Sunday, May 04, 2008

Limited Return in a Limitless Situation

After a three month hiatus, I've returned to talk about an incredibly interesting essay by Wednell Berry in Harper's Magazine. The essay, entitled "Faustian Economics", explores the ignorance most Americans have regarding the limited nature of our resources and the huge push that capitalism must make to maintain this myth. Our desire to continue to American way of life, Berry says, transforms our perception of science as a limitless field of knowledge that will solve all of our problems by figuring out new ways to convert different resources into energy -- a truly flawed perception that parallels the condescension that science usually presents toward religion: the notion that something will save us from our challenges and that we need not change our life to conform to the will of the time. Now, tragically, even the most enlightened among us rely on technology to "solve" the problems of global warming and resource reduction, spinning our capitalistic practices in various "low-impact" ways in order to lessen to dent on the sum total.

All this talk of limitlessness reminds me, of course, of Virilio and Baudrillard, and the way in which technology distances us from the problems that face us (and which are in part created by technology itself). What remains in the American mindset, says Berry, is a complicated notion of unity and freedom juxtaposed with a particular individuality inspired by late capitalism.

If we go back into our tradition, we are going to find a concern with religion, which at a minimum shatters the selfish context of the individual life, and thus forces a consideration of what human being are and ought to be.
This concern persists at least as late as our Declaration of Independence, which holds as "self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." Thus among our political roots we have still our old preoccupation with our definition as humans, which in the Declaration is wisely assigned to our Creator; our rights and the rights of all humans are not granted by any human government but are innate, belonging to us by birth. This insistence comes not from the fear of death or even extinction but from the ancient fear that in order to survive we might become inhuman or monstrous.

This last line is powerful. Considering the distancing-effect of technology, the isolation of individuals in space against one another, the drive for survival constantly ignores the notion of becoming inhuman or monstrous because we are not fully aware of the consequences of our actions (or consumptions). Our national resources, depleted, are now imported through sketchy treaties and alliances with governments known to have heinous human rights records. Not only is our consumption monstrous, we are exponentially compounding monstrosity by the consequences of our consumption abroad -- not to mention destroying the world's ecosystem and encouraging global warming at an alarming rate. Berry's basic assertion is that we need to change the way we live in the world, and I agree. We cannot merely change the products we consume, we must change the way we understand consumption and our impact on the larger world. While this idea is almost cliched at this point, it needs to be driven home: through our ignorance of limitlessness, we are making the world ever more monstrous.

Monday, February 11, 2008

French Grammar Ghosts

From my French textbook:

"Il y a is used to state that a person, place, or thing exists. It does not necessarily mean that the item in question can be seen from where you are standing:

Dans ma chambre il y a un lit, un bureau et des chaises.

In my room, there are a bed, a desk, and some chairs. (They exist.)"

When learning a new language, the mechanics of grammar and reference reveal themselves in interesting ways. Thinking back to things I've read and the way ideas are translated into my native tongue, it is enlightening to feel the nuances of poetic texts. The words that I read shape me through their presentation, their phrasings, their quickness or slowness, their tones. But we don't remember the words of the text exactly, we are left only with senses and spirits, ghosts of the words composing our sustained reality.

I'm glad I don't have a photgraphic memory. Like these phantom poetries, I can only remember what I feel from remembrance; an impossible articulation of feeling, cyclically emerging from a point of emotion deep within recollection. From Poetics of Space:

"And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when, henceforth, it is alien to all the promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams. These retreats have the value of a shell. And when we reach the very end of the labyrinths of sleep, when we attain to the regions of deep slumber, we may perhaps experience a type of repose that is pre-human; pre-human, in this case, approaching the immemorial.

But the daydream itself, the recollection of moments confined, simple, shut-in space are the experiences of heartwarming space, of a space that does not seek to become extended, but would like above all still to be possessed. In the past, the attic may have seemed too small, it may have seemed cold in winter and hot in summer. Now, however, in memory recaptured through daydreams, it is hard to say through what syncretism the attic is at once small and large, warm and cool, always comforting."

We can never recount our dreams perfectly; people think we're mad or boring or distant from them, and writing them down leads to a forced embellishment erring on all sides. We can only emerge into dreams and out of them into the swelling feeling of a true memory, the fountainhead of a feeling. We are always only ghosts of ghosts of a memory that can never be written down, can never be spoken of.

Friday, February 08, 2008

When Technology Kills Aesthetics

Technology and the market have combined to destroy a beautiful thing: the polaroid.

It's interesting that the instantaneity of the polariod just isn't instant enough for us.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Two Landscapes Speak

From Heart of Darkness

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

It is interesting to juxtapose this quote, which obviously describes a distinctly un-urban landscape, with the onslaught of things that modern urban life fills itself with. Things pile up, forcing themselves into every conceivable space, taking up all available terrain, just as tree limbs, vines, and creepers take over the jungle's open spaces. Heart of Darkness can surprisingly tell us something of our own modern experience: in the scramble to bask in the sun's rays, the lifeblood for the greenery of our planet, the world becomes shrouded in darkness by the sheer massiveness of the takeover; so too with urban space and the human scramble for real estate and useable space -- the world can be shadowed by buildings or consumed by "beautification" and "gentrification," leaving the few remaining spaces in a sort of darkness, but in its modern, noisily apparent form.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Listlessness and Productivity

The speed of my own life has slowed considerably in the last several weeks. Moments seem to drag on and on, and though one would think that this would be a blessing for my own productivity, instead this slowness stalls any actual creative thought - except, of course, thinking about slowness. Months ago, life zoomed along; now, activity has petered off and left me with a lot of time to myself. Last post I mentioned that I had a new ritual that catalyzed my "productivity;" this ritual is important because it breaks my own consciousness of the slowness and opens me up into my active environment. Perhaps I am addicted to the milieu. One fantasizes about being a hermit in the woods, alone with his books. If I found myself alone with my books, I don't know if I could ever read a single one of them.

Books, or ideas in general, represent a matrix of dialectical relationships: perhaps we have unlimited time to ponder an idea, but what makes that idea most interesting is the affect it has on the world as it emerges from writing or speech or whatever expression. Nothing is stagnant; beauty is uncontainable; brilliance - epiphany - is an idea affecting the entire body at immense speed.

But if we take a good idea as an experience of speed, "something with which I am concerned," then we must also address the syndrome of our modern age: anxiety, or the experience of the accident of an idea in the function of speed. Defining the accident as the de-realization of an object's reality, anxiety shatters an idea into different sites of thought. Some of these become compounded ideas that are troublesome or confusing, making such ideas difficult to tease out while simultaneously rendering anxiety a difficult thing to transcend. Sometimes, in slowness, anxiety can become the overwhelming feature of time -- paranoia, hyperawareness, helplessness.

By containing speed -- not allowing it to dominate our lives -- we can inspire the moments of brilliance that we strive for so much. Too much too soon gets one caught up in the wheel; bit by bit, we must reveal ourselves to the world and the world to us.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

New Rituals

I have begun a routine in which I insist that I do something intellectually productive every day. This ends up playing out as a trip to a coffeeshop and a couple of hours of reading and writing. I leave my house because it forces me to interact with the world and the movement itself is a good primer for casual reading. The location is usually a coffeeshop because the caffeine is vaguely inspiring. Coffeeshops are also public places and I like to see and be seen, like any other modern person.

This ritual is a centering practice: it reminds me that there are ideas that I care about in the world and that they are worth exploring.

Some blurry images from my life:

Friday, December 21, 2007

MUNI Drivers

There is a sign on the bus that is positioned directly behind the driver toward all of the passengers:

"Information gladly given but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation."

You can tell I've been reading a lot of Paul Virilio when I immediately find this sign ripe with meaning. It is incredibly telling of our disconnected present. Drivers, Who are necessarily (for now) human beings, are produced as computers -- able to communicate information but off limits as far a real, intimate connection goes. Safety is the reason given for this disconnection; it dictates that "accidents happen" when people connect, that casual conversation is "unnecessary" for the situation and should be avoided. Thus, the bus merely becomes a mode of transportation -- a very pragmatic conception -- instead of a social space where the city's inhabitants interact and coexist for several minutes a day. As mere transportation, individuals are isolated in a trajectory that simultaneously privileges and fears the accident: in order to preserve our precious, comfortable human lives in the age of technoscience, we must neutralize the spontaneous and potentially creative forces that we are capable of, silencing ourselves, locating ourselves in isolated seats, looking forward, alone.

More Virilio in a space with another purpose, which is currently unclear to me.