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."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Desire, Capital, and Schizophrenia

So if capitalism is driving so many of my desires, manufacturing my sense of want and need, how can I decide what I really want?  Do any of my desires come from me - sui generis?  Or are my desires all simply cultural productions - is the whole idea of desire manufactured in a late-date capital economy where necessities are usually well taken care of?

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan suggested that desire always came from some type of lack - a hole that we attempt to make whole.  Lacan thinks this starts during the mirror stage - when a child is about 2 years old and he recognizes that his reflection is not another but rather himself.  Lacan imagines the child being held by his mother and both of them gazing into a mirror.  The child sees himself and his mother and feels whole and safe.  However, after that moment when we stare into the mirror we now see a lack.  Where is our mother?  Where is our back?  Lacan thinks essentially this is the birthplace of desire.

However, Deleuze and Guattari in their book Anti-Oedipus have a different idea. They believe that desire itself is a productive force, not the result of a lack. They believe that desire essentially produces the world - I write this essay because I desire to understand desire; someone reads it and responds and so forth.  (And this is the same process that produces stuff like movies and chairs and lamps and books and discoveries and inventions and everything else)  Essentially, D & G see desire as a positive force, whereas Lacan sees desire as originating from a negation.  D & G believe that the Oedipal model that is used by Freud and then psychoanalysis thereafter is actually itself a product of capitalism, i.e., Capitalism produces the "Nuclear Family" which of course is the basis for the Oedipal model (father - mother - child) in the first place.  In place of psychonalysis, D & G claim that capitalism needs a "schizoanalysis" in order to be understood.

As I understand this, the argument is that capitalism is creating desires all over the place - I start hearing voices in my head "I need to buy a new gadget; I should watch the new fall lineup; I need to redo my wardrobe; I want the new Nick Cave album; I need a new amplifier; Amazon's right - I do need to buy all those Dostoevsky books I haven't read etc."  And these voices don't seem to come from within, but they seem to be pulling hard at my insides.  This causes a state of confusion and it seems to endlessly defer meaning. (Well okay the iPhone didn't make me feel complete, but I bet a new TV will help.  Well maybe if I watch only art films.  I should buy more criterion collection films)

So it seems to me that it becomes difficult to begin to sort out which desires are important and which ones aren't.  For example, I play music, so is my desire for a new amplifier more "pure" than my feeling that a new television will make me happier?  It's not as though guitars aren't marketed in the same way that a television would be.  So all of this leads to a complicated relationship with desire. Clearly I want things and I think it's good to want things - I'm not an ascetic by a long shot - I've always thought denying pleasure as a form of growth sounded profound but was inapplicable for me. And it seems that there is no meaningful way to tell for sure where these desires come from - I mean even the ones that seem most personal and intimate have historical, materialist origins. That is to say, I wanted to play guitar at a specific moment when I saw a guitar in a store, or was it the moment I saw one on MTV?

This, I think, leaves us with Nietzsche - which is always a good place to be left - and we must decide whether our desires extend our being, make us stronger, make us larger, or whether they make our spirit whither and force us to live enslaved by desire - or worse where we simply no longer have anything that resembles desire in a classic sense and what we desire is simply to be entertained all the time; we turn into Nietzche's last man - the couch potato.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Milk Aisle and Capitalism

Camus talks about how ideas come to us when we aren't expecting them; similarly Nicholson Baker talks about how our minds change behind our backs - when we aren't looking.  Well both of these ideas coalesced for me at a weird place this weekend: the milk aisle - or the milk section of the larger row that contains what used to be dairy items - except now more than half have no dairy in them. Granted none of this is new - not by a long shot, but somehow, Saturday morning, trying to find the expensive locally-farmed-wonderful-tasting milk, I was struck: Soy Milk, Almond Milk, Cashew Milk, Organic this, non GMO that.  Prices ran up to about 6 bucks for a gallon of milk-like product. What the fuck was I supposed to buy?  This was going to get complicated.  So I started reading ingredients - mostly out of curiosity but then I got confused about how one would get milk out of an almond:  Apparently you don't milk the almond.  That's good - I probably couldn't have digested anymore new information.  (Okay - to be fair, I did already know that.  But I had no idea there was a thing called "Cashew Milk")

And here's the thing that really got me:  I think I'm supposed to see all of these choices as a kind of freedom - something to celebrate.  Thank god I don't live in one of those backwards-ass places that only have 2 kinds of milk!  But I don't - not at all.  I see this as competing brand strategies fighting hard to manipulate me into buying products.  I mean it's not just the milk aisle - go buy laundry detergent.  I mean it's 2016 - all detergents are going to clean your clothes.  But Tide needs you to not buy Downey so Tide puts out products that contain other products (fabric softeners) and then Downey makes another commercial with that adorable bear.  And so forth and so on until there's so many choices all you can really do is fall back on product loyalty or just admit you don't have a damn clue anymore and just buy the cheaper ones.  (I mean I know that you do pay for quality to a degree - but only to a degree)

I think our culture wants to suggest that all these choices have something to do with freedom.  But that idea of freedom is also a marketed product.  I wish to suggest that marketing is the meta-discourse of contemporary America.  Everything is packaged and sold from milk to presidential candidates.  If marketing is the meta-discourse that means primarily the population is seen as a consumer.  And of course nothing is less affirming of my belief of myself as an "individual" than realizing I am seen by the marketing world as a prepackaged demographic.  I am liberal, over-educated, white, 35-year old, over-consumer of media.

And I am all of those things, but I'm a million other things too.  I am large; I contain multitudes - to invoke Whitman.  This isn't an anti-capitalist rant - not exactly.  I'm not suggesting we walk into a store and buy "Bread" and "Milk" and "Soda" brought to us by some kind of state agency where everything is in brown cardboard and labeled only by what the product is.  That sounds even worse. But I am saying that it's getting a little weird - I'm saying that freedom cannot simply be exercised by consumer choices - that's not freedom at all, really.  There is a kind of slavery involved in being prone to act on every impulse and desire - to satisfy every created want - to see one's self as primarily "consumer."  This is also not a rant about stuff - I love stuff.  My stuff can beat up your stuff.  My complaint is that it's really easy to forget that a lot of desires that are floating around in my head, aren't my desires at all.  They too are pre-packaged and fabricated and they all promise much more than they deliver.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

On Genius

Recently in my Technology and Society course, we watched The Imitation Game, so the students would know something about this guy who made this thing called the "Turing Test" that I keep talking about.  The film was a stock Hollywood bio-pic with appropriately placed musical swells, with emphasis on finding adult problems in childhood traumas, and the idea of the solitary, misunderstood genius.

So what is genius?  Well as with most ideas, there's a history that's pretty interesting.  Here's the upshot.  To the Greeks one was possessed by genius.  To us, a person just plain old is a genius.  So what's the difference and does it matter?  As I see it, the idea that one is possessed by genius means that anyone appropriately sensitive could be possessed by a moment where they feel taken over by a force outside themselves.  Sometimes we call these "epiphanies" and sometimes they are attributed to something called a "muse."

The example that sticks out to me is the story of Archimedes sitting in the bathtub.  If anyone is unfamiliar the legend goes like this: The king does not know whether his crown is real gold or not and he tasks Archimedes with finding out, except Archimedes doesn't know how.  So after an unproductive day, Archimedes, exhausted, takes a bath. He notices that when he sits down in the bath, the water rises: displacement. "Eureka," he shouts, running naked around town realizing he has solved the puzzle.  In this example, Archimedes isn't walking around just being a genius all the time; rather, he was overtaken in a moment of genius and saw a solution that was previously unseeable.

Genius, at least as we use the term, seems to imply someone who is singularly focused: one learns that David Lynch ate lunch everyday at Bob's Big Boy because he just couldn't be bothered to waste any time thinking about what to eat for lunch.  All he could think about was creating Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive etc.  Or Cezanne paints the same mountain over and over and over because he cannot capture the essence of the mountain - and in doing so he becomes so obsessed that he can't find time to clean up after his pet bird.  We have a genius painter in a room full of bird shit. This fits the stereotype perfectly.  Or the movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston where we see a musician who is not talented in any traditional sense write hundreds of love songs about one girl who couldn't love him back.  While watching that film I remember feeling so conflicted about whether I was seeing someone who was possessed by genius or someone who was just awful and could not accept the fact.

It seems that we don't call someone a genius who is a generalist.  But why?  Could someone write the most brilliant Intro to Philosophy book or what about someone who was just an amazing film critic because they were incredibly sensitive to film, not because they had seen hundreds of films or because they could direct a film. That is to say, could someone be a genius as an amateur?  Or to circle back, is genius something that someone actually is?

I can't imagine someone just walking around being a genius all day.  What would that look like?  Oh my god did you see the way Bob just turned right on red? Fucking brilliant?  Oh wow - did you see how he ate that tuna salad? Impeccable! Have you seen him urinate!

So that leaves the concept that we can have moments of genius - certainly a more democratic idea, but wait a minute - genius can't be democratic, right?  Well I guess this is what I think: if one is sensitive, thoughtful, and quiet one can have moments of insight that can reconfigure the world. Turing supposes that only a machine can defeat a machine; Einstein supposed space-time instead of space and time,  Derrida presents a paper at Johns Hopkins and gives the world Deconstruction; Jimmy Hendrix places the Vietnam War inside of the National Anthem.  These moments changed what came before - rendering much irrelevant, making things that weren't relevant more relevant - they made reality taste differently, feel differently, and we're all better for it - I hope.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Monodology

I recently reread Leibniz's "Monodology." Most people don't know much about Leibniz - even philosophy majors like me.  Leibniz was always taught as a sort of bridge getting from Descartes to Hume and ultimately to Kant.  At least in my courses he wasn't considered someone to take seriously.  I knew him most through the parody deployed by Voltaire in Candide.  Leibniz once said that this must be the best of all possible worlds because if God could have made it better, he would have made it better.  Voltaire basically said "Then God fucked up" but with more and different words.  Leibniz also argues that God must exist because it's possible that God does exist and since it is a God that grants possibilities in the first place God must be the cause of his own possibility.  That sounds crazy, but it's also kind of awesome.  And here's why.

As a philosophy major, you read for truth.  You establish truth by creating a systematic study of what a thinker says.  You do this by invoking a language with words like "necessary" and "sufficient" and "a priori" and " a posteriori," "subjective" and "objective," and so forth.  You invoke logical fallacies and ultimately you prove things.  And well, approached this way, Liebniz is caught in what is called "circular reasoning" (Since God is possible, he must exist and he must have caused himself.)  After you establish this, you can dismiss a thinker and move on to the next.  To do this there's one thing you actually never need to do: Read Leibniz.  All of these critiques can be accomplished quickly and simply in an Intro to Philosophy Book, taking up about a page and a half.  

So let's do something radical and actually look at the text.  Here's a sentence that gets me excited, "But he (M. Bayle in an attempt to critique Liebniz's belief in a 'universal harmony.') was unable to bring forward any reason why this universal harmony, which means that every substance exactly expresses every other through the relationships it has with them, was impossible."  How does a substance have a relationship with all other substances.  Leibniz is one of two people that invented Calculus (Newton).  They both made their breakthroughs independently - which seems like such a calculusy thing to do.  So Leibniz sees objects as a kind of bounded infinity.

Okay - let's try for an example.  When I look at my guitar, I see not only my guitar, but I can also see the effects of the craftsman that worked on it.  Now of course he brings with him another multiplicity of connections to other things and so on.  I can also see my guitar and notice how it is different from a bass, for example.  If I look long enough the history of music seems caught up in this one piece of wood and string.  For Leibniz the world folds itself back into objects in a multiplicity of ways.  The trick, of course, is to not think one "reading" of the guitar is the final reading.  However - and this is what is so difficult to truly grasp - it does not follow that the guitar means whatever you think it means.  It's not absolutely infinite - it's a bounded infinity.  It is the infinity of calculus.

Of course there's also the butterfly effect argument that everything, no matter how small, has effects on everything else.  In this way too all things are folded back into other things.  All becomes cause and effect.  

What I most admire about Leibniz is the audacity of the project: I'm going to create a cosmology that is 90 propositions long and takes about an hour to read?!  There's something to be said about brevity. I mean it takes a long time to read most people's history of everything (Bible, quantum theory). Leibniz does it in an afternoon.

The trick - well that's not the right word exactly - is to learn to actually read instead of falling into a categorical judgment:  this is wrong because God doesn't exist, for example.  That reading dismisses the beauty of the rest of Leibniz's thought.  I mean everything is folded into everything - everything is pregnant with a bounded infinity.  That's some seriously poetic shit: we are all progenitors of the muck of the world - that we are simultaneously caught up in and constituted by.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

Back at it

It's been a while.  About 3 years.  I thought I'd try to say interesting things.

Finding the Beat

Life is rhythm.  At this point in my life, I've been a musician for longer than I haven't been.  Most of that time was devoted to learning lots of styles of guitar playing: rock, blues, jazz, classical, country and so forth.  Recently, however, I bought a drum set.

It didn't take long before it was obvious that the drums were unique in that they are the only instrument I've ever played where being awful was kind of fun.  You could sort of chalk it up to exercise or releasing stress.  But of course, it's never fun to stay bad at anything.  If I can't get good at something,  I usually move on to the next thing.  Life's to short to spend too much time sucking.

So I got better and now I would say I'm not terrible, nor bad, but OK.  I can keep rhythm, a few easy fills and get through a song.  But here's what became interesting to me playing the drums: finding the beat.  Music becomes intensely more metric when a backbeat is added.  The drums don't "fill" in the sound, they reconfigure the sound.  Changing the drumbeat - how much someone is wailing on a snare drum - how far removed from the pocket they are - changes the sound of everything.

Often when I play, I put on music - sometimes singer/songwriter stuff that doesn't have a drum part.  My job then becomes to locate and establish a beat.  So how do you do this? Do you count?  Well, maybe at first, but what happens is that your body can sort of tell what works over what song.  What I mean is if I sit down and listen, I just start to do what fits.  Now, it's not the only thing that would fit. Of course not, but playing was not based around a theoretical understanding of music - of subdivisions or smaller beat patterns with insane sounding names (paradiddles? Really?)

Instead one must learn to find the beat.  

This works not only for music, but it's true for life in general.  We all move to our own unique rhythms.  Sometimes we try to take on the rhythms of others.  Sometimes it works - "I really like to hang out with X because they bring out another side of my personality."  This is nice when two people have complimentary rhythms.  Somehow the two people become more than the sum of their parts - their rhythms marble together, sometimes we give ourselves over to their rhythm. Other times, it's just clear that our rhythm will not work with another's.  I don't like to walk with people who walk fast. It changes my rhythm and I have to take in the world at a speed I do not enjoy.  I'm a stroller.  I like to go slowly.

So it goes.