Monday, November 28, 2016

Speaking Meaningfully and Interpreting Generously

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Foreign Bodies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Narrative and the Election

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Roadhouse Via David Lynch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Gyroscopic (Pt 2) Relativism

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

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

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

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

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