Category Archives: Subjectivity

This Morning’s Wave

This morning was the first time I’ve been able to surf in about two months. The report said that high tide was at 9:58 a.m. with light wind and a SSE swell coming up from hurricane Sandra. My break of choice is the Bolsa Chica jetties. The people are generally friendly there, and it’s rarely crowded.

Every time I get to the water’s edge, start to feel the cold of wet sand, my gut starts to tighten, my heart begins to race. No matter how many times I’ve paddled out before I still get nervous as I dip my cupped hands into the water and pull. A wave begins to build in front of me and, uncontrollably, I whisper words to myself. Words, such as “inevitable,” “destroy,” “failure,” “passion,” “disbelief,” “structure,” all evaporate into the ether of history in no particular order, and somehow, while they are not part of any phrase or complete thought, they all seem to fit into context of one another as some desperate response to oncoming waves. The paddle out is a struggle against time, the weight of the water, and past defeats. This morning, though, the word I whispered to myself over and again was “nightmare.”

There is a moment in House of Leaves, the moment where Will Navidson is lost inside the house and has just discovered that he is no longer supported by anything. He is falling, not down, or up, or in any direction. He’s not suspended, he just is. There are no more walls, no floors or ceilings, doors, nothing with which to triangulate his position. There is nothing separate from his being with which to define himself as a separate entity at all. He realizes he’s been falling for quite some time and desperately attempts to redefine himself, to reaffirm his existence. “I am,” he says. It’s hopeless, because hope is a non sequitur in this house, for it implies an end where there is not even a means to that end. Ultimately,

Navidson’s words, tunes, and shivering murmurs trail off into a painful rasp. He knows his voice will never heat this world. Perhaps no voice will. Memories cease to surface. Sorrow threatens to no longer matter.
Navidson is forgetting.
Navidson is dying. (Danielewski 482-83)

This is the closest comparison I can make to how I feel when I am in the water. The ocean is is alive, ever in motion, consuming. Yet, it is also senseless, unaware of my presence, and altogether uncaring. The moment I think I have figured it out, crouched down on my board and gliding along the face of a wave, something unforeseen happens, a ripple in front of me lifts up, the nose of the board pearls, and I am suddenly under the surface. It’s dark in the water, cold, there are no shapes to discern, the growl of the passing wave has silenced, and I am falling. Of course, I hold my breath, but I’m never certain if I will breathe ever again. All sights and sounds disappear and even the memory of what has happened only a second ago already begins to fade. There is no voice to heat this world.

I floated out in the line-up for quite a while, maybe forty-five minutes, give or take. It’s hard to be certain. The current El Niño season has kept the water temperature around 60°F, but the November morning air has retained its bite. I stared at my board, followed the line of the stringer from underneath me to out beyond the nose and through to the horizon. The grey of the marine layer blurred the threshold between the water and the sky.

I saw something that I had never seen before. A few feet in front of me I noticed what looked like glitter or confetti twirling in the water column right near the surface. It was a shoal of sardines, or maybe smelt. I generally notice them only out of the corner of my eye, a flash of movement, the only evidence of which is the ripple on the surface left behind as they hurl themselves out of the water and fall back in.

Is this not all that experience is anyway– phenomena that eludes observation, a cause that is only evidenced by its effect?

Johnny Truant experiences this when he visits the Whalestoe hospital his mother died in. His emotional state is heavily strained, to say the least. He wanders the country aimlessly, albeit to escape his fears. Though, it is a path of escape which leads him directly back to the origin of those fears, where “no cry of light, no glimmer, not even the faintest shard of hope to break free across the hold” has shone (497).

It’s a melancholy moment because he is initially convinced that he has become “a creature unstirred by history, no longer moved by the present, just hungry, blind and at long last full of mindless wrath” (497), and yet when he is unable to sense the spectral presence of his mother, he is unable to rectify his “mindless wrath.” So, he begins to break down. That is, he is indeed moved knowing that he still carries the memory of her. However skeptical he must remain of that memory, it is nonetheless unshakable. He sees his life as the ripple of her own nightmarish life.

All things observed are ripples. In which case the only quantitative or qualitative understanding we have of a cause is the memory of it, the effect. No one remembers the birth of their parents. Instead, those memories are passed down through language and the vernacular of genealogical history. For Truant, that language is collected in the feverishly written letters he receives from his mother, and it is the same language he uses in his own journal.

Someone else’s. Someone else’s memories…Oh god what constant re-arranging of thoughts, an endless rearrangement of them, revealing nothing but shit…The journal too. I thought I’d only written a few entries but now I can see–I can feel–it’s nearly full, but I don’t recall any of it. Is it even in my hand?…October Three Zed, Ninety Eight. That’s the day today. That’s the date. Top of this page. But the first page in the journal isn’t October Three Zed but May one. May one mean–meaning, I mean–months and months of journey. Before Lude died. Before the horror. Or all of it horror since right now I can’t connect any of it.
It’s not me.
It cannot be.
As soon as I write I’ve already forgotten.
I must remember.
I must read.
I must read.
I must read. (498)

Truant’s journal is still another ripple in the chain of causality, but his experience resembles a feedback loop. A question arises– is Johnny an end in of himself? When memory ceases so too does experience. Since Johnny cannot recall the experiences he  has apparently described in his own journal, his only true experience is the vicarious reading of his past. He is merely the audience of his own narrative, not the subject.

This is how I often feel about surfing. At best I can only describe the experience through my mind’s journal, the memory of the experiences in the water. Yet, I must remain skeptical of these memories because, as we know, memory is a severely faulty thing, easily altered by emotion, and all the thousands of factors constantly imposing influence. The wave that I caught this morning, according to memory, was multifaceted, deeply complex, nuanced. How can I trust the notion that I remember every detail of it? Of course I can expand the wave metaphor to many other memories– childhood, school and profession, romantic relationships. Because my only understanding of those experiences is gained from my memory of them, I feel as though I too am merely an observer. I am the audience witnessing the downward spiral a self-defeating character who loathes the dichotomy of future and past, and who is obsessed with the means to his own end in order to finally disintegrate that and all other binaries. Each wave is a ripple in the closed loop of his narrative.

The future is always a fiction, and it is impossible to actually experience the present. By the time any phenomena is perceivable, having taken even a few milliseconds to travel our neural pathways, it is already past and is therefore committed to memory. The past and our faulty memory of it is the only conduit for the narrative of our lives. So, as Johnny Truant discovers, we have no means of objective understanding. Even a moment of clarity, for all it is worth and what it may seem to be, affords him no answer.

It took me another hour to locate her room. So many of the rooms looking the same, all familiar, but never quite right, quite the same, their dimensions and perspectives never precisely lining up with the memory I had, a memory I was soon beginning to doubt, a surprisingly painful doubt actually, until I saw through her window the now vine entwined tree, every wall-line, corner-line, floor-line, instantly, or so it seemed–though nothing is ever instant–matching up, a sharp slide into focus revealing the place where she finally died. Of course it’s final, right? Closet to the side. Empty. And her bed in the corner. The same bed. Even if the mattress was gone and the springs now reassembled the rusted remains of a shipwreck half-buried in the sands of some half-forgotten shore.
Horror should have buried me.
It didn’t.
I sat down and waited for her to find me.
She never did.
I waited all night in the very room it happened, waiting for her frail form to glide free of beams of glass and moonlight. Only there was no glass. No moonlight either. Not that I could see.
Come morning I found the day as I had found every other day–without relief or explanation. (504)

If the memory of his mother is faulty, he must also keep suspect of letters she had written to him. “Her letter,” he says, “was hopelessly wrong. Maybe an invention to make it easier for me to dismiss her” (517). Johnny realizes that he must also suspect the nature of the narrative these two sources coalesce to create. That is, he must ultimately suspect the very narrative of his life, it’s verisimilitude, and question the truth of his own existence. As we read further, we discover that the last section of Truant’s journal takes a drastic shift in point of view and voice. “I’m sorry,” he continues, “I have nothing left…Except this story, what I’m remembering now, too long from the surface of any dawn” (518). It is a very heartbreaking scene that follows, and one that I think about often, particularly while I’m in the water. It describes a woman who has just given birth to a baby boy with severe developmental issues and is “cyanotic.” The child is not expected to live more than a few hours. Doctors and nurses hurriedly employ an IC unit, an EKG monitor, IV pumps and lines, a ventilator, probes, saturated oxygen. Yet, the “mother sees none of this. She sees only her baby boy, barely breathing, his tiny fingers curled like sea shells still daring to clutch the world.” She refuses that her son “can only survive on machines,” refuses the inevitable, that “she will have to let him go.” To her the future is a fiction, and she can spin her own narrative yarn with her love for this child. She endures the hours clinging to a life that at once she is both defined by and is her only source of meaning. She doesn’t sleep. She sings to him, whispers her love to him. Then, on the fourth day, “ she leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. ‘You can go now,’ she says tenderly”–

And right before everyone’s eyes, long before Dr. Nowell or anyone else can turn a dial or touch a switch, the EKG flatlines. Asystole.
The child is gone. (521)

There is no mystery in this story, only loss. The reader must realize, just as Johnny does, that the entire time they’ve been reading HOL they have, in fact, been reading the life which the mother has imagined for her baby boy, and which she clung to out of love. Johnny is that narrative. As does Johnny, I can’t help but question what I have imagined for myself, and what others have imagined for me. Whether out of desperation to somehow alter the nightmare, or out of love, my life is still only a facsimile of memory, which is itself a facsimile. It’s a scary thought that the perceived world is possibly unreal, is false, for there is no where to turn after that, no trust, no hope of ever getting out of the house built by faulty semiotics and the misleading vernacular of day-to-day experience. After all “the words fail, the voice fails, so be it” (Beckett 406)

It happened in an instant. One moment all is calm, somewhere down the line-up a group of friends chuckled to some punchline I could not hear, a pelican silently floated by on a pocket of air ahead of a swell. In the next moment the face of a wave appeared in front of me, dark, moving fast, amassing as it approached the beach. Just as I had done maybe a thousand times before, I quickly turned the board around and started pulling myself along the surface. Just as I had felt maybe a thousand times before, the leading edge of the wave slid under me and lifted me up. Just as I had done maybe a hundred times before, I pushed myself up and to my feet. What happened in the next ten seconds, though, I am at a loss to reason beyond conjecture. Sometimes we surprise ourselves by our failures to act, to comprehend, or to respond to the ever changing whim of circumstance. Other times, we are surprised by our intuition. My skill level is amateur at best, and ‘innate’ has never been a term I use to describe my surfing. However, something was released and possessed me for those few seconds on the face of that wave. I saw the wave in it’s entirety out in front of me as I took a left for my frontside. Every ripple, dimple, and every breaking section of the wave I saw before it even happened, anticipated it’s every motion. I crouched to picked up speed and looked up to the lip at least a foot over head. I dragged the palm of my trailing hand along the face. Off I went down the line.

It was over in an instant. One moment I banked into my third carve of the wave, and the next moment I lay on my back on dry sand, breathing heavily, eyes tearing up. It was my only wave of the day. It was my first wave in at least two months. It was, by far, my best wave since last winter.
“Wow, man, I saw the whole thing.”
I sat up and turned to see a guy walking up to me. Salt and peppered hair, like mine, and with what looked like a seven-five or six mint-green Becker under his arm.
“You even got a little barreled,” he said.
“No shit?”
“Yeah.” He pointed to the line-up, “I saw it.”
I shook my head, “That’s kind of cool. I’ve never had that happen before. Wasn’t looking behind me so I didn’t see how far into it I was.”
“Yeah, it was real quick, like. But you were in it. Almost happened on the reform, too.”
“Wow,” I shook my head. “No one ever sees me surf, so I can never prove what happened.”
“Nope,” he said nodding, “But I saw it this time. Great job, man.” He strapped his leash to his ankle then started towards the water.
“Good luck,” I said, to which he responded with a thumbs-up.

There is no choice but to move forward in experience, whatever it may be. The best we can hope for is that someone will be there to witness it with us and share in the facsimile, for they see what we can’t, they see what is behind us, perceive it differently, and somehow expand our experience.

Surfing is a very lonely venture to me. Yet, just as Will Navidson was drawn to the depths of the house, and Johnny Truant must wander the country in search of a past that does not exist, I too am compelled to paddle out. In search of what, though, I cannot say. If nothing else, through the unyielding solitude of it I have learned a great deal about the value of others in my life. Though it is only conjecture, I might discern some luminescence in the house with the thought that Navidson has discovered this too. He is prepared to die in the house. In what are his final moments–at least as far as he can tell–his “tunes” and “shivering murmurs” are all meditations on one thing, one subject. There is no voice to heat this world because he is alone, without Karen. As the fictional “Italian translator,” Sophia Blynn, says in her critique of The Navidson Record:

The most important light Karen carried into that place was the memory of Navidson. And Navidson was no different. Though it’s commonly assumed his last word was ‘care’ or the start of ‘careful,’ I would argue differently. I believe this utterance is really just the first syllable of the very name on which his mind and heart had finally come to rest. His only hope, his only meaning: ‘Karen.’ (Danielewski 523)

I am led to wonder whether these short, personal essays are my own shivering murmurs, tunes that go unanswered except their refraction and diffusion off the walls of language in this house.

Still, there is no choice but to move forward, for there are many, many waves to be surfed. “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on…I’ll go on” (Beckett 407).

Work Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z.. House of Leaves. NY, Pantheon 2000. Print.

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. NY, Grove Press 2001. Print.

Nature and Grace: Dichotomies in Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of life Requium

There is a line in the film Tree of Life, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” This motif– an inner struggle between waring subjectivities, dichotomies –runs throughout the film, and it’s closely related to the greater theme of the story, which is in the opening monologue, “The nuns taught us that there are two ways through life– the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow.”

The Tree Of Life: Way Of Nature, Way Of Grace from Otto on Vimeo.

The story is among the heaviest, darkest, yet most illuminating spiritual meditations that I have come across in recent years. This story weighs heavily, hits close to home, and I’m certain many others feel the same way. Malick’s style, like a deluge of river rapids (which, is a prevalent image in the film), is not necessarily inviting. For these reasons I think it’s the type of film that either someone won’t understand on any level, or is entirely subdued by.

Spirituality in the film is heavily informed by Christian theology, but it’s not at all dogmatic. In fact, the story stands as an indictment of steadfast and blind ideology. Dogma– social, theological, familial, cultural dogma –is decidedly an antagonistic factor in the life of the central family, the O’Briens. The family is particularly white, suburban, middle class, the archetypal Texas American dream, sans only white picket fences. However, this family, a token of American pride and sensibility, is fragile, inherently susceptible to it’s own weight. It only takes something so paltry as a telegram, which the mother receives at the end of the clip, to level the family, disintegrate it.

Roots of conflict are seeded in the hearts of the three O’Brien children, but the eldest boy, Jack, is most directly effected. His struggle, the war of dichotomies, factions of subjectivity, nature and grace, is ignited by dogmatism, fueled by immense histories, the ever echoing voices of his family, his mother and father, their cultural legacies that remain a constant din inside of him. “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside of me.” As we follow him on his journey through the annals of boyhood we are forced to ponder our own histories, the legacies of the many journeys that led to our being. Jack bears the weight of these legacies, but he cannot escape his growing suspicions about patriarchal control and matriarchal peace. He watches his father, keenly, studying, his eyes narrowed. He searches his father for evidence of either humility or malice, though is convinced of neither. “Do you love your father?” he is asked, to which he responds with only the certainty of condition, familial dogma.

And yet, Jack is drawn to the promise of strength he sees in his father. He finds solidarity in simplicity, a momentary calming of the factions inside of him. As all boys must attempt at some point, Jack indulges in the violence within him and redirects it outward, essentially relinquishing himself of it. However, Jack’s younger brother, known simply as R.L., presents a challenge to the violence. Jack recognizes that he has followed a path to nature because his brother has followed a path to grace. “Hit me son,” his father challenges, and Jack obliges. “Come on, hit me,” his father then says to his brother, but his brother is reluctant.

Jack wonders about the separation between nature and grace. “Always you wrestle inside of me,” he says. He constantly finds himself on the side of nature while praying, “help me to be good.” At one point violence swells within him. He happens upon his father who is underneath the family Buick for repairs. He walks up and his father quietly, but sternly points at him, dismissing him. Jack then walks around to the rear where the car-lift is positioned. He stares at the wrench for a moment, then walks away. The implication is that Jack momentarily considers knocking the wrench loose to let the car drop onto his father. This is an experience that all boys must have, testing the boundaries of love and anger and the willingness to forfeit one or the other.

Nature, and grace. One defined by the other. The war continues. Much as Jack must face his suspicions and fears, we too have no choice but to realize that, regardless of whether we scale the highest, most remote and frozen peaks, find ourselves lost and hidden in metropolitan back alleys, or are adrift in an unmeasured sea, that inner war will wage. It is inescapable. And so, Jack discovers that there is no boundary between nature and grace. The line that he may arbitrarily draw between past and present does not exist, the two are simultaneous, are not independent. And the war continues into his adulthood, boundaries between factions blurred.

“Feel like I’m bumping into walls,” he says, “Any how, it’s all about your career. But I don’t understand anything.” The way of nature, the way of commerce, hierarchies, architects of industry, resources, exchange. Facsimiles of order. The way of grace, the way of restless imagination, culture, messy harmonic resonance, ideas, humility painfully gained. Facsimiles of beauty. These are all uncertain terms, but we are somehow expected, conditioned even, to simply take them for granted, to commit ourselves to them, without question. Just as each member of the O’Brien family must, we too seek to shrink into the obscurity of nature as a refuge from the tumult, the disorder of grace. And so, we justify our sacrifices in order to fortify our security, equating substance and sustenance, though, we have only confused the two.

The father of the story, Mr. O’brien, fortifies himself and his family with the pleasantries and minutia that have been handed to him through cultural dogma, and he’s come to depend on them. Tithing, skilled work, prayer, discipline, tenacity, a smile and a hand shake, fatherly advice, all tenets of a ‘good man.’ However, as his priest, Father Hayes, cautions in a sermon, “Misfortune befalls the good as well.”

The Tree Of Life: Job from Otto on Vimeo.

After all, what is our place in nature if not a single point in a long chain of cause and effect, linearity where, of course, there is no boundary between the past and future? We do not exist presently, and so we are free of the obligation to actively navigate this phenomena we call our lives, the tempest of the present. Instead, we abstain. It’s easy to retreat into the comfort of nature– a human being. Yet, we recognize it as perdition only too late. At some point we stop planning for the future and reluctantly accept the finitude of the time that we are given. We desire to “be loved because [we are] great.” We are saddened, having “lived in shame,” wondering why we had never risked ourselves for our only passions– a human doing. Desperate, we then seek forgiveness in grace yet cannot seem to resolve a lifetime of fear. We have passively accepted our life having never actively created, or engaged it. We stand at the precipice and peer over the edge, frightful because we see nothing whatsoever below, nothing to make sense of, nothing to verify the separation between above and below, our curiosity beckons us toward self-destruction, to jump, yet we are paralyzed. The burden of guilt, and the endless war.

The Tree Of Life: Life’s Work from Otto on Vimeo.

There is, however, only one thing that silences the war– grief. Utter, and complete loss. In grief all questions narrow, metamorphose into “Why?” There is no dogma steadfast enough to justify the loss that the O’Brien family experiences. Jack also watches his mother, attempts to see through her eyes as she asks “Lord, why? Where were you?” Here he discovers the weight of history. Through her eyes he sees the cause and effect of nature, that all things manifest are inevitable. He sees that loss is inescapable. “Answer me,” she begs. As we understand early in the film because of the telegram Mrs. O’Brien receives, the family has peered over that precipice and saw nothing where they were told they would see God. They are cautioned, though, “does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away?…Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?”

The Tree Of Life: Lacrimosa from Otto on Vimeo.

However deep her suffering, Mrs. O’Brien continues to be a beacon of grace for Jack. He hears her pain, “We cry to you, ‘My soul, my son.’ hear us,” but he carries her voice with him into his adulthood. Her voice is the memory of the times he and his brothers play in the river, the memory of his birth, family dinners, afternoons spent cradled in her lap on the river bank. From the expenses of the past grace reaches out to him, and he hears her voice, “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

The Tree Of Life: Love from Otto on Vimeo.

All the skepticism, the tumult, is quieted. Just as Jack has begun to forfeit his tendencies toward nature and begin to accept the way of grace through his family’s loss, we are invited to ponder our own griefs, many as they are. Is there any refuge from grief, and what does it mean to be redeemed? Do we forgive for the sake of love and happiness? “You spoke to me through her,” he says, her voice echoing from the past and beyond even his own recollection. “Lacrimosa,” or “weeping,” resounds from long before even the Earth was formed. The tragedy of his family, it’s grief, is felt long before its own cohesion. He knows this, and asks, “When did you first touch my heart?” The way of nature, though, points in one direction, the direction he will ultimately choose, a path that leads to grace.

The Tree Of Life: Questions from Otto on Vimeo.

And so, whatever Malick’s motivations, he invites us all to heed Jack’s story, embrace our grief, our inner dichotomies, and quiet those factions, to realize that our struggles are far greater than the sum of our selves, so that we can move towards grace.

Introduction

Hello, this is the introductory post for my blog. Everything previous to this is migrated from a previous blog. This blog will be a series of short, semi-academic essays. In terms of context and subject matter I’m betting that a focal point or certain themes will begin to emerge after a number of posts. Nonetheless, after being a professional student for as many years as I have now I’m starting to feel rather enervated with respect to theory or critical perspective. However, I do feel very much akin to my literary, linguistic, and philosophic predecessors, so I am inherently compelled to write. Like many others, I’m sure, who feel trapped in the “postmodern condition” (whatever that’s supposed to mean, right?), I also often find myself hurling linguistic vomit into some nonsensical, cyclical social eternity. I’ll attempt to hold together some island with which to compile words and ideas upon as I float shamelessly through the universe that Hubble and Sagan helped to define and that Lyotard and Foucault have managed to disintegrate. Whatever manifests (Oxford commas and all), so be it. Take or leave it, that’s your prerogative.

Too Much Information

Accessing

Program RedPill.exe

Commencing “indignant rant” in 3…2…

When I was younger one of my step brothers used to sing a short melody whenever anyone would say something that grossed him out, usually having to do with restroom related activities:

My stepbrother and I are long estranged but these days I often find myself humming the short melody (which, if you’re music illiterate, just think “Flin-stones, meet the Flin-stones”). I used to sing the phrase whenever someone said the particular phrase “I have to pee.” Like, for crise-sake, you don’t need to announce it! Just say “pardon me,” or “I’ll be back in a minute,” I don’t need the play-by-play here! Scatological humor aside, these days I hum the tune to myself most often when I’m confronted with tele-researchers, marketing surveys, advertising gimmicks that collect phone numbers (“Text ‘Spiffy’ to 3099 to vote for Spiffdawg as your next American Idol!!”), W9 forms, census collection, grad school applications, insurance waivers at the local brothel, that sort of thing. Why the hell are these people so obsessed with useless information like my phone number, ethnicity, political party affiliation, preferred food brands, waist size, cat’s name, the side of the bed I prefer, the average size of my toenail clippings, how many times a day I wonder what extra-terrestrial genitalia look like, or whether or not I have accepted Sun Ra as my lord and savior. What good is that information to them? Then, once this information is collected, it’s disbursed to so many different places that it starts to precede me wherever I go. For example, one morning I planned to visit my parents out of town. I asked SIRI what the weather was like, she said “It will be partly cloudy and in the high 60’s. It will take approximately 48 minutes to get to Riverside with current traffic conditions.” How the hell did she know I was going to Riverside? Is she a psychic?

I often feel like I am swimming, drowning in an ocean of information, data, the non-sequitur, bureaucratic filth of human history. To the government I’m a social security number, to Costco I’m a customer account number (even though I don’t shop there), and to Disney I’m a source of income and cheap slave labor (even though I don’t purchase Disney products or services). To these institutions I’m a digital file– hyperlinked, compressed, imported, shared, encoded, archived. I’m a modern man, one of countless other digital files. It’s a scary thought that not only are we all “insignificant drops of water in the endless river of humanity,” as Tom Zoellner once described it, but that we are now derelict and lost in the digital universe. Roy Rosenzweig also says that “abundance, after all, can be overwhelming. How do we find the forest when there are so many damned trees?” (Rosenzweig). It’s too much information. Some of us, though, have swallowed the red pill and escaped the matrix…only to create a new matrix.

In a previous post I referenced a video that was recently released to the internet which is reportedly produced by the graffiti artist and social satirist Banksy. The video is right up the alley of my personal tastes, complete with geopolitical satire as well as, to put it bluntly, grade A, e-ticket level Disney bashing. (Though, to what extent we can classify it as ‘bashing’ is up for the zeitgeist to decide, but considering previous political-activist-esque “works” attributed to the phenomena “Banksy,” I think it’s safe to assume “bashing” is an appropriate category.) In the minute-or-so video a group of presumably Islamic militants fire a rocket to shoot Dumbo out of the sky and kill him. “Allahu Akbar!” they chant as Dumbo plummets to the ground. The whole video is shot and edited as if it were filmed with a cell-phone camera. It has that shaky “handheld” and distorted quality common to videos posted to Youtube by militants and revolutionary forces all over the middle east to be vicariously ogled at by bewildered suburban Westerners. What’s funny, though, is that Dumbo’s execution here is very much like a Pythonesque exploding person/animal. Like the rocket that brings Dumbo down, the video itself brings Disney back down from the heavenly realm of family-friendly morality and soaring box-office-franchise profit margins. As Dumbo crashes, so too does the mouse-headed dragon that feeds on “piles of eyes.”

I have to admit, the first time I saw the video I was so tickled that I felt just as excited as the militants to see Dumbo’s demise. I almost started chanting “Allahu akbar!” right along with them. To briefly summarize my disdain for Mr. Mouse I can say this– Disney is pure escapism (which in of itself is a topic of discussion for some other time, but is very much a topic concerning comic theory in terms of moral epistemology; i.e. what is the morality of escapism?).

The video has “gone viral,” and it can be found in many places on the internet. I originally posted a link to a video of it, but Youtube deleted the user’s account. Of course, I simply updated the link to another user’s video of it.

In any case, digital is a relatively new medium for Banksy, although it’s not surprising because the internet is one of the main of reasons why he has gained so much attention and popularity around the world. Yet, most of the body of art attributed to Banksy remains street art, or graffiti. In this way culture is forced to remember its analogue– the material world. A Banksy piece can be easily reproduced on a large scale (like Warhol’s work), but it cannot be easily moved or sold, much less digitized. Though, apparently there have been attempts at removing whole slabs of plaster and cinderblock walls containing a Banksy piece which were then shipped to local galleries and sold to the highest bidding yuppies. With his or her foyers into digital universe though, Banksy becomes a phantom to the digital universe, nondescript dark matter that leaves theorists and critics puzzled. He is the “the art world’s Wizard of Oz” (Branscome). Banksy gets to control the shots here, and his audience follows along for his exciting guerilla art. There is a bit of irony here, though, because when “the jester rules the court, it is hard to tell when subversion of the system becomes cynical complicity” (Branscome).

The parodic element is the principal quality of Banksy’s work, which is the steak-and-potatoes (or bread-and-butter depending on your dietary preferences) of comedy and satire. In context of his medium, parody and satire blend to become what’s known as “high-street-irony.” However, what most interests me is Banksy’s relative obscurity, his or her anonymity that is “as controlled as that of Greta Garbo” (Branscome). There are plenty of sources and bits of information available that suggest “Banksy” is a real dude–an actual person roaming the streets at night (and day) poking fun at the world’s geopolitical and socioeconomic powers–but, for the most part, the evidence remains non-substantial. Unless someone comes forth as the official face and name behind that famous molotov-bouquet-tossing dissident (like Shepard Fairey was eventually revealed from behind the mask of Andre the Giant “OBEY”), Banksy will remain “Banksy” the “carefully positioned” persona, idea, force, theme, movement (Branscome). (We don’t need to make the V For Vendetta connection here, so for the sake of everyone involved in this discussion, please, please, all you coffee shop wanna-be revolutionaries, puh-leez don’t strap that annoying V mask over the term Banksy, otherwise it becomes clear that you’re missing the larger point.)

What’s most important is that Banksy’s anonymity pushes the artwork to the forefront of the discussion– art’s rightful place, anyway. Art critics and academics, I’m sure, have already began to play that worn-out game of tug’o’war with Banksy’s work, which has the New Critical approach (“The work only, all other information is irrelevant!”) in one corner vs. the Modernist (“The Artist is paramount, historical context is key!”) in the opposite corner of the analytical ring. (Personal note: I think most academics are completely unaware that the rest of us often share many laughs at their expense because these debates–new critical v. modern, feminist v. patriarchalism, inner-directed v. outer-directed arguments in rhetoric and composition theory, and so on–are the stuff of comedy. Picture here, Bugs Bunny v. Elmer Fudd, Tom & Jerry, Itchy & Scratchy.) That battle is an equally interesting subject to pursue, but for purposes of this blogpost, the work is what we have to focus on. The artwork itself is the only tangible manifestation of Banksy that we have. In other words, Bansky, whoever he or she may be, is free to go about his life, undetected, obscure, unscrutinized by “the gaze” of “the other”– society. Of course Banksy’s true identity is just as susceptible to the power/knowledge ramifications that Foucault went on and on about, but at least he can suffer through it on his or her own terms as opposed to the hyper-broadcasted yet static pangs of celebrity. If Banksy were revealed, he would cease to exist as an infinitely multifaceted person and become the single entity BANKSY, known solely for his soon-to-be archaic artistic style. Another famous (or infamous) example of this strategic anonymity is one of my favorite rock bands (no surprise), Tool. At one point in time they were basically phantoms to pop-music journalists. Interviews with band members were few and far in between, which is something their fans came to appreciate because the music, their art, became the focus of discussions instead of the the latest MTV “Cribs” episode featuring Danny Carey (which doesn’t exist, of course). It allowed the band members to maintain comfortable home/family lives and branch out to other great projects that would also become the stuff of rock-legend. This same focusing on and valuing of the artwork is extended to Banksy in this case.

Casey Peterson, Dantes Boneyard bass player.

My dear friend and bassist for the band Dantes Boneyard, Casey Peterson, once used a phrase to describe his trepidations about his emergence into general, tax-paying society after many years of relative transience. He said, “I can’t stand being on the grid.” He described to me how uneasy he felt about being in debt to a bank for his car loan, a job he’s obligated to report to at unnatural hours of the day, a job from which the government feels entirely justified in taking an ever greater portion of his income. Those who fall just outside of the parameters of our society are considered criminal (Foucault again for ya). This is what Casey is referring to– the dichotomy of his new existence, a “criminal” that has put on the mask of the citizen. He feels that his reintroduction to the big masquerade of society meant giving up his core, uncorrupted identity (in the Rousseauian sense) and taking on a new, uniform, simplified, mono-dimensional identity completely foreign to his natural self. Of course, we could get bogged down in all kinds of discussions about what I like to call “the postmodern man” here, but for the moment let us forgo endless deconstruction in order to address some real concerns, the ever more pertinent fears that people face as we spiral further and faster into the post-human world, taking on the new paradigm of Haraway’s cyborg (mentioned in a previous post).

Banksy is lucky. Because we only have the work, Banksy is able to remove himself from “the grid.” The outlier Banksy is the one that society and (I’m inclined to believe but not quite convinced) language cannot touch. He is free to produce, to turn the magnifying glass around and focus scrutiny instead on society, relieving the stress on the individual. Banksy, then, becomes the faceless Other and takes the power/knowledge relationship into his own hands to utilize as he sees fit. Might this be the very definition of subversion? Obviously there are some qualitative issues that arise if this is to work, but I feel the more theoretical analysis and rhetorical jargon I, or anyone, else might pile on, the more we fall into Banksy’s trap. That’s not to say “okay, that’s it, we’ve figured it out, no need to dig any deeper,” and I encourage any feedback offered, but how many categories can we place Banksy, or anyone else, into before we have a hot, steaming mass of meaningless information? Make a spreadsheet, start a Google map, compile a Prezi presentation, document, archive, store, collect data, data, digitize, digitize, digitize digitizedigitizedigitize CONSUME! Do whatever necessary, but what does it all mean?

There is a trio of Futurama characters who have remained in my thoughts ever since Bender’s Big Score came out in 2007– the Scammer AliensThey’re creepy as hell. They’re creepy in the same way as Bob (Bill Murray) in What About Bob or Cable Guy (Jim Carey) in The Cable Guy are creepy– they have an illogical and insatiable appetite for very personal information. The Scammer Aliens have large noses, called a “sprunjer,” which they use to sniff out information (similar to the way Marilyn Manson’s adaptation of the Child Catcher from Roald Dahl’s screen play for Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang sniffs out children– “Mmm, smells like children!”). They are very gluttonous characters, hoarding information in order to scam Earthicans (citizens of earth in the 3000s). There is no bit of information that is not accessible to them. In other words, every piece of every Earthican’s personal information is entwined and stored in the Alien Scammer database. This becomes the new paradigm of life for the Earthicans– their very identities essentially stored, databased, archived, consumed, shared. The Futurama film doesn’t necessarily dwell on this idea for too long, but it’s the same idea that my friend Casey and Banksy are probably critical of. Again, we can imagine Haraway’s cyborg here (a concept which I am admittedly captivated by lately). For now I’ll skip over the obvious connection to the Star Trek universe and use another more relevant Futurama reference– the Eyephone. In the real world, every time we use our phones, or “mobile devices” if we are flight attendants, the phone sends and receives data, sharing information about us with the abstract ether of the digital universe (which apparently used to look like this, but was reconfigured to look like this:

 

…it’s all better now, apparently). Yup, every time we use our phone to check an email from grandma’ Google is using it’s sprunjer to snoop through the body text, searching for words that give it clues to our lives, needs, desires, infatuations, you name it. Grams says “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry you and Jackie split up, but at least you got the kids,” and Google knows–oh it KNOWS–that you’re in need of legal council, dating services, personal finance, an extra-wide casket, day care, and some how it also knows your social security number, the birthmark on your left buttocks looks just like Richard Nixon (or Bob Hope, you’re not quite sure which of the two), and that you prefer 3-ply TP (which Bob Nixon is appreciative of). The Eyephone is just the more absurd version which, for its users, replaces the material world with the exchange of data. An Eyephone user no longer exists in the material world. Instead, they exist solely as their avatar in social media, their digital identity, an identity which is entirely public. Replace the term “Eyephone” with “iPhone,” “Galaxy S,” “Razor,” or any other “mobile device” and the same is true. The Alien Scammers, a.k.a. Google, have made our identities completely public, and no one escapes the omniscient eye of Google, the NSA, Pepsi…Disney.

Banksy, though, I think is somehow able to subvert the eye. There is, somehow, an inversion of the public/private relationship. Where Google, with its sprunjer, makes information public, Banksy’s art, like the spry Bugs Bunny out-witting the cumbersome Elmer Fudd, subverts the obtrusive, indeed intrusive Google-eye. What better place to hide a secret message than in plain sight, right? We might not notice it at all, but when we do discover that pesky little rat 

…we probably notice it when we are alone, in some obscure place, at some obscure time of the day. It’s a seemingly inconsequential image that is so simple that it sticks with us throughout the day, irking us. It makes no sense, but we ponder the image’s meaning, tease out any number of ideas, and it becomes unnervingly thought-provoking. The image is totally analog, but it has consequences that reverberate in the digital realm. If Banksy is at once everything such as the rat, the Pulp Fiction banana parody, the molotov-bouquet-throwing dissident, the great demolisher of walls, and so on, then his digital identity is just one of an infinite identities. What good is Banksy’s digital identity to the all-seeing-public-Googleeye if it can’t neatly fit “Banksy” into a few, concise categories in order to “personalize his ad experience”?

What if everyone embraced their own sense of, well, nonsense? What if we all understood that our digital-selves (our archives, our databases, records, files) are just one of our many selves. What if we learned to poke the Google-eye? Dumbo would’ve have probably crashed long before anyone had the chance to fire a rocket at him.

 

System error 583940. System restart in 5…4…3…2…

_________________

Branscome, Eva. “The True Counterfeits Of Banksy: Radical Walls Of Complicity And Subversion.” Architectural Design 81.5 (2011): 114-121. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 11 Oct. 2013.

“That empty, forever empty”

Louis CK was on Conan the other night and he brought up an issue that I had touched on briefly in a former post– technophobia and Harraway’s theory of the “cyborg.” He says that he feels children are growing up in an era of technological apathy, where a sense of “empathy” for others is disregarded in favor of the handheld device, or as I like to call it, “the omniscient screen.” Again, though, Harraway’s theory suggests that our concerns about technology are rather superficial, and that the paradigmatic essence of the contemporary human experience is inextricable from our technological developments. It’s at this point that Louie so elegantly, albeit coincidentally, is able to correctly identify the deeper nuance of technophobia– Lacan’s notion of desire:

“…you know, underneath everything in your life, there’s that thing, that empty, forever empty. You know what I’m talkin’ about?…That knowledge that it’s all for nothin’, and you’re alone. And sometimes, when things clear away, and you’re not watching it, you’re in your car, and your start going ‘Oh no, here it comes, that I am alone,’…it starts to visit on you…just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad just by being in it. And so you go [and reach for your phone]…but people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t wanna be alone for a second…you never feel completely sad, or completely happy. You just feel kind-of satisfied, and then you die” (teamcoco)

In short, Lacan’s theory of desire is that we seek to recapture the sense of wholeness and unity we had when we were in, what he calls, the imaginary stage, or, essentially, the psychological state we were in before we discovered language, which he calls the symbolic order. The problem is that, because language is self-referential (a closed system) and incapable of directly referring to anything outside of itself, we essentially shed our subjectivity–our concept of ourselves–as we enter this symbolic order. This creates a sense of lack, or, as Louie says, “that empty, forever empty.” This is the void that’s associated with solitude precisely because we don’t have Others to give us our self-definition (names and sense of identity here being associated with basic unit of the symbolic order, words which only have a context through their association to other words). In other words, we reach for our phone as if our receiving a text message from someone validates and reconstitutes our subjectivity giving us the sense that we are fixed in a stable, consistent identity. However, as Louie suggests, this is only an illusion because we are losing the more important exchange of a complex emotion, empathy, in favor of a simplistic few seconds of apathy. Yet, an illusion is all that it remains, and there is “no new self, except as the endlessly receding horizon of desire” (Mansfield 46).

Still, even though I have the iPhone 5…I kinda feel like less of a person because I don’t have the iPhone 5s. Look at me in my lower-upper-lower-middle class squaller…where I should be…because I don’t have the 5s…I’m so alone.

____

teamcoco. Louis C.K. Hates Cell Phones Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube. 2013. Film.

Mansfield, Nick. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Print.

“Resistance is Futile”

In 2008 The Kennedy Center posthumously awarded George Carlin the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. His witty analysis of the “7 Words You Can’t Say” and his Joycean list of contemporary vernacular in “Modern Man” are only two examples of why he earned such a prestigious award.

A quick copy-and-paste of the transcript for “Modern Man” into Wordle yields a surprising yet perfectly appropriate analysis of the underlying theme within this absurd yet breathtaking piece of comic poetry: “personal.”

Writer and blogger James Aquilone has collected 101 of his favorite George Carlin quotes. Again, a copy-and-paste of these quotes also points in the same thematic direction: “people.”

To summarize what we’re looking at here, Wordle generates “word clouds” which give prominence to words used most often in a given text. In other words, from this snapshot of his work, we can see that people, personal, persons, etc. are the focus of Carlin’s work. Personhood, or the relationships that develop between those people, as well as the subject “I” (in the Cartesian sense), are the themes that reoccur and act as the glue that binds the otherwise absolutely absurd to the rational and that amalgamates the two into one pluralistic, unfixed essence.

On the surface, though, there’s something almost horrific about this modernized list of the modern man. The language itself, these turns of phrase, are playful yet daunting, inviting yet consuming, direct yet ambiguous. It is this very ambiguity that is the nature of apprehension and skepticism towards new technologies and new forms of culture, such as social networking. The fear is that technology is anti-human in that it collaborates with capitalists interests in order to accelerate the “economy and society into ever less human dimensions, where the hands and eye of the individual worker are thrown on the junk-heap by their inability to compete with the speed of microelectronic interfaces” (Mansfield 158). This is a position that Donna Haraway–and by extent, George Carlin–argue against. Haraway posits that humans and technology have advanced into a new paradigm of interconnectivity, that we have become cyborgs. In the post-modern sense, the line of distinction between organic and cybernetic has broken down, or as GC says it, humans are “[a] diversified… post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect…a high-tech low-life” (Carlin). This new paradigm is “not an image of the individual body as a self-sustaining  system, but as a set of shifting signifying surfaces turned not inwards towards a mysterious, untouchable and sublime essence, but outwards towards an ever multiplying number of possible interconnections” (Mansfield 159-160).

It’s no surprise, then, that this theme of interconnectivity, or interrelationship, underlies the discourse about technology, and more importantly, its integration into the great existential questions of humanity. We can apply this same precursory Wordle test to articles from the field of Digital Humanities. By copying and pasting three articles by Matt Krischenbaum, Patrik Svensson, and Vannevar Bush into Wordle we can see from the generated word clouds that the pluralistic nature of the new paradigm, the cyborg, is represented in the two most used words: “Humanities” and “Digital.”

The theme is reinforced as we look at each successive layer of words where “academic” and “media” are juxtaposed as well as the pairing of “history” and “computing.” In other words, we see that analogue and digital are inextricably linked. When we do the same with the bibliographies of these and a few more essays regarding the Digital Humanities, we see that the words “live” and “site” are by far the most used words indicating the importance of active beacons inviting a connection with a user to their website.

Also, the DH theorist most referred to in this selection is Roy Rosenzwieg and the National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH) is referenced many times as well, both of whom focus on culture, language, and technology in much the same way that Carlin does.

All this is only to say that I’m entirely over-moderately wholly partially satisfied with my position in the ranks of the Borg because “I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable.”

–––––––

Works Cited:

  1. PBS. “MARK TWAIN PRIZE | Modern Man | PBS.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 30 Jan 2009. Web. 7 Sep. 2013.
  2. Mansfield, Nick. Subjectivity: Theories of the Self from Freud to Haraway. NY: New York University Press, 2000. Print.
  3. Carlin, George. When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops. NY: Hyperion, 2005. Print.

Mikhail, it’s your dead uncle Dave.

Bill Cosby’s On Prejudice 1971

The Notion

There are a series of quotes that have been knocking about my head for quite a while now. They have a way of resonating at every frequency, becoming relevant to every situation. These phrases–comments, insights, concerns, indignant rantings–congeal and become the stuff of subjectivity, the skeletal framework which experience molds onto. Yet, according to the duality that is inherent to them, they are plastic, pluralistic. They adopt entirely different meanings with each new dialect that speaks them, and each newly discovered meaning is equally substantial as the previous. They conjure moments like little Stevie’s death in Secret Agent and have us rolling on the ground, clutching our sides in abject pain because we are laughing uncontrollably. They make both the Pope and Adrienne Rich blush.

The Thesis

My simple thesis: in comedy there is only truth. There is no capital “T” here, no grand narrative, no arbiter, no design or creator, no head of state, no house of worship which to gather in on the weekends to sit, kneel, stand, sing, kneel again, stand some more, and compare clothes…none of it. There is simply the collective of words, signifiers which no longer have any pretense of any signified, and thus the Saussurean linguistic cycle is at its most fragile but dialogue at its most vibrant. Bakhtin might chuckle when his predecessor and teacher says, “Jumbo shrimp…? Well, which is it?!” The voice is inextricable from the quote:

  1. George Carlin
  2. Doug Stanhope
  3. Whoopi Goldberg
  4. Jim Jefferies
  5. Richard Pryor
  6. Bill Hicks
  7. Victor Borge
  8. Amy Schumer

They are voices that are strong and loud. These troubadours, players, jesters, clowns, harlequins, willing sophists hold a mirror to moralists (and by extension, ethicists) and there expose a sterile King Midas who is unaware of his curse. What do they say?

  • “I always hope that, no matter how small the original problem is, it’s going to grow into bigger and bigger proportions and get completely out of control, and I’ll give you a concrete example: Let’s say a water main breaks in downtown Los Angeles and it floods an electrical substation, knocking out all the traffic lights, tying up the entire city and emergency vehicles can’t get through. And at the same time, one of those month-long global warming heat waves comes along, but there’s no air conditioning, no water for sanitation, so cholera, small pox, and dysentery, and thousands of people start dying in the streets, but before they die parasites eat their brains, and they go completely fucking crazy, and they storm the hospitals, but the hospital can’t handle all the causalities, so these people start to rape all the nurses and set the hospital on fire, and the flames drive them even crazier so they start stabbing social workers and garbage men, and a big wind comes along and the entire city goes up in flames, and the people who are still healthy, they get mad at the sick people, and they start crucifying them to crosses, trying on their underwear, shit like that, then everybody smokes crack and PCP and they start to march on city hall where they burn the mayor at the steak, strangle his wife, and take turns sodomizing the statue of Larry Flynt, and at this point it looks like pretty soon things are going to start to get out of control…” (Bret A Warshawsky. “George Carlin- Life Is Worth Losing- Show Ending Piece.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 10 May 2011. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
  •  “Now, you may think you’re a good brother, good sister, good mother, good daughter, whatever the fuck you think you are in this world, but you’re nothing until you’ve washed your disabled brother’s cock to take him to a prostitute.” (Saku E. “Jim Jefferies brothel story.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 24 May 2013. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.)
  • “Now, I don’t wanna do these people no harm, I wouldn’t do them no harm. But I know one thing, when I see them, I spit, and give a good spit, too. Because ain’t none of them worth nothing, not one single one. And that’s why I’m proud to be what I am. I’m what? I’m a bigot. And there ain’t but two of us left, and I don’t care for him.” (Mike Stratton. “Bill Cosby on prejudice (1971).” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Sep. 2013.)
  • “…terrorists are coming to blow up your Ford Focus in particular. That’s far more palatable for people to buy than to accept the reality, which is that, probably, at statistical high Vegas odds probability, is that nothing of any significance will ever happen to you in your entire, boring life.” (Stanhopetv. “Doug Stanhope: Voice of America – FEAR IN THE U.S. NEWS MEDIA.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)
  • “The world is like a ride at an amusement park. And when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, round and around, it has thrills and chills, it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud. And it’s fun, for a while. Some people have been on a ride for a long time. They begin to question, ‘Is this real, or is this just a ride?’ Other people have remembered. They come back to us and they say, ‘Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.’ And we kill those people.” (Ifctomo123. “Bill Hicks – It’s Just a Ride.” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube 28 Feb. 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2013.)

I look forward to exploring this thesis with greater detail in further blog posts.