a different experience of the deluge, who may be exiled from different stories and call different places home.
Even as Milton’s villainous Satan inhabits the serpent to glide through Eden, he is himself inhabited by a spirit, a more productive, generous, kinetic wickedness. To bend Milton in a slightly new direction, “for what is faith, love, virtue unassayed / Alone, without exterior help sustained?” (9.335-36)