Being an Odd Ball

I am an odd ball. Hoinacki, Ivan Illich’s buddy:

I suspect that to enjoy this quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with reality, one needs to seek some kind of marginality from the mainstream: physical places in which to drop out, psychical realms in which to dwell apart, spiritual disciplines through which to reach and practice a healthy detachment. Perhaps one should look into vocations to foolishness, to being an odd ball, to living queerly. (Stumbling Toward Justice: Stories of Place, 90)

In the opening line, Hoinacki is referring to a simple, farming life (“quietly exciting and ever-changing contact with [sensuous] reality”) anchored in a specific place, a life outside of the institutions–schools, universities, the market system, modern medical care, the nation-state, plus certain kinds of technology–that define modern society. He argues for “dropping out” and “dwelling apart,” for a kind of detachment from it all.

His beef, like Illich’s, is with institutions. Why? Institutions deform and dehumanize human beings in many ways, yet one of these ways, the one I shall touch on here, is subtle and less often remarked upon. Each institution operates according to a set of concepts and categories that work by distinguishing between what is countable and what is uncountable and, in so doing, the institution must necessarily violate the supreme singularity of this fleshly human being, not to mention other kinds of sentient beings. This becomes especially visible–to the odd ball himself for sure–in the case of the odd ball. The odd ball as odd ball cannot find a home there for such is, by definition, impossible.

For an institution must make illegible or unintelligible the existence as well as the claims of the odd ball. It does this either by forcing the odd ball to shoehorn himself into a category that inaptly fits in order for him to have some chance of existing inside the margins of this institution or else by rendering him or her invisible and–worse–mute. Her kind of speech cannot be heard because it is absolutely unhearable. Must he make himself speak theirs, or shall he continue with his foreign poetry?

The odd ball, as odd ball, cannot register her sense of difference for difference is precisely what is impossible in the eyes of the institution. The reign of sameness is evident in the subsumable under the ready-to-hand concept (X is subsumable under concept P) or in what is assimilable according to analogy (X is like enough to concept P).

What is left for the odd ball but a positive affirmation of life apart–for a kind of mock foolishness (relative to the eyes of the institution) and for a pleasant, natural oddishness that suits him or her very nicely. The odd ball must learn to hang his hat on a tree bending over the river into which he has happily plunged his bare feet. Maybe he shall find roaming odd balls in yonder woods and maybe together they shall knit together words, ones they can sing by.

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