On Topics for Writing: “Hot Cognition” and Play

Earlier this term I wrote a list of ten topics that I need to write on. These are not topics on which I have complete expertise, but they are issues on which I have opinions which ought be communicated. I thought I could write on one a day, or one every few days, and that this practice of writing would help ground me, help preserve what had already been achieved in my thinking, and keep me on the path towards thinking new thoughts.

However, as it turns out, it is far easier to come up with a topic, and to talk about it in class or at a bar, than it is to actually write a short piece (i.e. 500 to 1000 words). What I envisioned were a set of blog articles, written in a conversational style. And, I have written some (for example, “Carbon Ethics and Future Worlds“, and “Chic-ness and Cheapness – the materiality of the modern aesthetic”). These entries, and “the list”, were inspired by what I felt was a strength developing in my writing/thinking – a strength at communicating difficult ideas to a general audience by remaining alongside examples that are poignant and contemporary (i.e. “Time and Engagement in the Present“). However, those entries were written while I was gripped by a certain situation, a concern, a need to preserve and communicate a thought.

Many years ago in my first year of University studies, Dennis Danielson spoke to my foundations class on the topic of “hot cognition” – the state of mind you are in when your existence is held by concern for a topic, when you literally “need” to find something out, and express it. It’s what makes people enjoy school, enjoy writing papers and presentations and teaching. Like marital love, it isn’t always “simply there”, but must be continually fostered, cherished, nourished. Treating “topics” as a list mistakes concernful engagement for either “work” or “play” or “enjoyable pastime”.

Writing, which is work, is not a pass-time. It is not “play” in the sense of “a way to unwind”. But it is play in the sense of imaginative engagement! Do adults any longer play? Not when “play” is opposed to work – for as any child knows, play is hard work! On “Play” see Derrida’s “Structure Sign and Play“, or James May’s television series “Toy Stories“.

Of course writing, at least philosophical writing, is play. It is a play of concepts, of ideas. But, like building an entire english garden out of plasticine, it is hard work. Topics therefore cannot be treated as something to be completed “at one’s leisure”, but rather must be actively pursued, chased after, struggled with. They can not be “completed”, “in order”, but rather in the order by which they engage the author. Writers do not choose topics – they are chosen by them.

That all said, I still intend on pursuing this “list of topics”, because preserving what was attempted is an essential value for moving forward.


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