Babyji Saturday, Aug 30 2008 

(puns always intended)

In Delhi people are everywhere and the pressure of people is atmospheres and atmospheres. Think of this. Each place you go being full of relationships that must be confronted. There is no singing that embarrassing song alone in the car with all your might, there is no serene and empty wilderness through which to walk,  no coffee shop with headphones on, no back of the class with a a private better-than-textbook book. There is nothing but the pulsing of the throng, rioting for multiple and separate demands. This book and its teenage protagonist uses that as grounds for exploration.

Anamika Sharma is a smart teenager, but more than that she’s curious in a real way. Normal teenage curiosity seems to consist of wondering what adults do or think about something and then approximating it. Anamika wants something closer to the real truth and it’s actively irritating not to have it. This is how the book wins me over. I have a desperate need to figure things through. If you could grant me the wish of knowing everything I would take it I guess, but if you could grant me the wish of figuring everything out I would burst from joy. Look, right now you are reading me blab about reading, both are me trying to figure shit out. Where essentially my only options are literature in English and my own mind Anamika has a diverse multitude acknowledging and interacting with her. There are teachers, Hindu traditionalists, pragmatists, hipsters, wretches, lechers, lectures, but mostly there are lovers. She starts out using mostly science and literature to cipher all her urgent questions, but quickly gets turned on to social resources. Others are a most excellent reference and her life in Delhi is the Library of Alexandria in terms of material. She has a sophisticated divorcee, a servant from the ghetto, and a girl from school with whom she explores not only her sexuality but a host of existential concerns.

People are a good reference but you have to pay a certain amount of attention or drag them into conversation they might not be capable of carrying on. Sometimes it helps to rely on certain shorthands. Sex is probably the shortest hand we can get. Well, I don’t really want to presume what kind of sex you might be having, but here’s how I see it: Sex creates this sort of hyper-state where the brain is roiled simultaneously with a million square of thoughts, emotions, and senses.  It’s like–  the sound of cloth falling folds in the cloth make that sound fold fingers into fingers press against one or other chest where heartbeats heartbeats are vibrations, sound, making sounds the origin of sounds is the mouth a kiss then memory of kissing near the sea then eyes blue eyes are the worst getting wider seing more things dust is floating slowly in the light that forms a shell around a curve, a line, a curve, a bone with muscle and skin and nerves, and nerves, and nerves, and nerves. Sex is when you answer the question “how do you open this door?” with “Grip the metal handle with your right hand, adjust to its coolness, squeeze pulling your four fingers three centimetres closer to your palm, flex bicep and twist wrist thrity degrees downward, pull arm and door toward body.” Or at least it, uh, can be that way…

To cope Anamika must exist in all directions simultaneously like a sphere with spikes, an emotional hedgehog. Each member of the crowd is pricked with a pine, and each spine is a particular inclination or question that an intelligent teenager is likely to have. There’s freedom in all that anonymity. Poke someone’s finger with a fine point, (the spine of how to be smooth? for example), and they don’t react much because it is a small injury. Poke another finger, and another until eventually there is enough blood to write the answer with. This is how Anamika uses her lovers. When a concern arises she disperses it among them by mentioning it and then throwing herself at them, and afterward she seems to have some new clarity on whatever the problem. It isn’t always this way, she seems to have some genuine desire even if a lot of it seems to be sublimated from other emotions she can’t confront directly, but there is definitely a trope of erasure. The strange thing is Anamika rages when she detects anyone directing ulterior motives at her through sexual pursuit.

And that’s something that happens on a nearly constant basis because having an intellectual’s narcissism she seems to find that everyone is desperate for her. When this happens she generally tries to redirect them by gently, even surreptitiously addressing what she thinks the real problem is. Seem like you need her and she’ll help you get a job. In that there is a desperate need to feel powerful and adult because part of the problem with having a lot of questions is that it make you realize there is all this shit you don’t know. When people around her act out like the sinister Chakra Dev placing a condom on her paramour’s desk it belittles her own use of sex to explore. So she, still having that intellectual’s narcissism, goes to the root and reclaims her sex and her lovers as only hers, as under her power, as safe for use. In other words, get your sticky hands off of the books, I the educated and authorized will show you how to find what you need.

It’s not surprising she views her a relationship with a live-in servant whom she rescued from an abusive husband and teaches rudimentary English to (when it is convenient) as a point of personal pride rather than completely unethical and manipulative.  She thinks with pride several times of “owning” Rani and of her being a kept woman. She has a passing thought or two that it might be a problem to hold complete, emotional, intellectual, social, medical, housing, and sexual control over another human being.

I loved this book, but it’s hard. It’s not a great book for the anxious and the lonely, namely me. I have so many similar curiosities but my approach is so different. None of the things she does would be emotionally safe to me so reading them can be a bit like watching a horror movie. Not that I care if her schemes or relationships fail (I assume so many of mine will it’s ain’t even a thang), more that I imagine myself in them as they are playing out and feeling completely on edge. That means I am there with here which means the story is compelling enough to keep involved, but in a way that makes me a little tense the way reading about having a stroke might.

Here’s the other thing, for a book so loaded with sex– the large majority isn’t that compelling. At a certain point the reader is desensitized. It’s often graphic but rarely lurid. When I read about sex I want to feel those certain triggers, I want to have to regulate my blush on BART by hiding behind the covers and the sheets, and that only happened a couple times. I mean, (guy in the $800 banana suit?) come on! it’s sex. I don’t want to think, “Oh she grabbed that woman’s ass… I wonder if she will pass that chemistry test.” even if that is what she’s thinking. I think it boils down to what I talked about earlier with the hedgehog. It’s a very safe sort of living disturbing people with only the slightest pin wound and being in no danger yourself. What’s thrilling to me is to learn with danger. To put something on the line. I want to go forth with only a rapier, my blood kept in and my flesh kept whole a result of good form alone, form that could be matched or surpassed at any touch. Though after reading this book I kinda think I’ll start to keep a dagger in my boot, you know, just in case.

Review: Death of a Ladies Man Monday, Aug 25 2008 

Death of a Ladies’ Man is the most problematic Leonard Cohen album in that is should be fantastic. It’s a superhero team up of the possibly murderous Phil Spector and the incomparable man himself Leonard Cohen. The album is pretty much a wild debacle, though, and for the longest time I couldn’t put my finger on why. It’s the most troubling of modern paradox. You listen and it is like milimetres, nay nanometres! from being a Genghis Khan-like triumph and somehow that makes it a Nero-like misadventure.  This is my attempt to cut the Gordian Knot and maybe tear a famous blue raincoat or two.

I was driving through Oakland on highway 880 after work with L.C. grumbling away on the stereo as he so often does. Trucks are whizzing by, the sunshine is beating down on the bay to my right, and evidently a ladies’ man is dying in the circuits of my car. Then it hits me. The problem with Death of a Ladies’ Man is that it makes Leonard Cohen vulnerable.

Usually he speaks from a place of such authority even when he is wistful (So Long, Marianne) or pleading (Lady Midnight). His emotions are sorted, if painful, and he tells us how it is. This Leonard Cohen, however, is asking. On memories for example he sings from the perspective of a desperate teenager who, for all his false bravado, puts him in thrall of “the tallest and the blondest girl”

I think much of this reversal has origin in Phil Spector’s production choices. The wall of sound technique smooths out the gravitas from Leonard’s voice. The girl-groupesque instrumentals (eg long and plaintive saxophone solos, crescendoing brass) create a sense of trying too hard (Paper Thin Hotel and Iodine especially). Cohen’s poetry is best served by a minimal fuss that frame the narrative rather than coloring it. Even later albums with their synthesizers and smooth jazz function as a sort of afterthought, a house of cards that pedestals a golden trophy. Spector’s bombast is simply out of sync with the understated and powerful aesthetic we love from Leonard Cohen.

There some great moments. True Love Leaves No Traces is more restrained and sentimental in a compelling way. Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-on is charmingly weird and makes you want to be just as erotically confused. Memories will make you go “wtf? this is totally awesome— I think?”

And that’s the way I see it, at least.

Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee Friday, Jun 20 2008 

South Africa is fucked up. Post-apartheid South Africa is fucked up. Just being an Afrikaaner is fucked up in a certain way. This is a land with flamethrowers built into car doors as a defense against hijack; It should be a more alien setting, but as the backdrop of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace it’s unsettlingly familiar.

As an outsider approaching the subject of racial and political violence there is a temptation to distance oneself, as if saying “Oh, how horrible, and over there.” You know, the same way that a lot of Americans think of the South, or the past. Better yet, think of it as watching a Mad Max movie where everything is bizarre and terrible, but come on. Come on. In sum toto we recognize suffering and that suffering is bad, but not so much any responsibility for or desire to share in it (Isn’t this essentially what it means to be American?). Alternately we can try relating these terrors to our own lives, but how to do so without belittling their real circumstances? Can we seek understanding without appropriating? This is the major tension of Disgrace.

David Lurie is an obsolete professor sullenly teaching the too practical too vulgar, subject of communications where during apartheid he taught modern languages and classics. He purchases sex the way other people purchase a sandwich. He’s resigned, going through the motions, he’s not going to bother anyone and doesn’t want anyone to bother him. A ritualist in Robert Merton’s typology of deviance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strain_theory_%28sociology%29#Robert_King_Merton) Lurie is just serving his time. The problem is that he lives detached from the reality of his position. It’s not surprising that he sleeps with a student, Melanie Isaacs, nor that the student is black, or that he doesn’t see the need to apologize or admit that it was anything other than two consenting adults. Professor Lurie takes the dissociative attitude I talked about above in that he is cognizant of power imbalances but entirely unwilling to recognize it in his own life; even when enters his life in a direct and violent way.

The biggest flaw in the novel is a trope about the inadequacy of language. The book itself is an embodied contradiction to the claim that language is inadequate. Language is powerful and good and completely up to task. Can it let us understand what the situation is like? Perhaps not. But it can certainly describe to us and point out the obstacles to understanding. Frankly, any author (keyword: author) that makes the tired, trite assertion that language is not a capable mode of expression can go fuck themselves.

The world of Disgrace is bleak and accurate. Eventually Lurie comes to some recognition of his misdeeds, but as in the real world learning your lesson is rather meaningless. Lessons don’t undo misery, nor do apologies. I know this is a strange assertion to make in the United States where a little liberal white guilt seems to go a long way toward abdication of responsibility. How many times have you shaken your head at a fundamentalist or a support our troops bumper sticker and thought, “I am not that kind of person, I do not do those kind of things.” How satisfying it must be to a woman desperate and pregnant in a state with one abortion clinic and the corpses of the Middle East that you are a “good person” and that were it up to you everyone would be raised to your level. David Lurie never barred anyone from voting or bound them with a burning tire, yet tacitly he is an oppressor. If there is not value in being sorry then there isn’t any in being right while misery still exists.

The futility is strangely gratifying. Lurie is never redeemed or forgiven through his guilt. He ends up a degraded tangent of his daughter’s trauma, euthanizing wretched dogs and watching their bodies burn. His daughter tells him, poignantly: ” You behave as if everything I do is part of the story of your life. You are the main character, I am a minor character who doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through. Well, contrary to what you think, people are not divided into major and minor. I am not minor. I have a life of my own, just as important as yours is to you, and in my life I am the one who makes the decisions.” This embodies what much of what we can take away from Disgrace. There is more than the West making amends and admitting the wrongs of colonialism. We need to appreciate the fullness and independence of other societies without the expectation of absolution. We need to do things for their own sake, a strongly anti-capitalist notion.

Like energy and matter there is a conservation of misery; it gets moved around, redistributed but never reduced. When Lurie says, “I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day to day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” he offers a resolution to the tension between relating and detaching, simultaneous excursions into both extremes. In this way we recognize the pain of others without using it as our own, we understand without pretending we are noble for doing so. The same doubled for our own pain.

“Trying to accept disgrace as my state of being.” A perfect maxim for the postcolonial West, and anyone really. If we can be silent collaborators to the suffering of others there must be be a way to be a silent ally to their happiness. In the silence, the disgrace-like acceptance, is the region where real connections are possible. Kant framed it as considering every person as an end to themselves, but tainted it with the reward of being considered “moral” for doing so. In the realm of the personal: to notice others, to remember that people are not major or minor, to accept disgrace as our state of being, and to be a silent ally.

In Our Bedroom After the War, Stars Tuesday, May 20 2008 

Listening to Stars can be a very humanizing experience; it’s pop that will make you a little uncomfortable when you realize how much you like it. I’m not trying to say that they function like anything close to a guilty pleasure, but the jaune jeunesse put a lot of effort into avoiding conventional expression these days. Too often sincerity is roughly correlated to gaucherie, but Stars doesn’t care. Barricade, for example , is violence in a slow-motion of minor piano chords and phrases like “the love died, but the hate can’t fade.” Familiar yes, but never wincing because Torquil Campbell’s ardent uncertainty creates a satisfying tension. A tension that exists between the artifice we use to set ourselves apart and the common feelings that draw us together. The album is filled with characters trying to make themselves bigger, more important in one-hundred different ways: drugs, revenge, confessions, games, mutual parisitism, but the stronger trope is how an undercurrent of loneliness drives all of this.

In Our Bedroom After the War offers a refreshing form of musical atheism where songs take place in the confines of the real. We are not on dusty train tracks with semi-mystical geriatrics that populate alt-country, nor the hyper-cities consisting solely of cocktail parties, art openings, and alienation of most other Rock. Mostly we are in the space where life’s trivial props take on meanings just as large as escapist vistas: the space between lovers.Take Me To The Riot describes the anxiety of drug-fueled locomotion, but the buoy on a sea of cash and pills is still a human connection implied by the imperative title. Personal is a masterful duet between Campbell and Millan that is a back and forth straight from Craigslist: when a “wanted: single F, under 33” is found and then stood up the listener is just as lost as she is to say what happened. The story examines what happens when connections miss in a context that is eminently repeatable, but with an intelligence that keeps it out of the realm of novelty by begging the question, “is it you or me?” In the end it doesn’t matter because one outcome means we are as bad as our insecurities tell us we are, or that another’s will keep them from appreciating us.

This strikes at the drama of what is common and the futility of trying to transcend it. There is too much telling us that what we feel is not good enough, not sophisticated, and pop songs like those found on In Our Bedroom After the War are the perfect riposte. As a form they are supposed to be disposable. yet as a subject they make up what is perhaps most important. The best example is the opus Window Bird with its sinister bass hook that mimics a departing lover’s steps, and a late-game instrumental fist fight that reminds us who we’re dealing with, all set in contrast to Millan’s vulnerable whisper.

There’s an attractive self-awareness about the whole project. It might be a little embarrassing to like or get caught singing in the car, but there isn’t really a choice because it’s so compelling. An ethos that is captured in the band’s merchandise, specifically a badge proclaiming “stars is for fags.” A number among which this author is proud to be counted.

Wheatley Contra Winthrop Monday, May 19 2008 

En route to what would become Massachusetts John Winthrop laid out his vision for the new society in a sermon called A Model of Christian Charity. He lays out codes of behaviour and ethics for the emergent community and says that it should be, “as a city upon a hill.” (Winthrop) Here Winthrop is referring to Matthew 5:14 in which the Christian community is set apart to function as an example to the entire world, and in so doing he suggests that this group of puritans should endeavour to establish their colony as a guiding utopia. Then Winthrop explains what a successful and what a failing City on a Hill will look like, and in so doing inadvertently undermines the rest of his vision.

The condition of failure for Winthrop is such: “if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other gods, our pleasures and profits, and serve them… we shall surely perish out of the good land.” (Winthrop) Conversely, in a successful City on a Hill Winthrop writes, “ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemy.” (Winthrop) Winthrop believes so fully in an interventionist god that he places all evaluative measures of his new society in its material survival and success. He does not imagine a mechanism by which the community can examine and change itself from within, and for him this is not necessary for surely should they fail morally then God would not allow them to thrive. As a result, physical conditions in the new community become the barometer for moral ones and no procedure for self-evaluation and improvement is adopted; these are the critical oversights that tilt the City on a Hill concept into the abyss of failure. (It is important to note that the failure implied is one of concept rather than substance, because the new colony did indeed become a prosperous new land to which many in the world would look to for starting anew) The society where individual worth is measured by material demonstration (as it was in Puritan culture through “signs”) creates marginalized populations who suffer the stress of being labeled inferior or wrong for conditions beyond their control.

Slaves are a prime example of such a marginalized population. Blacks were said to be descendants of Ham, and therefore condemned to slavery by god through Noah (Gen 9:25). Much of the argument that blacks were inferior was predicated on the condition of African civilization, a stance which seems to mirror the logic of Winthrop, but in a negative sense. At the time it could have been argued that if slaves were intended to be free and reap the bounty of New England then God would provide them the means by which to raise themselves up. Alternately, it was argued that slavery is that means in as much as it gave blacks access to knowledge of Christ and thrall to whites was either of little consequence due to the fact that bodily suffering was regarded as temporary and acceptable to gain salvation or slavery was an improvement to barbarism and apostasy in Africa (Saffin). For Puritan society on the one hand the trappings of this world are transitory and pale when compared to the bounty of the divine so we shouldn’t revel in them, but on the other hand, they are so important that they define if we are a success or failure, damned or saved, slave or free. We find parallels in Winthrop when he says at first that for Christians worldly possessions and status matter so little compared to status with God that we should give freely of ourselves to help our fellow man, and then in the same turn that as a community our worldly status matters so much that it demonstrates how God feels about the group.

A lonely voice of contradiction comes in the pen of Phyllis Wheatley, a slave and poet. In her poems Wheatley describes the disconnect between the suffering of slaves and the freedom of Christians when the two are joined in a single individual. The poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is especially informative of her arguments. The text of the poem is as follows:

“’Twas mercy that brought me from my Pagan land,/ Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/ Once I redemption neither sought now knew./ Some view out fable race with scornful eye,/ ‘Their colour is a diabolic die,’/ Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

Wheatley’s poem can be read as an attempt to highlight the imbalance between her moral/spiritual freedom as a converted Christian and her material oppression as a slave. The first line of the poem, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,” (Wheatley) can be taken to refer to the land of the unconverted soul rather than literal land. The word mercy is particularly telling because it guides the reader to think in a context of religious language. Also note that italics are placed on the words Pagan, Saviour, Christians, Negros, and Cain further implying the religious subject matter and that the blackness and ignorance in the context of the poem is spiritual instead of racial. The Christian notion of mercy had elevated Wheatley to a religious status equal to whites. There is something missing, however, and in the final two lines of the poem Wheatley nudges the reader to fill in the blank, “Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” (Wheatley) If blacks, through salvation, “May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” along with whites then why can’t they be raised to the level of whites on the mortal plane? The poem seems to be telling the reader that while he or she sees and hears of Africa as a savage place because the physical conditions in which its people live that the souls and the people of Africa are equal but for want of freedom and opportunity. Wheatley’s poems and Wheatley herself help whites break out of the cyclical argument that Africans have been enslaved because they are inferior and they are inferior because they have been enslaved. If she had ever judged herself in the terms of whites and of Winthrop would she even have bothered trying to pray or write?

Gordon Carter does or does not receive his first kiss Monday, May 19 2008 

I am Gordon Carter, a teenager, and I have been drinking for about an hour. I elected to skip the final class of the day, Physical Education, and instead sit by the dumpster behind the theatre with a bottle. I hesitate to say that it was typical teenage rebellious behavior, if only because no one else is around to see it. All day I have been in an intolerable mood and I am just so tired. For some reason there is an old mattress behind the blue dumpster, so I sit on it smoking Parliament cigarettes and taking timid sips. The mattress is soaked and water creeps into the seat of my pants. I do not get up.

At the end of that lonely hour it is time to walk home. I put on the heavy coat then break the bottle on the ground and step on the pieces. The waning daylight makes the dirty snow on the ground look blood orange. I hate this kind of cold, it intrudes everywhere. It goes up your nostrils and the warmth inside your ears pulses like a slap in the face. I watch my lonely feet as they march on the sidewalk. My dumb combat boots have long shit-looking smears on their steel toes; it’s from the sand the city puts in the streets when it snows. Cars drive through the sand and splatter it onto the sidewalks. Most cities use salt, but this one uses sand. Salt apparently corrodes cars or something; it’s better just to make everything dirty I guess. I don’t really know a lot about traction or snow; this is the first city I have ever been to where it snows. Where I come from the only thing they put on the roads is new asphalt.

I have been walking for what seems like a long time but when I see the sign for Chesterfield Lane I know I’ve only gone about two blocks, maybe two and a half. I take a seat on the curb because I’m tired. Maybe if I wasn’t always skipping gym I’d be able to walk more than two blocks without having to catch my breath. Maybe if I didn’t smoke so many damn cigarettes– light a Parliament and examine the tip. I love the way a cigarette glows, the way I imagine coal burning in the furnace of an old steam boat must have glowed.

A year ago, back in Austin, my friend Ken had a pack of Japanese cigarettes with charcoal in them. That was really something if you ask me. We shared a pack on his front lawn; even though his parents were cool we always smoked outside because I think it’s primitive to be lighting fires indoors in this time period. People here are allowed to smoke in the fucking supermarket because there is this stupid zoning law that lets people smoke in casinos. Apparently the Indians threatened to sue when the city voted to ban smoking in restaurants, but when they changed the law to exempt casinos the definition of casino included businesses with lottery machines. Anyway, Ken’s mom was always going back to Hong Kong and she would buy him foreign cigarettes from duty free.

“Ken,” I said, “it’s fucked up that your mom buys you cartons of cigarettes.”

“In China kids start smoking in elementary school. It’s like France and wine.’

“Bullshit.” I said

“It’s not bullshit, it’s my culture you racist. All the kids and the teacher light up and read the Little Red book in a big cloud of smoke. It symbolizes the problems with industrialization, and the government makes them do it to solve the population problem.”

“Fuck you, Ken.” I said, “All I am saying is that I think it’s weird that your mom buys you cigarettes.”

“Well,” he replied, “you can’t possibly object that much, can you?” He pointed at my cigarette.

“You’ve got me there. I just love these things.”

Ken always was a great debater. I imagine one day he will go back to China when they get Hong Kong back and be a member of the fucking Politburo or something. A few months ago he sent me a whole box of those Japanese cigarettes, and I have been saving the last one; transferring it from pack to pack for when I really need it. I miss Ken. If this place were a steamboat Ken and I’d be working the furnace chatting it up.

Lately I never put out my cigarettes when I finish them because I love to watch the embers explode when the butt hits the ground. When I let this one go an old blue Chevrolet hops the curb scraping its right fender against the Chesterfield Lane sign. “Shit!” I think and run over to the passenger door to see if whoever’s in the car is okay. I look through the window to see a girl about my age, probably in my year, leaning across the front seat struggling to open the passenger window. Of course this car has those old crank windows and she’s restrained by her seatbelt, but with her arms fully extended she manages to get it down about half way. I am waiting for her to say something, I am waiting for her to cry “Help!” and spit out a mouthful of blood.

“Hey!” She says, “Do you need a ride?”

What? Are you kidding me?

I ask, “Are you okay?”

She looks confused, “Uh, yeah. Do you need a ride?”

Do I want a ride from a stranger who crashes her giant boat car into signs and for all I know kidnaps people off the street and dances in their entrails to the tune of “It’s Rainin’ Men”? My ear throbs, and although in another block I’d be able to see the intersection where my street crosses this one, I do apparently want a ride from such a person. I’m tired, out of breath and I’ve never really thought very much of my entrails anyway.

“Sure, um thanks,” I say.

She looks friendly enough, and I’m the rough and tumble customer with a wet ass and shit boots who’s going to mess up this person’s car—I scrape the dirt from my boots on to the curb before getting in.

“I’m Sarah,” she says

“Gordon. How do you do.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she says, “just glad to be done with class right?”

I make the sound people everywhere make when they go to push their floor in an elevator and see the number already lit up. The people around here with their American yacht-cars and smoking in the supermarket drive me nuts. How do you do is not a question. You know what; I shouldn’t be such a dick. She’s giving me a ride.

I say, “Yeah, I can’t wait to get home. Thanks again for the ride.”

I buckle my seatbelt because, even though I’m probably gonna get cancer at 22, I’m not an idiot. I remember seeing the pope on TV driving around in his bullet proof pope car standing up in the glass bubble part with no seatbelt, the crazy bastard.

Sarah looks over her shoulder waiting for a chance to merge back into traffic from the curb and I look directly at her for the first time. She has red hair kept back with either a clip or elastic band, I can’t tell which. If were a woman I would want to have soft red hair like that. I don’t know if I would keep it back. I would probably wear it shorter because that’s the sort of look I like. Someone, a real standup chap, stops and lets her back into traffic and we start off down the street.

“I saw you sitting there and I thought about how cold it is and how it must suck to have to walk,” she says

“Oh, it’s not really that far for me. Make a right at the right up there.” I say.

As we drive up my street the warm air from the heater blows softly on my face and it makes me tired.

“Thanks, this is close enough,” I said when we were still pretty far, “I can walk from here.”

I unbuckled my seatbelt, turned and opened the door. Then something weird happened: I felt a small puff of air on my cheek only softer and less warm than the heater. As I rose from the car I think I felt something brush across my face. Sarah smiled and waved while making a U-turn and driving away. I waved back weakly. What had just happened? Did she just kiss me? Why? I’ll tell you why, it was some kind of hit job kiss-the-loser dare between her and her giggling friends. Or maybe she’s some kind of sexual predator, picking up strangers and kissing them before dropping them out in the cold. Dud it even really happen? She would’ve had to have unbuckled her seatbelt; she couldn’t even lean far enough to open the window in that damn car. I don’t remember her doing that. She could’ve unbuckled it when I yawned. Oh my god she was driving without a seatbelt. I have to run, catch up with her car, and make her buckle up before she splatters herself like the pope in his stupid fishbowl. Wait, I think I saw her wearing it when she waived. Shit, I can’t remember. Shit. If she kissed me I probably liked it, but if she wasn’t buckled up that is just fucked. That’s like smoking inside, in the grocery store—I open my box of Parliaments and take out that last cigarette from Ken that I’ve been saving. The charcoal flavor is smooth and smoky, but on a night like this– I don’t think throwing any amount of coal in the furnace is going to do the trick. I cannot remember a moment where I have felt so unreconciled with myself. It’s so hard to have reasonable expectations and dizziness at once. What did I expect? No one else could unravel the tapestry of my lonely nightmare by becoming tangled in its weave, or by guiding me to tango steps that would pull so strong the fraying threads stuck to my shoes. Yet I was so disappointed in those next days when my coal-burned eyes didn’t see any red strands stray or ships come in. Disappointed until I resigned down to looking again at sludgy sidewalks, dirty boots, and hanging threads.

Morality Monday, May 19 2008 

We have examined how Nietzsche engaged in a critical dialogue in his Beyond Good and Evil; another topic he examines in this ways is morality. “Every morality is, as opposed to laisser aller, a bit of tyranny against ‘nature’” (sec. 188 ) The mention of laisser aller or the freedom to be for we English speakers, emphasizes Nietzsche’s desire to promote what he considers life-affirming. For Nietzsche morality is considered life-denying because it violates the relativity and diversity of life. Moralities impose artificial, homogenous systems of behavior on people that because of cultural, personal, and even spatial distances can never follow them. Further more human nature strains against the bonds of morality, so society breeds obedience into men and corrupts their natural instincts: “obedience has until now been bred and practiced best among humans… Human development has been so strangely restricted… because the herd instinct is inherited best, at the cost of the skill of commanding.” (sec. 199)

Nietzsche identifies the source of the bondage of morality as distinctly Abrahamic. Judeo-Christian values (he does not mention Islam specifically but would certainly include it) have created a climate that distinctly represses: “Their [the Jews’] prophets fused ‘rich’, ‘godless’, ‘evil’, ‘violent’, and ‘sensuous’ into one entity… the slave revolt in morals begins with them.” (sec. 195) In such a system none of the above concepts can be taken on their own merits; all that is possible is a system of binary opposition for “good” things and “evil” ones. Evil things cannot be embraced regardless of context.

Consider, a moment, eating a delicious kabob the vegetables are perfectly roasted, there is a delicate drizzle of sesame oil, and all of the flavors blend perfectly. Yet in the god and evil binary we are considered “sensuous” and by extension evil. We are told to repress our natural reaction to embrace and revel in that experience. In this context it only be denying and debasing ourselves that we can be what they would consider superlative and what Nietzsche would consider herded.

As a result of this position on Judeo-Christian systems we must stop to consider if Nietzsche’s position refers to all moralities or only this sort. The answer, as usual, is yes and also no. Yes because it is hard if not impossible to point to a moral system at this time that does not frame issues in the same kind of binary. Whatever the system we are looking for some bizarre, ethereal good. In philosophy we are told to think toward “higher” forms and to subject the natural workings of our mind to artificial constructions that classify statements with feeling as invalid. Every facet of society is so infected with this thinking that it indeed seems that all moralities do operate in this system. Does that mean, though, that Nietzsche casts the same doubts on all conceivable moralities? Not precisely, because if we can imagine a morality which conformed to a life-furthering model and embraced free human impulses this might be endorsed. But, would such a system be a morality at all or merely life?

Principles of the Philosophy of the Future Monday, May 19 2008 

I. Introduction
In his “Principles of the Philosophy of the Future” Ludwig Feuerbach examines the philosophical tradition up to the point of his own writing and reflects primarily on how that tradition defined man. For the modern philosophers (of Feuerbach’s era) most importantly Descartes (he also specifically mentions Kant and Ficht) man was defined as a thinking being.
This definition arose from the tendency of, what Feuerbach refers to as, “speculative philosophy” to formulate expressions about humanity in direct relation to God, the idealization of reason. In the dynamic of man in relation to reason the activity of man must necessarily be thought and he must therefore be a thinking being.

Feuerbach seeks to revise our understanding of man from a thinking being to a feeling (specifically loving) one. The repositioning of man is the fulfillment of “the transformation and dissolution of theology into anthropology.” (Feuerbach, 1) in the modern era. Feuerbach considered the work of Hegel to be the culmination of the modern period and that Hegel’s pantheistic streak showed its idealism to be a sort of veiled materialism, and in a materialist context it becomes necessary that man must be a feeling thing rather than a thinking one. If there is no noumenal existence then it becomes impossible to define man’s essential activity as the noumenal act of reasoning, of thought.

II. The Philosophy of the Future

To examine the role of human beings Feuerbach first had to determine which part of existence, and therefore which part of human life, had the most reality. He introduces this focus thusly: “The new philosophy, which thinks the concrete not in an abstract but a concrete way, which acknowledges the real in its reality” (Feuerbach, 31) It is important for him to establish that the sensuous (or material) world holds a primacy in the life of man in order to make the argument that the sensuous activity of feeling is therefore similarly prime.

Feuerbach contends that ideas are obtained from unconscious sensuous truths. If we are able to conceive of a form, say a triangle, it is because we have an unconscious sensuous impression of it, most likely a visual image. The problem is that we only understand and become conscious of the sensuous reality once we have deduced the idea; we cannot identify a three sided object as a triangle until we have created the idea of triangle and applied meaning to it. As Feuerbach puts it: “The demand that the Idea realise itself, that it assume sensuousness arises from the fact that sensuous reality is unconsciously held to be the truth which is both prior to and independent of thought. Thought proves its truth by taking recourse to sensuousness; how could this be possible if sensuousness was not unconsciously held to be the truth?” (Feuerbach, 31)

Having established that the senses establish being, “as given to us not only as thinking, but also as really existing being – as the object of being, as its own object,” (Feuerbach, 33) Feuerbach can now move forward into how sensing (feeling) beings can assert and identify themselves as the populous in the realm of reality. Feuerbach identifies love as the means for distinguishing the real from the non-existent. The God of Christianity is humanity idealized and his most emphasized trait, anthropologically speaking, is his capacity for love. It is important to note that the object of the Christian God’s love is always a being, never an idea. Applying the properties of the idea back to the idealized object Feuerbach concludes: “The Christian God himself is only an abstraction from human love and an image of it. And since the demonstrative this owes its absolute value to love alone, it is only in love – not in abstract thought – that the secret of being is revealed. Love is passion, and passion alone is the distinctive mark of existence. Only that which is an object of passion, exists” (Feuerbach, 33).

So, when human beings examine the natural world and encounter objects which arouse strong feelings it is actually a reflection of their own being, most often with this reflection being labeled as God, or the divine. The association of God and fire is the example used by Feuerbach: “Where God appears and is worshiped in the fire, there it is that fire is in actual truth worshiped as God. God in the fire is nothing else than the being of fire which is so striking to men because of its effects and qualities” (Feuerbach, 40). An important distinction is that in this process of labeling and appropriation there is a generalization that occurs. Just as with objects, a person has a tendency to conceptualize himself, what we have called the feeling loving thing, into God. Then in reflection the person realizes God in other men and creates a communication between his own sensuous reality and a community of people. For example, a man experiences greed, thinks about it, creates habits around it, applies these to the idealized man (God), and that idea is reflected back on others. What seems to be communication between God and man, idea and reality, is actually communication between man and man. It is in this way that we may conclude that in the new philosophy the community of persons is made up of feeling beings guided by love to make determinations about the external material world and communicate them to one another. Feuerbach stresses the importance of that communication: “The true dialectic is not a monologue of the solitary thinker with himself. It is a dialogue between “I” and “You” (Feuerbach, 62). Indeed in a materialist conception of reality the thoughts of one member of the human community uncommunicated have in them no reality.

III. Conclusion

Through his work Feuerbach attempted to ground philosophical discussion in material reality. By framing thought around the thinker rather than the concept and objects around their application rather than their form he did much to direct philosophy toward becoming a science of being rather than a science of meaning. The philosophy of his future, especially in the work of Marx, came to focus on man in the world interacting with other men, in large part thanks to his efforts.

Social forces such as governments, economics, and politics could now enter the purview of philosophical discussion because they are such strong elements in the life of man as being.

Alienated Labor Monday, May 19 2008 

I. Introduction
In the arena of modern philosophy the problem of defining membership in the human community has been of paramount importance. Where up until that point thinkers such as Descartes, Berkley, and Hume focused primarily on the interaction of forms and objects philosophers of the modern period began to take a more humanist course.
It became essential to define the actors (humans) in relation to activities of reason. For Hegel and Kant this meant agents existing and adhering to a moral dynamic that was determined apart from humanity by reason (to Hegel reason is given specifically by God). In adopting a materialist stance and divorcing a moral dynamic from anything beyond human interaction Marx was forced to frame his examination of personhood in purely social terms. He accomplished this in his essay “The Estrangement of Labor” by evaluating the status of a person as a dynamic between activities (labor) and objects (products). His conclusion: when a human is alienated from the activity of life (for Marx, labor) in relation to objects they lose what it is that makes them human: “The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things.” (Marx)

II. Four Aspects of Alienated Labor:

Marx identified four ways that workers are alienated from labor in the capitalist system. First, Marx claimed that workers are alienated from products. As a result of the interaction between private property and social labor a product’s value increases the more labor is put into it. Compare say, a t-shirt to a single stage 2 MeV linear Van de Graaff particle accelerator. The labor in the first case is probably performed by a single individual and the wage paid to that individual reflects the low value of that product. Also, at the very least the worker can own a similar object to the one produced. In the second case the product is the sum of the labor of an uncountable horde of individuals contributing knowledge and effort to this object, so when we consider the worker in the Chinese factory who soldered one of the many circuit boards together, he has no idea what his labor has accomplished, he has been given compensation far out of proportion to the product he has created, and he could never hope to match the value of the product to his labor.

Next, Marx says that workers are alienated from the act of producing. Workers do not own what they produce and “the product is simply the resumé of the activity, of the production.” (Marx) so therefore a worker can never “own” the process of production, his/her very own labor. This separation of actor from act creates a situation in which the act of producing an object that has become alien means that a worker “does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind.” (Marx)

Marx’s tertiary facet of estranged labor is that workers are alienated from themselves. To this point Marx introduces the concept of species-life in that man derives his being from nature both physically and in consciousness. Man’s self-definition results from his life activity, but unlike animals this activity (work) is not spontaneous or instinctual. Also unlike animals man can engage in work beyond his needs and in this way it becomes separate from his essential being and able to be commodified. This is where the alienation arises: “Estranged labour reverses the relationship so that man, just because he is a conscious being, makes his life activity, his essential being, a mere means for his existence.” So what should be then end of life is the means and a worker is divorced from the very purpose of his being.

Finally, Marx argues that workers are estranged from other men. He poses this question: “If the product of labour is alien to me, and confronts me as an alien power, to whom does it then belong?” (Marx) Implying that if a product is not owned by a man the one who does own it becomes necessarily an alien other. This alien other who owns the product can not be related to by the worker because they did not participate in the labor process that created that object. The nature of private property comes into play in creating a division between worker and owner: “he [the worker] regards the product of his labour, his objectified labour, as an alien, hostile, and powerful object which is independent of him, then his relationship to that object is such that another man – alien, hostile, powerful, and independent of him – is its master. If he relates to his own activity as unfree activity, then he relates to it as activity in the service, under the rule, coercion, and yoke of another man.” (Marx) In being estranged from object and activities man must in this way be estranged from other men in relation to their position in the process of production. For Marx this manifests as classes, because the process of production creates a psychological necessity for the worker to regard the owner as hostile and separate in the same way he must regard the object.

III. Resolution

How is it that if the process by which man derives survival, meaning, and interaction is so corrupt we can hope for better? For Marx the answer comes in the elimination of private property. For all the estrangement and problems hitherto described Marx identifies private property as the source: “Private property as the material, summarized expression of alienated labour embraces both relations – the relation of the worker to labour and to the product of his labour and the non-workers, and the relation of the non-worker to the worker and to the product of his labour.” If private property were eliminated in a Marxist context this would mean that the process and product of labor would be owned by the worker and therefore be absorbed into his essential being. Given that in this context the worker would not likely want to sell of what is no longer alien to but is indeed part of the worker production would limit itself to social need. Also rather than relying on an arcane web of production to meet various needs the worker would engage in a variety of labor and this form of multifarious expression would be universal and therefore relatable.

IV. Conclusion

In examining estranged labor Marx identified private property as an essential component of class struggle. The fact that the worker did not own the product of his labor creates a tension between worker and task which filters into all of the other relationships that the worker must enter into as a result of labor. Therefore, according to Marx, it is of paramount importance that private property be abolished and the worker free to reclaim labor as the essential activity of his species-being.

Kant and Hegel Monday, May 19 2008 

1. Introduction

The value assigned to the concept of a person is an essential question to all individuals and societies. In the west we have attempted to arrive at a definition through philosophy, and in this philosophy two key perspectives emerge regarding personhood in the context of a society: Kant’s notion that every rational being is an end in itself contained in a moral community, and Hegel’s that humanity is a component in the motion of history toward its ultimate end in the self-understanding of God. Seemingly, the two positions are directly opposed; persons as ends versus persons as means, but in the arcane salad of the philosopher’s words particularities arise that require special attention.

2. Separations and Similarities

2.1 Kant:

Kant presents that persons are ends in themselves and that they have the ability to impose their rational nature upon their will, yet this level of rationality is not always possible, hunger for example or as Kant puts it: “natural necessity is the property of the causality of all non-rational beings, through which they are caused to act in specific ways by the influence of outside causes.” (Kant, 39) so we must consider a person from two standpoints: First as a free and rational actor, and second as a body subject to the sometimes insurmountable influences and demands of the outside world. It is trough this idea of considering persons from dual standpoints that a unity emerges with Hegel where there seemed to be a chasm of difference.

2.2 Hegel

Hegel does not explicitly refer to humanity as ends in themselves, in fact he argues very directly that we are a means by which God comes to understand himself, and history is the process that allows this to happen. Incidentally, when dealing with Hegel we use the term “human” in place of “person” because in Hegel’s conception of history there are only two actors, God and humans; extra-terrestrials, hyper-intelligent cheeses and other possible persons are not a factor in Hegel’s conception of the movement of history toward God’s self-understanding.

2.3 Unity

If persons are both a means and exclusively human to Hegel then how is he at all in concert with Kant, you ask? Well quite your ignorant heart, my gibbering Dante, for your handsome, noble Virgil will illuminate: Hegel conceives of humanity as moving toward an ultimate end, but within that motion we are free, rational actors. From a Kantian perspective we can take Hegel to simply be claiming that we are subject to an extra law in the second standpoint, the motion of history.

3. The Microscope or the Telescope

3.1 Under the Microscope: Ends

It is time to get explicit about each conception of personhood so that we may come to view them with great clarity. Kant views a rational being as an end in itself as an essential component in the ability to create universal laws because, to him, the question of God’s existence is not determinable so laws cannot flow from that source and to derive them from situations and experiences would only provide situational laws (what Kant calls hypothetical imperatives) or as he puts it: “: “Ends that a rational being adopts arbitrarily as effects… are in every case only relative.” (Kant, 95) Food, for example, only has value relative to hunger.

Since his goal is to formulate a universal law (categorical imperative) he must find some other basis; some sort of “groundwork” for a “metaphysic of morals” (titles can be so illustrative). Kant believes that only “something whose being has in itself an absolute value… could be a ground of determinate laws.” (Kant, 95) This something, obviously, is “every rational being” (Kant, 95) This value combined with rationality provides the basis for a being to act morally in that it may regard at least one object as having absolute value and orient its actions around the juxtaposition of absolute and relative values.

This orientation presents itself as the previously mentioned two standpoints. Kant says: “[A person] can consider himself first… to be under the laws of nature (heteronomy); and secondly… to be under laws that… have their ground in reason alone.” This balance is what helps Kant determine where morality exists or is absent. A person may be saving someone’s life because he/she has a tasty grilled panini in his/her briefcase or out of duty to act from moral law. Because the two motives have the same result the only way to determine which act is moral and which has no moral content is by judging to what extent the actor has acted autonomously by imposing moral thought on actions or heteronomously by imposing deliciousness on toasted bread and spicy mustard.

3.2 Under the Telescope: Odds

Hegel argues that philosophy brings the idea that “reason governs the world” to the study of history and that reason shows us that history have a definitive and unstoppable movement toward freedom. God comes to understand himself through this very process. First, there must be a way for freedom to develop on our world, and this exists as the sum of human deeds, or as Hegel puts it: “The question of the means by which Freedom develops itself to a World, conducts us to the phenomenon of History itself.” (Hegel)

So if we, as actors in history provide a mechanism for God does this mean that Hegel was in opposition to the idea humanity had absolute value or that we cannot act autonomously because history is determined? In a sense no, but in another sense yes. No in that Hegel’s conception of God does not have will so in the same way that we could not consider ourselves a means by which gravity achieves the end of pulling we could not necessarily consider ourselves as a means for God.

Hegel uses the example of the building of a house from stone to explain this idea, but we will turn our attention to a more contemporary, less brutish illustration. A number of cars are driving on; let’s say Interstate 80 from Reno, Nevada to San Francisco, California so that the people in those cars might enjoy a nice dim sum in Chinatown. While one driver might be in a Toyota Prius and choose to diligently signal when changing lanes another might be in a hummer and choose to eat bacon while driving and throw draught beer cans from his window. One might go 65 mph, another 80, and in this context the drivers are free to act morally in the Kantian sense. At the same time, however, they cannot, as a collective avoid the perfectly steamed shrimp dumplings on the other side of the Bay Bridge. Hegel describes this process as such: “Thus the elements are made use of in accordance with their nature, and yet to co-operate for a product, by which their operation is limited. Thus the passions of men are gratified; they develop themselves and their aims in accordance with their natural tendencies, and build up the edifice of human society; thus fortifying a position for Right and Order against themselves.” (Hegel)

Hegel’s thinking does, however, present the following dilemma: if history’s ultimate end is the self-understanding of God then all actions within history are influence by this movement, and are therefore in Kantian terms heteronomous. Hegel gets around this and preserves the value of persons in his arguing that the question of God is determinable only in the affirmative, so it is collectively rather than individually that humans have absolute value.

4. Conclusion

To revisit the brilliant example of the highway. We can view Kant as a highway patrolman scanning the roads for violators and obiedients, and Hegel as a government official sending out snow plows and repaving roads to keep traffic moving in the right direction. Both philosophers view persons as having value, but in different ways. For Kant a person is what makes morality possible, and for Hegel people are an essential part of an inevitable history.

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