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24 June 2009 11:39 AM

Interview with James Poulos, Part I

James Poulos is a writer, editor, and PhD candidate at Georgetown currently at work on a dissertation about individuality after Napoleon. His blog, Postmodern Conservative, is currently hosted at First Things.

Q. You've lately waged a quiet war in your writing against the phrase "sense of...." What's your objection?

It really is astounding, once you become aware of it, how incapable we are of talking about what matters to us without repeated recourse to the phrase 'sense of'. It's a verbal and written tic of huge proportions, hiding in plain sight. That in and of itself suggests we might want to think about why we talk this way. It's a tic that appears in common language and educated language alike -- on the local news ("Give us a sense of what's going on out there in that hurricane, Bob") and in the scholarly work of our most respected academics (Charles Taylor, in his monumental, Templeton-prize-winning A Secular Age, can hardly write a sentence without the phrase). Even critics of our contemporary life urge us to recover 'senses of' whatever our current corruption has purportedly taken away from us. Christopher Lasch, as long ago as the late '70s, fell into this trap. For a sense of a thing, obviously, is not the thing itself; critics of contemporary life merely beg the question when they call for us to replace, say, our lost community with a new 'sense of community'.

Hopefully you can see right there where I'm headed: 

we speak of 'senses of' things so unremittingly that a critical listener should conclude either we no longer have access to the things themselves or we no longer believe we can speak intelligibly about them. 'Sense of' speak belies a profound alienation from, or loss of faith in, the reality principle. I'm currently at work on a dissertation that tries to defend the individual, noun, against individuality, adjective, for this reason. Rather than aspiring to be individuals, we aspire to live -- if I may -- individualistically. That's yet a step further removed into abstraction from 'living individualistically'! I decline to imagine, as de Sade imagined, whether there's one step further. But at least since Mill, we English-speakers have bought into the idea that 'Individual' is a title we bestow on people who are fully experiencing individuality. What on earth does that mean? It means that qualities dictate character, and not the other way around. It's not who we are that determines the what we do, but the way we do things that determines who we are.

When what we do matters less than the way we do it, the scope of what's permissible to do, or what's excused as 'not to be done yet done', of course widens greatly. Some people want to trace the development of this line of thought to the 'secularization' of Christianity. Luther, for instance, publicized the idea that a godly garbage collector can be just as good a Christian as a godly priest. I suspect however that this story only makes proper sense in the broader context of the development of the tension between the character of the (incarnate, whole) individual and the quality of (disembodied, full) individuality. So it goes right to the heart of the matter that we don't just rely on 'sense of' speak to describe the world around us; we use it constantly to talk about ourselves. We're not sad; we're experiencing or feeling a sense of sadness. We talk as if the closest we can get to actually being happy, even for a fleeting moment, is experiencing a sense of happiness. We're all walking around in a default, if not constant, state of undue distance from the incarnate reality of things -- including ourselves! The world seems to have turned into a set of incorporeal adjectives and adverbs, floating essences, that hover above our moral and personal horizon, and living seems like the act of walking through or pulling down these various mistclouds.

I think this is an atavistic, crazy and crippling way of thinking about what and who we are as human individuals. But it's the reigning superstition of contemporary life, and in order to shake us out of its weird enchantment or haze, people will have to draw our attention again and again to the fact that it's slipped so firmly into our collective and individual subconscious or unconscious. Conveniently, if not coincidentally, 'sense of' speak is also a great way to evade responsibility. We share in a strategically therapeutic conspiracy of vagueness. In a world where there are only senses of things, it's impossible to be specific both about the events in our life and our responsibility for approaching, understanding, and judging those events. There are no facts of the matter, certainly about ourselves and one another, to which we must hold ourselves and one another to account. You can imagine how a society or culture in the collective grip of such a tacit pact would be apt to slip into all manner of dysfunctions and mistakes -- and then think of these errors, vaguely and helplessly, as part of some crappy essence of the world or of life itself! Call it the soft nihilism of low expectations.


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Comments (5)

So, of all the possible interview subjects for this website, now you are interviewing other writers for DC-based blogs and journals, whom you presumably hang out with? Is the word circle-jerk banned by the Atlantic's censors? Give us a break.

John Bejarano

It seems to me that "sense of" is really just a more formally acceptable version of the Valley Girl inspired "like." Both idioms reduce what they're describing from nouns to concepts. In the paradoxical twin great modern rushes to a) not hurt other people's feelings thus promoting tolerance and b) smoke out hypocrisy wherever one finds it to bludgeon people with whom one disagrees, opinions and even facts must be said with less conviction lest one's statement cause hurt or potentially invite examination and scandal. This vehicle fits the bill entirely. High-brow users of the language such as academics, journalists, authors and so forth can't bring themselves to use "gutter" English such as, "Wow, XYZ makes me feel, like, y'know, bad." So, they've constructed this more formal conveyance to give them the same plausible deniability of discord while retaining the appearance of erudition, "In my considered opinion, XYZ fills me with a sense of displeasure."

I think James Poulos would have given us a much better *sense of* his point if he had used more examples of the phrase in situ. The local news one was fine, but just saying that Charles Taylor uses it often is not enough. This is because there are a number of cases in which the words "sense of" are useful"

"In the original sense of the word."
"Help us to make sense of the instructions."
"I don't need a full explanation--just give me a rough sense of the events."
"I have a sense of impending doom."

Poulos is only after the last two types of use, but my example shows there are times when only a "sense of" something, and not the thing itself, is warranted.

One is when fullness or accuracy is unrealistic. In the local news example, it is impossible for the hurricane reporter to *fully* convey what it is like to be in the hurricane without the television viewer being there; he can only convey a "sense of" it.

But when fullness or accuracy is demanded, the phrase is abandoned. What Poulous is missing is that people do know how to do that. No one says:

"Ma'am, your husband is going into shock. Could you give me a sense of what medication he just took."


"Laguardia, this is 279er, requesting landing confirmation...could you give me a sense of what runway I ought to land on?"

"Sense of" is also apt when one is discussing feeling, since sense is a synonym for feeling. There is a difference between these two sentences:

I have a sense of impending doom.
I have impending doom.

(The second isn't nonsensical, too).

I appreciate his point, though, that people overuse the bet-hedging use of "sense of".

Tony Comstock

I have, and just barely, a sense of what JP's driving at, here, and in other of his writing, but mostly what I get is sense of his being both annoyed and jealous.

I know, I know, that's the standard libertine pose -- you just wish you could be having the fun we're having, and believe me, I feel awkward pitching it here, especially since I'm jealous of the cool kids -- popping x and RU486 -- and thinking their having a good time. Or at least a sense of having a good time.

If we approach this as a question of learning, then this usage does reflect the idea of a new experience placing each of us in a an uncertain state of pathetic learning (Bernard Waldenfels) It is a negative experience, as we do not know what to think of this experience (being in a hurricane) so we pose the question about its meaning or sense. "Give us a sense of what it means to be in a hurricane."

I think that such formulations are allowable. The media bring us all sorts of experiences, which we ourselves haven't experienced, or are not liable to experience, and in order to learn what is going on with others, we have to ask for a sense of what the experience could mean for ourselves, were we actually there.

We always listen to others' tales of their experiences and ask them to give us the sense, the flavor, the gist etc. of them. We are not dumb. We know that we cannot know what the experience actually entails, so we ask for a sense of (an approximation of) what it is like.

We can always object to this usage, especially as it does get repetitive, but how else are we to answer our questions about what those winds, that howling, the driving rain, flooding, destruction are like. Should the media stop reporting these things? The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 became known and caused pity and horror in the upper circles of Europe. What did it mean?

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