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Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Bringer of War

Like this

Our ancestors had a different idea of war. Much like their conception of disease, War was something that happened, a natural force, like tides or the phases of the moon, that came along in its due season and ravaged the earth.

And like love, or luck, or the harvest, or wisdom, or really anything that our forebears found irresistible, inexplicable, or overwhelming, War was personified as a God, then worshiped and propitiated (to varying degrees of perceived success) with sacrifice.

Now, I'm no polytheist, and really, I don't believe in God, per se. But I don't not believe in God, either. I'll argue with fundamentalist atheists and throw down with hardcore religionists alike. I have had a series of experiences which have multiple explanations, and I recognize and practice the efficacy of belief in order to get what I want. I don't believe like a fanatic (those days are long gone), nor like the Catholic bored in church at Christmas who believes without it having an impact on their lives or behavior.

All that is to say that I believe that there are psychological states that can only be accessed through ritual and the self-hypnosis of belief, and that these states are occasionally useful in making my life more interesting, more fun, and just plain better. The Gods of old were the way our ancestors did that.

War was one of the biggies. Mars, with his red armor and his bloody sword, figures large in the pantheon, and everyone gave him his due, mostly because the world was perpetually at war. They saw, in Mars, both the destructive aspect of war that we all recognize, the raping and pillaging and razing of the land, and the creative. War was seen as a breaker of stagnancy. Cultures were smashed together like particles in an accelerator, and new things came from their violent marriage. Gene pools were poured into one another with interesting and surprising results. The weak were culled, leaving strong people to rebuild.

This may sound a bit tastelessly rah-rah for some, and anyone's distaste is understandable. As I mentioned at first, we see war today as something primarily negative, and also under our control, like disease. The Four Horsemen (excepting Death, whom we still cannot shove aside, though we might like to) are no longer inevitable tax collectors of the cost of doing business on Planet Earth. War, Famine, Disease, are all seen as eradicable, and entirely under our control.

But are they?

Mars still exists, inside us. There is something inside us that loves a fight, that wants to kill, that demands dominance. There is a chauvinist inside us, a warrior, bloody and exhilarated, that loves the smell of meat and the burning. We are, all of us, capable of enacting the horrors we read about in textbooks and see on television.

So when we speak of war, what are we talking about? If these things exist within us, then how can we hope to eradicate them? We have met the enemy, and he is us.

We can't eradicate war, because we are war. The part of us that is soft and loves comfort and camaraderie is at war with the part of us that loves a good scrap. There's blood lust in us. What do we do?

We learn to be kinder. We can learn to treat others with respect and deference. We can learn love. But until we learn, underneath our civilized exteriors, that we have the capacity for destruction, for heinous acts against our fellow humans, we cannot hope to end war. Because we will see war as something outside ourselves, something that must be eradicated out in the world, and we will go to war with war.

See how that works?


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Django Unchained: A Follow-up Post

Update 1/25/13: Find the original post here

Spike Lee also says that Django Unchained is "disrespectful" to his ancestors, with the implication that any white man trying to communicate something artistically about the black experience is a fool (not to mention probably a racist), and automatically disqualified from any serious consideration by right thinking people.

The idea that no person of a different race, gender, creed, etc. etc. etc. has any place writing about the experiences of a different race, gender, etc. etc. etc. is abhorrent. I'm pretty sure I don't even have to say this, and I feel like most people who might conceivably read this (a vanishingly small number, to be sure) are on board with this, but I'm gonna say it, just in case.

A given author/artist may have the paucity of imagination and empathy that makes their attempt to portray the experience of the "other" (whomever that might be for them) lie there like a corpse on the page, but that is their failure, and not necessarily a failure to be imputed to all authors of a given race etc. etc. etc. Jesus. Look at the way I have to torture these sentences to even talk about this shit. That should give you an idea of how twisted the logic behind it is. 

Regardless, if Michael Chabon wants to write from the point of view of a black person, if Quentin Tarantino wants to have a black, or Jewish, or female, or Basque, or Muslim, or whatever-the-fuck main character, and they can pull it off, then more power to them. God knows, I don't have the stones for it, but I'm no Michael Chabon, so there's that.

Update: Please note that, in many cases, these failures of imagination and empathy are functions of systemic, and often unacknowledged, racism. This does not absolve artists of the obligation to attempt to confront and root out these unacknowledged biases and write as honestly, creatively, thoughtfully, and above all, engagingly about any facets of human experience with which they choose to wrestle. The question as to whether they have done so successfully is entirely other to whether or not they should do so at all.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Django Unchained and the Uses of Catharsis

In Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up, there weren't a whole lot of black people. Not none, certainly, a handful in my high school graduating class, for example, but not a huge number (less than five percent of the total population, actually). But even so, everybody learned the word you were never to use when referring to blacks, and of course my parents never used that kind of language around me.

There are other words that one could use besides "nigger" to refer to black people in a derogatory sense. I'm not going to bother listing them here when a quick perusal of a YouTube comments thread will give you plenty of choices. However, I never really knew those other words until college, where I learned a whole bunch of them from one movie. 

Doing the right thing? Sure. Why not.

Which is why I was surprised to hear that, sight unseen, Spike Lee had decided to declare against Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. Surely an artist who understood the power of language would want to see how it was used before condemning a movie. Not doing so would make Spike Lee the equivalent of the right wing demagogues who picketed the gallery displaying Serrano's Piss Christ. They wouldn't see it either, as, to them, it was blasphemy. 

Leaving aside the questions of mental/spiritual/political purity that Spike's objections might raise, let's talk about why someone might use the word "nigger" in a movie like Django Unchained.  

Is it historically accurate? Many people argue that "nigger" was used to refer to black people during the period during which Django takes place, and is, therefore, perfectly acceptable. But, many others might counter, there are plenty of other words that were current during the period. Why not use those, mix it up a little?

This counter argument brings to the fore the reason why Quentin might have chosen to use the word "nigger" over others. It is not, surely, a paucity of imagination or vocabulary. The reason why Tarantino uses that word is because this is not a period piece. 

Django is a Quentin Tarantino movie, bearing more similarities to, say, Inglorious Basterds than to, I don't know, Lincoln. This is a fantasy movie, specifically a revenge fantasy movie, and its primary goal is catharsis.

At the risk of pedantry, catharsis can be defined as, "The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions." Like Inglorious Basterds, Django takes a horrible story (the Holocaust for Inglorious and the history of people owning other (black) people in the United States in Django) and re-imagines the narrative. This re-imagining provides, not a happy ending, per se, but a cathartic reversal: the wrongs are, if not righted, at least avenged. We identify with the victims and then, with them, take the power back. Hitler is finally given the ass-kicking he so richly deserves; the slave kills, not only the master, but the hateful ones who colluded with the master. These things never happened in the "real" world, at least not in such a satisfying fashion, but through an act of magic (for what else is story telling?) Tarantino allows us to go back and have our revenge.

Many people objected to the humor in Django, as well as the language. How could slavery be presented in a comic context? While certainly not all of Django is humorous (and much of it is deliberately horrifying), parts of it are quite funny. Why?

Humor is, especially in Tarantino's world, another mode of catharsis. Where Mel Brooks famously parodied Hitler to rob him of his power, and used the word "nigger" in Blazing Saddles to point up his parody of racists, Tarantino uses humor as mini-catharsis, to relieve the tension (slightly) as he builds up towards a bigger payoff. Where for Brooks, humor was the point and the weapon, for Tarantino, humor is a dramatic tool, with an eye toward the larger catharsis.

And this brings us back to our original question. Why say "nigger?" Like the stories these movies retell, the word "nigger" is more than just itself. It is an uber-narrative, containing an entire history of injustice and repression in a very tight package. It is the one of the few words that still bear a bit of that old black magic (if you'll forgive the pun), that power to wound. Those other words he could have used instead might have been more period-accurate, but period-accuracy is not what Django is about (as the modern soundtrack should clue us in). The point here, as I said earlier, is catharsis. 

Using the word itself is cathartic, in its own way. No other word would do. It's the one word you can't say, and by saying "nigger" upwards of one hundred times, Tarantino goes for that hot, transgressive button right in the amygdala. He simultaneously amps up our adrenaline, getting us, the audience, primed for the explosive payoff, and robs the word of its power over us. That is also the point of the violence, and of the relieving humor. He is working us up so that, when the bad guys get what they so richly fucking deserve, we stand and cheer. He creates that space where we can deal with the feelings of unfairness, and our own conflicted attitudes towards race, in a manner where we participate vicariously in the righting of a wrong.

Tarantino is not just a white guy who likes to say transgressive things (though, let's be honest, he is that too). He's an artist who is using the tools at his disposal in an artful way to potentiate and deliver a specific emotional payoff. People who object to this use, while they have a right to their emotions and perceptions, are missing a big part of what he's doing and why. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Menu is Not the Meal

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. The usual hipster suspects, of course, like This American Life, but also some ones you might not expect. I'm a big fan of the Joe Rogan podcast, because he's into MMA, which I have discovered I really dig. Aside from his emphasis on all things punchy and kicky, he is also a perpetrator and aficionado of high weirdness. He recently had Dennis Mckenna on his show to talk about the Mayan apocalypse and all that nonsense (or "fuckery" as he likes to say). Dennis is brother to the more infamous Terrence Mckenna, who was rather instrumental in the popularization of psychedelics like psilocybin mushrooms and DMT in the 90's. If you went to a rave circa 1993, you heard his voice, booming at you over the speakers, explaining (and possibly inducing an experience of) the fractal nature of the universe.

the sun is also a star, as it turns out

Now, the brothers Mckenna are/were a delightful bunch (Terrence passed on to the Great Glowstick in the sky in 2000, alas). They had an interesting theory, which ended up popularizing the Mayan nonsense, in that they believed that the end of the Mayan calendar corresponded with a calendar they had discovered in the I Ching. This, bolstered with some prophesies they overheard/created while under the influence of catastrophic amounts of magic mushrooms... well, you get the idea. Long story short, they had some trippy experiences in a Mexican jungle back in the seventies, and spent the next several years trying to justify, corroborate, and generally make sense of what happened. Terrence, in an effort to explain to himself what happened to his brain, came up with a lot of weird math that he believed tied all these disparate elements together.

This fascinated Joe Rogan. On an earlier podcast, he'd discussed his fascination with the Fibonacci Sequence, which is set of numbers which outlines proportions that seem to govern much of what we consider healthy and beautiful in nature - the ways that leaves grow, the proportions of beautiful faces, the curve of a nautilus shell. He actually said something at this point, however, that struck me, and stuck in my craw, as it were. He said something to the effect that he was amazed that somewhere, there was a mathematical formula that ruled these things. The implication was that the math made the proportions happen, that somehow, these formulas were operating and creating these organizations of matter.

This may be a bit of science heresy, but I really don't believe that idea.

I think what we're dealing with here is a type of confusion very familiar to anyone who has worked with the more popularized forms of Buddhism expounded by Alan Watts. Watts has a way of compressing very complicated ideas into easy to remember slogans, and this has always been one of my favorites. In one of his most famous phrases he said, "The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal." He was talking about the confusion between our ideas of the things themselves; between the words we use for things, and the things themselves. Humans have a tendency towards this kind of category confusion. It's magic thinking, believing an equivalency exists between the words we say, the maps we create, and the world around us. There is an equivalency of a kind, and, in magick, it's a very useful belief system that can produce occasionally surprising and instructive results. For the most part, however, it's a one way street.

How does this relate to the Fibonacci Sequence? Well, the numbers describe a relationship in matter, they may even predict certain behaviors. But never, in no way, can a formula be said to be real.  Matter is the primary thing, and our experience thereof, and the numbers are a descriptive tool: useful, but having no existence in and of themselves.

When we confuse these categories, we get weirdness like people wondering if the world is going to end based on calendars and math. We also get weirdness like people believing that the formulas that we use to describe the universe (great though they are) are more real than the stuff they are meant to describe.

The takeaway (also known as tl/dr): the world is real. Don't confuse formulas (or any other prophesies) for reality. I'll talk about why I think so in subsequent posts. Have a great week!

update: some other thoughts on this subject (admittedly involving morphogenic fields and other fuckery that I'm not so sure about, can be found in an interview with Rupert Sheldrake on the very fine Disinfo podcast.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Resolutions and the Meaning Machine

Happy Freaking Arbitrary New Year

A friend of mine, during the usual start-of-year conversation, says "I made a resolution years ago not to make any more resolutions."

I laugh. It's an old joke, but I get it. At a certain point, you get tired of the whole self-improvement business, I'm sure. I myself have all kinds of resolutions, but that's my thing, and other people are free to do whatever they want.

Then she goes on. "I mean, why should January First be any different than any other day. It's just a day, right? Why should I pick that date, as opposed to any other?"

A switch trips in my brain. "Because your brain is a meaning machine, and you're actually missing a huge opportunity. Because there's no difference at all, unless you think there is."

January First is an arbitrary date to ring in the New Year, in the sense that there are dozens of factors that went into making it the first day of our Western Calendar (see here if you want to read about them). Some of the reasons are political, some religious, some both. Almost none of them are directly relevant to us now, except insofar as they make for us these milestones by which we might measure our lives. 

Christmas, Easter, one's birthday: these are days, just like any others. If we choose, however, we can imbue them with meaning. There is an argument to make, in fact, that that's the only thing that a brain is good for, that is, creating meaning.

The world is full of events - crowded with them, really (he said, understating drastically). Every moment of every day our senses perceive these events: light hitting objects, objects moving through space, the rush and pump of blood and lymph beneath your skin, gravity and physics working their inexorable will on everything. And every moment your brain, with whatever tools it has at its disposal, whatever experiences it's stored up in that imperfect attic of memory, your brain pieces those perceptions together into a story, a narrative that help give you a way forward, a method of response. Most of those narratives, in answer to olden days when everything was out to kill you, are pretty conservative in nature, and mostly geared toward keeping you alive.

Most people, bless them, do okay with that. Their stories get them through the day, and so they don't change much. They tally up their minor wins and losses and usually call it about even. They go through their lives, assuming that the story that they're in is the only story that they can be in. 

Some of them don't even know that they're in a story.

But you and I, dear reader, we know. The story that we are in, is, after all, a story that we are making up as we go and telling to ourselves. And if we're writing it, we can change it if we don't like it.

But how?

We tell a new story. "On January First, Twenty-thirteen, the first day of a new year full of promise and magic, I decided to change my life." We can choose to believe that the first day of a year has a special significance, and by doing so, it does. Not only that, but you've got the rituals of an entire civilization (the ball drop, champagne, the kiss at midnight, Dick Clark's reanimated corpse) reinforcing your story. That is powerful stuff!

Wait, you might say, there's nothing special about the first day of a new year. Of course not. There's no meaning to the first day of a new year. There's no meaning to anything, come down to it. A rose, a stone, a dog, a star, the touch of your lover, the breeze blowing off the sea at sunset on a warm summer's day - meaningless. They have literally no meaning inherent to them whatsoever. 

That's YOUR job. You give meaning. You create the story. If the world has no meaning to you, then you kill the world, and that's your choice. You can do that if you want. Let me know how that works out for you.

But, if you want, you can choose to see the signs, the circumstances, the good fortune that carries you forward toward the life that you want to live. You can use the rituals of your society to "boost the signal," as it were. You can make up your own rituals, if that's more to your taste. Whatever you want. And from that, you can change your life, the way you see the world and yourself, to be happier and more alive.

As a very wise man once said, "What the thinker thinks, the prover proves." If you believe that your life is getting better, and that life has significance, you will begin looking for and finding evidence of your beliefs. It's called confirmation bias, and, if used correctly and mindfully, it can be a powerful tool. 

(Used incorrectly, of course, it can nuke your life from orbit. It's that powerful. Caveat emptor.)

So think about it. What kind of life are you living? Are you happy with what you've created? Do you want better? What kind of story are you telling yourself? 

Image from: http://christmasstockimages.com/free/new_year/slides/2012_sparklers.htm used under Creative Commons. Thanks.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

This is My Jam: Katy Perry - Peacock

As part of my New Year's resolutions (about which I will write more here later), I've resolved to write here at least once a week. That should keep things interesting. I will have a schedule, which I am formulating more clearly right now, but one of the things I will be writing about is the song I post at thisismyjam.com.

For those not in the know, This Is My Jam allows you to post a song to Facebook, Twitter, etc., announcing, like the girl in the convertible Jetta with the top down, that this song, above all others, is "my jam!" A lot of the fun in these sites is the constraint, the 140 characters to which you must limit your discussion of said song. It keeps the commentary tight, and encourages aphorism and wit.

Those who know me, know I prefer the long form, however, and since I'mma let me be me this year, I'm gonna talk at length. About Katy Perry. Because I can.

"Peacock" seems, at first, to be a female empowerment anthem, but really it ends up being entirely heteronormative, in the sense that it centers entirely on penis. Of course, this is done coyly, in that the said appendage is only referenced indirectly (if repeating "I want to see your peacock-cock-cock, your peacock," over and over could be said to be "indirect").

It seems to be at least partially a response to the "Pick Up Artist" community that sprang up a few years ago. As Pick Up Artists, normally unsuccessful men tried to use special manipulative techniques to improve their chances of getting laid. Not only is "mystery" (or "Mister E" a sort-of celebrity in Pick Up Artist circles) referenced, but "peacocking" is a well-known technique in the PUA community. It's pretty gross and sexist, and dubiously successful. Google "Pick Up Artist" if you want to know more, but I must warn you, your faith in humanity may be compromised.

Beyond that, though, there is something incredibly compelling about this song. The idea of Katy Perry, all wide-eyed faux innocence and body built for sin, singing a song about dick, is really hot to me. It's dirty. I am, for better or worse, a target audience for this song.

There's a taunting quality to it, too, a turning of the tables on the "show us your tits" douchebag that's fun to watch. This is where she's being supposedly empowering. And then she subverts her own subversion with the middle bridge where she finally gets to see said peacock, and rhapsodizes unreservedly about her love of it. The fantasy becomes, not one of female empowerment, but of worship by the female of the male. The way she does her fantasy fulfillment is interesting here, however.

Like another song in Katy's ouvre, "I Kissed a Girl," there's a feigned subversion of the heteronormative relationship that actually serves to reinforce the dominant paradigm. She's doing something that is supposedly "out there", but really it builds up the male ego. In "Peacock" she's teasing and taunting, only to swoon in amazement and joy when finally "shown the goods." In "I Kissed a Girl" she goes outside her "normal" sexual parameters, but only to reinforce what men find attractive, and she even looks to her "boyfriend" for approval.

Katy Perry traffics in fantasy fulfillment. The fact that I dig the fantasy notwithstanding, she is fascinating for what she reflects back to us of our sexual politics.