Or, Theseus’ Chewing Gum
I’ve always been interested in the idea of boundaries. Specifically, the boundaries between categories. For the longest time, I’ve been trying to make sense of categories we assign to objects of all kinds by thinking about food. From what point on can grain be considered food, for instance? As soon as it’s edible? As soon as it’s been processed into the product it was planted to become? What if what you eat was never deliberately planted? That berry you picked off of that roadside bush — was it “born” food or not?
For that matter, at which point in the digestion process does food stop being food? Is the dropped ice cream cone melting away onto the pavement still food — even though it will fail to fulfil its preordained purpose of being consumed with near-absolute certainty? What if a dog licks it up? Has it suddenly become food again, or has it always been? If you would go with the latter, I’d like to hear your take on other things you find on the ground — specifically an urban kind of ground: asphalt speckled with old chewing gum. What is the status of that chewing gum? It’s undoubtedly part of the ground, but is it also to be considered food still?
I could go on like this for hours. Admittedly, I have a soft spot for thought experiments like that: whichever side of the argument you’re on — and as far as I can tell there’s more than two sides — you’ll invariably be led into absurdities.
Wait, I didn’t mean to imply that human flesh is food just because it’s theoretically edible! C’mon, you know that’s not what I meant.
So, since you threw away that salad, does that mean it was never food to begin with? Weird.
The issue raised here is the problem of definition. If it’s so difficult to settle on a set of necessary and sufficient conditions an item has to fulfil in order to unequivocally be assigned a certain category, then how can that very category still be so useful in everyday language? The boundaries between “food” and “non-food” seem so banal and common-sense that our taking them for granted has finally rendered them unfathomably complex.
At the core, this is about identity. And it translates nicely to the problem of self-image: how do you define “you” and what makes someone else “like” or “unlike” you? What makes one of your “past selves” truly past? Obviously, this doesn’t call for a systematic definition. So what do people turn to when logic is no longer of use? That’s right: myth.
My personal mythology, like anybody else’s, is riddled with inconsistencies. So I hold dear every moment that makes me feel like I’m still living the prologue to “my story”. One such moment — or rather, two hours’ worth of such moments — happened two weeks ago.
This semester, I joined a tutorial at the German Department all about cultural journalism, with a focus on theatre criticism. You know the drill: you go see a couple of plays together, review them, and exchange your experience with your classmates. Our tutor, who is also the head of the feuilleton department at our local paper, additionally gave us suggestions for elective assignments, which we could see published in the paper if they were any good. Most were book reviews, but I got my hands on another theatre-related topic: attend a rehearsal of an upcoming Chilean-German co-production in Heidelberg and interview the creative team — then write about your impressions in about 4000 characters.
I was obviously stoked about this opportunity. And as I happen to know, the issue of the paper featuring my article is literally being printed as I type these words. To be honest, though, the best part about this wasn’t the chance to have my writing published, or even the composition of the article — it was being there, behind the scenes: enjoying, for the first time ever, the privileges of a journalist.
On the whole, this isn’t a revelation for me. As someone who sometimes sacrifices hours of his day binge-watching old Charlie Rose interviews with writers he’s never read and actors he has at best a peripheral interest in, I’m well aware of my fascination with the craft of listening productively, which is what I would call that quiet, observant brand of talk show journalism Charlie Rose epitomizes.
So yes, this isn’t a big twist: I’ve known I wanted to write for a living since, what was it, 2014? I’ve been putting down “literary journalist” as my preferred career on application forms since early 2016. And frankly, not even conducting that clumsy interview felt all that new to me — even though that was a genuine first. But if the boundary from past to future self is so fluid, its transgression will, for the most part, be a silent one.