Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Ethics of Losing pt. 1

The idea for this series came from the ever-curious mind of Mr. Ampson Hagan during a conversation at Brown University's famous dive, the Graduate Center Bar. Lovingly referred to as the GCB. The idea was too good not to consider further. And while it is Ampson's idea, I really wanted to steal it for myself. So the next best thing; a collaboration in parts, riffing off of the other's ideas. We hope you follow the series as we map the ethics of losing. 

The Ethics of Losing, pt. 1

I practice my cantatas in the middling bic blackness of night through which we, each of us, hurtle unknowingly. And I sense in this private practice that a thing or things done properly merit no attention. One stumbles on a perfect chord between sound and sense so personal that it's lost on your compatriot across the table in workshop. No one gives a shit about a thing done right. About things done in the middling bic blackness of night through which we hurtle unknowingly. In the watery, diluted edges of which we observe the transit of all things in perfect, unpretentious motion. Something is lost. Perhaps at once unintentional and deliberate. A loss or losing. I want to plot this ethics of losing.

Not a superficial delineation of sportsmanship, as in, how one should lose with dignity. Not an academic tract which follows the ontological ramifications of a win/lose polemic. I want to explore the honest significance of losing, what it means to lose in the scope of a universal dynamic, and why it's crucial, perfect, and insistently unsung. What is our common relationship to losing?

I return perennially to the film adaptation of Amy Tan's novel, The Joy Luck Club. It's one of my favorite movies really. One scene in particular for me sums up this feeling I have. About losing. It's a kind of filmic crescendo. Narrative catharsis. Almost without fail this scene connects me with a part of myself that has forgotten how to cry. Meaning it almost always makes me cry or want to cry. I feel that strange kind of tingling/burn in my nasal passage, followed shortly thereafter by watery eyes (if not, full tears). Even writing about it... 

Toward the end of the film a heated argument erupts at the dinner table between our narrator, June Woo (Ming-Na Wen) and the very successful Waverly (Tamlyn Tomita). Essentially (and if you haven't seen this film, please do) June is embarrassed in front of all of the families as the one who's achieved least. The quiet one. While they bicker, June's mother, Suyuan (Kieu Chinh) comments dryly and finally that Waverly has more style than June, her own daughter. Hearing this from her mother cuts her deeply.

The next day June confronts Suyuan, expressing long held feelings of inadequacy in the shadow of others like Waverly. Suyuan confesses that indeed she is disappointed in her daughter. June never married and dropped out of school. But, and here is where my nose begins to burn with sentiment, Suyuan says earnestly, staring into her daughter's eyes. I see you

Oh to be seen! This is something, an idea, we will have to return to. 

So. Anyway. Suyuan says to June, I see you. She remarks that at the dinner table Waverly was first to take the best quality crab. June, on the other hand, chose the smallest, worst quality crab. Why? Because June has the best quality heart. This is style that cannot be taught

Suyuan so eloquently captures a kernel of what I imagine are the ethics of losing. This isn't the kind of loss or defeat one suffers at the hand of a competitor. This, the kind of losing I want to understand, is a deliberate movement away from overt victory—securing in the process a rooted sense of self and life. This is choosing the smallest crab at the dinner table. Waiting last to use the restroom.

I'm thinking now of the Battle of Antietam. The bloodiest single-day battle in American military history (that we know of). Confederate forces were led by General Robert E. Lee. Union forces by Major General George B. McClellan. As perhaps you learned in grade school the Union had a statistical advantage and sought to exploit this fact. Lee had superior tactical knowledge. They got the guns, but we got the numbers... And, as perhaps you learned in grade school, the Union, with its superior numbers, suffered greater casualties (technically—although the Confederates, for their numbers, suffered the greater loss ratio) 

Field generals for centuries have taken as intrinsic to their work, loss. A quotient or percentage of acceptable loss. Cost-benefit analysis. Lysis. Bodies can be treated as numbers in war games. Patton was famously abusive with/to his shell-shocked troops. An adequate field general can dispatch several hundred soldiers to their death without compunction knowing that he/she can secure a tactical advantage. Socio-political movements also operate in this dynamic. Think of Ghandi urging his people to advance in the face of violence. Securing numbers for a more capable agency, lobbying power, support. This is a strange kind of loss economy. An almost ritual surrender to attain higher ground, so to speak. Advantage. Like a sacrificial chess move made only to win. The attainment of an object. #Winning!

But this sort of loss economy is part and parcel of the sacrifice one is willing to make for victory. It is not the deliberate loss of losing, but the refractory period of the "winner's" poor circumstance. 

Losing can be, and frequently is, its own end game. Inherent in the choice to lose is a faith that in losing (losing out, losing time, losing resource) one can find footing. One can be grounded in loss. 

The one who chooses loss (not to be referred to as a loser) refuses the moral burden of victory. For example—a bad example—nobody at ESPN wants to interview Sebastian Telfair when there's also Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka on the court. But ask any Basketball fan from Coney Island about Sebastian Telfair and, after some sighs of disappointment, they'll give you a reverent story. Why?

Because I see you, Sebastian Telfair. I see you. The one who chooses to lose— and I should say, this was not necessarily the case with Telfair, a high school prodigy outclassed by more experienced players. The one who chooses to lose removes him/herself from the assimilation of object attainment. Winning the object comes to define and then gradually subdue its subject. Deliberate movement away from this kind of consuming relationship allows for subjective freedom. No? Because the one who chooses to lose does so knowing that the object of victory cannot affirm his/her humanity more than he/she already has. It is not a necessary or valued object for this individual.

This is the same governing ethos which preserves an underground. A sound beneath the sound of. But of course, choosing to bow out is not without its perils. One risks becoming mute and invisible. One risks social death. 

Part 2 forthcoming from Ampson Hagan, our correspondent in Cameroon working as a Peace Corp Volunteer in the health sector. 

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