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.