Saturday, December 31, 2011

Phenomenology of Music

I had the pleasure of studying with Dr. David Haney during my M.A. program. He was the head of the English Department when I was there. Dave Haney's office made me certain that I was in the right place because his bookshelf looked a lot like mine. When I was introduced I saw Gadamer's Truth and Method and Heidegger's Being and Time and I'm sure there were volumes of Levinas that I didn't see at the time. And what was really great, and I didn't understand the full scope of this until later, Dr. Haney played music.

See as a musician you hear a lot of people talking about playing music and you don't really know what they mean by it. But Dave Haney was a serious - well is a serious - bluegrass player.

And so one day I wondered into his office and asked him if anybody had ever written a Phenomenology of Music. He said that somebody probably had but he thought I could do it better. He liked me, but he was also being nice.

But somebody, and hell why not me, must do this. There are a couple poets that have approached music from the direction I'd like to. Specifically, Rilke's poem On Music is a great place to start.

Okay, so what would this look like. What does it mean to talk about the way one experiences music. I think a place to start would be the way music makes the body move. Music makes dance. Ever see someone dance or spasm or move funny without music? Ridiculous. With music? Acceptable at worst. At best it's another art form.

Music also related to the divine. Almost all cultures - I think (I'm unqualified to make this statement) call out to their deities through music. Something about music calls man to experience that which is beyond him. I like this a lot, even though I'm not religious in any classical sense.

Music is also like smell in the sense that smell was explained to me in this Psychology class I took in college. Smell, according to what I learned, bypasses certain neurological stuff and transports one quickly to a time when that smell was smelled, back to a place of familiarity. Now I don't really know anything about the sense of smell, but I do know that when I hear songs I haven't heard in a while, I become nostalgic. I immediately get transported - like Quantum Leap Style- back to when I was listening. That's the phenomenon of music. That's the experience.

Studying music in college, I can attest that you learn about everything but the experience. You talk about modes and harmonies and history and all the "guts" of music, but you never talk about how it makes you feel in your guts.

I think this is for a logical reason - they are training you as a player, not as an appreciator of music. The latter is taken for granted. But the most interesting thing about music is how it takes one up - owns one. But even though it's "logical" it's a mistake. The two relate. Certainly as a player you'd want to think about what draws an audience in - that thing that transcends the notes you play.

A lot of my friends give hip hop a hard time. And I get it. But what they don't seem to get is that a lot (I'm being general, obviously) of hip hop isn't meant for your radio. It's meant for that ubiquitously mentioned "club." See in "the club" a hard, low rolling bassline grabs you and forces you to move. I mean I have spent very few hours of my life in anything approaching "the club" but in the few experiences I've had, I really got it. I remember being in college in the early 2000's and hearing things like Nelly's first album or even, forgive this, DMX and being totally pumped, grabbed, made to move. The music just needed its context.

In the same sense, when I first went to Boone I wasn't a Bluegrass fan. But then I started hearing it live, in the right place, at the right time. Now, I love Bluegrass, but I prefer it live. I don't think Bluegrass records well. For some reason Jazz can. That would be interesting to think about.

To go on needlessly, Heavy Metal - which my last Heavy Metal album purchase was Pantera's Far Beyond Driven, so maybe I'm not a good spokesperson here - can't be played quietly. The music must be too loud and it must make you want to jump aimlessly around. That's what it does.

So Music is related to Kairos. It needs to be heard at "the right time." Everything can't be appreciated everywhere. Music is related to place. There of course is the exception of a certain kind of pop music that doesn't seem to come from anywhere. Perhaps I'll take that up later. But, again, in general, I like music that feels like it comes out of the dirt - that's built up from the souls of the dead that have played it before. Blues does this really well.

Anyhow, this is all over the place as I'm just sort of thinking "out loud." Perhaps tomorrow or the next day I'll try to keep this going. As usual, I have more questions than answers.

Happy New Years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holidays and What Not

So Holidays are weird for me. Have been for a while. Some of this is because my parents have never been huge holiday-people, which means me, as growing up like an only child also was never introduced to the idea that holidays were huge. Now I have a wonderful half-sister, who I would never consider as such. She's just my sister - full blown sister, not a fractional relationship, but she's 10 years older than me so I grew up by myself. I am thankful for this. I learned to deal with myself, which has been useful in post-adolescent living.

Okay but where is this going. Here's what I'm thinking. Holidays have lost meaning because they don't have the "pull" they used to have. This actually, surprisingly, has something to do with the War on Christmas conversation, just not the way people who talk this nonsense think.

The terror that comes into the Christian's gut is not from nowhere. They are correct that we no longer live in a unified religious world. The world is "post-modern" and you are in it too - like it or not. But that world is complex and plural and most importantly it's constantly "deferred."

So Post-Modernism, as Jonathan Lethem pointed out in his wonderful essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence, is more like an environment - in fact it is an environment - than it is a mode of thinking.

Here's an example - most of my understanding of other places is mediated through a screen. And then I relay my information over another screen (this one) and then someone else looks it up on their screen. Blah blah. So the point is that we're never getting to "The Real." Real go poof. What we have is the Derridian Trace.

Okay but what in the hell does this have to do with Holidays. Well in a postmodern world Christmas is constituted not by an overall sense of "being." It's constituted by a mostly capital-economic need. Not believing in Jesus or Santa Clause as being supernatural would crash our economy if the result was that people who stopped believing stopped buying.

So the holidays don't pull me in - and they didn't pull my parents in. I think they think that the world does its thing everyday. So it's more meaningful in a sense to invite friends over for a random Wednesday for a meal and talking. That has a solid center. Everyone there is there for the "event." Holidays, Christmas especially, doesn't feel unified at all. And that's what the "war on Christmas" people are correct about. They feel the fear and trembling that comes with the loss of the kind of meaning they want. What they don't get is that it's just gone - and you can kick and scream, but it aint coming back. One must dwell in the world one has. And that world is mediated and complicated and constituted by "play" and therefore wonderful. If you can accept that.

Living meaningfully in a post-modern world is the big question for our time. The fact that it's not constantly talked about shows the depth of the anxiety, in my opinion. Embrace the play. It's a lot of fun.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On the Cat

This one is long overdue. Everyone that knows me knows that I love cats. Growing up at my parents place there were always cats. For a long time my dad acted like he didn't like them, but he did - we all knew it. He'd pretend to throw rocks at them, but magically none ever, ever got hit.

We've had Frisky, North, Lucy, Worthless, Squirrely, and several others. Recently my cats had to be relocated because of stupid apartment rules about me having critters. So now there is a Himalayan named Max the Ashtray and a dumpster kitty named Mickey Doorknobs. And they are awesome.

It's no accident that in some cultures they think cats ward off evil spirits. I realized that Mickey had this potential when he kept chasing light around my apartment. At first I thought he was just stupid. But I realize now he's operating on a quantum level that I can't fathom.

And so the thing about the cat is that you don't own them. You exist with them. If I played gigs all weekend, I'd leave food and water and come back on Sunday. They'd be happy to see me, but they weren't distressed. Put a dog in that situation and he'd shit everywhere and be in the midst of an emotional breakdown.

People like dogs because dogs are needy and people like to feel needed. Here's an analogy I've made before: you are to your cat as your dog is to you. You want your cat to want your presence the way your dog wants you to want his presence. This is almost a Cheap Trick song.

The cats world is amazing - they love levels. The cat is a ninja. He's always around, but you might not notice him. Because he's always on a different level. Exclamation mark.

It turns out - I saw this on the Discovery Channel, but I learned about it first hand - Himalayans are different kinds of cats. They actually like to do what you're doing. So me and Max have both seen all 60 episodes of The Wire and we both enjoy cooking shows, especially Top Chef.

Since Max has moved from an apartment kitty to a Nursery kitty he has ridden on Kawasaki Mules and even once on a front lifting loader. Apparently he was not so into the latter.

The cat goes in amazing ways. He metabolizes the world both faster and slower than we do. There are lessons to be learned from these creatures. The cat is existential.

Oh and I learned that the cat is the only animal that kills for the sake of killing. Other animals kill and eat. The cat just terrorizes and swats and makes death and then brings you death as a present. The cat is a ninja. I'm glad I exist in a world with them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


So today I was watching an interview with Hunter Thompson on Charlie Rose. And I became excited - hanging on every word. I teach Hunter to my students to talk about style. He's one of the only people recognized and known by his first name - that shows you a lot. Well, maybe not - his last name is pretty common, but the point sounds nice doesn't it?

The thing about Hunter is this: he's like Lynard Skynard. Bear with me. see Skynard is not a bad band. In fact, they are great. But their greatness is outshined by a particular idea of them; by a popularity of a few songs; by a backwards idea of the South. Similarly, most people that I know know Hunter by way of Johnny Depp. So they think Hunter is cool because he did drugs. Most people who relate to Hunter would be about like someone thinking they relate to Marco Pierre White because they like to eat pheasant.

If you read Hunter's journalism, you quickly understand that he's not reducible to a drug addled writer. In fact, the drugs he does are the least interesting thing about his writing. What's interesting about his writing is that he locates him self in the muck. He is like an archeologist of muck - digging, exploring, putting pieces together to give us a theory of the muck. But see Hunter isn't a nihilist - he's a modernist - at the end of the day a believer in the possibility of the American Dream.

My two favorite pieces by him are his essay on the Kentucky Derby and a particular Super Bowl involving the Dolphins and somebody else. In both of the essays Hunter blows apart the idea of objective journalism. What is real is the muck and the best that can be done is to explain what it feels like - how it cakes on the skin. Hunter dissolves muck with booze and amphetamines, but only after cataloging it. A literary scientist; a grammatical pharmacologist.

When HST sits at a table during an interview he's always drinking. The man loved booze. But booze fuels him. He's not less articulate - he's more intense. But he's never a caricature in real life - only in films. He's like Bob Dylan. Dylan actually is still walking around, but you'd never guess given the amount of documentaries on the guy.

Sometimes Matt Taibbi is referred to as the modern HST. And I don't think is a terrible comparison. Taibbi has talked about this. He claims that he's considered Gonzo because he used to do drugs and he writes in first person. In fact one time Taibbi had to call Hunter because he (Taibbi) was asked to edit a collection of Gonzo journalism. Hunter asked him "Do you need the dough?" Taibbi said, "yep," and Hunter said "well do it."

I love that story and I love Matt Taibbi, but the modern version of Hunter seems to me to be David Foster Wallace. Well let me be clear. DFW is not a copy or a 2.0 version of Hunter, what he is is the next logical step. David Foster Wallace not only put himself in the middle of all his essays, he basically made the reader experience the subject through him. What better way to show that reality is reliant on perspective.

When I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, I'm reminded a lot of Hunter - this persona of filterlessness. And I wonder if their endings connect them in some other, more profound way. I cannot speculate on this and I don't want to. But I miss them both.

Monday, December 12, 2011


The first essay by Heidegger that I ever read was when I was about 20. And let's just say I was unprepared. He had sayings like "the world worlds." And well, it turns out that language isn't much different: "language languages."

Now that doesn't sound great to my ear. Heidegger isn't as poetic as his favorite poets. But the move he's making is great. Language is doing its business - just like the world.

Now if that's true, then it means that language isn't something that we use only. It's also something that uses us. When I talk the word actually makes my mouth move in a certain way. Try thinking about that next time you talk. It's an exercise in weirdness - sort of like saying one word over and over and over and over and over and over until that word becomes dissociated from anything.

Heidegger says "language is the house of Being." Now I don't exactly know what the hell that means. But I think it has something to do with the fact that as humans we bring the world out of the void by words and then the world is able to work us over, affect us, and so forth.

Daniel Coffeen recently wrote about this on his blog An Emphatic Umph and he referenced a great quote by Merleau-Ponty: you reach for a word like you reach for an itch. The word and the itch are not different. The are gestures. With the notion of gestures all distinctions can collapse in a beautiful way.

Okay, well not ALL distinctions. But follow me: my cat gestures for food. A dog gestures with his nose much like I gesture with my hand. We use these parts of us to bring the world to us. When we thought that there was a difference between language and action - you know people say things like "Are you going to keep talking or do something about it" - it was easy to think language was passive. But people use language to change the world. I mean when I say "my beer is empty," I'm not describing reality - well I'm doing that too - but my goal is change. Please make this not the case.

To oversimplify: most 20th century philosophers thought either people were really, really different and used language to articulate similarities or they thought people were very similar and thought we used language to articulate differences. I'm closer to the latter. For example, if someone runs by me screaming, I have a question or two. Maybe I should be running too. Point being, language is used because it's useful. It's not "about" the world, it "is" the world. Now the world is more than language, but language is not just adding to it. It's like Spinal Tap - every time you talk you make the world one louder.

I remember one of my favorite professors saying that action in motions goal is action at rest. So why does the lion eat the antelope? According to him, so the lion can go back to sleep in the sun. Well, I don't know that I completely agree, but there's a point. Language is used to change the world, to fix problems - even if that problem is boredom. Now this doesn't encompass it - you can't do that - hell remember what we're using here: more language.

So here's to more language.

Monday, December 5, 2011


This one has been hard to write. I've thrown away many drafts. Many people that know me know that one of my absolute best friends passed away recently. And I have certainly not taken it very well. I don't think it's the kind of thing one should take well. Being sad is not always to be avoided.

And well, I've been trying to figure out how to write about it on this blog - still working this event into a philosophical framework, while still honoring my friend. That's not so easy.

So what I was thinking is that nobody has written about - well maybe someone has, but I don't know them - a phenomenology of friendship. And what my friend Phillip really taught me - well no, showed me - is how a friendship that is genuine can go.

I know how a friendship feels by walking into my local pub and being excited upon seeing someone that draws me in. Phillip could do that as well as anybody. We learned each others habits. I am unforgivably talkative - I monopolize conversations when I'm not thinking about it - and he was the best listener and had the most wonderfully insane hand gestures. Phillip had a sort of sign language. I knew the sign for typing on the internet - I knew the sign for beer - I knew the sign for smoke - I knew the sign for man-you're-being a dick. And I loved them all. Still do. (And he never had to forgive me for talking too much - he just accepted it - which is remarkable. Anybody that knows me will attest to this)

Phillip was the first person I really got to know when I moved back that I didn't already know. We used to inhabit the same bar. And I would sit at one seat - I'm a creature of habit - and finally one day we struck up a conversation about films. We both loved David Lynch and Woody Allen. His favorite film was Star Wars - he would claim that all 6 are one film and asking him to pick one was patently unfair. So I used to give him hell that Annie Hall beat Star Wars out for best picture.

So in about 2008 we started going to movies together - we talked many times about having a Siskel and Ebert type show. See I am far more critical than Phillip. He could take a film that was bad - I mean really bad - and find a moment in it that was beautiful. Even if that one moment was just a moment, literally. He had the same kind of generosity in all his ventures - especially towards his friends.

I guess in that way Phillip made me believe in an authentic way to be a friend. He was always directed to you when you were talking - he was always invested - he was honest. Now this isn't just about me eulogizing my friend, though I'm happy to say these things that are nice. But I am saying them because they are true.

The only time I saw Phillip be "dishonest" was when a person who he didn't know very well - usually someone he just met at the bar - asked about the wheelchair. I heard stories told from a Trapeze Artist accident to saving-burning-baby accident. But these stories were actually authentic - wonderfully so because they were playful. They were a moment of creativity and a friendly way to be dismissive - a way to say - you don't know me well enough yet to ask this question. Or something like that. It's not fair for me to speak for him.

Okay, but so what is the phenomenon of friendship. Well, I know this. It involves commitment. A passionate commitment. It also involves play. Friendships should be endlessly innovative - full of constant moments of renewal.

Early in our relationship - and I'm proud to say this - I literally quit seeing Phillip as someone who was "handicapped." Now, maybe lots of people better than me do this often and quicker, but I had never had a close friend in a wheelchair. Now the thing is that I never didn't see the wheelchair (well this is complicated. In another way I was always forgetting about the wheelchair and rarely saw it. I'll have to think about how to explain this.) - it would be a lie to say that I thought my friend was walking - I still remember carrying him up the stairs to my apartment with a buddy. And I remember carrying him back down after we all drank enough to probably float his tires. I remember constantly loading and unloading the chair in my car on the way to and from movies and I remember the way he could unload this awkward and heavy device out the backseat of his car with one hand and a turn of the pelvis.

But what the phenomenon of his friendship taught me was that there is a bond that is transcendent - I saw the body - I knew the body was a huge part of his world - and I also felt something that went beyond. Now the beyond wasn't vertical; it was horizontal. It moved from him to me and hopefully vice versa. So the moving-through that happens in friendship is both bodily and spiritual. Not spiritual in a godly way necessarily - though it could be, but spirit in the sense that people are spirited beings - they move beyond their bodies, but also always through their bodies. This contradiction - I think - is at the heart of friendship.

Friendship has to be the most fundamental place of meaning in today's world. I don't mean to overstate the problems of communication and technology, but in lots of ways we are living in boxes, through devices like this one, often in ways that are less than the potential for the medium offers. (At least hopefully)

I mean it's just a truism these days that meaning has broken down. Institutions that used to be meaning-bearing have become meaning-barren: The Church; the government; the family; education systems and so forth. So what do we have. Well, not to be too romantic, but what we have is each other - we have our friends. Our friends constitute us and we them. Our friends make life meaningful. And while I obviously - believe me I understand where I'm writing this - understand the internet is not necessarily an impediment, it certainly can be. (and face-to-face doesn't ensure authenticity to be sure) We need the intermingling that occurs with face-to-face interaction.

So I think I am at a stopping place, but I want to continue thinking about the phenomenology of Friendship. I really do think that Friendship is an event, born both bodily and spiritually. This event is intimately singular as all friendships are unique, but it also moves beyond the singular - as we've all had moments when friends meet other friends and the group grows. Now the group, of course, is also singular - so maybe it moves through singularities - hell I don't know - this is all really complicated.

But I do know that thinking about friendship seems like the most worthwhile topic in these days - days that move so fast and feel somehow lonelier and also somehow maybe more hopeful. Maybe.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


So I'm taking a POCO class: postcolonial theory. And it's weird. Really weird.

And here's why. When I was busy reading Heidegger and trying to figure out the world, I had no deeper motive. I simply wanted to figure out, to the best of my ability, the muck I was in. The same with Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Nietzsche, and recently Deleuze. But in this POCO class everything feels different. It seems that we're reading about oppression in all it's global-capital forms in order to do something about it. Except we're not. And that's what's so weird.

All of these "theorists" keep arguing back and forth with each other, trying to establish ethos by all kinds of means - the most famous of the group establish ethos by way of geography. People like Spivak and Bhabba and Said for example get to be outside (sort of) of the American system because they were born in places like India. So they understand oppression first hand. But they get to be first-world academics also, clearly inside the American academic system and deservedly so. They're really fucking smart. I particularly like Said because he seems to care the most about what actually happens to the people he mentions.

However, what most of what I've read does is attempt to define what it is they're talking about. Nobody seems to agree on what Postcolonial Theory is, means, or is supposed to do. Jesus. What I love about English Departments is also what I hate about them. They are so big and unsure of their project. It means I get to slide in as an imposter, which I love. I mean only in English can you write about everything from Southpark to David Cronenberg to Technology and Boredom - the last one is me.

So what's so weird to me is the implication that theory is supposed to do something. I mean, sure, it sounds nice. But I just don't think theory really leads to action very often. To be clear, I have no problem with that; in fact, I think Literature should be its own end. I don't read novels so I can learn things about imaginary people or so I can learn to be a better person. I read novels so I can enjoy the pleasure of the text. I look at art for the same reason. I listen to music for the same reason.

This idea of what theory and academia in general - especially at higher levels - is supposed to do is starting to sprawl in my head, so I'm going to stop for now, take a breath, and try to meditate on it. But seriously - if anybody has a take on this - should theory lead to action? And if so, why does it rarely do this? And in particular, in terms of POCO, did we need a theory to understand oppression?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

More on Heidegger

Okay so let me see if I can make Heidegger's Metaphysical issues more clear.

Imagine someone asks "What is the essence of a tree?" It would make no sense to say "pine" or "oak." In the same manner, imagine someone saying "What is the essence of a human being?" And someone replied "Bob." Again, nonsense.

What this means is that the essence of something cannot be an example of the something. An essence must be that which traverses all somethings, i.e., what makes all trees trees - what Heidegger would call "tree-ness."

Following this same logic BEING (reality) cannot be explained in terms of an example of A BEING. This to Heidegger is what basically all explanations of reality from Plato to Nietzsche had in common - they had misunderstood the distinction between Being and beings, again what he calls ontological difference. (When Heidegger uses the term "Nothing" he usually means this difference, I think, which makes it confusing, to say the least.)

While this sounds really complicated - and it is - it's also pretty digestible if one can think that the essence of something cannot be an example of that something. Bob cannot be the essence of humans and oaks can't be what is essential about trees.

So what is the essence of Being for Heidegger? Care. Heidegger thinks that the being who questions his own Being (us) is constituted by Care. We engage in this or that - we are bored with this or that, but we care. Hopefully, this Care manifests itself as a project whereby one makes one life one's own. If not we're back in the land of despair.

(The whole notion of "essence" is problematic for other reasons - but that's for a later time.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Heidegger and OntoTheology

The title of my M.A. is one of the more pretentious I've came up with: Samuel Beckett and the Onto-Theo-Logic Constitution of Metaphysics. I love it. I pretend I don't . But I do.

So in my thesis I trace a kind of god-figure in three works by Beckett: Watt, Godot, Endgame. In Watt there is a supernatural figure that pops up, barely making his presence felt, but the presence is actualized. In Godot the presence appears as absence. Godot is the presence of an absence. And in Endgame - well, there's just absence.

I was interested in this move because I thought Beckett was interested in a similar question as Heidegger. Heidegger argues that metaphysics is by definition Onto-theo-logical. Well what does that mean? It means that thinkers have located Being in a being and that being has been elevated to the status of Being.

Okay what does that mean? Well it means for Marx Being is Capital. For Freud Being is the Psyche. It means for Plato Being is The Forms. What they all have in common is that they have located Being as A Being. The difference between Being and being (I'm totally making this more confusing by my use of capital letters. Sorry.) is what Heidegger calls ontological difference. This, to Heidegger, is ultimately what Western Metaphysics gets stumped on: it can only explain Being in terms of A BEING. (A GOD, A FORM, A PSYCHE, An ECONOMICS)

So what Beckett does that's so interesting to me, or at least it was when I was thinking about it a few years ago is that he goes from Being being a presence to a presence defined by an absence to total absence - in Endgame Beckett sees Negation, the nullity, as total absence - which is where he splits from Heidegger.

Heidegger, in his later writings, writes Being under erasure - he crosses out the word Being with a slash. I personally think that Derrida gets credit for a lot of ideas that start with Heidegger, but that's a different post altogether.

Okay - so Being is not A Being. This means that it's not "thingly" and cannot be understood as such. Being is a constant flux - a coming together of the four-fold and the hiddenness of the divine element to the four-fold all at once.

The four-fold is what Heidegger means by the term "appropriation," I think. So what does that mean? Well the four-fold is the earth, sky, gods, and mortals. Heidegger explains this through an example of a jug. A jug comes to be a jug because of the clay which is made clay by the sky and rain and what not. Then the mortal must shape the clay into a jug. Okay, so at this point most people are on board. But it gets complicated with the last part: the gods. For Heidegger the gods come into play when we sit at a table, pour wine out of the jug and toast. This to Heidegger is what makes a thing a thing and what helps us dwell authentically.

While this might sound overly poetic, I think Heidegger's point is seen well if we think about this example: could one possible pray over a microwaveable meal? No. Of course not. But can one pray over Thanksgiving dinner, cooked by Grandma, from food that was harvested. Of course. Does this have anything to do with believing in GOD? I don't think so. Not in the way most people use the word God. What I see Heidegger saying is that the God's have fled because the sacredness has been removed from the world.

Now why has that happened? Well that's happened because technology has enframed (com-placed) everything in the world as a standing-reserve, something ready-at-hand, ready to be used and used up. The forest because lumber - the soil becomes an oil-container - and the news becomes an opinion-container. Humans become resources (human-resource departments.)

For Heidegger our metaphysical maladies have had consequences that have led us to dwell in a way that makes us feel homeless, bored, and living with moments of fleeting authenticity. Now, this does not have to be the case, but the way out isn't easy or fulfilling. More to come.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Generation Boredom

In The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, Heidegger describes three types of boredom. In fact the section on boredom is the longest of the book - and well - you guessed it. Parts are quite boring. But what I want to suggest is that boredom is a good thing. In fact, today, it might be the greatest thing if we can become attuned towards it, to use Heidegger's language.

The kind of boredom that Heidegger discusses that is relevant here is when you actually enjoy your time out among the crowd, but when you come back home you realize that you were actually bored. The key is that you were having a good time. The easiest example I can think of is the alcoholic that realizes one day that he's wasted the last ten years of his life - that he was in fact fighting boredom the whole time. (This is an ontological claim - not a moral claim. That's fundamental to my argument.)

And so coming back from New York a while ago I was reading The Atlantic and the article was about my generation - I'm 30- suffering from a weird, in my opinion terrifying, kind of depression. The issue was that they had none of the classic causes. These were people who had happy childhoods, good jobs, little debt and so forth. But they felt empty. The article more or less argued that the problem was in fact psychological - my generation was trained to have self-esteem and feel good about themselves no matter what. Basically they were taught that they had a metaphysical center that was worthwhile no matter what they did or didn't accomplish.

It seems then, that my generation is revealing the terror of the breakdown of the self. I mean on one hand the deconstruction of the classical idea of "self" that took place with people like Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida and so forth was inevitable. But even if we are not a coherently-self-contained entity, we are still singular. I live my life; I die my death. And nothing makes one feel more like a self than being bored or sad or depressed. Happiness seems to be shared in a way loneliness never is.

Okay so the logical place to place blame is on the very device I'm using right now. According to Hubert Dreyfus' book "On the Internet" people who spend large amounts of time online claim to feel lonelier.

Recently while teaching two chapters from Dreyfus book to my technology and society class I had a rather scary realization. I had been more-or-less joking that my terms of discourse were "interesting" and "pleasurable." I would no longer judge things morally or even involve myself with those conversations. I would seek out that which is interesting or that which is pleasurable. I guess what most would call a hedonist - though that word doesn't seem correct exactly.

And then Dreyfus brings up Kierkegaard and his spheres or existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. My choice of terms placed me neatly and without question in the aesthetic sphere. And the issue that Dreyfus points out, correctly, is that it necessarily leads to boredom. In fact as I understand the spheres, they all lead to boredom until one throws oneself into a project - and becomes that which he is.

This sounds wonderful. I love Kierkegaard and he's without question my favorite religious thinker. But there are a couple issues with the way Dreyfus deploys him - at least I think there are. One is that the technological framework that a child grows up in today might make his or her project to be one which jumps from here to there and back. What if that just starts feeling normal? Does this mean we're all bored and despairing. And worse then that in ways that we can't articulate or are basically unaware of?

See I just don't know. I know that a certain group of my friends that I talk to are incredibly smart and not happier because of it. We have discussed this for years, but the effects seem to be becoming more obvious.

Since I started with Heidegger, I'll pull a Heideggerian move and quote Holderlin: in the danger, there too lies the saving grace. The internet will be where we locate the solution. Where else can it come from? So how do we use things like Facebook without turning it into a glorified Hallmark? Can the internet, or better yet, how can the internet lead to the kind of total commitment that Kierkegaard believes is required for living a meaningful life?

So why is boredom good? Well, as I see it it's the mood that reveals these problems. In fact, it's the only mood that does. So if we can be sensitive to this particular kind of boredom - a rather profound boredom - we at least have a start - a way to start examining this problem, which feels huge, at least to me, at 2 in the morning.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Morality

This one's for you Ben - thanks for constantly reading these polemics of mine and responding.

Okay so when I was an undergraduate I began by being a Music Major, but after a year and a half I got burned out. And I wasn't willing to give up the guitar or my love of music. So what I gave up was being a music major. Up to that point the only philosopher I had read, at least in any serious way, was Nietzsche, and upon reflection I didn't really understand what they hell I was reading.

So there I was, looking through the catalog of classes and I nothing looked remotely interesting until I got to the Philosophy and Religion major. At this time Appalachian had combined two rather different disciplines into one - which could have worked except that the programs didn't connect. The sense I had - which is just a sense - is that the philosophy professors secretly thought they were smarter and the religious professors secretly thought they were doing real scholarship.

Anyhow, so during my tenure in this department I got to meet Orus Barker - who was so influential on the way I think that if I'm honest I don't know where his voice stops and mine starts. In his Social Issues and Ethics class one day he made a distinction between Ethical and Moral - two words we tend to use interchangeably.

However, the point he was showing was that they aren't the same word and the difference is actually monumental, if taken seriously. "Ethic" comes from the Greek "ethos." "Moral" comes from the word "mores." Now the latter means "social norm," something that is acceptable in a particular society. These tend to take the forms of rules - or what is called in philosophy deontology. So moral means a rule-based system that governs all places within the social world in a similar fashion. Morals do not deal with difference. In fact what they do is try to eliminate the idea of difference - the particular.

Ethics, however, if thought about as a derivative of "ethos," do almost the opposite. "Ethos" means "to dwell." Dwelling is ambiguous. It basically means to stay with something for a while. This means both a persons dwelling and the way a person dwells, ruminates, thinks.

In one of my religious studies class we read The Poisonwood Bible and what happened in the book - to drastically reduce plot - is that a preacher from Georgia (I think) went to Africa to preach and convert. He believed he could take his values and apply them anywhere. He was moral. Well this turned out badly. My essay on the book was that while he was Moral he wasn't Ethical - he couldn't dwell. He couldn't understand the particular. And because of this he brought about lots of death.

The Greeks have this beautiful term: kairos. Kairos means "at the appropriate time." We don't have a word like this and we should. (We should also have a second-person familiar like they have in Spanish. The south does - we have Y'all.") This word is all about "ethos." It's not rule-based; it's particular.

If one dwells poetically one learns to think. Morality does not think. It formulates. This is why Bentham's utilitarianism is referred to as a "moral calculus."

Okay so what does this have to do with the last post on homosexuality? Well here's what I think. Only a person who lives with a rule-based, non-exceptional set of morals can ever hold positions like "It's wrong for this person I don't know to engage in behaviors I don't which cause harm to nobody." If a person dwells poetically, which means embracing multiplicities, the idea that everyone should be one way just doesn't arise - at least I can't see how it would.

So do we need morality? Well, I guess. I mean The Law is based off of morality (a non-situated set of rules) and most of the problems with the law arise because of this. But I'm actually okay with it just being universally illegal to murder or to rape or to copy and resell the films of Michael Bay. But I'm not sure this is a victory for "morality." I mean what space can a person dwell poetically in where it would be acceptable to commit any of the crimes previously mentioned? And if we really examine The Law, if it was purely about morality there wouldn't even be lawyers. Lawyers exist in part because actions are situational with particular circumstances. For example, we allow for murder if it's in self-defense. So, it's actually incorrect of me to suggest that I'm okay with murder being universally wrong.

What we need is to learn to dwell. We need to have a sensitive mindfulness towards the world and the beings that dwell with us. We need to understand that a heterogeneity is better than a replication of self.

More than that though here's what is so wonderful about Kairos and Ethos: they contain within them the possibility of surprise, invention, the new. Morality can only repeat - it cannot create. It is about limits, not about possibilities.

So yes, I am saying stop being moral. Dwell in the muck. It's dirty, but it's exciting.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Argument I've Meant to Make for a While

So Herman Cain said this: "I think it's a sin because of my biblical beliefs... And although people don't agree with me, I happen to think that it is a choice." So he's obviously talking about being gay.

Okay so an argument we've all heard: who you want a fuck is something you choose.

Let's talk about what a choice is. A choice is something that could go either A or B with basically no coercion. I could eat at McDonald's or Burger King. That's a choice.

Okay, so the argument goes that being straight or gay is a choice - one of them tends to make God happier apparently - but that's not even what I'm worried about. I don't trade Biblical passages in these kinds of arguments. No point.

But here's what should hit hard. If sexuality is a choice, and choice is not the same as orientation, but rather on par with something like my lunch time eating decision, then here's what occurs. It means - I mean it just follows by common logic - that all straight people would just as soon fuck a man as a woman. And the ONLY reason they don't is because they choose not to do it. But they are half-gay. So if it's a choice, what Herman Cain, and every other person that's ever said this is saying, is that they're half-gay. Now, I'm fine with them being half-gay, four-fifths gay or totally (this would be 9-10 tenths gay, I think) gay. But something tells me they wouldn't be okay with this. So if being Gay is a choice, not an orientation that is what follows logically.

Here's what makes me sad - and I hope I'm not absolutely guilty of this. Being white during the Civil Rights march wasn't very difficult. You got to be moral and your difference was obvious. Everyone knew that the white people were, well, white people.

Now I can't prove this - I have no data- but I sense that one thing that's hurting the gay-rights movement is that straight people have some sort of deep-rooted fear that if they protested people would think that they were gay. Now I don't want to paint this too broadly - I mean I'm a straight guy (does it complicate my whole argument that I just said that?) who's writing this essay. And I know lots of other straight guys who would join.

There seems to be something with this particular issue that ultimately reveals all of Americas patriarchal nonsense - all of the John-Wayne-killing Indians model for masculinity. (and I like John Wayne.) My classic joke, which I know I'm stealing, is that anyone dumb enough to join the institutions of marriage or military should be allowed. But that's a joke. I don't mean it - I want a cheap laugh. What I want is for us to stop being able to say things like "I know nobody agrees with me and that all evidence points the other way and I really don't know what I'm talking about but I believe this stupid thing." Would anybody tolerate that kind of logic from their doctor? their lawyer? Someone call Zevon: we need Lawyers, Guns and Money to get us out of this.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I've promised this essay and I'm terrified of writing it. I can't possibly deal with all the issues I wish in a couple pages. But I want to try.

This movement makes me proud. I am not the left-wing guy who constantly feels ashamed of America - I think those attitudes are reductionist. I'm usually in disagreement with power, however.

Okay so I think a way to get into this conversation is to talk about the narratives that I see forming and to talk about what I think in response. The most common critique that I think is coming from people I'd define as sensible is that they need to articulate themselves more clearly. They need something akin to a manifesto.

I disagree. I think what this movement should do first is grow. What is happening now that's so wonderful to me is two-fold. First, the movement is an honest-to-god rhizomic network. It is not a top down structure. This movement is networked. The beauty of the network is that it can celebrate difference. Lots of movements cannot tolerate difference. Right now the political Right in America has a really tough time with difference. And it's not just the Right. The Left (these terms are problematic, I know) often just fractures itself off into mini groups - the environmental left, the animal rights left, the anti-corporate left, and so forth. But when a group is networked in this way - the first time I've seen it in my life - they can embrace and thrive off of difference. This is something to celebrate.

So the second reason why I think it's helpful to stay networked - at least for a while - has to do with the difference between anxiety and fear. Fear is always directed at an object. I am afraid of this Monster, but if he'd go away, my fear would leave. However, anxiety does not work that way. Anxiety is not directed towards anything in particular. But what is happening now is that the Corporate Structure that is being critiqued (which is not the same as being anti-every-single-business ever) is feeling anxious. They don't know how to stop it. Why? Because it's not clear what would stop it. If there were a clear set of demands, it might end, or be co-opted by some group like the Unions or the Dems or Moveon (all groups that I don't particularly care for in one way or the other.) Building this movement this way is more powerful.

The other critiques I'm hearing I think are just misreadings. I've heard people point out that the protesters use corporate items. Yes. No shit. They breathe and shit too. That can only come from someone who doesn't understand capitalism at all and is neck-deep in false-consciousness. Which is when you pretend that sewage station smells like flowers.

Also people want to say these guys are anti-business. No. They are anti these particular business practices. If you reduce everything down to a simple statement, you eliminate the particulars and since everything is a particular, this is beyond problematic.

Usually people on the left, Steinbeck said this well, claim that the problem is that Americans think one day they're going to be rich and therefore do not enjoy critiquing the rich. I think Steinbeck said something like we don't have poor, we just have temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Maybe. My hunch is that it's much more complicated than that. It's not a conspiracy theory to point out that the rich own the means of dissemination. I mean I've given the Tea Party a hard time, but I honestly didn't disagree with their complaints at first. But then they got co-opted. No, you aren't mad at Banks. You are mad at the government. This is a false dichotomy. It's the same fucking institution. Call it a corporatocracy or something such as that.

This goes far beyond left and right - in fact those terms are part of the discourse that keeps most people off of the streets and yelling at their television. I'm proud of all those guys and girls. We were happy when the Arabs rose up this Spring and Summer. Let's be happy when we do it. All systems of power wish to serve power. It's as true here as it is in Russia. Let's stop being surprised by that. If we're still surprised by that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tom Waits

If you don't like Tom Waits, I judge you accordingly. This is something to be said at the outset.

So many of my friends, my self included, have a disease. We want to use each other aurally. Aural sex. This occurs most often on trips and you know it's about to occur when you see the procurement of an I-POD. Usually this scenario is when all my hypocrisy reveals itself. I love being fascist about music; I rarely like someone else doing the same. (There are about 3 exceptions to this.)

But the biggest exception ever was Mark, my great Jazz-duet partner, who gave me a greatest hits of Tom Waits he made for me about 10 years ago. Immediately it was the best thing I'd ever heard. It remains as such.

And so I'm listening to Waits' new album that he's streaming. It's wonderful. The two best concerts I've ever been to were both Tom Waits. One in Memphis and one in Birmingham. He makes most seem lazy - a sentiment I expressed to my buddy who accompanied me to Birmingham. Though I think it was a slightly more emphatic version of that statement: He makes everyone seem lazy. Probably not literally true, but it damn sure was the truth walking out of the Birmingham theater. I'm pretty sure that weekend was something Tom Waits would have been proud of.

So why Tom? Well, it feels like there's a million reasons. Waits is the greatest at stretching the edges of a genre - he's always got a pulley system in his tool box. He's usually called "weird" by my friends who don't get my love for this guy. But the thing is, he's not really that weird. He's not doing atonal music. He's a manipulator of the cliche.

The great point that must be mentioned about Waits is that his voice is an instrument the way an electric guitar is an instrument - it is a plethora of possibilities. Most singers don't think of their voice that way. In any given song Waits can use two or three vocal approaches. And at the same time there's a thread that runs from Closing Time to Bad As Me that contains several different, large-scale vocal mutations. When my friends say they don't like, say, his voice from Real Gone, I play Closing Time or The Heart of Saturday Night and the surprise is always apparent.

Okay - but there's more. That's the thing, you can't sum it up. But I love how Waits always creates a place out of objects. He doesn't simply talk about "I" and "babe" and "love." He shows you what these people look like: "Charlie I'm pregnant, living on 9th street, right above that dirty bookstore on Euclid avenue." That's not a lyric - it's a world.

I remember Jim Jarmusch, another favorite dude of mine, used two songs from Rain Dogs to bookend his film Down By Law. Jarmusch said the same thing after he let the audience hear this line: "He bought a second-hand Nova from a Cuban-Chinese, dyed his hair in the bathroom of a Texaco." Now that's a fucking lyric.

The man is a creator of worlds - he is Lewis and Clark: explorer and cartographer of the strange. But he's also a romantic: "With her charcoal eyes and Monroe hips."

Have I made the argument that he's the most interesting artist of the second half of the 20th century? Yes. Do I really believe in things like "most" and "best?" Probably not. Will I make the argument again? Damn right.

On the Joy of Interpretation

I travel a lot in order to play music and one of my favorite activities is to read signs and billboards. But I like to read them in particular ways; I like them to become strange. This brings me joy.

Here are a couple of examples of recent roadside entertainments: "Young Interiors." Now I believe this was some kind of interior decorating shop and I'm assuming "young" is meant to indicate that they do work that is hip. However, the sign just seems dirty to me. And what's hilarious is that it completely transforms my understanding of what an "interior decorator" might be.

"God Says Thou Shalt Not Kill." This sign had a picture of a rather large fetus. Well it was large for a fetus, or possibly small for a child depending on your stance on abortion. Anyhow, the sign is pretty obvious in its intentions. But what brought me joy is that this sign occurs right when one enters Fayeteville, NC, which is the home of Fort Bragg, which is part of the Giant Organized Death-Dealing establishment. So yeah, this is basic-level irony on one hand, but on the other hand it reveals a fissure in whose life is thought to be sacred and whose life is ready, on-hand for sacrifice.

Finally, my favorite - on the deservedly defunct Ham's billboard - the Ham's has been closed for many months - the sign reads "Friday Night Walrus." The possibilities here seem pretty limitless. I feel like it must be the first time those three words have ever been put in that order. I've also decided that Friday Night Walrus could be a pretty solid name for an indie rock band.

The joy of interpretation - it don't cost nothing. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Quotations and Origins.

Okay - for anyone who is wondering what in hell my last post was about, here goes. So a few months ago I remembered a phrase of displeasure from my early 20's: thats' some ol bullshit. And I love the rhythm of the phrase. So I started to incorporate it. But like anything it had shelf life. So one day, after a handful of drinks, a buddy told me a story about something that sucked. And I said something like "That reminds me of this quote by Gandhi. I believe it goes something like this: THAT'S SOME OL BULLSHIT." And we laughed. And lately what's been fun about this admittedly ridiculous practice is how my friends and myself have started inventing. I mean the punchline is drawn. You can add a bit but you can't change much. So what you do is change who you are claiming says the quotation.

So okay - it's stupid male, drunken fun. And that is what it is. But after reading my post I started thinking about it. And what I started to think about is that there's really a deconstructive move here. The quotation is all about origin - the quotation is always connected to logos.

(Logos in this discourse means a central term that grants all other terms around it meaning. God is a logos, in Marx money is a logos, in Freud the subconsciousness is a logos.)

Okay so why does it grant power to our discourse - what we would probably call "ethos" to our students - to quote somebody older? I mean I do this. You do this. But why do we do this. Why can't my words be enough? Why do I have to enter a "conversation."

Here's what I want to say - even though I use the conversation metaphor in class - academia is not interested in conversations, at least not what I think of as conversations.

Responding to a person I don't know who wrote an essay is not the same as having a conversation. Why do academics accept this metaphor so easily? Hell, I did. At times I still do.

Okay let's make a point. Quotations are about ethos deferred. But why is that so important. Can I only be an intellectual because I can quote Heidegger? Oh and I can, lord knows I can, talk Heidegger.

Here's a bigger point: do quotations assume a singular original subjective human that has been more than complicated in recent discourse. Death of the something?
And in terms of conversation as academic metaphor, let's admit that what's so great about face-to-face-what-I-think-of-when-I-say conversations is that they are fast - always capable of the hard right turn. They are not planned or methodical. Academic essays are.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Watson's Potent Quotables

Sir Isaac Newton - "that's some ol bullshit."

Thomas Edison - "that's some ol bullshit."

Frank my plumber - "that's some ol bullshit."

Nelson Mandela - "that's some ol bullshit."

Mother Teresa - "that's some ol bullshit."

Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt - "that's some ol bullshit."

Some dude from the store - "that's some old bullshit."

Some other guy named Steve, I think - "that's some ol bullshit."

Abraham upon God telling him to kill his son - "fuck, that IS some ol bullshit."

Jesus after repeatedly being fooled by a guy doing 3-card monte - "that's some ol bullshit."

Me, this one time, when somebody said something I didn't care for - "man, that's some ol bullshit."

Thursday, October 6, 2011


I wrote this for my class on style. The assignment was to read "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid and then practice imitation. I think I'm probably just ripping off Samuel Beckett. Anyhow, here it is:

Graduate School : The Interplay of The Scato-Patho Modes of Becoming What Always-Already Was

Read classics. Know Shakespeare. He’s important. Especially the one’s you’ve never read. Those are the ones to read. Read Faulkner and Joyce and Beckett and Joyce again. Learn to quote, just a few passages. Sound smart. Too canonical. Read Faulkner and Joyce and Beckett and Joyce again but then also read all the people who are not Faulkner and Joyce and Beckett and Joyce again. Look for things. Someone’s getting the shaft. Make a note. Be indignant.

Stop reading classics. Read essays. Essays prove things. Must sound smart. Learn phrases. Say “It creates the conditions for its own becoming.” Nobody knows what the fuck that means. Learn to nod and agree when you don’t know what the fuck something means. Sound smart. Read Shakespeare. He’s important. Especially the one’s you’ve never read.

Derridian, Foucauldian, Deleuzean, Nietzschian. Have a good last name. Good last names are important.

Embrace the colon. Titles need colons. People need colons too. Read essays. Especially ones with colons.

Make sure you have a long works cited page. Lots of good last names. Lots of colons. Show everyone that you have read Derrida and Foucault and Deleuze and Nietzsche. Or at least checked them out of the library. It’s okay if you didn’t read it all. Who has time? Time is confusing, especially in Faulkner and Joyce and Beckett and Joyce again. Time is everything. Being and Time. Nobody knows what the fuck that means. Be sure to nod.

If nobody nods when you talk it’s because they do not understand you. You are brilliant. You say smart things. You write titles with colons. You have read your Shakespeare. Even the ones nobody reads. Those are the ones to read.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Delueze, Sort of

Today while reading Deleuze, again, I was involved in a really wonderful conversation about the difference between Dexter and Breaking Bad.

The argument for Breaking Bad being better ended up being built, mostly I think, on what Dexter is not doing creatively. Essentially the argument was that since Dexter is concerned mostly with Dexter, the plot is often subjugated to that point, and hence is often neglected. I basically agree with this. However, I love Dexter, mostly because it's entertaining and I love Bautista - I mean he's the guy I want to sit next to at my local bar - and there is no higher compliment.

Okay, so this conversation led me to thinking about repetition, mostly because I'm trying to get through Deleuze's book on difference and repetition, titled exactly that. Now, I'm starting to have a weird relationship with Deleuze - I'm intrigued, seduced, but confused. So I've started what I described as my "Philosopher as Adhesive Tape" project with him. Can I use my readings of him to make sense of the world - can I "practice" Deleuze. Now the goal of course is that through application will come understanding. So here's my application of Deleuze for the day. (Coffeen if you're reading this, I need you to tell me where I fuck up.)

Okay, so let's not compare Dexter to Breaking Bad, but instead to The Wire. So they both use repetition as a trope - as my bass player would say "That's their shit." But they use repetition in drastically different ways.

Dexter repeats from an origin. Dexter has not only a beginning but a genuine origin - he's operating in the superhero genre. This suggests we can interpret his behaviors as coming from a single point. So what becomes interesting in Dexter is the hope that the point of origin will lose hold, i.e., that his Dark Passenger will cease to be his indestructible signifier. What we desire from Dexter is the postmodern - we want his signifier to stop pointing to a signfied, but instead to point beyond itself, which will mean in practical terms that Dexter can live a life that is not determined by one attribute - in the language of Deleuze he can be Rhizomic and not arborescent.

Now compare that to The Wire. In The Wire repetition is key to the show. In fact, the show's ending makes no sense unless you've already understood the argument the show is making in terms of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. David Simon says, brilliantly, that the show is Greek and the God's are the Institutions. Nobody Fucks With The Jesus.

So the end of The Wire is the beginning. The show seems so weird because it's not the psychological dramatic piece that shows one person rising above his circumstances. This show is ABOUT the circumstances - it's pre-Sophoclean drama.

Okay so what? Well here's my simple point: The Wire's repetition does not come from an origin - in fact there is no origin. There is only repetition in The Wire. So contrasted with Dexter or damn near any other show it becomes unique and pretty fucking brilliant. Most shows repeat from a center - faux Jazz - the belief that the Tune is stable, is an origin, can be redistributed. However, The Wire, and no accident that the same guy made Treme (with many others, obviously), understands that The Tune is up for grabs too. Listen to Joe Pass and Neils Henning Orsted Peterson cover Charlie Parker's Yardbird Suite. All of a sudden the melody is up for grabs too - repetition- repetition within the play. Something like that - it's all difference.


So the new season of Dexter premiered last night and I'm excited to see Dexter deal with religion, which seems to be the arc of this season. However, that's not what I want to write about. I want to talk about the introduction to the show, which I believe has been the same for the run of the series.

The introduction is about violence and routines. Dexter cooks breakfast and makes coffee, flosses, dresses and leaves. What's interesting about this is how the normal starts to look abnormal. The food all becomes flesh - and the flesh (the egg, the ham, hell, the coffee grinds) is consumed. Breakfast is an act of violence. Then Dexter flosses and we see this as yet another violent act in the morning ritual. Finally, Dexter puts on a t-shirt and just for a second it covers his face, ostensibly cutting off oxygen.

The violence of making breakfast, of simply getting ready for the day, is something I rarely think about. Dexter is suggesting that by the time one leaves for work one has already acted like a monster. Time to stare at Francis Bacon paintings.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Path of Thinking

Recently while teaching I was reminded how pervasive the desire for "a point" is, as in "Why can't this author just get to the point." Now certainly I am not going to suggest that writing be pointless - I am writing this because I have a point. What I am suggesting is that what is beautiful in thinking is the path a thinker traverses, which cannot be reduced to the end point of an argument.

When reading someone that can really think - recently Judith Butler did this for me - I am disoriented and reoriented, concepts that were familiar become alien and vice-versa. What is essential to experiencing the thinking of another is taking pleasure in the path, finding joy in the way a thinker uses concepts to create new space out of old.

This clearing of ground cannot be reduced to "a point." Reducing thought to a power point version of itself is the death of thinking, the denial of the poetic. Thinking is difficult and it is slow. It requires stillness, waiting and awaiting, hoping that the gods will grant a moment of insight where none had been before. This is the meditative way and it is difficult today because we live in a noisy, amphetaminic world. To think in a world that moves so loudly and so quickly we have to find a moment to be still and slow down. Reducing everything to a "point," a calculative summation, is seductive because that allows us to feel like we are keeping up with the world, when in actuality we are giving up, giving in to a world that feels less and less profound.

To be continued.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Poetically Man Dwells

In a brief essay by Heidegger that is occasioned by the death of a German musician, Heidegger makes a profound distinction between the the calculative and the meditative. These are two modes of being in truth - the scientific and the poetic. Heidegger, in a large way following Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, believes the scientific has become too seductive, making us let the poetic lay hidden, buried.

The scientific is seductive because it feels true. Of course, "feeling" is usually associated with the emotional, the body, the poetic. For example, it's appealing to assume the clock tells us the reality about time and our experience of time is just subjective nonsense. This is, of course, backwards. Man is the being who is caught up in time. And this being caught up is always poetic.

When I approach a good poem, it always resists me. A good poem dances with the interpreter - it refuses a final reading. Poems are not meant to be "summed" up. However, essays, at least the way an essay is thought of today, not an attempt, but a defended thesis, try to eliminate the poetic. The scientific paper purports to "tell things like they really are."

Heidegger suggests that "man dwells poetically," i.e., man's relationship to the world is one that is constantly in flux, never capable of being grasped in its totality. The poetic thinker never attempts to escape his environment in order to think; rather, the poetic thinker locates himself in the muck.

Even great scientific thinkers - Heisenberg, Einstein - are most profound and revolutionary because they locate themselves in the muck, never above or beyond it. They don't transcend; they descend - they wallow; they are poets.

The poetic always has the element of the sacred. The poetic is always in conversation with the gods. The scientific destroys the gods. Thus Nietzsche finds God dead at the alter exactly because the Apollonian has become the dominant mode of thinking. This comes in many form - mind over body, reason over emotion, Western thought over Eastern, and so forth.

In the absence of the poetic we are left with a world of marketing. In the scientific, calculative world I live in all traditional sectors of meaning have become barren - the church, the family, the government - and what is left is a population that feels hollow, bored in a way that is unrecognizable, sad in a way that is incomparable. This creates a longing for meaning and that longing is bought and sold, traded on Madison Avenue - my sadness is a commodity that is sold back to me by everyone from Apple to Zoloft.

The poetic, the meditative, the ability to sit quietly and be with the world is not a cure all. I'm not suggesting an easy way out. What I'm suggesting is the poetic allows for the profound; it creates the space for a kind of thinking that dances, plays, but is not wallowing in irony. We need thinkers like Emerson, poets like Whitman, musicians like Coltrane. As a final note, Coltrane's immaculately poetic album A Love Supreme is described by him as his love letter to God. I challenge anyone to listen to that album and not recognize the sacred, the poetic, the meditative.

Monday, September 12, 2011

On the Voice

I love David Foster Wallace. I think of him as a friend, a mentor - he's an agriculturist - plowing new ground, and planting 5 seeds where there used to be only one. This is a hard metaphor to continue, but anyone who's read him knows that his gift was to see in a way that reminded us that we also see, but often don't make a pastiche with our seeing. He was uncensored in ways that could be both unnecessarily mean and unbelievably generous. His graduation address - I hate the word "commencement" as it lets too many shitty speakers point out the word means beginning, not ending - is amazing. If you teach, you have to listen to an exorbitant amount of these things - we used to actually play "Commencement Speech Bingo," in order to both stomach and benefit from the cliches. Anyhow, his speech at Kenyon College is the single best graduation speech I've ever heard - I used to be able to find it on the internet, but since it's been published I've had a harder time.

Anyhow, today I found all this new stuff - apparently there's a wonderful site called And I've become very torn while listening to it. I thought I'd literally read every word and listened to every recorded word that had been released. I'm not usually into that kind of thing - I only care about a handful of writers actual lives. But I read Infinite Jest when I was 21-22 and it has been the most meaningful experience of my literary life - what listening to the Concerto De Aranjuez by Jaoquin Rodrigo was to my musical life or reading Heidegger was to my philosophical life. That experience was so powerful that it not only made me care about DFW's art, but it forever complicated all arguments about the distinction between artist and art. In this instance, I could not and did not want to separate the creator from the created. I tried to find everything I could. I listened to every interview on KCRW's show Bookworm by the incomparable interviewer Michael Silverblatt, and I subscribed to both Harper's and the New Yorker because he had recently been published in both.

So even now as I'm typing, I'm listening - pretty much guaranteeing that this post will be a bit incoherent. But hearing his voice is also what pushes this post forward - makes me both incredibly sad and nostalgic and impossibly hopeful - hopeful for that which cannot come, at least not for much longer. In some bizarre way it feels like spending one more night with a girlfriend after breaking up - I'm not sure that is the best analogy or if it really makes much sense.

So the voice - what is it about the voice? Most philosophical writings that have influenced me have spent many pages and multisyllabic words convincing me that it's wrong to assign the voice more metaphysical content (reality) than the written word. But this argument has never felt correct to me, if I'm honest. I can't imagine someone saying that a written score is as "real" as the performance of a musical piece. Okay, so I wish that was fair. But it's clearly not. There's no such thing as a musical score that was not meant to be played. Certainly though lots of written pieces were never intended to be spoken. Okay, so what is it about the voice?

Well, I can say this - I don't have this reaction to every voice. I've often said that DFW is the great example of a genius who I also find brilliant when he discusses his art. The antithesis to this is David Lynch. Lynch is amazing on film - in an interview he's boring, often talking about transcendental meditation and never talking about how the fuck Robert Blake called himself in Lost Highway and why he put that scene in the movie and how he knew it would be so incredibly creepy and basically redeem a movie that I ultimately don't like that much. I think M. Drive is the better version (pardon that terminology) of Lost Highway.

Okay so back to my question - his voice. What I like about it I think is that there is an incredible sincerity and fear - a nervousness brought about by a hyperawareness. And in those moments I feel less alone - I see and hear a fellow traveler - a person that reminds me, like all great artist, that you are not alone. I believe it was Lily Tomlin who said - we are all in this together, by ourselves. Usually the last part is obvious - tonight, listening to these interviews, so is the first part. So I say thanks to a person who will never read this or hear me say anything.

Friday, September 9, 2011

My Walter Benjamin Moment at MOMA

So in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Benjamin argues that through replication and proliferation of art an interesting phenomenon happens to the original: it loses it's aura. Now, Benjamin thinks this is okay, because that aura of originality had profound class implications. The rich had access to the original and not until you could replicate art, could the "masses" (pardon the term) have culture.

Benjamin is interested in what happens to the artwork from a Marxist perspective. I'm not. I'm interesting in what happens to the piece of art from a phenomenological perspective.

And so when I was recently walking around MOMA in New York I came to the room that had the original Starry Night - easily the most overproduced work of art in the history of art. Staring at it, I did not feel any overwhelming sense of anything - mostly I felt numb and slightly annoyed. I had seen too many copies of the painting and hence the original could not work me over, could not affect me. Now to be fair, art museams are weird, crowded, sensationally overloading places, so one can have all kinds of strange moments in a museam for non-Benjaminian reasons.

If Starry Night is the most overproduced work of art, Dali's melting clocks might be second. Seeing that piece of art was an even weirder experience because it turns out, to my surprise, it's really small. At some point in my life I started making the unconscious assumption that artworks were all poster-sized; the simulacrum has won.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Technology as Ecology

In my new series of "A as B" I submit the title as thesis: technology is an ecology, if we take ecology to be the study of the relationships of organisms.

Technologies create environments. For instance, I can't imagine someone living thirty miles away from work before the car. The car creates the suburbs. Or my favorite example, the television orients the living room. From every chair in most everyone's living room you can watch television, creating a physical space predicated on the idea that the way we hang out is we watch stuff together.

Now it seems that a basic principle of Darwin would be that species are shaped, molded by their environments. So technology is not simply an ecology; it's also an ontology. Technologies create environments and these environments work on/work over the people that dwell in them.

Okay but it's not that simple. If it were we'd all be socially determined creatures and Skinner would be correct, which we aren't. So there is a negotiation - a feedback loop if you will. This occurs primarily because we can still rebel - as Camus gloriously says: I rebel therefore I am.

This rebellion, though, is predicated on the possibilities that open up through the environments that exist. I can, for instance, choose not to be a mindless consumer, but I can't choose to be unaffected by consumer culture. I think that's the point the Unabomber basically forget when he attempted to live in the woods, read Strunk and White of all things and write a manifesto. Living in the woods seemed to just piss him off more. He could attempt to avoid the ecology in a literal sense, but not in the larger ontological sense, i.e., all that shit still worked on his Being.

The larger point, I think, is that our existence is shaped by objects, by technologies: we are molded from the outside in, though we think of reality as emerging from our minds. We still think of reality as being a projection from our minds - we are still Romantics.

I saw a wonderful exhibit at MOMA recently that was devoted to this notion that objects communicate with us. (I'd recommend anyone reading this to look it up) The ATM directs me; the hyperlink seduces me. Again, we have agency, and it's probably never been more important to think about the ways we partake in technologies and support institutions. There is no us and them in a classical subject/object dichotomy - there is simply the muck, of which we are all knee-deep in. Sometimes we wallow. Sometimes we wash.