Archive for September, 2012

Innocent Criminal

“Present day terrorism aims at society in response to the terrorism of society”

“Paradoxically, it seems that the innocent pay for the crime of being nothing, of being without destiny, of having been disposed of their name by an equally anonymous system whose purest incarnation they then become. They are the end products of society, of a new globalized abstract sociality. It is in this sense, in the sense in which they are precisely anybody, that they are predestined victims of terrorism.

-Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities

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‘Where did you find the body?’

‘We didn’t find any body.’

‘Well, what did you…’

‘… we found hiking gear. In a grove. REI hiking gear, to be exact. And a few bones. Scattered. Coyotes got the rest.’

‘How did he die?’

‘Terrorism.’

‘Terrorism?’

‘No doubt. Terrorism.’

‘But how? I mean, why here, in a National Park?’

‘As opposed to what?’

‘New York City, Chicago- not in the middle of nowhere.’

‘You have a narrow definition of terrorism.’

‘Well, who was he? Was he important? A politician, CEO?

‘He was just a regular dude. It could have been anybody.’

‘But why him?’

‘I wish I could give you a better answer. But you can’t reason with bears.’

‘Bears!’

‘Bears. Grizzly, to be exact.’

‘A bear cannot be a terrorist.’

‘You’ve obviously never met a bear.’

‘You know what I mean. A bear is part of nature. It can’t wage Jihad or take hostages.’

‘We know these bears do not take hostages. That much is certain.’

‘Sure, they killed somebody. But they acted naturally, they had to eat.’

‘Hunger was no motive. We were able to track the bears’ feces since the incident. Acorns, salmon, berries. No trace of human flesh whatsoever.’

‘They didn’t eat him? Then, maybe they were provoked!

‘In a sense, they were. But they weren’t acting in self-defense.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘This has been the ninth hiker since spring killed in this grove. And not eaten. It makes no sense. Unless…’

‘Unless?’

‘You’ll think I’m crazy.’

‘Too late. Unless what?’

‘Unless this grove is sacred to them. To the animals. And the hiker unknowingly trespassed onto their holy land.’

‘Animals do not have holy land.’

‘You’re new to this profession. But let me tell you. Animals pray. Each in their own way. Call it meditation, if you prefer.’

‘Pray to what? Meditate upon what?’

‘The same things we pray and meditate about’

‘I don’t do either.’

‘…’

‘Do you?’

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(Dis)comfort

“Dana does her best to enrich the lives of the giraffes under her care, giving them brush to eat and toys to play with. Too much stimulation throws the giraffes off. The key is to balance chronic understimulation with the introduction of anything potentially enriching that giraffes might find upsetting or odd, which, it turns out, includes almost everything. “You can’t change it up too much, because they get squeamish and they space out,” Dana tells me. Last week, she adds, when the zebras kicked a blue ball over the fence into the giraffe enclosure, the giraffes refused to come out of the Giraffe House for the rest of the week. Deprive giraffes of necessary stimulation and they develop a distinctive behavioral syndrome that Dana calls “neurotic tongue.” If you go to a zoo and see giraffes licking the walls, it means that they are not well cared for.” –From Wild Things: Animal nature, human racism, and the future of zoos. By David Samuels. Harpers June 2012.

When I read this, I thought of myself. Of course, I think of myself all the time. But this time, it was like a bolt of lightning. I am those giraffes. There are so many potentially enriching activities I could do, I’m not even going to mention a single one. Suffice it to say that each is totally doable. But I become uneasy just thinking about introducing one outlandish something to my routine.

Last week I had the equivalent of zebras kicking a ball into my enclosure- a spoke on my bike wheel snapped. First, I had to walk all the way home with my bike on my shoulder. On the way, I saw a Vietnamese man pushing a child in a stroller. The child wore a black mask without eye or mouth holes, like an executioner’s mask. I tried to ask what it was about but the man spoke no English and ever since my mind has reeled attempting to categorize the experience. Further, without my bike, I had to walk to work. This meant instead of whizzing by everyone I had to plod along and have face-to-face encounters with strangers. Even when I avoided the interaction it was still just another form of interacting. I was stunned by how many homeless people are out at six am. I assumed they’re only outside in the afternoon when I stroll around the block, but they’re really there 24-7, fixed like sundials. In the end, my equilibrium returned only after replacing the wheel. And even a few days after that.

However, like the giraffes, if I remain too long and too much in my comfort zone, without being stimulated by the rivers of flux, I have my “neurotic tongue”. I isolate myself in my room wishing I didn’t have to pee so that I could just stay there, inside my room. I chew my nails and pick my skin. I fear being overwhelmed by the outside world and struggle not to tremble.

The key, at least for me, is to both respect and disrespect my comfort zone. It depends on the situation, and my sense of long-term progress. I am happy that now, unlike before in my life, I have the gall to set up boundaries in my life and say No to people when I need to. Also, I am not forcing myself to have extraordinary romantic adventures well outside the comfort-stratosphere. As far as disrespecting my comfort zone goes, it’s actually an easy, passive form of action. Opportunities are always knocking at the door; there’s no shortage. All that is required of me is to say Yes. But, for the most part, I’ve taken a liking to understimulation. No solicitors, please.

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The Eddy

I just read that hipsters buck the convention of high-paying jobs they’re perfectly capable of having, working instead with their hands at places typically reserved for the proletariat. Yes, I said it, the proletariat- the bottom of the social ladder that supposedly doesn’t even exist (at least in this country). Or, if they do, it’s their fault and not that society requires the proletariat (Mitt and Barack each court “the middle class”, neither gives a shit about the poor. But even the poor don’t believe they are poor, they think they’re middle class. And for that matter, most rich people think they’re middle class, too. Basically every citizen in this goddamned country is middle class yet nobody needs two hands to count all the middle class people they know). I did not grow up proletariat, but in a bourgeois suburb that placed me at an early age on a conveyor belt where I went to honors class, then a decent college, and then a decent career. Oops, I work at a coffee shop.

To be fair, my degree was in philosophy, so one way to look at it is that I fell off the conveyor belt and- after a few years of scrubbing espresso off my smock- will hop back on and get my Ph.D. and eventually tenure and my own family- albeit a politically progressive family- and then grow old and die painlessly in a hospital bed surrounded by my loved ones. But for now, I’m bucking the convention and not pursuing a high-status job. But really, I’m not bucking any convention at all…

Everyone I work with is a college graduate. And identifies as an artist, intellectual- anything except their current position. There’s the painter who works as a barista, the drummer who works as a barista, the student working as a barista until they go back to school- nobody identifies simply as a barista. Some have been off the conveyor belt for well over a decade. They laugh at my optimism that it gets better and my art is pure and this situation is an intermediary stage that goes with progress. I’m still early in the game where I love my job, the people I work with, and writing this blog. But I don’t plan on doing this for the rest of my life. Something will have to change.

Ultimately, the conveyor belt has built into it an eddy (coffee shops and the like) where you can flounder in existential confusion and defiance, pretending to be proletariat until you a) seek a classier profession OR b) die an untimely death OR c) commit to the eddy and become an obscure outsider artist. All of us “artists” working shitty jobs to support our art will eventually have great jobs and do our art as a hobby. Until that day, you can mark how many times you spin around the purgatorial circle in this fashion: every time you ask some grad students discussing Hegel to please lift their shoes so you can sweep beneath them- that’s one.

My hope is d) figuring a way out. Which really might be staying in- as a saboteur. I don’t know, if I was really part of the proletariat, I’d probably kill to have a spot on the conveyor belt. But if you’re sincerely poor let me tell you there’s something worse than a comfortable life and painless death.

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Off the Trail

I notice an army of ants on my windowsill, gleaning a rag I had used to clean the kitchen.  My first impulse is to wrap them in an airtight plastic bag and throw it out. Instead, I take the dirty rag and the dozen or so ants clinging to it over to the other window and set them in my window box by the dead rue.

Back at the windowsill, the main contingent of ants is running confusion. Suddenly, for them, and perhaps inexplicably, this vast amount of food has disappeared. Again, I have an impulse to squash these ants. They are in my room. However, and perhaps I’m overly optimistic about ants, I have faith they can find their way back to the colony as easily as they found their way in here.

But these other ants who are attached to the rag, what will they do? Don’t they know they need to crawl back to the colony? Perhaps they can’t, being too far removed from the scent of the trail and their comrades. I consider carrying the dirty rag back to reunite them, but I’ve already made enough waves. Besides, if I return the rag to where it was, then none of the ants will leave my room.

Do they even want to return to the colony? They have a huge supply of food. Maybe in their minds they’re exactly where they need to be. But their function was to acquire food and bring it back. Do they have to, like, choose?

The ants still in touch with the colony appear frenzied, yet under severe control. They are grouped in clusters where the rag was. Individuals go back and forth, standing face-to-face and rubbing antennae. Some ants rub their own faces, chew at the ground, then rub at their faces again. Periodically, a group of two or three breaks away and squeezes through a needle-sized hole in the wall.

The ants still on the dirty rag in the window box move lethargically, if at all. One of them carries a large morsel of food to the edge of the rag, turns around, and stays put without letting go.

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We’re Skewed: Prepositions vs. Objectivism

Do not underestimate the value of prepositions.

Casually, I mention that the moon is behind the clouds. However, if I were on the other side of the moon, it would be the clouds that are behind the moon. It is more accurate to say that the clouds are in between me and the moon. But a third perspective sees that the moon, clouds, and I are alongside one another. This perspective, in turn, is skewed, according to another perspective, ad infinitum.

It seems that no perspective is totally correct. Each is true in its own way, yet somehow deficient. Whenever I use a preposition, I abuse a preposition- I don’t describe reality objectively, but only as it appears to me and my perspective.

Can we muster a perspective that perceives reality as such, and not just as it appears to its own skewed self? Maybe: an omniscient insight, a view from nowhere, a perspectiveless perspective. But there’s a crucial difference between us and this putative being- we require prepostions.

Why do we require prepositions? Because we are embodied. I breath air in and out. I put food in my mouth and shit it out. I am on Earth (tangent: some cultures understand the Earth to be a big egg yolk. In such cases, we land animals are in a sense swimming. But still, a preposition is necessary: we are swimming in Earth). The bullet goes through my head. As embodied beings we require prepositions, and in using prepositions we are- skewed.

The perfectly objective observer, on the other hand, cannot be embodied. For to be embodied is to be skewed, and to be skewed is to not be omniscient. But how, then, can this omniscient insight observe at all? Is it looking in from the outside, or is it within everything? Wait. I cannot even desribe omniscient insight without prepositions. The whole notion is absurd, to us embodied beings.

Throwing omniscience out the window, we are left only with perspective(s). Since every perspective is inchoate, do we concede that we cannot describe reality as such?

No.

If there is no reality without a perspective, then reality is perspective. Consequently, by having a perspective on your perspective, you have a perspective on reality as such. The fact that the initial perspective only reveals things as they appear does not make things any less true; things can only appear. Your perspective on how things appear is indicated by the preposition you use. The flaw of prepositions is not fatal; it reveals that things can appear in many ways. There’s a multitude of perspectives, and thus, a multitude of realities.

Just because we do not have a single objective immutable reality does not mean we have pure relativism. We can still attempt a slightly skewed version of objectivity: inter-subjectivity. There’s many ways to look at the clouds and moon- from above, below, within, without… by grouping many perspectives together we can have, if not a perfect reality, a better one. And it also does not follow that all perspectives are equal contributions. Observing the moon outdoors and observing the moon from within a bank vault is not a “fair and balanced” perspective. One of these perspectives clearly sucks.

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