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.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Narrative and the Election

So - I like writing about things political - but I don't like writing about politics.  That is to say, I've got a lot to say about capitalism and things of that sort, but you don't find me writing a lot about politicians - mostly because I think they're boring as subjects to write about.  But like so many academic types, I am spending this morning trying to understand my world.  And here's what I got (and no it will not be satisfying.)

I think this election may have come down to an issue of narrative.  Okay - so here's what I'm saying: the meaning in this election was bound up with Trump.  Now of course, Clinton would have been the first female president, but that didn't seem to be at the forefront of most of the talk during the campaign season.  If Trump lost - the nation could say, "Look, we're not a bunch of xenophobes" or whatever.  But the meaning would still be coming from the Trump side - not Hillary.  But if this were a Hollywood movie - which is the only narrative people seem to understand anymore - Trump has to win.  Think about it: one guy who parades around and is generally accepted as "outsider" battles 16 establishment candidates of one party and beats them all by "plain speaking," none of that "politically correct" bullshit.  And after that he must take on the establishment candidate from the other party - the heir apparent.  (This is sort of the political equivalent of that JCVD flick "Bloodsport.") According to everything we know about narrative logic - there's only one way for this film to end.

So am I saying that people voted for a clearly unstable person to run the world because of the story? Maybe. So does this election come down to to a failure of imagination?  Perhaps even more so from the DNC? Without a doubt.

Here is what I do know. People are not logical. And neither are you, reader of this post. (and neither am I, just to be clear)  It's not how people work - and we've never worked that way.  There's just too much evidence to the contrary to really believe we are beings devoted to making rational sense.  We are the kinds of beings who find meaning in the stories we tell.  We need to start telling different stories.  It may turn out that those crazy people in those crazy humanities fields may be the ones who help in these soon-to-be crazy times we are all going to be in.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Roadhouse Via David Lynch

So many years ago, I was watching a double feature on TBS: Point Break followed by RoadHouse.  I love the move Point Break,  I get a lot of pleasure from it, particularly the Gary Busey stuff. However, I had always assumed Road House was just stupid.  Until this one time, when I really tried to understand the world that was being created.  Now - imagine if some kind of David Lynch figure directed this movie - and it was considered an auteur film.  I propose that under these conditions, it would be clear that what we have here is nothing less than a surrealistic masterpiece, held together by the fact that every, single scene contains within it - something absolutely, utterly, impossible.

Let's just unpack some of our plot-points and I think this will become shockingly clear very quickly.

1) Patrick Swayze/Dalton is a world-renowned bar bouncer (which is a thing you can be in this world).  He is known as the the second greatest bar bouncer because Sam Elliot was his teacher and so is clearly his better - at least until Sam Elliot is killed to send a message to Swayze/Dalton.

2) Swazyze/Dalton has a philosophy degree where he apparently embraced eastern philosophy - and he uses this to fight rednecks at the Double Deuce.

3) The Double Deuce (That is the bar name right?) is a bar that has a knife fight nightly, but still has attractive women that frequent the place and blues guitar great Jeff Healey leads the house band.

4) Swayze learns about the town dynamic from a guy in a hardware store who will soon have his hardware store blown-up because he's taken Swayze's side.  This arouses no investigation from any State or Federal police agency.

5) Swayze carried around his own medical records and says things like "Pain don't hurt." This leads him to eventually seduce a doctor who he has sex with against a brick wall!  Soft music is not going to help her back.

6) Swayze, of course, is renting out his one room apartment with no amenities which is located across the lake from the bad guy (Brad Wesley).  His goons hang out there and can be found driving monster trucks and getting punched in the face, while his girlfriend does nothing but aerobics ostensibly all day, every day.

7) A fight will take place on Swayze's side of the river where he will rip a man's throat out of his body and send his carcass back across the lake.

There's more, lots more.  But here's the point.  If the world is boring or monotonous - try looking at it differently.  See if there's not more going on than what was "intended" as if we can ever know that anyways. That is the brilliance of a director like David Lynch - he makes the normal look unusual.  To paraphrase David Foster Wallace "Tarentino is interested in cutting off the ear.  Lynch is just interested in the ear."  

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Gyroscopic (Pt 2) Relativism

One of the most frustrating and trickiest things to deal with in philosophy is the idea of relativism.  In general relativism is something brought up in an intro-level class and it's dismissed and that's it, except after post-structuralism it started to look like relativism might be real and scary and show that we don't have any real values.

Okay, so philosophically relativism is a way of saying, "Hey, that's just like your opinion, man." Sometimes it's captured in the maxim: "everything is relative."  Most people have heard someone say this or something that meant the same thing. (There are no absolutes; it's all relative)  However, in philosophy sometimes you can't say things you want to say because the sentence actually undoes itself.  So for example, the sentence "It's all relative" is not relative to anything.  It is presented as a universal maxim that will be true anywhere no matter what, i.e., the statement about relativism is actually presented as an absolute truth.  Similarly, saying "There are no absolutes" is in fact a way to make another absolute and hence the sentence is meaningless.

Okay - so does that mean reality is not a matter of interpretation?  Well, no.  Not exactly.  Think about moods.  Because we tend to think reality comes out of our noggins we often assume the world is neutral and then our feelings at that moment are sad or happy- but we would never say something like "the world is unhappy today," except we do say things like that - all the time.  We say, "The meeting was boring," and we don't mean our interpretation of this event (the meeting) was boring. We are saying "The room was boring." And if someone were to look happy and engaged we would become confused.  If we really believed it was all a matter of interpretation - nobody would ever be confused at the person acting out of place.  Similarly we go to a party and the party feels lively or cold or like it's about to explode in some kind of Dionysian orgiastic experience.  This sensation is not inside us - or rather it is ALSO inside us, but it does not originate from us; rather, it comes from the interaction of bodies and stuff.

So if people have this gyroscopic tendency to become balanced and at-home in the world, what we tend to notice when we go to a party is that the "self" falls away and we become a collective of "party-goers."  And usually through no fault of anyone's, the party winds down of its own volition and we realize this and we go home.  Usually there's a couple people who do not understand when it's time to leave and everyone tends to become annoyed because they were supposed to pick up that the mood of the party - not their insides - has in fact changed.

We do not live in a world where everyone is living inside of a different reality - we share the world.  When we are with others we tend to find a balance - certain parts of us come out and meet certain parts of the other and we form a "connection" and for at least a while we try to discuss a reality that is common to both.  Or one final example - even if I'm not crying when Mickey dies in Rocky III, it would be silly of my not to understand why someone would in fact be crying at this scene.  Someone else might be wondering "Didn't Mr. T just assault him and cause this?  Why isn't Mr. T being arrested?" In every case it is apparent we are watching the same reality - even if we focus on different aspects.  (Coming up: Watching Road House with David Lynch)

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Gyroscopic (Pt 1): Towards an Ontology

Deleuze suggests that a philosopher invents and plays with concepts; that is their business. So in this spirit I wish to introduce the concept of the gyroscope as a way to understand the manner in which various flows of ideas and desires and beliefs  as well as materials and processes intersect and are negotiated in such a way that a self is produced and conceived of as a stable entity.

Often we are confused that others are able to hold contradictory ideas at the same time. The examples are as familiar as they are banal: "how can you be for/against the death penalty when you are also for/against the state intervening in women's reproductive rights. Both sides clearly see how the other side is hypocritical but claim that their side is actually not a contradiction at all, but rather it's just a matter of understanding some additional information.

A few things need to be unpacked:

1) We tend to understand ourselves as static with moments of sadness or depression or anxiety or joy or confusion. In every case what is assumed is that variation is the exception.  I believe this is exactly backwards. I am always in a state of change. I'm always excited by this or that thing I'm reading, but then I get bored and so I turn on the tv, and then I flip channels, but then I'm hungry, so I make food, but maybe I ate too much, so now I'm tired and then maybe I wake up and have to use the bathroom. I'm always changing to make things restabalize for brief moments.  This is the idea of the gyroscope. I appear stable but in reality that apparent stability is maintained only because of many moving parts working simultaneously.
2) In his work Hypermodern Times Gilles Lipovetsky discusses that the hypermodern is characterized by an embracing of opposites - the world is both hyperconnected and yet people feel very lonely - we are both close and far away and so on.  I think the problem with this sort of model is that it's not ambivalence - there's multiple flows intersecting; it's not simply a matter of opposites.  Also, the reason the world is both intimate and distant is not because of some contradiction in logic; it's simply contextual, i.e., in what sense do you mean "intimate."  The reason it feels like opposites is because Westerners have been trained to think in dichotomies.  
So I don't think people are holding two ideas in different quadrants of their brain because you can point out these contradictions and often people understand - they see both compartments at the same time, and then they usually start attempting to explain away contradictions.  I'm not suggesting we all don't hold competing and contradictory ideas - what I'm suggesting is that depending on different scenarios and variables, one idea usually becomes focused while others recede.  And I'm arguing this happens for stability - we want to feel at home in the world.  We want to avoid doubt when possible.

Another important event in the emergence of identity is the notion of narrative.  Because we believe we need to be a self, we need to understand our self in terms of a story.  We do this by taking where we currently and tracing backwards, often coming up with insights like "If you think about it, this is what my life has always been leading to."  Of course, this is simply a matter of the narrative moments we freeze and constitute as "significant" at the expense of other events we consider tangential. It would be nihilistic to suggest some events aren't more significant. But I believe that in reality lots of events from lots of possible narrative configurations would also be meaningful - essentially it is not that this or that narrative we construct is inaccurate; rather, it's one out of many, many different possibilities.  This is why if one narrative falls apart, often people have some version of "Well I know it seemed like this is what I was supposed to be doing, but actually, now that I've thought about it..." And so on.

To recap: Stability is not the norm.  We seek "stability" by isolating moments and "freezing" them in order to create a narrative whereby our personality and behavior feel logical and predictable.  We want to make sense.  Also, the instability we feel is not simply because of opposites playing in some kind of Hegelian synthesis that won't resolve; rather, there there are multiple flows that do not resolve into each other - we are always teetering this way and that and trying to feel "at home" in the world. This process over enough time produces this thing we refer to when we say "I."