1.13.2020

Plugged, Unplugged: Conflicting Mythoi

When my son was around 10 (he's now 16), he started a YouTube channel dedicated to aliens and the ensuing cover up(s) by various governments. I like that he had this concerted focus, all these folders which he labeled, all these diagrams (at 16, he knows no such order, or focus, any more). But I was confused by his desire to have a YouTube channel. Where'd he even come up with such a thing?

At the time, he was watching lots of YouTube videos, sure, but it was one that seized his imagination: PewDiePie. I have no desire to get into the saga around this guy. My point is: my son was attracted to the number of followers and views this channel had. And, of course, by the money this PewDiePie earned from Google. Both views and money were staggering. Frankly, while I was a bit intrigued, I was mostly confused — and bored by it all. And so I didn't think about my boy's desire again.

And then he and I both started using Spotify. We have vastly different tastes in music but we still swap songs, trying to impress or engage the other, to read the other's taste (a great exercise in reading another's way in the world). One thing my son often comments on is the number of streams a given song has. 27 million streams, Dad? That's the real thing.

These comments threw me off. I come from a culture where it was cool to find and be obsessed with the band that had, like, seven listeners. If something was popular, it became hard to like — and it surely meant you had to defend it. Oh, I liked Dire Straits way before "Brothers in Arms." The drive of my cultural cohorts was to be plugged into an alternate world, one where capitalism and suburban bourgeois bullshit was not the dominant force. I can still picture driving across the country and continuously turning that radio dial ever so finely down the left side, seeking out those obscure college stations that played the songs no one knew. We were literally trying to tune into an obscure cultural flow.

That's just not the case with the kids today. They're all about plugging into the vast interconnected engine of commerce, taste, and collective discourse. To wit, my kid recently decided he wanted a polo shirt. This struck me as funny as that's what preppies wore when I was in middle school in the early 80s, collar up. So I bought him one — sans logo. He thanked me, of course, then went out and bought one with the Polo logo on it. Silly dad.

At first, I was deeply dismayed by all this. Here's this cool kid — quirky, funny, interesting — trying to plug into what I've always deemed the wasteland of culture, its vapid tastse, its mindless consumption, its utter banality. Don't you want the band no one has heard? I'd ask. He'd just look at me blankly across a vast generational chasm.

But then I realized that it's me who's lost his way as I find myself adrift in a mythos that's become obsolete. I come from a world that believes in an outside — outside the humdrum of bourgeois life, of capitalist drive, of the steady machinic drone. I am perhaps the last vestige of a world that can still imagine being unplugged, that aspires to be unplugged. When I close my eyes and picture peace come at least, I am Neo waking up in his pod, all those wires flying from his flesh in a great violent release.

 

I still revere Terence McKenna who wants nothing more than to break the reigns of culture with psychedelics. I still revere William Burroughs and the Beats who set up camp in North Africa to escape the madness of America. I still dream of Ginsberg and Kerouac careening through the same America in search of sex and drugs and near-God experiences, free of any tethers. I still love Jean-Luc Godard who never caved to any studio and David Lynch who tried but, alas, gave up to do his own thing. None of my close friends have any online presence. I alone remain the idiot in the crew who tweets and blogs, much to my embarrassment. Here's McKenna summarizing this world view:

“We have to create culture, don't watch TV, don't read magazines, don't even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you're worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you're giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told 'no', we're unimportant, we're peripheral. 'Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.' And then you're a player, you don't want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that's being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world."

But that world is gone. There is no longer any outside. There's nowhere to go. Everything is plugged into one big matrix, the singularity, the heaving hive of human consciousness in which thought is controlled and surveilled at all times. Yes, psychedelics are back in vogue but they serve a vastly different function, a different imagination. If for Mckenna (and me) psychedelics are a radical break with the culture machine, today they're viewed as a means to "boost" creativity, focus, and that horror of the contemporary moment, productivity. Rather than being a way to untether, psychedelics have become a way to jack in all the better, all the more efficiently — to be an engineer of the culture machine just like Steve Jobs.

The kids these days never even consider an outside, never dream of being unplugged. On the contrary, they want their own YouTube channel! They want to wear the clothes, photograph themselves, then post it so everyone can see how plugged in they are. Browse Tinder and a shocking number of young people just want you to follow them on Instagram. They're not looking for dates, for company, or even for money: they want those likes and followers to quantify how plugged in they are.

If it were all about getting paid, I'd readily understand. I've never been part of a cultural imagination free of monetary concerns. No, I understand wanting to get paid — but so that I can unplug! So that I can stop interacting with all this nonsense, this noise, these screens, these ads, all this inanity, all this bile, all these great TV shows, all these decisions, all these frets and pleasures and pains. I don't want to browse Netflix, Hulu, and Prime for another fucking second. I don't want the relative sanity of Kanopy or the Criterion Channel which just add to the mayhem. I want to be free of it all! I want quiet! I want never to see that glow of blue light again!



I grew up with Timothy Leary in my ear telling me to turn on, tune in, drop out. That falls on deaf ears today. In Williamsburg, there's a billboard declaring the new triple dictum: Live. Work. Create. The youth today yearn for participation in the engine — to work for the big brands or start their own. But it never occurs to them to drop out. Drop out from what? To where? This is an image that they can't imagine. They want to work.

I remember when Burning Man was all the buzz with my San Francisco friends. It was early internet days, maybe 1999. And while I had no interest in going — I'm a bit agoraphobic and misanthropic — I loved that it existed. Here, it seemed to me, was an extension of the mythos I'd grown up with, the myth of the outside.

Watching its growth over the years, I have a different take on it now. It was always a bit of the Carnivalesque in the Mikhail Bakhtin's sense of the word. Burning Man was a temporary overthrow of the reigning order, the introduction of play and chaos into the normal run of things. And like the Carnival of old, this was never intended to be revolutionary per se. Rather, Carnival functions as a temporary respite from the everyday not so as to overturn it but to restore it: we'll break the rules today so we can go back to the order of things.

Today, Burning Man is not about an outside and less about Carnival's temporary reversal of order than it is about the techno-colonization of the planet. If at one point Black Rock City was an outside, a remote place of freedom, today it's proof that we can wire anything anywhere, turn it into a gridded city, light it up, plug it into the internetworked matrix. Just look.

The mesh network of of Burning Man, proof that we can techno-colonize anywhere and everywhere — even this remote, unlivable part of the desert. If people like me and my contemporaries want to imagine Burning Man as outside the machine, the reality is it's just the opposite: it's the plugging in of every last square inch.

Mind you, despite my tone of anger and despair, I am not criticizing this new will to be plugged in. In fact, I'm more prone to critique my own imagination which is premised on a faulty, if seductive, metaphysics. Like McKenna and Leary, I imagine a place free of the bullshit. But we are of bullshit. There is no outside, no Garden of Eden, no unsullied place. The planet has been colonized, everyone jacked in thanks to the ubiquity of the smart phone.

There is no outside anymore. The ubiquity of smart phones has ensured we're all "connected."

The fact is my mythology of an outside has the whiff of nihilism — a will to the deep sleep. This desire to stop playing the game is actually a bit adolescent, a kind of tantrum in the face of reality. And while there is something depressing to me about these kids — about my kid — who want nothing more than to be jacked in, they live in the world as it is. The trick, for them, is not to escape the hegemony of the techno-global culture machine but to game it, to find their way in it, through it, to maximize their pleasure and reward (even if many of their attempts at pleasure are ill conceived).

In any case, once I recognized this dramatic shift in cultural mythos, in generational imaginations, it helped me understand my son and his cultural taste. Which made me realize how much of our conversations — political, economic, existential — are premised on how we imagine the world, what our mythos of the good life is, what challenges we believe exist.

As parents hailing from Gen X, we crave unplugging. But our kids live in a different world, a different imagination, in which our admonishments are, well, demented. Our kids are trying to create a good life within the machine precisely because there is no such thing as being unplugged. Think of what we tell our kids: Stop looking at your screens and go outside! But, for them, there is no outside.

12.24.2019

The Violence of Taking Sides, or Become the Nuance You Want to See in the World

This is an excerpt from a book I'm writing about arguments. Which feels like cheating posting it here....

 
This episode eloquently articulates the violence — the fascism — at the heart of "sides."

Which side are you on? It seems like a fair question. There are arguments and battles everywhere. So, c’mon, which side you are on? Pick one!

But that’s one of those insidious questions that behooves us to interrogate it. Most conspicuously, the question can only come after the terms of the discussion have been established and sides drawn; otherwise, there’d be no sides to choose from. To ask the question, then, is to assume that we all agree to the establishment of a) the terms of the issue; and b) that there are these sides from which to choose. It’s a question that acts like it’s asking for your free choice but is, in fact, determining your thoughts before you’ve even had a chance to think.

Let’s look at an example: In the abortion issue, which side are you on? It seems innocuous, if poignant, as presumably you’re other pro-choice or pro-life. But what if you don’t agree to any of these terms? As I’ve argued elsewhere, by calling it “abortion,” we’ve already put focus on the fetus, not the woman. And then we ask: Do you think it’s a woman’s right to choose to end the life of the fetus? This is a loaded question! And terribly unfair to the woman. And, from a certain perspective, it’s an insane question to ask: as a society, we generally don’t leave the act of determining whether someone should live or not to the individual person. In such matters, “choice” doesn’t enter into the equation (of course, we could interrogate these assumptions; for instance, it seems odd that suicide is illegal, a crime against the state; but let’s put that aside for now). By calling it abortion, we’ve already decided that it’s a question of the progress — perhaps not a life, yet — of a fetus. But then saying that it’s a woman’s choice to decide what counts as life is, well, difficult to defend as a general law for a society.

What if we put the focus on the woman and her menstrual cycle and say: Should a woman have the right to regulate her own menstrual cycle? Well, that’s an absurd question that doesn’t even need to be asked because of course she does. Which is to say, if we change the terms of the question, eliminating the very concept of abortion, the issue vanishes just like that. Poof!

And yet people like to be on a side. It makes them feel less alone. How do I know this? Because it’s what we’ve doing for eons: creating, then choosing, sides. We side with these or those folks who look and talk like us. In a world of relentless argumentation, it’s nice to have sides to choose. You’re most likely not going to find someone with a MAGA hat at a pro-choice rally just as you won’t find a someone wearing tie dye and kicking a hacky sack at a MAGA rally. Sides are really more about a culture than a position, about belonging to a group. They share a vocabulary, a sense of humor, and places they shop. Sides are territories with rules and attire. The pussy hat, made popular during the Women’s March on DC, is a kind of flag staking its territory. And like any police state, sides have their modes of policing. Think about “Seinfeld’s” Kramer when he participates in the AIDS walk: he refuses to wear the ribbon and is beaten up for it. This is a common event at any march — someone wears the “wrong” thing and a hullaballoo breaks out.

Sides are fashion communities, the pussy hat a flag colonizing a certain vocabulary and territory.

But in the age of the argument, there are no longer two or even three sides to any position. As arguments proliferate, positions begin overlapping at funny angles, making it even more complex to figure out what to believe. For instance, there are proponents of psychedelics who want to medicalize it, turn these drugs into products for health and profit. And there are proponents of psychedelics who loathe the pharmaceutical companies, believing mushrooms, LSD, and DMT are paths to a cosmic consciousness — a health, for sure, but not in the way the medical industry defines it. I ask you: Are these two groups fighting for the same thing? I don’t think so. And yet they surely overlap at certain junctures. What’s true for psychedelics is true for so many so-called big issues such as gun control which is opposed by both racist separatists and by certain people in the black community who understandably feel under siege from those racist separatists as well as from our heavily armed police state. Are these two groups on the same side?

There’s a keenly hilarious scene in the Tina Fey TV show, “The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt.” Kimmie comes upon a protest, or multiple protests, around a statue of Eleanor Roosevelt asking for the statue to be taken down. One protest sign reads, “You belong in a statue of a kitchen” as another protester yells, “Eleanor Roosevelt gave us unrealistic expectations of cousins” (s4 e10). Meanwhile, a group of lesbians demand the statue come down because Eleanor never came out of the closet. Are these groups on the same side?

Are there even sides to begin with? To choose a side, to be on a side, is to assume that positions are already determined and beliefs are a matter of multiple choice rather than a matter of crafting questions and creating new ways of thinking. By assuming there are sides, we reinforce a territorial approach to belief, an approach we inherit from religions and the nation-state: Here, we believe this, not that! It's the gesture of conformity and colonization.

And we thereby eliminate the act of individual critical thinking. No need to ponder the issues. We’ve done that for you. Either you watch “Fox News” or “The Daily Show." No need to think for yourself. This is how those with power perpetuate their power: by determining the playing field. And, for the most part, people feel involved when they’re invited to play — to vote or tweet on a matter — without ever questioning the field of play or the rules of the game. We’ve come to believe that our freedom lies in choosing rather than creating the very playing field itself. The media, in particular, work hard to reinforce these reductions as it makes headlines much easier to write. It gets a whole lot messier if, every time a newspaper wanted to say something, it had to let you know what it considers the field and the rules of the game. No, it’s much easier — more lucrative — to regurgitate the given terms of a discussion.

Meanwhile, the very idea of sides perpetuates conflict and drama. Sides are thought of in geometric terms, stable spaces: on one side, there’s those kooks; and on the other side, those nutjobs. Perhaps there is some insignificant territory down in the corner, what the media like to call “independents.” But the architecture of sides is never questioned: there are sides, always pre-defined, to which are you invited. Of course, once there, you’re obliged to don the appropriate attire. Can’t watch Fox News with a pussy hat on. The very notion of a side is detrimental to our civility, eliminating independent thought while fostering oppositional aggression.

So what if we got rid of the very notion of sides and instead privileged nuance and difference, quirk and creativity? What if rather than taking sides and perpetuating them through institutions such as debate and conflict-driven media stories, we encouraged people to create their own territories, to craft their own questions. By always asking what side you’re on, we’re telling people that it’s not their job to think for themselves. The world of thought and belief, we tell them, is handed down to you by others. Your job is simply to pick a side (which, in some demented Orwellian turn, is then framed as freedom). It fosters what Nietzsche calls the herd mentality rather than critical, creative thinking that is particular, individual, novel.

Being on a side is to participate in a pre-established sets of beliefs, words, and customs. As Burroughs would say, I’m never on a side, I’m with it. He may be with a side — but only because he’s constitutive of it. He is the side. Which is a version of a great bumper sticker I once saw. You are not in traffic. You are traffic.

I want to proffer a different image for the public space of beliefs, one not premised on taking sides: a public discourse in which there will never have been sides. Rather, there will be nuance, idiosyncrasy, creativity, fresh perspectives. Instead of planting flags and shouting, there will be positions that take time to explain and time to understand — a slow belief movement, if you will. In the place of reductive headlines, there will be nuanced positions that have different modes of thought, that create new playing fields, that invent new rules. I imagine a public discourse premised on difference, not opposition.

12.23.2019

My Course on Nietzsche for Renegade University


This is the free intro to what is a 2 hours course that covers what I feel are the main aspects of Nietzsche's thinking, writing, and approach. See here >

I broke the course into six sections:
  1. Affirmation
  2. On Truth and the Creative Instinct
  3. On Morality, Slave and Noble
  4. The World Reveals Itself
  5. Living Beyond Good and Evil
  6. Nietzsche, Postmodernism, and the Political
I think it's pretty good. And my beard was something to behold. It's since been groomed. 

And there are office hours you can sign up for (for a modest fee) and do one-on-one video calls with me. Lucky you! Lucky me!


12.17.2019

Conversing with Trees


 
Look at these two trees. They're the same species, whatever that means, living yards from each other. 
Isn't it obvious that they're living different lives having having made different decisions along the way? 
Don't they exude distinctive style, each taking on the world in its own way?
Don't they communicate with the world quite differently?

I grew up for the most part just north of Manhattan in a tiny town along the Hudson River replete with big bold trees — old massive oaks and maples, some weeping willows, perhaps a Japanese maple or two and, well, that's all the tree names I know. I never took particular notice of said trees. They were always just there, a leafy green background. Mostly, I was wary of the poison ivy that plagued my young summers.

Then, in the early Fall of my junior year of high school, that all changed. One particular night, infused with sudden sensitivity, I could hear the trees. They weren't speaking words we know. This was not some magical world of lore where the trees whisper secrets to me about my life: Seek the love of the dark haired yogi, Vaguely Rabbinical One. Oy, that would be depressing. Can you imagine being a tree and caring whether I date someone or not? To imagine that trees care much about this human nonsense is absurd, limiting, and dangerous. Humans are one relatively minor part of an elaborate ecological symphony. Whether the trees reveal heretofore unknown truths to me is incidental rather than necessary. Like any communication, it can fall on deaf ears, be read this way or that, or just be plain old banal.

These trees weren't communicating in some arborescent semiotic system. This was not "Arrival" — no linguists were needed to parse this root grammar and decode verdant symbols. I'm sure trees have some sort of linguistic structures but I didn't need to know those to hear what these trees, mostly oaks, were saying.

And yet trees of course communicate as trees communicate. How could it be otherwise? A tree speaks a tree perspective, necessarily, just as I speak mine, the gnat its, bovine theirs, cars theirs, and so on. The language of the cosmos is babble and includes the organic and inorganic alike.

And yet we're not bound solely by our local linguistic structures. That would be a dramatically bad reading of what's come to be known as postmodern social constructivism which believes we write our own stories as we see fit. No one I have ever read has ever said such a thing. All arguments, all communication, happen within a milieu of bodies and forces that language inflects, hedges, and distributes. And vice-versa: forces and bodies inflect, hedge, and distribute language.

Communication is not something added to the world. Communication — whether linguistic, terrestrial, affective — is constitutive of the very fabric of the world. The universe communicates. Suns and planets flirt and fight, nudging, enticing, seducing each other. A galaxy is a conversation.

We speak to each other all the time across languages, time periods, geographies, and species. Some of this communication takes place within the linguistic economies of meaning — grammar, signs, inflection. These economies are themselves fundamentally cooperative: language, after all, doesn't belong to anyone. We share these words and these grammars. We operate together in this space of communication, in this in-between where meaning, affect, and bodies are proffered and metabolized — even when speaking in the traditional sense of words.

So when we talk about communication, let's not keep our focus restricted to the ways we learn languages in schools — memorizing conjugations, inflections, vocabulary. Those are just tools. Communication happens between bodies of every sort along multiple registers at once — conceptual, affective, desirous. And while we don't all technically speak the same language, we do all communicate in some form.

Why wouldn't we communicate with trees? Trees are so verbose, so expressive, always and necessarily — almost aggressively so. If you start paying attention, the din of it all can be deafening. But I only took notice, at 16 and suddenly sensitive, when the trees had shed their leaves. All these branches stopping, starting, shifting size and direction. In fact, we call this kind of inflection articulation as in these branches are so articulated and, well, so articulate. They gesture so much and so explicitly. Look. As the great poet, writer, and theorist Kat Mandeville wrote me, "the breeze in the leaves & branches is as emotion & thought is through a face."

Trees have so much to say. Don't you hear all that articulation. What's your reply?

To be clear, it was not a matter of the trees bestowing their ancient natural wisdom upon my foolish human ears. I never want to suggest that humans and our language are somehow lesser than any other language or life — of birds, buffalo, trees, gods. We speak our languages amid the great chorus of languages we call life. Everything speaks its tongue — rocks, doors, ants, kittens, children, plants, machines. And we can understand each other! Just as English speakers can make sense of other people while traveling through Asia, Africa, South America, we can make sense of other forms, living and not. How else could we function with the world if we weren't communicating with it? If linguistic structures were the sole mode of discursive engagement? There are other registers of meaning beyond, within, below our local dialects.


Image result for truth and method gadamer
One of those books that pervades my thinking.
This is the premise of Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics in which understanding is a necessary component of communication. This position stands it stark contrast to Jacques Derrida's deconstruction where understanding is perpetually deferred — we look up a word in the dictionary, then all the words in that definition, then all the words in that definition, ad infinitum so meaning never arrives (for those interested, Derrida calls this diffĂ©rance; to read for this deferral in any text is what he calls deconstruction.) For Gadamer, understanding doesn't come from linguistic signification but from co-habitation of a space-time continuum or what he calls history. We are of this time and place, however linguistically or experientially different; our communication is hence necessarily of the same stuff. His Truth and Method is one of the books that pervades me to this day. (Gadamer and Derrida actually had a public debate about precisely this).

The trees, then, were speaking with me — not to me, with me. All communication, linguistic or otherwise, is multi-directional. It's never a true hermetic soliloquy. I was active in this conversation even if I had little of substance to add. I was only 16, after all. I think one reason I like talking with trees is what they have to say is usually more interesting than what I have to say. It's such a luxury to shut up and listen without being bored or annoyed. Trees are not inherently more interesting than people; they just happen to usually be as they've lived such different lives than I have and usually care about things more interesting than Trump, their job, their romantic lives, or their precious kids. But of course there are boring trees, too.

I say I could hear the trees but that isn't quite right. In fact, I'd say there was nothing to hear per se but that wouldn't be correct, either. I was certainly hearing them — only it wasn't just my ears in play. There was a murmuring, albeit incredibly articulate, that I could see and feel, both sensually and affectively. My senses, my body, and my feelings were being palpated by these trees. As in any rhetorical exchange, I was literally moved. These trees, like all things, were making an impression on me. Such is the way of all communication: when we see, hear, feel, smell, taste things, said things press upon us leaving their mark. All sensing is palpation of a sort.

Keeping senses distinct never suffices. Experience is necessarily synesthetic. How weird would it be if communication occurred through the silos of the senses? My ears hear but I don't sense you in any other way? Feel your presence? How could that be possible? We all know that the encounters we remember are communications that register at different registers at once — the conceptual to the erotic to the physical to the affective. Earthquakes are the earth communicating. All communication is vibratory, more or less intensive, more or less conceptual, more or less moving. We feel it as much as we understand it.

So when I found myself conversing with the trees, all of me was in play, not just my ears. Much of hearing a tree demands seeing. When you look at a tree, you see all these gestures, all these decisions: you see time. You see style. When I gesture, which I do often, said gesture comes and goes and my body goes on as it was before. But the gesture of a tree — the way a branch twists and turns and reaches for the sky — takes time. Trees wear and bear their decisions in their very fabric. We see these gestures happening sprawled over decades, over centuries, playing out before us. The rings of a tree are the most famous way trees wear their time. But it happens elsewhere as in the winding of a branch, the undulations of bark, in the reach of roots' reckoning.

And, sure, were I an arborist or botanist, I'd be able to decode much of a tree's communication. But that language never suffices for surely trees communicate more than what particular climate or animal phenomena shaped their bark or whether they're sick. In fact, I'm tempted to say that being privy to that knowledge can impede your communication with trees as all you're looking for are signs — and signs are necessarily backwards looking, pointing to pre-established meanings. Communication, however, happens now. Yes, it's always historical but it's also part of a moving, living body expressing itself — its mood, desires, its longing — in the moment. Much of what we say lurks in the how.

A tree's gestures are slow, taking decades, even centuries. Look at how this tree dances. Such style! We see its gestures emerging, a dance in achingly patient slow-mo. 

Look at a tree. Look how it winds, twists, and turns. It doesn't grow with maximum efficiency. Its growth is not a matter of instinct, at least not as we imagine instinct. You can see the decisions of the tree, how it bends and bows just so, spreads its branches and leaves. Trees grow for fun; they grow for love, with love, in love. They play just as all living things play. How do I know this? They tell me.

When I left my home town for college in Philly, I thought I'd lost the thread of my conversations with trees. It was as if all I could speak was oak and maple. But then one day as I was traipsing down one of the the utterly depressing streets of West Philadelphia — much of West Philly is actually quite gorgeous — I was stopped in my tracks by this wise cracking ginkgo. It had its leaves. And it wasn't offering anything that seemed of cosmic import. It was just a particularly witty tree. Every time I'd see it, I'd crack up. And, no, I wasn't laughing at this tree; it was not funny looking. I was laughing with this tree because it was just so dry and funny.

This surprised me. I think I always imagined that trees could only be serious. Wit seemed so, well, human. But I was wrong: wit and humor are constitutive of the cosmos. We know this from watching animals play; they can often be tricky, clever, and silly with each other. The same is true of foliage: it can be clever, witty, playful, funny.

Since that one night in 1986, I've been able to speak with trees. For a while, this communication came readily and was in fact so loud, their bellowing often drowned out everything else. I had to hush them. Over time, this conversational ease with the trees faded. It became more difficult to hear them. These days, I have to stop and listen, open myself up, as if recalling those fragments of French I heard as a child.

Such is the way of all hearing, all communication: it takes an opening up with all one's senses. Amid the din of the everyday, we tend to fall into the habit of only hearing the strictly linguistic, the things people say, the what and not the how. But such words are only one aspect of any communication, of any conversation, of any event. The world speaks to us if we know how to listen. The world speaks with us if we know how to converse.

11.14.2019

Travel Shmavel


Travel is one of those things that, in my socio-economic class at least, is an assumed good. All you have to do is peruse any dating app — at least in the Bay Area — and see that travel is this hallowed, revered act, an unquestioned good. Every woman, and I assume every man, proudly displays their pictures from exotic lands as they giddily inquire: Where's my next adventure? Jordan, maybe. Or Cappadocia! Let's grab our passports and go! This word, adventure, comes up a lot. I'll get to that.

All of this is unfortunate for me as, well, I don't particularly care for travel. And, in our world today, I'm the one who needs to defend this heretical belief. Such is the way of discourse: it establishes the terms of what can be said and the relative valence of those things. In the discourse of our times, travel is good. It just is. So as one who doesn't share this sentiment, the obligation falls upon me to explain myself.

The same goes for lots of things in my life. Take voting. Of course I don't vote. Why would I participate in such a conspicuously corrupt system and give the impression that voting mattered? (I've written about that here.) Yes, many of you are bristling as the usual mantras are paraded out. You can't complain if you don't vote. Which is funny as I feel the opposite: if you participate in this corrupt system, you can't complain! In any case, to most people, voting is an assumed good and so my refusal to participate is met first with a distinctly violent bile — so goes that liberal attitude! — and then with the burden of having to defend my presumed heresy.

Profanity is another area. I used to curse like a banshee in my lectures at Berkeley. Every semester, there would always be at least one student who'd ask me why I curse so much. This question really irked me. After all, why wouldn't I use any and all words at my disposal, especially ones that convey such emphatic umph?!? So I'd refuse to answer and put the question to them: Why don't you curse? The burden of defense should not fall to me. After their initial fluster, their answers never persuaded me to change my ways.

So, yes, travel. Let me be clear. I've traveled. I even enjoy traveling, sometimes. I've driven across the United States repeatedly, each time with great relish and delight. The rolling plains of Nebraska running into the towering peaks of the Rockies only to majestically descend into the salt flat desert before crossing the Sierras and meeting the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco: Oy! So good! And that's just taking i80! So, yes, I like seeing different skies and colors. I've even traveled all around Europe as people from my background tend to do. I feel like this needed to be said. I'm building my case. Bear with me.

Personally, I don't like traveling that much as it makes the most mundane things — water, food, bed, money — of the utmost importance. At home, all the quotidian nonsense is tended to: I know how to get water and food, where to pee, how to spend money. This allows me to focus on other things that interest me more, namely, ideas, words, my own sense of peace. Mind you, I understand that having the everyday become extraordinary affords its pleasure and, better, its pedagogy. But, for the most part, I'd rather have such things be taken for granted.

Language, however, is a more interesting matter when traveling. I relish speaking and speaking cleverly, eloquently, wittily, quickly. Being in another country strips me of all this. I always hated that thing that happens when I'm in another country and I'm reduced to the vocabulary of a toddler, at best, and so my native hosts and I giggle at my attempt to find a bathroom. It's humiliating. And yet I can see the value of doing it now and again, to be stripped of my linguistic scaffold, just to render me humble. So every now and again, yes, I can see that value of traveling.

But all the time? I have things to say, dammit! I want to be funny and witty. I want to make keen cultural references and not always have to explain them. I want to be able to discuss architectures of the invisible, topologies of the event, the nuances of an infinite gaze. I want to be able to flirt and inflect, emphasize and qualify, refine and explore. These are things I do here all the time that I can't do when I travel. So when someone tells me I need to travel to expand my boundaries, I tell them: Expand your vocabulary! Try to think radically differently!

Then there's this word I've noticed of late, a word travelers return to so readily: adventure. This is a tricky one as it's always relative. Travelers who seek adventure in Bora Bora more than likely don't seek adventure every day in who they are and how they go. In my experience, the people who talk the most about travel adventures are the most set in their ways. They have a salary job and always have had one; they own their place; they think and believe the same things day in and day out. Me, I refuse to have a job job so, financially, it's always an adventure. I try to think differently all the time, push myself — sometimes — to be different. And, yes, this might even involve traveling — but not because travel is inherently adventurous but because it takes me out of my comfort zone. I'd ask some of these Tinder travelers if they've ever considered the infinite curvature of space, the untethering of the ego, if they've smoked DMT and had their lives rearranged in ways they never thought possible.

I'll say this: the people I know who have traveled for adventure, truly, are the people who would never say they love travel and adventure. In fact, the person I know who's traveled the most extensively far and away, and the most adventurously, is the one person who rarely brings it up. In fact, when I met her through a dating app many years ago, I believe she never even mentioned travel in her profile. In my interpretation, she views thinking and being differently as continuous with travel.

On the other hand, I had a hilarious date once in which this exact subject came up. I knew the date was a disaster so, rather than playing my predefined role within the discourse, I turned it on its head. I told her I don't like traveling and why did she? She became flustered and said, I shit you not, "Travel expands my boundaries." To which I replied: "And yet you can't understand why I don't like travel (not to mention everything else about me)"?  The irony was so glaring I couldn't stop laughing. Needless to say, there was no second date.

But it's pretty obvious that the squarest people are the ones who talk about the adventure of travel the most. What is square? As I've said, it's the people with a job they think they love with desires and aspirations right out of Hollywood drivel. Meanwhile, I've met — and loved — women who love to travel, love adventure, who are not square at all. And they don't assume travel is a good; they travel because they like it as a pedagogy and existential delight.

So why do the squarest people insist on travel adventures so insistently? Because they're miserable! This is the logic of people who live for the weekend: they accept that their time is owned by their capitalist overlords that they're grateful for the weekend. Eeesh! But I get it, I do. People are so unhappy as their vitality and well-being are drained from them in a systematic fashion. And rather than question this oppression, they take whatever slivers of life their owners dole out. Two weeks vacation! So of course they want to go hang gliding in Bora Bora! It's their only chance to be free.

And, yes, seeing the desert in Zion National Park, the Maasai in Tanzania, hiking the Himalayas are all of course amazing, even life changing, boundary extending adventures. But other things are amazing and life changing, too, that many "adventurous" travelers never indulge. Which is to say, just because travel can be amazing doesn't make it a mandate. More often that not, I fear, travel is a treat thrown to people by their colonial overlords to get a whiff of existence before returning to their cubicle. By having all the banalities of life rise to the fore, these people are forced to focus on things besides their life draining job and depressing search for a mate. It's a vacation, not an adventure — a respite from the fray, a way to quash any desire to leave or smash the system.

This is why travel is considered an inherent good in our popular discourse: it's become the opiate of the masses. To be as clear as possible, this is not to knock travel per se. It's to knock the widespread assumption that travel is an inherent good while masking deep existential malaise. I just wish this declared will to expand one's boundaries and experience adventure were a greater part of everyday life. Of course, maybe I'm just a homebody who enjoys his comforts (or so I've been told; I don't disagree). The more likely scenario, however, is it's all of the above.

11.04.2019

Space Taught Me Everything




On the eve of my 50th birthday, I found myself blissfully alone at ocean's edge — Stinson Beach, to be precise, just north of San Francisco, a slice of the coast tucked behind some earthly swells at the end of a stretch of windy-as-fuck Highway 1. Which is to say, while it is a well known beach, it is not so casually visited. There were no lit high schoolers with bonfires, no toddlers shrieking, no families arguing. It was just the infinite and me — and a freakish number of pelicans. I love pelicans — they're pterodactyls! — and they were kind enough to put on a show just for me.

Anyway, it was hours before the near full moon rose and, as the sun set, the sky became denser and denser with this and that. As I reckoned it and it, in turn, reckoned me, I could feel the cosmic embrace, the fullness of it surround me. And I realized that the key realizations in my life have been about space which, while seeming to contradict each other, actually conspire to offer a view on existence that informs my life at every turn, in every way.


My step father was an astronomer who studied the atmospheres of other planets. Perhaps this is what had me looking up at the night sky at a young age. But, unlike him, I wasn't interested in planets. Nor was I interested in stars, galaxies, asteroids; I never cared for the names on moons or constellation. I still don't know which way is north. No, I was interested in space itself, that infinite regress. (I wrote about that here).

And this, the infinity of space, is what transformed me starting at a very young age. To quote myself (what an odd and beautiful thing to do, to quote oneself, to see one's writing for what it is, fodder out there, no more mine than yours): "Lying alone at night tucked into my safari sheets, I'd track the movement in my head from the bed outwards — past my ceiling and roof, past the trees, through the clouds, past the everyday blue sky and moon, past the sun and planets, past the stars. What I loved was that the movement didn't end...." I found this experience at once intoxicating and erotic in a pre-sexual way: my nine year old body would quiver, the limits of my mind giving way as layer after layer of existence vanished in the rearview mirrior — past the ceiling, clouds, atmosphere, past the solar system, past all those stars — woosh, woosh, woosh until my mind and body became one continuous woosh! I became  verb, a will to infinity, pure becoming.

This was my first awakening: space is infinite. It's not just so-called gods and ideas, morals and concepts, that are temporally infinite. The stuff of this world — the world itself! — is infinite. Extension, which everywhere seems limited, has no final limit. Oh yes.
 
And as space is infinite, there's no fixed position, no final orientation of anything — no center, no up or down. This radical decentering of my existence was exhilarating. I never found it upsetting or disorienting: I found it liberating, ecstatic — the ecstasy of vertigo as I imagined myself hurling through the cosmos. In such a vertiginous world, you're always where you are, a relative position that is nevertheless absolute precisely because you're not closer or farther from a center. You are the center just as no one is ever the center. 


But then there is this second realization I had about space much later: space is shaped. It is relentlessly inflected, bending this way and that. We can see it when we look up at the sky and see the curvature, see the bends. Space, then, is not a neutral backdrop in which planets and other things move about. Space is itself something — a fabric, a flesh, so much stuff. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to see this. Just look up. You can see the shaping of space, its bends and curves, its swirls. I could sure see it, feel it, know it that night at Stinson. I could see, feel, and know the very texture of the cosmos — not as black abyss, not as a nothing, but as an all this

A few days later, I was talking to my parents, sharing this very couple of insights. And my mother replies: "Well, that's a contradiction. Shapes have limits so can't be infinite." This, I'm willing to bet, is a common perception of both shape and infinity: shape is bound, infinity is unbound.

But that's confusion born of a series of interconnected mis-readings of things. We assume infinity is a generality, a concept rather than a function, an operation, or a trait. I knew as kid that there must be difference between the infinity that exists between numbers 1 and 2 and, say, the infinity of space. Sure, conceptually we can say they're both infinite and be done with it. But this disregards a very strange aspect of infinity: it's particular. There is not just one infinity — except as a concept. There are infinite infinities.

Consider the number Pi. It's infinite. And not only is it infinite, it's non-repeating (which means it's not 3.14141414...). It's an infinite number that is absolutely particular and unknowable before experiencing it: it is infinite along this trajectory and this trajectory alone, according to such and such rules that are continually playing themselves out. There are teams of scientists dedicated to finding the next number in Pi. So Pi is, indeed, infinite and has limits. After all, it doesn't sprawl in every direction as it becomes every number. No, it stays very much itself — unto infinity. It is a becoming, much like me lying in bed, my mind moving towards the infinity of space. We're all wooshes. Or, better, we're all wooshing.

This is all to say, there is no neutral ground, no backdrop, no nothing. All there is is something(s). The world is full of itself, a plenum. There is no vacuum per se. And everything is in the mix. We may look at the planets and stars but we look at space, too. And space is not nothing; on the contrary, it is something — the interstellar and intergalactic medium of plasma and such. Space is not a tablecloth on which we set the table. It pushes and pulls, it careens and swirls, bending light, gasses, bodies, moods, and minds.

We know this as we make our way through the world, walking down streets. Every moment is something, full and rich, brimming with sense, affect, light, gas, smell, dreams, dust. We tend to focus on ourselves and the petty nonsense that defines us — job, shopping, dinner, dates. But despite our best efforts to act like actors on the backdrop of the world, this backdrop is nudging us this way and that. All these swirls of mood. (The first three "Pirates of Caribbean" films perform this well: in the first, there are actors on a boat; in the second, the boat is alive; in the third, the ocean is alive until the whole thing is a gaseous mess, beautiful and unwieldy.)

This double whammy of ideas that came to me looking at the sky has informed everything I think and am:
  • Infinity is a dimension of extension as much as a dimension of thought.
  • This means there is no fixed orientation, no up or down. We are all free floating, the ecstasy of vertigo.
  • I am the center; there is no center; everything is the center; nothing is the center.
  • There is no such thing as neutrality; everything is inflected.
  • The infinite is inflected; there are infinite infinities.
  • A thing, including each person, is a particular infinity: Pi(n)
This is how I see the world: all these becomings becoming unto infinity, all these Non Terminating Non Repeating Decimals, all these inflections of space, all this stuff I'm swimming in and swimming with, all these eddies and streams of affect and thought and gas, all swishing every which way as we hurtle and plod and saunter through a shaped cosmos that is always becoming along an infinite trajectory. It's a messy every-which-way world and it's confusing and beautiful and asks very different things of us than perhaps we'd previously  thought. Sometimes, we may even have to, together, turn the whole damn thing upside down.




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10.22.2019

Why Phenomenology, or Transcendence without Asceticism



I like saying phenomenology. Among other reasons, it reminds me of manah manah, which brings me such joy for so many reasons — some personal, some more general.

Growing up in my house, we didn't watch a lot of TV. But one thing we all watched as a family was the brilliant, beautiful, hilarious "The Muppet Show." My siblings and I actually had Muppet Show action figures; mine was Statler. Of all the skits and characters manah manah stands out to this day. I assume I am not alone in this.

The delirium of it all! Put aside the music for a moment and consider the strange drama. After all, they're not just performing the song. There's this odd dynamic between the Animal-like singer and his alien back up singers, some burbling hostility from him that seems paranoid. How can we not be paranoid in the media age? But, in this case, his paranoia seems ill formed, a Hunter Thompson bad trip. What are these aliens doing??? And yet, despite his fear, he's still feeling it, man! What a beautiful drama. What a beautiful take on the "show must go on."

Then again, maybe it's the paranoia inherent to all assemble music. Everywhere I go, they go! 

And Sharkey says...."You know, I can see two tiny pictures of myself and there's one in each of your eyes. And they're doin' everything I do
Every time I light a cigarette, they light up theirs
I take a drink and I look in and they're drinkin' too
It's drivin' me crazy. It's drivin' me nuts."


In any case, manah manah is brilliant as a complex of factors intertwine in odd ways. The best sense is the sense that belies sense and hence has to create it. At the performance's end, we cut to Statler and Waldorf who provide their ever incisive critique:

Statler: The question is, what is a manah mahah?
Waldorf: The question is, who cares?

From phenomenology to manah manah to paranoia to Laurie Anderson and William Burroughs to the critical insight of Waldorf: this is how immanent reading works, how phenomenological critique functions. It follows emergent networks, follows threads that wind here then there, often taking us to surprising places as it stitches together new fabrics of the world. This is the world emerging before our eyes, genesis in action. This is the absolute.

And this, for me, is the pleasure and the promise of phenomenology: it offers a logic and a methodology of engaging the world that never settles for transient pleasures but rather miraculously manages to find the absolute, the cosmos itself, within experience.

Phenomenology, of course, comes from "phenomenon." It's a philosophy that begins with our experience of things, with phenomena, rather than with ideas or concepts. This runs against the grain of how many people imagine truth to function. Things, we tend to believe, are ephemera. What matters is what's eternal — the soul, truth, big ideas, things we can't touch, things that aren't things at all as they don't pass away.

For millennia, philosopher after philosopher along with theologian after theologian has argued that our senses can't be trusted. We can't know the world through the world, they maintain; we can only know it through the mind, through reason, through prayer, through a denial of the world. How bizarre! This prompts Nietzsche to argue that both religion and science are nihilistic: their methodologies for knowing the world are premised on a rejection of the world, a hatred for life.

Descartes, for instance, locked himself in a room and found himself doubting everything about his senses. The one thing he decided he couldn't doubt was that he was doubting which, in his mind, was thinking — hence his famous proclamation, his refutation of skepticism, cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am. For Descartes, as for much of the Enlightenment that followed, the way to ascertain truth is through the operations of thinking, of the mind, of reason.

Not one to trust the senses either, Kant gets himself into some truly convoluted positions as he tries to make sense of the aesthetic experience. The beautiful, Kant argues, is indeed a claim about the thing one sees: that painting there is beautiful. And yet there is no universal concept of the beautiful to rely on such as Kant discovers in, say, morality. At the same time, the experience of beauty isn't purely subjective either because, in that case, you wouldn't be making a claim about the painting — you'd be making a claim about yourself: I think that painting is beautiful rather than that painting is beautiful

Kant's resolution is strange — all because he assumes the senses can't be trusted. Beauty, for Kant, doesn't reside in the painting per se but in the  universal effects of the painting on the faculties — sensibility, understanding, reason. Beauty, Kant maintains, puts the faculties into a state of proportional play without resolution into a category or concept: it is an experience, not a knowledge. But Kant distrusts the senses so much that the senses' experience of beauty is not relevant; what matters is the effects of the thing on the faculties of the mind. Nothing is more insane than reason.

As Nietzsche argues, science and religion share an asceticism as both deny the reliability of experience. Our bodies, they both argue, can't discover or deliver the truth. For science, only reason can bring forth truth — reason carried out in a lab as free of human experience as possible, ideally in a vacuum. Yes, science for centuries has believed that the truth of the world can only be known in a place that can't exist in the universe, a literal no place — a vacuum. This version of science is, alas, not empirical.

Meanwhile, religion has long enjoyed a disdain for the body, for the things of this world, preferring to focus on some nether region — heaven, the after life, the soul. This is as true of Catholicism which denies its priests the experience of sex as it is of Judaism and Islam with its women forced to cover themselves as it is for so much of Buddhism that focuses on monks who remove themselves from the everyday, refuse sex, and eat gruel day in and day out as they sweep the monastery steps.

Now, many throughout history have worked against these ascetic tendencies. There are writers of all sorts who relish the pleasures of the body — Rabelais' grotesque Gargantua, de Sade's museums of sexual torture, many anonymous Victorians' lusty affairs, Oscar Wilde's celebration of whimsy. The common approach to these varied and brilliant texts is to reduce them to hedonists privileging the senses over and against ideas and reason. They are, from such a vantage, immoral rather than amoral — outside of morality all together. (Needless to say, these all operate in more complex ways than I can explain here. For example, to read de Sade's "Justine" is to transcend the everyday and experience the sublime, the rupturing of order and boundary including the order of the body.)

We are left, then, with this false and crippling dichotomy: on the one hand, the pleasures, horrors, and inherent limitations of the flesh; on the other, the good, if at times demanding, truths of eternal ideas.

Ah, but phenomenology offers a radical alternative to such a reductive duality, a line of flight as Deleuze and Guattari might say — a new approach that at once supersedes and takes leave of such ascetic dualism. Experience, phenomenology claims, is not just the only way to experience the world, to know the world: it's the way to experience the truths of the world, its ecstasy, its abundance: experience as the way to touch the absolute. It's not by taking leave of the body that we transcend the limitations of our bodies; it is through our experience as a body, with our bodies, that we come to participate in the creation of the universe itself. We don't just witness the absolute. We become the absolute. 

In Creative Evolution, the great French philosopher of the early 20th century, Henri Bergson, argues that rather than facilitating knowledge of the world, the models of knowledge we have impede our understanding of the world. In fact, our models make knowing the world impossible! So he proffers another way that I consider phenomenological: "[A]n intellect bent upon the act to be performed and the reaction to follow, feeling its object so as to get its mobile impression at every instant, is an intellect that touches something of the absolute." He calls this methodology intuition.

Let me parse this. He asks us to bend our intellect to the thing at hand, the event, in order to feel that things' movement through the world. The senses make an impression: when we see, touch, feel, smell, hear the world, the world enters us, impresses itself upon us. As a later French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, to see the world is to be entwined with the world as seer and seen swap places at near infinite speed. And so Bergson has us feeling, with our senses and intellect, for the movement of things as they move and impress themselves upon us — and, in so doing, we participate in the genesis of the world: we touch something of the absolute. 

Note that the absolute here does not refer to an absolute truth or a fixed state but to the very phenomena of the world happening. This absolute is not the finality of scientific knowing nor of religious transcendence: it is the absolute of life itself in all its temporality. Bergson uses the word "absolute" to distinguish this mode of knowing from casual sensory experiences that are mired in layers of cultural nonsense, that are mere habit. This knowing transcends — but it doesn't transcend life itself: it transcends the bullshit of culture by enmeshing you in life, with life, as life.

The religious promise of transcendence is nihilistic, ascetic, disdaining this life for the spirit, the soul, for the swells of silence that refuse the banter of humanity. Phenomenological transcendence is of another order all together: through this methodology of intuition, we transcend but we don't transcend this world. On the contrary, we touch this world intimately, transcending the blindness of habit and idiocy by entwining ourselves with the the undulations and vibrations, the smells and textures, the endless emergence of the world.

Science, in an effort to know the world, leans back from it. Religion, in order to discover divinity, turns away from the flesh. But phenomenology goes the other direction — to know the world as the absolute, it leans into the way of things, feels the friction of becoming, taste the fumes of creation and loves it all. This knowing is neither categorical nor divine: it is worldly, winding every which way: manah manah to infinity. Manah manah as transcendence.

Plugged, Unplugged: Conflicting Mythoi

When my son was around 10 (he's now 16), he started a YouTube channel dedicated to aliens and the ensuing cover up(s) by various governm...