The fear of a rip in the real

When I tell people that I’m afraid of public speaking, my words are typically misinterpreted. I receive well-intentioned advice on breathing techniques and other meditation tricks. Worse, I get reassurance that I’m a really good public speaker

Delivering has never been a source of worry for me. Give me a stage and an audience, I will keep them entertained. No, the fear goes deeper.

From as long as I can remember – from our very first oral presentation at school – I was afraid, because I took public speaking seriously. Our teachers would tell us to address the class live, not read from a text. I was one of the few – if not the only one – to follow that advice, always. And I could observe the difference, in how much attention I attracted, by presenting something part-improvised on the spot.

It continues to this day: whether conferences, programs or special events, I rely on a few notes at most. Here is my theory: humans are predators. We sense fear. We smell blood. We look. If you walk on a stage without a text memorized – without an armour of pre-digested words – but alive and vulnerable – then all eyes will be on you. People will give you their attention. If you play it well, then you have a chance to be heard, and impactful. A polished discourse, by contrast, is only make believe.   

So, yes, the fear comes from taking a risk – the fear of bombing, ridicule, embarrassment, and status loss, which I expose myself to by insisting on a measure of ‘aliveness’.

More precisely, the fear is of seeming deranged, and the rejection that would follow. This is the downside of genuinely wanting attention, so that I get a shot at stretching perceptions, and rewiring the brains of your audience.

To do this meaningfully, the trick is to focus not on delivery, but content. What you say, not how you say it. And here, I believe, is where the core of the fear lies. The same fear shadows my editorial work. It stems from taking language seriously.

The Chinese tradition distinguishes the feelings of fear and worry.

Worry, associated to the element Earth, is what you feel when you place a seed in the ground, and wait for it to grow. It is what you feel when your child is at school, your husband abroad, or whenever things must happen that are beyond your control.

Fear is associated with Water. It is about excess and brutal danger. It is a flooding river suddenly breaking the dyke, and wiping off in a moment the work of centuries. It is a release of tension, forces greater than the human unleashing over us. It is visions of horror. 

Language holds humanity together. It is the medium that holds our social worlds, by shaping the stories and beliefs that guide our day to day decisions. Mess with it too much, and who knows what chaos will ensure. Revolutions all started with a speech.

We’re at a crossroads of history. We must urgently shift our paradigm, develop new myths and beliefs to guide our day to day decisions. We must work on minds and hearts. Language is an ideal tool to that end. But not an entirely safe one.

My work, as a writer, speaker or editor, is to rewire brains: separate concepts and ideas, bring others together, associating them with new emotions, to build new pathways connecting different planes of reality. And as I try to do that, I fear that, unwittingly, I might create a rip in the fabric of our common world, disturb old forces, and unleash a demon.

Coming out as a source of hope

Through school and college, I craved physical, emotional and intellectual intimacy with another man. Yet if that desire was to be known, I feared I would be mocked, rejected, even beaten up.

It was not clear that I could count on support from my friends or family. They would face rejection and mockery too if their son or friend was gay. Well, sometimes, they were even the source of it. I wouldn’t risk it.

As a result, I put on a mask, and hid what I wanted. Then at some stage, I made a decision to come out – face fear and the risk of rejection, in the pursuit of love. It was a long time ago, but the memories remain.

All openly gay people share that experience. We once said, I would rather face mockery, rejection, even violence, than continue to conform, and give up on my desire.

No wonder some would see this as a threat.

When I ran the LGBTIQ group at Ecole Normale Superieure, I had a sign on the wall that showed a quote from the Symposium ‘In Ionia and other places, and generally in countries which are subject to the barbarians, the custom [of love between men] is held to be dishonorable; loves of youths share the evil repute in which philosophy and gymnastics are held because they are inimical to tyranny; for the interests of rulers require that their subjects should be poor in spirit and that there should be no strong bond of friendship or society among them, which love, above all other motives, is likely to inspire.’

Maybe, the fear of gay people – and other members of the LGBTIQ+ family – is nothing but the fear of freedom, desire, and creativity.

I remember homophobic discourse from my early years. It was how the world was, had been, and would always be. Then over the course of my life, I have seen changes I never believed would be possible – from persecution to gay marriage.

Hundreds of millions of gay people in the world share a similar experience. And this gives me hope. If we were able to achieve that level of change, maybe we can also find a way to shift our societies on other fronts as well – towards ecological consciousness, and geopolitical justice.

At least, I’ve learned never to believe anyone who tells me ‘this is how it is, has been, and will always be.’

Fossil Capital

My rhetorical pet hate is the use of ‘our ancestors’ to make a point. Modern human behavior explained on account of mammoths and cavemen, with no sources quoted.  

Myths justify the world we live in. To work, they need to pass as history. So, freedom and change depend on serious historians challenging dominant narratives.

My favourite read of 2020 was Fossil Capital by Robert Malm. The book questions our understanding of the industrial revolution – and therefore, our present economy, society, and environmental predicament.

The large-scale adoption of coal for industrial purposes is typically presented as a story of human ingenuity and scarcity overcome. Previous energy sources were used up. New technology made coal available for production. We discovered, harnessed, and triumphed. 

Yet coal had centuries of use for household heating. Wind and water resources were hardly deployed at capacity by the 1800s-1820s. The usual story doesn’t hold.

Malm offers a different explanation. Wind and water are wild forces. By contrast, ’steam promised both temporal and spatial protection from extreme weather events. Coal was utterly alien to seasons; factories could be placed at a safe distance from riverbanks liable to inundation. In short, the desire for independence from the vagaries of weather provided one motive to the transition.’ In short, the industrial revolution was about control, not scarcity.

Renewables demand that we master flows. We must adapt our action to forces greater than us, beyond human control. Coal and gas are stock, reliable and predictable.

Transitioning towards a low-carbon future means embracing flow, and accepting less control. Humans adapting to changing weather patterns: storms, floods, and droughts.

Which in turn will demand flexibility, risk-awareness, and humility. For which we need new myths, and a different history.

On Apologies

I once worked with a person who said ‘women apologize for existing. I take a more abrasive approach’. I didn’t see that person achieve much in the long-run, for anybody but themselves.

Apologies are an undervalued form of emotional labour. Far from showing weakness, I see them as a form of strength.

‘Sorry’ shows accountability: I am responsible for my actions. ‘Sorry’ shows power and self-confidence: I might have an impact on you. ‘Sorry’ shows restraint: I am not so desperate that I need to maximise every single opportunity, and I will hold back if the situation calls for it.  

‘Sorry’ does more. Any situation carries its own consequences in itself. This is the wisdom of the Yi Jing. The world is an evolving pattern, with a logic of its own. It is the mechanistic determinism of Vendetta, the tragic machine that unfolds inevitably towards catastrophe.  

Yet we could escape this logic, if only we were able to detach from the chain of cause and consequence. ‘You caused harm, I must punish’ is a full-stop to freedom. ‘You caused harm, I forgive’ offers an alternative.

Our direct power over the future is limited: freewill is an illusion. Yet we may change our perception of the past. Forgiveness and repentance offer an alternative to tragic causality. And it all begins with an apology.

Emotional labour as a shock absorber

Our bodies are made up of bones, muscles, and organs. Yet that’s not all. There is a wide network of nerves, blood and lympathic vessels to connect them, and there is connective tissue to hold the whole system together: cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and membranes.

Our animal life depends on that connective tissue. Elastic fibres enable movement by stretching, collagen holds the structure in place. This is what keep us whole, and mobile.

The same applies to the social world. Collectives are made of more than bones, muscles and organs. They need shock absorbers, cartilage and glue, to keep us from hurting too much as we bump against each other.   

Diplomats, connectors and care-takers play that role. Gentle movements to soothe inflammation, politeness to reduce the risk of ripping a fragile social fabric. Emotional labour of all sorts.

Those efforts are particularly valuable in all settings where misunderstandings arise easily. Whenever there is difference, injustice, or inherited tensions. Whenever things shift, rub or chafe. Yet as for all harm prevention, we fail to value those who keep society together, then clap those who remediate – or worse, encourage the trouble-makers.

As we face major disruption around the world, it may well be time we rewarded our shock absorbers – or at least, celebrated them enough that they don’t leave us dry when we need them most.

Never reward blind effort

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

When I taught English at University, back in France, we would have a meeting at the end of each term to discuss borderline students. ‘Oh, but they’re working really hard’, one of my colleagues would say, to justify lifting the mark. And I would reply ‘Well, if they’re working hard and that’s the result, all the more reason to fail them.’

Embarrassed laughter, and the mark would eventually be lifted. Yet I made my point seriously. Is it ethical to reward effort, irrespective of consequences? Or should we fight our bias towards action, and properly value the art of doing nothing, and feeling satisfied by it?

By contrast, when I was working in government policy, I once heard a precious piece of wisdom from a colleague. ‘When you’re doing work,’ they said, ‘there’s three types of things you can achieve. You can contribute to the goal. You can sit and do nothing. Or you can flap around and stand in the way. So, if you think maybe you’re not able to contribute, better go surf the web.’

Should we be fully rational, encourage doing nothing, and punish misdirected effort? At least, this might help us shift our collective mindset, and better appreciate the worth of anything that saves energy.

Reflecting on my practice – to catch the bug, learn from the spider

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Software is a precarious, multi-layered bricolage, always evolving. If something in the new code conflicts with the old, the system crashes. We call this a bug.

The metaphor applies to all human systems. To solve a new problem or satisfy a new demand, we build new technology, we propose new norms, we create new narratives. Those come in conflict with existing ones, and the system stalls.

What’s hard is not fixing it. It’s finding where the problem is.

Jordan Peterson, in his ‘9th rule for life’, writes that women are often frustrated by men in conversations. Men want to fix the problem, efficiently and quickly. ‘It might be easier for my male readers to understand why this does not work, however,’ adds Peterson, ’if they could realize and then remember that before a problem can be solved, it must be formulated precisely. Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to – even questioned – to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved.’

Climate change’ is not a clearly formulated problem. We have a carbon emission governance problem. We have an energy grid stability problem. We have a material greed problem. We have a free-rider problem. Only, by formulating each of those problems, and their interaction, can we start solving them.

To catch our bugs, let’s learn from the spider. Patiently lay traps, follow the process, then sit still, like a hunter waiting. And maybe we can save our society from collapse.

Reflecting on my practice – finding the right frame

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Entrepreneurial programs and other incubators encourage a narrow version of success. Focus on one problem, give it one solution. There is pragmatic wisdom to this approach, but is it enough to solve wicked problems? And if it isn’t, then what is the point?

I’ve always worked across multiple projects. For the longest time, I was embarrassed that I could not identify one industry, or name one role description. Yet wherever I found myself, it always felt like problems were not understood fully, and solutions therefore partial.

A friend was joking on his Facebook page: ‘We speak a lot about the progress of Artificial intelligence. What I’m observing is the growth of natural stupidity’. We have more and more data, for sure, but no more capacity to make sense of it.

In how to think, John Dewey describes two movements of the mind. ‘As analysis is emphasis, so synthesis is placing; the one causes the emphasised fact or property to stand out as significant; the other gives what is selected its context, or its connection with what is signified.’

We understand problems based on the frame we use. Finding the right frame is as important as finding the right definition within the frame. A signal is only significant within a system. And how are you gonna find the right frame, if you spend your life focusing on just one sector?

I always resisted the lure of the single project. Instead, I deliberately cultivate variety, in what I read, in what I hear, even in what I eat. So that I can be more able to detect weak signals in the noise, frame problems appropriately, and suggest original approaches to tackle them.

Reflecting on my practice – three pillars of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

I was chatting the other day with my friend Erin. ‘Editors are Gods’, she wrote, ‘I don’t know how someone could do it and not make mistakes. Like how do you learn how to do that?!’

As an editor, I felt surge of pride. I also took this opportunity to reflect on how I learned my skill. As I was drafting a reply, I came to realize it came from three main sources.

First, I trained in Greek philology. I spent large amounts of time, in a classroom and at my desk, reading passages from speeches, history, philosophy and literature, written in a language that is no longer in use. The goal was to train my brain in accessing the mental world of people who lived in a different context from mine, through the linguistic traces they left. It was also to make their meaning accessible to my contemporaries, through translation and commentary. More generally, the art of translation, which I practiced extensively through my studies, is probably the closest approximation to the art editing. You must understand the logic, meaning and style of an original, disentangle them from their linguistic form, then find the right equivalent in your language. Success is making your presence invisible: leave no scars after your intervention.

Second, I trained across a broad range of disciplines. When I prepared for Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, beside Greek philology, I studied history, philosophy, literature, English, German, and some geography. Later, I complemented my training with neuroscience, anthropology, sociology – and a smattering of design, ecology, politics, computer science and business. A good editor must have an extensive culture, because they need sensitive antennae, to pick up whatever seems ‘not quite right’ in areas where they have no deep expertise. Whether laziness or hybris, I see many writers follow the poor example of journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals. They like to use blanket statements to make a point; except the statement is often unverified or untrue. Common culprits are sentences that begin ‘people have always’, ‘our ancestors’, or just ‘everyone. When this happens, the role of an editor is to play the risk management game with their authors. In comments, I often write things like ‘you’re making generalising statement x, y, z. I am quite ignorant of this domain, but I’d like to double check with you that all the sources confirm what you’re asserting without ambiguity, or whether there is some debate, and some sources could invalidate your claims. If the latter, I would suggest possibly rephrasing as x, y, z. Please, accept my apologies for my ignorance, and simply disregard if what I’m writing is confusing or naïve in any way.’ Generally, my comment is neither confusing nor naïve, and the author tones down their bold statement for something less brassy, but more accurate. 

Third, I learned the art of flattery during my short-lived experience as a film director. In 2010, I wrote, directed and coproduced one short-film. When I describe the experience, I like to say that it was a perfect dom fantasy. On set, I told people exactly what to do, and everyone obeyed. They were looking for someone to give them orders. Earlier, during rehearsals, I observed how actors craved attention. As long as I gave it to them – describing what I saw them try with care and precision – they would happily try whatever I suggested.  Editors need gentle firmness. Writing is very personal, egos easily wounded, and trust needed for suggestions to be taken on board. Like a good dom, the editor must have the pleasure of their partner in mind, and be thoroughly guided by benign intentions. In that, we differ most from the critic who points out flaws in an argument, or props up their own ego by stepping on someone else’s shoulders. There may be suffering involved, or effort, in perfecting a text, but It’s all about helping an idea find its ideal shape, and shine through. Editing, then, comes with a measure of eroticism. Like diplomacy, it is a subtle power game, where the goal is mutual victory, and the weapon language.

Reflecting on my practice – the art of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The most preventable risk is the risk of misunderstanding. Yet as any teacher would know, getting a point across is difficult work. For we must build not on top of a student’s knowledge, but through their ignorance and prejudice. In the classroom – or in any one-on-one conversation – pointed questions and personal charisma compensate for hazy wording and brain fog. A text has to stand on its own, and withstand the winds of ignorance, with no live human crutch to prop it up.

Ensuring its robustness is the role of an editor.

For this, we use two complementary tools: the scissors and the glue. 

Coco Chanel is our patron saint when it comes to wielding scissors. Our end goal is invisibility, so that the curtains of language won’t obscure the light of intent, meaning and imagery, or drown an original voice under their heavy ruffle. So, before sending a text out the door, we like to take an extra thing off.

More complex is the art of mastering glue. For it requires two different sets of skills.

Editors must engineer the mechanics of a text. We closely follow the sequence of words, sentences, and paragraphs, to make sure that rhythms, emotions and ideas will achieve their intended effect on the reader. For this, we carefully track every cog in the machine, checking that it catches the right wheel, and that nothing comes to block their movement. If things don’t click properly, we must guide the author either to craft and place a new cog, or take apart the whole machinery, and re-assemble it on the basis of a different logic.

Editors also need to master linguistic chemistry, because our text will circulate out there in the world, and interact in the brains of its readers with all sorts of unexpected compounds. We must foresee where an argument might corrode when exposed to the air of media discourse, and place appropriate coating over its more fragile joints. We must anticipate where the cogs will catch and grip, and place just enough oil that the reader won’t get stuck, nor slip. We must expect all sorts of distractions to take eyes away from our text, and therefore lure attention with emotionally loaded scents and decoys. Most importantly, we must consider the natural decay of all things alive: if our aim is longevity, we must ensure that the core web is made of solid verbal material, genuine spider silk, not a flimsy suit of clichés. And finally, we must ensure that the various elements of this textual chemistry, once activated in the brains of readers, will not bring about a toxic shock by reacting with each other, or what was already there – or if there is a risk, ensure that it is taken consciously.

This is the work of an editor. Wow, that’s a lot!