Marc Lafia creates all kinds of images, usually with photographic technology (but he's not a photographer in that he doesn't seek to capture the world through photographs; more on that momentarily). He recently created a book of his images, along with some essays (including a foreword by me), that includes the re-imaging or re-photographing of other images — from nature books, from Tumblr, from many sources. (I wrote here about a show he had several months ago.)
A friend of mine was looking at the images and while she found many of them beautiful and intriguing, she kept looking for the original creator. Why doesn't he include the source of the image? she'd ask, repeatedly and with increasing urgency. She began almost to get angry. She needed to know who created the image in order to judge it. Just looking at it was not enough.
When I pushed her, she insisted that art begins with drawing. The artist, she maintained, should be able to draw what's there. I didn't push her on where 'there' is. What if it's that mood there? Or happens to be a sensation way over there? Anyway, she maintained that then, and only then, can the artist move into concepts and abstraction. The implication was that whoever created the so-called original image was the true artist; Lafia's images were just reproductions.
I once believed the same thing. I'm not sure where I got this idea from or where my friend got it from. It's some kind of strange Platonist ideal that must float through the ether and into our skin. Of course, many art schools used to believe this and, I suppose, many still do — hence the insistence of studio classes as the core curriculum.
Why Platonist? Because this literally antiquated belief conceives of art as mimetic. First comes the world, then come images of the world. There is an implied hierarchy of the real: the real is real, duh, and images are references to the real, coming after the fact, paling in relative comparison.
This prejudice is repeated in a different form in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. First comes bodily survival — food and shelter. And then comes a whole lot of other stuff — safety, family, self-esteem— before you get to creativity and art. While Maslow might feel art is an apogee of human existence, he still believes, like Plato, that it's fundamentally unnecessary. Art is ornament; it's secondary. There's first the so-called real world and then, and only then, can we move into representations of the world, into images, into art.
Nietzsche gives us a very different view. Art, he argues, is primary. Man is first and foremost an artistic being. His first creation is himself as a continuous being, as a social being capable of making promises. This first artist used his body as a canvas, whipping it and marking it into something more interesting, at once a kind of body art, sculpture, and conceptual art. For Nietzsche, man doesn't emerge from the state of nature through reason. He leaves his beastly ways because he has an instinct to create. And that is the birth of man as a social creature — not his drive for safety, security, and survival, not his considerable cognitive reasoning, but his instinct for art. (For Nietzsche, the entire edifice of science and knowledge is an elaborate sculpture that's forgotten it's art.)
As Derrida would say: there is no raw food, no culture without writing, no pure humanity. Food is always already cooked, writing is always already happening, and humanity is always already enculturated.
Drawing, then, is not the basis of art. Creation is the basis of art. There is in fact no correlation between one's ability to draw the world as it is — to draw realistically — and art. In fact, I might go so far as to say they're opposed! It's a nifty skill, for sure, and not to be poo pooed at all. But the ability to draw a vase that looks like a vase is just not art. It's copying. And art, by definition, doesn't copy. It creates the new, even if always from within the life of the old. (Art repeats, it doesn't copy, and the definition of repetition is the introduction of difference, of living through what has been in a different way, pace Deleuze. But that's a longer discussion.)
We come to the world of images as images. As Henri Bergson says, all is image. We can use the word matter or the word image, it's the same. All there is is all this stuff we are always perceiving. Everything is experienced as an image — my face, these words, that painting, these photographs, that idea, my love, your needs and desires. They're all images.
This is why I don't call Lafia a photographer. Photography is haunted by Plato. After all, isn't a photograph just a copy? Photography has been cast as a way to capture the real — to find those key moments in life and monumentalize them. Think about the 'great' photographers — Ansel Adams, Weegee, Diane Arbus. They all are loved for how they capture what is. This is not to knock them at all; I love much of their work — not because they capture the real but because they take the real and create something new. I only point out that photography is still premised on the real, even as photography's very existence undoes the sanctity of the real.
What's beautiful to me about photography is that it uses the real as samples, as fodder, to create a new real, another real. This is precisely what Lafia does: he takes images from anywhere, from everywhere, all the images making their way through the ether, and uses them to create new images (he does more than this for sure). The original image doesn't matter; what matters is the new image.
The artist is not the one who accurately depicts reality — whatever that is — but is the one who can spin, hedge, juxtapose, fold, maneuver in such a way as to create some kind of new perceptive and affective experience. That is, the artist creates new things to see, new ways to see, new ways to feel and experience the world. This has nothing to do with drawing. Yes, it sure helps if the artist has some technical skills — painting, coding, thinking, writing, drawing, exploding, filming, lighting, doodling. But these are all modes of something more elusive, something more mysterious: creating the new from within the old.
How do you — how does one, how do we — decide the right thing to do in any circumstance? Most of the time, we do things unthinkingly. We wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, tie our shoes. We go here and there, say this and that. We make decisions as a matter of training and habit.
Needless to say, not all of these things are necessarily the right things to do. Habit is not always right. In fact, one could argue that habit is the very thing we want to avoid, that doing the right thing is doing something knowingly rather than through blind repetition. In this view, it's not the what that determines if something is right or wrong but the how.
Habit has a way of breaking down, especially as you age. After all, we develop these habits when we're young(er); as we age, the very make up of the system in which habit operates changes its terms. I used to eat spaghetti almost every night and all was good. Now, at this point, in my life, I can't eat pasta at all. Habit ran into the reality of my everyday as I began to experience dyspepsia. Suddenly, things that I took for granted became things I had to consider.
But how do I consider them? How do I decide the right thing to eat? Well, it's a combination of lots of different kinds of information. There's my history, things I've eaten and enjoyed in the past. There are cravings and desires I have now. There is research thanks to the proliferation of opinions and so called facts all over the internet. Which is all to say, deciding the right things to eat is a complex calculus of facts, feelings, principles, ideas, and habits which conspire to be this breakfast smoothie. Yum! (At least for now.)
How about when we're out and about and dealing with others? How do we decide how to act? As a pedestrian, what makes me wait for a green light, cross when I see opportunity, or j walk? Again, it seems like a complex calculus of my desire to stay alive, a sense of respect for drivers, perhaps a fear of the law.
The law, however, seems like the least compelling reason to do something or not. Sure, there are some things I don't do out of fear of being caught by the cops; I'm thinking of paying taxes. I wouldn't pay taxes — at least not all of them — if I could get away with it without fear of retribution. But the law is certainly not the reason I don't kill people, drive on the wrong side of the road, or rob banks. And there are some things I do which may be illegal but I feel pretty sure I won't get caught. The mere fact of the law is definitely not enough to compel my actions — at least for me as a white, middle class dude who pays his taxes. Obviously, for some people in this culture, the law is a conspicuous, powerful, and coercive force.
Then there are principles of action to help guide our decisions. We sometimes call these morals, those hard and fast things we should never do because, well, because they're just plain old wrong (these may or may not follow the law; more often, law emerges from them, unless the law comes from some rich douchebag). Always follow the word of the law! Don't covet they neighbor's wife, even if her every way of being melts your soul and she's estranged from her husband and on the verge of divorce! Sure, there might be arguments as to why you shouldn't kill or screw but morality doesn't work primarily via argument; it works via fear and authority (hell and the wrath of god and all that).
There is always moral philosophy which does indeed work via a kind of argument rather than through fear. This is what the Enlightenment was all about: rather than God, they gave us Reason. Kant, for instance, claims that any action you do should be able to be an action everyone can do. I used to think about this when I'd pee behind a tree. If everyone peed in public, oy, it would be gross — hence, I shouldn't be peeing behind this tree. On the other hand, most people don't pee behind trees, so who cares if I do? And we let dogs piss any old place and they don't pay taxes. So I can piss here if I want! Yes, this all went through my head — as I peed.
And then there's Hobbes who argued that man is primarily base and violent. But because man has reason, too, he enters into a contract with his fellow man and agrees not to be base, to act in the interests of the social because that is in his own best interest. This idea that man is fundamentally base and needs to be controlled dictates most moral discussions. Without morals, we'll just kill and rape and steal and masturbate all day long! Freud argued a form of this. Our id is primal and drives us; we need the super ego to keep it in check. (Yes, Freud is more complex than this.)
But by assuming that we are primarily base and hence in need of external constraints, we come to lean on these moral principles. Only our morals don't always agree with each other, not to mention our morals don't always agree with circumstance. And when we believe morals are the very thing holding everything together, then we have to defend those morals and make people who don't believe them, believe them. Which becomes war and torture and the Inquisition and imperialism and most forms of violent domination and subjugation. Morality, alas, breeds self-righteousness: We must be moral! So you must be moral! Be moral, dammit, or else I'll crack your head open!
Ethics are of another order. Ethics are the modes with which we encounter the world, things as well as people. Ethics are premised on the idea that man is not first and foremost a wild, self-interested, violent creature but is, in fact, always already a social creature. Which is to say, contrary to what Hobbes and Rousseau say, ethics proffer that there was never a state of nature, that man was never outside the social. There is no contract; there is no movement from the individual to the social. We are, as individuals, already social.
Think about humiliation. It is a private sensation but it only exists in relation to the social. And so much of what we do is dictated and coerced by the terms of humiliation. I'm sitting in a cafe right now and everyone is so goddamned well behaved. I could sit here and pick my nose, fart, break into song, lie down on someone else's table. None of these are illegal or immoral. But I don't do it — not out of fear of external retribution but out of fear of humiliation.
Of course, one man's humiliation is another's glory. I, for one, find the idea of going to work every day, all day, to make someone else money humiliating. Many find that ambitious. These are the powers of what Foucault calls discourse, the powers of what we say and can say that define our conversations and, often, our feelings. This is why discussions of such things are so important: they shift the terms of discourse which shifts the terms of the social which shifts the terms of the individual, that is, what you and I feel and experience, what you and I decide is the right thing to do.
This is Foucault's great move. Power doesn't come from the top down, he tells us. Power doesn't just say No. Power comes from all things. Power says Yes. The very terms in which we construct ourselves — I am a guy, I'm white, I'm Jewish, I'm an asshole, etc — are social as much as they're private. The moral view of the world would imagine us alone in our rooms, free from the reach of the world and then deciding to do the right thing (or not). But we're never alone, not really. We are always and already amidst the social, always negotiating the right thing to do.
|Become a Member of The New Centre for Research & Practice and accelerate your thinking.|
Academia moves slowly. Such is the very structure of the institution. Professors are hired in absurdly particular fields then obliged to publish hilariously pedantic articles and books that foster their presumed expertise on some subject — perceptions of women in 19th century Italian poetry; Wittgenstein's early philosophy and its relationship to his life; conceptions of justice in Icelandic blood feuds. And then, after establishing dominion over this so-called field, they have no need or drive to read anything new, or anything else for that matter.
In fact, not only don't professors wander or explore intellectually across domains, the institution makes it nearly impossible. Who will fund this? Your department? My department? Ah, let's just forget about it.
Some of this plodding movement is fantastic. For those, like me, who have worked in both the corporate and academic world, this slow plod can be a respite, even if it's occasionally frustrating. And, no doubt, there's something fantastically weird about all these folks gathered together with their specialized knowledge and myopia.
On the other hand, there's something stilted and stupid about the whole structure. I studied, then taught, in the Rhetoric and Film Department at UC Berkeley. After getting my doctorate, and despite zero experience in anything technological, I became engaged with the mechanics and implications of the digital network by building complex digital experiences (this was 1999). For those supposedly interested in moving images and the means and terms of discourse — those who teach rhetoric and film —, this seemed like an obvious thing to be interested in. And yet the people in that department didn't know squat about the interweb and showed nothing but disdain. I always found that strange. But such, alas, is the way of the system.
Meanwhile, as the traditional humanities university dies through irrelevance — I, for one, love much of this irrelevance, mind you — there's a swift rise in online universities. These are for-profit institutions less interested in broadening the horizons of youth than in driving as many degrees for dollars as they can. While there is much that's creepy and soul killing about these self-proclaimed schools, there's also something great about the democratization of access they offer. Anyone, anywhere, can take classes.
And then there is The New Centre for Research & Practice. While licensed in Michigan to offer certifications, not degrees, the Centre operates according to a logic and mission that is neither academic nor online mass for-profit. The Centre operates at once alongside, between, parallel, and tangential to the traditional academy while leveraging interweb technology to reach and gather people from across the globe who want to see the world differently, who want to move in a new direction, at a different speed: who want to accelerate (or decelerate, I suppose).
The Centre offers courses that traverse a range of fields — art, politics, philosophy, critical theory, technology— but which focus on what we tend to call theory. But this is not theory as distinct from practice as the theory/praxis dichotomy is an egregiously false dichotomy. To think differently, to see the world differently, is the greatest practice of all. And that's what The Centre, as its name proclaims, seeks.
And so these are not massive online open courses (MOOCs) in which participants are anonymous clicks but intimate seminars run through Google Hangouts. No one is there who has to be there. No one is there just to get a degree, then a job. The Centre offers that all too rare experience of people coming together because they actually want to learn, to know, to think and become different(ly).
As there's no tenure or rigid institutionalization, they read and teach new things and are free to traverse disciplines. If the academy is stationary — or moving at its own continuous speed, which is to say the same thing — the Centre accelerates. It takes what you know and think and speeds it up, puts it in a state that's not just faster per se but that is in the act of speeding up: you are thrown back in your seat as you surge ahead (or sideways — it doesn't matter as there is no linearity here). This is not about confirming the known or mastering a domain; it's about the act of personal and intellectual transformation. Such is acceleration (and deceleration): it is the act of changing states.
When I was writing my dissertation, I was a freak for writing about Deleuze and Guattari along with Merleau-Ponty. Sixteen years later and the folks at the Centre are already operating in a post-Deleuze and Guattari, post-Virilio world. Where I had to justify my thousand plateaus, The Centre was born playing there. I look at their seminar descriptions and, for the most part, it's all new to me — even if I've read many of the texts, the approach and rhetoric is new to me. This is the kind of thing that the academy rarely, if ever, offers: new thinking about new subjects with new writers constituting new modes of thinking the world.
Practically speaking, the agility of the Centre lets it serve a range of people. It's not anti-academia at all (personally, I would push them a little farther from academia). In fact, it's a great way to augment a graduate or undergraduate education as well as a great way to figure out if you want to even go to grad school, to pick up some knowledge and perhaps some credit as you think about applying for a graduate degree. As they write: Our certificates are intended to complement, enhance, and intensify MA and PhD programs from existing accredited colleges and universities, as well as to recognize those enrolled in our seminars to broaden the scope of independent research and practice.
But, to me, what's more exciting is that you don't have to take the seminars to be privy to the knowledge. You can become a member and get all these podcasts to listen and digest in your own time. This is for those people — and I've interacted with many of them as my own lectures are online — who love to think differently but don't have the patience, interest, or money for a doctorate. They want to be part of a community of active thinkers. They want to be lit up. They want to see differently: they want to accelerate. Join The Centre for a ridiculously low $100 for a year.
|This could be an image of someone living life to the fullest.|
What you do is irrelevant. It's how you do it.
There's something inspiring about this idea, this phrase, this call to arms: Live life to the fullest! Who doesn't want that? It seems so obvious, an a priori good. Our pop songs and commercials and movies portray this at every turn. I feel like every pop song I ever hear — which, I admit, is not very many — is all about being extreme out on the town. Painting it red. Lighting it up. It's life as the X Games.
After all, when you're on your death bed and look back on your life, you don't want to have regrets, right? What is sadder, we are lead to believe, than wasted potential? Than having squandered our days watching TV, scorning life and love? Shouldn't we be climbing Everest and bungee jumping off Costa Rican bridges? Shouldn't we be writing songs, poems, novels? Shouldn't we be leaving our mark on the world? And even if our ambitions are less grand, shouldn't we be seizing the moment?
But what is it to live life to the fullest? If I am sitting peacefully, joyfully, on my floor staring the ceiling and you are anxiously riding your motorcycle through the streets of Hanoi, who here is living life to the fullest? Is living life to the fullest an external event or an internal experience?
In talking about the relationship between the external and the internal — a perhaps false distinction but hear me out — Osho says, more or less: You're a smoker who enjoys the repetition of the act of smoking. The boring act of repeating the same thing over and over relaxes you. Ok. And then someone tells you that smoking is bad. So you take great measures and you quit. Great! And then you discover meditation and you start repeating your mantra over and over. The boring act of repeating the same thing over and over relaxes you. Nothing has changed. There is no difference between smoking and repeating your mantra.
All sorts of people will rant and rave. But smoking will kill you! Meditation is good! Smoking is bad! It contributes to Big Tobacco! Sure, all of this is true. But life is killing you, just as it's keeping you alive. (And is the point of life not to die? Really?) So maybe it's better to meditate than to smoke because you feel better giving your money to the self-help establishment rather than the tobacco companies. I can see that. But you haven't changed. You're no closer or farther from peace.
I know people who feel a compulsion to do extreme things. If they're not doing extreme things, they feel bad, like they're doing the wrong thing. How can I be watching TV when I should be scaling a mountain? The demand to live life to the fullest becomes a commandment, a morality, that makes you feel lousy about yourself.
It seems to me that living life to the fullest demands an internal movement of infinite acceptance of life itself. If you're relentlessly judging your life — I should have a better job; I should travel more; I should have a cooler boyfriend or girlfriend; I should be married; I should have children; I should be anything other than what you are this very moment then you are not living life to the fullest. You're living for an ideal from the past or future. You are avoiding life.
A demon comes to you, writes Nietzsche, and says: Everything that's ever happened to you and ever will happen to you — every tear, every burp, every feeling, every kiss and sneeze — has happened and will happen infinitely, how do you respond? Do you feel liberated from the regime of morality and judgment? Or does the reality of the very life you lead crush you like the greatest possible weight? ("The Greatest Weight" from The Gay Science).
I often let my house go. Dishes pile up. Dust bunnies gather and colonize. Dirty laundry litters the floor. The utter banality of cleaning and washing crushes my soul. I should be thinking! Writing! Fucking! I should be doing anything besides cleaning. And then my house becomes more and more grotesque and I feel more and more agitated. Not cleaning my house because I want to be living life to the fullest has the funny effect of making me not live life to the fullest, of making me anxious and agitated and self-loathing.
What I do in the world does matter. The line between the internal and the external is infinitely porous. It's a seam, not a border. Living life to the fullest is something that happens; it is something you do. Only it's not something you do out there per se. It's something you do right here, right now, in every moment. My formula for greatness in a human being, writes Nietzsche, is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.
This, to me, sounds like living life to the fullest: to see every moment as necessary, as beautiful, precisely because it happened or is happening. And this — to love every moment as necessary whether you're hiking the Himalayas, vomiting from a bad burrito, or washing dishes — is an internal movement.
So, on my death bed, I don’t want to be thinking about the life I’ve lived, assessing it, judging it, interpreting it. No, I want to be present with my dying body, experiencing my death to the fullest.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Humphrey Bogart. I had this large cardboard cut out of him in my room, wearing that suit, that hat, and leaning just so with a cigarette. Yes, in the 70s cigarettes were not yet so thoroughly stigmatized but we'll return to cigarettes shortly. I was into Fred Astaire, too, but the whole jubilant dancing thing had its limits in my book. No, I was mostly into Bogie's whole shtick — his delivery, his tone, his posture. I was into cool.
I've been intrigued by the concept of cool ever since — not being cool, mind you, as I am not nor will ever be cool. I'm too goofy, too emphatic, too slovenly — words, stains, emotions, anxiety leak from me continuously. No, I'm not cool but I've been interested in the concept of cool, the definition of cool, the operation of cool.
Of course, we use cool in a variety of contexts to describe what seem like vastly different experiences. For instance, you look at a video that visualizes the entire universe and you say, Cool! It's a declaration that whatever has been offered — a fact, a song, a movie — is something worth taking note of, something that exceeds the everyday. It could be a break dancer, a picture of a volcano mid-explosion, or a fact about scorpions. But cool is different than cute or beautiful or awesome, all of which grab our attention and exceed the everyday. But they do so in different ways. So what is it that makes things as different as Bogart and black holes cool?
Cool is restrained, but not repressed, passion. It's a burbling that doesn't explode. It's contained but not staid. Picture all the icons of cool — Bogart, Dean, Chow Yun-Fat, Pam Grier. They are all brimming with life and yet somehow keep it all together. They're not Jack Black, coming out of his pants. They're not Jim Carrey or Robin Williams flailing about. They're not Mr. Pink; they're Joe Cabot, the boss (not quite Mr. Blonde who's a psychopath, not cool). They are founts of passion but they don't let themselves get carried away; they control and contain their vim. They’re sensitive but — or and so — they maintain a certain distance, a certain stoic resolve.
Oh, these cool cats may be pushed to the limit. But even when they're up against the wall, even when they're sweaty and tired and have shot and killed a bevy of thugs, even when the cops and the mobsters are both breathing down their necks, they never become unglued. Cool under pressure, is the expression. But they don't have ice in their veins; they bleed hot but they bleed rarely.
Tarantino, who is himself so uncool, loves the cool. Think about Jackie Brown. De Niro and Sam Jackson want to be cool but are too goofy, too full of themselves, too showy, too quick to fly off the handle. But Pam Grier's Jackie Brown? She's one cool customer, even with a gun in her face. Meanwhile, Pulp Fiction is an homage to the cool.
So back to those cigarettes. Why are — or were — they so cool? Picture the characters in Wong Kar Wai's incredible Fallen Angels. They're always smoking. Now think about how I just used that word, smoking. They are giving off heat, passion and life itself radiating out of them: they are smoking. But they're always smoking cigarettes, too. Because a cigarette is, quite literally, this discrete containment of heat. A cigarette is bounded yet burns. And this is the very definition of cool: fire under control without ever being uptight.
Now picture Tony Soprano with his cigar. It's a containment of fire but it's big, consumptive, gangly — just like Tony. In fact, the characters in The Sopranos are never quite cool. They try to be cool but, in reality, they are emotional adolescents who give way to their immediate passions. Tony is always fighting his anger; Phil Leotardo is overcome with resentment. They're too out of control — just as a cigar is a barely contained cigarette. The very premise of The Sopranos is precisely that Tony can't keep it contained, that he keeps having panic attacks: that he's not actually cool. We see this in Scorsese's mob films, too. Think of Joe Pesci: he's constantly going off the deep end. Sure, there are cool gangsters. But, in these depictions, most of them are always coming unglued.
I am not ignoring the politics and economics of smoking. Yes, there is vested interest by Big Tobacco in making cigarettes cool. But the fact is cigarettes are kinda cool. That doesn't mean they're not also grotesque or tainted by need and greed. We don't live in an age of cool; we live in an age of anxiety and fear so of course we feel that way about smoking.
The Velvet Underground is cool. Think of Lou Reed's voice, its deadpan, understated delivery of extreme states. And I feel just like Jesus' son. The VU were all New York cool, a counterpoint to San Francisco's flowing hippy madness. The Grateful Dead are a lot of things but cool was never one. Dead shows were too exuberant, all that loose pajama clothing twirling and twirling and jiggying. Please note that I'm not passing judgment. I love both the VU and the Dead (I went to 25 or so Dead shows back in the day). I'm only trying to understand the ways of cool.
So why do we say cool when we hear certain facts or watch certain videos? Because we're experiencing cool, a discrete nugget of knowledge or life that is brimming with excess.
Martinis are not just cool: they breed coolness. Consider the martini glass. It's a lot of strong booze delivered in a glass that demands the drinker keep it together. If you get sloppy drinking a martini — a drink that is getting you lit — you won't be able to drink it. The martini glass is more than a symbol. It is a pedagogy in the ways of being cool: be lit, always, but keep it together.
I am rarely calm as I drive through San Francisco. From an objective perspective, driving in this absurd city has indeed become intolerable — construction on every corner, the city gutted by the utilities, lanes eliminated to make room for trees and bikes and, on top of it all, an inundation of new, douchebag entitled drivers all conspire to make it impossible to go literally one block without mayhem.
When I'm out there trying to navigate these streets, everyone is a douchebag — except me, of course (one of my favorite tweets was courtesy of someone I don't even follow, Timmy @mcgoin_nowhere: Congratulations everybody in the world for all being tied for the most shitty driver in the world). The things that fly from my mouth on a daily basis include a greatest hits from "The Wire": Get the fuck out of the way, you fucking shitbird! Fucking drive, fucknuts! What the fuck fuck, fuckwad? My son's vocabulary is now distinctive amongst his peers.
Whenever I see other drivers fly into a rage — when I see them through the window silently gesticulate their madness, scream, curse, and wish intense physical harm upon their fellow citizens — I am humbled. It's ugly to behold. And the fact is that despite whatever justifications I might offer, I am that driver, driven to the brink of madness daily because another driver hasn't accelerated fast enough. Ensconced in our two tons of steel, we quickly and mercilessly condemn the slightest perception of wrongdoing. All sense of the humanity of others disappears, the machine affording the aegis of invincible anonymity.
We witness the same thing online in the infamous comment sections, the casual ease with which strangers let loose upon strangers with a stream of ad hominem bile. I, for one, have been called everything under the sun online by people I've never met nor will ever meet, usually based on their poor reading of my poorly written screeds.
We see the same thing in war. Through a sniper scope or from the all seeing eye of a predator drone, the humanity of other people has a tendency to dissipate. In the American drone attacks, we can't even say how many people have been killed, not to mention who's been killed. This is not due to government secrecy; it's due to ignorance born of the indifference technology proffers. When a remote control robot kills someone, the humanity of that someone is so irrelevant that we don't even care whether we killed the "right" person (let's put aside that creepiness for the moment).
There is a continuum that runs from road rage to cruel comments to predator drones. This is by no means to conflate these things. For the most part, road rage and cruel comments don't kill people. But there is something disturbing about the way certain technology provides a distance that lets us vent the basest aspects of our wills. It breeds a culture that lets us believe that a drone attack is not only a viable option but a good one.
This is not to say that the driver's rage or commenter's vitriol is always base and undeserved. Most drivers are indeed selfish douchebags and deserve a shit storm of insults. And, no doubt, much of my own prose and ideas deserve the nasty attacks on my personhood.
Meanwhile, if technology has a way of stripping other people of their humanity that allows for ready hatred and insult, face to face we tend to be too non-confrontational. In American culture, at least, we'll hurl the nastiest crap at other drivers or in comments online but, in person, we're all smiles. We dread conflict. I have a friend who, whenever she's asked to do something by some acquaintance she doesn't even like, first bitches to me — and then goes to meets this person smiling broadly! Oy! Who wins in that situation?
In this world of smiles, we deny the humanity of others, as well. We treat them not as individuals with quirks and ticks and likes and dream, we treat them as an anonymous force to be managed with a friendly hello and smile, a bourgeois blow off. Of course, often a friendly hello and smile is nice and, like the occasional mean comment, well deserved. But like road rage, trolling comments, and predator drones, the obsequious smile denies individual humanity.
This whole equation of social exchange is out of whack. Armed with technology, we're nasty and brutish, even for the slightest of offenses. And then, when our time and energy is really on the line, we avoid conflict at all costs (at least in most places outside of Manhattan. In the Manhattan of my childhood, people confronted each other often, banging on taxi hoods, letting loose on a subway platform for someone budging. Whenever I've done the same here in San Francisco, people look at me like I'm a nut job. Sure, they'll fuck over another driver, wish him and his family dead, offer caustic comments anonymously on some news website, but actually confront another human being in the flesh? You'd have to be some kind of deranged asshole to do that!)
How, then, are we relate to each other? I believe there is a distanced respect we call politeness. The function of politeness is to let other people be amidst the ever increasing throngs of predominantly urban life. To some, the formality of politeness is dehumanizing. But I prefer to see it another way: it allows maximum difference by allowing you to be you, me to be me, without judgement and snooping into each others business.
This is a lesson I learned from William Burroughs, not exactly that icon of propriety. But while his imagery is often shocking, and while he lived most of his life as a junkie, he believed not in social protocol but in social tact — in knowing the right thing to say at the right time. I've written about precisely this before so I'll try to avoid excessive redundancy. But to quote myself despite its awkward phrasing, True social protocol is not what's inherited or determined by others but through the skills of tact: reckoning the here and now by perceiving and discerning.
It's difficult to figure out how to address each other these days. We live part of our lives in our neighborhoods, sure, but we also live more and more at work and of course online. We are often strangers to the people who live across the hall or across the street not to mention all the people we interact with online who live god knows where. And, at the same, we are each of us multiple — we have multiple lives, multiple identities, multiple needs and desires. Who sees which self, in what voice, in what mode of address?
Ah, but politeness allows us to be all of our selves while letting all those around us be their multiple selves. To be polite says: I wanna be me and I wanna let you be you and, as we all live jammed here together, let's not muck it all up by sticking our noses where they don't belong. Let's give each other room to be ourselves.
Does this mean we shouldn't occasionally get in someone else's face? That we need always to be quiet around each other? Proper? No, I'm not saying that at all. I am saying that there is a practice of tact that seeks the humanity within a situation, a humanity which may very well involve calling someone out on their douchebaggery, playing music loud, flipping the bird.
This is obviously a longer discussion of ethics in an increasingly crowded, interconnected world both virtual and physical. So, for now, I offer this: politeness can go a long way towards maintaining a balance of distance and respect that lets a multifarious world of multifarious selves enjoy this multifarious life.
After all, we all live in this world together, sharing the roads both paved and virtual, sharing the air and bar stools and economy. And it seems to me that it might behoove us to behave with a tad more couth towards each other — not just if we want to survive but if we want to live with a sense of enjoyment and pleasure.
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