9.24.2019

Data Property, Not Data Privacy: How Blockchain Can Change the World




Privacy as a Red Herring
So I recently watched the Netflix documentary, “The Great Hack,” which purports to reveal the nefarious things Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have done with our data. It seems these companies used our information to sell us things — in particular, to sell us a world view that supported a certain candidate in an election. Egad!

What the film, in its achingly obvious and predetermined sanctimony, fails to talk about is that these companies — Facebook and Cambridge Analytica along with Google, 23andMe, etc — sell our data without sharing any of the wealth with us. Another way to say this is that these companies steal our property, generating such absurdly vast wealth — for themselves.

Now, the film’s presumed whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, repeatedly says this to the camera. But the film ignores this thread, focusing on how one or two companies seem to have been unethical in how they used our data. No mention of massive theft. No mention of financial retribution. No mention of Ms. Kaiser’s campaign, #OwnYourData. Instead, the film turns the systematic, institutional pillaging of our data into a few instances of bad behavior.

Which of course is precisely what Facebook wants. As long as the conversation is about data privacy, not data property, all it has to do is amend some terms of service, perhaps pay some fines, while its immense coffers remain untouched. The audience feels outraged. But the real question — whose property is this data? — remains unasked.

What is the Information Resource Economy?
As Edward Hickman, the CEO of Anatha, argues we are living in an information age economy — a resource economy of information. That is, information has become the most valuable asset in the planet — more than oil — propelling what are now the richest companies in the world.

We all know this. We are not an economy of manufacturing; we are an economy of data. The biggest companies in the world, such as Google and Facebook, don’t make much. In fact, the things they make — software — they mostly give away for free. They make their money by selling information. But here’s the odd thing: it’s not their information they’re selling. It’s ours. And yet when we talk about data today, the discussion is never about property — and its theft by these companies — but always about privacy.

In the age of smart devices, consider for a moment all the data you (potentially) generate that is used and sold for enormous profits. Take your driving: where you drive, how fast your drive, what car you drive, how often you buy a new car, how often you repair your car. Now clothes: what clothes you buy, how much research you do before you buy, when you buy them, where you buy them, why you buy them. Your music, your food habits, your home buying, your DNA, your voting, what you read and watch: all this is your data that companies want, that they gather and sell.

And yet we don’t share in any of the tremendous wealth that our data generates. And, what’s stranger, we even pay to give our data away. Just think about companies like 23andMe. People pay to give their DNA to a company which turns and sells it to pharmaceutical companies.

Now, I understand that 23andMe provides a service that costs the company money. The same is true of Google and Facebook: they spend money creating software that we use and should therefore be compensated. Of course. But should they own 100% of the profits our data generates — data that we literally create?

What I’m saying is that we are experiencing a dramatic shift in the global economy. Whereas resources such as oil and metals dominated the economy for decades, information is now the most valuable asset. And where does this data reside? In each of us, individually. Every person alive is a kind of oil well, an enormous and continuous source of this sought-after resource. Each person is now their own source of wealth generation. The question is: Who gets to enjoy this wealth?

I understand that legally defining the limits of data property can be tricky. After all, if I’m using Facebook’s software stored on their servers, why isn’t it their data? I understand that, perhaps, this needs to be worked out by the courts.

But there’s a better solution: it can be worked out by the market via new economic tools in which individuals not only control their data, they share in the value it generates. Consider for a moment that the the country of Iceland sold the DNA of its population to Roche for $200M which, I believe, it shared back with its citizens.

What if there were a new social media app in which all users were stakeholders? Where you shared in the wealth generated by your activity, by the content you created? Wouldn’t we all use that one? We don’t need the courts. We need new applications — and new economic tools to drive them.

Enter Information Age Economic Tools: Blockchain & Decentralization
Try to picture Facebook, Google, Uber, Twitter, Yelp suddenly shifting their economic model and sharing the wealth they generate selling your data. Well, it’d be complicated — technologically and practically speaking. All those unique contracts between the company and its two billion users. Oy!

Now try to picture the complexities of actually sharing that wealth with you. All those different currencies, each with its own set of regulations that change nation to nation. The fact is: it’s hard for me to even get paid by my clients. They issue a check from a bank that holds their money; they send that to me; I then go to another bank that holds my money. If my client chooses to wire me money rather than send a paper check — yes, most payments are still done via paper checks — then there are other intermediaries overseeing and managing that flow of funds. We take this process so for granted that we never even consider it odd that all these intermediaries — multiple banks and payment services, each with their own legal regulations — have to manage an exchange between two parties, my client and me.

Why can’t my client just pay me directly? Because that’s not how our centralized economy of government run fiat currency functions. Everything has to be run through a central point.

Blockchain technology, along with other means of decentralization both known and yet-known, proffer a different model. Currencies are no longer managed by a central party such as a government or corporation. Rather, each runs independently, according to rules set forth from the get go (if you don’t like the rules, use a different currency; yes, cryptocurrencies make currency itself multiple and competitive). So payments are peer-to-peer. No need for the bevy of intermediaries that carry money from one person to another — no need for banks, no need for financial services such as VISA, no third parties siphoning off money just so my client can pay me.

At the heart of these currencies is what people call a smart contract. A smart contract is an automated, computer-run set of transactions between parties that needs no third-party to oversee or execute it. It executes itself. As Blockgeeks define it: “Smart contracts help you exchange money, property, shares, or anything of value in a transparent, conflict-free way while avoiding the services of a middleman. The best way to describe smart contracts is to compare the technology to a vending machine. Ordinarily, you would go to a lawyer or a notary, pay them, and wait while you get the document. With smart contracts, you simply drop a bitcoin into the vending machine (i.e. ledger), and your escrow, driver’s license, or whatever drops into your account."

So now picture a social media company, such a new version of Facebook, that is run on a decentralized platform. When you sign up, you agree to certain terms — what data you’ll share and sell (if any) and what data you won’t. Based on these terms, as the company manages and sells your data, real spendable value is returned to you. It’s all worked out by the smart contract as payment is delivered directly from the company — that is to say, from the network or DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) — to you.

And while you’re probably thinking that the company would inevitably try to screw you over, two aspects of such decentralized technologies are immutability and transparency. As all transactions — the exchange of data and currency — happens on the blockchain, they are all recorded for anyone to see (transparent). There is no way to tamper with it, no way to embezzle (immutable). This is why these networks and contracts are called trustless — not because you don’t trust anyone but because you don’t need to trust anyone. The code executes the terms of the deal without anyone getting involved.

Suddenly, all technological and bureaucratic obstacles are removed. As the information resource economy is as distributed and decentralized as human beings are, the blockchain offers distributed, decentralized economic tools, readily distributing wealth as information is created and shared.

Now picture your own digital identity that moves between apps, smart devices, and currencies. At each step, you control what data you share and what you don’t while you share in whatever value your data generates — automatically.

And voilà: now every person on the planet who so chooses is suddenly participating in the vast wealth creation that is the information economy. And, together, we all flourish.
Some years in the future, we’ll look back at this time as the age of the Information Robber Barons. Do you remember Facebook, we’ll ask each other, that company that so relentlessly stole our data to get rich? That was nuts! I wonder what happened to them.

9.23.2019

Uncertainty & Stories All the Way Down: On HBO's "The Leftovers"

So, yes, this essay has spoilers. But what's a spoiler, exactly? And do they matter? "The Leftovers" is an odd beast that is at once highly expressive, leading with affect, sentiment, and feelings. In fact, its affective intensity is downright relentless even, or especially, as it's inflected by strong, incongruous music choices.

 
 "The Leftovers" deploys strong music choices that inflect the action and feeling in endlessly surprising ways. The music rewrites the story we're seeing, another "fact" within the storytelling.

At the same time, the show is fundamentally driven by narrative twists and turns. In fact, the show is of, and about, competing narratives on the cosmic, societal, and personal level —  narratives that will never have been veneer or ornament but, on the contrary, are ontological in that they are the shaping of life itself.

"The Leftovers" argues that stories are relational, putting people, data, events, and feelings in relationships to each other. This makes them epistemological as all knowledge claims are first, foremost, and finally stories that link things together in a way that makes sense. And ontological in a sense as stories don't create the world but, in their distribution of experience, data, and events, they are always already shaping life itself. Stories don't come after the fact or before the fact: stories always already inflect, deploy, and distribute facts.

Bear with me, please.

One of the great things about "The Leftovers" is that there is no master narrative to which we are privy. There is nothing we know that the characters don't. We never know the limits of actions, of what's actually possible. Like the characters, we never know what's going to happen, what's real and what's not, what's dream, hallucination, what's madness. We are contemporaneous with the characters' discovery of the limits of the world after it's now possible for people to literally vanish from the face of the earth in the blink of an eye.

So, in this sense, this essay does have spoilers as you'll know how some things turn out. But, on the other hand, the ambiguity of competing narrative never resolves. There is no end point per se. In "The Leftovers," as with most great stories, it's the living through that matters — which is to say, it's all in the storytelling.

But I want to first talk about "The Walking Dead," another show that opens with an event that destabilizes societal and institutional power — a virus that turns the majority of the world's population into flesh eating zombies. (Both shows feature handsome, grizzly white male cops as their lead but that's where the commonality ends: "TWD's" Rick and "The Leftovers'" Kevin enjoy radically different postures towards others, towards power, towards the story, towards us — but that's for another essay. I'll say this: Kevin will never have been the master of anything other than abiding the demented flux around him — and taking a beating in the process.) In "TWD," the structures that determine the consequences of our actions — institutional ethics — no longer exist for two interrelated reasons. One, there is simply no government left, no police, no church. They're all dead, or undead, but in any case certainly not alive. And, two, the ethics of those institutions no longer apply. How do you determine murder for, and of, the undead? Old ethics are predicated on a near-globally shared understanding of the distinction between life and death. Once that distinction goes, so goes the foundation of ethics.

"The Walking Dead," then, gives us a series of ethical structures competing to effectively govern and control people — from forms of democracy and anarchy to ideological and practical fascism. This is what drives the show episode to episode, season to season: in the face of the collapse of existing institutionalized ethics (what Deleuze and Guattari would call their deterritorialization), we witness the emergence of competing ethical modes — or what we might call territorializations as different camps in different regions with differing ethical structures vie for resources and control.

Sure, this has some existential ramifications but only in as much as one is defined ethically. The show doesn't explore other aspects of one's constitution such as, say desire. "The Walking Dead" explores what it is to be a "good person" in the zombie apocalypse, never what it means to be in general. There is no cosmic exploration; the show's horizon is limited to the constitution of the self within the social (if you're a Kierkegaard fan, this is what he calls "the ethical stage" — not aesthetic or religious immediacy but the mediation of self by the social; this became the basis for what would become existentialism). 

Like "TWD," "The Leftovers" is propelled by a destabilizing, deterritorializing event: the sudden departure of 2% of the world's population, more or less evenly distributed (although the terms of this distribution become one element within the drama as one town had no departures: is it for a reason? If so, why?). Needless to say, this undoes the power of certain institutions. The police state's hold on things is redistributed: in what becomes a mostly background refrain, a kind of sick joke, the police state now more openly and aggressively kills emergent competing structures while at the same time tolerating a higher level of day to day chaos and murder. It seems that when citizens can simply vanish into the ether without a trace, it's not so easy to govern.

Science, too, is crippled, at least as master of knowing this unknowable event. In the end, science plays an essential role — not in understanding it but in reckoning it. A group of outlaw scientists have presumably created a way for people to go where the departed went. This is fantastic: science here offers no explanation, no knowledge per se, only more facts that become elements with "The Book of Nora" (the title to the series finale). Which is to say, science here offers data, not knowledge: the story creates the knowing. 

Generally speaking, "The Leftovers" doesn't care as much about the ethical structures that are deterritorialized. It focuses instead on the epistemological and existential scaffolds that buttress identity and social relations. If people can suddenly vanish without a trace, thereby breaking all existing laws of nature, what else is possible? What else don't we know — or even know how to know? And then what are the limits of a self, of a life, if it's no longer death and the rules of life are so cruelly unknowable and seemingly capricious? Say what you will about the mystery of death, we have no shortage of beliefs about what causes, and protects us from, it. There is no such explanatory scaffold for the Sudden Departure.

This epistemological quandary calls all departures into question. Suddenly, divorces and break ups, parents abandoning their children and children moving away from their parents, comas, the inability to have kids, not to mention regular old death are all cast out of their petrified stories and back into uncertainty — and the grief that such unknowability of loss creates. The Sudden Departure, it turns out, is one event within a vast network of loss that pervades life all the time. Only now, all that loss is no longer asleep within tired narratives: they're all alive and flailing as everyone in this show, along with this show itself, is careening.

In "The Leftovers," people come in and out of our lives all the time. Yes, they die. But they also divorce, move away, drift apart. Departures are not new to this world. But all these other kinds of departure are, like death, situated. A lover leaving us may tear us apart but any mystery there has long been eradicated, explained this way and that until we no longer find it bizarre that people we were once so entwined with are no longer part of our lives. We even have remedies — psychiatry and its meds and a flourishing industry of self-help.

This epistemological event, this rupture in the edifices of knowledge, this glaring unknowability is more than a lack: it is a creative event, a productive vacuum that births relentless tales of meaning. Judeo-Christianity inevitably at once splinters and surges. But what's so interesting is that the same event is situated in such radically different ways in these competing tales. For some, the departure is a rapture; for others, a damnation. And so there are competing narratives as to the status of the eponymous leftovers: are they the ones saved or the ones not saved?

This is one of the great profundities of "The Leftovers": things are never just themselves. All things, all bodies and events, are always already situated within stories of cause and effect, stories of meaning. The same facts can be, and are, always read in fundamentally different ways. Indeed, on its own, a fact has no meaning. The departure, like all things, is always already taken up by competing narratives.

What makes the Sudden Departure so different is that it's new to us. These emerging stories have not had time to lose their valence to become habits of knowing, to be metaphors that we've forgotten are metaphors (pace Nietzsche). All explanations — of knowledge or meaning — are wacky, poignant stories. Whether it's religious creationism of Hinduism or Judaism; the scientific stories of big bang, black holes, and replicating crystals; or the psychology of motivation and affect: they're all very strange stories we've forgotten are actually stories. In "The Leftovers," all stories suddenly seem odd as we see them for what they are — stories, not facts. 

This, in turn, inaugurates a widespread epistemological dilemma — or perhaps "opening" is a better word than dilemma. The dominant story of matter and life and death no longer applies and so now everything is up for grabs about what counts as knowledge, what counts as a way of knowing. In the last season, a refrain we hear come out of different character's mouths is: "I don't understand what's happening." This is the very conditions of the shows drama: uncertainty.

Suddenly, "The Leftovers" moves into a new semiotic regime in which signs no longer signify what they used to as they're taken up by different people for different reasons. Dreams, coincidences, hallucinations take on new roles. Are Garvey's visions actually hallucinations, signs of a psychotic break, as Laurie Garvey argues? Or revelations, as Matt Jamison believe? Or an inherited madness from his father who also hears voices? And do all such visions share the same viability? Are Kevin Garvey Sr's voices equally valid because we believe his son's visions are real? The show never lands any one place; the decisions are ours as to who's insane, who's a prophet, and who might be something else entirely. Holy Wayne and his hugs; Kevin's deaths and resurrections; Dean's conspiratorial dogs; Evangeline's "seizures"; Kevin Sr's voices; Patti's ghost; Virgil's ability to see the dead; the little girl pushed down the well; the town of Jarden; the "lens' theory: the valence of each is sure and unsure, situated in different narratives in different ways.

Such is the way of knowing: we believe on the strength of the uncertain.  How do you go home from the land of the dead? You sing Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound" in a hotel lobby bar karaoke.



In the second season, the show pays clear homage to David Lynch. Odd things happen as Lynch's signature mechanical drone plays, a sense of impending menace. Meanwhile, in good Lynchian style, signs proliferate — a town without departures; cigarette smoking; silence; goats; leaking faucets; barking dogs; earthquakes; fake prophets; crosses and oar beatings; back doors; and on and on. They all seem somehow significant, brimming with meaning. Only we don't know what they mean. And nor does the show. Rather than signification, "The Leftovers" give us the valence of signs without clear signification. Like Lynch, the show plays in the power of signs and where they might point.


But, unlike Lynch, "The Leftovers" never suggests some secret, impossibly strange cabal behind the red curtain. No, the show takes more from Pynchon: everything is a sign that at once connects and doesn't connect with other signs. Lynch gives us a world where meaning may be unknowable but something knows — always off screen. Pynchon, on the other hand, gives us an endless proliferation of signs that circulate in different economies of meaning, coalescing and dissolving as they go.

In "The Leftovers," signs are taken up by stories and made to work in vastly different ways. And no story ever prevails. Nor does the show itself give us any firm ground to stand on, no privileged perspective of knowing. The last season becomes explicitly about all these competing stories, who has the better story. The bookend episodes of Season 3 are entitled "The Book of Kevin" and "The Book of Nora." In between, there's "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World." It's all stories — science, religion, self. We're constantly writing and rewriting our stories, as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, as a species.



And that is what the show is: this following of different ways of taking up signs, different stories that wind through and around each other at ever different angles without certainty. The ground will never firm up. The show is all these stories at once, all competing and colliding and intertwining, offering neither respite nor resolve.

Here, stories are not fiction: they're creative, forging the sense of the world. Stories are epistemological: ways of knowing the world. And stories are ontological in that they are the sense we make of this life, the creative force always at work distributing facts, emotions, bodies, and events into relations with each other. We lost 2% of the world's people; those 2% lost 98%. The Sudden Departure happened October 14 here, on October 15 in Australia. Kevin navigates the dead and hallucinates like a madman; he's just a guy and he's a prophet. Same events, different perspectives, different worlds, different ways of relating to each other, all happening at once.

It's all always already stories. There's no real underneath or above to curb the tides: it's uncertainty and stories all the way down. And it's downright beautiful.

9.07.2019

Love is a Practice (a spoken essay)



Inspired by this great Erich Fromm quote, “Love isn't something natural. Rather it requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn't a feeling, it is a practice," I riff on taking acid, seeing anew, being in a relationship, meditation, the way capitalism coerces it all — and how to do it all differently. Or some such thing.

8.20.2019

On The Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell



We discuss vulnerability, parenting, the awful equation of parenting with worry, dyslexia, creating new narratives of the self, grief, Leibniz's concept of the plenum, Merleau-Ponty's concept of the flesh....hmmmm, what else? Well, that's plenty.

Although I think I talk too fast.

8.16.2019

The Temptation of Untethering


I often find the tethers of life—jobs, friends, lovers—draining. And so seek to untether myself. But I've come to realize that that is an ascetic ideal, a desire to be perfectly clear of the social—which is, as Nietzsche notes, nihilistic and anti-life.

This is why I love writing. I sat down to write an essay about something that's been on my mind. (I don't care for that expression—on my mind—as it confirms our sense of thinking as an abstraction, as something not part of the daily physical world, something left to the admittedly privileged ghetto of the brain. I do not believe that's what thinking is; I do not believe the brain is the site of thought. Thinking is a whole body experience, a moving with ideas, feelings, people, things, memories, dreams, birds, and kisses.

(But that's not what I want to write about. At least not right now. Turns out coercing words and thoughts to follow a subject is often easier said than done. And why do it? Why brush what we imagine as tangents to the side? Must an essay have a center from which other words must align or diverge? Might writing be at once an alignment—albeit emergent—and a divergence? This is how I've always imagined Lucretius' clinamen—a divergence that is an alignment.

This is a long parenthetical. In fact, it might be my first one with paragraph breaks! This brings me a joy that, I fear, is quite private. So be it.)

So I sat down to write something I've been reckoning, thinking, feeling through. And it seemed so clear to me. I'd even emailed myself the nifty title a few days ago so that I'd remember: "Temptation of the Tether." (I'm a sucker for alliteration.) But as I sat down and began putting pixels to screen, that seemed, at best, not quite right; at worst, fatuous.

This, too, is what I love about writing: it is not a transcription of thought. Writing is thinking. The very act of organizing my ideas with words and grammar threw me back on myself while showing me other ways of going. At such a juncture, there is no separation of writing and thinking.

And this, too: there are so many ways to begin. I want to talk about that feeling of being connected—to friends, lovers, to desire, to the social in general—and the will to shed all that, to be gloriously unmoored, adrift in the cosmos without that tug of obligation, of caring, of longing. I keep beginning then beginning again. What's the way in—at least for now? Do I begin with an anecdote from the past? A detail from my private life? A quote from Emerson's "Experience" in which our anchorage is quicksand? Beginning an essay is impossible yet actual as it's always multiple while language demands one word after another.

So I begin here.

It's 1991. I'm lying on this shitty, green, old day bed in my room in the apartment I'm sharing with  my Gramps on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I'd graduated college earlier that year; fled to Paris, briefly, where I'd found myself broke, alone, and horny; sought refuge in Prague and Hungary, where I found it, but none that enticed me enough to stay. And so here I was back in New York, working at a used bookstore (Academy Books, now Academy Records), and reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.

Read this book. Please.
I won't saddle you with too much talk of Kierkegaard. That's not this essay. But I will tell you this: it's Kierkegaard's reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It's a poignant and, as I realized much later, a very funny book. It gives us two ways to read Abraham. If we read him through the social, then he's a would-be murderer. But if we read him through what Kierkegaard calls the religious, then Abraham is the father of faith precisely because he leaves the social behind as he walks his only son up Mt. Moriah with every intention of killing him. For Kierkegaard, this means Abraham bypasses the social, the ethical, to have a direct relationship with the infinite, with God.

And this spoke to me, profoundly. It spoke to my growing sense of alienation from public discourse—from the news, from politics, from movies and TV, from what we call society. Who needs the social and its petty ethical demands—its guilt and obligations—when I could have a direct relationship to the motherfucking infinite? As I read that Kierkegaard, my heart beat faster, my eyes grew wider, my self swelled up to meet God in all his absurdity (that's Kierkegaard's word for it: the absurd.)

This is a vision of life, of the ideal life, that I'd carry with me to this very juncture. I'd find it again in Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air so cold few can breathe it, his writing destined "for all and none."  It confirmed my experiences in college where I'd started as a social being, organizing for the social good, enmeshed with a group of friends only to find myself, by the end, alone.

And, for the most part, blissful. Nothing brought me more pleasure than the experience of having no one need me—nothing to do, nowhere to be. At these times, not only did I have no appointments, I had no obligations, no one needing to know where I was or what I was doing. This freedom, this untethering, was exhilarating. It still is.

Look around and see all the ways we tether ourselves—so that when the tether is yanked from the other end, we move. Jobs, careers, debts, friends, lovers, animals, family, plants, hobbies, ego: all these things situate us, nudge us, coerce us. And, for many, this affords a sense of belonging, of purpose, of connection. No need to ponder the universe or your place in it. This IS your place in it. So on we go, letting the world yank us. I, like many others, have stayed in relationships past their expiration date because I enjoyed the yank of that tether, even if it was unpleasant. Better to be miserable and tethered than terrified and untethered.

Smart phones amplify these tethers, their dings and buzzes pulling at our desires, our longings, our connections—for better and worse. All those notifications from would-be dates, clients, bosses, mothers, friends let us know we're entangled in this world, we are desired, needed, demanded. It may drive us ape shit now and again but take them away—take away those tell tale dings—and we panic. Oh no! I'm all alone in this cosmos, adrift, nothing to ground me, grasp me, keep me from floating away. The dings fall silent and we fear being untethered.

I've engineered my life to loosen, perhaps to shed, these tethers. I've never had a real job, somewhere I had to be every day. I don't have a group of friends; most of my friends live elsewhere. I'm divorced. But, as a single man, I do find myself seeking the company, the warmth, the intimacy, the desire of women. Which disappoints me. I find myself clinging to this vision of Kierkegaard's Abraham, this vision of freedom, this exhilaration of being adrift and so find my desire for affection embarrassing.

But there is something about this untethering that, while seductive, smacks of asceticism. It feels like a longing for a socio-existential cleanse: with no tethers, I'll finally be clear, be clean, be immaculate. The temptation of untethering is the temptation of the ascetic who believes life exists within the denial of the senses—only in this case it's a denial of the social.

We are, however, social animals just as we are sensuous animals. To deny the social and the senses is anti-life. Just because I find the demands of a daily job, a group of friends, or a dinner party soul draining, this doesn't mean I need to forsake the company of other human beings.  After all, much to Kierkegaard's great puzzlement, Abraham returns to his community—to his wife, to his neighbors, and to his son. Abraham never apologizes; presumably, it's never even mentioned again (I can only imagine what little Ike was feeling; that's a book, like the switch of perspective in Gardner's "Grendel," I'd like to read).  Abraham could have shed the social for good but chooses to live within a community while enjoying his direct relationship to the infinite.

This demands a dual horizon. One the one hand, we see the limits of the social, its demands, its needs, its tending. At the same time, we see the infinite horizon sprawl before us, all the pettiness of the social disappearing as our eyes zoom past the faces and streets, past the buildings and mountains, past the moons, planets, and stars. It's impossible to focus on both at the same time. And yet that is precisely what's asked of us: to be here and now and forever at one and the same time. To see the faces of those around us, to feel with them and for them, and at the same time, to see those faces disappear as we gaze into ever-receding space.

This dual horizon demands dual communication: to speak the demands of the social while speaking with the infinite at the same time. It is to be sincere and not simultaneously. Kierkegaard calls this irony. It's a nifty trope that, I fear, too often falls on deaf ears here in San Francisco circa 2019. People of all walks of life defer to the univocal and the sincere as my will to irony is read as snarky bullshit. This is one reason I find the social so draining. But that's on me, a man who thinks himself a rhetorician. I am still seeking the voice that entices others while maintaining my freedom.

Of course, this is all just a fancy, long winded way of saying something ridiculously, beautifully, and humiliatingly simple: I like having a lot of freedom to do what I want when I want without the endless yanking of tethers, both social and digital. But I also enjoy loving people, animals, and plants—and having them love me back.

(To write is to tether oneself to words, sense, grammar. In language, one's thoughts can't just roam inchoate and incoherent. The very act of writing—of communicating—is the coercion of thoughts, feelings, and moods. Which is perhaps a good way for me to think about my social tethers: like writing, these relationships need not solely limit and nudge. They can extend, massage, and inspire.)

8.08.2019

Hollywood Biopics' Valorization of Banality, or How "Beach Bum" is the Antidote to "Rocket Man," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "First Man"



Harmony Korine's "Beach Bum" is the most explicit embrace of excess I've ever seen. It's unabashed consumption without anything going wrong—no regret, no fear, no tragedy. It is Bataille's visions of excess. And a welcome antidote to the neutering of life we've seen in a recent run of biopics on Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong.

Hollywood biopics are the low of the low. They clearly perform the distinction between copying and repeating: the actors copy the mannerisms, don the clothes and costumes and accents but never inhabit the character from the inside out. They don't repeat; they don't forge something new.  They confirm our cliché understandings of history, never risking an alternative reading that might shift the terms of the character, history, or ourselves.

It's always the same shitck: times were repressive; the 60s were liberating; but there were dangerous excesses. Girls had abortions! People had too much sex! Did too many drugs! And so we're are given the dichotomy of repression and excess and told both are wrong. It's the safe, bourgeois center that is the right and good place: have fun, consume lots of goods, but stay working!

So for banal reasons (my friend was feeling sick and a movie theater seemed a refuge), I found myself at a matinée of "Rocket Man," the Elton John story. The very opening of the movie is hilarious and perfect; my hopes were high. Mr. John, dressed in a fantastically hilarious, over-the-top get up, comes storming down some institutional hallway. Briefly, I thought: Great! We'll see Elton John's beautiful excess as a de facto repudiation of institutional control.

But my hopes were quickly thwarted: he's storming off stage to attend an AA meeting. Ok, I thought, maybe he'll undo the sanctimony of AA and the myths of addiction (AA is always presented as the solution to our societal ills rather than a symptom; try bad mouthing AA and you'll see what I mean. It repeats the most dangerous models of "addiction" and "cure." AA may be the best branded corporation out there. And, yes, I understand some people do well with AA; power to them.). But no, that's not what this film is up to. It's quite the contrary.

The very structure of the film is him confessing his sins to the group. As the film progresses, as he tells his tale—his achingly boring tales—he sheds his costume.  The costume and all that it entails—his exuberant excess in attire, personality, sex, and drugs—is just that, a costume. The real man, it seems, lies underneath. The real man uses excess to hide his pain, his vulnerability. The truth, we are told, is this scared, regretful man in his underwear. Oy vey.

The thing that made Elton John so incredible, in addition to his crafty melodies, was precisely his excess. Why literally shed his excess, this greatness, just to leave us with this man and his devastatingly uninteresting life? His father was not very nice. Oh no! His mother was not very nice. Oh no!

The whole thing is so strange. The reason there even is a biopic of Elton John, the very reason we're excited to make and see such a film, is that he exuded an excess rarely seen in this life. But then it argues that this excess is all a mask, a facade, and that the truth is that this man had some terribly uninteresting pain in this life—and that is what we should care about. That is the hero: not this life force that took the world by storm but this achingly banal man and his suburban woes.

The frustrating thing in this case is that the film flirts with its own love of excess. It's filled with exquisite, surreal musical numbers. With a few key moves, the film could have been this great celebration of excess as a mode of becoming in this world, this exuberance, this overflowing, this abundance. All the ingredients are there. We could see his terribly uninteresting upbringing and how excess was a line of flight, a way to be that overcame all the nonsense of life. Rather than excess being the mask, it could have been the way of becoming beyond truth and lies. 

Please note that I'm not saying that excess can't be a mask or that pain and anxiety are not an important, even essential, aspect of both being-in-the-world and narrative film. They could have shown us his excess, his drugs and sex and costumes, as a complex way of going that includes depression, pain, and anxiety. Because of course it does! It's not a dichotomy of truth and lies, of real and mask, of man in underwear and man in costume. Excess does not efface pain; it supersedes it.

And then I watched "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "First Man" on my TV thanks to HBO. Oy. They were less explicitly egregious than "Rocket Man" but they both offer the same argument: these bigger than life people who've done extraordinary things are really just scared, anxious, sad men. Rather than banality being transformed into excess, excess becomes mask that covers pain.

How in the world did we get here?

Excess is anathema to both the financial and existential economies of life today. 

Capitalism clearly disdains it—at least excess of character, excess of drugs and sex, excess of joy. That kind of excess is not productive. (Eeesh! The will to "productivity" is the will to eradicate life and its attending delights.) But the extraordinary excess of Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong is a threat to our resignation to a life of labor and banality. So we take these great men, these great events, and eviscerate them, evacuate them, reduce them to being just like us underneath—scared, sad, anxious. Sure, you walked on the moon. But you're really just like me—sad about your life.

It's all a terrible inheritance from Freud. Freud was embraced in the 60s as a proponent of sexual liberation (something Freud does not talk about). Don't repress your sex! (Which Freud does not say; repression is neither good nor bad; it's an essential function of life). Now that we're done with all that, we've elevated the suffering, sad ego as the truth of life as we're all left feeling a little bit better about our own mediocre lives.

And then I finally watched Harmony Korine's latest film, "Beach Bum," with Matthew McConaughey doing what he does. It's a startlingly simple film: this poet is high and drunk and happy all the time. Playing with our expectations, the film makes it seem like something is going to go awry as some tragedy must befall our hero. After all, excess is a sin. But nope. Nothing bad happens per se. Yes, someone close to him dies in the throes of their excess. But there is no regret or doubt, no retribution. The death is not his fault. Death is, alas, a possible outcome of living excessively—just as death is always a possible outcome. And rather than excess being an obstacle to creative genius, it is precisely the source.

In this age of pain in which suffering, however banal, is valorized as truth, "Beach Bum" is a radical celebration, a bucking of clichés that would keep us in our cages, mewling in pain unto eternity because Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong suffered just like us. Korine's film is a call to arms—the arms of excess.

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