9.17.2014

Ray Rice, Jennifer Lawrence, and Life in the Panopticon




 I don't watch the news but thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I couldn't help but notice two recent so-called stories, one involving naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, the other a punch Ray Rice landed on his bride.

In my social media feed, there seemed to be consensus: we shouldn't look at the Jennifer Lawrence pictures because that's an invasion of her privacy and, worse, sexual assault. And Ray Rice is a violent, wife beating creep — and the NFL, not to mention American culture in general, is misogynistic. I agree with all of the above.

But that's not what struck me about these stories. What struck me is that no one seemed to be talking about the fact that we're looking at images of people leading their lives. These aren't movies or TV shows. This wasn't even a fan's videotape or from the smartphone of a crusading activist. It’s a selfie and a surveillance video. Even the articles that decried the theft of Jennifer Lawrence’s images as an invasion of privacy, yelled Thief! not Panopticon! (This may seem like a pedantic distinction but thief assumes we record everything; panopticon questions said recording of everything.)

What the what? How did we get to the point that no one questions that fact that everything is always being recorded? And that these recordings are there to be watched by all at any time? And that the images we're not supposed to look at are selfies by an actress and the ones we are supposed to look at are from a surveillance camera? 

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that it's invasive and creepy to look at Lawrence's private pictures. My question is: Why then are we allowed to look at the Rice video? Why is that not an invasion of privacy? He was recorded without his knowing! Talk about creepy. Watching that ubiquitous clip — yes, I watched it, but for many reasons did not see Ms. Lawrence’s images — I felt an unsettling complicity with a police state that monitors all our actions. 

The discussion of Ray Rice moved exclusively into the content of the images, ignoring the event of ubiquitous recording and the casual evacuation of any presumption of privacy. As Marshal McLuhan would say, the media focused on the message, not the medium. 

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying we don't live in a culture of violence against women. In fact, I see how the hacking of an actress's nude pictures and the punch of a woman by a sports star share a common ideology: women are objects to be viewed and hit. It is troubling and grotesque and worthy of much discussion and more, although I couldn’t find articles that made that connection.

What I am saying is that there is another commonality here: the will to hack and view Ms. Lawrence nude images is the will that has us feel righteous watching and condemning Mr. Rice's video. They stem from a culture that assumes, without question, that everything is recorded and hence there to be seen. Yes, the content is dramatically different. Yes, his behavior looks repulsive and endemic of violence against women. But both events entail the utter evacuation of privacy in the age of the always-on, always-recording web. 

I am wondering why we feel we have the right to look at the Ray Rice video and pass judgment but we're not supposed to look at Jennifer Lawrence's pictures, a woman who oddly enough makes her living by people watching images of her. How is this distinction drawn? How is it ok to watch one but not the other? 

I am not saying that we can't draw distinctions between images and their respective right to privacy (or lack thereof). As a culture, this is what we do all the time. In some instances, it is the law of the social. Other times, it's the law of the state. For instance, unlike the Lawrence photos, the Rice video could and should be subpoenaed as part of a criminal proceeding. 

Is the Rice video ok to see because he didn’t take it? Because it’s a surveillance video? And it’s not ok to watch Jennifer Lawrence because she didn’t want them to be seen? That just doesn’t seem right to me. Watching both seems creepy and wrong. But, frankly, it’s the surveillance video that really creeps me out. 

What I find troubling is that in all the discussion of these events, I've seen no one question how we came to see the Rice video at all. In fact, I've heard criticisms of the NFL that it didn't seek the video actively or thoroughly enough! Isn't the NFL a private company? How or why would it or should it be looking at private video? And yet the hackers are criticized for looking so thoroughly for images of someone whose images are everywhere.

Both parties, it seems to me, have been wronged by a culture that has accepted the ubiquitous recording and viewing of everything, a culture that has gleefully — indeed giddily — abandoned the right to privacy.

No doubt, the content of both sets of images is of the utmost importance. Violence against women is horrific and takes many insidious forms, from viewing private nude pictures to systemic physical abuse. But equally disturbing to me is that we live in a world where we assume that everything is recorded and everything is there for our viewing and, moreover, that we reserve the right to pass judgment based on that viewing. Who needs the NSA when we have ourselves?

9.11.2014

The Myth of Direct Discourse

I have this beautiful fantasy. Everyone in my life, including me, will be confident, cool, articulate, both self and other aware. Our relationship will have no weird sub-texts, no veiled jealousies and resentments, no passive aggression. We will not have our feelings hurt; we will not get defensive. And we will speak to each other in that perfect register of comment without judgment, equals sharing confidences and critiques in language pure and direct.

To a large extent, this is indeed the relationship I have with my close, almost all male, friends. Mind you, there are not a lot of them and very few live in the city. But that is as it should be (in my fantasy, at least): like Nietzsche and both his friends and enemies, we live perched in the cool air of the mountains, each on his own peak, occasionally beckoning across the valley to share moments of insight, laughter, intense pain, joy.

For the most part, my friends and I do not share day to day struggles. We may go weeks, months, years, or even decades without speaking and then, just like that, pick up a conversation mid-stride. I don't know what some of these people do for a living and I'm sure they don't know what I do. And, frankly, I don't particularly care. Friends, to me, are not those everyday people who help wile away the time. They are beacons of greatness, standing tall in the plains, fantastic beings who shine brightly amidst the often dreary drudgery of life.

 But this fantasy of mine is just that: a fantasy, and often a destructive one at that. Because the fact is all relationships — between people, ideas, things — are complex, riddled with sub-texts. In fact, it's all sub-text: there is no master text. We are a bundle of twitches and innuendos and double, if not triple, entendres. We leak and ooze ourselves. 

As for language, well, the myth of direct, honest discourse is a lie. As we are not self-mastering subjects, our language will never have been under our control. Words, grammar, and meaning are for and from everyone, are the very stuff of the collective. Language speaks us, not the other way around.

We speak indirectly, always and necessarily, our words at some angle to our sentiment, action, desire, will — even to our needs! Perhaps especially to our needs! Sometimes, when all I want is a hug, I say some aggressive douchebag nonsense, ensuring that the one thing I don't get is a hug. Such is life as a human being in language: there is no perfect harmony other than the dissonance of living.

This is never more apparent than in my romantic relationships. I entertain this idea that my girlfriend and I could and should be transparent to each other. That we could and should speak directly and honestly, without aggression or defensiveness. That we could and should be able to express our annoyances, preferences, desires, and needs in a straightforward way without the other freaking out. That as both speaker and listener, we could and should each be utterly cool, articulate, deploying words like that mythological smart bomb, launched from hundreds of miles away and — what is that absurd word, surgically? — hitting its target. The problem is that despite what we imagine to be our best efforts to calibrate the locale and intensity of the strike, we blow up a pediatric hospital. To wit, I want a hug so I say some nasty thing.

I am coming to believe that the trick to negotiating relationships, romantic and not, is not to make myself beholden to the ideal of "could and should" but to heed the messy, all-too-human reality of the situation. We all have insecurities and doubts, fears and anxieties. Sure, we try to become more self-aware, less anxious, less insecure; some of us strive to be open, relaxed, flexible human beings. But shit has a tendency to persist despite our best efforts. I may strive not to be jealous — what is jealousy other than self-hatred? — but then my lady friend goes to dinner with a quasi love-interest and I say some stupid nonsense like, Cool. Whatever. Maybe you should see him more.  

Keen communication is not a matter of being honest. That is a false idol to be smashed with a hammer. The best way to communicate, I think, is to negotiate the ever-shifting play of anxieties, fears, and strengths (true and not). This may mean not being truthful per se. It might mean saying something else all together. I think of the Oracle in The Matrix telling Neo is he not The One when, in fact, he is. It's not that she tells a lie; it's that she says what he needs to hear to maximize himself.

Communication entails more than words. Expression is more than literal meaning. When we speak, we utter so many things at once, things we may not even know we want, need, or believe. The trick is to hear it all, not just the words. So that when my son says he's not afraid but the look in his eye says otherwise, I know to hold him a little tighter. The mistake I often make is to counter with words: Are you sure you're not afraid? You look scared. Which only serves to make him more defensive: I'm not scared! he barks back. The thing to do is to shut up and just hold him.

This is true of all communication. We often are aware of it in the workplace where we more or less know to navigate the egos of bosses and clients. But when it comes to lovers and children, the intensity of our emotions blinds and deafens us. And so we turn to literal meaning. You said it was fine for me to go out with that girl so I did!  When, of course, I knew all along "fine" didn't mean fine. 

My dream of transparent discourse between two strong eagle-like self-aware confident beasts is silly. We have weaknesses just as we have strengths. And if you love people, you communicate with them to make them stronger, not to amplify their weakness. So when someone says they're not scared or are fine or are being nasty, rather than respond in kind, try a different approach all together.

Please understand that I'm not saying we should lie to each other because honesty is impossible. Or that we should tolerate relentless blind emotional mayhem. I, for one, lead a reclusive life as I find communicating with other people downright exhausting. 

What I am saying that our relationships should not be beholden to an indifferent truth but rather to a caring attentiveness to one another. I am saying that language is not solely a conveyor of information but a performance that inflects people’s moods. I am saying that how we talk should take into consideration the emotional reality of the situation, not the abstract facts.


9.07.2014

What Do We Do?


I found this in my archives from 2009 and don't think I ever published it. I kinda like it, even tough its not quite clear what I mean by "capitalism." I like the ranting tone. It's always a strange ambivalent pleasure encountering one's older selves — especially one's ranting, pissed off former selves.

What the fuck are we to do? The cards are stacked against us, at every turn, in so many insidious ways. Because capitalism is not just an economic system. It is a justice system, a military system, a police system and what makes it so hard to fight, it’s a discursive engine.  It puts words in our mouth, ideas in our head, dictates how to think, speak, feel. It runs the newspapers and the networks and the movies. Bourgeois bullshit abounds so thoroughly there is no respite from its excruciating, humiliating fray.

And yet capitalism is not an “it.” There is no cabal of evil men lurking in the back room. Well, there is but these men are not the source but a symptom. There is no enemy per se to vanquish once and for all. Changing the president changes nothing, not really. That is not where power resides. It does not stream down from the top. While there is certainly a vicious power in the club of a cop, that is not the only or even dominant way power works. As Foucault has so deftly argued, power comes from everywhere. It runs through the very terms we use to think about who we are, what’s possible, how we relate to each other. 

When I say capitalism, I am not referring to an economic system we have chosen. That is one of the insidious claims it makes about itself, one of those facts we assume that we have to move past: we do not choose how to be from a set of options, as in, “Capitalism is the only system that works.”

No, when I say capitalism I am referring to a complex set of behaviors, an entire ecology of desire. Capitalism is how we stand towards each other, the assumptions we make about our days, our lives, our loves. It is how we stand towards ourselves, alone at night and shaking in our Ambien riddled daze. It is the set of terms we use to discuss this life, who we are and what we care about. It is the films that numb and beat us in our theaters, the television programs that embarrass and shame us, the deployment of predator drones, bombs, and soldiers.

Capitalism is us.

And what’s so annoying, so defeating, so exhausting is that when we feel differently than has been dictated — when we’re not convinced a presidential election matters in the least or that nearly every film out of Hollywood is an assault on decency or that the conditions of work are grotesque, untenable, and sick — we feel the need to justify it. These most obvious thoughts and sentiments become contaminated with defensiveness. Even in our thoughts, we’re hung out to dry.

And what’s so terrifying, why I feel so thoroughly fucked, is that all the terms of resistance are folded into the Spectacle, this Matrix, and at such downright alarming speed it’s hard to fathom. What, prey tell, is a green car? How did slow food become the latest trend in unaffordable food? How the fuck can Whole Foods declare “buy local” and keep a straight face? 

If only there were some evil madman laughing maniacally in the back room. Instead we get a self-righteous Prius driver shopping for overpriced arugula — and thinking, deep down, that that makes him a good person! And not just a good person — but someone who is helping change things! Jesus fucking Christ. 

It’s unbridled madness masked as righteousness — which makes it all the madder!  And somehow I’m the one who feels like an asshole for saying all this.  “What’s wrong with him? I like Whole Foods.” 

And, oh, somehow these deluded sanctimonious pricks have not just taken up the mantle of change — which is insane in its own right — but they’ve taken up the cause of pleasure.  “Whole Foods is yummy.” Yummy! They don’t know what yummy is. ecause yummy is not just what you eat but how you eat. How you live. How you enjoy, delectate, indulge.   

What are we to do?  What?


8.31.2014

Making the Most of Death

I recently had an exchange with a good friend to whom I hadn't spoken in over a year. She told me that her father had become quite sick; that she'd gone home to visit him and ended up staying; that for the next few months she watched him deteriorate, day after day after day; and then, within that merciless tedium, how he'd finally died. Now she was still living home, feeling out of sorts, asocial, down on herself — a blob was the word she used, I believe.

From where I sat, removed from the immediate emotional poignancy, it seemed so obvious that she'd been given this enormous gift. She's a young woman and while her friends were gallivanting around NY and LA, she became intimate with death. She witnessed the extraordinary transformation of body to ghost, of this particular life lived — her father — becoming something else, something immaterial, becoming memory, love, presence. While her friends lived the beautiful finitude of this life — partying, working, fucking, loving, — she lived the infinity within the finitude of these absurd bodies of ours. So, yes, of course the entire social world looks different to her now. 

Of course, for many people in the world, death isn't such a rare event. But for upper middle class Americans, death is something we never expect, rarely see, and assume will somehow be taken care of by others — doctors, caretakers, nurses, cousins. In our Purell-Prozac culture, we have a tendency to wash away the unclean, whether intense feeling or subway microbes. 

So when my friend told me that rather than just return to her so-called life — her old apartment, friends, job — she was loafing and flailing, I was pleased (that might not be the right word). Yes, she feels lousy. Yes, she doubts herself. But such is as it should be! Twenty-somethings tend to float through life, passionate and certain and righteous. I sure as shit did. And that is not a bad thing, not at all. In fact, it's gorgeous. Oh, to be 26 again! To feel that love! At 27, I eloped at 25th and Valencia, the day my new bride and I moved in together! Oh, and to be that smart! I was writing my dissertation and lived my days immersed in phenomenology and Deleuze and my thinking was on fire! I'll never be so smart again, so passionate again, so ready to love and think again. Yes, to be 20-something is awesome.  

But this woman was given something incredible: an intimate taste of the line between the finite and the infinite. What a painful, ugly, exquisite gift! So, yes, she has a difficult time returning to her life, whatever that even means. Good. That is something her father, in dying, gave her. 

I had a similar experience watching my sister die. For me, though, this reckoning of life and death came when I was 44. I'd lived so long avoiding the resonance of death through that all-too-familiar mix of cockiness, meds, fear, and distraction. This all changed when my sister became sick, suddenly and awfully. And then when it became clear that she'd die, soon. And then when she entered hospice, the last room she'd ever see while everyone around her stood by, watching as she left this world. And then, after weeks of somehow hanging on to breath, when her body finally decided not to inhale anymore. 

Holy shit! Holy fuck! Holy fucking fuck fuck! How can she be gone?!? Forever?!? How do I wrap my skinny jew ass around that infinite absence? 

Well, I could try to compartmentalize it, put is somewhere else in my thinking and then "get back" to my life. When I reach for the phone to call her and realize she's not there, I could just think, somehow, that she's on vacation. 

Or I could indeed try to wrap my body around that infinite absence. I could take her death as a gift, as this thing that was offered me out of supreme generosity and have it run through my veins, my thoughts, my loves, my being, my becoming, through my dreams and imagination. She gave me this experience, this awful, inevitable, exquisite, horrible experience of how one leaves this earth and I could make the most of it.  

At almost 45 years old, I rarely receive presents. When I do, it's usually a bottle of booze (for which I am always grateful). But my sister, in dying, gave me something else: she gave me a taste of death, a front row seat to that line that separates the finite and the infinite, the physical and the metaphysical. 

To bear witness to a loved one's death is an extraordinary gift. It's a gift from the person, to allow you to be there as they transform into something else. To be shown death! To be shown how to die! What greater gift is there? Would I rather have received a bottle of craft gin? Maybe. On the other hand, how else are we to learn of death? How else are we to know its ways, its ugliness, its stench, its beauty, its horror? From watching those we love — our fathers and sisters and, sometimes, our children — die. (I put aside the question of young children, my sister's children, for that is another matter which I don't know how to address.)

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not happy that my friend's father died. I am not happy that my sister died. It's been almost 10 months since she's been gone and not a day — not an hour — goes by in which I don't think of her, talk to her, give her a wink. Not a day goes by that I don't cry. 

But, thanks to her death, I am finally coming to learn that people do indeed die. That is what we do, all of us. No duh, you say. But I never understood this. I was always either immortal, ignoring that death would come, or else I was afraid. Watching my sister die gave me a third option: to be present with death.

Don't get me wrong: I still don't get death. This gift my sister gave me is not like receiving a vase that you put on the mantle and you're done. It's a much more difficult gift. To reckon the infinity of this finitude, that inevitable transformation of body into ghost, is an ongoing process — a gift that keeps on giving.

None of this is to say that witnessing death automatically transforms you into a wise sage. I am suggesting, however, that being intimate with death — especially of someone you love — offers the possibility of transformation, of reckoning, of learning to be neither oblivious nor afraid but to be present with death. I'm saying that witnessing this kind of death can be an extraordinary gift rather than just a loss.

8.28.2014

Good Shit


While not usually an everyday topic amongst co-workers and friends, how we shit is an important, influential component of our well-being. (I have a 10-year-old son; we speak often of such things.) When all goes smoothly, it bodes well for the day. When things come out in a less than desirable way, or remain in limbo, life tends to be a little harder, a little more strenuous.

I am not the first to point out the role of defecation in our health. Often, we take it as a sign of something else — our diet, digestive tract, mental well-being, our overall physical health. But what's interesting to me about poop, among other things, is that it is not just a signifier: it is a metonymy, continuous with the whole, a part of us. (Excuse the dorky rhetorical aside on tropes: synecdoche is part speaking for the whole, as when a teacher says, Let me see hands when she, in fact, means whole people. Metonymy is a continuous part that is not representative such as, say, a shitty shit which doesn't mean I per se am shitty — just my shit is.)

This is to say, shit doesn't signify as much as it happens. It is an event, not a code — even if it houses elusive meaning. We are little engines, systems of intake and output. If we are what we eat then surely we are what we shit, as well. Only we can't be reduced to either our diet or our shit; they are components of us, essential but not necessarily representative. Sometimes, we poop poorly which is part of a healthy system eliminating disease, germs, mayhem. Other times, our poo moves smoothly along while our lives crumble around us. We are more than our poop.

And yet how and what we produce — consistency, frequency, odor — is a poignant inflection point within the system that is our being. As such, it is worth heeding — not as we would tea leaves but as we would, say, a relationship. There is no revelation; there is give and take. There is not something to read in our poop as much as there is something to do about our poop (there’s a joke there somewhere about doing our do). 

Our issues with shit begin young as we are harangued into pooping properly — in the right place and time. As an oblivious, afraid parent, I never considered the potty training of my son as anything but necessary. I knew that I couldn't send my beast to pre-school until he was trained to shit in a toilet, not in his pants. Such is the institutionalization of shit control. And so his mother and I bribed and punished and otherwise coerced him into no longer shitting freely into his diaper but into the toilet. And then, of course, to flush it all away.

There he is, perched precariously on the porcelain, his parents cheering him on with the promise of M&Ms and the threat of a scowl. What pressure! I remember when he was young and would unabashedly let loose in his diaper. Oh, how he savored the warm, wet embrace of his turds filling his pants! No more: now he was to shit at the right place and time, with permission, with adults waiting and looming and judging.

No wonder some kids don't want to let go! They are what we call anal retentive, afraid to release control, afraid to let down their parents — and afraid of sending this thing that came from them into a watery abyss in a great, mechanical swirl. Yes, the toilet is scary in many ways.

Other kids don't hold anything back. They want to please their parents. So they shit but they make a big mess of it: Here! Is this what you wanted so badly?!?
We assume shit to be a bad thing, something to be controlled and dismissed. And much of this is with good reason: playing with shit, living among shit, can make you very, very sick. 

On the other hand, this makes us avoid shit — and, worse, shitting. We don't talk about it; we have anxiety about it. There is an epidemic of irritable bowels, for god's sake. It's not a disease. It's a syndrome! How awful is that?
 
In general, we use "shit" as a pejorative. This restaurant is shitty! My day was shit! Shit is bad. We shit on shit. 

But there's been a slow, steady rise of the power of shit. We say things like, Whoa, this is some good shit! And then there's James Franco’s speech, as Alien, in Harmony Korine's beautiful, brilliant love story, Spring Breakers. Look at my shit! This is his abundance, his brimming with life. Sure, it's all material stuff but, in a way, that is what shit is: it is the radical materiality of our time on this planet. Parts of us are not physical. We are idea, sentiment, dreams, notions. But we are body — smelly, beautiful, often painful, also pleasurable body. We are shit, too. So why not make it good shit?

Like everything — kisses, puppies, worms, larvae, rainbows, death camps, Michael Bay, prayer, profanity, sixth grade — shit is part of life. It is necessary and as run through with the cosmic surge as everything and anything else. This doesn't mean we have to eat it. That's ridiculous. But it does suggest that we could have a different, warmer, less aggressive and dismissive relationship with it.