Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Neophyte Reflects on Kairos

In 1993 a movie entitled Searching for Bobby Fischer was released. It dramatized the early life of a chess prodigy. It included the usual lessons not only for young people but also for adults. If improperly aggrandized, competitive activities can bring out the worst in parents, as anyone who has been the unfortunate witness of shrill epithets coming from the stands of a little league game can attest. I don't want to ruin the ending, but since it is PG, I don't think I'm violating any morality of spectatorship when I confirm that the movie ends happily.

The young boy whose life the movie was based on is Josh Waitzkin. Aside from doing many other interesting things with his life, he provided annotations and commentary for the Chessmaster computer game series. In Chessmaster 9000, Mr. Waitzkin annotates about a dozen of his personal games. In one of these games, after the opening moves have been played and the middle game has been reached, he describes himself as entering into a deep-think.

He then describes a moment during this deep-think in which he realizes that, given the unique placement of pieces on the board in this game, he had a problem. If he followed the general prescriptions of chess, (get a knight to a central outpost, try to secure the two bishops, don't push pawns around your king, etc.), which strong players are inclined to do, his attack would be stifled, his opponent would have equalized, and, thus, his position would be weak. Mr. Waitzkin did not want to have a weak position, so he needed to figure out a new plan over the board.

During his deep-think, it occurred to him, however dimly or imperfectly, that every attack in chess and also every defense in chess requires an ideal temporal moment. To begin an attack at move 21, when it would have been better to begin it at move 22, will, assuming the defender seizes the initiative, blunt the attack. In his final analysis of the game, which he won, Mr. Waitzkin focuses on the temporal intricacies, not only of this game, not only in the game of chess, but in almost all human activities. When I think about his commentary from the perspective of a neophyte writing consultant, I think of kairos.

I've only recently been introduced to this very rich and complicated concept, but already I've begun to consistently reflect on it. Some of the most famous names of ancient Greece have given a definition of kairos, including Plato and Pythagoras, but these proposed definitions, although similar, do not perfectly square with each other. For Pythagoras, kairos is both a cosmological force and a force that grounds human relations. As a cosmological force, it acts as a kind of ontological bridge that unites the disparate four classical elements (fire, air, earth, and water). In other words,  the existence of matter requires kairos. 

As a force that grounds human relations, kairos governs the appropriateness and morality of our actions. Quoting from Imblichus's "Life of Pythagoras," Carl Glover a professor at Mount St. Mary's University writes: "For those of us who are angry or enraged, some are so seasonably, and some unseasonably [. . .]"

Here's how I cash this idea out: if I am driving home, I may experience judicious (seasonable) anger if another driver is nearby and operating his vehicle recklessly. But if I hold on to this anger too long, say, by subjecting a fast food employee to a profane tirade because he forgot my BBQ sauce, my anger becomes vicious (unseasonable) because I have allowed it to transgress the kairotic boundary.

Plato's definition seems to lack a cosmological component. It seems to be more focused on rhetoric and the interaction between human beings.Taken from the Phaedrus, Glover quotes the Platonic Socrates. He writes: "It is only when he has...grasped the concept of the propriety of time (kairos)--when to speak and when to hold his tongue...It is only then, and until then that the finishing and perfecting touches will have been given to his science."

The definition given in the Phaedrus has a certain simplicity, a kind of forceful colloquialism. If I were to paraphrase Plato's definition to contemporary people, I might once again draw an example from film: in "The Godfather," before the violence begins, Marlon Brando's character chastises his son, played by James Caan, who has spoken out of turn, by saying to the other crime syndicate representatives something along the order of, "Once again my son speaks when he should be listening."

Since, for Plato, kairos is an awareness of knowing when to speak and when to remain silent, and then having the moral strength to respect this knowledge in practice, the character of Sonny Corleone would never experience it.

Like the word katharsis, kairos is a Greek word that seems to defy the modern attempt to understand it completely. Unlike katharsis, kairos has not been incorporated into our vernacular, which seems strange to me, given its ubiquitous nature to our endeavors.

In the writing center, consultants are encouraged to understand kairos, to think of ways to cultivate it. In the writing center, the importance of each temporal moment of a session provides an opportunity to maximize the intellectual and emotional interaction between the consultant and the writer, thus it makes sense that kairos would be so important in this community. But it seems like an appreciation of kairos has as much to offer to those outside the writing center as it does to those of us inside it.

Have you ever told a joke that was intended to make someone laugh? I know I have.

Sometimes we achieve our intended effect, and sometimes we do not. Only now do I realize the importance which kairos plays in the success or failure of a joke. And more than the success or failure of a single articulation of a single joke at single moment, kairos provides the foundation for the concept of "sense of humor."

To borrow an idea from one of Thomas Edison's most famous (and probably hyperbolic) aphorisms, we might say that having a good sense of humor is ninety-nine percent kairos, and one percent humor. I think most people intuitively understand how important timing is to humor. An improper understanding of timing will not only ruin the potential humor of a situation; it will, in many instances, actually turn the situation hostile. Anyone who doubts me, imagine the following situation: Eddie Murphy's Raw being shown in a 3rd grade classroom. Not so funny anymore, is it.

Have you ever heard the phrase esprit de l'escalier? Even if you are unfamiliar with this darling little French idiomatic phrase, I would guess that you are familiar with the the cascade of emotions it encapsulates.

Normally, this cascade of emotions begins with you uttering the f word, some of you express yourselves raucously, I usually whisper my cusses. Regardless of how loud you howl, I would imagine that the pain we experience is fairly uniform. Now you know what you should have said then. Now you know the words. Now they are being ejected like pumice from a volcano. Now you have the instruments to efface his contemptuous smirk. Now you can metamorphose his fleer into a frown.

But the moment is gone. The past cannot be retrieved.  "^%&*!"  Now you feel twice-cursed. Not only are you cursed to know now what you should have known then, but the curse is redoubled because you know now that the then which you squandered can never be redressed. Kairos has its complications. I guess every rose has its thorns.  

Have you ever watched a high-level athletic contest? (Anyone who has read my other blog posts probably knows where I'm headed with this line of thinking.) For example, in 1997, The Chicago Bulls played The Utah Jazz in the NBA finals. In game 1, the score was tied with 7.5 seconds remaining. The Bulls had possession of the ball, but more importantly, they had a shooting-guard by the name of Michael Jordan. In situations like these, Jordan needs to recognize the various contingencies of the moment, and then balance those contingencies that compete with each other.

Jordan needs to get a shot off, preferably a good shot--a high-percentage shot that gives him a clear look at the rim--but he doesn't have a lot of time, so correcting a strategic miscalculation isn't possible. Of course, if he begins his maneuver too early, even if he makes the shot, the Jazz still may have time left to either tie the game or win it with a 3. Thus, in an ideal situation, the ball will fall through the hoop as the buzzer sounds. Bulls win.

Jordan is not playing in an empty gym, though. The Jazz will try and stop him; they will use the clock to their advantage. If, before the ball is inbounded, Jordan commits himself to one course of action (shooting the ball), then he will not have the nimbleness to adjust to The Jazz defense. If The Jazz double-team him, he may have a wide-open teammate who would, if a good pass is delivered, be in a better position than Jordan would be to win the game.

But if the pass is delivered too early, The Jazz might be able to rotate over to the shooter and contest or block his shot. If the pass is delivered too late, then either the shooter may rush his shot and miss or he may not have enough time to get a shot off in the first place. In either case, Jordan will have frittered away an opportunity.

Lots of contingencies to consider, all of them dependent on the temporal moment of the game. What does this remind you of? It reminds me of kairos. Michael Jordan had kairos: he surveyed the floor; he identified the positions of the defenders; then, he made his move, but not too quickly; he got to a spot on the floor that would allow him to put up a high percentage shot; he got a clear look at the rim; he got feet set; he released the ball from his hands with about a second left. The buzzer sounded, then the ball went into the hoop. Bulls win. Kairos wins.

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