This year I’ve been thinking about being Jewish during Christmas time more than the last few years, so I thought I would share a bit.
It’s something that is impossible not to think about, but I try to ignore it mostly. It isn’t extraordinarily pleasant, and not something I like to dwell on, anyway.
I would call myself completely atheist, but in a Northwestern United States New-Chaos-Animism sort of way, or at the very least, not the sort of atheist who feels the need to paint his lack of belief on the side of buses. Except of course, in the marxist-anarchist “no gods no masters” sort of way, which is a statement that makes me smile, except that I’m still not painting it on the side of anything.
All of which is to say, I’m not Jewish in the sense of my religion, so I wouldn’t like to step into the role of speaking “as a Jew”–whatever that means. At the same time, I am decidedly Jewish in the sense of culture, because the complicated atheist/anamist/anarchist syncretism I practice in every day life does have a certain historical precedent.
The joke I use to explain what this means, told by one of my grad school professors in NYC, who was also a practicing psychoanalyst (and this context matters, of course), goes like this.
A secular Jewish couple on the Upper West Side decides to send their son to a Catholic school, because it is the best school that is close to where they live. So the son goes to school, comes home, and the father asks him, “what did you learn in school today?”
The son says, “I learned that god is actually a trinity. There’s the father, the son, and the holy ghost.”
The father gets outraged, his face turns red, and he stands and speaks to his son in a stern voice. “Son, listen well, and listen good. There is only one god. And we don’t believe in him.”
If you have lived in New York you get the joke, just as easily as you understand the difference between a kosher deli and a synagogue. A secular Jew and a religious Jew are not the same thing, even though they are both Jewish in certain ways. Religion, ethnicity, nationality, and race are all different categories. Religion is what you believe and practice, ethnicity has to do with cultural heritage, nationality is about nation-states and legality, and race is a made up category that lumps a bunch of unrelated visually observable genetic signifiers into an believed-amalgam that could stand in interchangeably for any or all of the former three. I’m an ethnic Jew. I call myself Jewish, even though it is not my religion, it could hardly be a race at all (when people try and “race” Jews they are talking about only a particular subset of Jews… omg did you know there are black jews?) and it sure as shit has nothing to do with Israel.
If you got the joke, you probably understand the difference between these four categories, but not everyone does. I’m reminded of this every so often now that I live in the Northwest, where Jews are less common than on the East coast, and certain people don’t get it. A friend of ours, upon learning that I was Jewish (the fact that she had to “learn” that a hairy guy with a good-looking nose and a German last name is Jewish speaks its own truth) asked sincerely, “if he is Jewish, why doesn’t he wear the hat?” She had never known a Jew, let alone a secular Jew, and so had never understood the difference.
But there is a problem with understanding Jewish as only an ethnicity, that is especially apparent around Christmas. There is a tendency to minimize this difference. If it is “just” ethnicity, and not religion, then we are really all equal, right? After all, there are plenty of ethnically Christian people who aren’t religious. As we are all secular, united by science, reason, humanity, etc, we must be the same, right?
My mother was Christian until she married my father, and then she did the “secular Jewish conversion” in which we celebrated Jewish holidays but had a Christmas tree once my brother and I entered high school, because the tree was pretty and ornaments are fun. My own partner, from a secular Catholic ethnicity, did the same thing when we began cohabitating, of her own accord. I’m not going to speculate on their motivations for doing this, even though I have some ideas as to why. The important thing is that this is a thing. There is a conversion process, in terms of “formally” adopting the religion that you do not believe in. There’s no ceremony, no oath. Just a personally understood choice that one-is-this, different-than-that. This is the difference in ethnicity.
I never had a Bar Mitzvah, so I am not “really” Jewish, under some technical religious definitions (the variety of which is its own interesting discussion). But this ethnic-not-religion difference is not an ambivalence–it was something that I specifically did not do, because my family made the conscious choice to not go to synagogue. We had Jewish friends and family who went to synagogue. But we did not. In the same way as my mother and my partner, I had a not-Bar-Mitzvah: the secular Jewish conversion of choosing to not participate. There was no moment at which I had to decide to be or not to be a religious Jew (there was a momentary teenage rebellion, but we’ll set that aside), and yet I could have chosen the opposite.
My relationship to Jesus was never ambivalent, but this was a different sort of ambivalence. This was never going to be my god. Not from idle lapse, but because whatever Jesus is, it is as alien as Ganesha, as Baron Samedi, as a Thetan, and so it was not a matter of simply opting out, but of rejecting every reason to opt-in. I read plenty about all of these ghosty things, because I was curious (it always cracks me up when evangelicals approach me as if they know nothing about Jesus, because man, I have heard that sales pitch, believe it or not.) But unlike how as a secular Jew my secularness was always a choice of rejection, my rejection of other faiths was always a choice of non-subscription.
This gets to the heart of what being ethnically Jewish is. It is always a decision in the context of the larger culture that is not ethnically Jewish. I never felt any pressure to choose a religion or be religious. But my entire spiritual existence (or lack thereof) exists in having a very small, textually odd religion as my rejected heritage, while around me, there is a majoritarian mass of “major world religions” that are very much used to being that majority.
This means (and is the point I am getting at) that to be ethnically Jewish in the United States is always to be Other.
It’s not such a bad Other to be, all things considered. Being this sort of Other in the United States is a far less worse experience than to have dark skin, to be a woman, to visibly perform a non-heterosexual sexuality or non-cis gender, and so on and so forth. But it is still Other, in its own way.
When I was in elementary school, I lived in a town in rural Connecticut for a time. We were one of two Jewish families in town, and so you can imagine that there was pretty short shrift dedicated to alternate holidays in those socialization zones. I somehow still learned the awful Hanukkah songs invented as alternate socialization mode, played dreidel with my cousins, and ate latkahs–all that was fine. But here is what I remember. I remember a conversation with my parents, sometime when I was probably around six or seven. We were talking about the fact that Santa was going to visit all these other kids and bring them presents, but not going to visit us. We got Hanukkah presents in spades, but of course, I was curious about the idea of receiving all gifts on one morning, rather than over eight nights. Did the other kids net more gifts than I did? Were they bigger? These are things that a kid that age is concerned about. But then comes the rub–I knew that my gifts came from my parents. But the other kids thought their gifts came from Santa. The issue came up. My parents assured me that Santa did not exist, and Christmas gifts came from essentially the same place as Hanukkah gifts. But why did they pretend that there was Santa? It’s fun for them, said my parents. We didn’t play that game, they said, because we were Jewish and our family did things differently. But if the other kids play pretend by believing in Santa, I shouldn’t ruin their fun by telling them they were wrong.
Think about the pressure this puts on a kid that age. The truth is revealed to me: the biggest holiday of the year for kids is based upon a lie. (Notice that this all about belief in Santa, not Jesus. But we all know who the real deity is on this holiday.) To a six year old, this is the equivalent of telling them that the Illuminati runs the world. The Christmas De Vinci Code was being entrusted to me. But then: I’m told that I should keep this mind-blowing secret to myself, in order to ensure the opiated pleasure of all the other children.
So it makes sense that a kid given this tremendous burden to protect the fantasy of others might grow up to study religious studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and make a lifestyle out of rejecting ideologies, to hack together some sort of pragmatic spiritual practice from rocks, tree bark, black clothing, and fire, because at least objects cannot lie, and practice that requires no belief cannot be a delusion. Despite what labels might be more appropriate or accurate for describing whatever it is that I do (all those A-words), for me it is linked to my Jewish ethnicity. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of other things, experienced direct bigotry, and had other things effect my Jewish ethnicity as well. Being Jewish in Connecticut was a far cry from being Jewish in Georgia, where one is likely to be confronted with a look of horror upon Christian faces. I got called “a Jew” in the street a couple weeks ago, which I have to say was a fairly new experience for me. But there is something about this secular experience Christmas, and the holiday’s wide-spread, ecumenical “goodwill” that makes it just so pernicious.
Every time I hear someone say “Merry Christmas”, see an ad for a Christmas sale, have someone ask me if “I’m ready for the holidays” long after my holidays are over, or give me a funny look when I don’t get a reference to one of their quasi-religious songs, I remember that I am not like other people. And it isn’t just that I don’t believe, or don’t like Christmas. It is that those around me just assume I merely don’t like Christmas, that I’m obsessed with some sort of agnostic political correctness, or just because I don’t go to church. Why the hell would someone ask me if I go to church? How is that a question I should have to answer? I don’t celebrate Christmas or go to church because I have always been something Other than Christian. I never gave up Christmas. It was never mine. It belongs to someone else. Being a secular Jew is not like being lactose intolerant. I am not Christmas-deficient. I am something else entirely, and other people’s failure to even imagine that could be possible is the greatest insult of all. This “holiday-blindness” piles on to everything that I have experienced in terms of the winter holidays since the time I was six years old, and reminds me, time and time again, while I will never accept the majoritarian bias of secular Christianity as anything related to my culture.
It sounds as if I’m bitter. Why wouldn’t I want to just enjoy the holiday, rather than make a big thing about it? Surely a secular, ethically Jewish person would have no opposition to gathering around a Charlie Brown Humanist Miracle, because the “real” meaning of the holiday is friendship, togetherness, so on and so forth. But that is just it: that is not what the holiday is about. The holiday, in the United States, is about celebrating the false inclusiveness of Christian capitalism–a peaceful unity that anyone can enjoy, provided that their reject their own heritage and beliefs, and join the morass. Even if we leave Jesus out of it entirely, Christmas still asks a secular Jew to reject his/her ethnicity and accept secular Christianity. Every Christmas-themed TV show plot, every green and red sweater, every red-nosed reindeer and every speaker whispering Christmas music in the background is a missionary text. It reads: “Christmas is normal”. The argument is: “Sure, you can opt out. But remember that by doing so, you are irrevocably different.”
And I’m not bitter (though I am a little bitter that it is necessary for me to prove that I’m not). I’ve been to many Christmas celebrations, and I’ll go to many more. They are unavoidable. I like any feasting holiday, so I make the most of it and enjoy a day off. And as I said in the beginning, this is not an extraordinarily pleasant line of thought, so I try to not brood on it. I have another drink instead.
But many Jews of all categories like to teach others about their traditions. Even though I know more than I at time I’d ever like to know about Christianity, I don’t expect people to know that about me. I’m serious. Consider this my gift–a look into my conficted, spiritual soul, where I don’t go very often, let alone let others tour at will. And so on this Christmas, I hope I can teach you a little bit about how we secular, ethnic Jews celebrate your Christmas holiday. Booze, blog posts, and a bit of that old existential confusion. Have a happy holiday, to all my friends of Christian heritage. And to my friends of all the other heritages in the world, thank goodness it’ll be another year until we’ll have to go through this again.
Our sense of vision is acutely human, because it is by our perception of the visible that we orient our world, and understand ourselves within it. We are creatures of light, who move within light, who build their lives out of light and its plethora of shadows, glimmers, reflections, and obscurities. And in this cast flame we judge each other, we attack each other, we watch each other, condemn each other, rule each other, and rape each other.
We not only speak of our inner selves as illuminated, but we use spotlights to chase down other bodies. Whether it be the eyesight of a group of men facing down a single woman moving down the same sidewalk at night, a telephoto lens attempting to peer through the shroud of a person’s clothing, a police officer’s flashlight, a drone’s camera, or simply the contemporary presence of CCD sensors in our pockets and on our architecture, vision connotes a certain power, that is used negatively just as often as it can be positive.
When we are critical of it in regards to the sexual relations of humans, we might call it the male or masculine gaze, as if men were looking with their sex or gender. This is a particular sort of vision, bound up with ideology, with history, and sexual class. It not only observes, but it sorts, it privileges, it values and it targets. Perhaps we call it masculine to make it clear who it is that it that can become the target of the others’ eyes, and whose fault it is not. Rape culture, and the forms of vision that propagate it, is only one form of visually-oriented aggression, and heteronormativism, transphobia, and any other designation of violent vision need not be labeled as particularly masculine. When we join the ocular aspects of rape culture with our definition of what is masculine and what is feminine, it is important that we call out this gaze for what it is made to be–that which is by and large in the heads of men, wielded by men, and constituting of men in their persecution of women. But in the attempt to weed out rape culture in one of its haunts, we do disservice to the gaze itself, by failing to understand what it is.
The gaze is not the agency of gender roles. The gaze is not rape culture. The culture of rape is found in patterns of thought and behavior, not in visual perception. The gaze is electromagnetic radiation, perceived by a sensor. It is the perception of color, of light intensity and wavelength. It is no different in mechanics than tuning a radio through a frequency band. Gaze is shape, and architecture, and space. Gaze is both the sensible presence and absence of light, of bodies, of skin, of fashion, in all the meaningful abundance of existence and lack. The shape of a woman’s body in tight clothes is like a color of the spectrum, just as the shape of her body in baggy clothes also is, as is the shape of a man, as is the look of someone displaying no recognizable gender whatsoever. Color and shape are indications, understood frequencies onto which we map any number of meanings. In the colors of things, their hues, borders, shapes, shadings, shadows, and sightlines, is where the gaze resides. The gaze has no gender. Gaze has no wants, beliefs, desires, or needs.
But sexuality exists in this colored space, across the surface of what we visually perceive. There are thoughts that surround the act of putting on a piece of clothing, or walking down the street and watching other people. We define our sexuality in a visual space, not outside of it. We must use the visual topography to define our emotional and physiological structures. These two types of patterns must be constructed in concert with each other. While we look, we must be sexual beings, and while we are sexual beings, we must continue to look.
The ocular architecture, the visual topology, the environment of light and darkness–however we choose to describe it, it is a changed space. The fact of our many sexual beings cascading through this space, crowned with sensors noticing the changes in visual light, makes this a terrain with endless implications for our sexualities and other internal frameworks. There is no place that is removed from the gaze. Even if we blind ourselves and remove our own capacities for sight, the gaze still exists in the world. Opting out of our sense of sight is no incorporeality. The terrain of the gaze and our existence within it is too close-knit, too simultaneously embodied to ever exist without it.
Like stepping out of our homes into a sky filled with satellites, an atmosphere seething with flying drones, a city with buildings dripping with closed-circuit cameras. We could elude the lenses, shine an impeding glare into the sensors, dazzle the algorithms. But for how long could we escape the constantly inscribed regime of sight-recording that exists in our contemporary surveillance state? A map of CCTV cameras cannot be the full surveilled territory. The cones of observation we avoid are limited to those we know of, and even our tools of observation and avoidance now observe us back. We live in an age of Drone Ethnography, in which any attempt at recording what is happening to us is overshadowed by another lens, watching a lens, watching a lens, watch us. The opportunity for opting out of a visual culture elapsed long ago, when our eyes were evolving in the membranes of a long lost taxonomic ancestor. We cannot ban drones anymore than we can dispel the gaze. If the technological gaze is banned by legal means, it will only occur extra-legally. If human sight is judged as immoral, it will only become a fetish. We are always already being recorded, and there is nothing we can do about this. What matters is whether someone will persecute, rape, or kill us on the basis of that recording.
The connection between technological surveillance space and the terrain of the gaze is apt, because our relationship to their singular status helps us understand how they function. Rape culture isn’t solely about looking, and drone culture isn’t solely about flying cameras.
We have come to rely upon an abstract notion of “drones”, as a way of signifying the presence of flying cameras. UAVs carry cameras, because the only way to observe space in a more omnipotent way than humans already do, is through such technologies as high power digital sensors, infrared cameras, visually-intelligent algorithms, and as dramatic climax, the robotic flying platforms for carrying these things. All of these technologies are unique, but we make the flying platform into a singular category, Drones, which represents the entire novel system of “technocular” omnipresence, because the flying robot is so evocative as an image. But there is a difference between drones that just represent the novelty of drones, and drones that are built for observation. There is a huge difference between flying a quadrocopter with an iPhone, and the Gorgon Stare. The Occucopter, The Pirate Bay’s drones, anything performing aerobatics for the purposes of a Youtube video–these represent our fascination, but they are not the meat of the surveillance system. The true task of these novelty drones is to represent what Drones mean to us. Observing police brutality and file sharing are better accomplished through other technologies. The key to UAVs’ proliferation is that the government can afford to fly so many, keep them flying all the time, process the data, and act on it, just as they can mount CCTV cameras, create facial recognition databases, create mandatory IDs, hack into their citizens computers, fund the development of all of the necessary technology, and so forth. With a technology useful to the consolidation of power, governments have sought to buy the most, the best, and to be first to do so. This is what governments do.
Similarly, we have come to equate rape culture to the existence of the terrain of the gaze. The visual environment is chock full of unrestrained desire, because there is no better place for the surplus of human desire to go. If we cannot safely pay for sex, we pay for the simulation or the recording of it. If we cannot fulfill our fantasies in a corporeal way, we satisfy ourselves with the visual fulfillment of them. If we cannot always perform our sexuality in the way we choose, we signify the simultaneous absence and presence of the performance through alternate indicators. And perhaps most of all, when we do perform our sexuality, we vent the excesses of internal, libidinal desire that will never be fully fulfilled, through the visual aids we employ, the long looks we take, the replay of memories, the dreaming of dreams. The vast majority of our sexuality that cannot be expressed in the simple act of sex must inscribe itself through our sensory perception–and as visually dominant creatures, it is obvious the means we will most often choose. Pornography, sex toys, sex performance, fetishes, fashion, dance, body language–the examples of ways that sexuality expresses itself in visually perceptible cultural forms are far too numerous to list. Despite the fact that there are plenty of elements of human culture that are not sexual and are still visibly sensible, literally anything that we visually perceive can be interpreted as sexual or exploited as such. And we have taken a basic human function, vision, and made it categorically synonymous with another basic human physical and mental function: sex. This is what human bodies do.
But the analysis must become ethical, as the unrestrained activities of governments and human bodies are clearly not good for those they take as their objective, nor for the governments or bodies themselves. We must identify what forms of sex are good and bad, and what forms of politics are good and bad. But in doing so, we unpack the reduction of surveillance to Drones, and of rape to the gaze.
Drones, in that they are abstracted into such an essential category of political strategy that we can refer to Drones and simultaneously mean everything from stealth fighter to a children’s toy, are more like a trend in pornography than a trend in weapons. Porn similarly abstracts a range of behaviors and contexts, creating essentialized categories from what were simply sex acts, personifications, performances, objects, or scenarios.
In bed, one can do any number of things, and the overall meaning of this is construed by the parties involved, based upon the context. This is the fetish behavior–a particular symbol put into play in the act of engaging one’s sexuality, that is observed and read as both that symbol itself, and much more than that symbol. For example, having sex with a partner dressed in a “school-girl” fetish outfit, is not really read as equivalent to a desire to fuck a girl who attends school. The partners’ choice of fetish outfit is a visual willingness of those consenting partners to sexually engage with certain symbols, acts, and language in a particular time and place, together. The fetish outfit may exist hanging in the closet as much as it does when deployed in sexual activity, but its true meaning when used is entirely dependent on the details who, how, where, and why.
The same fetish symbol in the larger discourse of pornography, on the other hand, must be considered differently because it is abstracted in the published visual medium, and not presented as related to any particular individuals’ sexuality. The vast quantities and ranges of school-girl fetish porn does not say anything about particular partners or bedrooms. Pornography is a commodified discourse, the production of which is described in terms of cultural-level “market forces” that describe the needs of culture in general. An individual may enjoy certain portrayals of the commodity more than others, but this is never a fetish produced for that individual. It is for the abstraction of many individuals in pursuit of profit. It is indicative of a sexual regime in society–the sexual archetype of the School-Girl, which can be said to “always” look, act, and inscribe sexual meaning in an archetypical way. The School-Girl is not a “who”, it is a “what”: it is a characterization recognized by symbolic indicators. Individuals may use the School-Girl archetype to enhance, inspire, or inscribe their own school-girl fetish, but any instance of roleplay activity will be a separate act, not reducible to the abstract archetype.
[Note: even if individuals mimic the archetype completely, and mimic the archetypical performance so exactly to the point of filming the sexual performance, shot for shot, like a particular piece of pornography, this is still on the individual level a fetish behavior, and not an attempt to produce mass media. The purpose is for the participants, and not for audience. This changes, of course, if that fetish film is sold. Without getting into a discussion about causality, let’s just table this (albeit, interesting) issue by saying that the distribution of a personal fetish film as pornography is itself an act of production, that changes the film itself. I don’t feel this is an evasion of the relationship between personal fetishes and commodity production, I just don’t want to go off on a tangent in this essay to make that argument.]
Similarly, drones are not simply a means of doing politics, they are the leading indicators of a particular discipline of politics, in the Foucauldian sense. The Panopticon, as described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish, is not merely a prison, but it is the archetypal diagram of particular trend in not only prisons, but in societal power itself.
“But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building; it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” – Foucault, Discipline & Punish
The fetish of drones is performed anytime that one flies a camera through the air, but each individual flight of a drone remains separate from the discourse of Drones, which serves as an archetype of perpetual surveillance in an arena of technocular ubiquity. The Drones are separate from any individual flying machine, database of citizens, or ID-capturing device. But we must have a way of representing the singular mass of all of this signifying technology, and we do it through the evocative signifier of Drones. The military-industrial complex, the political regimes that make decisions about policy, the state bureaucrats that enact that policy, and the media which responds to all of these, use the archetype of Drones to abstract the individual realities of surveillance technology into a single signifer. When we talk about Drones as an archetype of the current times, we are talking about this cultural entity, not any model of drone or act of drone usage specifically.
[Note: similar to the previous note, the point at which a snapshot taken on an individual’s cell phone becomes a part of state surveillance apparatus is an interesting question, but to avoid that tangent, we will simply say that there is a defined line between the two and leave it at that, for now.]
We are in love with drones, just as we are captivated by each others’ bodies. From our species’ physiology is born a cultural reliance upon seeing, as a stand-in for doing. And from our technological abilities to collect information, grows the prime mover of our strategizing. Anything we look at, can be looked at in a sexual way. A pair of binoculars, a map, a photograph, a satellite, or a UAV can aid any sort of politics if deployed correctly, and there is nothing inimical to a particular regime in these technologies. Staring out of our windows at our neighbors, whether for titillation or for neighborhood watch, is merely an activity that is part of our current cultural humanity.
The ethical problem with voyeurism is not simply that rape may follow. And the ethical problem with drone warfare is not simply that it is asymmetric, inhumane, imperialist, or a war crime. Behaviors, technology, and strategies that exploit the distribution of power to cause pain and suffering has existed for a long time. But there is a difference with drones. Unlike earlier horrors–atom bombs, mustard gas, machine guns, etc–we conceive of this new sort of terror technology as somehow normal, even though it is distinctly new. It is not thought of as a killing machine. it is just computers, cameras, GPS, apps, and radio-controlled aircraft. This is what makes it New Aesthetic–it stands out as terrible and shocking, but while remaining incredibly familiar. We are supposedly “terrified” of the reality of drone warfare, and yet we like drones. We want to ban drones in the same way we want to ban guns–we propose a solution that we know very well is impossible. We hate drones and love them at the same time, like our booze, like our drugs, and like our violent, occular sex.
In the discourse of psychoanalysis, the gaze is a primarily a means for visually recording knowledge and interpolating it into our thought processes. Luce Irigaray criticized Freud and Lacan for rooting this gaze in the presence or absence of the phallus–automatically putting women at a disadvantage in this distribution of knowledge.
“Nothing to be seen is equivalent to having no thing. No being and no truth.” – Irigaray, The Sex Which Is Not One
The ethical flaw of both drones and the gaze is in its distribution and its control. Outside of the discourse of psychoanalysis, distribution is still controlled by privileged power regime. Drones are controlled by the State, and the supporters of rape culture control the gaze. These do not have to be tools of violence, but because of who holds the controls, they are made to be. It is a fact that technology allows us to observe, record, and track each other. But it is through the archetype of Drones that we have internalized the notion that the State can be the arbiter of this power. It is a fact that sex is visual, and visual performance is the means by which we will always read and express our desire. But it is through the archetypes of culturally abstracted sex that we have internalized the idea that if you see something you can touch it, if you observe a sexuality, it is yours to own. By dealing with these abstractions as ideas rather than accessible behaviors and technologies, we limit our ability to reorient their distribution to benefit our own bodies, and those of our consenting partners and communities. We only know drones the way the State knows drones. We only see sex the way rape culture sees sex.
Internalizing these distributions in the abstract, we do what these power regimes would already have us do. We ignore the sexuality of others if it is not a visible thing–we equate what one-can-see to all-that-is. Contemporary politics ignores democracy that does include surveillance–If you’re not doing anything wrong, you should not be hiding, and if you are not voting, you should not be speaking. It is not that drones and the gaze are part of politics and sexuality, it is that by reducing our awareness of these things to their archetypes, there cannot be any surplus politics or sexuality outside of these limited terrains which we are allowed to control. With seeing, comes a notion of being. We are beginning to call it telepresence–our ability to be in a space or travel through a space constituted by our technological visual engagement with that space. But what we require, just as we always have, is a deeper engagement with the environment. We require telepraxis. It is not enough to simply observe the archetype, we must engage and perform with it to the point of fetish–the point at which it is no longer simply a signifier for what culture decides that it means, but it is part of a living relationship and performance with individuals other than ourselves.
This is a difficult thing to do right, and rape culture and drone wars are the sign of our continuing failure. These archetypes, like Foucault’s Panopticon, do not just symbolize a particular way that things might happen, but signify a strong magnetic tendency of culture, pulling all signification in line with this particular regime. Like the phallus of psychoanalysis, the only meaning given credence is meaning translated through this regime. This is not an idle pattern, but feedback loop reinforcing itself.
“The discipline of the workshop, while remaining a way of enforcing respect for the regulations and authorities, of preventing thefts or losses, tends to increase aptitudes, speeds, output and therefore profits; it still exerts a moral influence over behavior, but more and more it treats actions in terms of their results, introduces bodies into a machinery, forces into an economy.” – Foucault, Discipline and Punish
Just because there is lots of money and privilege tied up into rape culture and the surveillance state, is not the reason we say this is a class issue. Like an economic class, these systems exist solely to perpetuate themselves, and those who benefit by them, at the expense of others. Nor is it enough to say that these systems disproportionately harm lower economic classes. Each is in fact, it’s own sort of class–a technological and epistemological class. Rape culture is a class. Surveillance culture is a class. It is not enough to find the way that drones and the gaze are being maligned, subverted, and distributed in order to harm others and criticize it. One cannot simply point out the existence of a class. Class is something that must be fought. We must create a contesting praxis, that will pull the sexual gaze and drones back from these power regimes, and use them to smash the negative archetypes. This is a terrain worth fighting over, because it is the only terrain on which human beings live and knows themselves.
Had a little Twitter tiff with @ekstasis and @nils_gilman yesterday which I think suffered largely from poor definition of terms, that I thought I’d write a short note to try and clarify (the wonders that more that 140 can do).
I often find myself defending post-modernism, not because I particularly love post-modern theory (we’re called post-structuralists, please) but because it is so frequently maligned from what seems to me to be misunderstanding. And now that most post-modern theorists have gone on to other things, the haters feel free to continue whipping their straw men, and we’re slowly cementing a revisionist history of what post-modernism really was (ironic, no?).
To me, post-modernism stands for two different things that are important to keep straight.
1- The historical epoch that came after modernism.
2- A particular approach to theorizing the nature of thought in that historical epoch.
The difference is huge–the first is shorthand for a period of time that we are attempting to discuss as relevant. The second is a particular theory with pros and cons that can be debated. As I was trying to make clear yesterday, treating a historical epoch as “reactionary” is ridiculous. To begin with, time passes of its own accord, and our identification of historical epochs as succeeding one another is not due to one’s particular “overthrow” of another, but the inevitable turning of the pages of our calendar. You might as well accuse 2011 of being stupid, or Tuesdays of laziness. What a pejorative statement against a historical time period could mean, I have no idea. Maybe this stems from our tendency to treat cultural nebulae as if they were solid masses, as in “hiphop died in ’93″, or “kids these days are doing it wrong”, but all of that seems to be on the relative-losing side of the Culture Wars, again, ironically.
The point of my calling this out is that I don’t want to fall in the trap of criticizing any person who published a book in the post-modern era, and think that we are levying a charge against post-modern theory. Anyone displaying a set of characteristics in their work that seems particular to the post-modern era, we might call an example of post-modern thought, but we should keep this separate from people actually attempting post-modern theory. @nils_gilman said in one of his later tweets, “You need to judge theory by both its high and vulgar forms. The latter often reveals something telling about the former.” And while I would say there is some truth to that, you really cannot judge a person by others who are lumped with them for specious reasons of misidentification. This is the reason that people can be futurists today, and we know they have nothing to do with the pro-war, proto-fascist writers of the Futurist Manifesto. This is how you can have something like the “New Aesthetic” and know that it doesn’t merely apply to anything at all that we might call new. Sure, there is a relation between post-modern thought and post-modern theory. Post-modern theory was largely done in the post-modern era, and as such would qualify as post-modern thought. But this does not and cannot mean that all post-modern thought is post-modern theory.
The simple reason for this, is that post-modern theory extends both before and after the post-modern era. Any undergrad philosophy student could tell you that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud were the “Masters of Suspicion”, from the work of whom stems the entire intellectual tradition of post-modern theory. This was work that was published starting in the first half of the 19th Century. And today, we see post-modern ideas continuing under new guises, such as queer theory, network theory, and other particular attempts to name a defined “theory”.
So what is particularly post-modern about post-modern theory? In my estimation, it identifies and promotes a set of suspicions about a foundational set of cultural “known truths”, and is able to show convincingly that these truths have very real effect in human life, but their reality stems from a set of factors that could be shifted. It is not a debunking of the “real”, it is a debunking of the “natural”, as a nature of things that is implicit and immutable.
1867, Marx publishes Capital, Volume One and argues convincingly that value is not our attempt to judge the inherent worth of an object, but that value is something that we instill in an object via our labor.
1887, Nietzsche publishes The Geneaology of Morals, and shows that morality does not come from what is permanently “right and true” in the world as in Aristotelian tradition, but from our own individual hang ups about value and punishment.
1900, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams and theorizes a part of the mind that is not directly accessible to human consciousness, and yet can affect our consciousness. The detail of this split and how it functions obsoletes the Cartesian cogito.
In my opinion, perhaps the greatest post-modern document of all time is the American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Race”, published in 1998. In this very short publication, the largest group of anthropologists, for once and for all, destroy the scientific underpinnings of hundreds of years of cultural, imperial, economic, and sexual oppression. This is not a relativistic statement. It is a statement of fact, that what is described as “race” simply does not exist from a genetic standpoint.
None of these documents call themselves post-modern, or even were published in the post-modern epoch. But these are singular examples for the basis of questioning “Grand Narratives” that Lyotard pronounced dead in his book The Post-Modern Condition. All of these critiqued narratives were once taken as fact, and by the 1950s, when the theories of these modernist Masters of Suspicion are widely known and accepted, it seems that everything true is potentially suspect. Which of course, it is. There is nothing fundamental to Truth that makes it self-evident. This has always been the case. Lies that masquerade as truth have been told since the beginning of human history. The fact that a majority of people believe a lie does not make it factual. And yet, that is a fact. Truth is dead, but facts are still numerous. Post-modern theory simply makes it its business to identify this trend, and to push it, to see how far it goes. As for this general observation by which we might identify a general theory of what post-modern theory is (I always use Lyotard for the definition myself), I don’t know that this is debateable. That there is a post-modern theory, relating to a post-modern trend in thought, does not seem to be the question here. The question posed, as I understand it, is whether this trend of identifying weaknesses in grand narratives is a good thing or not.
When people start digging up one’s lawn, accusing it of not necessarily being Truth, one starts to get edgy. And hence the reactionary kickback against those working with post-modern theory. When I say “lawn”, what I really mean is “class”, of course (being the good Marxist I am). If you start making the case that urban riots might have a point, that women are not necessarily subservient to men, that governments rule by tyranny rather than democracy, that morality is a better description of sexual power regimes than of goodness, that theology is used to extract more labor from workers, that science can be used to hurt people as much as help them, and that human history can be read as one long trail of tears in which these facts are covered over and rejected–well, those are pretty dangerous things to say. They are not dangerous because they threaten the Great Books. They are dangerous because they threaten the Great Corporations, the Great Nation-States, the Great Religions, and the Great Men of History.
The Great Men of History, to counter this threat of facts against their own narratives which keep them firmly and logically in control, do not paint these theories as disputes against their version of the facts. They portray them as against “fact” in general. These college professors! They claim that they are politically-minded but they are full of their own ideas, stoned into nihilism with their Hasan-i Sabbah “nothing is true, everything is permitted” Eastern mystic hashish garbage! Reject this islamo-fascism and return to your Christian heritage, the defender of truth for thousands of years! They would love the assertion that intellectuals are replacing “‘strong readings of society’ with ‘weaker ones’”. Since when was “strong” preferable to “correct”? As if this was the 1950s, and jocks are beating nerds outside of their fraternity house before graduating to go shape the world at Dow Chemical.
And we’ve internalized this reactionary narrative, to the point where we are blaming those who wrote about this epochal shift in thought for causing it! As if Lyotard, by writing his book in 1979, somehow was responsible for Nietzsche’s popularity. We are supposed to reject these upstarts, that inspired students to protest in the streets (many of the professors were in fact against it, ironic again) and stoke the fires of nostalgia for the time period of “true beliefs”, for the Greatest Generation. If only we had fascism rampant in the world, so we could be so morally steeled in our fight against it! If only we had a specter of atheistic communism to oppose, to be the rationale behind our military-industrial complex! Then we would not live in this world of doubt, fear, and calamity that these professors caused with their books. This is the narrative of the GOP, not relativism and historical hermeneutics. Professors and theorists are at once irrelevant, and poisoning our water supply. Islamists are both fascist and communist. Black presidents are at once socialist and elitist. The GOP does not seek to replace truth with fact. It seeks to replace fact with anything that will help it win its political struggles. It seeks to build a false history of the past as Whiggish rationale for American exceptionalism. It seeks to supplant real politics with nationalism and oligarchy, and send resisters to poverty, if not to prision (as does the DNC, in case my opinions on American politics weren’t clear).
The 1950s may have been great if you were a white, male, American with an industrial job. But we forget that the unfolding of history since that time has been filled with multitudes of struggles of the people who were not those chosen few, as they attempt to live something like a decent life, and establish some facts of their own. And the fact that some things have gotten better for some of those people shows that this has not been the wrong course to take.
It could be better, but that is history. If there is a post-modern universal truth of history, it is that there is no universal truth of history, and history will never finally turn sunny side up, like a quarter flipped into the air. But to heavily paraphrase general semantics theorist Alfred Korzybski, history is never depressing, people only become depressed because of history. Thankfully, regardless of what the theory is called, and however people feel about it, no one is done fighting yet.
While history continues to sort itself out, blaming a particular trend of theory (which on the whole, is really a pretty small fraction of culture) for the trials of the world seems silly. Now, if the article wanted to quibble with a particular theorist, I’m all ears for that. But given that the original article summed up the entirety of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as ‘destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other’ I’m thinking that nuance was not particularly the goal here, so much as polemic. But hey, absorbing that ire is all in a day’s work for a theory that attempts to rethink some of the most entrenched misunderstandings of Western society.
drawing of a UFO encounter from Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore
Editor’s Note:This theory piece on UFO documentation is by my partner. I’m posting it here because it is relevant to many issues that I am interested in related to authenticity and phenomenal evidence, and the work that she and I do together regarding technologically-informed revaluations of semiotic value (more on that soon, I hope). Also posted here because she does very excellent work, and because she isn’t quite as “network self-promotion focused” as I am, I feel it’s underexposed to people who might find it interesting. Enjoy! And do check out the UFO images linked from Photocat, these especially are worth looking at.
Visual Documentation of UFOs: A New Question of Authenticity
by Rosalynn Rothstein
Documentation of UFO encounters demonstrate conflict between acceptable channels for observing natural phenomena created by science and the observational powers of any one individual. Margaret Wertheim, a science writer with a focus on physics, states: “ever since Copernicus and his contemporaries in the sixteenth century replaced the earth-centered, God-focused vision of the cosmos with a sun-centered view, the officially sanctioned picture of our universe has increasingly been dictated by astronomy and physics… theoretical physics grew to encompass within it’s equations the entire space of being – the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars and the whole arena of space and time.”  In Physics on the Fringe, from which the above excerpt is quoted, Wertheim examines how “outsider scientists”, a term she chooses and likens to classifications of “outsider artists,” should be considered when they present alternative theories of how the world is ordered. They can ascribe meaning to and create visual documentation of their theories based on a visible world.
In a move similar to how “outsider artists” received increasing legitimacy throughout the twentieth century, Wertheim asks how outsider theories of physics can shed light on the role scientific thought has in ordering individual perceptions of how the world, and indeed the universe, function. As our understanding of how the universe is structured increasingly incorporates scientific understanding, can we look at the visual documentation of individuals who encounter UFOs in the same way as an “outsider artist’s” art or an “outsider scientist’s” body of work? If observation of natural phenomena informed by scientific processes of observation is influencing how individuals are ordering the world, how can we understand the phenomena of UFO documentation? By examining visual documentation, scholarship and descriptions of first hand encounters with UFOs we can understand the role visual documentation has in the UFO phenomena by conducting a folkloristically based analysis of vernacular approaches to observation rooted in personal experience and presented in a scientific framework.
pencil drawing of a UFO
Authenticity and UFO Phenomena
There is a confrontation between the authenticity of the physical world, and a certain type of observation of that physical world, and the numinous or traumatic experience of extraterrestrial contact. Daniel Fry, an alien contactee who describes his abduction experience in The White Sands Incident published in 1954, writes, “No study of U. F. O. phenomena will have any value or significance unless the student leaves his ego and emotions in the cloakroom… no firm conclusion can possibly be valid in an area where the possibilities are as infinite as the Universe itself.” An infinite universe challenges the idea that human observation can be conclusive.
The Lori Butterfield collection, housed in the Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore at the University of Oregon, contains an interview with Dick McGrew who was a Coast Guard engineer at the time of the interview. The interview with McGrew, collected in 1981, discusses one instance of abduction McGrew heard about. McGrew states “One that comes to mind is the policeman whose antennae was bent 90 degrees and his car was all messed up and he said that he was transported…I would find no reason to disbelieve it – especially if the guy had gone through hypnosis.” However, the interviewee also describes another instance where he is incredulous of a practice preparing for a UFO encounter. “And then there’s the woman down in the San Diego – Long Beach, uh, San Diego – Los Angeles – somewhere along in there, who had a landing pad set up for UFOs – who dresses up in her sparkly-space suit – goes out there and welcomes UFOs every night. (laughter) I can’t get into that. (Laughter) That’s something that doesn’t make much sense.” For this interviewee, the realms of possibility for alien encounter are bounded by what can be proven. Often, proof involves activating a scientific framework of observation and analysis.
Jung prefaces his analysis of UFOs with the following statement: “I must take this risk, even if it means putting my hard-won reputation for truthfulness, trustworthiness, and scientific judgment in jeopardy.” He proceeds to question whether UFOs are “photogenic.” He states, “considering the notorious camera-mindedness of Americans, it is surprising how few ‘authentic’ photos of UFOs seem to exist, especially as many of them are said to have been observed for several hours at relatively close quarters.” Consequently, we might consider that interpretations, memorates and visual documentation of UFOs are all rigorously tested under a rubric of authenticity.
However, if we move beyond the veracity of the images, whether they are drawings made after an encounter, a YouTube video or more rigorous interpretation of numerous images by a UFO researcher, can we understand these images in a context more similar to how Wertheim interpreted “outsider physicists.” Ultimately, how does the visual documentation of UFO sightings and events manage credibility whether the memorates or documentation are interpreting historical events or documenting contemporary events?
Paul Hill, “UFO Shapes”
Authoritative Evidence versus Experience
Observations of UFOs are influenced by a variety of complex features, including but not limited to popular culture, religious belief and larger culture fears such as nuclear disaster. Daniel Wojcik, a folklorist, considers that beliefs about UFOs and aliens “often reflect apocalyptic anxieties and millennial yearnings, asserting that extraterrestrial entities will play a role in the destruction, transformation, salvation, or destiny of the world.” Experiences reflect larger concerns and interpretations of visual documentation and memorates are subject to similar influences. Thomas Bullard, a folklorist who studies UFOs, claims the most audible voices heard about UFOs are the UFOlogists, who study the phenomena to one extent or another and to different degrees of authority, and not the witnesses of the phenomena.
If the voices of scientists, critics, and UFOlogists are heard more than the witnesses and witnesses narratives are generally expounded upon or interpreted, what does this say for visual documentation produced by these witnesses and contactees? Images and videos can be used as evidence and then critiqued by the “experts” (however this might be defined). The photo documentation and the visual images are often the way the witnesses are “speaking” to these experts. UFOlogists and UFO researchers, even if they are criticized by the “legitimate scientists” or the mass media, are experts in relationship to the witnesses. In this respect there are levels of vernacular and institutional authority influencing interpretation of the authenticity of UFO encounters and sightings.
Another interview in the Lori Butterfield collection with Donald Atkins, a restaurant employee, contains this description of an encounter with a spacecraft. “And I knew it wasn’t any star or aircraft or anything – cause it wasn’t making any sound. Wasn’t making any noise and the thing was real quiet and I looked at it for about ten minutes and then all of a sudden it just – s-shup – and off it disappeared. And it didn’t come back after that.” Before this description the interviewee states “It didn’t make no noise – no sound – and at first, I thought I was a seein’ things and I couldn’t believe it so I shut my eyes for about one whole minute and then opened them up again and it was still there in plain sight.” The physical realm is breached by the UFO experience, but belief in the veracity of the experience is always influenced by the experience of the witness or contactee who must see it in “plain sight” but might not want to believe it.
photo from McMinnville UFO sighting
Depth in Documentation
The UFO fotocat blog, contains lengthy analysis of visual documentation of UFO sightings. The site is self described as follows, “Since year 2000, FOTOCAT is an in-progress project owned and managed by Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, with the purpose to create a catalog of world-wide UFO photo events.” Fotocat Report #4 focuses specifically on Norway, specifically the Hessdalen region which has frequent anomalistic luminous events. An introduction to the catalog contains the following statement. “Photograph, in the popular philosophy, is the best evidence to prove the existence of something, e.g. “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In observational sciences, astronomy for instance, photographic records are basic.” The analysis in the document contains a brief synopsis of the case, if necessary a discussion of the quality of the image and if possible the image itself. The photographs also can include the conclusions of the authors of the document, such as “Clouds and atmospheric haze can cause stars and planets to “appear and disappear” and false motions are due to scintillation, auto kinesis and atmospheric refraction.” A document like this considers where, when, and under what circumstances the photograph was produced and subjects it to a scientific analysis of the possible circumstances that could have created the image.
Images drawn by witnesses, contactees and abductees often cross boundaries between empirical research and personal impressions of the UFO sighting or encounter. Partridge discusses the intersection between UFO religions and empirical research. “Crypto-theology and pseudoscience are very common in the UFO community. Empirical, hard-edged UFO research consistently intersects with elements of paranormal belief. Indeed, it is often difficult to separate the two… the point is that interest in empirical research into aerial phenomena often (not always) connects seamlessly with ideas that are very popular within occulture and common within UFO religions.” There is a similar intersection in certain accounts by witnesses of UFO phenomena even if it is not directly spiritual. The empirical nature of the observation intersects with concerns about the universe is structured.
This image is a drawing of a spacecraft seen by an interviewee in the Regan Lee collection in the Randall V. Mills archives. In the interview, “Carmen” points to the top of the drawings and says, “this part of the thing was this weird metallic light blue, this part of the ship. And then this was windows, you could see through this area, like the majority of the vessel you could see through.” She continues, later in the interview, with this assessment of the experience of witnessing the craft. “But I want to know. Maybe there’s a chance I can protect myself. If I don’t know, I do I [sic] know what to protect myself from? And I feel that more tests can be done to me that [sic] to him. Pregnancy…” Ultimately the drawing of the spacecraft the interviewee witnessed does not depict the fears the interviewee has about medical experiments and pregnancy that she experienced after this encounter with a spacecraft. However, the input from the transcribed interview shows the importance of eliciting witness and contactee impressions when interpreting photographs or drawings of alien encounters.
Can we believe visual documentation whether it be photographs, drawings or otherwise? There is a lengthy history of scientific or mathematical debunking of images of UFO and other phenomena. Questions of authenticity extend into online forums where evidence of the existence of extra-terrestrial life is presented. For example, on one YouTube video, entitled “Grey Alien Filmed by KGB” one user comments “So… my question is, if this is ‘real’, then how is there a timestamp on film from the 40′s? Yes, I’m sure there were giant primitive computers, but how the hell did it get on celluloid film? Computers were not used_ for this sort of thing at the time, it was not even close to possible to edit video in this era, so the camera used to film then would never have been able to print a moving / ticking digital stamp onto film. If it was added at a later date, why do the numbers fade with the film?” Authenticity in this context is interpreted by a user whose level of expertise is not necessarily known by a user reading the comments. Ultimately, YouTube comments become a space for debate about the authenticity of visual documentation of UFO sightings. It is a space where questions about scientific evaluations of images and, especially in the context of videos posted by individuals who claim to have personally documented UFOs, questions about the validity of personal experience and documentation are asked by users whose level of expertise might not be fully disclosed or known at all.
When discussing the protocol established by experts at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Pierre Lagrange, a sociologist of science, states: “the people at SETI spend so much of their time emphasizing the differences between themselves and the ufologists that reported sightings are not taken seriously at all. And, in fact, their stance seems reasonable, given what some UFO fanatics have to say about the secrets being kept from us, and given how dogmatic they must be to launch blanket-damnations of scientists as having closed minds. Thus, although the protocol presents itself as democratic, it is written with a particular idea of science and society in mind, one that excludes non-scientists (and extraterrestrials, a few would say).” We lack the words to describe the experience, so the visual representations and documentation of the UFO sightings are expected to convey the depth and reality of belief. They both embody the controversy and share the reality of the experience. However, the interpretation of these images is often left to institutional bodies, whether that is an organization like SETI or more fringe ufologists SETI tries to distance themselves from.
Voices in Images
Western Societies, and more specifically the United States in the context of UFOs, have a desire for authenticity. Baudrillard relates this to nostalgia for societies without histories. In reference to cave paintings, he states, “this explains why we cannot even pose the question of their authenticity since, even if true, they seem invented to satisfy the needs of the anthropological cause, to meet the superstitious demand for an ‘objective’ proof of our rigid duly certified by carbon 14. In fact, their being discovered wrenches them instantly from their truth and secrecy to freeze them in the universe of museums, where they are no longer either true or false, but verified by a scientific fetishism which is an accessory to our fetisistic will to believe in them.”
Ultimately the visual documentation of UFOs becomes a question of whose voice is speaking through the image. Baudrillard sees cave paintings as a search for an objective truth and the search to validate and scientifically authenticate the paintings freezes and stagnates the image in a rigid set of meanings constructed around its existence. We can see the same processes occurring around the visual documentation of UFOs and alien encounters, whether that is a drawing from a witness, an analysis of a photograph taken by another person or comments on a YouTube video. When examining visual documentation, scholarship and descriptions of first hand encounters with UFOs we might gain a better understand the role these images have in understanding UFO phenomena if we incorporate an understanding of the individual perspectives impacting not only the interpretation, but the creation of these images.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Bullard, Thomas. The Myth and Mystery of UFOs. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
Fry, Daniel W. The White Sands Incident. Louisville, KY: Best Books Inc., 1966.
Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.
Lagrange, Pierre. Diplomats without Portfolios: The Question of Contact with
Extraterrestrial Civilizations. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of
Demoncracy. Ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT
Olmos, Vincente-Juan Ballester, Complier. http://fotocat.blogspot.com/ Accessed June 5,
Partridge, Christopher. The Re-Enchantment of the West. London: T & T Clark
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Dick McGrew; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Donald Atkins; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Lori Butterfield collection. 1981_013.
Transcript of interview of Tom McCartney; Lori Butterfield, interviewer, 1981.
Randall V. Mills Archives of Northwest Folklore. Regan Lee collection. 1996_011.
Transcript of interview of “Carmen”; Regan Lee, interviewer, 1981.
Wertheim, Margaret. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative
Theories of Everything. New York: Walker & Company, 2011.
Wojcik, Daniel. The End of the World as we Know it: Faith, Fatalism, and Apocalypse in
America. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Thanks to those of you who filled out the survey, I’ve been able to put together a small schedule of events that I think will be a lot of fun. So here is the official announcement. Attendance is free, but please email me to let me know if you are coming so I can get an idea of how many we will have.
Weird Shit Con 2012
Portland, Oregon, Cascadia, Western Standard Time, North America, Earth
August 17th & 18th
What is Weird Shit Con?
Tag cloud as suggested by survey responses:
Drone hacking / noise music / DIY transhumanism / graffiti divination / gonzo futurism / ritualistic architecture / geological timescales / cosmic order / the techno-peasantry / Follow the gnarl / math is cheaper than drugs / The Age of Horus / the New Economy / pseudo-coordinated motherfuckery / the color of a dead channel / various individuals and cells coming together to discuss their Great Work / a þing or folkmoot / gathering of the internet tribes, for real-world scenius-based hilarity / a supercollider for weird, spiky ideas / hoaxes / vapourware / paths not taken, and things buried or overlooked / the rough edge, rather than the bleeding edge / strong and weak signals / weird shit is weird for a reason, because it doesn’t fit into existing frames of reference / collecting and disseminating weird shit should be one of the first principles of any good network of power-weirdos / Solarpunk / robots / machine vision / technologies disruptive to society and government / insert the contents of our twitter comments to each other here, as annotated and expanded on by an orangutang that’s been subjected to several successive generations of cognitive enhancement therapy, who’s currently coming down from mushrooms and ranting about post-neoDarwinist Marxism / resilience / design fiction / futurism / sci fi / weird history / VARIOUS ESOTERIKA / systems / synthesis / solidarity
What will happen at Weird Shit Con?
This is up to the participants, but the road map for events is as follows, locations to be announced later:
1700 – 1800 – Meet & Disorientation
Receive your materials, shake hands, talk awkwardly, show off equipment, conduct opening rituals.
1800 – 2100 – Dinner & Keynote Discussion: What is Weird-Shit?
A consensus-process discussion in which the subject of the conference is identified and provisionally explored over a long dinner.
2100 – ??00 – Bar/Talk/Board Game Time
Discussion continues informally, beverages are quaffed, games are played.
1100 – 1400 – Show & Tell: 15 Minute Sessions
Every participant is given a fifteen-minute period to share something interesting with the group. These sessions will be transcribed, and guest participants from remote locations will be included.
1500 – 1700 – Outing: The Disappearance of Vanport City
A short field trip to explore the park, raceway, and country club area where Vanport City, Oregon used to exist, before being destroyed by a flood in 1948. Interpretation will be aided by GIS information and other historical documentation.
1800 – 2200 – Unconference Lab Time
After a short break for dinner, we’ll open up into a unconference-like session of group discussions, projects, games, or other activities. Want to workshop a new idea with a few weird minds? Want to build a small dossier on a particular subject? Want to show off and play with a hacked gadget? Bring it to the lab, and find some weird people to help you.
2200 – ??00 – Adjourn to Bar, or Continue with Lab, or Both
The group is free to drift to a nearby watering hole as they like, abandoning their projects or bringing them along, or simply continue with the labs, or disperse into the night.
How do I get involved?
Email Adam to let him know that you’re coming, and then show up for whatever sessions you like, and don’t forget to bring the weird. The announcement of locations will happen soon. We should have a projector for the Show & Tell session, and Wifi at all locations. If you are looking for something more specific to be there in the way of technological infrastructure, let us know.
For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been thinking about what the political component to the New Aesthetic might be. The New Politics that accompany the New Aesthetic, as part of the New Aesthetic, is going to be largely a nebulous concept. Bruce Sterling’s latest delve into the theory of the NA was basically an explanation of how a Tumblr works, that is also applicable to the NP:
How do you grasp the schauung in the weltanschauung, and the geist in the zeitgeist? Where is the boundary between the “New Aesthetic” and a new aesthetic?
So far, the best evidence that something has really changed is of this kind. Imagine you were walking around your own familiar neighborhood with some young, clever guy. Then he suddenly stops in the street, takes a picture of something you never noticed before, and starts chuckling wryly. And he does that for a year, and maybe five hundred different times.
That’s the New Aesthetic Tumblr. This wunderkammer proves nothing by itself. It’s a compendium of evidence, a heap of artifacts, and that evidence matters. It’s a compilation of remarkable material by creative digital-native types who are deeply familiar with the practical effects of these tools and devices.
We don’t need to romanticize the medium of the Internet any further to get that culture is not anywhere near as nailed down as it used to be. But when it comes to theories of the Political, we’re still fighting a 20th Century hangover. We still have this line of thought that dictates technological/political transitivity. If Twitter is somehow political, then Politics must somehow be Twitter. Douglas Rushkoff makes this case just about as good as anyone, and while it all sounds great (especially when you are online) it is actually not true whatsoever. Just because Politics reminds us of the Internet and uses the Internet and is found on the Internet, does not mean that it is the Internet.
And this is important to keep in mind, because while “how” a Tumblr works is important to understanding the status of the theory/politics of the New Aesthetic, the theory/politics of NA is not reducible to Tumblr. Think of the difference between new-aesthetic.tumblr.com and wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. These are very different things, while they are also very similar things. “We are the 99 Percent” is a piece of 20th Century political branding, and a pretty brilliant piece at that. It galvanized the movement, and introduced it to the world at large. Each post was a new propaganda billboard, and in place of Dear Leader’s gleaming visage, we received a pair of eyes, and the heart-tugging poverty of a hand-written sign. Now we are stuck with that haunting slogan of “99 Percent”, which curses us as much as “The People’s _____” cursed communism with its subtle but irresistible irony.
And we know that “We are the 99 Percent” was a piece of 20th Century politics, because it was easy to come up with a counter version: “We are the 53% Percent”, or whatever it was. If you can have counter-protesters, no matter how effective or silly they might be, then you are in the realm of 20th Century politics where everything has an opposite, whether it be a Right to a Left, an Authoritarian to an Anti-Authoritarian, or a Centralized to a Distributed.
But where is the “counter” to New Aesthetics? Where is the “Old Aesthetics” Tumblr? If there was such a thing, it might attempt one of these three possibilities:
1) invent an atemporal cultural genre (Steampunk, Atompunk, Dieselpunk, etc.) in an attempt to be fantastically “old”.
2) rehash a previous genre (cyberpunk, New Age, Great-Gatsby-Punk, whatever) in an attempt to be historically old.
3) it would be a list of stuff that is “normal”, in the temporally present. A photo of an iPhone on a glass coffee table. A utility pole on a regular street with exactly the expected number of cables leading to it. Something like that.
None of these are really opposites, because they don’t attempt to refute the logic of NA, they just present something that is alternative to it, and by doing so, validate the NA’s conglomerate intrigue. These alternatives are the phenomenal “field” to the NA’s blurry “shape”. These are the far-flung edges of that indescribable shape in the center that avoids the rules of Euclidean solids.
The Theory-Object of NA does not rely upon oppositional borders. But when one attempts to theoretically nullify the NA, these alter-concepts appear. This is important to remember. The Tumblr Theory-Object does not come into existence by opposing itself to a non-Tumblr Theory-Object, or by opposing itself to a Tumblr non-Theory-Object. Just as a revolution-that-uses-Twitter does not rely upon a revolution-that-does-not-use-Twitter as its opposite to bring itself into positive being, in proving the former to be a definitive case of “Twitter Revolution” in contrast to a “Non-Twitter Revolution”. This is the logic that proves that a war that uses aircraft, in that it is different from a war without aircraft, is suddenly an “Air War”. And yet, when you hold up the example of “Non-Twitter Revolution” on the edge, you do realize something different is happening in the middle, just not a binary opposite.
This binary logic needs to be left behind in the 20th Century, when it was still useful. It is an epochalizing, casuality-dependent, negative theology of time. The NA does not come “from” something, or will it “turn into” something. It appears to be spontaneous, because of its composite, non-ideological composition. It is not actually spontaneous, of course. But the Theory-Object of the NA is an assemblage of cultural objects and theoretical considerations, that once seen, like an optical illusion, is very difficult to un-see. And if you wish to make it difficult to see an optical illusion, you certain do not just stare at its “opposite”. Because what is the opposite of an optical illusion?
We are not free from the specter of 20th Century Wars, anymore than we are free from 20th Century logic, or 20th Century politics. However, a new logic and politics is emerging, for whatever reason. It is interesting by the nature of its non-symmetrical difference from these previous ways of thinking. It may or may not be really “New”, it may or may not be an “Aesthetic” or a “Politics”. But it is interesting, self-generating, and self-accumulating. Therefore, it deserves us taking a good look at it.
While the “optical illusion” metaphor of a Theory-Object is all well and good for something as cultural and neither-here-nor-there as an “Aesthetic”, for a Politics, things become more difficult. Politics, heretofore, have necessitated “doing something”, or “fighting against something”, or “standing for something”. If these “demands” are not immediately apparent, then certainly the Politics must have a good reason, and define itself in the negative to these centralized theoretical aspects of Politics, right?
Perhaps, if we are leading with ideology. If we were preoccupied with convincing others that we were “right”, then we should be worried about the terms of the argument that our Politics is going to define. This leaves New Politics open to the perpetual criticism of 20th Century politics: it is not a “real politics”, it doesn’t “accomplish anything”, it has “no definition” that would determine whether we are doing it or not. All of which are true to an extent. And, if joining a 20th Century politics actually changed anything for anyone in the 100+ years throughout which it has attempted to do so, this might actually be something to worry about.
This different Theory-Object is assembling itself. It is not an alternative to something, an occupation of something, or a dual power organization in relation to something. These are “oppositional” epochs, like a Twitter Revolution. The New Politics is much more concerned with the particular problematics of life in The Street, so to speak, than of articulating a particular banner for arenas or agoras. And there is a long, long list of these particular problematics. So many and so diverse, that they can’t be listed on a party platform, a conceptual map, or even a Wiki. Maybe some of them would fit in a Tumblr, though.
But let’s cut the theory, as I think I’ve said more than enough for one blog post. Let’s watch a video.
This video for Diplo and Nicky Da B’s song “Express Yourself” is a strong example of the New Politics, in my opinion:
What do you call this thing, from a political standpoint? 20th Century Politics labels this as “pop culture”, “socio-economic culture shock”, “performativity of sexuality”, “urban culture”, “sub-culture”, “hip-hop poetics” or any other number of meaningless categories that are not the “WOM WOM WOMWOM WOM” when the cut drops at 0:15. But this is not even about escaping from the theoretical language to a more ludic expression of art, and calling that Politics. It is about all of it, wrapped into a phenomenological assemblage of any number of potential theory angles, while also being captivated by the beat, and feeling one’s hips start to move in expressive solidarity with “what this is”.
And what is this? It is Hard Bounce, it is New Orleans, it is a DJ Hit, it is Video Art, it is Sex, it is Politics. It is freaking out (insert cultural appropriate slang phrase here) to music in a convenient store in a certain part of town. It’s me watching this, thousands of miles from New Orleans, and still feeling it. It’s putting this video in a pile of others, and watching them all in a row, or posting saving them to “Watch Later”, or posting this to a Tumblr, or embedding this in a blogpost and writing “see, this is what I’m talking about”.
And that’s all I want to really say about this particular piece of the puzzle, other than the main thing this video makes me want to do is Make Stuff, really badly. And not just any Stuff, but the sort of Stuff that might, in another decade, have been a spectacle worthy of shocking the bourgeois out of their slumber, but in this day and age is just one more thing that will be as mentally and bodily captivating as this is, that will get circulated through certain channels for a while, and then will go to sleep, until kids rediscover it some day in the future and pirate it for parts. And then I want to blast this Stuff in the streets until I get tired of it, and then make something else.
Now, this is music. But I want to do this with other things too. With buildings. With protest tactics. With water filtration systems. I want to do this with Stuff that makes the world a better place, at least for a few people. Maybe this is only me, because I have some delusional drive for being Political in my psyche. Maybe for most people, this is simply a New Aesthetic, that they will look at and then click through. But for me, this weird-desiring-to-make-Stuff feels like something that I am already doing, most of the time.
Finding weird stuff, copying it, and amplifying it as loud as I can. But for a reason. Is this any closer to anything meaningful? I’m not sure.
Someone is always watching. Someone has always been watching.
If you’re a woman, you’ve probably known that your whole life. It started with somebody — probably your mother — telling you how to sit, how to dress, how much to show, what to reveal, what not to reveal. Your skin, your smell, your opinion. Secretly, you wondered, “Does anybody actually notice this kind of thing?” And then, somebody did. A guy. A guy who shouted at you across the street: “HEY! SMILE! YOU’D BE A LOT PRETTIER IF YOU JUST SMILED! THERE! THAT’S BETTER!” A guy with a friend, who did a U-turn in his truck just to say that he thought he’d seen you somewhere before, and what were you doing later? A guy who asked if you were pregnant, because you were starting to look a little thick. A guy who told you to get some sleep, because you looked terrible.
Apparently, it took the preponderance of closed-circuit television cameras for some men to feel the intensity of the gaze that women have almost always been under. It took the invention of Girls Around Me*. It took Facebook. It took geo-location. That spirit of performativity you have about your citizenship, now? That sense that someone’s peering over your shoulder, watching everything you do and say and think and choose? That feeling of being observed? It’s not a new facet of life in the twenty-first century. It’s what it feels like for a girl.
I’m thinking that a lot of what the political aspects of NA might be about, have to do with converting 20th Century political subjectivities to the new technology that is shifting the environment around us. And the problem is that 20th Cent. political subjectivities don’t respond to 21st Cent. problems. That’s not to say that they are useless. We still have plenty of 20th Cent. problems around, like opposition to feminism, which is quickly figuring out how to become a 21st Cent. problem. (Scan your email, scan your uterus. If you’re not hiding anything, why would you say no?)
But we also have 21st Cent. problems that bear very little resemblance to 20th Cen. problems. Or at least through the lens of 20th Cent. politics, look like “The Future”, and hence get labeled with things like “dystopia”. Calling something “dystopia” is really fucking useless, if you live in that dystopia, rather than just imagining what it would be like.
More particular to Madeline’s comments, perhaps this would be a great time to re-mention feminism (when isn’t?) regardless of epochs. More to the point: sexual subjectivities. Which, unlike political subjectivities, are much more difficult to epochalize.
Here’s the comment I left over there, which I’m copy here just to make sure I don’t lose it:
For me anyway, it was Luce Irigaray that introduced me to the preponderance of the gaze, not CCTV. But the arrays of surveillance cameras in the world are indeed, just more of the same in a certain respect. Without reverting to gender essentialism, I would agree that there is something to the experience of femininity, in that subaltern position you describe “as watched”, that does theoretically open up the notion of subjectivity-as-technologically/semiotically-controlled.
But what I wonder is, what are the techniques from the experience of femininity, so described, that might combat, say, a surveillance state? My experience in feminism is that most of the real work is not done in the streets, so to speak (though feminist marches and organized protests are important). Instead, I find that the work is done in the bed room, the living room, and the kitchen. In other words, it is as much about negotiating a re-evaluation of sexual subjectivity with our friends, family, and sexual partners, as it is about politics, in the standard “get out and fight” sense. Countering mental patterns so insipid as sexual privilege and rape culture take a lot of hard, personal work to overcome (speaking “as a man”, who would personally identify as continuing to combat his own mental patterns).
The reason I bring this up, is because it doesn’t seem like the surveillance state is something to be talked out in the bed room (though the idea has some intrigue). In the effort of trying to figure out what the New Politics aspects of the New Aesthetic are, I tend to think that they are not reducible to feminist criticisms of the gaze–though clearly they would not be cause for an interrupt of the continuation of that critique. The radical new interventions that the surveillance state is making in our personal lives, while not separate from gender politics, would not necessarily be symmetric, either.
So I guess this is an open question: what new technological components does the NA bring to our subjective sense of politics? It could indeed stimulate use to recall previous and ongoing re-evaluations of political subjectivity, but is there anything new here? I wonder as a person, looking for new, potent tools.
We need a plural noun for drones. Cows are a herd, sheep are a flock, fish are a school: what are drones?
The need for a term is dire, because it is becoming quite obvious that while one drone is interesting, several drones are uncanny. Especially if there is the potential that they are networked together.
I’ve called this uncanny the “drone swarm“. But this term is more of the conceptual idea of a swarm, drone edition. One bee isn’t something to worrying about, but a swarm is. One bird isn’t something to make a horror film about, but… you get the idea.
So what is it? Perhaps something from the animal kingdom? Justin Pickard suggests “murder”, which is used for crows, and has a quite delectable sound to it. But drones are different than other flocking beasts.
Tim Maly has used “panoptiswarm“, but while this could be applicable to drones with cameras, it doesn’t really apply to drones without cameras. Also, equally applies to large groups of cameras, without drones.
Tim also suggested “argus”, which was the name of a mythological giant with a hundred eyes, as well as numerous instances of military and security hardware and corporations throughout the more recent years. I am a bit partial to this one because it is short, and original.
Something I think is crucial to the decision, however, is the behavior of the group of drones. If it is just a group of drones sitting on an airstrip, this is not very interesting. However, the idea that a number of drones, aloft, are possible networked together, communicating, and enabled with some sort of swarm intelligence responsible for group decision making… now that is something. Chris Arkenberg’s recent design-fiction piece revolves around the idea of a “murmuration” of drones. A murmuration is the word used for that aesthetically pleasing flocking motion of birds (see above photo, taken from Chris’ article). It seems that drones that are engaged in some sort of communicative behavior are much more along the lines of “murder” and other animal-esque plural nouns–because a flock of sheep is not just sheep in proximity, but sheep that act in a particular way, because of other sheep in the same space.
One more data point: Ryan Oakley suggests that “arcade” might be used to describe, if not the drones themselves, a group of people who are controlling or piloting drones. This throws in a wrinkle. We are near the technological point at which multiple drones might be controlled by a single person. Does this mean that each drone is an individual thing? Or ought we to refer to the entire group of in-flight robots as a single entity, and what really matters is how many people are controlling them? Which nodes are more important for our standard of naming?
I have no clear answers, only more questions. Please–let’s take the conversation to the comments. And if you have more instances of proposed naming conventions or alternate concepts that might complicate this development of a standard, do suggest them and I’ll add them to this list.
Edit: Chris also notes that “Locals in North and South Waziristan refer to the drones as ‘Bangana’ – a Pashto word for wasp.” Perhaps the drone theorists are not the best to name these things, and we need to hear more about people on the receiving end of drones in the field.
Okay, a quick word. Alexis Madrigal, whose opinion I very much respect, wrote this piece not exactly defending the police officer who pepper sprayed a bunch of absolutely peaceful students at UC Davis. Not defending, but sort of giving him a bit of sympathy by way of drawing blame to the institution that allowed the event to take place, rather than the individual (though Alexis clarified that he does not consider the officer blameless).
I call bullshit. Absolutely. As an Occupier committed to non-violence, I cannot and will not excuse the actions of this police officer under any condition.
First, go find the video on Youtube if you haven’t seen it. (You’ll have no trouble finding it.)
It is brutality, plain and simple. This is brutal violence. Those people were sitting on the ground, and a person used a large amount of poisonous chemicals to cause them immense pain, to the point that they vomited, and a number were hospitalized. THEY WERE CHEMICALLY INDUCED TO VOMIT PAINFULLY, each and every one of them on purpose, by one person.
We MUST blame the individual. The system of policing in this country is broken, simply because we cannot blame the individuals. They are allowed to hide behind their badge, their authority, our respect for the hard job that they do, and the vast bureaucracy that goes into reinforcing these things. Policing is a tough job, with unimaginable stress. But in this job we allow sadists to serve, and it damages what authority such a dangerous job deserves.
I would make Arendt’s argument about little Eichmanns, but it’s been made it before. Instead, let me relay my own anecdote.
At Portland’s occupation, just a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed an ugly scene. The Safety Committee was stressed beyond anything you can imagine. There had been threats, fights, weapons in camp. The actual police force was doing very little to help remove the violent element that had come into the camp (they excuses varied, but mostly they circulated around the claim that they couldn’t arrest anyone without witnesses).
On this day, the Safety Committee called an emergency meeting in the center of camp. The meeting was started under the best intentions: to determine once and for all how we were going to deal with safety issues. We had to do something, and the Safety Committee, despite all their incredibly hard work and dedication, were not making headway.
There was a lot of emotion at that meeting. It started off angry. The Safety Committee said that they refused to let things go on as they were, without a plan for going forward. Others echoed this anger, as they were fed up with the troublemakers in camp, too. Things started to turn ugly fast. Someone suggested rounding all the troublemakers, the drug users, the people who weren’t helping out, and running them all out of camp. Some people, who represented a much more aggressive element at the camp (not on the Safety Committee officially), carried large sticks and poles. There was aggressive, sexist, homophobic language. Eventually, a fight did break out at the meeting, between these new, self-appointed “peace makers” and a random person who didn’t do anything.
I’m not going to spend time describing it in full, but let me just say: it got real. I’ve been in some sketchy situations in my life. I’ve been in riots, and in the middle of brawls, and it crowds of drunk, angry, bored, aggressive people. I’ve been threatened by people I believed were capable of following through. But I’ve never seen a situation like this. The danger was palpable. For a period of five minutes, I could have seen this angry crowd do just about anything. That’s not an exaggeration.
Afterwards, people said a great many things. They said that it wasn’t the Safety Committee that upped the aggression level at that meeting (and it’s true, it wasn’t). They said that people were angry, tired, and emotional (and it’s true, they were). But there is nothing that anyone could say to me that excuses what happened.
Being committed to non-violence means this to me:
I will not be part of a society that uses wild, uncontrolled aggression to manage its problems. I will not be part of a society that includes sexist and homophobic language in its vocabulary for engaging its community. I will not be part of a society that allows people who do these things to take the lead, and to define these behaviors as the norm, or even merely excusable in the worst of times. I will take a zero tolerance approach towards anyone or anything bringing these things into my society.
This is not just a moral pledge; this is an ethical promise. I was prepared, after seeing this meeting, to walk away from the occupation and not look back. If I couldn’t stay and make things better, then I would leave, and hope others would too.
Luckily, things calmed down greatly after that day. There were still safety problems, but the aggression level calmed down, and I personally did not witness anyone acting in that way again. Now, our camp has been cleared out by the police, and the issues we’re dealing with at Portland’s Occupation are entirely different.
The fact that we are willing to tolerate violent individuals in society is not the reason that we have violence. But it prevents us from getting a foothold in the fight to stop violence. As Occupiers, we are not just conscientious rejectors of a violent society; we must quash the violence of individuals in the new society we are trying to make, and we must do it with our own non-violent action.
This is how this works: The minute someone suggests violence against other people as a strategy of improving society, they are removed from the conversation. If we can engage them in argument, and bring them around to a better understanding of why violence is not considered, then excellent. But if we are to create a strategy to ethically reject violent behavior against other people, we cannot ethically consider violent behavior as part of that strategy. The moment that someone in our society takes a violent step towards another person, we make it clear that they are no longer part of our society. And again, and again, and again. We won’t accept it. If we hold firm in this ethical action, we will find we are on the side of the overwhelming majority. Given the option, most people will choose to be part of the side that is always peaceful. The reason why is obvious.
The police, just like the Safety Committee, do a hard job that few want to do. They often have to defend themselves. But the fact that they do a hard job is no excuse for any one of them to commit violence against another person. That they are part of an institution with little effective means for accountability is no reason to excuse a violent act. That they are wielded as weapons by certain powerful forces in society, is no excuse for any one person to be the person who commits a violent act against another person. Until an individual does such a thing, they are just like me, and they are part of my society. But the minute they decide to do that thing that I find inexcusable, they are on their own. I will welcome them back, as soon as they reject that violence, now and forever.
Once Lt. Pike has rejected violence, and made steps to convince our society that he is committed to this rejection, we’ll welcome him back. But until that time, there is no one else to blame for those students’ suffering other than Lt. Pike, and the other officers that pulled the trigger.
You might think it is easy for me to say this, but it’s not. It’s a supremely difficult thing to say, and to mean it. It means setting yourself against the majority of society that is willing to excuse such behavior, because they think it can be excusable. But this is the fight we’re fighting. All of us who have decided to non-violently occupy, are making this new non-violent society ourselves, only by our commitment to that non-violence, one day at a time. Mistakes will be made, and strategies will be improved. But not a single act of violence will be excused or justified.
And the number of us committed to this grows every day.
I’ve been busy at the occupation, and that’s prevented me from actually writing any more notes about the occupation. I know that’s the typical blogger excuse first-line, but in this case, I’m going to share with you exactly what I’ve been busy doing, so I feel that’s fair.
I’ve become the point-of-contact for The Portland Occupier, a project birthed out of the Media Committee, but operating unofficially and of its own autonomous accord. The way most occupations are running, and Portland’s being no exception, is that for any action or statement to be “official”, it must be approved by the GA. Open committees, on the other hand, are made of autonomous, self-organizing individuals, and they can work on their own as they see fit. So The Occupier is an unofficial, official news and content channel, if you get what I mean.
And here is where many of my notes have been going. I’ve put my WordPress management skills to use, and have been drumming up content from any contributors we can grab. As for myself, I started a column today, called “Kick Out the Anarchists“, which is surreptitiously titled. The goal is to demystify and explore anarchism, as this is one of the major bugaboos of people inside and outside the occupation, alike. I’m hoping this column can be a vehicle for many of the notes I would have about the occupation, anyway. Maybe in this way, putting all my blog-column philosophizing to some use.
All of this being the goal, of course. In the same way that the occupation strives to be a model for the organization it hopes to put into the world, I feel we ought to do the same with media. And just like the organization we’re enacting in the parks downtown, our media has a ways to go before we can say that is fully successful. But hey, we do what we can, in the face of the massive challenges.
The stated goal of much media is to be objective, regardless of whether or not it quite makes it there. I don’t agree with that idealism–and I like to think that the work we’re doing at The Occupier is a more realistic effort. We are, of course, for the occupation, and the writing and content that we publish is obviously from that perspective. In a way, I feel, that is more honest. We don’t have to respond to the niggling complaints and bullshit that the media drags up as the “counter-argument”. We don’t want to ignore legitimate complaints either. But there is no shortage of legitimate stories of all kinds that need telling regarding the occupation. If you want to know about the condition of the restrooms down at the park, you can go and look for yourself. Or, I can save you the trip: they are bad. There are hundreds of people using them daily, and precious few volunteers to clean them. That’s the story. Have you learned anything?
There is a certain positivism to our reporting, I think. I have complaints and gripes about the way things are going at the occupation. But this sort of personal, critical subjectivity, which I normally launch into wholeheartedly on my own blog, I smooth over when I write for The Occupier. This is, in a way, it’s own objectivity. It’s not about crafting a golden PR message, or rejecting criticism–it’s about focus. From the bathrooms, to peace and safety, to finance, to the GA–there are countless places to find things that are “wrong” with the occupation. And we should do these things. But what is the point of a laundry list of problems? Does the detailing and complaining of everything that is wrong translate into objectivity? These are not things that need to be “revealed” to the general public. We don’t need whistle-blowers, at least at this stage in the occupation. If something is wrong, believe me, people know about it. The whistle blown becomes noise, which distorts the picture. On the other hand, drawing the entire camp into focus, is the work that needs to be done. Problems in context reveal the shape and the motion of the occupation, whereas infinite zoom is dizzying.
I can’t believe, as the perennial curmudgeon, that I’m even making this argument that optimism is somehow more accurate than deep criticism. I guess what I feel is that at the occupation, criticism is something that is donated often, and in large quantities. What we don’t have is the context that makes criticism useful. When you see toilets that need cleaning, are those simply seen as gross? Or are they seen as the realistic effect of hundreds of people trying to live together in public space? When GA is frustrating, is it just frustrating? Or is that an emotional side effect of attempting to make a functional direct democracy? Are the challenges of the safety committee just “crime statistics”, or are they the problems of society, condensed in a microcosm? This is not just optimistic framing. It’s objectivity, defined through subjective contextualization of events.
And of course, this is hard to do well. It is all to easy to lapse into optimistic gloss, or fall the “other” direction (though dualism is hard here) into boring, content-less shill. It’s like walking a narrow fence between advertising propaganda and mindless drivel. It’s trying to tell deep stories, that interest people but can also problematize, without simply criticizing. But hey, if we weren’t experimenting, it wouldn’t be any fun.
So check us out. Even contribute, if you like. More notes will follow.
Occupy Portland continues to evolve, as the various committees find more “permanent” shelters and locations, and infrastructure acclimatizes itself to what endless street-siege really means.
There’s lots of thinks to discuss; far more than there is time to discuss them, as there are toilets to be cleaned, and over in Sanitation (where I seem to be finding my more regular home, except for today and tomorrow, which I am taking off) the compost is always piling up. But I want to devote a moment to a topic that keeps cropping up, about which I had a Twitter conversation this morning. That is: radical inclusivity facing off against exclusivity.
The conversation was prompted by this tale of a border-fascist group (the exact organization of which is disputed, but I feel comfortable calling what smells like it, it) showing up Occupy Phoenix, and how the confrontation went down.
The subject of the conversation that proceeded was whether or not the writer of the account took more time to berate allies than condemning the fascists, and whether this was an alienating, divisive act or not, of a kind that might splinter or fracture the growing occupation movement.
Setting aside the fact that the written account seemed to be aimed at confronting the movement itself after the fact for it’s lackluster response to fascism, whereas the actual confrontation with the fascists occurred at the event; I think this is a good cautionary tale not only for dealing with fascists, but also for dealing with a certain passive dynamic of human groups.
Note I’m saying “human groups”, not liberals, sheeple, or any degradatory term for any particular sub-culture of leftists I don’t happen to agree with. Because all of us feel the impetus for general peacefulness and calm in the face of any aggression (I hope). But, it is also appropriate to set passivity aside and raise ones voice at times. That’s the whole point of protest, after all.
I myself have encountered this necessity in Portland, thankfully not in the presence of armed paramilitaries, but to counter the force of what I’d call “passive exclusivity”, as opposed to the active kind that carried assault rifles.
Several motions have been raised both in the GA and other assemblies, proposing some form of “exclusivity”. Mostly, in terms of kicking out “certain elements” from the occupation camp. The term “riff raff” has actually been used. I think we all know what is being referred to here. There are people at the occupation who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with the look of some of their fellow occupiers. For the time being, we’ll just pretend this is an unfortunate, unconscious bias, and not read it as a symptom of any form of class or race antagonism, just because that’s not really the point of what I’m writing (though we should get into that at another time).
Often this exclusivity crops up in discussion of work. While working in the dish line the other night, a guy came up to us and thanked us for our hard work. Then, he preceded to tell us how we shouldn’t serve food to people who don’t volunteer. Regardless of the fact that I’ve never seen that individual doing anything around the camp, I am proud to say we working Sanitation at the time sent him away with an earful.
While it might seem, according to the sort of common sense logic that gives the 53% people a position of ego on which to stand, that “work ought to be a prerequisite for reward”, it is also the beginning of the capitalist exchange, the end point of which is class-based division of labor, and exuberant salaries based on the so-called “importance” of the work being done.
There is only one reason to work, in the Occupation camp, or elsewhere: that is because there are tasks to be done. And there are only tasks that support a single (though, admittedly loosely construed) goal: to make sure everyone is taken care of. The alternative is social Darwinism of a lethal kind. And as long as I work as part of the Occupation, it will be an occupation that includes everyone willing to take part, even if the way in which they take part is only showing up to be fed. When we say this is a leaderless movement, i hope we also mean this is a classless movement. There is no privileged working class above an unemployable class–there is only all of us, part of the same humanity.
To a lesser but no less real extent, I’m also seeing a similar exclusivity occurring between different committees, among individuals who haven’t fully grasped the radical class conception of the occupation. Last night a medic told me he didn’t have time to sort his committee’s garbage because “he had to get back to work.” I asked him what he thought we at Sanitation were busy doing, if it was not work? I obliged him with the favor of sorting his recycling, because he truly was in a hurry, but I think this language slip shows a sort of passive exclusivity, a division of thought that slips back in to our way of thinking, if we don’t unlearn what capitalism has taught us to believe as axiomatic truths, and take it upon ourselves to gently but vociferously correct our fellows when they slip up.
Another big way this exclusivity crops up at the Portland occupation is on the subject of “safety”. Last night a proposal was brought to the GA that would give the Safety Committee (a great, historically-aware name, no? It shouldn’t surprise that this committee is often mis-named as “Security Committee” in practice) the ability to escort people consuming drugs or alcohol out of camp. Safety is an issue at the Portland occupation; we’re fortunate enough to not have to deal with police on an hour-by-hour basis, but the flip side of this is that there have been aggressive incidents with individuals we’ve had to deal with ourselves.
However, the wording of the proposal makes it an easy way to roust undesired members of the community at the will of others. There are many people dealing with addiction that are enjoying the safe space of our camp. There are also those with disabilities who make look unpleasant to some, and speak as if intoxicated, but are productive members of the community. Any of these people might be kicked out of camp by this proposal at the whim of a more articulate person.
I offered an amendment to change the proposal to deal with the actual concern: violent, aggressive behavior by those who are intoxicated. I’m still uncomfortable that I had to offer this amendment. It seems obvious to me how a security procedure might be abused. And yet, the crafters of the proposal, as honest and concerned as their intentions may have been, were unconscious of the way this proposal might be used to segregate our community. (The GA ran out of time on this proposal, so it will be recrafted to accommodate my and others’ concerns, and offered to the GA anew.)
All of this is to make a point: sometimes it is easy to see those that would introduce oppression and exclusivity into a community, and other times it is not. But to keep a community inclusive, especially a community such as our that is building and rebuilding itself daily, it takes the radical step of confronting this exclusivity, regardless of the intention and the source. We need people to speak up and remind us of our privileges, and how they affect our self-governance. We need people to openly reject those who consider it “isn’t an important issue”, or pass it off as a potentially divisive issue. What is far more divisive than speaking to people displaying passive exclusivity openly and honestly, and defending our community against fascism is allowing it to sleep peacefully within our nascent movement.
We’ve made a start that is very inclusive. Part of our hard work will be keeping it so, as we grow.
There are many things that ought to be said about the Occupations that are not being said.
Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that there are many things about the Occupations that are being said; though, those I believe are most important are not being said within range of the human microphone. Neither the human microphone of the GA, nor the human microphone of the blogosphere, which sees generally agreeable sentiments by writers and thoughtful people echoed and rebounded off of this claimed, political public space, much like the one out there in the street.
If only it was so simple that what I mean is that I am the one with things to say that I’m not hearing said. Then I could compose an essay, yell it out to the world on my blog, and then wait to hear if there was any echo at all. But it is not just me, but many other people who are saying things under their breath, or only to their fellows in the dish washing line, or to a crowd of only fifteen or twenty half-interested people just waiting for their turn to speak. And I can’t speak for them. They can’t necessarily speak for themselves. They could speak at the GA, and many of them do–but the substance of what is said would necessarily change.
There is the sort of speaking one does when one is addressing a crowd, and there is the sort of speaking one does when one is cleaning a bathroom used by over 500 people. There is discussion, and there is consensus, and there are demands. And then there is work, and sweat, and fatigue. There is enabling of subaltern voices. And then there is un-thanked volunteerism.
There is no doubt in my mind that the latter is what makes a revolution. A protest is a raising of the voice, but a revolution is a made with the hands. And that is why Occupy Portland, the occupation in my hometown, is certainly a revolution. And this revolution is a revolution of problems.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about “direction”, both on the internet and off. It’s what I’ve pejoratively begun calling “directionalitarianism”. Everyone is “concerned” about the lack of direction in the “movement”. Well, yes. Lack of direction is all of our concern, and it is why we’re in the streets. We’re concerned about the lack of direction facing our generation, and people of the majority class. The direction we’ve proposed is occupation. You want to see coherent demands? Look at the occupation camp. That is the demand. The demand is to make something, by volunteerism alone, with only contributions: not loans, constituent-rights granting donations, share-holders, parties, or voting blocs. This is a revolution about problems. The problems are debt, corruption, exploitation, and so forth. As well as lazy hangers-on, co-opting political elements, the moralizing effect of “mainstream society” and its government and police force, personal addiction, mental health, the cold, the wet, and sheer fatigue from working so hard without tangible reward. The revolution is combating these problems ourselves, with nothing but what we have, and have together. This is the only direction we need, because it is what we are dealing with. And if you look at the people working, you can see this direction inside of each of their muscles. In each of these hard-working hands, is more phalanxes of bristling riot cops than any public budget could throw at us.
But enough of these words. Let me relate to you some of the things being said through hard work, and some of the problems being confronted by our revolution here in Portland. I won’t be able to speak these voices–you’ll have to go down to the camp yourself to see it. But I can at least show you a few pictures. And maybe, you can see the scope of the problem we’re facing, and how we might begin to tackle it.
Brief intro: the GA has empowered certain committees to work under their own guidance for certain goals. I’ll start my little tour with these committees, because they are the most obvious locations of work and progress at the camp, and also excellent starting points for anyone arriving at the camp, and wanting to know where to pitch in.
The kitchen is the biggest area of the camp. I estimate it serves at least one thousand meals a day, for free. Most of the contributions dropped off at the camp are food, and these are distributed, prepared, and served here. They kitchen staff are all registered Food Handlers in the state of Oregon (a requirement for any food service establishment) and they are following all best-practice regulations about serving, sterilization, and hand-washing, in the attempt to not attract the ire of authorities on the basis of a technicality. Dish washing is perhaps the easiest way to help at the occupation camp, as people are always jumping in and out of the line.
The kitchen is also probably the biggest area of interaction for the camp as well, because while there are many people who don’t go to the GA (more about that later), everyone shows up for food. I’ve heard some ire about this, and some grumbled suggestions of closing the kitchen to people not volunteering, but I’ve also heard this loudly rebuked. Right now, there is plenty of food, and I personally see no reason to not give food away for free.
Contributions needed: Food. Raw materials, sauces, and spices, especially.
Work needed: dishwashers, servers and cooks with valid food-handlers cards.
Sanitation is not sexy. But it is very important, and only recognized when it is not getting done. This is why I’m listing it second. Adjacent to the kitchen is the recycling sorting area, where recyclables and compost are sorted, and trash is bagged to be hauled out. Sanitation is also responsible for camp clean-up and bathrooms (there are public restrooms at either end of the park, and also two porta-potties, contributed from I don’t know where). They also seem to fill the water tanks at the fountain, when needed.
Last night, the one woman in charge of sanitation was very overwhelmed. She had just finished cleaning the bathroom at 11 PM, and then someone bitched at her about the state of the porta-potties. I could have yelled at that person complaining. I told the woman doing sanitation how I thought she was doing a great job, especially for doing an unwanted task that no one was volunteering for. She asked me if I wanted to help pick up trash, which I did :) I actually swept and sorted two bags of garbage yesterday, which felt really good, not least of which because as I bent down to pick up cigarette butts and soggy newspaper around the park, I got more “thanks” from other occupiers than even washing dishes during dinner time. In fact, right now I feel guilty that I’m sitting in a wifi cafe writing this essay, rather than being down there picking up trash. That is the first thing I’m going to do when I get down there is afternoon.
Contributions needed: trash bags, and large buckets. ALSO: help hauling out garbage, but I believe there is a separate transportation committee organizing volunteers for this.
Work needed: cleaning, gathering, sorting, hauling. Wear a pair of rubber gloves, and you’ll be fine. There is plenty of hand sanitizer around for you to use afterward.
The coffeshop is called “Rumors and Miss-Information Cafe”. And of course there is one, because it is Portland. There is plenty of coffee, but the main commodity needed right now is hot water. They were relying on donations of hot water from nearby restaurants, but are trying to rig up a system to boil water off-site. They have plenty of propane, but they don’t want to run afoul of regulations against open flames in the park.
Contributions needed: hot water, if you’re nearby. Maybe cold-brewed coffee?
Work needed: I’m sure you could speak to someone about helping with the off-site boiling process.
They have the coolest sign, are working on the most impressive projects, and are probably the sexiest committee, even though I did not see a single female working with them, and that should be fixed. These are the makers of the occupation. They’re working on solar panels, bicycle power generation (one is working, more on the way), and other energy needs. The kitchen is working all on electricity, I believe, and they’ve run generators and battery backups for media and info tents.
They’re also working on tarping the whole camp, and in places, organizing the tent city with “Burning Man like” spoke roads, to ease emergency access. This is actually a bigger challenge than power, because they aren’t laying out roads ahead of time, but trying to consensually organize a city already laid out, without telling anyone what to do. Also, it’s been raining heavily, so drainage is a problem. It’s been a mostly catch-up game so far, making sure tarps don’t collect water, and sweeping up flooded sidewalks as they occur.
I wanted to volunteer with Engineering initially, but I think what they really need, besides materials, is people with very strong technical know-how, perhaps already assembled into a small team. Plans are in the works for a common build-area, and a bike repair workshop (naturally).
Contributions needed: check the website for current needs regarding power generation, but they need gas, pallets, tarps, and rope. They also have an oxy torch, but no gas.
Work needed: strong technical knowledge, or strong technical will to see projects through despite challenges.
Another sexy committee. They have a nice little hut/yurt, with a growing library, organized, as they will tell you, according to the Dewey Decimal System. (Sexy!) Check out is free, of course. They also organize the sign-ups for teach-ins and lectures.
One of the most impressive aspects of this committee is that they are archiving the occupation. All the minutes of the GAs, notes taken by committees, letters, statements, handouts, photos, and anything else that is donated is being scanned. The scans are being stored digitally, and also printed and sorted into folders, so anyone can come into the library and peruse them. They are not currently available online, but I’m hoping to personally talk to them about at least setting up a Dropbox or something, so this is not lost.
Contributions needed: books and magazines, non-fiction especially. Fiction is good, but they’d rather have a more usable research library, and not just a dumping ground for old paperbacks. ALSO: bookshelves, and watertight containers for storing papers and books, folders, and other office-supply type stuff.
Work needed: People to sort and organize, and if you can offer printing services.
Info is the first stop for people looking to contribute and volunteer. They are also, apparently, where most complains are delivered. I think there’s obviously a good duality there. If you have a problem, you should probably volunteer.
Volunteering seems to be a little confused. There are several lists you can put your name on, and no indication that these really followed up. However, this is a good place to see what committees are needing, because they report daily on what they need to Info. Then, you can go to that individual committee’s members, and see about contributing directly (most have contact info on file at Info). For example, there is a dishwashing list and schedule at Info, that has some scattered email addresses, and lots of blank spaces. But, if you simply go over to the dishwashing station they will put you in line, or tell you they are good right now, but check back in ten minutes. Volunteering is more about initiative, than signing up.
Info also runs the Post service, which are basically runners going around and spreading info to the various committees, and bringing it back. They also seem to have a good supply of tarps, rope, and tape, which they are distributing.
Contributions needed: tarps, rope, tape. Especially duct tape. And markers, both permanent and whiteboard. They also take cash contributions here. (Not “donations” though. A tax thing.)
Work needed: If you want to work with them, ask. Or, tell them what you can do or contribute, and they’ll point you in the right direction.
I couldn’t get around to every committee yesterday, and things are evolving so fast I don’t feel comfortable detailing the status of every committee. But here is a list of other committees that exist, and you can probably guess what sort of stuff they need. Or, check the website, OccupyPdx.org, for latest requests. Or even better, go down and ask!
First-aid, etc. Medical training would be a great thing to contribute, as well as supplies. I know they are working on getting mental health facilitation up and running.
A new committee, launched yesterday.
From what I can tell, it’s one coordinator organizing people who can drive vehicles for pickups and deliveries. THEY VERY MUCH NEED VEHICLES AND DRIVERS! See Info booth to learn how to help.
They update the website (such that they can) and also include the video collective. They don’t speak for the occupation, but release statements in solidarity with the occupation. I know they very much need Mobile Data hotspots and modems.
- Police Liaison
Just one person, who is empowered by the GA to communicate with the police, reporting back to the GA on what the police have to say, though not to negotiate, make statements, or reveal information without the explicit approval of the GA. I imagine she might want a break, now and then, though only she personally was approved by the GA.
People who have volunteered to be on the front lines to observe and passively-resist (though I’m not sure that’s the properly approved terminology) in case of physical conflict with the police. Also, people trained to generally assist with in-camp safety. This means making sure no one is intoxicated or incapacitated, or suffering a health issue. I don’t believe they have any mandate to do anything though, other than offer advice, and notify medical if needed.
- Sexual Assault Working Group
Available for advice or consult. I know they need folks, especially those with training.
- Short Term Tactics
A brainstorming and proposal-crafting committee. All well and good, but I personally am of the opinion that Sanitation needs more volunteers. :)
- Long Term Goals
My comments are the same as above.
* * * * *
With so many people working so hard to craft this occupation from nothing, with almost no plan, frustration is inevitable. Many people have strong, differing opinions, of course. And when we’ve all been standing on our feet in the rain for three hours, trying to decide together whether or not we’ve been following the GA process that we’ve agreed upon, in order to make a serious decision that could decide the future direction of the occupation and could result in everyone’s arrest… well, you can imagine it’s a challenge to keep it civil. And then you get back into the center of camp from an only barely-satisfying GA, and see the same half-drunk guy banging on a bucket with sticks is still going, just as off-beat and un-syncopated as he was four hours ago, and suddenly you can feel that pounding inside your brain…
But this is what society is. This is what democracy looks like. What I’ve learned in the four and a half years since I left academia is that the democratic system, as advertised, is a sham. There is no honor or glamour in working for a minimum-wage, because there is no boot-strap to pull on in the vast majority of cases. The economic system treats all of us, the hard-workers and the layabouts, precisely the same. We’re expendable. We’re certainly not worth anything. And we’re all dumped in the streets together. So I say, let’s not reach for boot straps, but let’s reach for the lamp posts. Let’s rewire them, put in outlets and USB charge ports, and convert them to solar.
For my part, I’m going to contribute my hard-working efforts towards raising us all up, to build a new society from the street. There are enough of us to do it. And it doesn’t have to be the walled garden, the gated community that the so-called 53% strive to build. Because that is built from steel and cinder block. The architecture of safety and security is the architecture of a prison. I look around myself, and I am in the streets. So the streets will be the model for my home and society. And the streets are crowded with people.
So let the problems rain down, both literally, in terms of the weather and mud, and figuratively. As I tweeted earlier this week, I’m not intimidated by much. This generation watches Al Jazeera. This revolution will be a revolution of solving problems. And if that is a problem for anyone, then they can either take it to the GA, or it can become a problem for them.
The water fountain in Chapman Park. While some doubt the usefulness of the Portland Water Works’ constantly bubbling fountains, this one is now primary water source to a city of 1000 people.
The first priority near term goal of the Portland Occupation has been achieved. The police have said there will be no arrests or harassment as long as the occupation can share the space with the marathon to everyone’s satisfaction. As of 11 AM last night, it appeared there was consensus to do so, and the police have been true to their word, with no arrests at the encampment, although there was one incident off-site in which two people were arrested for graffiti. The first priority of any occupation–the defense of the space–has been achieved.
Of course, this presents the next short-to-medium term problem: what’s next? This is an occupation without firm demands, but still, a community must have goals. Dealing with imminent issues of a threat towards it’s existence is a good rally point for a community, but after that’s been secured, what will continue to define the space and people?
The occupation swelled on friday night, and there is hardly room for more tents. The occupation needs room to grow, and proposals for off-shoot locations or new locations were being suggested in the GA. While long-term goals might not yet be on the table, this is an occupation that is going somewhere, or evolving into something. It would behoove us all to look ahead. Many detractors use the lack of forward plans as a criticism. I don’t think a roadmap to anything is necessary; but all the same, we should be sure our driving skills are up to the challenge.
In a tweet earlier today, Alexis Madrigal suggested (apologies for no link, but I’m blogging by phone again) that a leaderless, consensus movement would not look strange to anyone familiar with open-source tech. I think there is such a relationship. There is something of “Maker-dom” here, and perhaps that is the key.
It’s already there, of course, in the craftspersonship that anyone clever can display on a camping trip when the wind starts to blow the tarp away, or when your trying to cook dinner even though you forgot to buy several items. Both those examples are in fact occurring at the occupation. And for those who are taking part in the consensus groups, there is certainly a volunteer spirit in play.
But I think we need to dig deeper. The occupation needs projects. Something needs to be built. The crazy suggestion, “let’s build a giant airship!” keeps coming back to me. I think everyone could agree that a protest airship would be awesome, just as everyone would agree that it would be near impossible. Where would we get helium? We would would face opposition not just from the police, but from the FAA. There would be a serious risk of people getting hurt. And what if the Oregon Tea Party deploys anti-aircraft gun batteries?
I don’t like the idea because it is “just so crazy”, and because I think the occupation should “aim for the moon and hit the stars.”. I like it because people built airships a hundred years ago, and they did it without computers. People build their own drones now, and control them with their cell phones. People build amazing things, just for fun. We can and do amazing things all day long. The question is, how do these amazing things become not just amazing, but part of the occupation?
I hope that the occupation transforms into a Maker Fair, but one without a permit or venue, that never ends. I hope we build amazing shit. Protester in Iceland are rewriting their constitution. Clearly we can do something as big, or bigger. What if your hobby was not only fun, but built a city? This is what we have the opportunity to do now Occupy Portland has the initiative now, of all the occupations in this country. What are we going to do with it?
Update: as of about 10:20 PM when I left, consensus had been reached to continue to occupy and hold at least one block of the park, despite the 9AM deadline to vacate. We’ll see what happens tomorrow morning.
I’m writing this on my phone from the park, where fifty yards away a consensus group is in process to decide whether or not the occupation will move tomorrow morning to let the marathon use the park. I think this represents the non-permanent, transitory nature of this whole process pretty well.
Until there is a decision or other hard information about what might happen tomorrow morning at the police deadline of 9 AM, let me share some of my other thoughts from the day.
Today was the largest protest event I’ve seen in Portland. Also the most diverse age range. A lot of “middle age” folks, not the typical 20-somethings and older folks you see at protests here. A lot of people in their thirties and forties. Now, at night, the more typical younger folks remain, but seeing this large range of ages really made me think something might be different about this protest.
However, some things are the same. The “organizers”, even though there aren’t supposed to be organizers, are college-aged activist sorts, the kind of people who are ready to speak up. Certain people will naturally “take the mic”, and these sorts are doing so. There is some effort to allow “anyone” to speak, but mostly it is the usual suspects.
And I think these usual suspects could use a major dose of “drink some water” type Burning Man lessening of intensity. No one is being tear gassed yet, so we can all take a breath and maybe say please and thank you.
The march was a major show of solidarity, but how this will evolve into an occupation remains to be seen. Although this is billed as a protest for everyone, it is and it isn’t. Many people are here, but they are mostly pursuing the same goals they would otherwise being pursuing, across a spectrum of issues and stances, with a wide range of tactics and strategies. I don’t think this occupation needs unity per se, but it needs a program. Whether goal oriented, wild and erratic, situationist, or all of these, programmatic tasks need to be proposed. We need to build something. Play a game. Otherwise, this is just the same drifting we were doing last month in different places, now just in the same place. We need to do something with the space that we’ve defined and occupied. We need to figure out what makes this public space public. Some sort of human architecture should be designed here. The consensus process shows some process–I’m pretty impressed and think it has potential. I hope that after we conquer the short term goal of tomorrow, we can get some more short and medium term goals going.
Let’s not just storm the castle. Let’s build one. That’s inside out, has baba yaga legs, and flies.
oh, and my experiment kind of worked. I met some people, one of whom I’d actually had prior Internet contact with. His name is Ben (hi Ben, if you’re reading this!) and he wore an excellent mask. Hopefully when I get my mobile Internet kinks worked out (major signal, battery, and data plan SNAFUs today) I’ll find some other virtual friends in physical space.
As part of my Burning Man reflections, I did a bit of thinking about what “art is”. Or, perhaps said better, is how it might work.
I actually did not realize the significance of a couple of sentences that I had written on that subject, until they were quoted back to me (thanks, Matthews Battles!). Here they are:
The purpose of Burning Man is to entertain. The art is low on poignant meaning, high on effort converted into wow-factor. But through that expression of entertainment is channeled an incredible amount of material, human resource, and hard work.
With these words still in my head last week, I went to see some of the events and installations of the Time Based Arts festival (TBA) here in Portland. Now, I always talk a lot of shit about TBA. Mostly because it provides me, as an artist, with that every so delicious opportunity to complain about his/her own art scene. And additionally, as the artists receive compensation for their work at TBA, it gives this non-paid artist another vector for being bitter, along a more materialist critique.
But with playa dust still coming out of my hair, TBA seemed even more asinine this year than ever before. It is not about the scope of the artwork. That there were no forty-foot tall burning structures or flame-belching vehicles meant that the work at TBA is of course going to be judged according to a different venue. But it was the attention of the artists to their art, or the lack thereof, that really stood out to me.
This is something that as an artist, or a person who builds or makes anything, can immediately see. It is as inimical to the work as the material out of which it is made. Once upon a time, we might have called it “workmanship”. Today it might be abbreviated as “good design”. I might describe it as the part of the worker that is abstracted into the work; and even this is a bit too materialist-philosophically esoteric to use as a description.
Instead, I would merely call it “quality”. Quality is something that can immediately be apprehended in viewing an object. It is something difficult to fake. In talking about this on Twitter Ella Dymaxion, playing the devil’s advocate, suggested that quality might just be a measure of privilege, “quantified by the amount of time one has had to devote to past art.” I think this gets at the point of quality, but specifically differentiating it from “skill”. We might have seemingly innate skills, or skills learned through excellent training, either acquired by luck, by privilege, or by hard work. “Quality” is limited to the particular work in question, and is only used as a stand-in for “skill” when the word is used to refer to something more general, such as the oeuvre of an artist, or an entire venue or thematic category of work.
There may be a threshold of skill that makes quality much easier to achieve. Or, some of the privilege representative in skill might constrain the sorts of mediums in which quality might reasonably be achieved by a particular person. However, the true factor in quality is effort. Whether it is a small drawing that took a few minutes, or a life long work, was the effort put into that thing, in creating it, sufficient to make quality apparent? Subjectivity will determine the response, but each subject should be able to easily make this determination.
My point in arguing this out is not to establish a new aesthetic criteria. I believe notice of quality already exists in our apprehension of artwork, mostly in terms of the negative. It isn’t so much that we stand in front of artwork and say to ourselves, “yes, this has quality, and I notice by this-and-this-and-these features.” It is that we stand in front of it, and say, “boy, but was that a waste of materials and everyone’s time.” Work lacking in quality is missing something. We’re looking for something expressed to us that means this is why we have all taken the time.
The work at TBA is largely of the sort that seeks, either explicitly (by the artist’s statement) or implicitly (by “taking part” in a genre or medium, as it were), to transmit meaning. The artists’ statements are designed to imply that the art itself is a statement. The work at Burning Man is the sort that does not imply a meaning, or if so, with a very light touch. The focus, overall, is on the apprehension, and hence, there is more of an opportunity for quality to come through in the immediate viewing of the work, rather than having to read a statement in order to “get it”.
But in addition to this difference lending Burning Man art to have its quality more easily observed than the work at TBA, I think this framework provides a better venue for aligning the artists towards finding quality in their work. I had an endemic sense at TBA that the work itself was “written off”, so to speak, in favor of the artist statement. As if it didn’t matter what sort of shit was slapped together, if it could be justified as quality in the statement.
I’ve heard the statement before that “art doesn’t justify bad craft”: meaning that you cannot use art to justify mistakes you made. You know there are mistakes. The viewer knows. There are always mistakes in work. But saying “those mistakes are supposed to be there” insults not only our intelligence as people who make things, as well as demeaning our notions of quality that art is supposed to invoke. We know better. We know when materials have been wasted, and when something could have been done better. A lack of quality, quite simply, cannot be justified as artistic. And that is the difference between quality and a lack of it.
I think that statement extends to saying that “meaning identified as artistic doesn’t justify bad craft”. I often complain about “gimmicky” artwork, seeking a popular appeal by easy, spine-jerking vectors. But at least a gimmick, well-executed, doesn’t leave the viewer with a sense of being cheated somehow. It doesn’t leave a taste in the mouth of ruined materials. It doesn’t give one an overwhelming urge to go recycle something. It may be cheap, but at least it does what it says on the box. There are quality gimmicks, and then there are voids of quality. At TBA, I noticed the latter, in hordes.
I told myself on starting to write this little essay, that I wouldn’t target any particular works I thought were lacking quality. But there was one so egregious, one so paramount of what I’m trying to convey, that I can’t help myself. Let me just say this: if you do a piece of work that, through repetition, attempts to represent a particular amount of “otherwise uncounted numbers of war dead”, and then put your work on display WITHOUT FINISHING THE TOTAL NUMBER OF THE REPRESENTATION, you are telling me that either those hundreds of thousands of dead that you did not finish representing are meaningless, or that your entire concept is. This example was particularly awful, because through its poor quality it negated a purportedly ethical meaning. But the general point is illustrated: just because you say the work means something, you cannot expect that it will. And quality is the brick from which you are going to build anything, meaningful or otherwise. You can say a wall will keep out the mongol hordes. But unless that wall is built from brick, it’s not going to do shit. And once you have a built a wall so high and so long, you don’t need to say anything. Because a real wall will be a wall without anyone having to say a thing.
What is the point of all this?
The point is that it is incredibly easy to develop stand-ins for the worth we all implicitly know and respect in work of any kind. It is easy to excuse a lack of quality for sake of art, entertainment, political meaning, wow-factor, or money. There aren’t many absolute rationales for anything in the world anymore. Even quality, despite all my talk of its almost sui generis qualities (and no it’s not, but it might sound like it is) is nothing like an absolute force in the world. And so, why not make a little money? Why not take a political cheap shot, or go after a gimmick rather than put in the time?
Yeah, that’s a good question. But I think the thing about quality is, we already know the answer to that. We just need to remember to speak up and say so, rather than take the easier way out.
The social network users seek control. What kind of control do they want? Identity control.
Google+ and Facebook have replied to them: we all will have the same identity control, and that is our one, true, real life identity. How could we have any better identity than that? How else could control be maintained? You users are egoists if you demand for yourselves, as users, any additional control than that. As users, that is the only control you should hope for: for your single, true identity, to control it as you see fit.
Chaos has ensued. Threats have been made, manifestos have been written. “Authoritarianism” has been charged, even though we’re only talking about social networks. The same networks that were the budding platforms of democracy earlier this year are now the means of our enslavement. It makes some sense, doesn’t it? Something as powerful as these new communications tools. Something so paranoia-inducing as large media corporations. Something so vital to us as our identity, our privacy, our ability to speak as we will, and to be online citizens.
And yet, this is all brand new. Services that didn’t exist ten years ago. Corporations that didn’t exist that long ago. Identity and privacy are older concepts–but I’m sure we can all agree that the very definitions of these have changed. We now have words like “online citizen”. “Digital sociality”. “Cyborg humanism”? Whatever you want to call it, it’s never existed before. Something has been born. And now, these soft bones, this fuzzy eyesight, and a tongue of that struggles over its own name are hindrances to this infant’s chance at growing into a real life. It’s a cold world out there. There are many threats, and there is certainly something to lose.
The problem is, I don’t believe we quite know what we’re talking about. Not yet. We have the sense that something is wrong, and it is. But we’re stumbling for the tools and the technique to describe what is at stake, and we’re blundering all over the place. We’re fighting about names. And while there is no good reason pseudonyms should not be allowed on social networks (we’ll just put that one to bed right now), there is also no good reason that pseudonyms are the front for this conflict. The problem is bigger than merely a name. It is a question of identity: of, very literally, personhood. This is about what makes a person, and this will only become a problem with a more vital terrain in the future. Sooner or later, the problem is going to be a lot more confusing that what we so adorably decide to name ourselves.
Identity has actually been more complicated for awhile now, but we’ve been able to ignore it. Most of us easily accept the personhood that is assigned to us by society, and have no problem accepting that we are what our legal name describes us as. A particular sex, a particular age, legal resident of a particular country, allowed certain rights of unifying with another individual of certain other classifications that we suppose are amenable with the categories we seek, and so many of us live with it. We accept the label, and each of us is a happy, healthy, voting, civil-right-enjoying, whatever-you-are. We look on those unlucky to fall outside or in between these categories as anomalies, and either make them their own category with special–maybe limited, maybe increased privileges–or we ignore them and pretend they don’t really exist.
This has been happening since, well, at least since the mid 19th Century. Perhaps earlier, but the 19th Century was the first time society felt the need to logically justify its decisions about personhood, and didn’t just get busy carving out true humans from peasant-meat with swords and scythes. At that watershed moment in history, nations were beginning to define themselves as sovereign states, and with them, citizens were beginning to be defined. Laws began to define both of those concepts. And as with any process of trying to reach a perfect definition, exceptions began to appear, making uncomfortable questions for those doing the dirty pen work.
One Karl Marx wrote a little essay on one of these questions, called, to the point, “On The Jewish Question”. To set the stage: the nature of the Jewish Question at hand was how to answer the demands of population who sought to live exempt from the Christian state, on the basis of their religious difference. A tough question to be sure, as the matter was not just about freedom of religion, but about the question of what a person is primarily: a citizen, or his/her religion? Which trumps the other in terms of identity, and which shall we recognize as being more important? If we acknowledge a religious identity is more important than being a citizen, than a religion that seeks to live outside of the bounds of the state has free reign to leave the power of the state at will. But if being a citizen is more important, then religious identities that disagree with the terms of the state must be suborned beneath that sovereign power.
The solution was that the state must cease to be a religious entity. By emancipating itself from religion, the state can consider every person an equal citizen under the law, while the citizens can continue to believe as their conscience dictates. This concept is what we currently find in the US Bill of Rights, and the basis of many other countries founding principles.
However, what this does is create two different identities for a person. There is the political identity, in which everyone is treated fairly and freely, given the respect and the protection of the law; and there is the personal life, in which one is allowed to harbor intolerance and prejudices. Or considered with the pejorative voice reversed, there is The Citizen, which is an ideal, universal, illusory person that is an utopian figment; and there is the everyday person, with the freedom to think and believe whatever one desires. Either way, there is a schism. Whereas previously religious believers sought to divide sovereign power between their different belief groups, now each person is divided down the middle between the religious/private, and the sovereign/public.
The inherent contradiction between these two split identities is that no person is so separate. One desires citizenship in order to protect the freedoms of one’s private life, and one’s private life ought to be so free that one could live as one wishes without adhering to another’s rule. As if it could be so simple as such a Catch-22: when the truth is that public and private are no more than the two colors which we use to color a range of twisted, half-enclosed spaces, stairwells, and rooftops in a twisted, MC Escher-designed house of relations between ourselves and others around us. What is public/private, when we can only talk about politics in the company of loved ones? What is public/private, when we talk about sex in public, and think about fucking celebrities in the privacy of our own homes? What is public/private, when we are willing to confess our dreams on TV, but avoid telling our friends what we really think of them? We imagine that there are two people at war within us, one with either priority. But simply isn’t true, any more that the human sexes stem from a original hermaphroditic species, combined of man and woman. The human being is a chaotic whole, even if our sexualities, citizenships, free wills, and other identities are a stratified, twisted, mess of rhizomatic knot.
But belief in this division remains to the current day. The liberal strategy is that compromise between the two is possible. Call it a social contract, the difference between the home and the agora, or simply one of many great democratic compromises: all are fiction. The conservative strategy is to exploit one identity for the other, and taking turns, promoting one at the other’s expense as is expedient to the time. The fact that we still have holdouts from both political strategies defending ground on either sides of the public and the private, privileging either the superiority of the public, politically equal citizen, or the private, personally liberated individual, proves that it is not compromise that we’ve found, but a permanent state of conflict between the two.
Right in the middle of this state of conflict is where we’ve landed, so many years on from The Declaration of the Rights of Man. Both sides of the debate about the Identity Question are attempting to argue for one of these identities. The True Name faction believes that social networks ought to be part of the public sphere, in which one represents oneself as Citizen, with the rights and responsibilities therein, and as their reward for joining this republic, gain some control over their privacy. The Pseudonym faction, on the other hand, believes that social networks ought to be completely at the mercy of the individual, so they might live out their personal fantasies with no one to stand in the way–and if this means trolls have to be hunted and slayed by the local militia, than so be it.
We might abandon the problem here, just as we’ve abandoned the United States to the endless conflict between liberal and conservative, and just cross our fingers that while no end is in sight, perhaps it might not get any worse. I’m here to tell you that it will get worse. But, I’m also going to tell you why. And in that, perhaps is some hope.
Because we’ve been so busy balancing this distinction in our minds, accusing the other party of atrocities and inhumanities, and generally forgetting which side we are on in any particular instance so that we have to start over and load up the crooked balance beam once again, we haven’t noticed what is changing despite all of this staying-the-same. Why was it, after all, that the Jewish Question arose in the 19th Century for the first time? It was because of the sovereign political states that suddenly made citizenship a thing, so that might become an ”issue”. And why were there all these new states with citizens, rather than thrones, nobles, and a small landowning class as there had been previously? That is a lot of history, but generally the reason is that suddenly the citizens had a little bit of power that they had not had before, and it had to be safeguarded and controlled properly. With all of these property owners running around, courts were necessary to control and organize them. So they needed laws, and rights to go to court with. To administer all this, and to collect taxes of course, is the responsibility of The State. Basically, our notion of the private individual is all that is left over from the chaos of the anarchic lower-classes during feudalism. When we had nothing, we were free to do whatever we wanted with that nothing, not having anything but a little alcohol and maybe a farm tool or two with which to cause trouble. But when there was something, things got real very quickly. All of those possessions, and the willfulness with which one would use and fight for his/her possessions, had to be controlled. So it has been legislated, incorporated, mandated, and interpolated into a giant mechanism of public power to keep everything running as smooth as possible, or at least not spinning apart. After all of that, only a bit of freedom remains, that hopefully won’t let us get into too much trouble.
If we simplify a bit by calling all of these new means and mechanisms that must be organized and controlled “society”, we can see that society has grown even more complex since that time, and at a quickening pace as well. In addition to The State, other forms of order step in to help organize society. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that consumerism helps out. What would we do with all of our money if we couldn’t spend it on stuff? Why would we work if not to earn that money? A steady cycle of consumption smooths everything out. Culture, which we might define as the general artistic product of society, is a feature of consumerism. We produce odds and ends of Culture to keep ourselves mentally invested. And this cultural product reinforces our ideas about the many systems, and our roles within it.
But suddenly, we are at a new watershed moment. An invention that was first a bit of the sovereign state, then a small, odd facet of culture, and then a sub-domain of consumerism, is mutating yet again. The Internet. This odd thing-defying in small, strange ways the old logic of how things are made, socialized, consumed, and therein, controlled–is becoming a system by which we express a new, odd sort of anarchic freedom: and for many of us, it is the primary means by which we do so. All signs point to this pattern continuing, if not accelerating.
So much so that the Internet now serves to destabilize sovereign states. The State had universalized the Citizen, and frozen part of our identities off into the public self. Now the Internet is making the remainder, that anarchic private self, run absolutely wild. So wild, that it doesn’t even care about the olf public self anymore. What good is our citizenship when our governments don’t protect us anymore, stand in the way of the innovation that does help us, and turn its back on that “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” promise? Many of us are more citizens of the Internet than any particular country or town. We might have once been called the domain of the private self, is now taking over for the public self, and becoming much larger, more rowdy, and with more resources within its reach.
The private self now has able opportunity to express itself, and the amazing part is, that the anarchy of it is actually self-regulating. One can be openly gay online, while being so at work would cause trouble, as there are communities online that support and protect such private lives. One might brush shoulders with people whose skin color you never know–and so racial identity is complicated at the same time as it is made less important. There is solidarity between people without any sort of “real” neighborly trust being established, simply because one pledges oneself to the same general good. All the boundaries, those secular divisions of our private life that we used to protect and pile high like the walls of a levy, are now washing down, flowing outward into massive, divergent deltas. We now have identities that we never knew of before, because we have the freedom to discover that they exist. New sexual fetishes, hobbies, business opportunities, and political ideas are spun off, spread, diluted, and then recombined daily. Over the vast span of human culture, we are not just able to keep it all in control. It may be that we are more in control of ourselves than we’ve ever been before–even as anarchy reigns.
But what is it that we are controlling? Here we arrive back at the original problem. We’re not in an electronic world of free love just yet. We need to control our own identities, just as we need to police ourselves and others. Responsibility is primary to this sort of techno-anarchy, and we’re finding this out through this new pattern’s failures just as much as we are encouraged by its successes. But, when we seek to maintain some purchase on the controls of our identity, we fall back into the same old cycles as before such a system existed. Half of us are trying to maintain a public self as citizen, and the other half of us are trying to maintain a private self as individual. And then we switch back and forth, depending on what service we are using, what username we’re logged in with, and what fetish discussion group we are currently administering.
The truth, as the Internet is showing us, is that neither “public” nor “private” will serve as the model for our new, distributed, networked selves. Things are far too complicated now. We can’t pretend to compromise any longer. The services through which we constitute our society and produce our culture are too complex. The range of our personalities is too wide. We know too many people on the borderlines, for whom a lack of the means to compromise is not just a theoretical difficulty, but a threat to their existence. And with little else in the way of “society” left, defending the old roles for any one person to fall back to, there is simply too much at stake.
We need to begin accepting Distributed Personhood now. And what’s more, we need to begin defending Distributed Personhood, and providing solidarity with and amongst other Distributed Personhoods. Unfortunately, this only barely begins with one’s choice of name. DP is less the title at the top of one’s shares, than the frequency and length of one’s shares. DP is the social graph, but also the means by which one builds one’s social graph. It is less the username, and more the UX. It is not the rules that a particular social network decides its users must follow, but the rules by which you decide which social networks you will use, when, and why. We are changing the rules of how we interact with each other as a species, and as such, we must change the rules of how we identify ourselves, as members of the species. Distributed Personhood is this new pattern of identity.
DP is the network itself, insofar as we are using it and continue to use it. It is the ability to outsource one’s identity, to send one’s attention around the world and back, and to work together with someone you will never meet to produce something that will change both your lives. It is the ongoing construction and demolition of the physical technology necessary to make all of this happen. This is a sort of identity for which “form and content” barely even scratches the surface. There is no mind-body dualism here. The elements of society and culture that light up as you network with them are the only constituent pieces of the whole that is you.
The power of a fake name is really no more than the power of a real name. Both of these are erroding fast. A pseudonym does not benevolently grant us individual freedom, any more than any governments’ declaration of rights guarantees justice under the law. Clinging to “public” and “private” to identify, protect, and advance ourselves is like sending thousands of telegrams, desperately hoping that the more we use them, the more someone will be still listening on the other end. If we look at the tools we are already using in front of us, we know that things have changed too far to go back. There are other powers at play here, that will not defend the public, the private, or anything else that benefits us, and it is time we stood up to deal with them. It is time that we, human beings with personalities so distributed, stood up and recognized the amazing power that we have.
Had a dream, or maybe it was one of those odd thoughts that float in during insomnia, the other night about a spectrum system for so-called “blue sky” thinking.
“Blue sky” thinking is basically optimism. Thinking about technology or strategic solutions for their most positive benefits, rather than their negative effects. Those who speculate about the future often are “guilty” of blue skying at one point or another, and in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as it can be countered with healthy skepticism at times. If we’re going to try new things, I imagine that we would end up talking about them positively at some point, if we’d like to convince others to join us in the trial.
My insomniac thought was that while we often caveat our ideas or words with the fact that they are at times unabashedly “blue sky”, perhaps we can work some more definition into that admission, to better set up a context of exactly why we’re speaking about something positively, what we might be glossing over by removing ourselves from skepticism for a moment, and what the next critical step is after we get excited.
The idea borrows from the “Green” spectrum popular in discussing environmental thought: light green, dark green, etc. Spectrum-ization is itself perhaps a little bit of a simplicity; obviously much more nuance goes into our thinking about our thinking, than a little bit of left/right compare/contrast. But this is a start.
So here we go:
Talking about devices or strategies that have very useful functions, but their engineering and development is not quite all the way there yet.
Example: electric cars have a near-zero carbon footprint, but their price and lack of a charging infrastructure means they don’t suit the US market quite yet.
Talking about devices or strategies that are fully developed, but their functional value is contextually limited.
Example: ebooks readers are pretty slick. But in the end, it’s just a book that uses up batteries.
Design-fiction in the classic sense. (Are we at a point where there is classic design-fiction?) Devices or strategies that haven’t been developed, so much as theorized. Therefore, their functional pros and cons in actual use are hard to determine, because the theory only defines such pros and cons as it can conceptually invent on the level of that theory. An important distinction is to separate the theory from any actual development, at least on the level of discussing it.
Example: a world full of flying cars has a number of foreseeable pros and cons. Pro: we get everywhere fast, and flying is awesome. Con: collisions would be brutal. (And note that these are separate from the obvious negative that building a flying car is currently technologically difficult.) But once such a world came into existence, there would no doubt be hundreds of other issues that we can’t currently foresee. When American Car Culture was in its height, carbon emissions weren’t on anyone’s radar. No one knew that was even a “thing”. What will Flying Car Culture bring to the fore? What will be the effect on weather? On bird migration? Even if we think open-mindedly, we can’t foresee every potential eventuality. Hence, Translucent Blue Sky thinking.
Talking about existing devices or strategies that have been in the world for so long, their complete functional potential has been channeled into a rut. The systemic pathway is so embedded in our culture, that we’ve erected blinders to the full extent of their potential worth. One might argue that if we only looked at an old idea in a new way, it could be better than a new idea.
Example: Hard to pick an example, because it’s tough to determine what we are under-utilizing. Perhaps the electric car works here as well. We have certain ideas about why electric cars “don’t work”, or what their cons are. Perhaps, however, it is just that we are so set in our notions of how electric cars should work and how they fail, that we’re not able to see the situations in which they would be perfect.
* * * * *
What all of these designations get at is the various ways our positive thinking conceive of the relative use-value of a particular thing, and how this translates into an exchange-value for the idea. When we’re thinking about our ideas themselves, these ideas (separate from the actual things the ideas describe) seem more or less valuable because of how they are depicted. It’s worthwhile to remember that when we judge an idea, we are not just judging what the idea describes, but how the idea itself is presented. Why I think these different spectra for thinking about how we think about our ideas could be important, is that they keep that separation between the idea and the thing it describes in focus. In the same way we give a caveat about thinking positively (e.g. “just a little blue sky spitballing here, but…”) so that we can judge the pros and cons of the idea in context, we can also set up a context of the relationship between use-value and exchange-value of our ideas. (e.g. “I know X has some hurdles to cross, but…” “I know that in the big picture X is relatively not very important, but…” “I know we all know X is a complete fiction at this point, but…” “I know we have some established flaws to idea X, but…)
Of course, muddling around in trying to say exactly what we’re saying while we’re saying it can be confusing or distracting. Sometimes it’s better to just spit it out, or better yet, stop talking about it and just start trying things.
But you have to think about something when you’re trying to sleep, right? :)
Back “home”, if you want to call it that, after probably one of the most enlightening and invigorating trips in a long time. I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with China, but I did fall in love with the sense of de-centering, the uncanny cultural forces cathecting in and out of everything around me, the juxtaposition of one’s culture with another that cannot be duplicated or simulated in anyway, and at the same time, the world-embracing sense of human species-hood that comes from stepping outside of one’s comfort barrier, and landing on one’s feet. I was reminded that travelling can be one of the hardest and most expensive things to do, but it can also be rewarding to the point at which it is absolutely necessary for an intelligent human being to do, at least in some degree. The rut of routine is the demon of society. Without experiencing difference of some kind, we retreat to the worst of human habits and short-circuited urges that our id can find within itself, with which it occupies the mind, praying to the brute god of undifferentiated sameness.
A good month, to cut all the It’s a Small World, Cosmopolitan crap. And now it’s the busiest August ever, with quite a lot planned for POSZU.
After I decompress and sort everything I noted, photographed, and thought about over the last month, I should have about four good posts here. There are also the things that don’t involve China directly that I’ve thought about, that I need to get on.
So no more introduction than that. Let’s stop messing around and get busy.
The hutongs of Beijing are an architectural phenomenon that is quickly dying. In a heavily populated city like Beijing, land, especially uninterrupted spans of land, are the ultimate natural resource. And while hutongs have existed for centuries in their environment, a new rival for the resource has come about: the urban planner. Beijing’s urban planners are making quick work of the hutongs, and by most accounts, they will be gone for good in a short number of years.
The difference between planned urban spaces and unplanned urban spaces, those that are spontaneously created by the total of intangible characteristics we might call “the city itself”, is similar to the difference between a nation and its territory. We like to think, as creatures of rational action, that we control our social terrain as if it were a part of our body. It would be easy to consider the relationship between political discourse and physical reality as a monadic, Enlightenment-era style cogito. However, this is not the truth. The map is not the territory, as the saying goes, and the map makers are even less the terrain, and those who seek to affect the map makers by their will alone a level removed again. The project of planning urban space is fundamentally a colonial one: it seeks to change reality to its benefit by flags and force. While it may succeed, the negative repercussions are legend. Alternatively, there is another urban strategy, that rather than attempting to deliminate the territory into design, finds its method of improvement in a more ecosystemic fashion. Rather than plan the urban space, support the space. In studying “the city itself”, we see that many of the issues that urban planning seeks to change have already been solved, albeit in limited and insecure fashion. The city system already trends towards stability, the key is in finding those trends, and supporting and securing them. As can be seen in the hutong, infrastructure is largely already existent. Rather than tearing them down and building new, supporting and solidifying these systems could be much more practical, as it utilizes the naturally occurring solutions that are already attempting to grow. Urban planning might achieve certain milestones and technical guidelines of improvement quickly, but the unnaturalness of these constructions within the city ecosystem is obvious. The natural aesthetic of “the city itself” is one it achieves by a steady, evolutionary praxis of effective use-value in every day life, and it would be unwise to ignore the method behind these urban strategies. To ignore them, in effect, is to cut down a tree to build and install a wooden sun shade in the same place.
The hutong is basically an alleyway. It is the passage between more major streets, lined with doorways that enter into walled private homes. It is the passage that is created when walled properties leave space between their walls, so that others may pass without entering the private space inside. In Beijing, these alleys become such a crucial urban feature because they are not merely an alternate passage around property, as in the “back alley” feature of North American or European architecture that is a supplement to the main road access, but the only means to access the majority of properties. The hutongs form a web of thin yet densely occurring access routes, a sort of capillary bed to the main veins of roads that are often hundreds of meters off from one’s front door. These main avenues are then perhaps as much of a kilometer from each other, creating thick blocks in between, which are crisscrossed by hutongs. One doesn’t walk through the hutong as an alternative or a short cut across a block, but one must walk through the hutong always, whether one steps out of one’s front door, whether one wants to go to the store, or one wants to go all the way across town.
Perhaps because of the simple ubiquity of these passageways in conjunction with the basic neighborhood building style in Beijing, the hutongs are local centers of street life. As a combination of what someone in North America might think of as the sidewalk or the front yard, the street block, and the local corner, almost every conceivable neighborhood activity takes place in the hutong.
While there are many shops and restaurants on the main avenues, these also exist in the hutongs, extending inward as a convenience to the customers coming from the hutongs, and to take advantage of this locality. These hutong businesses are much smaller in size, often run out of the front of the proprietor’s homes, and extending out into the alleyway to use the space, if available. Not every variety of business is present in the hutong, but the nature of these shops are characteristic of what one might expect to be local and close to people’s physical homes, most catering to home life needs and small, short term purchases. These include restaurants, convenience stores, hardware stores, barbershops, bicycle repair, “dollar” stores (actually, 2 yuan is the price), and even clothing and appliance stores. In some areas, upscale coffee shops, bookstores, and other more luxury goods like electronics are also sold within the hutongs.
Because of the necessity for being out and about in the hutong, either traveling to and from the home or shopping, if not running a business, the hutong becomes a common hangout, and a unique form of public social space, as the overlap between public and private architecture. The proprietors and their friends often have established sitting places outside their businesses, chatting when not serving customers, drinking tea or beer, and smoking cigarettes. It’s common for social games to be played in these resting places, either cards or chess. Children play in the hutong as well, where they are supervised loosely by either particular adults or the general community.
In fact, hutongs are crowded places, as they are also thoroughfares for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and more often, cars as well, when their owners drive back into the hutong to park their cars at night. But, because of the crowdedness, the narrowness of the streets and the large number of protruding bits of architecture, parked vehicles, and people, the traffic speed is slow, and most blockages are resolved vocally and amicably—which seems to be in the nature of China, which is itself a crowded place.
The infrastructure of the city extends into the hutongs along with the traffic, as there is no other supply route. Water, food, and anything sold in the shops must be carried in to the hutong, most often by bicycle cart, as this is the most efficient means for ferrying heavy things through the twisting, crowded alleys. Bicycle carts deliver milk, mail, newspapers, drinking water (the tapwater isn’t imbibed by locals), beer, dry goods, and even people, occasionally. Telephone, electricity, and now internet extend on wires overhead, and the crowdedness of the hutong is illustrated in some of the creative wiring solutions. Trash and recycling is carted out by bicycle. Security is provided in the hutongs by both local police, whose stations are often placed in the hutongs, and by local security volunteers, who wear a red armband. The ubiquitous closed circuit video cameras of China are also widespread in the hutongs, though in such a number it begs the question who is watching them all, or if their cables even lead anywhere. Public bathrooms are also very common in the hutongs, built by the government and staffed by public employees, to aid in sanitation as indoor plumbing is not always available.
Construction is ongoing in the hutongs. Much of the buildings predate the Chinese Revolution, and were in fact larger homes owned by the rich that were divided up into separate living quarters. In many places, poor repair is obvious. But, along with the walls that are falling down, stacks of new bricks and piles of sand are everywhere. The hutongs are in a rolling state of continual construction it seems, and it is common to be walking down an alley, and enter a construction site without knowing it. In at least one place on every alley, one can see a pile of rubble from walls torn down, a stack of still usable bricks that have been pulled out to be recycled, and a stack of new bricks waiting to join the rebuilt wall. This construction is one reason that very few accurate maps of the hutongs exist. My personal estimate is that Google Maps shows about 70% of the existing hutongs on the closest zoom level. The layout of the hutongs changes, as the walls of the buildings and the property enclosures change. This also gives the hutongs their own character, depending on their location and topology. A more well-known hutong that is very narrow, as close as 40cm wide in some places, was historically used as a banking street—the thought being, if a thief attempted to run with stolen money, they would easily be caught. Conversely, another famous hutong has over fourteen turns in it, and numerous documented muggings have taken place on it, due to its shape. The evolving, changing nature of hutong construction is deeply tied to the ongoing life within it.
However, construction in a larger sense is threatening the hutongs. As Beijing becomes more developed, land is needed for the large construction projects, for the footprint of large skyscrapers and ring roads. I’ve heard estimates that 50% of the hutongs have already been evacuated, condemned, and bulldozed. Perhaps most infamously, the entire footprint of the sports complex for the Beijing Olympics, including the “Bird’s Nest” stadium of which the city is massively proud, such that it has become a symbol of the new Beijing, is built across former hutongs. The people who lived in these areas are moved, most of them to new high-rise apartments, which are growing in number across Beijing. There is not much of an effort to save the hutongs, because the people who live in them are of a lower class, and they normally enjoy a chance to move to a high-rise complex, viewing it as a move up in the social ladder. Some hutongs are considered historical sites, and others have been reformatted into tourist streets rather than actual hutongs. (My personal test is that only “real” hutongs have window repair shops; because tourists don’t purchase windows, regardless of the price.) But preservation of hutongs as living neighborhoods is not a priority.
And as charming as the hutongs can be to the outsider or a guest, they are not ultimately sustainable. With population growth in China as it is, hutongs across Beijing would invite even more massive sprawl than is already existent. Clearly, the city must begin building up in places where it is now only horizontal. However, a high-rise complex seems a poor replacement for the hutongs.
If the hutongs are horizontal construction, the high-rise takes its pattern orthogonally, building completely vertical. They are buildings that stretch upwards, only with as much girth as they can have while still providing windows to the apartments within. They multiply, with any number of towers in place on a particular block, and the land left open below as the common property for the development. What this does is solidify the architecture. While it is possible to modify an alley, an elevator shaft cannot be shifted. After the planning of an apartment block is complete, the architecture will stay as is, and not be changed by its inhabitants. It also changes the infrastructure that supports the people living inside. Because there is not an easy access for deliveries in tall apartment towers, consumables are brought to somewhere at the bottom, and the residents must retrieve them. Restaurants are not allowed among the dwelling units, and so the residents must also go down to find them. The density of the living space means that this tends to support large, centralized supermarkets and restaurants. Utilities, security, and other services are also centralized, and are dependent upon the original plan for the development. In the case of security, a common method of centralization is gates, around the building.
This verticalization leads to a very different sort of public space in the high-rise than in the hutong. Public space is very important to any residential area. As Lewis Stackpole writes in his article considering low-income housing in China:
“Diversity of built space and open space creates a rich social setting, and provides recreational, retail/commercial, and cultural opportunities. All of these play a role in creating a community, economic vitality, and continuity that often is the driving force of any city, town or village, and for the purpose of this article, for any residential compound.” (Stackpole, 73)
However, in a high-rise complex, there is no public space of this kind. There is isolated, dead space. In apartment complexes throughout Beijing, one can see manicured, park-like land, sports equipment in all manner of repair, walls and pathways. But none of them are being utilized, regardless of their condition. There is no driving force to get the people into the space. They have no reason to be there, no reason to stop and linger there, no reason to make the space social, regardless of what the intended plan for the space is. They only use the pathway that leads from the building door, out to the street. The areas around subway entrances, in parking lots that serve as cut-throughs around city blocks (when unoccupied by cars) and the areas outside of restaurants are used as public spaces. The vertical aspect of apartment blocks keeps the flow of people in and out of the building streamlined, and neglects the space around it. As Stackpole continues:
“In order for public space to be successful people must be able to relate to the space: ‘own’ it. Once people become users of the space and start identifying to the space, the ‘space’ slowly becomes a ‘place’. Designers can design the space, the ‘thoughtfulness’ of the design, not design in itself determines the spaces’ success. Design must be adjusted to the local needs; such a design requires a thoughtful understanding of the prospective users—the targeted users.” (Stackpole, 73)
This is impossible with vertical construction. It is planned at the beginning, and from that point forward, the residents can only be tenants. In a hutong, the ownership is immediate, because the lives of the people living in the space intersect automatically. Their activities form a thick web, that augments and informs the architecture, often literally affecting the continual construction always already underway. There is no need to design the public space, as the space has become public by the very designs of that public. What the hutong is, in its very character, is the state of public space making itself manifest via the horizontal.
But as is quite obvious, the hutongs cannot remain as they are. The goal should be, perhaps, rather than to simply replace them with vertical construction, is to augment them, adding a different dimension of horizontality, heading upwards. Rather than plan a new community from scratch, figure out how to support the current community, and direct it to where it needs to be. In reporting on government projects working to improve favelas, Kelly Shannon suggests:
“The innovative aspect of the projects is the fundamental notion that accepts unplanned and informal housing areas as a new form of urban morphology that should not be destroyed but rather changed, improved, and converted into modest, livable neighborhoods. In these programs, the relation of landscape to urbanization was ‘regularized’ by improving inner access-ways and providing services through the widening of roads, environmental intiatives, provision of sanitation, schools and clinics, and focusing on pedestrian flows.” (Shannon, 61)
Hutongs are not nearly favelas; they are in far much better condition than even the improved infrastructure of such impoverished areas. And therefore, they are much easier to continue to improve to suit the city and the residents needs and betterment. Most of the necessary infrastructure is already in place to support the hutongs, they simply need to be densified, to support more inhabitants without stressing the living conditions, while continuing to improve standards of living as the occupants see fit. There are already hints of horizontal architecture in Beijing that is building upward, that should be taken as the model or inspiration. The subway system is a perfect example. Across the city, tunnels are being dug at phenomenal pace to increase the number of lines serving the system. By taking transportation infrastructure off the roads and sending it underground, the ability for people to move horizontally is increased. Surprisingly enough, malls are another point of inspiration. While malls in North America require footprints of many square miles for parking, Chinese malls are quite compact, putting the parking underground, and building the retail space upwards. Within the massive floors of a mall, retail is at its most fluid, architecturally. The space is modular, and the necessary infrastructure is collectivized. Hutongs are, in a sense, residential malls, combining residences, necessary commerce, and socializing into one collective, public neighborhood. To stack hutongs on top of each other, and to preserve the way the social space has already integrated itself while streamlining the infrastructural needs to make the neighborhood more efficient and sustainable seems like a design challenge that could bear magnificent fruit. While on the other hand, building high-rises seems to work in the opposite direction, reducing tenants to an isolated, hamlet sort of life.
These are only ideas, from one Westerner’s reflections upon being introduced to the architectural phenomenon of the hutong. But thinking differently about urban planning, to approach the problem of density with a more open mind than simply thinking, “up”, does not seem so far-fetched. The neighborhoods of Beijing have already organized themselves, and succeeded to create vibrant public spaces in their own way. They are not perfect, and need support to improve themselves further. This support should be provided, so that what already exists can be taken advantage of, and not be thrown away. To build a city, one ought to listen to the city.
“Affordable Housing Programme in China—Opportunity for Landscape Architects to Perfect Public Space Design”, by Lewis Stackpole [Principal of AGER Group], in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
“Landscapes of Poverty & Infrastructures of Improvement”, by Kelly Shannon, in Landscape Architecture China, Number 16 2011. Translated by Chan Xu.
I just went and beat back the lawn, which was a demeaning and long-overdue task. And one that is fundamentally fruitless at best, because it will only grow back. If I were in charge (I rent, and so am not) I would tear the entire lawn up, and put in a garden, or gravel, or used auto parts, or anything not grass, which I consider a weed for its rate of growth and relative uselessness. But I’m not, and so I slog outside, to cut back the biomass that seeks to encircle the back porch.
Having raked the zen rock garden of that vine-choked lot with a power trimmer, I was able to let loose some of the anger welling up in my spleen from a similarly endless task at which I throw myself time and time again, though not to avoid fines from any rental agreement. I type essay after long essay in Sisyphean exercise, ranting against that which I disagree with, desperately trying, through the pains of logic and theory to beat back that which I find misconstrued, illogical, syllogistic, and wrongheaded. My motivation for this self-inflicted punishment is an imp that gnaws upon the base of my brain. It’s name is truth. Little “t”, of course; it is more yeasty infection than incubus. And yet, it grows. And as it grows, I type.
And I know I ought to quit. I should produce something that gives a bit more joy, that might be received a bit more easily than “reading,” which seems so much like hard work. Why paint a picture too large for most to view it? What good is a six-hour film epic no one will view past the first half an hour? Why pen a book when the readers will wait for the movie, or wait for the two-minute internet video summary, or simply read the title and consider the point absorbed?
Why should I write an article, finely mincing dense philosophical ideas into something the average palette might enjoy with a little open-mindedness, when I still end up with an essay 3500 words long, that being 2000 words longer than the standard piece of intellectual writing on the internet? Not to say that the few hundred page views that it might receive, whether from the number of regular readers or from Google Image Search tourists are not worth nothing. I just know my own choir. And though there is perhaps no greater pleasure than having a conversation between friends, maybe it isn’t necessary to yell so loud, and for so long. But this very dynamic is what brings on the yelling; I’m trying to draw in from the street the people who need to hear this. And so I call to them as they wonder what all the screaming is about, and move a little quicker down the road.
It is that there is not only an infection in my logic brain centers driving me to attempt to express myself in abstract language, it is that there is a desperate need for it in the world. Or so I would tell you. It is that there is such a need to explain the function of the world, and such a small number of good explanations currently accessible. It’s the need for a technical manual, but only having a typewriter cast in unknown script with which to write it. It’s that I could pour all of my skill, my craft, my education, and my talent into an attempt to guide us towards a better interaction with the world around us, and it would still be insufficient. No matter how measured my tone, and how melodious my words, how sharp my rhetoric and how aimed my logic, hitting the brief ring between abstract and obtuse is near impossible. My words either wash away, or are treated as stain. They either become dust, or they gather it.
It would be easy to blame those whom I try to reach. Goodness knows that others have. Nicholas Carr, Martha Nussbaum, and others have railed against the lack of audience for the finer, more delicate arguments and subjects in the world. They preach for what is important, and seems, in light of its recent popular reception, less so. In doing so they are easily mocked for sounding desperate, and for sounding mournful. They sound annoyed that no one is listening to them, and it is easy to reduce their points to that. And in so doing, make the inevitable mocking response flow so much more easily and overwhelmingly of a deluge.
There is nothing that hurts me more than that. It hurts because there is no intellectual response to it. There is no argument that can overcome that, no rebuttal that stands up to it. “I know you are, but what am I.” It makes the intellectual anger rise. It makes the brain wish to ball into a fist.
You’re An Idiot; Release The Kraken.
But I don’t have a Kraken. All I have are more words. All I have is a lawn that keeps growing. And I have this yeasty imp, fueled by the anger-agar that seeps from my optic nerve to the embryonic root of my brain. There it grows, and begins to stink.
Let me share some of this stink with you.
Sanger is correct, but he writes in a way that will obviously offend, and thereby make his point mute (yes, mute, not moot). Not that he oughtn’t to tell it how it is, but using very generic terms like “geek” and “intellectual”, in my opinion, allows more excuses than accusations, because responders quibble and evade on these points, rather than dealing with the root of his argument. The same thing with tossing Higher Education on the table: an entirely different Gordian Knot, that has connecting lines to be sure, and yet isn’t the same problem.
So let me rephrase, or remix if you like, what is basically his argument, but from my own perspective, using words I hope are more helpful.
Here is how I would phrase the problem:
The respect and credence given to technical knowledge and expertise is limited to those technological fields that are capable of producing marketable product.
In a sense, I’ve made the issue much more complicated, because I’ve linked anti-intellectualism to my own brand of technological Marxist critique, which is to splice two very different and equally controversial arguments together. But I believe that it simplifies the issue as well, by pointing at the real determining factor behind what has been largely acknowledged as a changing paradigm of public opinion, but misidentified as everything from “getting stupider” to “intolerance” to “peak attention span”.
It is not that geeks are anti-intelligence. “Geek” now describes wonky, technically-minded folk from every discipline and genre of knowledge you can imagine, from programming language to dead language, to library science, economics, literary theory, medicine, cultural studies, astronomy, and higher level math. Because of the proliferation of these serious lines of inquiry, there has been a Balkanization of knowledge. Geeks are allowed to immerse themselves in the most concentrated areas of their particular field, and can communicate with others as deeply steeped as themselves. Geekdom has allowed knowledge to intensify to previously never before experienced degrees. Everyone has a conference these days.
But what has changed is the intercommunication between the fiefdoms of Geek. Why would you want to share your deep knowledge by making it accessible to those outside the fold, when you can concentrate your efforts among those who know what you’re talking about? And moreover, why would you want to learn about anything you were not already deeply familiar with, and have to once again become a noob, with a user profile page showing to anyone that you have only been a member for a few paltry weeks?
There are exports by the Geek Guilds, to be sure. But these exports are only products. If you can sum your architectural knowledge into a fifteen minute keynote, we can sell that as product. If your astronomical research spanning years can be compiled into an animated video of five minutes or less, that can be uploaded to Youtube. If your philosophical theory can be applied to social media so that pre-conceived understandings of that media are reinforced, then by all means, name-drop and share. But if your work is somehow more nuanced, more difficult to grasp, or more requiring of deep study and understanding to be conceived… well, then forget it. A picture of a kitten is the common denominator of the internet. If it requires more background knowledge to grasp than that, it better pay off in equal magnitude. Otherwise: TL; DR.
The epitome of this tendency is, of course, the Gadget. The Gadget is technology that is in an easily conceivable, direct to market, product package. No one cares how an iPhone works. All that matters is what it does. The Gadget need not even exist in a physical sense. Gadget blogs have made it abundantly clear both in their content and in their form, that all you need is a clean-looking mock-up of the product and a blurb about what it does to garner clicks and re-posts.
But good for the Gadgets! I wouldn’t begrudge them their own domain. That this consumer-tech domain is particular ripe for commodification ought to surprise no one. But, it does attract the ire of Larry Sanger and other confederates towards the technosphere, or whatever the so-called media theorists and technorati would name the disparate amounts of networks and techological infrastructure making up a certain evolving aspect of our culture. As the elements of our society that most easily conform to exportable knowledge-products and aid their outsourcing, marketing, and distribution celebrate their own intellect-economy Golden Age, it only makes sense that those knowledge-guilds that are losing influence as a result would be bitter, and point their privateers towards the flags that spite them.
If the problem was limited to sour grapes, we would be lucky, and we could shrug off this issue as the technosphere does, by hoping that the ease of export of knowledge-products translates into the ease of its manufacture. The world is changing! And with this change, with improved information gadgets including all kinds of features for sharing knowledge-products, everything should be better for intellectuals! Right? Of course, I’m here to tell you no.
What’s more, the manufacture of knowledge-products is the least of our worries. As if the budgetary downfall of NASA only threatened our supply of totally sweet YouTube videos. And it is not the Balkanized guilds I’m worried about either. Luckily, (for the guilds themselves, at any rate) there are more qualified Ph.D graduates out there than there will ever be jobs. There are plenty of knowledgeable, well-trained, motivated people out there willing and ready to further the most diverse aspects of technical knowledge that we can imagine. The Geeks will remain strong, if isolated except by the camel trains of their products, flowing out into the vast market of culture as the commodified demand of curiosity dictates.
The real problem is for people like me.
And here you would be more than welcome to disagree, by arguing that my issues are not a real problem. Perhaps the age of the Renaissance Wo/Man is over, and there is no need to mix and sample different realms of knowledge. Specialization could be the way of the future, and people like me, who made their domain out of the hybridization of different networks of knowledge, are in fact obsolete, no longer bringing any value to the market.
Indeed, we always were a little hard to reach for the average person: specialist or merely part of the common cultural audience. Our references are hard to place, and we leap from metaphor to metaphor as if swinging from the branches of a tree. We make odd, artistic comparisons between the world of art, and microbiology, or computer science, and particle physics. We know enough of the local dialect to get us in the door of the clubhouse, but as soon as we got a few drinks in us, our accents become almost impossible for the locals to decipher. We are untrustworthy, jumping disciplines like ships or trains, never in one place for more than a season, before dropping the work with which we were entrusted for something that, to our former employers, seems no more than a game. Some even suspect us of witchcraft, blending unholy syncretisms of canonical theory with local folk beliefs, chanting in tongues and miming archaic symbols, summoning dead spirits to affect the living, for a cost.
So maybe our time is past. Or, maybe, as Larry Sanger says so ineloquently, if you are opposed to those of us that marry the middle-levels of disciplines together in an obscure blend of unprofitable knowledge muck, then “you are opposed to knowledge as such.” (Emphasis his.) It is not just our jobs that we are worried about, our audiences, and our students (I have none of these things, and so I extrapolate to others’ concerns.) The real danger in our neglect is that we understand, or at least think we understand, how it is that knowledge works.
It isn’t mysticism, and it isn’t ideology. It is the mechanics of knowledge. It is the praxis of knowledge, the infrastructure on the ground. The craftspersonship. You might be a genius of economics, working the markets both micro and macro. But it is on the backs of those experimenting with knowledge, from the sweat of our labors, that the products consumed by culture are derived. I hate to make it into something as abstract as “political”, because it is fiercely more than that. This is how people learn. You don’t learn electronics by using a cell phone. You learn electronics by breaking a cell phone. You learn by mucking about with spare parts and with tools, by fucking up and by taking your time and by pursuing things that don’t make sense to anyone but you. You learn by making “art”, not products. The only thing you can do with products is make money.
Supposedly, this culture privileges creativity. It supports breaking down boundaries, it applauds those who think like children, who set aside “time to play”, who start out with tiny blocks, and build up from there. Our culture privileges this, but only once the IPO hits. Once you’ve demonstrated profitability. They don’t respect the act of play, they respect the product of play. And hence, no one actually understands how to do it. If you think that dropping out of college will make you a genius because a genius dropped out of college, you obviously skipped introductory logic, and never learned what a false syllogism is. People are not smart because of the products that they create. They are smart because they messed around in the creative process long enough that from all that mucking about, a product actually crystallized.
Because very few people will talk about the actual act of being interested in breeding and branching and building with broken knowledge products, it is no longer accorded much value. That value is channeled towards marketable products, and the technological specialty that is believed to have delivered those things immaculately. The person who makes a classic work available as an eBook is considered more of a genius than whomever wrote the words. That person has what we want–the product, not the knowledge. It becomes superfluous to even sit and read the book, because it can be referenced and searched at whim. The book is owned, and in this way it is consumed. And so it never has to be studied.
Here, at somewhere North of 2500 words, I could tell you whom you ought to read. That rather than watching some asshole shill his product in an hour-long self congratulatory “speech”, you ought to read Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Kristeva, Marx, and Freud. But what would be the point? These are just products, now. You could download the ebooks. You could even read them. But what would you gain, other than checking off the names that I listed? Would you take from each of these writers, as I did (because I named these authors specifically and not on a whim) that it is not the knowledge you accumulate, but what you do with it? Probably not. That is only my opinion, and probably a cognitive bias echo chamber, as the technorati has so kindly “discovered” for us (though we’ve known that for thousands of years). You would probably take whatever it is you would take from it, and then cross it off your list. And who would I be to blame you?
Because it seems that people of my opinion are few and far between. Perhaps we’re a dying breed, or maybe we were always rare. Maybe we are useless, never being Great Persons of note, or at least never birthing a Great Invention into the world. Who can really say. All I do know, for all of this knowledge I have acquired, is that I can still see the snarls in it; that there are great whorls and vacancies between the so-called markets of the value of knowledge, and we could build something truly wonderful and great in that space, if only we took the time and the effort to see it.
But soon again, it will just be time to cut the grass.