8.06.2013

Holding it Together



Sometimes, I look around and the world seems so precariously hung together. Well, not the world, perhaps, but the social. The world of trees and clouds and bugs and wind has an infinitely complex internal logic, more or less impenetrable to us, that forges an order where it feels like there should be none. Sure, we try to decipher it all with what we call science and, with a peculiar hubris,  the laws of nature. But the fact is the so-called natural world hangs together inevitably, even when all the so-called laws of nature are broken. The cosmos doesn't get fined or go to jail. It doesn't give a shit about our laws. 

Is this true of the human social, as well? I see imminent chaos constantly. Is this my jewish angst? My eschatological enculturation?  Or is the social beholden to different laws than nature?

Take driving. There are very simple rules: red light stop, green light go. Stay in your lane. Don't drive on the sidewalk. Don't hit other cars or people. And yet people feel as though they're the only ones who matter; everyone else is an asshole in the way.  I, for one, often feel this. Just ask my kid: profanity flies as my general disdain for everyone else on the road is given torrid voice.

Which is nuts seeing as there is great incentive to adhere to the basic laws of the road. Put aside the legal and financial costs of tickets and such. I'm talking about what might be called common sense, the sense of the commons. If I knew I was the only driver who was going to ignore the laws then the risk of injury to myself and, more likely, others would be minimal.  But what happens when everyone thinks he's the sole one entitled to ignore the law? Cars would be colliding, pedestrians would be squashed, mayhem would ensue. Indeed, in San Francisco, pedestrians are run over at an alarming clip.

This is the reason I find San Francisco bikers' disdain for the laws of the road egregious. They fly through stop signs with unabashed self-righteousness, cars screeching to a halt. These bikers might be justified in their loathing of cars but their disregard for basic social etiquette is dangerous, rude, and as selfish as a CEO who authorizes the dumping of toxic waste. I don't wanna kill some biker even if his sanctimony is infuriating. And yet bikers put me in the position of almost killing them every day.

Kant considers this ethical drive a categorical imperative. If it's not ok for everyone to do it, it's not ok for you to do it. When it comes to driving, this makes sense to me as chaos looms dangerously close. But generally I find this ethical imperative to be dictatorial. Sure, if everyone peed behind trees, the city would be a foul, disgusting mess. But most people won't pee behind trees so, alas, I can without sullying the city too excessively (plus, it drives me nuts that dogs can do it but humans, who built the fucking city, can't).

In 1991, I found myself queued up early on a Prague summer morning waiting for the final tickets to go on sale for the Jethro Tull concert that night. I was approximately seventh in line.  All day long, the line grew longer as the would-be concert goers grew increasingly drunk on liters of beer (their beer bottles are liters — liters!). When the ticket window finally opened, all semblance of order and decorum ended in one mad, insane rush of sweaty Czech men and one skinny American jew.  Fists were thrown with abandon. I was literally off my feet being mashed by the crowd. Devoid of strength, I still managed to negotiate tickets with the international language of money.

Now, from my skinny weak ass perspective, order was broken. But from the perspective of some big, brawling-inclined Czech dude, my ethical imperative is bullshit, a law written by and for the weak. What I call chaos was just him getting his tickets to see Tull jam some "Locomotive Breath." Imperative shmimperative. Kant shmant. 

This imminent chaos I see burbling amidst the social fray haunts my sense of self, as well. Too often, I feel as though I am precariously hung together, that the glue is giving and I'll forget my name, my son, my life as I drool indiscriminately, masturbating like a deranged dog in heat, mumbling the tongue of the mad.  

But what is this glue? There are no doubt ardent cultural constructs that help fix me in place. I'm a man (despite crossing my legs funny and being skinny as an asparagus)! I'm a jew (despite, uh, hmn...well, I'm just a jew)!I I'm white (even if in France, the cops wanted to pound my ass for being Arabic)! But this support is precarious, at best. I am divorced, work from home, am alone an overwhelming amount of the time. Just like I like it. But it also means there are not many distractions or tethers to keep me connected, to define my social role. The ether of ego dissolution is a whiff away.

Even my body feels like it's ready to give way. I got a broken face, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. Piss leaks out of me along with flatulent air. My stomach spits into my mouth; muscles ache out of the blue. It's not even a rebellion, as if my body had an agenda. Nope it just feels as though all the different elements want to go their own way, the whole be damned.


And yet here I am, hung together, a moderately coherent self. Like the cosmos, it's as if what holds me together persists despite flagrant disregard for the laws of nature and their cultural equivalents. 

Yeat's "The Second Coming" famously declares Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. This is a prejudice that prevails: to hold to together, there needs to be some kind of center a logic, a foundation, a core. The artist Sarah Sze created an elaborate sculpture at SF MoMA: an SUV splayed down the museum's atrium, the vehicle furling and unfurling with plants, windmills, waterfalls, styrofoam cities. She entitled it, "The Center Cannot Hold." What she discovered is that there are other orders of order, logics of connection and coherence that emerge to forge elaborate, impossible architectures. Anyone who's spent any time looking at the sky already knows this. Center shmenter.  


I taught a seminar once on modes of order. I wanted to play the class a series of songs, each with a different mode of order one of which would be chaotic. I spent hours with the fine staff of Aquarius Records trying to identify chaotic music. But everything we played had some kind of order. I ended up buying some free jazz.



Perhaps, then, the social like nature can't fall apart per se. Perhaps there are always orders emerging, reorganizing the whole into new constellations. Perhaps this is true of my self, as well: it won't give way as much as reassemble itself. This is not to say that whatever emerges is good and desirable. A social order of careening cars and mauled bodies seems distasteful on many levels from the ethical to the practical and aesthetic. But it is to say the fear of collapse is misguided. I should fear the unseemly instead.

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