5.19.2008

My Speech to the Graduates, v2

I want to talk to you today about pleasure.

Pleasure demands a certain slowness, a lingering, a languoring. You have to savor the complex palate of the tequila, let the emphatic umph of the Uni play across your tongue, lay in bed and nibble your sweetie's nape—slowly, very, very slowly. You need to take the time when you write to find the proper phrase, rhythm, figure. You have to let your mind and prose meander through and around and with an idea. You have to watch the great films once, twice, three times, a dozen times to truly appreciate them. You have to chew your food slowly, lay in the daytime sun, and enjoy your evening cocktail. You have to stroll, not run.

These are the things that are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. The America you inherit is an uncivil beast that moves at an ever more rapid clip, consuming dignity with spite. Take travel, one of the great luxuries of contemporary life. Travel has been stripped of its humanity as lines of people disrobe before disgruntled strangers. And when you question this degradation, this humiliation, you are told it's all for your own good. And, at times, you may actually believe that.

Do you understand what I just said? You actually believe that it is in your own best interest to be humiliated and degraded. This is how far we've come, how degraded we are, how terribly awry we've gone. Our fear has become such that we abandon the very things that make us human, the very things that bring us joy, the very things that make life livable: pleasure, civility, dignity.

Now take this thing we call work, this thing that causes you such great anxiety. And it should—but for different reasons. In today's America, a job demands you be at the office at a given place and time, usually quite early, and 5 days a week, regardless of how well you slept. You go to your inevitably gray cubicle beneath fluorescent lights and situate yourselves in front of a blue screen. This is exactly how I'd describe a prison—a fucking prison! None of this is healthy, physically or mentally. You talk to a variety of people, many of whom are boring, stupid, and incompetent if not cruel, stupid, and resentful. You spend time in meetings ill run at best, hate filled at worst. You grab some overly salted food for lunch, eat it at your computer, and spend the rest of the day dehydrated and bloated with gas. Perhaps you seek the restroom as a respite, a place to pass gas in peace or at least have some solitude. No such luck. The bathrooms are public and so you piss and shit and fart next to your office mates before you head back to your now stinky cubicle, bloated and thirsty.

Work is an elaborate holocaust of dignity.

This used to be a 40 hour a week assignment—40 of your best hours spent uncomfortably gaseous, helping make some moron you'll never meet richer than he already is. This 40 hour exercise in humiliation has become 50, 60, 70 hours long. I'm not making this up. The dot com revolution broke down the line separating work from play—so now you work all day long. You can wear jeans, have your nose pierced, and listen to Black Metal music. Work doesn't care—as long as you work.

You've been co-opted, children.
The machine of work realized that it doesn't care if your tongue is pierced or tattoos line your flesh. They don't give a shit; they just want your warm body working. They even give you ping pong and foosball and let you have a beer now and again. And you think you're the one who came out ahead! You're working 60 hours a week and you think you won! The Google campus is hailed as liberation because they serve you lunch! Even prisoners on death row get fucking lunch. We are dead men walking, Starbucks infused zombies.

This is today's America. There's no room for rebellion as every effort to resist gets folded into the machine. All the avenues of resistance have been co-opted—poetry, fashion, music, even drugs as the pharmaceuticals replace the acid labs as the suppliers of your high. Look what's happened to the green movement: Clorox runs ads claiming to be green. We drive so-called green cars. Green cars! That's an oxymoron. You want to be green? Stop driving, you morons!

America is an ugly, cruel beast. Dropping bombs on Arabs is not the disease, it's the symptom. It's time to get creative in our revolts.

But as big and stupid and mean as America is, it's also big. And this gives us some room to operate. Maybe not for long as robotic drones fill the skies, leaving nothing unseen. But, for now, there is room. You don't have to walk mindlessly into this mire. There are options. Consider Alexander Supertramp, who burned his money and his i.d. and headed into the wilderness. Or Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, a onetime physician who in the 1950s quit his practice, dropped out of the mainstream and raised a family while living a nomadic surfing lifestyle. All 11 people in the family—the parents and nine children—lived in a trailer, ate organic food, roamed the country, and surfed. The kids were home-schooled; they celebrated the Jewish sabbath every Friday night.

That's right, you heard me: these are Jews. And if a nice Jewish boy can do it, you certainly can.

Or take Mike Reynolds, an architect before the Feds stripped him of his license. He builds houses off the grid, that generate their own electricity, have their own sewage, and live off of the water that falls from the sky. He's been harassed and sued and arrested. But he's still going, making it possible to live free of the mayhem. And it's not just that these houses are actually environmentally sustainable, which they are, it's that they make life—your life—sustainable.

You have to get creative in your tactics. You have to demand your pleasure. Because the world you're inheriting is hell bent on disallowing you your life. You have to create the time to savor this life, to deflect the time-soul-life suck of what we call the real world. But it isn't the real world; it's the cruel world. You can make a more palatable real world, a world worth living in, living for, a world capable of sustaining life.

Demand your pleasure.

5.17.2008

My Speech to the Graduates, v.1

As an adjunct professor with a propensity for saying the wrong thing and who commands no respect whatsoever in the academic— or really any—community, I will most likely never be asked to deliver a commencement speech. But watching a recent graduation, I couldn't help but think: what an excellent but all too often neglected opportunity. The possible speeches I could give swirled through my mind. Here is one such imagined speech, written with a certain histrionic fervor.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I want you all to think for a moment: Are your parents happy? Do they consume life with unabashed joy, with voracious abandon? Now think of all your friends' parents: Are any of them happy? Are they lit up—by life? By ideas? By art? By their respective spouses?

I have to tell you: the life prescribed for you—work, marriage, children—is a drain on all that is vital in this world. Somehow, somewhere, we were all suckered into signing an egregious social contract in which we promised to give up 60 hours a week working in some humiliating job aimed at making someone else rich so that we can barely afford to pay our rents and car payments and utility bills and ensuring that we have no time actually to raise our children so we are left to deal with our children—which itself demands endless negotiating and placating because god forbid a parent should tell a child what to do—which all leaves us so wasted, exhausted, spent at the end of the day that we can barely muster an intelligent conversation with our spouses—not to mention do anything more, uh, satisfying with same said spouse—that all we can do is pour a heavy snifter of Scotch, pop a Valium, and watch ESPN until we fall asleep, only to awake and do it all over again the next day.

And don't imagine that the work you seek is noble and that this makes you exempt from the death trap that surrounds you. Your work may be noble; it may at times even be interesting. But it remains work and the demands it places on your body and soul are inexcusable. No matter how noble your work, it should not demand 60 hours a week—and the best hours at that! No, our society is a meth-infused, speed driven culture of unabashed consumption, hell bent on exploiting all vestige of energy, including the life that pumps through your veins.

This is the anxiety that should be haunting you as you stand at the precipice of the so-called real world. You should be shaking in your boots thinking: How do I avoid this death trap? Where in the world can I find peace, delectation, civility, pleasure, delight, appetite? But instead you entertain the anxiety of how, exactly, you will enter this horrendous, vampiric cycle of soul death. You wonder: How will my degree prepare me for work? When will I be mature enough to be a parent? What if I don't meet Mr or Mrs Right?

These are the wrong questions. These are the questions of a soulless, witless, joyless culture that is plummeting, rapidly, to its own demise. I have to tell you: As graduates of this institution, there is always work to be had. They—that ubiquitous "they"—will always have work for you; you're the ones who make them money. Don't think for a minute that you have to woo them; they are all too ready and eager to suck you dry. The trick is to parry the lunge of their soul siphon—not to head directly into their waiting mouths.

This insane, demented, completely out of control system—you have to work, you have to marry, you have to breed—is unsustainable. It devours the one thing that sustains it, namely, life. Why do you think there are Starfucks—excuse me, Starbucks—on every corner? Because people enjoy drinking half-assed coffee drowned in a quart of hormone-enriched milk? No, because they have no vitality left in their veins so they turn to caffeine—so they can continue working! Capitalism exhausts your personal reserves so it forces you to seek a whiff of vitality from elsewhere–namely, a double Grande Latte.

I ask you to consider, briefly, the cafes of Europe or South America. They are leisurely places where people talk, relax, enjoy each other's company, enjoy the day. Now think of Starbucks. It is not a place of pleasure; it's a place of work! The image of our coffee shops is marred by the ubiquity of laptops. We do not live in a culture of pleasure and delectation, a culture of life affirmed. We live in a culture that seeks to exhaust all of its resources, including its own life.

Now picture lunch in Europe or in South America. Long, leisurely affairs filled with delicious food, conversation, some wine, perhaps a brief siesta. Now picture Americans eating lunch: some grotesque wrap distractedly devoured over a laptop. I have to tell you, this is not a recipe for health, for vitality, for long life. This is an engine hell bent on devouring all remnants of energy. Why? Because it is has no reserves itself. This is a vampiric culture that needs the blood of others to sustain itself.

It's really a very basic question of physics or of economics, depending on how you look at it. The system eats its own source of power until it is drained of all natural resources. It is a system premised on the logic of the vampire: I'll suck your life to make my own; you suck someone else's life; and so on. It is not an infinite deferral; it is an infinite drain, a zero sum game. Take merely a cursory glance around and tell me I'm wrong. We're in free fall, plummeting fast. Can you smell the whiff of impending pavement?

So I say this: Change your question. When your parents ask, "But what will you do with a degree in philosophy or rhetoric or literature?" say: "Wrong question, Mom. Wrong question, Dad. The question is: How will I deflect and defer the hungry teeth of the vampire? How will I maintain my appetite for life, my joy at thinking and tasting and tinkering? How will I avoid the miserable lives that have turned you into Ambien drenched, sexless, joyless zombies?"

You have to jettison the very thought of a career. The question should never be: How will I work for someone the rest of my life so I have none of my own pleasures left? The question should be: How can I get enough money in the door with the least expenditure of my own energy so that I can maximize my own life, my own energy source, myself?

Now, as for children, ask yourself: Must I breed? If so, are you sure the neuroses of the nuclear family is the way to go? The fact is, human children are born way too raw, barely cooked, in fact. They are barely alive. Once they've left the womb, they need every ounce of your energy–and if you're a woman, this is literal—just to make it through a day. Babies are voracious; they need your energy to make it through the first years of life. I'm not saying don't breed; children are excellent. They are excellent precisely because they are insane.

But they do suck you dry with a relentless vigor. And the closed, little world of the bourgeois family is not the proper platform to breed on. Just look around you, at any family. No one looks very good as fatigue, indigestion, and disease punctuate their faces. There's constant bickering, passive aggressive pandering, cruel cut downs. The nuclear family is a failed experiment. The horrible, demented psychoses that swirl and whirl between mommy, daddy, and baby are horrendous, distasteful, and, again, unsustainable. We have to hire nannies because the tribe has gone missing—the extended network that it takes to raise children has disappeared. And we're left with this grotesquerie we call "family" that we mask in maudlin sentimentality.

So breed if you must—and it is a strong, biological drive—but ask yourself: At what cost this child? How can I make this work without losing myself in the process? Where's my tribe?

We live in a time of accelerated, shameless, unabashed consumption. Pleasure, delectation, enjoyment have gone by the wayside—they've been deemed too slow, too unproductive. We eat at our computers; we pound coffee to stay awake and pop Ambien to fall asleep. And by deigning to answer the idiotic questions of your parents and teachers—What job will you pursue?—you join this fraying existence.

The question is everything. The question frames the thinking. So perhaps you ignore everything I say here; perhaps you assume I'm just some jew quack ranting about the system. Perhaps you're right. But I suggest this to you: Just because someone asks you question—such as, What will do you with your degree?—you don't have to answer them. You can change the question.

Question the question, always.

And seek pleasure—slow, considered, thorough pleasure— because it is disappearing quickly.

5.02.2008

The Ethics of William Burroughs: Vampires vs. Johnsons


William Burroughs may be the last great ethicist, the man who proffered an ethics of the ages, as timely as it is eternal. It is a simple, this ethics: Don't be a vampire. Don't suck the blood—the vitality and energy—of others. Be a Johnson: mind your own fucking business but don't be a selfish asshole, either.

The cop who gave him a joint when he was in the can; the bellboy that tipped him off that the cops were gonna raid his room: Johnsons, both. They had nothing to gain by helping Burroughs out. But nor did they have anything to lose. They were not self-righteous or sanctimonious. They simply acted as fellow citizens within a world careening.

It is not hard, then, to be a Johnson. It does not entail a relentless self-interrogation or doubting, like the common Judeo-Christian moral code. All it entails is a little look around—letting a driver into your lane, letting someone who briefly left line back in.

Mostly, it means not being a resentful, selfish prick. Which, alas, does seem quite difficult for many people, particularly those with a whiff of power. Oh, how they love to exert whatever tiny force has been granted them. The world, I am discovering, perhaps a bit tardily, is run by vampires, intent on destroying the creativity, vitality, verve of those who dare to live or think large.

Aspire to be a Johnson—that is the Burroughs ethic. It is a humble but mighty aspiration.

Seeing Seeing, or The Generous Image


Let's assume that an image is not an image of. The image is something in and of itself, a piece of the world. As such, the image asks to be reckoned on its own terms. Really, it’s a question of ethics, granting the image the respect it so eloquently requests.

But what happens once we grant such a request, once we make such a generous gesture?

The world explodes, proliferates itself. As real and imitation join ranks, the world becomes a great bounty, an infinitely fecund universe, a plenum of image events. There is not first the world and then images. Now, it’s all images, everywhere, a great baroque symphony.

And we are implicated in our act of viewing. The image looks back. To see becomes an exchange, a dialogue (or multilogue), an event. We no longer view signs of things absent but encounter something here and now.

This exchange between viewer and viewed becomes an exchange between this and that. Each party gives; each party takes. The image gives a seeing, a way of looking at the world. “Here,” the once-image says, “here’s a very nice way to look at things.” And the once-viewer replies, “I see your seeing like this. Thanks very much.”

The image gives over its body to the viewer. And the viewer gives over his or her body to the image. Each says to the other simultaneously, generously, (hence forming an odd, potentially disharmonious, chorus): “See?”

And yet we cannot really say that an image is, in no way, an image of something. Surely, a photograph of a cow or a child is just that: an image of that cow or child. But perhaps an image—such as a photograph—is also an image of.

An image takes up the world. And takes it up in a particular way so that when I see a photo of a cow, I see that cow, sure, but now that cow has been condensed, amplified, saturated, stretched, bent, pleated—that cow has been seen.

Which is to say, when I see a photograph of a cow I don't just see a cow: I see the seeing of that cow. And seeing is not neutral precisely because it is always embodied; this body sees in this way. One always sees, one always takes up the world, with style. The maker of images imprints his seeing—his style—on the image (enacting an odd synesthesia, a haptic vision). In some sense, all image making is a kind of photograph of the seer's seeing.

This stylized seeing is a metabolic engine that makes sense of the world, assembling it just so. This engine not only sees certain things rather than other things—seeing at its most basic level is an algorithm of selection—, it sees how things go, how they relate, their speeds and consistencies. Consider an obvious example: Van Gogh's "Starry Night." Suddenly, the sky is a particulate viscous, oozing and swirling with surprising weight into eddies and undulating planes. Isn't this the delight of that painting—that, for a moment, we see the world in this very odd, beautiful, surprising way? And maybe we even learn something about how things can go, how stars can shine and atmospheres can flow.

An image always proffers a seeing that is a mode of making sense. Everywhere we look, we see sense making.