Archive for May, 2007

Cindy Sheehan and the politics of depletion

May 31, 2007

I have come to some heartbreaking conclusions this Memorial Day Morning. These are not spur of the moment reflections, but things I have been meditating on for about a year now. The conclusions that I have slowly and very reluctantly come to are very heartbreaking to me.

[…]

The most devastating conclusion that I reached this morning, however, was that Casey did indeed die for nothing. His precious lifeblood drained out in a country far away from his family who loves him, killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think. I have tried every [sic] since he died to make his sacrifice meaningful. Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives.

– Cindy Sheehan, “Good Riddance Attention Whore”

A farewell without strategy – no “going out on top.” Instead, a farewell from the last moment in which it could be heard; a farewell which announces its speaker’s abjection in its timing and its content; a farewell from the thinnest slice of proper place, before its speaker sinks into the the marginality of the everyday. (It’s fitting that Sheehan’s farewell also contains the announcement that she will sell Camp Casey.) A farewell that announces, too, the speaker’s change of phase: from an engine that sets agendas and pulls others along the iron road of progress, the speaker of this farewell has been smelted into liquid, made subject by that process to consumption by other engines.

Notice the link here between liquid, meaning, and consumption: the “lifeblood drained out,” but “indeed […] for nothing” – consumed, let’s say, like gasoline by an idling car. Liquid is the baseline matter to be sublimated into meaning through consumption by a worthy engine, be that a just state or the correction of an erring one. A sacrifice can be made meaningful after the fact and if certain events happen, no matter what the circumstances of that sacrifice were.

This engine of meaning has to therefore be cut off chronologically from its future and past: its engineering is imputed to the nature of the liquid itself, while the by-products of its sublimation are overlooked. After all, it is the sacrifice which contains meaning (as oil contains potential energy) waiting dormant for justice. Outrage at the meaninglessness of the sacrifice is discounted as a container for the same passive genius that sacrifice contains as it waits for accommodating inventions. Petroleum provides the picture as well of the versatility of this conception of meaning as being realized under any number of different circumstances. Just as oil can be made into plastics, lubricants, gasoline, fertilizers, and any number of other products, a sacrifice can be meaningful if it undergoes any of several different processes of shaping. Sacrifice takes the shape of a dam: it constrains some energies such that others (human settlement, to continue with this example) can develop. These latter developments are meaning.

Meaning comes from a skillful depletion, a drying up of the riverbed just enough to prevent disaster. Can we wonder, then, why the possibility of global warming is up for argument? Or why its detractors suggest that the alternative to absolute resource depletion is a life spent shivering in a dark cave, away from history, light, and all the meanings of modern life? If meaning through resource depletion depends on the excised end, it should be no wonder that the prospect of civilization’s end caused by environmental collapse is dismissed with so little thought – the end is so imbricated in this notion of meaning that it’s hardly seen.

Cindy Sheehan seems to know now that her sad conclusion was inevitable. “This is an end,” her farewell seems to say, “but it’s not the end.” Her life now exists almost purely of the salvageable remnant of her quest for meaning, of her depletion. Invisible, she has become liquid too; having no home base, she is subject to other flows and the systems that, like pipes, organize them. Maybe her hope is to seep from some unnoticed hole and dissipate asymptotally, figuring in direct proportion to her obscurity the notion of meaning that she has discovered through her years as an engine.

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In reply, Gladwell points me to the case of so-and-so, then wildly extrapolates

May 29, 2007

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Have I been wrong all this time in thinking of Jewfros as signifiers of sincerity?

The phallic city

May 27, 2007

To become is never to imitate, nor to ‘do like,’ nor to conform to a model, whether it’s of justice or of truth. There is no terminus from which you set out, none which you arrive at or which you ought to arrive at. Nor are there two terms which are exchanged. The question, ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid. For as someone becomes, what he is becoming changes as much as he does himself. Becomings are not phenomena of imitation or assimilation, but of a double capture, of non-parallel evolution, of nuptials between two reigns. […] The wasp and the orchid provide the example. The orchid seems to form a wasp image, but in fact there is a wasp-becoming of the orchid, an orchid-becoming of the wasp, a double capture since ‘what’ each becomes changes no less than ‘that which’ becomes. The wasp becomes part of the orchid’s reproductive apparatus at the same time as the orchid becomes the sexual organ of the wasp. One and the same becoming, a single bloc of becoming […].

-Gilles Deleuze, Dialogues II

I have a particular strategy for cities that seems hardly to change, no matter how many of them I visit. Though I may have a few places I explicitly want to visit, I spend the vast majority of my time simply walking myself to absolute exhaustion. It isn’t uncommon for me to walk between 100 and 150 blocks a day when I visit New York City, as I did this weekend. And when I lived in Korea, I would often stay out most of Friday night at the Westerner bar, then take the first bus into downtown Seoul at 5:50 AM, catching a little bit of sleep on the way. I would spend almost the whole day walking from there, usually not arriving back at home until around 10 at night. Another one of my favorite memories is when I walked to the Fukuoka airport in the pre-dawn rain and waited in a phone booth for the airport’s doors to be unlocked.

This is not the only kind of energy expenditure I undertake in cities. Usually parsimonious, I somehow don’t mind shelling out for extravagances when I’m on one of these urban treks. I bought some very nice tea this weekend, for example, and ate at a fairly pricey Korean place.

Is this expenditure – expenditure to the point of scrimping at other times – a type of invagination? A way of contributing myself to the massive enterprise that is the city, so that it will, for at least a little while, have the fruits of my exertion circulating on the surface of its incredible facade? A method of bilocation or preservation such that, on my next visit, I can compare my present self to the self whose energies still coruscate in that city (or at least in my mental image of that city) and thus gauge the changes I undergo?

The city as mnemonic device, each scene being an index to the last time I visited it. Walking by the southeast corner of Central Park this weekend, I remembered the times I was there with Clif and with Jia-Jia, and remember getting an idea for a blog entry about the shape of the Apple Store. Memory is recovered in these scenes, the space for which is created through the evacuation of intimate resources. It’s once I’m exhausted that I find in my surroundings an impetus to continue through my tiredness, that there’s a greater exchange between the city and me – or, as the quote from Deleuze might suggest, a greater sense of becoming.

Canvassing

May 24, 2007

Edit (7/17/08): Since this is by far the most popular thing on this site, it figures that maybe somebody has gotten a tattoo inspired by my magic marker tattoo here. If this is the case, please e-mail me pics at my gmail address, username: dymaxion.

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Towards an epistemology of the internet

May 23, 2007

Since the internet became truly popular, the media and government have been obsessed with the shakiness of knowing anything for sure on the internet. Children especially are warned not to believe anything about strangers on the internet, but adults as well are occasionally paraded out to tell their stories of being defrauded by misleading websites or on the lam Nigerian royalty.

These are worthwhile endeavors to those concerned, but my own interest is in how people will make a very large deal about epistemologically dicey propositions online and what is at stake in these claims. Though these issues have been in the back of my head for a long time – inspired in large part by the reactions to rumors of new Apple products – a new opportunity has arisen to make my thoughts more concrete.

Above is a flying craft that has been (reportedly) spotted and photographed by several denizens of the internet. The issue of the veracity of the photographs doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the reactions of other people to them.

In the comments to this picture, we find the most sustained and detailed discussion of these photos around. The commenters can be divided into five types: believers who offer positive proof of the photos’ veracity, believers who attack the narrow-mindedness of their detractors, a similar bifurcation amongst non-believers, and those who are undecided but open to either possibility.

In every case where a commenter takes a definite stand, that stand has, to some degree or another, been influenced by viral marketing ploys and more recreational hoaxes that have been spotted around the internet. What is at stake then, when a person comments in support or non-support for the reality of a photo, is the issue of experience. Believers say things such as NASAnerd1947 does: “I’m not an expert on faking digital images, but I have studied the field of electric and electromagnetic propulsion as a professional aerospace engineer.” (S)he acknowledges the possibility of faking, while at the same time designating this instance as an exception through an appeal to her or his experience. On the other hand, doubters like fxmodels say things like, “[H]e started by modeling a BF Goodrich All Terrain Tire and got bored!!! He smooth shifted, beveled and Nurnied. Those three things take about an hour in any reasonable 3D program. The whole model was probably an hour to build.” Again, experience (in the form of esoteric vocabulary) is called upon to defend this person’s view.

In this way, duration claims its territory in a place renowned for its ephemerality. Any amount of time online is measurable by the passing of memes. I could, perhaps, refer to the time when “All Your Base…” swept through the internet and a specific time would come to mind. Yet this sense of time has little relation to time spent in the real world. Bringing up experience when faced with the possibility of a hoax is a way of asserting a relationship with the non-internet world – where the claims of reality or unreality actually matter.

These possible hoaxes inspire such frantic argument largely because every attempt to weigh in on them is both read and rhetorically framed as a reflection of the commenter’s grasp of reality. The distinction between those who “get it” and those who do not is exaggerated on the internet like few other places. This constitutes, perhaps, a blatantly hierarchical element – an order under which all users are graded on their knowledge of internet culture and technology – in an otherwise anarchic system.

To argue against the reality of a photo like this is thus to argue against wide-eyed “noobs” who are used to applying everyday epistemology to the internet; but conversely, those who argue for its reality are accusing their detractors of not having recovered from the epistemological impact of the internet. The flame war is displaced, but only temporarily – maybe everything on the internet comes back to identity.

“Look at her face”

May 22, 2007

Above is a video of Yoko Ono performing her “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall in 1965.

This piece of art raises a lot of questions for me, perhaps the most important of which is whether it is possible to perform it “well” or, conversely, “poorly.” If the performer fails to sit passively, for example, it seems obvious that they are no longer performing “Cut Piece.” (Ono also produced a series of instruction pieces which existed solely as a series of sometimes non-performable instructions, such as “Hide and Seek Piece: Hide until everybody goes home. Hide until everybody forgets about you. Hide until everybody dies.”) But, provided that the performer is able to stay within the constraints of the piece can there be a superior performance?

Clearly, there can be better or worse situations created by the piece. This video was shot during the debut of the piece and can reasonably be assumed to have caught the audience off guard. Their reception of the piece is more “natural” as a result. Her passivity gives different members of the audience the chance to make spectacles of themselves and of their perversity until they are policed by other members of the audience: “Stop being such a creep!”

In her performance of this piece, there is the obvious difficulty of actually going through with it: her eyes seem to tear up at certain points, and she stops herself from pushing away one of the audience members. What does watching that do to us? Maybe it is the transparency of this difficulty that makes a good performance.

Life out of balance

May 21, 2007

“Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” was one of the guiding maxims of the modern labor movement, and it strikes us now as remarkably balanced and logical. (Schopenhauer pointed out that, a generation or so after truths are rejected as wild-eyed radicalism, they are accepted as common sense.) The three parts of the working human’s life, when served in equal portion, feed into and enhance one another: an honest day’s work helps you sleep more soundly and lets you enjoy your recreation with the satisfaction that you’ve already done your part for society; a suitable amount of recreation allows you to sleep and work without the dread of not having accomplished what you wanted to that day; and sufficient sleep keeps your energy level high during any pursuit.

Readers, I am obliged to admit that I cannot comply with such a logical system. You see, I spent all last week working at a temporary job, between 8 and 10 hours each day. And my life fell apart. My French lessons stopped entirely, my output on this website slowed to the most meager trickle, and my reading faltered. I pushed back my bedtime every night in an attempt to fight my lost recreation time and, as a result, I was increasingly tired as the week progressed.

I am obliged to admit as well, incisive readers, that I would have had time for these things if only I had developed a schedule for myself. If, say, dinner were followed by 45 minutes of French lessons which were followed by a mixture of blog and book reading until bedtime, things could have worked out much better than they did. Instead, I followed my whims and wiled away my time.

Wasted time has always been a source of intense shame for me and accounts for the difficulty that I’ve had in finding lasting employment. Almost every job I see, I interpret as a waste of my time and consequently don’t apply. Yet at the same time, I have trouble developing a schedule for myself because of its essential rigidity. I am stuck between the problems of not getting everything done that I want to and the problems of being a cog.

There is so much that I want to do, though, that I wonder: is there any alternative except discipline?

Productivity performance art, part II

May 12, 2007

Holding square flags diagonally divided, the productivity artist extends her left arm completely to the horizontal. She repeats the gesture with her right arm, holding it only a moment before bending at the elbow such that her right hand (still bearing its flag) rests on her left collarbone. She draws the right hand across her throat, indicating in the semaphore of productivity that she has committed e-mail bankruptcy.

Her momentarily cruciform position is the first step in this performance of exhaustion, and it indicates the extent to which she has suffered for her busyness. She has been pecked at by her e-mail messages, flayed by them.

Yet it is very rare to see the productivity artist in this position, for the public performance begins only in the next step. She “apologize[s] five times in five paragraphs, acknowledging that by not responding, [she has] failed in the most basic form of ‘cyber decency.'” Her confession is thorough, delimiting the effort she has made to be productive and her inadequacy for such a task; and her penance is the shame of the performance itself.

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(Caravaggio, The Incredulity of St. Thomas)

And when she emerges from these humiliations, her disciples and coworkers may touch her wounds, incredulous at how she has suffered and been created (almost) anew.

Why working at a bookstore rocks

May 12, 2007

Aristotle, Poetics
+ Saint Augustine, City of God
+ Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love
+ Zygmunt Bauman, Society Under Siege
+ Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory
+ Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader
+ Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual
+ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
+ Henry James, Penguin edition of Selected Tales
+ Franz Kafka, The Trial
+ Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
+ Herman Melville, Norton Critical Edition of Melville’s short novels
+ Plato, Republic
+ Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
+ Robbins and Palmer, eds., Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements
+ Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars
+ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
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$33.25

A good mix of opportunistic interest expansion, classics, and before-bed reading that’s not too laborious but still interesting.

Productivity performance art

May 11, 2007

Is the difference between performer and audience simply a matter of gaze? Is it simply that the audience member must focus on a more distant object than the performer?

Consider the men and women that each of us likely encounter every day who spin digital yarn on the public stage – walking and sending text messages; dining with friends and checking e-mail. Their gazes, like those of actors, are directed at a closer field of action contained within a larger, framing space. If the tool of the audience member or, in the latter case, the random passer-by is the loupe, which flattens everything into details of a monolithic reality (an all-encompassing scene), the macro lens might be the most appropriate tool for the actor or the human engrossed in technology, who conceives of everything in a figure/ground dichotomy: there is existence out “there,” but the details are few, and the most important object is close and small.

Yet in the figure/ground organization of an image, the ground has to give context and meaning to the delicate, particular object which is in focus. Consider the stereotypical macro image of a flower; then, consider the difference between a background composed of more flowers or foliage and one of a raging fire. The ground gives meaning to the figure, but our interpretation of that ground is influenced by the details, the frailty of the figure.

So it is that the apparatus of technological productivity includes a never-ending semaphore: “I am being productive.” This, of course, requires its own allocation of time.

No where is this more apparent than the internet, where discrete web pages make up the otherwise fluid and immersive hypertext. And no single web page contributes more (or more popularly) to the putative productivity of the busy masses than Lifehacker. Full of hints for shaving seconds off of routine tasks, this website updates often enough to constitute a task in and of itself. Reading it becomes like a visit to the Container Store: a utopian vision of order, where the system itself is so conducive to accomplishment that it requires only your bare presence.

My idea is therefore this: to follow every single suggestion made by the website and document as my life turns into an unmanageable morass. (Please don’t interpret this as the inauguration of that project; others are encouraged to try it before I ever do.) I would be so occupied with developing new, more productive habits that I would be utterly immobilized. My computer would be so weighed down with productive software that it could hardly run (and I could scarcely navigate it). I would be in a state of such pure productivity that, bizarrely, I could get nothing done.