Sam Rocha told me something beautiful

Sam Rocha - a photo from Sam Rocha
Sam Rocha – a photo from Sam Rocha

Sam Rocha told me recently that I am not a geographer. You are a geometer, he said. Meter precedes writing.

Among the many things he has told me, this is the most recent, I think. He has actually been telling me things for a long time, from before the time we met (online, as it happened). This is because, as I’ve said before, I devoured everything on Vox Nova back in the day. Sam wrote on Vox Nova. He wrote about schooling and why he didn’t like it. He wrote about liberalism and why it was dumb. He wrote about love, and you knew what he was talking about because he played guitar, sang, and had a trio. He wrote about his first tenure-track job at the University of North Dakota, and I remember thinking as I read that post in Hong Kong that I wouldn’t want to go somewhere like North Dakota, but good for this guy, I guess.

Now he has a book out from Cascade Books called Tell Them Something Beautiful: Essays and Ephemera where a bunch of these pieces that I read from so long ago all the way up to the recent ones are collected. I’m supposed to review it.

Though I could write a standard review that might be cold and concise, I feel that that would violate one of the core tenets of truth that Sam is trying to advance in the book: the ordo amoris – ‘a new order, the order of love – love both divine and worldly’ that is rooted in the ‘call to love in the Gospel,’ one that ‘comes in shades of death that bring true life’ (p. 75). There is love between Sam and me. Mock it as you might as a bromance, it has been made with stories of death and life and silliness and seriousness and hate and affection that I cannot tell publicly. But it is deep, with a depth that sounds like this: when once I remarked to Sam that I had never experienced the hate that secretes deep inside a person like I had from a mutual friend of ours (he knows who I’m talking about), he told me not to be scared of it. That seat of boiling hate – that is the place from which Sam’s love also comes.

Sam calls this the funk. Sam would mock me for saying it that way, of course; it is the funk, period, and the fact that I had to learn it from his book means that I don’t listen to enough funk – maybe, he suspects, because I’m supposed to be presenting a clean image of myself as a model minority Asian American, protest as I may that I am in Asian American studies, we hate the model minority, and on and on. This is, after all, what love would say: the truth about persons as we know them. It’s what Slavoj Žižek says too, the great teller of racist jokes among the continental philosophers, an ‘absolutely funky’ theorist whose ‘lecturing style is endearingly sloppy’ while he is ‘usually sweating and/or unbathed, his hair is greasy and unkempt, he cannot keep the saliva in his mouth, and he is constantly wiping or picking at his nose’ (p. 156).

Funk is dirty, funk is not sterile, funk is a debased kind of love, the kind that – like Žižek – might tell a racist joke in order to establish a bond of affection. In fact, in Sam’s entire section on the funk, there are multiple essays on race, classics like ‘White History Month,’ ‘The Politics of Guadalupe,’ ‘Solidarity in Vulgarity: The Funk in Racial Jokes.’ In these pieces, he does away with polite, clean speech about the colored elephant in the room and straight up goes for the jugular: white people need a history month, Mexicans are a race with universality (because of the virgen morena), Žižek is actually right about racist jokes. This is why Sam and I share a mutual love for Slavoj the Giant of Ljubljana. It really is Sam’s fault, of course; he was the one who made me read the Ž in the first place. Justin Tse, he probably reasoned, is too clean and needs the funk. That’s not how I got to review his book, though; he made me write the publisher myself.

The funk is Sam’s beautiful; in telling something of it, he reveals the surprising opposite to beauty: the moron. I am reminded of this nearer to the end when Sam re-issues his Ethika Politika piece ‘Moronic Manhood,’ where he castigates Catholic rad trads and critical gender studies folk alike for thinking that there is some consumer essence to real manhood that one can ingest and become; no, he says, this is a moronic position because it requires absolutely no reflection on what it means to be a person, to be truly humane, to love and be loved, engaging at the level of the ordo amoris.

That Sam has a thing against morons, however, runs through the entire book, starting from the beginning. I must clarify that Sam has a variety of terms for moron, though, especially in the first section of the book; at one point, he just calls them bad. But moron works, especially if you consider that Sam and I are both readers of Žižek. In the opening passage of the Ž’s magnum opus on Hegel, Less Than Nothing, Slavoj finally explains his compliment to so many of his opponents that they are ‘not an idiot.’ In the conventionally ableist terms of psychoanalysis, an idiot used to be someone with an IQ of 0-25. This was contrasted by a moron, whose IQ was between 51-70. Sandwiched between the two was the imbecile, IQ 26-50. Etymologically, however, the imbecile is simply ‘one who walks without a stick,’ without the crutch of, say, a moron’s script – and it is Žižek’s project to discover how life that is lived so freely might actually be possible (maybe the one with the crutch, Slavoj even suggests, is the projected ‘big other’ who quilts the world together with a script, making the imbecile more or less the same as a becile). In the piece on ‘Moronic Manhood’ – which I have taken to be more or less representative of Sam’s larger project – Sam is precisely behaving as such an imbecile, speaking of persons and even ‘men’ in a reflective way without a script. But this is, technically speaking, to say that the morons’ IQ is too high; only an imbecile can call out a moron – from below, as it were. Let us just be thankful that we are not idiots, although maybe Sam wouldn’t mind being one either.

Sam spends the entire first section of the book diagnosing the contemporary world as basically run by these smart-ass morons called liberals. A liberal, Sam says in more than one place, is someone who thinks that the world is run by autonomous individuals. This is moronic because the ‘human person,’ not the individual, is the only true actor that exists:

The referential being that exists only insofar as it is loved [speaking here of the human person]. These persons can have thoughts and desires that belong to them psychologically, but such things are never beyond the order of love – the ordo amoris. That order of love is the center of a true politics for the person. It is the alternative to the nihilism of liberal individualism (p. 18).

What liberals are doing is moronic, Sam claims, because an insistence that an autonomous individual is a priori the person in a normative sense is a dogma, a non-thinking way of living, an ideology, a word that Sam and I, along with our beloved Slavoj, despise. Ideology describes a fantasy of how the world works that becomes a reality itself, and an unthinking, unloving one at that. Sam, like Slavoj and me, hates ideology. It’s the moron factory.

Because of this understanding of moronic liberalism, Sam cannot be accused of being a conservative either, though he comes dangerously close to accusing himself of being one when he rejects conservatism as a ‘mere converse’ of liberalism. Classical conservatism, Sam reminds us, ‘articulates two independent views of its own’: first, an ‘ontic primordiality,’ and second, ‘the notion that the person cannot be reduced to anything but personhood’ (p. 16). Perhaps it might be better to say that if Sam is flirting with the conservative tradition, he does so without being reactionary. He’s not opposing liberalism with a conservative script (which would make him a moron); he doesn’t want to be a moron because he, like Slavoj, is an imbecile, and if conservatism is going to be a script, it’s as moronic as liberalism. The morons are failures in thinking; they’re only repeating mantras that have been fed to them. But their opposite is not the smart-ass; smart-asses are also captives to ideological scripts, which makes them morons too. To be non-ideological, one must be a lover, to feel the funk of the ordo amoris deep within. It’s too bad that Dostoevsky’s axiom ‘beauty will save the world’ is itself a script now, because Sam might be saying that, qualifying that beauty can only be found in the funk. ‘Sure, there is something beautiful about beauty,’ Sam writes in the appendix, ‘but this quality is not the end of the story. Otherwise, beauty is nothing more than an affectation or something precious but inessential’ (p. 215).

To learn at this deep level of ontology is to be truly educated. Because of this, education is beyond the scope of a school. Sam is a philosopher of education, so in a way he has to make the educative function of these reflections explicit. But it is not to advance his career that he says such things. He speaks simply because it is required by the ordo amoris. In this way, education itself is an act of love, of what the phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion (another of Rocha’s influences) might call the ego amans, the self-in-love. It precedes and exceeds the space of the school because schools are institutions, and institutions produce ideologies, and ideology makes morons. Education cannot be moronic; that is educative failure. Because of this, following Ivan Illich’s famous call, education must be deschooled. In particular, religious education needs to be deschooled, Sam says, because the worst thing that could happen is for someone to be so schooled in religion that they forget what it’s for: love.

Love, Sam says in the epilogue, is the offering of death. I remember when Sam wrote that epilogue. A student in his class had just died. She had been registered, but hadn’t actually shown up for class. As Sam says, he was undone by the offering, her offering to learn, though she did not make it to the class. Out of the funk of such complicated loss – a loss that, as it were, could barely be described as a loss, as Sam never knew this student personally – Sam forged what is probably his clearest articulation of what he tried to do in his dissertation-turned-book Folk Phenomenology: to distinguish between what Marion calls the gift and what Sam wants to much more modestly call the offering: ‘I will insist on distinguishing between a gift, something that is given and demands acceptance, and an offering, something that can only be offered but cannot demand acceptance, rejection, or even acknowledgement’ (p. 195). True philosophy does not force anything on the other, Sam says, because philosophy itself is love – love of wisdom – and to force the other is not love. Love does not predetermine its own results. Love does not predict the future. Love only offers, and because of this, the love of wisdom is a life lived in preparation for death. It is necessarily tragic.

Tragedy, Sam wants to say, is the precondition of beauty. ‘Beauty is what we share,’ he writes in the introduction. ‘Everyone is dying. This is what keeps us alive. Suffering suffers all fools. Anything is “beautiful” that can last at these depths’ (p. 1). The tragic is also the precursor to politics, as Sam reveals in an appended interview with his editor Max Lindenman. This is because, like everything that exists, politics can only be thought of as proper to the polis, a place where persons engage, often agonistically, about the society that they want to build together – an ochlocracy, as Sam boldly calls it, rule by all. If persons belong to the ordo amoris, then so does the polis; its very existence is premised on the tragic beauty of the funk that is the undercurrent of everything that is true. Politics is therefore not mainly about party affiliation, private interests, or public prognostications – these are what Sam calls imperial forms of governance, a rulership that imposes itself as a gift rather than an agonism that can only offer. What holds us together is not what we can make each other do. It is only what I can offer without hope for requital.

Because of Sam’s offering, I could not write a standard, even critical review of Sam’s book. I was told something beautiful; would it be true to the ordo amoris for me to offer something cold in return? That would be liberal ideology in practice – pretending that I’m somehow autonomous from Sam, giving him a arms-length book review, doing this whole charade about not knowing him so that I can be objective. I could have done that if we were not brothers, but we are – we have offered each other our brotherhood, and we each received it too – so to do otherwise would not be true to what I’ve called on my blog the air of righteousness, my bad translation of the Cantonese yi-hei 義氣 (a better translation is ‘the spirit of integrity and loyalty’). It’s not that I’d be afraid to be called a moron by Sam – that is par for the course in our friendship – but it’s that it would be untrue to the truth of the existence that would be true even if we didn’t believe in it: the ordo amoris. We seek to live the truth; in this way, I love him so much that I even let him steal a term that I coined without attribution – that ‘private consensus’ in the mommy blogs piece you will find starting on p. 172 is my stuff, man. But what are citations among friends?

Let me then close with what the book did to me. My creative writing mentor in high school, the playwright Fr Harry Cronin CSC, taught me that real feedback for a writer is not when you tell them whether their work was good or bad. Instead, the only feedback an honest person can give is about how a work made them feel. Then, and only then, the author can judge whether she or he was going for that emotive quality in the work or not. The author can only offer a work; the critic can only offer feedback.

The truth is that I read Tell Them Something Beautiful when I was going through a bit of a writers’ block and a teaching slump – yet another self-manufactured Justin Tse crisis, as Sam would say. As I read it, I not only remembered the posts I had loved and smiled through and cried with years before, but I also felt them afresh, maybe in a more melancholic way. The beautiful thing was that Sam told me that it was irrelevant that I felt in that moment like an academic failure – so much for model minority indeed. All of this work that we scholars do is an offering to the other, a giving of oneself to the other within the norms of the ordo amoris but without expectation of a full return, reception, or even rejection. The price of personhood with the core of love is that one might not even be heard. The core of the world’s existence is the funk.

I was literally shaking while reading Sam’s words in a sushi restaurant; I knew this because the waitress asked if I was ok. Sam was telling me something beautiful, and in the words of a student who had spoken to me about my classes also being this way (maybe I’m only an imbecile of a teacher, not quite good enough to be a moron), I hurt so good. I’d like to say that Tell Them Something Beautiful shook me out of my writers’ block and teaching slump, and maybe it did – this is why I agree with Sam that meter comes before writing, that maybe what I should be doing is hearing the writing as it comes out of my fingertips, that perhaps geometry truly precedes geography. But that’s not the point.

The point is that I was paralyzed. Then Sam said:

RAISE UP, GET YOURSELF TOGETHER, AND DRIVE THAT FUNKY SOUL!

I previously wrote about Sam as I reviewed his album Late to Love and talked about his concept of folk phenomenology. His new book Tell Them Something Beautiful (Cascade, 2017) is available for purchase here.

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