Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Letting Go of the Revolution

The Revolution doesn't happen in our lifetimes. Don't look for it; you won't know it when it happens. It isn't a months- or years-long battle during which the voices of the oppressed reach a crescendo, overflow, take to the streets, and replace the current system with our own. The revolution isn't our dreams - it's impossibly beyond them. Our dreams are of this world order.

The language, the divisions, the categories, the orders of this world aren't just in us, we are them. I don't just talk about liberalism, I am a part of liberalism. I do not exist beyond liberalism no matter how critical of it I may be; it shapes the possibilities of my thought. The same can be said of all other contemporary modes of thought and distinction – of race and sexuality and individualism. We lack the capacity to conceive of the revolution or recognize it if and when it comes.

We fight for a better world, we dream about it, but we are selling our own dreams short to say we know what "after the revolution" looks like. Likewise, we are lying to ourselves if we claim to know our actions are going to bring it about and not just get co-opted for the status quo or some other revolution, not "the revolution" but a revolution - the kind that sucks. You know the kind - the only kind that ever has been (not like the American or the French Revolution) - a revolution in thought and lived experience, like the kind that brought us liberalism and colonialism - that kind of revolution. The kind that's messy, that's slow, that's unexceptional in every way until it has passed and everything is different and we're - well, we're dead. It passed us and we never even knew it happened because we are of the old world order.

As folks at Occupy know, the stakes are high. Real change has nothing to do with democrats or republicans in Congress or the White House. But it is not just that the stakes are high, it is that they exist at all - that the stakes we're trying to move and to transform are liberalism and capitalism or, depending on what working group you are in, heterosexism, racism, and structured oppression in all of its varied and interconnected forms in our movements and in the world. The revolution isn't when heterosexism stops being a problem - it's when heterosexuality stops being an intelligible category. Revolution isn't when we look back at capitalism and think "what were they thinking?" Capitalism was a revolution because today the vast majority of folks can't wrap their minds around the fact that money can exist without capitalism (or that more than two genders are possible). Revolution isn't a blood in the streets thing, at least not the kind of revolution that fundamentally changes the world. Revolution is total and complete incomprehension. And that's why we have to let it go. If it comes and we recognize it, it's not the revolution.

As much as it pains me to say, and as much as it goes against the ways we talk about the revolution so often, if the revolution comes and I'm still a woman, it's not a revolution. Our categories are of the old world order - both the ones we love and the ones we struggle to change and destabilize.

* * *

In the early, heady days of Occupy, I lay in bed with my partner and anxiously whispered, "What if this is it? What if this is the revolution?" Here was something that started like so many other hopeful monsters* that we've never heard of – a few activists had an idea for an event, but instead of passing with a few dozen participants and a comment in a local paper and a three day long argument on a few blogs, it took off. What if I'm wrong, I thought (dare I say hoped?), and revolutions happen just as we hope they do in our wildest dreams - what if this was it? Within a few weeks I was livid and over it - Occupy was just a manarchist party. These days I think Occupy is complicated, a mix of hope and potential and the same fucked up shit we see and fight in all of our movements only bigger and faster. I'm open to the idea that this is part of a revolution, a real one, the kind that radically changes how we think. But I don't think we can know what kind of revolution it is a part of, if any.

We can never know who our movements will help or what kind of change, if any, they will create. This movement, any movement, may do more to entrench capitalism, sexism, or our current government structure than the work of a Republican president. We have no way of knowing. I doubt the doctors who came up with the term "homosexual" were thinking of RuPaul's Drag Race as a natural progression of their work. Maybe they'd be pleased, probably just confused. Likewise, our actions, the systems, and ideas which we create can turn on us just as they can lift us up. They do not belong to us. We do not know what purpose they will serve once they are released into the world. For all of the ideas, actions, movements, and campaigns that exist maybe one will mutate into the revolution we dream of. Millions more will simply putter out of existence without notice or concern. Maybe a few will become revolutions that are truly terrible. Many will probably strengthen or chip away at the world order. Maybe, just maybe, one hopeful monster will become the most amazingly inconceivable revolution possible - the one beyond our wildest hopes and understandings - the one we never even dreamed of because it was so wonderful. The possibilities are incredible. They can also be incredibly terrible.

Despite all the work we undertake to change the world for the better, we do not know what good our actions will do in the long run. Co-optation always looms over movements, especially more successful ones, threatening the possibilities of real change. If the heart of Occupy, or any movement which critiques the foundation of our society as inherently inequitable and unjust, gets lost or silenced and the paraphernalia, the words and symbols become part of the very structures of injustice that perpetuate inequity, we have helped entrench the system we were fighting against. But while co-optation is a fear, it is based on deeper uncertainties.

We have faith that the work we do is good and will, in the long run, bring about more good in the world. We believe we know what is good – what a better world might look like. We have faith that our actions can bring it. But our belief in what a better world might look like is necessarily based on flawed judgement, rooted in the current world order. Not only do we not know what our actions will bring about, we do not have the perspective to know whether our actions, ideals, and dreams are “good.” Our ideas of good are narrow. They are shaped by liberalism and capitalism and everything we know, and they take place on the brink of utter unknowability.. We do not know if our actions or ideas are “for the best.” If we're talking about revolution, real change, we must let go of any idea that we know what is right and that our actions will help bring it about – we will most likely be proven wrong. We do not know that we are fighting for “good” things. We do not know what the future holds. We are little people in little movements in a big world with a long history. This Occupy movement is hope and it's faith, but it is not knowing. We stand with an infinite dearth of knowledge before the chasm of infinite possibility.

It is this infinite possibility that we cannot forget. Despite the not knowing, we on the left keep on going not because this movement is what creates The Revolution, not because we know our struggles will make the world a better place (they may not, they may get co-opted or just further entrench the oppressions we are fighting against). We keep going because we have faith in our work and because the more hopeful monsters we create the more likely it is that one of them will mutate into a wonderful monstrous future that we don't even recognize because it is so incredibly awesome. We especially don't fight for ourselves. Like I said, we'll be dead before we know it happened even if it happens in our lifetime. And that goes for terrible revolutions too - we won't know to be miserable, so I guess there's a silver lining. The possibilities are literally endless. The point is, we can't stop now.

*"hopeful monsters" is a phrase that I took from Radiolab on WNYC where it was used to describe how viruses are created in an episode called "Patient Zero." It contributed to my understanding about movements and change in unexpected ways.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Indian Giver

This story begins with a blanket, a Pendleton blanket to be exact. When I was 13 I received a Pendleton for graduating middle school. To be honest, I was confused and slightly embarrassed by this gift. Confused, because I had grown up a city kid unaware of what I was given. My father attempted to explain to me that a Pendleton was gifted when someone had achieved something, such as graduating. It wasnt until years later that I was able to fully comprehend that Pendletons are expensive blankets that Native Americans gift one another in honor. My lack of understanding regarding the blanket also contributed to my embarrassment over it. In the 90s, Native American patterns were not en vogue. They looked gauche and cheesy, connected to the Southwest and the 1970s. Additionally, I had no real connection to my own indigenous ancestry having grown up in a suburb of Los Angeles (far away from my families reservation in North Dakota), so I could not connect the Pendleton gift to any prior experience. I share these reactions because they fit snugly within the larger history of indigenous people of North America. My experience growing up was one of cultural disconnection, and it fits neatly into the broader history of cultural assimilation experienced by many indigenous people. My blanket collected dust for a decade, until I was renting my own apartment, in need of warmth during the lonely Los Angeles nights of my early twenties.

Five years after pulling that blanket out of my closet, MGMT release their video for Time To Pretend (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9dSYgd5Elk). The video features a strange amalgam of non-Native looking kids and pan-indigenous fashion mixed with1990s neon. The clothing and the actions of the band are of innocent children playing neo-Indian: they run through tall grass, "hunting" with bows and arrows, they participate in ceremonies, they play drums. The space and place of the video dances between various cultures and locales. On one hand it is a post-apocalyptic anti-capitalism neo-primitivist dream: they literally burn money for warmth, they eat raw meat, their clothing is a scavenged mix of modern clothing and animal hides. On the other hand, the imagery of the video makes nearly direct reference to various eras and cultures of indigenous Americans: there are Mesoamerican buildings with the attendant headdresses. Another part of the video features clothing that looks like the revolutionary era war garb that many indigenous people wore during the eighteenth century.

While the song Time to Pretend discusses the banality of adulthood, the video supports the idea of creative innocence in the face of the normal. The main marker of innocence in this video is the indigenous dress and actions of the videos actors. The band members act like children playing Indian, much like the lost boys from Peter Pan. In many ways, the video explicitly connects indigineity and innocence. This connection between innocence and indigenous people has a long history spanning from highly regarded authors of liberal theory (Deloria:1995,4) to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. On one hand indigenous people are stupid and easily manipulated, on the other their innocence is regarded as something to look up to American Indians have, rather ironically, represented the liberal ideal of freedom. This was largely because American Indian society was thought to represent lawlessness and a people who existed without a social contract. American Indian innocence often accompanies ideas of their lack of scientific progress and their ability to be easily manipulated. These ideas perpetuate the idea that indigenous people had no agency, they were duped into giving away land for trinkets.

I bring up the MGMT video because it had to start somewhere. I dont believe that the current fashion craze for Navajo patterns, Indian headdresses and American Indian war paint has developed entirely from the MGMT video. However, the MGMT video is one of many inspirations for it. I view the cooption of indigenous patterns to be part of a larger issue than fashion this is rampant in music as well. Recent album covers and band names have increasingly had some type of American Indian influence. Here is a list of just a few: Indian Jewelry, Eskmo, Warpaint, Apache Beat (whose album is called Last Chants), Chief (with an album named Modern Rituals) and Neon Indian. Undoubtedly, these names and fashions run the gamut of offensive to relatively benign. I take offense to the wearing of headdresses and faux Indian war paint by non-Natives (who dont understand the cultural significance of either), I dont take offense to a band being called Neon Indian. However, what is and isnt offensive has already been elaborated by several others. I want to understand why this is happening now, when our government is engaged in a war effort and our economy has completely flunked.

American Indians (as well as the other related imagery: wolves, feathers, beads, buffalo, horses) connect to something that is integrally American. But how and why does this happen? There is an obvious juxtaposition inherent in this: American Indians are indigenous and often called the First Americans but they were also viewed as dangerous enemies to the progress of Manifest Destiny. American Indians were once viewed in much the same way as modern terrorists, during the 19th century attempts to exterminate entire tribes by settlers was typically ignored and often allowed to happen without serious governmental repercussion. Currently, American Indians continue to be stereotyped as poor alcoholics who have forgotten their culture, they are believed to be bereft of what once made them great, they are inauthentic and out-of time. The juxtaposition is two-fold: American Indian patterns and things are at the height of fashion even though these things connect to a people who were once targeted to be killed for non-Native land acquisition. Similarly, American Indians today face stereotypes of disappearance, inauthenticity, and alcoholism. Yet, the stereotype of savage innocents persists, these are the Indians seen in the MGMT video: childlike and liberated, so primitive and anti-capitalist they burn money for food and warmth. The crux of the problem is that the savage innocents dont exist in the real world, theyre a progressive fantasy from another era, a hodge-podge of Peter Pans Lost Boys and 1970s environmentalism. They never existed, theyre an entirely culturally created image, and this is what makes them safe for cultural consumption. They are memoirs from our collective childhood of Star Wars, Disneys Peter Pan and our parents impressions of the sixties and seventies. It would be uncouth to add a splash of genocide to this mix, dear, because this is about the children and our collective remembered innocence.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Another part of this story has to do with the era that were currently in. The United States has been involved in two colonial and capitalist wars for several years. These wars involve the creation of the enemy as an other people from countries in the Middle East have been constructed as enemies of the United States as well as enemies of the tenets of the United States, as American Indians once were. While there are very obvious differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the various tribal nations of the United States, the discourse and development of all of these wars has been similar. In a strange embracing of feminism, women are created as the feminist crisis situation. Native American women were viewed as drudges who did all the work, while Native American men were considered lazy. Muslim women who cover are considered oppressed. Similarly, within the United States, it was about how American Indians lived: American Indian women were bad mothers and were treated badly by their husbands, they had no government or they were ruled by despots. In the end, it all sounds the same: these people dont have democracy, choice, freedom, or equality. Moral and ethical problems regarding how people live has been a call to arms for decades and possibly centuries. American policy has dictated that democracy (and capitalism) must be brought to those who are believed to live without it.

The essential difference is that American Indians were conquered whereas Iraq and Afghanistan have not been. This is the reason why moccasins and Navajo patterns can be fashionable, but Rachel Ray cannot wear a scarf resembling a keffiyeh in a Dunkin Donuts advertisement. Once a group has been conquered (or colonized) they are no longer a threat, and allegiance to them is no longer a threat. Once they are conquered, the other becomes assimilated into the story of the nation and onto the very bodies (in the form of clothing) of the nation. A similar pattern has followed with Japan after the United States occupied Japan with US military bases and administered help in rebuilding their country after WWII. At one time Japan was the ultimate enemy of the United States, but after WWII and after theyve established a successful capitalist economy, snippets of Japanese culture has filtered into US consciousness and become fashionable among certain circles. Manga is one iteration of this, as is Gwen Stefanis commodification of harajuku girls (there are several iterations of this that are beyond the scope of this article).

Of course, the figure that Native Americans pose in this story is unique. There is a tension between the reality of the situation (genocide and poverty), stereotypes of that reality (alcoholism), and the childish stereotypes of storybooks and liberal theory (noble savages). In other words, Native Americans face denigration as poor alcoholics with no recognition of the collective historical trauma theyve endured, nor is there much mention made of the economic poverty some tribal peoples have been forced to live in. Similarly, iterations of the Noble Savage stereotype pervade our culture constantly (in the form of childrens movies and liberal theory), as does the simple historical idea that Native Americans have been duped into giving up their land. Phil Deloria discusses this in Playing Indian, in which he points out that American Indians had to be assimilated into the national consciousness while they simultaneously had to be degraded. Because American Indians are indigenous to the United States, in order for non-Natives to feel that they belonged on this land they had to assimilate Native Americans into themselves, while they also had to degrade them through stereotypes and discourse. Native Americans are honored and appropriated for what they once were (or, rather, for what they were believed to be), while they are blamed for being alcoholics, poor, lawless, and for having lost their culture. A frightening amount of paternalism runs rampant in this it is the white anthropologist who understands real indigeneity, it is the non-Native government that knows what is best for them, it is the rich urban youth who now understand the aesthetic value and history of a Pendleton blanket. This is not a juxtaposition, it is a Janus head coin. On one side Indians represent innocence and freedom, and on the other they portray stupidity and lawlessness. This is what happens to indigenous people within a settler society.

Perhaps the current fashion trends are only frightening in how they represent this, a strange co-option of indigeneity and Americana while a war is being fought and constantly elided, while the real history and trauma that Native Americans have faced is simultaneously elided in the stories we tell one another.

Works Cited:

Deloria, Philip Joseph. Playing Indian. Yale University Press, 1998.

If interested in this topic, please read:

Julia Fiesenthal, "The Strange History of the Indian Trade Blanket": http://www.slate.com/slideshows/arts/the-strange-history-of-the-indian-blanket.html

Sasha Houston Brown "An Open Letter to Urban Outfitters": http://www.racialicious.com/2011/10/10/an-open-letter-to-urban-outfitters-on-columbus-day/

Al Jazeera "Don't Trend on My Culture": http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/native-american-bloggers

My Culture is Not a Trend: http://mycultureisnotatrend.tumblr.com/

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Brown Skin Feminisms: Hip Hop and Sexism, Part 1

I witnessed a disturbing Twitter interaction between two rappers (one male, one female) and a popular hip hop/urban blog over the past 24 hours. It all started when the male rapper (an up-and-coming hip hop star with a Shawn Carter co-sign) sent out tweets (jokingly) referring to past sexual exploits with the female rapper (a well-known indie rapper from NYC). It was inappropriate from the start for my tastes, but it probably would’ve been easy to dismiss after the first tweet. However, even after she asked him to cut it out, the male rapper went on to send an even more explicit tweet pointing to the way the female rapper supposedly liked to “receive” sex (based on his fantasy experience!). Now, it was clear to me from the beginning that this was all a joke to him. The female rapper didn’t find it so funny. Now I don’t know her well at all but I am some what acquainted with the female rapper through a mutual close friend. Therefore, I could sort of pick up how she was feeling about the whole conversation through her responses. I myself took exception to the whole exchange and even (sub-)tweeted a message that expressed my disdain. She did the same by making a remark or two about it but she quickly moved on.

It was not until this morning that my last feminist nerve was completely worked to no end. I woke up to read my timeline on Twitter (as we social media addicts tend to do each morning) only to find that the male rapper was complaining to the popular hip hop blog about reporting on his twitter exchange with the female rapper from the night before. They had, in fact, reported it as a news story. He would go on to apologize to the female rapper for his joke-gone-too-far and the aftermath. For its part, the blog only felt it necessary to apologize to the male rapper for exposing his wordplay with a friend. They mentioned the female rapper in the tweet, but did not offer her one world of apology for defaming her name before its thousands of blog readers. UGH! Of course I went on an all out twitter rant!!!!

What is the deal with the sexism in hip hop in 2011? I know that this topic has become so cliché and normalized it’s kind of sickening. But it still drives me crazy…why must hip hop and sexism go together like ODB and Mariah; babies and pacifiers? As a life long hip hop lover and critic, I am tired of it all. I, of course, cannot blame one segment of the population or a particular group of people. Anyone who comes into contact with or has anything to do with the production (I mean this in a cultural sense here) is partially responsible. There is no accountability for anyone: the artist, the consumer, corporate record labels, advertisers, and scholars/critics; not a one of us. We let soooooooo much slide in the name of a dope beat, some commercial success, and/or “keeping it real”. Well…for me and my crew (hip hop speak for my friends), it’s a wrap for keeping it real if we are only going to simply keep it real ignorant. For my part, I plan to use this space over the next few weeks to further investigate the role of feminism in hip hop discourse and production. Furthermore, I would like to look at how feminists can fight sexism in both the commercial and underground arenas of hip hop in the 21st century. More to come…

Communication and Pain, pt 2.

A sub-theme of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the question of whether or not human beings can understand one another. The main character loses his wife, and begins to realize that there were depths to her that he was unable to comprehend. In a flashback sequence, after the main character hears that his wife has gotten an abortion while he is away, he witnesses a scene in which it is questioned whether the idea of physical pain can be transferred from the sufferer to the viewer. What is empathy (?), asks the sufferer/performer who puts his hand through an open flame in front of a confounded audience. The scene is focused on sight and viewing, not on talking or explaining. Is pain, and thereby empathy, better translated through imagery and action (rather than speaking)?

These questions bring us back to Veena Das (Life and Words:2007), who questions whether empathy can be translated through the words I am in pain. Rather, what Das finds is that traumatic experiences are left unspoken, memories are “forgotten” and left behind. Das finds that trauma and pain haunts through lapses and dis-junctures. What Das and Murakami both seem to indicate is that trauma and pain are things rarely spoken of, rather they’re already “known” or they’re transferred through imagery (and silence). Trauma and pain are those things which are unspeakable.

While one aspect of Murakami’s questioning of empathy is in regards to pain, he also focuses on pleasure. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, has almost as much pleasurable sex as it does torture in it. The strange thing is, much of the sex in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle could be considered psychic sex. Yes, psychic sex. A supporting character in the novel is a psychic prostitute – she has sex with people through their minds, typically in a dream space. These “psychic sex” scenes are described as being even more lucid than physical sex, and certainly more pleasurable. Because they are enacted purely through the mind, and in a dream space, the psychic sex scenes also give Murakami the ability to push the boundaries of what a person might normally experience during the sex act. While Murakami questions whether or not we can adequately empathize with pain, he doesn’t question whether pleasure can be adequately transferred between two people.

But I want to go back to the problem of pain and empathy, and communication. Because I still question what we can really get across to another. I also question why the discussion of empathy is always focused on pain – why isn’t it focused on pleasure? What is it about the pain of another that we have become so focused on?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Aesthetic Imperative of Death, pt. 2

All organic life must inevitably
die. The death drive,however,
introduces a certain ambiguity into this inevitability, transforming a biological necessity into a modality of wish fulfillment, an aesthetic possibility. Death, then, exists as a pathos, not a thing in itself that makes itself apparent to us, but as a promise - a promise of inanimate sufficiency, of intact near-nothingness - the object of all our striving. The death drive obliges us, its inclination to arrest life, to freeze it in a slow and gelid rest. Here, in this effort to contain the colors and inconsistencies of animate living in a sedated stasis,
a deathly aesthetic begins to take shape.

The death-drive seeks out the pleasurable quasi-nothingness from which primordial life emerged and to which it must, in death return. The aesthetic of the drive, then, is one that lies on either side of the animate; it is an aesthetic in which life creates a characteristic chasm.

All the same, the death drive is a preservational drive. It can only preserve what it knows - life. If the death drive wishes to carry on, it must be satisfied with life at its bare minimum, an extreme sleepiness that only insinuates death. In its block of ice, the heart must still beat ever so slightly.

The aesthetic of death, then, is one in which in that moment of ghostly stillness so desired, there remains a trace of the entropy of animate life. It is a grainy photograph that suspends living matter in time and space yet forces us to consider its ever-vibrating particles. It is the visible bullet wound in a taxidermied animal, mounted in a glass case forever caught in in flight or on the hunt, yet bearing the sign of its mortality - its authenticity.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Piss Politics

The forceful assimilationist Bennie (in the musical Rent) asks his former friends if they "really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night." It doesn't seem to be much of a wager to guess that the answer, for most, is no. I would prefer a neighborhood where people do not piss on my stoop.

All sorts of dizzying policies, social movements, monetary exchanges, and physical force(s) have led to many neighborhoods especially in Manhattan, parts of Brooklyn, and the Bronx becoming safe from human excrement in most places where it used to be quite common (of course exception can be made for partying young people on weekend nights especially on the Lower East Side).

To many people's unabashed delight, a new piss politics has taken over; human piss has been replaced with the piss and shit-smears of countless shih-tzus, labra-doodles, french bulldogs, cocka-poos, and pomeranians. Forget homeless queer youth of color on the piers and in the streets in the West Village and Chelsea, we now have countless pugs and pekignese to walk and clean up after. It's one way you know that these neighborhoods have changed for the better in just a few short decades. Dogs, after all, with a few notable exceptions, are a sign of wealth, comfort, and predominantly white segregated neighborhoods.

For the record, it isn't the dogs' fault. It's is just an observation of what we make room for when we "clean" our streets and what kind of values it betrays. I don't think sanitation can explain why we have literally removed people from the streets who we think piss and shit on them to make room for our dogs to do so.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cogito Ergo Sum?

What am I
I think of
What makes me
What I am
To me
Presented to
Some other self

Saturday, July 9, 2011

“What? I didn’t quite get that the first time around.” Communication and Translation, part 1?

I need to foreclose the thought that language is our main form of communication (as humans). Like too much peanut butter in your mouth or cotton candy in your hands, language can be clunky, hard to use.

On the other hand, we can’t forget that language has the ability to spread the idea of revolution, to translate ideas into action, or to enrapture us in the experience of a good storyteller. Language might be sufficient when we are learning how to turn on our computer (even that requires a mix of hieroglyphs and previous electronic knowledge), but is language sufficient when you are explaining the time you felt an irrational sense of fear, or you are telling someone that you’re still in love. Was your experience properly translated and understood by the (an)other?

I want to go deeper, to understand those silent spaces of not-speech, of not-language. At the same time I want to craft my writing so that what you read on this page is a physical experience. What is language really? What are the potentials of language, and what are its unique abilities? Where does the use of language end and our emotions and physicality begin? I’d like to place my microscope upon those shadowy spaces.

I need to foreclose the idea that we might never fully understand one another. That we are all islands, that we cannot communicate adequately.

Yet, I still have my doubts.

In Life and Words anthropologist Veena Das (2007) writes that, in the face of violence, there is a “poverty of words” (91). There are some things that words cannot describe, that people do not want to describe. Das argues that these things are intimately connected to the question of what we consider to be human – while the victim of violence knows that the perpetrator is human, we question whether a human could do such a thing. Humans do indescribable things to other humans. Das’ work points out that these things are indescribable precisely because they question the limits of the human.

“Words can show one’s numbed relation to life just as gesture can tell us what forms of life, what forms of dying, become the soil on which words can grow or not” (Das, 2007:94). In other words (pun not entirely intended), words and language are furiously wrapped and connected to human experience, to society. Words “grow or not” based on how we live our lives, what we experience and what we deem as being human. Words and languages morph and exchange alongside our human lives. Language cannot be understood alone. Language must be contextualized.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

UFO Photography (Part 1?)

The photograph of the alleged Unidentified Flying Object has become a genre all its own, perhaps one of the true and lasting aesthetic creations of the Cold War. Though manifesting itself in a wide variety of forms, our popular corpus of UFO imagery and folklore spews forth from a relatively small number of iconic photographs, most of them taken in the first two decades following World War II. As proof to the fringe only, the photographic evidence of extraterrestrial visitation upon the human race is located squarely within a twilight zone; the doubt of odd angles, blurry edges, unfamiliar colors. They never offer “proof” in the high-definition sense. And yet for any who have seen them and studied them, there is an undeniable seductive quality to UFO photography. To me, it was the cocked arm of the Solway Firth Spaceman, so nonchalant, looming behind the smiling face of the daughter of Jim Templeton. A gesture from beyond.

The changing facades of Western postwar living are captured alongside the otherworldly invaders. Leafy New Jersey streets and urban light-pollution; middle-class weekend trips to the moors. Backdrops so unassuming; they never meant to be photographed. Yawning and grainy. They’re always a disarmed quality, like the landscapes you first lay eyes on after a too-long nap. So banal as to come around the bend to uncanny. In this state, even the trees seem dangerous. Knowing.

There’s always a strange moment in the midst of a UFO enthusiast’s road of discovery, when the incriminating photo blooms onto the monitor and the eye searches for what’s different, what’s foreign, that promised break in reality. As per the genre, the enthusiast knows that something is wrong with this picture, something cosmically wrong, but he or she doesn’t know where yet. In this weightless space, hunting the intruder, everything is anticipation and everything is suspect.

And suddenly, there it is…

Threading the link between thought experiment and horror fiction is old-hat. Our cultural appetite for the macabre, the popthropologists says, comes from the win-win decadence of death without death; experiencing the adrenaline while the consequences are suspended along with our disbelief. This idea works well enough for zombie or slasher films, but it doesn’t suffice for the ancient stockpile of ghost stories, haunted Dutch Colonials on Long Island, UFO narratives, demonic visitations, in which actual danger to physical life and livelihood are rarely present. Ghosts, and Extraterrestrials, are not feared because they kill.

Just like it’s impossible to imagine one “living” death, it’s impossible to grasp the reality of the extraterrestrial entity. In the massive corpus of science fiction concerned with humanity’s relations with alien life, otherworldly beings are crudely stereotyped by human authors in as a disagreeable a manner as would any Orientalist. This species is passionate and violent, that one is stoic and intellectual. There is little variation between individuals, as we know real entities. But if the extraterrestrials were depicted as such, as unique and different from one another as individual humans are to each other, then their alien glamour would evaporate. The racial Other also exists bounded by stereotypes. So what is different here?
Maybe it’s about something not-belonging.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Aesthetic Imperative of Death, pt. 1

Death is a singular event: no one can die my death in my place. As an event that is unrepeatable, essentially unknowable, all that we might say about it is rhetorical or speculative. It is, more than anything, that which is one’s own, about which only the one whose death is in question can speculate. With what certainty can we speak about death? If we consider Heidegger’s conclusion that “Death is the Dasein’s ownmost possibility” (Heidegger 307), the answer is obvious: none. Even the possibility of death, the possibility opened up by death, exceeds potential or imagination. It is a possibility that is non-actual, the “possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all.” (306) Death is possibility set free, approached only by speculative fictions, which by absconding from the reality in which their force is expressed, mirror the very structure of death.

However, the possibility of death is not given. “Being-towards-death,” Heidegger writes, “as anticipation of possibility, is what first makes the possibility possible.” (307) The possibility, it would seem, condenses as we look towards that deathly horizon and wait, and death, then, must be contingent upon that Being that steadily approaches it, the being that, by his forward glance, purports to make it possible. And yet, we must reconcile this element of contingency with the inevitable necessity of death, both the actual death to come and the death that is always-already a part of Being. After all, if the being is oriented towards his own death, if it resides in him like as a trace, his death must precede him, must exist synchronously with Being, waiting until the two converge again. As we advance towards this pre-existing terminus, perhaps we find that it all looks familiar. Perhaps we have been here before. Perhaps this was here from which we departed.

Death is the telos of seduction. With each desire we are seduced by death: its promise, its possibility furnishes the goal of life. As Freud postulates in
Beyond the Pleasure Principle, life takes the form of the pursuit of pleasure where pleasure consists in the fulfilling of wishes, the quieting of tension, the end to a mad pursuit. When the frenzied searching stops, energies are emptied out and there is a serene and easeful calm whose character cannot be isolated, neither theoretically nor practically, from that of death. Pleasure, then, is that moment of stillness in which we savor the faint taste of our own death.

Through pleasure, then, we invoke our own death in order to forestall it. We forestall it only so that we may invoke it yet again. Death would annul the possibility of seeking pleasure, foreclosing the return of death’s ghostly presence, its restful nature – it would abolish the tendency that prompts it. The death-drive thereby plays a role left vacant by death: where death destroys, the drive preserves. And yet, what it seeks to preserve is the bare minimum, the ecstasy of near-nothingness, a less-than-being that is, even so, more than nothing. To live a life of pleasure, then, is to postpone death by dying.

Heidegger, M. Being and Time. (Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson) Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beyond Thought

For Pride in New York I've gone to the edge of the city where Manhattan looks unattainably distant. It's a little queer world on Riis beach where I find sea porcelain: a broken piece of a black and white dinner bowl someone once ate out of, smoothed at the edges.

Two days prior the state passed gay marriage and the Bergdorf Goodman registry crashed from too many hits. WNYC tells me that half a million people will be celebrating "marriage equality" at the parade today and applauding Governor Cuomo as he rides by waving and waving and waving. Each block of the parade route is sponsored by Delta Airlines or Target or Skyy Vodka.

Beyond thought, beyond the carefully constructed restraint of my skull, beyond my skin and thin pulsing membranes is an instinctive joy - a reflex - so ingrained it need not be learned. Beyond thought, beyond where occipital bone meets parietal bone, beyond narrow capillaries and deep blue nerves is a question a(n) (un)certainty placed beyond thought by societal rationality and proper interiority and proper exteriority. To drill through and past it, to think deeply of what is beyond thought, beyond reflexes, beyond instinctive responses is a project at once meta/physical. It demands drilling through the shells of our bodies that move a certain way, think a certain way, feel a certain way, are a certain way.

On Pride I walk by the ocean. I have always feared it since it knocked me off my feet and held me down, pushing my head and back and stomach against the sand until I came up gasping and crying, heaving salt water out of my eyes and nose and mouth. I learned to fear the ocean by sheer force and fear and awe when my body was small and my skull not yet fused. Drilling past that fear, past the impossible contradictions of pride and law and monogamy and setting foot in the ocean and finding a chipped piece of dinnerware, reaching a point before fusion collided occipital with parietal with frontal with temporal - an impossible project - a call to think beyond thought.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Prelude to a Trepanation: The Shaping of a Worldview

The Craniotome creates space and is the catalyst for a much needed purging; a purging of information, ideas, affects, upsets, false alarms, and stray (sub)conscious thoughts.

The Craniotome offers hope, signals possibilities, and encourages change for the bad or the good; all depending on the practitioner and her proclivities. The practitioner being me in this case would suggest that its effectiveness is also contingent upon mood. I can be a moody so and so.

Life, being; thought, learning; creativity, imagination; spirituality, faith: all these things take their toll on a brain and a spirit…or a soul…or a conscious…depending on who you are and what you (don’t ) believe. For me, a combination of all three will do: spirit, soul, and consciousness…the trinity of a higher self.

The Craniotome makes room for them all, but draws a line in the sand of my consciousness and allows for some discernment in deciding what is for me and what is against me.

The Crainotome hosts a garage sale for unwanted brain leaches. Those bits that do nothing, but hinder the shaping of my worldview. It is also a life raft, rescuing the treasures I inadvertently discard in moments of distraction and preoccupation with the muck and mire of life.

Theory is great and has its place, but the process of trepanation points to what portions of it play into the heavy residue of my childhood hang-ups and grownup pet peeves. Furthermore, theory strengthens me in some places, but the weightiness of it can also weaken me in others. The Craniotome relieves much of the unwanted pressure it lays on me in an effort to keep me strong.

Praxis is important, but then there’s always me getting in the way of a properly objective analysis of said experience. The critical lens that I hone through theoretical study allows me to make some sense of it. At the same time, the Craniotome allows a little light to shine through so I can navigate the balance between theory and praxis most efficiently.

What is creativity? How do I perform a creative act? Is it all up to me or is there some sort of force outside of me moving my hands or pushing the sound through my vocal chords? And what is imagination? Merely creative thoughts planted into my consciousness by some omnipresent, omnipotent God?

Speaking of God…

Why is that (wo)man (and his/her ideologies) mucks up any productive, life-giving conception of God most of the time? And what is it about this force…this God that gets so many bent out of shape whether they believe or not? Does the power of this force…this God…diminish if it is called by another name? Why does the name divide more people than bring them together? Has humanity made God too heavy for consumption, absorption, and/or comprehension? How can God, Nietzsche, Coltrane and Kendra-as-thinking-body make peace with one another inside of my mind, body, and soul?

Time will tell and this is the space where much of it will hopefully be worked out…for me at least. There are of course no rehearsals involved since the world is but a stage and all. We are all just actors playing our roles, making it up as we go. So...here goes nothing…

Friday, June 24, 2011

Forcing the body to speak.

So what is a craniotome? A craniotome is a tool used in trepanation, or in craniotomy. These words refer to a surgery in which a hole is drilled into a person’s skull. I first encountered this phenomenon in an article for Spin magazine (“A Hole in the Head” by Susan Perry, May 1998). The article described New Age adherents who believe that trepanation leads to an opening of consciousness. These New Agers traced this knowledge to a Mesoamerican pre-Columbian religious practice. A very brief Internet search informed me that trepanation is one of the first forms of surgery, and evidence of it has been found in skulls since the Neolithic age. Craniotomy continues today, and is apparently common. While craniotomy may have a legitimate past and present, I still think the people who engage in it are odd. It will always signify frightening people, willing to drill a hole into their heads to attain an otherness that I cannot and will not understand. This is where my own comprehension, where my own morality, will not allow me to go any further. I cannot touch them, I am unwilling to, and this is a space where our common language (English) leaves me bereft.

Craniotome evokes thoughts of Bataille, a man so strange and fascinating that you can't help but be influenced by his thought. While Bataille was not in any way a New Age practitioner, it is clear from his writing that he was fascinated with anthropology. He was fascinated with the specifically spiritual aspects of colonized others. Along the same lines, he was obsessed with Otherness, and wrote extensively on it. Much of his writing spoke of the otherness of the human body and the things the body does (things that are utterly common to us) – an eye, sex, the anus, death. What are the limits of the body? But even further, what are the limits of our own conceptions of our body? One reason I am unwilling to fully conceptualize self-trepanation is because I am unwilling to even think of doing this to myself. Trepanning is somewhere beyond my own reasoning ability and similarly, the embodiment of the practice is beyond my language. Even if these things could be described, I would not want to hear them. These are practices that push at my very own limits of knowing the Other.

This has always been one of anthropology’s projects: attempting to know the Other. From Durkheim, to Mauss, to the reiterations we see in Bataille. However, it goes even further than this. Anthropology is not just about trying to understand the Other, it is about trying to place the Other into a conceptual framework in which it will not fit. To denounce and explain the Other through social theory, through psychology, through a science of economics. Yet, all these theories only make us think that we know about Them. Bataille teaches us that sometimes we come up against something wholly familiar to us, and when the light diffracts against it, it becomes something indescribable and unknowable. An eye, the sun, sex and death. Thus, we do not even fully know things that we judge as banal.

With craniotome I hope to probe these spaces that are beyond comprehension. To probe these spaces where I might not have the language nor tools to decipher. Not everything must be spoken of or explained, but I will embark on this curious journey nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Acido ergo sum

Acido ergo sum.

— Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar

In the ninety-ninth chapter of a novel that ends in the fifty-sixth, Cortázar rewrites Descartes best known conclusion. Thought, the quintessential human function, the necessary condition for and confirmation of our existence, has been exposed as a product of electrochemical gradients and synaptic potentials within a densely interconnected neural circuit. With the cogito situated somewhere among electromagnetic fields and chemical phenomena, “not so different as we used to think from things like an aurora borealis or a picture taken with infrared rays” (Cortázar 470), a thinking being is a fundamentally material one. But is it necessarily a finite one?

The kernel self is sealed within the skull. There it thumbs through words and images in bounded awareness. But what is the sum of this inner experience if not a desire to go beyond this very boundedness, to satisfy some nostalgic longing for a bygone continuity? Might we say, metonymically, that what we desire is in fact a trepanation?

The eye perceives a hole, something missing. But by the ambiguity of an absence, precisely where there is nothing, may something come to be. There, between the external world and the small tract of brain, exposed yet intact, there is a fusion of separate entities as the self overflows and exceeds itself — there is a revelation of continuity, of eternity.

The craniotome. Perhaps it is a sterilized surgical tool. Perhaps an electrical drill, a corkscrew. Perhaps it is anything that we put to our own head to repudiate our wholeness, to dissolve the isolating
separateness of being.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Master, Cut the Stone Out

“Master, cut the stone out, my name is Lubbert Das”

thus reads the inscription of Hieronymous Bosch’s enigmatic painting “The Stone Operation” currently on display in the Prado in Madrid. The painting is obscure even for an artist as mysterious as Bosch, whose nightmarish scenes and rumored dabbling in Christian esotericism have brought him a modern infamy disproportionate to his relatively small body of work produced in the late 15th century. In the picture, a doctor removes the Stone of Folly (a trope of Netherlandish folklore) from his patient’s skull, while a priest and a nun look on. It is probably the most famous Fine Art representation of trepanning, or something close to it.

Renaissance works like this intrigue us because there is a vacuum of meaning. The twentyfirst century understands realism, understands abstract modern art, but we have difficulty parsing these strange voices crying from the wilderness of the past, in which figures meant to represent human beings stare unblinkingly, almost with boredom, on the Holy Virgin enthroned and bursting from the seams of reality, or on horrific battlefields. There is a real disconnect, meaning that is impossible to embody, despite our best efforts to bootstrap ourselves into a bygone consciousness.

Bosch’s own trepanning has a dual significance for us. As writers and thinkers ever honing our critical and intellectual skills we hope to remove the “stone of folly” from our own skulls, but we also take an interest in the operation itself, this impossible maneuver, a siege on the house of subjectivity itself. In our capitalist world, where maximization of all desires and of all possibilities is an article of faith, such meaningless sacrifice of well-being offends us. But I believe more time should be spent looking at the places that such an exercise of imagination takes us; into worlds where value is not linear and infinite, where value is chattel for stranger things. Trepanning, so close to life itself, so far from “ours”, is a perfect symbol, a placeholder for the horror of ritual, of sacrificing value, where you can really get a whiff of the Other in the forest. And so I hope this blog will be both the removal of the Stone and the removing itself. The craniotome.