Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Thinking Through The Noise

I haven't had much to say on here lately. Mostly because of the way I've curated this blog. I write about political stuff all the time, but I don't exactly right about day-to-day politics or politicians. I'm not a pundit and I have no desire to be one. The whole enterprise sounds soul-crushing.

However, like many others of my ilk, I can't stop watching the fucking news.  It has turned into the most entertaining reality television show I have ever seen. If I wrote these White House characters into a novel it would IMMEDIATELY be recognized as satire. Think about that.  Reality has become so absurd that if you copied it and wrote it down and published it, nobody would believe it.

So I have no desire to debate any of these topics - in fact I won't. And not because I'm stubborn - I'm actually less rigid now than I've ever been in my life.  The reason I don't debate is that we live in an age where one shops for reality the way one shops for anything else. Reality has become the ultimate consumer choice.  While this might feel liberating to the "You-can't-tell-me-nothing-Mr.-College- Degree" crowd, from my perspective it's not just frustrating, it's frightening. The only way to win is to not play.

So how does one stay thoughtful and sane in a world that talks about itself with lies and distortions, a culture that often doesn't want to take an honest assessment of itself.  It's a question that feels impossibly tough.

I know for myself I have to remember that consuming more "news" does not equate with being more informed. I know I have to realize that the process of watching a lot of the political nonsense unfold is actually seductively fun for me.  There's something about watching chaos that makes for interesting television.  However, if it's causing me stress and all that stress is doing is causing me to watch more and get more upset, well then that's not healthy.

Okay, but I'm not the kind of person that goes "Well okay, fuck it all.  I guess I'll just tune it out."  For one thing, my job does not allow me to be uninformed. For another, I take Socrates' maxim very seriously: the unexamined life is not worth living. So to not think is to be dead.

In no way am I suggesting to just stop caring about what's going on. Rather I am saying to selectively read and watch people who are ethical and good journalists - people who are not towing a party line - journalists who are, for lack of a better term at 7:20 in the morning, "Independent." For me that means people like Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Naomi Klein, Matt Taibbi, and Sy Hersh to name just a few.  But everyone has to figure that part out for themselves.

As usual my solutions are small and local and not exciting.  I've started cutting off the television more - having more periods of silence around me when I can. When I read, I have no background noise.  And if I want background noise, I pick up my guitar.  However, even though I've started thinking about this problem and trying to make small changes for the sake of my mental health, currently I'm still failing.  I still watch too much nightly news instead of just picking a few people I trust everyday, reading important stories and moving on.  Sometimes I watch the same stories talked about by 3 different people, all saying very, very similar things.  Hopefully recognizing failure is the first step. That sounds like the kind of thing people say.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Detective Story in the Post-Something Age

I spend a lot of time - you can ask people who have to deal with me in physical form - trying to figure out what makes something "true." To the uninitiated this may seem like common sense, but to a person who has spent literally the last twenty years reading complicated philosophical texts, it's not nearly as clear as it seems.

Here's a simple example - we all learn that objects fall at 9.8 meters per second squared.  But where does this occur?  In a vacuum.  So the statement about falling objects is true in a world none of us inhabit.  Now in no way does this mean that fact is untrue.  Or that the scientific constant is not useful.  That statement about the speed objects fall is true and it's useful.  It's just that it's only true under certain conditions.  Most things are only true under certain conditions.  Here's another example - the thing I'm sitting on right now is a chair.  Until I need to change a light-bulb.  Then it's a step ladder.

Truth is both local and general.

The genre that has best represented the search for truth is the detective genre.  Now think about the way truth works in these books/movies/Matlock episodes.  We start not knowing much, usually being wrong about a guess or two.  But then as the plot moves to the conclusion we learn what really happened.  All the clues add up to a coherent picture and Matlock gets to leave the court house 100K richer and eat hotdogs off the street cart.  (Apologies if some of you did not have a grandmother with whom to compulsively watch Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Perry Mason.)

This formula is hopeful as shit.  The more we learn, the more we understand the whole.

And now let's talk about JFK.  The Zapruder film has been seen by everyone.  Is the problem with the JFK assassination that we don't know enough information?  That we don't have enough theories?  Of course not.  We have too many damn theories.  And moreover here's an example where we all see what happened and yet, none of us is sure of what happened.  This is a different world.

Similarly - think about the way conspiracy theories proliferated about 9/11.  Films like Loose Change and In Plane Sight became shared on the internet and were treated as scholarly material by a lot of people who didn't know any better.  Again - the issue isn't that there wasn't enough information.

So it seems something is happening.  Now it seems we are in an age where things to not add up to a coherent narrative.  Truth is always-already fractured and fragmented and fractal - something like a Serpinksi triangle.  Clues aren't adding up to truth anymore.  Essentially Raymond Chandler has been replaced by Thomas Pynchon - long true for the academic world - but now true for the general world as well.  Maybe the fact that Inherent Vice got made into a film signals something?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Music and Humor

Recently I was listening to John Scofield's amazing new album Country for Old Men.  In the album the jazz-fusion virtuoso does his take on classic country tunes.  And the results are remarkable.  I was listening to his version of the classic Hank Williams song "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and at one point I just started laughing because he was taking the tune so far out that at many points it was unrecognizable.  I think of this as being playful - sort of fucking with audience expectations.  I could imagine many classic country fans holding their hands over their ears while saying things like "Naw. Just hell naw.  That a'int right."  Jazz - by it's very nature - is always at odds with the purist.

Then I started thinking about humor in music - not in lyrics - but in music.  And well, I couldn't think of many examples.  Certain genres don't seem to lend themselves to humor at all.  I don't think I've ever heard a playful heavy metal riff.  This isn't a slight - that's just a genre that always - at least to me - appears very serious.  Some country guitar and bluegrass players add little pieces of rock or jazz into their solos and I think that counts.  But I can't think of players who have turned this into a style or an aesthetic.

Tom Waits - simply by his choice of instrumentation and by seeing his voice as not one but many instruments - has always produced music that is playful and surprising.  In fact, I think it is in the idea of the surprise that humor is so intriguing musically.  It signifies something at odds with expectations. However, it's clear to me - it feels unarguable - that Frank Zappa is the great rock humorist.  The music has a symphonic like precision.  And at the same time, it's zany.

Does any of this matter?  I think so. Perhaps there is a difference between "playing" and "performing." I've had the occasion to perform really serious music with orchestras on several occasions.  There is nothing "playful" about this experience. It's exacting and for that reason, nerve-wracking. However, music that can be played and played with - forms that embrace improvisation - have a natural desire to expand their boundaries.  One way to do this is to stretch the idea of genre. Usually this produces the kind of humor I'm discussing, which is a playfulness that allows music to challenge itself and move out of a rigidly defined space.

I think most people today see that genre music is so connected to marketing analytics that it feels as processed as cheese from Taco Bell, so in that sense the more people who can find moments to decontstruct the very idea of genre, especially from the inside, the better off the state of music is.

 


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Thought Experiment

If political news was filtered out of your life, would you be able to tell - from your daily existence- what party was in power? (politics in the classic sense - not in the everything is always-already political sense)

For example, if all you knew about the 80's was that a president gave amnesty to "illegal aliens" would you assume that he was a Democrat? Or if you learned that the president currently in office is responsible for deporting more immigrants than any other president in history, what would you assume his political party would be? 

These examples aren't important - you can pick your own. (And don't argue with mine because that just ain't the point)  What I'm asking is if you took all the political talk out of your day and from your news feeds and all you had to use to think about the state of the world came from your personal day- to-day experience, what information could you glean.  

I'm not suggesting you couldn't tell or that you could - that's the whole deal with a thought experiment.  This is an open and honest question and this one requires feedback.  So if you have opinions, beliefs, ruminations etc, please share.  

Monday, December 5, 2016

My First Sensory Deprivation Experience

The only channels that I watch on "regular" television are MSNBC to watch Rachel Maddow at 9pm and the Viceland Channel, which I watch compulsively.  There's a new show called "Hamilton's Pharmacopia."  Hamilton is the son of the great documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. He is a chemist and a pyschonaut.  Well on one particular episode he was exploring sensory deprivation tanks and I became more than intrigued, not quite at obsessed, but approaching the later.

After a quick internet search I came upon a place called "Drift and Dreams" out of Wilmington.  I called and was informed there was a cancellation on Sunday.  As I was going to be in Wilmington anyways, I said I would be there on time and ready for my transcendental experience.  I was assured it would be "trippy" and was even told that if I could shut my thoughts off I could come into contact with "the nothing."  I was hoping this wasn't "Never Ending Story" type nothing.  I was wanting Nietzsche-when-you-stare-at-the-abyss-it-stares-back kind of nothing.  Luckily the experience would be none of the former and some of the later.

The first thing I did when I entered was this 40 minute light and sound experience that was meant to put me in a "theta" state.  I don't know what any of that means and it sounded like hocus-pocus, but I figured let's just go for broke.  Whatever the owner suggested would improve my experience, I said "sure."  So for 40 minutes I was on a message table with glasses that sort of had movie screens in them and headphones.  I heard a very repetitive rhythm that could have been made on an Atari and there were lots of colors flashing that you could see even if your eyes were closed.  Well - I don't know how different I would have felt if I were just relaxing and listening to a Mahler symphony or a Bach concerto but time went quickly and it was over before I thought it should have been, but the clock suggested 40 minutes had passed.  I was in a bit of a trance-like state - nothing extreme, but I was very relaxed.  Then it was time for the Sensory Deprivation Chamber.

After incredibly easy instructions to get in the tub: "Take off clothes.  Put in ear plugs.  Don't freak out if you hear or see things.  Nobody is back here.  It's just you," I was ready to start my 90 minute experience.  So I get in and sort of float around - you cannot not float.  There must be hundreds of pounds of Epson salt in 10 inches of water.

So after you get adjusted - it's just you in total blackness. You quickly realize how many distractions are in your every moment of waking life and a peacefulness happened that was unprecedented.  Even though you're basically in a bathtub with a lid closed, there was zero sI ense of claustrophobia.  When you get settled you start to lose the sense of having a body.  This is because the water is the same temperature as your body and you are weightless - there's no experience of gravity in the tank.  This means at a certain point you cannot tell where your body ends and the water begins.  You feel like you are just a collection of thoughts floating in space.  Now to be clear, it's not like you can't wiggle your fingers - you know your body is still there, but there are periods of time where it doesn't occur to you.  At one point - late in the float - I had this experience that's a bit hard to describe.  I was wide awake but I felt like I was back on the message table.  I don't know how long this lasted but I had this very clear thought of "I can't wait to get into the sensory tank" I sort of immediately popped back in my mind and thought "Oh, yeah.  That's right I'm here."  Lots of other moments of interest as well, but instead of me describing them, I would encourage others to experience it for themselves.

I was told that the way I would know this was over would be that I would hear three knocks on the tank and I was to respond with one knock indicating I heard the knocks. Then I would get out, dry off, and get into a shower.  When I heard the three knocks, I couldn't believe an hour and a half had passed.  That seems like a long time to just lay still in water, but it honestly felt like maybe 45 minutes. Time and space both go wonky.

The whole experience was wonderful - I came out with a glow that is still alive and well this morning.  I came out of the tank feeling sort of "stoned" but I was completely sober except for the tank experience.  It was fascinating to both have moments of losing track of one's body and moments of being vividly focused on having a body and then having but not being able to sense one's body.  There were many thoughts of "can I feel my thigh right now?  Do I feel my toes?"  Sometimes the answer was "yes" and sometimes the answer was "I'm not quite sure" and sometimes it was simply "no."

I think next time - this isn't exactly cheap; the entire 130 minutes cost about 140 dollars - in a couple months, I will see if I can do 2-3 hours in the tank.  I don't think I've seen the full potential and I'm definitely curious.

One note of clarify - I did have weird experiences but this was not a full on hallucinatory episode at all.  So don't expect that this is going to mimic the experience of psychedelics.  Perhaps for some - maybe if you stay for 8 hours as Hamilton Morris did in his episode.  But for me, it was exciting and strange, rejuvenating and invigorating.  Like I said - the experience of losing and contemplating my body led to me getting out of the tank and noticing my body felt relaxed and messaged and better than it had felt in a long, long time. Bodies and minds are strange and beautiful things, especially when they are forced to configure a new experience.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Speaking Meaningfully and Interpreting Generously

In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger discusses different modes of being.  One mode he discusses is called the "they-self."  This is the self that gets lost in the crowd, gives his individuality over to the group and forgets all the unpleasantness of life.  This is the self that happens when you go out on Friday and drink too much and laugh too loud.  There's nothing wrong with this self - that's important.  Heidegger's talking ontology, not ethics. This self makes what Heidegger calls "Idle-Talk" but what I want to call "chatter."  These are the conversations you get in where you talk about sports and weather, current events and how much your job sucks.  This talk is "idle" because it's not meant to go anywhere.  In fact most of us don't want to have serious conversations during these settings - it would ruin the experience.

The other half of the "they-self" is when people are being "authentic" and doing the hard work of turning one's life into a project, an art-work if you're absolutely successful.  In this mode, it is very common, necessary even to ask those big uncomfortable questions - "Am I living a meaningful life?" "How can I live joyfully in a world that can often feel bleak."  This is also the self where you talk meaningfully with others.  You don't have idle talk and you don't just chatter away - you try to really say something.

So here's what I'm getting at - in today's post-everything, media-saturated malaise, it's hard to separate the chatter from the talk that is meaningful.  Think - but not for too long - about election season.  It didn't "feel" like a reality television show.  It was a reality television show.  And the commentators often were unqualified to have opinions about anything bigger in scope than mayonnaise (they would probably give "Miracle Whip" equal time because that's democracy).   So what happens is all this chatter gets filtered through to the population and most of us start talking like the television or about the issues on the television.  Remember when we were all told we had to decide whether a gorilla being shot in a zoo was an ethical act?  And what did we do?  We started asking our friends or co-workers what they thought or how could they possibly believe that?  Then after about two weeks the gorilla was forgotten because we've been given new issues to care about.

What totally fucking sucks about all of this is that it's hard to say anything and have it heard outside of these pre-established frameworks of right and left, of identity politics, and of the sort of cultural issues of the day. Often I'm trying to say something outside of these frameworks because I don't like the rigidity of frames, someone will interpret what I'm saying in terms of the exact frames I'm trying to avoid. So If I say, I think the democratic candidate is bad, it's hard not to hear that as a tacit support for the other candidate.  Or if I say that thinking about the gorilla was a meaningless distraction, someone will assume I don't believe animals have rights. And of course there's always the chance that people take something personally when what's being discussed is systematic.  Remember, none of us invented these frames of thinking. There's no good reason we have to accept them.  Find better ways to view the world.  Find new categories and concepts. Try to stop all the chatter and say something.

But of course we all have to become better listeners as well - to not have a pre-established framework with which to interpret everything.  If we don't, we'll never be able to really "hear" any new idea because we will immediately take it and suck it up under our old framework.  If something is really new, it should sound confusing, strange, alien.  So the other part of this process is to try to actually listen to what someone is saying.  Actually hear their words.  Assume they are saying something meaningful until you are proven otherwise - that's interpretative generosity.  So many times we want to dismiss any idea that's not already contained in our "acceptable idea box."  All of this makes it impossible to have "authentic" communication in a time where it is so important.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Foreign Bodies

We don't think about our bodies until they stop working (according to cultural or biological standards). Then we think about them a lot.  During the last year I have had to think about my body constantly.  When your body becomes different, you realize that your body becomes noticeable to everyone.  Having a body that is different makes you realize that everyone is actually noticing only your body.  Whatever you say is interpreted through your body. So saying, "I know this looks bad, but I feel fine," does nothing to set anyone at ease.

I know all of this material has been mined ad naseum in all the "studies" and I know that there's an obvious - "Good job white boy - you've finally learned what most of the rest of the world has known forever" critique to what I'm saying. So now that that's acknowledged, let's talk about gas stations and hospitals, schizophrenics, and the unwell.

I understand that people are apprehensive about being the only X in a room full of Y's.  But what I'm interested in is being uncomfortable by a body that is not seen - even stereotypically - as particularly threatening (in a violent, dangerous way).  For example, there's a gas station near my house that often has very poor people hanging around.  At times one of these people will approach you and you know you are about to be asked for money.  People - myself included - become incredibly uncomfortable around these bodies and I think we think the person may be threatening, but I don't believe this is usually the case.  I have been asked for money a lot of times in my life and never, not once, did a person attempt to attack me or steal anything from me. I realize others have different experiences, but in general I don't this population is particularly threatening.  A body being unpredictable is not the same as a body being dangerous - I think this may be quite relevant to this inquiry.

In a similar manner, we tend to be uncomfortable with the homeless in general.  We often don't make eye contact and we usually have an inner monologue that says "Don't look at him.  Don't look.  Please don't say anything to me" and we feel relief when we walk inside our location - comforted by other shoppers who brought their own goddamned money.

Most often homelessness is accompanied by mental illness. When I lived in Boone we had our resident homeless celebrity - Joshua Watauga - but we called him "Charlie Manson" until we actually met him because, well, he looked strikingly similar. He would often be on King Street selling stories he wrote or stones he had found or anything to make a buck. He would occasionally be seen ranting or flipping out, always because a shopper accosted  him or a college student was showing how much of an asshole he (always a he) could be.  So Joshua was schizophrenic, but he wasn't harmful, yet again, most people were immediately uncomfortable around him.

In my own case, I spent more days in the hospital from July 2015 - May 2016 than I spent outside of a hospital.  And during this time, I had friends that I saw and I had a lot of friends that I never saw. Lots of people had lots of excuses why they couldn't make it or whatever, but it really came down to the fact that sick bodies are not comfortable to be around.  There's a couple types of hospital visitor, but the worst, without a doubt, is the person who is counting down minutes until they can leave and still say "Well, I saw Dave the other day." I promise every person that has ever been sick, would rather those people stay the fuck home. I don't mean for any of this to sound bitter - just the truth without a lot of rhetorical niceties.    

Okay, so I'm not interested in this from a moral point of view.  That's boring and of course you should go see your friends in the hospital and of course you shouldn't be unkind to people who are uncomfortable to be around.  That's easy.  But what's not so easy is to figure out why these bodies are so off-putting.  What is it about our world, our economy, our institutions, and our ideologies that make these bodies so uncomfortable to be around?  Can't one imagine another world where these people garner the most empathy?

It seems to me one possible answer comes from Foucault's idea that the world wants docile bodies. We are comfortable around people who have fallen in line with our consumer culture.  We're fine in the store satisfying manufactured wants; we're not comfortable with the person outside who has real wants - often they are dismissed with a story about a time that someone saw a thing on the news where it turns out homeless people are really making a fortune. Clearly there's some denial going on. Also, perhaps there is something uncomfortable about the realization that without cash and credit most people are only a few months away from being destitute as well. Perhaps the homeless function to remind people what they could be - but that's too uncomfortable to really consider, so we pretend that they are totally alien to us.