Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Conceptualization of America

“Conception is a secondary process, not indispensable to life. It presupposes perception, which is self-sufficing, as all lower creatures, in whom conscious life goes on by reflex adaptations, show.”

“When we substitute concepts for percepts, we substitute their relations also. But since the relations are of static comparison only, it is impossible to substitute them for the dynamic relations with which the perceptual flux is filled.” (WILLIAM JAMES, RADICAL EMPIRICISM,)

Kant said it best when he exhorted us to "dare to (or have the courage to) use your own reason", in his seminal work, WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT. Socrates of course told us to examine our life lest it be found wanting in qualities sufficient to justify even living. Many sages have found ways to encourage us and help us to see in new ways, to beat our own drums and newer rhythms, as in Thoreau, to make it new.

To a developing mind, say, in high school or college, this is heady stuff indeed. But the trouble remains, especially in our current cultural moment, that we take these encouragements and motivations in exactly the wrong way. Because, in a culture dominated by a facile and obscurantist war between science and religion, or between "Athens and Jeruselum", what gets covered over, obscured by TROMPE L'OEIL and ruse, is the nature of experience itself: we easily forget that both science and religion are guilty of the same problems, though perhaps they may be in a sort of funhouse mirror opposition to one another.

In religion the chief problem is the problem of literalism, "the great sin of the age" according to, rightly to my eye, Thomas More. That is, we take a religious text not as poetry designed for reflection and wisdom, but as a series of how-to manuals, often plagued by the basest or most world denying moralISM (as opposed to genuine morality, which is often much simpler and narrower a province than moralism). Moralism gets worked up over what we may or may not do with our sexual organs, or what thoughts we have in the course of a day, or all sorts of arbitrary displays of belittling power.

Genuine morality is as clear as light from the sun and is rather like the instinct healthily minded people feel at unnecessary pain inflicted on the other (say in forcing ourselves upon an other's body without their consent).

Of course to a literalist - and by literalist I don't mean here someone who is unable to read the latent or symbolic content of a religious book , but rather someone who reads religious texts as a kind of message or manual - to claim the great religions as works of poetry as James Carse rightly says they are, is to insult and demean religion because religion is like journalism and nonfiction and poetry is lesser stuff that is made up by fallen humans. But actually secular poetry has all of the truths you could ever want. Emily Dickinson describes how the brain works with an almost scientific accuracy. Wordsworth shows us how children are especially valuable in works like ODE and MICHAEL. And Sylvia Plath makes us feel how men hurt women and its consequences in DADDY.

Religion, when it is no longer read as poetry but instead as a kind of journalist's nonfiction also creates claims and assertions which inevitably alienate somebody else elsewhere: someone with different interests and claims. In this sense all religion runs the risk of exclusivity either implicitly or explicitly, a point made beautifully clear in Stephen Prothero's new GOD IS NOT ONE.

Look at how such claims create real estate disputes and have plagued the Middle East since the establishment of Israeli nationhood. Land is fetishized by both sides with accumulating claims and counterclaims until finally an explosion of rocks thrown, guns and missiles fired, and at the worst, suicidal bombs exploded: this makes the whole war a moot point since it becomes an orgy of self destruction.

The current Pope is so awful a figure, so tied to scripture as literal guidance, that he considers abortions and gays living together as the "greatest dangers" posed to the world today, as if global warming and terrorism (and the pedophilia in his own overweening, overrated and bloated institution) were but side issues when compared to the sanctity of legal contracts and the fetish for fetus. (In Gore Vidal's formulation).

This is the world when it becomes a great how-to manual; this is self help as totalitarian self abasement.

Now having said all of this you might suppose that I have some progressivist notions about the superiority of science.

Yet the other side, the secular, is little better. Ironically this is the side that purports to save us from the ills of the religions, chiefly by telling us what really exists and what has been proven as opposed to that which is imaginary. But science has been thoroughly intertwined with SCIENTISM, defined as the inappropriate application to a narrow scientific method to all understanding in all the different domains of knowledge, and the view that science reveals but one truth. We are bombarded by a plethora of nonfiction - indeed unimaginative and literalist non fiction must be the greatest disease of published writing in prose today - all of it desperate to explain once and for all why we mate, why we like music, how playing music is but an elaborate means to get laid, how and why we should be happy, the science of morality and the science of religion. It is surely enough to tempt the most rational soul to consider creationist doctrine just for the sheer drama and meaning it contains when up against the lifeless and relentlessly materialist reductionism of today's science. In essence questions of even philosophy are to be replaced by cognitive neuroscience.

Questions of deep value become beside the point: they get read as but quaint relics from a time when Gilbert Ryle's "ghost in the machine" was the dominant view. Perhaps we secualr Moderns are no longer haunted by the ghost but are stuck with the machine.

We are told so often and so relentlessly who we are, why we are here, what we are meant to do, what we are not meant to do, (this last comes in many radical ecological tracts that condemn civilization and urge us to go back to some ancient way allegedly more harmonious with our early days as a species). We speak the language of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" which is no improvement over the language of the old merciless preacher of the Puritans. Amazingly it is both less severe and more severe. To speak in terms of (in)appropriate appeals to notions of correctness, as if morality were a mathematical calculation, or worse some sort of majoritarian fashion rather than what morality had always been all alone: a deep claim upon our soul.

This is the world of pundits like Tom Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, of books like THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC and THE WISDOM OF CROWDS. It is a world of the New Atheism as if the old atheism were somehow insufficiently tough minded and incomplete. This is the world where daily we are told factoids about what foods cause cancer and how high the risk is to be married or unmarried, and happiness is thought to be as measurable like room temperature.

And if one raises any skepticism about this state of our public discourse one gets charged with nihilism on the one hand, or excessive credulity on the other.

Thus I find myself profoundly dissatisfied by both sides in the debate which share in what I call the general "conceptualization" of America. Drawing on William James' use of the terms percepts and concepts from his RADICAL EMPIRICISM, I would claim that, for about forty years or so, we have been dominated by concepts at the expense of percepts.

What gets lost in the process is this precious matter called EXPERIENCE. When religion colonizes experience, it literalizes it: that voice that I heard must be Jesus or Allah, every feeling I have I must first ask, does it come from God or the Devil?, is it good for me or bad? We don't regard experience as intrinsically valuable. We want to define it and know what it is. It is as if we feel there is something unseemly and undisciplined about savoring our lives. James Hillman put it best when he said that some Christians don't trust their own images and stories for the richness but want to know where it comes from and if it is any good for them. This is what leads certain religious groups to want to ban productions and readings of MACBETH in their communities.

A good poet needs to be as open as possible. They cherish their visitations. That is not to say they will not censor or edit, hopefully they will do just that, quite ruthlessly. But those omissions will be in the interest of formal excellence and yet ever more truth, not in the interest of fear.

Meanwhile our neuroscience crowd will tell us that experiences don't really exist: its all part of a "self regulating system", there is no I at home, just the random processing of neural networks. To make matters worse they will try and induct Buddhism as an ally, though the understanding of Buddhism is superficial.

How can we retain our sense of being more than machine, the ancient dignity of our human experience without getting caught in wedding our dignity to the specificity of our tribal blood pride, and our particular traditions?

One way is to let go of conception for brief periods and to dwell in perception. By this I DO not mean living like non human animals without any thoughts, dwelling only in reflex. Rather it is a way of being with our thoughts by working with them rather than being stuck IN them. Above all it is a way of being in our bodies and our senses and paying attention - to "being here now" as Ram Dass said it.

Sometimes religion at its best can do this, usually in so called "mystical" traditions. Art is all about this question of perception (I often get into arguments with conceptual artists when I tell them that their own work is not really valuable for the reasons they set out to do it: that is, to demonstrate or prove a point; when I tell them that the real value in their work resides in its perceptual qualities even when such merely appears to BEG for a propositional or symbolic understanding). Concepts have a fixed nature to them; they do interrupt the raw flow of experience, they do violence to the reality of temporality. Of course concepts are absolutely necessary in the function of life and culture. But, alas, concepts have overtaken other modes.

Interestingly I believe the first guilty party in the conceptualization phase was the human potential movement and newer psychologies of the 1970s: it was in this movement that we began to label with new jargon the most intimate details of life. New vogue words and phrases came into our language, and, eventually, our experience: vogue words like dysfuntional, codependency, inner child and so on. This way of looking at reality as the expression of a system or concept caused a sea change in human consciousness. People over time, with the help of mass media, began viewing their lives in these frames so that they began less and less to experience their individual lives in a spirit or ethic of SPECIALNESS. In America, a county predicated on unique individuality, this was quite a feat indeed, though something of our older small town conformity surely played a role.

I don't deny, a la social constructionist or a Michel Foucault, that there is truth to be gleamed from these concepts, only that they distort as much as they enlighten, and above all that consciousness has changed in radically different ways because of the rise of the concept.

Thus, in conclusion, we should examine our lives and dare to use our own reasons, but we should remember that the fact that we are able to dwell in experience is the most marvelous fact about us, and we may never be able to define it without doing some disservice to an essential feature of our humanity. If we do not examine our lives, someone else will be all too happy to do it for us for a fee.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Memories Of A 1970s Childhood Part 3

If in some ways I seemed a typical boy, I suppose, for the time period, in other ways I did not in the slightest fit into the world in which I was forced to inhabit.

For as long as I have been conscious, or, at least, remember being what we would consider conscious, I have experienced this life as perceptual and sensual one rather than as a conceptual and discursive one. At times I have been convinced this has a lot to recommend it. But it appears to have its own problems because, since my intellectual and heavily cognitive work is, as Kirkegaard wold put it a retrospective affair, I have to rely upon distanced reconstruction often with the crucial help of other parties who, alas, come with their own biases and ideologies at worst, and dreams and imaginings at best. When I tell people this they are surprised because I appear an "intellectual" person who thinks a lot. But in actuality thinking and intellectual work is a disciplined affair I make purposive time for as I do practicing piano, since I don't automatically do it throughout the day, living as I do more perceptually.

Growing up as a male and in a male body doubtless has its own characteristics as my memories of lovely Carla demonstrate. In other ways I did not fit into the identity that my biology and culture provided. Nowhere was this more the case than in my extreme detachment from the world of sports of all kinds. Recently my mother told a story of how I did not understand the joy and necessity of navigating a ball. I had little memory of this since I did not conceptualize the meaning of a ball. Thus my mother’s memory put me back in touch with my perceptual relation of the same story.

Evidently, my mother took it upon herself to try to make a normal boy out of me and teach me about the joys of the ball. To put it mildly, this was most humiliating, though at the time I was too clueless to know this. She would throw the ball and I would stand and stare and not throw it back. I tried to remember what I had been thinking or not thinking. I literally did not understand that I was supposed to make a move and throw the ball back. I have little idea of how frustrating or shameful it must be for a child to not indulge in what after all is a kind of universal dance. But from my own experience I did not understand why anyone would get fun from tossing this inanimate spherical object back and forth. When my mother tells the story now she mostly laughs about it and shrugs it off, but I do know it must have been very odd indeed.

It was little wonder that many years later in one one year of a “Christian” school in which I did time in fifth or fourth grade, my PE coach had to have a special meeting with my parents suggesting that I had some serious mental problems, maybe even some kind of mental retardation, due to my lack of interest in balls. It did not help of course that this was one of those fringe schools that could not teach English or math, but had to make it Christian English and Christian math and so on. Everything had to have Christian as a prefix, and sports was no exception. Thus my instructor went on and on at this meeting about God’s plan to have boys run around and kick balls. He never exactly made it clear what was Christian about our version of baseball and basketball except to emphasize that we would have regular prayers before every team.

Even worse, in keeping with the coach and school's views concerning Christian athletics, girls in this school were required to rake leaves and were denied any athletic opportunities. And the worst part was that I conducted a one-“man” protest against the sexism of such an arrangement (thought would never have though to use that clunky neologism), and petitioned the school to allow everybody to do sports. I wanted to rake leaves, of course, with the girls, a desire which caused considerable offense to everyone at the school: girls, boys, and teachers alike. I had no allies, but then as now, I was not one to fear risking embarrassment or worse for some principle or another.

Thus, I was in trouble both for refusing to participate in sports on grounds that they were boring and pointless and wanting to "invade" the girls' raking team, which did little to secure people's comfort with my gender identity.

Often it seemed my real allies were not peers or teacher but very young adults and late teens that would drift in and out of my life as relentlessly and casually as I was required to switch school systems.

I don't think Carla was my first crush. After all I liked Lydia, and I don't think I (yet) want to tell about meeting Lydia's mom which caused considerable emotional confusion for me. I had a crush on an English teacher from second grade and went as far as asking her to marry me, but she only rebuffed me with a lengthy disquisition on adult and child's things and the differences between them. Thus, technically speaking Carla was maybe the second adult female I felt love for.

And Carla's magazines and books like OUR BODIES OURSELVES made her all the more alluring.

 I know that Carla was not the most appropriate object of my affections given that she was about 18 0r 19, but I had little concept of that since I tended to see her as a peer. I remember I was masturbating for the first time in my life a lot at this time and had very little privacy. I had to sneak in the office or plant bathroom. One time Carla walked in on me which was one of the earliest times I remember trying that activity out. I have to confess that the intensity of her appearance and the fact she slightly smiled at me before politely leaving, and above her all her beauty, with her revealing hot pants and halter top: all of this made it more intense than the memories of THREE'S COMPANY that had originally gotten me going. About a day later she showed up at my doorstep with a basket full of articles on male and female desire and basically started discussing male and female biology albeit with a feminist slant. She was the only person I had ever met that made me feel okay about my own sexual feelings. She told me that girls did the same things to themselves as boys did, but because of social "oppression" they were made to not want to share it with others even other girls. And she was the first person to talk to me about women's rights.

to be continued

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My life in the 1970s part 2

Suddenly, and unhappily, just at the moment when I was making genuine intellectual progress with my newfound teacher friend and his Orwell books and his Socratic inquiries into the nature of freedom, and was at long last not merely reduced to playing in the trees and sun with Lydia and Sally, (the latter comprising most of the school year), my parents, as usual, decided to "pull" me yet again from a school before the year could be finished out. I am sure they had their reasons and, luckily, for once it didn't involve a violent altercation between me and a group of other children.

I can't remember very well the exact reason for this particular "pull", but probably one reason was that my father began teaching at my school and he was actually trying to teach theater to these fifth graders. It appears that, along with the unusual curriculum that involved group therapy and emotional confessions, this school would hire just about anybody willing to teach. I think my father had run into trouble because he had it in his idealistic mind to try to reform the resident juvenile delinquent Kevin, namely by casting Kevin as Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream. The trouble was that, among other things, Kevin was barely literate, his daily conversation consisted of grunts and short phrases like, "your dead fuckhead" and, moreover, had so many behavioral problems. Some of us found him to be practically evil as he would do unspeakable things to the girls in the school, like shove spiders and bugs under their clothes, and in many cases try to beat them up as if they were boys like himself. It occurred  to us that perhaps Principal Mr. Highsmith's absence for the school year may have had worse consequences than simply the absence of his style, charm, and hot wheels. Speaking of which, Kevin would also destroy property, and he was one of the only kids to try to deface Mr. Highsmith's van after it had been painted, with the worst obscenities, I think the word motherfucker among others. Now I hated that van but I knew it was important enough to others not to ruin it.

Now my father wanted Kevin Myers to act in Shakespeare and of course Kevin would not learn his lines since he was too busy physically torturing the girls in the class. Indeed one of my jobs at school was protecting both Sally and Lydia from his predations. Many a time I would see a beleaguered and weary teacher try to explain to him that "you can't hit girls quite that hard", that "people didn't do that" and so on. I wondered why he was never removed from school. It is almost as if the stubborn faith in the potential of every child was such a sacred trope of the times, or at least at "free schools", that it would have been considered the most obscene sacrilege to expel a child.

I had no fear of Kevin whatsoever, however, and I would always argue with my father about the practicality and possibility of saving him through Shakespeare. Kevin was so awful, I argued, that not even Shakespeare could save him. It turns out we would never know because my father quit trying to put on MIDSUMMER and it was off to another school - I think this time an odd Academy that was even odder.

This was not the first time my father had had unusual gigs in addition to the family business. The most outrageous and memorable gig my father had was teaching in a Barbizon school of Fashion circa 1978. It was memorable because I was a very young male with a growing interest in females; it was outrageous because the setting was a school for fashion in the late 1970s. Luckily I got to go with my father to all of the classes. The whole point of the class was to indoctrinate these beautiful young women into the fold of some kind of "Dress For Success" feminism. Dress For Success was some self-help scheme dreamed up by one John T. Molloy. To put this into perspective, I was in South Florida, and it was, well, summer school, and these young women, roughly from eighteen to their early twenties were resplendent in the shortest of shorts, tight, hip-hugging jeans, tight t shirts, disco heels with perfectly shaved legs, lots of halter tops, you get the picture.

 And here came my father with Molloy's diagrams to rescue them from all of their allegedly cheap Floridian ways and offer them salvation in the form of double knit leisure business suits and, serious cowl necked sweaters in rust and chocolate brown, and lots of courdoroy blazers, and red and mint green pant suits, and just about anything that would turn them into the late 1970s idea of a professional women, that is, modest and not too loose or sexy. And of course I had to witness this transformation myself. They went in looking like Parker Posey and Milla Jovovich in Dazed and Confused and came out looking like Rhoda and Phyllis on Mary Tyler Moore. I really loved going to these classes; the students were so nice to me as I was a kind of curiosity and they always remarked at how well behaved I was for an eleven year old.

Odd too was seeing my father's outfits and presentation with his graphs and color wheels and swatches: I haven't seen more examples of multi-coloured, rainbow hued shades of dacron in one place in my life. Be aware that my own father came to class is a short sleeved chocolate brown or sky blue denim leisure suit and he had a wild beard and, to the horror of his very Southern, almost "redneck" brothers and mother, a perm or "white" afro, a hairdo he sported for roughly a year and did so without any explanation or announcement as to why, with all of the casualness as if he had merely changed underwear. He just showed up one day with this luxuriant afro and expected us to accept it, and to the present day I will never know if it was his idea or my mother's as it was never discussed.

There is no existing photo of my father's perm but there is this picture of him going to teach at Barbizon before the perm.

Barbizon was my first serious glimpse into adult women's culture. Prior to that I had mostly known female peers. The most intensely emotional impression to be seared into my brain was still to come when a beautiful curly haired and olive skinned brunette walked into the life of our family office wearing denim short shorts and some kind of peasant blouse with a bare midriff. Her name was Carla and she was mysterious to me and I was as crazy for her as someone as young as me could be.

Carla called herself a feminist (though I think she preferred the word liberation to feminist) and I don't recall hearing that word much if at all before she entered my life and she showed me books about sex ed and my first glimpse of something called OUR BODIES OURSELVES by a group called the Boston Women's Health Collective.
 She was the same age as the less serious girls I lusted after at Barbizon, yet she was somehow of a different character: stronger, independent minded, and not slavish towards male opinions. Yet she was entirely comfortable with men and sex in general, a subject which seemed impossibly complicated and utterly other-worldy to me.

This was a difficult situation for me because I was still a boy and she worked for my family so she had to surreptitiously give me this literature about biology and something she wanted everyone to support that was called The ERA. The ERA was much debated in that Southern Florida town. Everybody in that office argued with her with the usual scary stories. "If the ERA passes boys and girls will have to share bathrooms" or "men and women will both have to go and die in wars". (This latter became a most painful daily reality the past twenty years without any help from or even passage of the Equal Rights Amendment). Of course I sided Carla which did not endear me to the others at the shop. From then on my whole life was often constituted of various political disagreements.

This progressive and seemingly intelligent educational material was for my tastes an improvement over former attempts at instruction. The last time I had any adult try and offer me anything persuasive it was usually born again Christian propaganda. The most incendiary and divisive would have to be these cheap, almost mimeographed cartoon made especially for children concerning the rapture and the last days, and the End Of Times and the second Coming of Jesus.

Win and Jan, a husband and wife traveling ministry rode in a VW minibus, usually barefoot, and shoved these scary cartoons under my nose - much to the chagrin of my family. I would read them at night, with their crude drawings of Satan and Jesus coming in on a blaze of fire with a sword in hand, punishing the wicked and those resistant to His love, and wonder about why a couple would give such things to children and wonder about the highly unorthodox forms Christianity seemed to take around me. Those cartoons scared me more than the movie Jaws, more than the movie The Exorcist (!) and I grew a terror in the night that some entity would come and take me away. Win and Jan did not bathe, they believed in wearing shoes under only certain SCRIPTURAL conditions, and they subsisted on a raw food or protein shake diet of peanut butter and bananas and so on. They looked like the cast of Godspell. But my parents were like surrogates for them at times in a way and my parents would take them in and let them camp their van near us, often for indefinite periods of time.

With all of this supposedly positive "diversity" I was only left wondering what to believe about ANYTHING. What was truth and falsehood? Why did so many people believe such incompatible things and believe them so passionately? How different they all were from one another and how surprisingly little violence there existed in my world, considering such incompatibilities. Moreover, I was struck by how wild and creative these United States were, with everybody forging their own creeds, their own paths and faiths, and their own new politics.

My school history kept getting weirder at this time. I mentioned an academy. I will try to recount some stories from that and other schools, partly in an attempt to understand, but mostly to give a sense of a time in which literally anything was permitted.

This was before afterschool events of all types, before tracking and newfangled tests. I had yet to encounter the genius, high achieving culture of more affluent kids back East, with all of the over researched, and micromanaged curriculum. And, however many schools I was shuttled to and from, I come away today in middle age with the most curious and astonishing stories. I encountered principals who openly slept with their female students, taught classes without any textbooks and still others who would rant for hours on end on their pet peeves and cranky obsessions, unsupervised by school bells or normal accrediting. We would have recess every few hours or so and the older stoner kids would take us little ones under their "care" and ride around in wide-bodied cars with us tagging along on the hood, roof or trunk, oblivious to the inherent danger and with nary a teacher or adult supervisor in sight to stop them. And they would smoke weed and talk about Frampton or Aerosmith and so on. I encountered a racist Christian English teacher who tried to reason with us that the whites ought not to prejudge someone because they were "black" because that black person just might be teaching the Word of Christ and would therefore be okay and not deserving of racism. (!) And I encountered fellow students who exposed themselves openly exhibited hyperactivity and mental retardation of all kinds, who bullied and tortured and others. The regular kid who just got into trouble, the one you could make friends with, seemed a rarity. This was before awareness about special needs or certain cognitive disorders. The 1970s was the last gasp and expression of a kind of preconscious pure feeling and behavior, before consciousness became systematized, and explained away in the form of new neuroscience. It was an age of perception about to replaced by a age of conception. (see William James on concepts and percepts).

Little wonder that I solace and comfort in adults rather than other children, like that lovely Carla who entered my life with a smile and a copy of a curious book with photographs in it like OUR BODIES OURSELVES.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Art As Perceptual: a case of architecture

Recently I experienced the new APPLE store on Boylston street in Boston, and, as always I was struck by the new fashions and conventions espoused, preached, and in the worst cases, built by our architects. I remember psychologist James Hillman, that great interpreter of Jung, (Hillman who, unlike Campbell and company almost rescues us from Jung's more unsavory and wrongheaded aspects, no small feat) calling contemporary architecture ANOREXIC. That was around twenty years ago and he is now more right than ever.

I always get vertigo when I walk up those stairs in the APPLE store. They are not stairs in the traditional sense since, without handrails of any kind and made almost entirely of transparent and translucent materials, one gets the feeling of not being grounded on any solid surface but floating through air. For me it is quite dizzying. The whole thing seemed designed to induce VERTIGO. Most modern airports are like this as well. Why is our architecture so opposed to solidity? Why does it have a fear of anything denoting traditional notions of boundaries, of privacy and separate rooms? Why this mania for transparent glass and this rejection of all ornamentation? The new ICA on the waterfront is of the same mode: all thin metallic structures where the ceilings and floors and walls all seem to look into one another and dissolve their separation. At times there is a quaintness to it as it resembles an attempt to update THE JETSONS.

The new ICA IS a beautiful building and works for its purposes. But most buildings in a similar mode are anything but beautiful.

But back to my questions: why these new modes and not others? Surely it cannot be a mere ECONOMIC motive as if we cannot afford wood or upholstery and fabric or doors. Perhaps it is the latest mania for "smart" buildings as these seem more ecological. Maybe for buildings to be "green" they must be of this style.

As in my previous post we can look at this as an opportunity to read the world as a text or artwork. Let us look at the meaning.

Like the PC and other computers, what these buildings express is the following: we want our buildings to deny separations between people. We want ultimate transparency, and most of all we want a feelings of lightness and weightlessness, as if we want not to be oppressed by the usual walls and boundaries. Just as the cubicle creates a false sense of egalitarianism and eclipsed the older closed spaces, contemporary architecture has illusions that it can help further democracy along and social justice.

This architecture is like the internet. It is devoted to spiritualistic (rather than spiritual, that is, a dogmatic craving for spirit as opposed to the body) denial of shadows and darkness, a denial of color, and a denial of any separation between male and female. It conceives of a place that has transcended place. It is an architecture that wants to recreate the sense that we aren't in any particular place as if our greatest dream is to disavow and disown our own physical bodies and be instead but weightless spirits who can travel anywhere and are beholden to nobody.

That old stone, brick and mortar and wood reminds us of what we want to leave behind. Too many bad men did unspeakable things in those upholstered, comfortable rooms with closed doors. How much better, so the naive reaction goes, to dismantle the hierarchical hidden world of private separations, and put in its place the realization of a dream of public unity and transparency. In the formulation of Hillman's school of psychology it plays out a division between soul and spirit where we wish to flee the downward darkness of soul (which is associated with limits, the earth, nostalgia for the past, and slowness) for the idealized upwards lightness of spirit (which is associated with speed and the ethers etc.) In this conception the soul is the middle term, the in-between, and has its own unique needs and claims upon us. Soul is in the "vales" and "depths", whereas spirit is in the heights and strives for a frictionless (and boundaryless) unity. I am reminded of the Hancock Tower since it was an early expression of this mode.

It is not a coincidence or accident that in a time when we crave androgyny, when male and female relations seem a burden, when we feel overwhelmed with fear by the earth's response to our various sins that waste its resources, we should seek an expression of the drive to ascend and become lighter and purer and freer from the heaviness and darkness of old modes and styles, with all of their connotations of hierarchies, and secrets, and past debts and inconveniences. We don't BELIEVE in such things anymore. We don't want to be entangled and in the depths and shadows; rather, we wish to come into the light, in some sense ASCEND. (It is no coincidence that there are books, for example, on Gnostic architecture).

Lest I be misunderstood, there IS a beauty to some of these structures, but it is a beauty that just as often reveals an ugliness by the things it excludes: things like slowness, mysterious darkness, and what philosopher Habermas, after Weber, calls the "differentiation of spheres".

Looked at in this way, a lot of these newer buildings suffer from some of the same problems as did International Modernism except, now they are more attractive in their rejection of the monolith of cold, heavy cement and in their accommodation to human scale. In its stead we have a clean, light glass. We are still reacting against the heavy and overstuffed materials 19th century with the thin and austere materials of today. Like the internet it an attempt to escape the temporal and spatial limitations that seem to be burdensome side effects of our embodiment. We used to carry our bodies great distances, always closing and shutting doors, in order to get to that library to research a topic. Now as the contemporary cliche has it, it is but a mouse click away and we perhaps many of us feel like winners as we have defeated space and time. Now some of our scientists even boast of immortality being around the corner.

Architecture is unusual among the arts in that it is seemingly around forever. In the sense that people are forced to look at it, especially as they often have little or no choice than to face buildings as part of work, need, and survival, architects frankly have more responsibility to the less educated and general public than do other artists. In this sense one could argue that architecture has less room to be as experimental and radical as other arts because architects create environments that hold permanent and real consequences in a most utilitarian sense, something quite different from a poem or even electronically transmitted images.

This is an irony because what much of the architecture about which I have been complaining is really guilty of is a kind of Moralism. It is curious that, in its mania to be "smart" and "green" and responsible, current architecture is most irresponsible towards some of our human needs. In saying this I am not, with Prince Charles, saying that all all buildings must have pitched roofs and columns, and right angles. There are even many works of modernism that I admire. But in the main, the architecture of close to the last 75 years has been a kind of failure. It continues to place abstract theories over human needs and even often gets so lost in a theory that it has been blind to fundamentals of human perception and the human need for things like Beauty and, heaven forbid, COMFORT.

Book Review: David Shields Reality Hunger, A Manifesto (2010 Knopf)

"An artistic movement, albeit an organic and-as-yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real". (From David Shields, REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO)

David Shields has written a book, a literary manifesto, that entertains nothing less than grand and venerable questions concerning both life and art and their relationship between them. In keeping with his dismissal of and contempt for traditional boundaries between forms and genres, his insistence upon the value of progressive newness as a criteria for artistic evaluation, and his upholding of the value of the aesthetic in an age increasingly dominated by journalistic obsession with facts on the one hand and fantastic escape from reality in the popular on the other, Shields has conceived the book as a motley mosaic, a patchwork quilt of aphorisms, many of them attributable to the author but just as many, if not more, taken from everywhere else: pop interviews, canonical works of art and English criticism, politicians' rhetoric, and more. His idea is to conceive of a literary art that has all the freedom of borrowing and quotation that we more normally associate with sampled DJ music or contemporary visual and performance art. More important for the present author of this blog's purposes, Shields wants to give nonfiction the same aesthetic value and independence normally given fiction and poetry, in essence to save nonfiction from the legions of popularizers, simplistic biographers, and obsessive history buffs.

In invoking the Oprah Winfrey and James Frey scandal, (concerning the revelation that the James Frey's memoir that Oprah Winfrey touted was in fact a work of fiction), Shields wants to remind us that to make an issue of truth and falsity of Frey's account is to confuse and conflate two notions of truth that should be kept quite separate, the confusion of which is a mark of philistinism. One account of truth is how closely an account adheres to the facts; the other is spiritual and aesthetic and has to do with truth in a more profound and qualitative sense. The former sense is, as hardly needs to be said, rather trivial in the aesthetic realm.

This latter sense is the view of truth that accords with Ezra Pound's "news that stays news", William Carlos Williams' line "it is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there", and an eternal verity about art being a lie that tells the truth. In keeping with this mission and conviction Shields makes sure we note that what was good in Frey's memoir was the fact that some of it was made-up but that the execution was not good. David Shields wants memoir to be regarded in much the same way as we regard the novel or short story and wants us to question naive and indeed philistine assumptions concerning how we we define and value veracity and mendacity.

Firstly, Shields' aphoristic book is a delight to read. Every paragraph or passage compels us to argue and think alongside it, to respond and question, as much our own motives and assumptions as well as the passage we are reading. Then there is the issue of Shields' taste. Shields often has exceptional taste as when he lauds the short fiction of Lydia Davis or gushes over the comedy of Sara Silverman, both of whom are arguably among the more important artists working in any medium today.

REALITY HUNGER is a dense work. Though it might strike one as minimalist on first appearance and in the truncated nature of its formal operation, in fact it is anything but minimalist: in the accumulative effect and weight of all of the quotations on art and life, its tonal shifting between casual jokeyness and modernist and classicist seriousness, its alternation of collage-like play and rigorous argument, its mixture of bald assertion and explicit demonstration, the completion of reading REALITY HUNGER makes one realize that one has been in the company of one of the more serious critics today. A more trendy way to put it is to say REALITY HUNGER is part of move towards a new sincerity or "post-irony" culture.

Throughout Shields extols the virtues of ellipsis which appears to support the potential "minimalist" tag. "How much can one remove and still have the composition be intelligible? This understanding, or its lack, divides those who can write from those who can really write. Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narrative; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway." This one passage is so excellent because in just one sentence Shields distills what in essence made those playwrights so valuable. But again, after about 300 of these numbered passages, the effect is to very much fill us in, to give us a dense history and a very clearly delineated plot. Because so many of the passages return to the same "master narrative" in a most incessant and compulsive fashion, the narrative that does emerge will be the concern of the remainder of my remarks.

David Shields is also careful in his book to never separate ethical from aesthetic questions. The issue of artistic form comes up incessantly and middlebrow culture often comes in for attack as being false or unreal in its effects. Nowhere is this seriousness about the ethics of artistic styles more clear than in Shields' decision to quote the infamous rightwing politician in the George W Bush administration who talked about the US being an "empire now" one that "makes its own reality" while liberal reporters merely play catch up as said reporters are stuck in a past and false paradigm where one "judiciously analyzed" reality. The policy wonk had nothing but contempt for the assumptions of the "reality" based community.

A more chilling quote has yet to be heard in a long time, because in it the speaker borrows a key assumption of hippie and antiestablishment spiritual and political movements: that our minds or consciousness determines in large part what happens to us and that detached observation is impossible, and uses that assumption in service of the worst aspects of the political and corporate establishment. One wonders if the usage of that belief by such company condemns the belief and is a final verdict on the hazards of Postmodernism. The speaker is not merely saying that because his gang is in power they can do what they want. Rather the speaker is saying that in this new world order there is simply no other way for any of us to live or comprehend reality.

Doubtless this state of affairs worries Shields as he seems to see it as connected with more innocent but banal forms of lowbrow entertainments. Unfortunately this is the one part of Shield's book that goes awry. Shields, in spite of his fondness for artistic innovation and criticism of tired and "false" forms, ironically holds to what is now a rather old line about art.

An example and clue to Shield's narrative of this can be found in the passage found above that introduces this review. This contains the belief that there exists this artistic movement that holds certain tones and styles and modes in common and this movement represents a kind of progress.

Though Shields might deny it, by holding to this belief he is indulging in a kind of historicism. By historicism I mean the word as it was specifically used by philosopher Karl Popper, especially in Popper's POVERTY OF HISTORICISM. As in many of the quotes where Shields complains about "novely" novels that no longer work, or when he quotes the critic Geoff Dyer about how "jazzy jazz" is not interesting anymore, David Shields believes that an age demands unique and quite specific works of art that are relevant and belong to that age.

If we took every single one of the qualities in Shield's passage we could gleam them for their fruits and possibilities; even better we can see their application in some of the greatest works of art of the past forty years. I read that list and think of Bruce Conner movies (speaking of the Zapruder film) of Rauschenberg, performance art, the great cinema verite movement. I think of jazz improvisation, of innovative novels with incredibly unreliable narrators, of the great comic monologues of Sara Silverman.

And above all, though Shields unfortunately does not mention his name, the three films of Andrew Bujalski that gave rise to the unfortunately named and misapplied term "mumblecore", FUNNY HAHA, MUTUAL APPRECIATION, and the latest BEESWAX. In Bujalski's case in particular the "deliberate unartiness" is actually the result of the most rigorous and sincerely involved attempt to make fictional and dramatic art out of the lives and culture of youth in a way I don't believe we have seen performed so successfully since the French and American New Wave some forty-five years ago. But of course it is, as in all art, the most arty thing imaginable, the product of writing (rather than nonprofessionals clowning around on the set), all of the indirection and ellipses as planned as they were in Shield's dramaturgical examples.

But if we look seriously at Shield's list of qualities, as excellent as some of the work is of which the list is constitutive, we are faced with some rather serious questions. Are the terms on the list more needed now than in the past? Do they even constitute a serious movement? And if they do should we herald such a movement as superior to other movements or modes?

Let me proceed carefully because I don't want to appear as defending an "anything goes" "its all good" ethic of relativism. I DO however proceed from a certain PLURALISM, because quite frankly, I don't see how a single mode can be said to be more truthful or valuable than others.

It is not merely that we cannot compare or rank differing styles, because, at times we can, as I will do now. I do this when I tell people that I think the writing on Curb Your Enthusiasm to be better than on Madmen. They might respond, you can't compare comedy and drama. But we compare them all of the time. If we say that AVATAR is stupid and unintelligent and FORTY YEAR OLD VIRGIN is witty and intelligent we are comparing a comedy with a drama. Though, like Rick Moody, and unlike Northrop Frye, I have very little use for genre as a critical tool.

One of the questions we have to ask concerns whether the aesthetic result is INTERESTING and MEANINGFUL, and, in accordance with those criteria, whereas MADMEN flatters us and offers us familiar ways of looking at the past and the present and the history of sexual politics, CURB asks many more involved questions about individual freedom, the nature of moral responsibility, free will, selfhood, and the conflict between community and individuality than does MADMEN. Both shows are involved in similar issues, that is, issues of the community and the individual (and in that sense are both deeply AMERICAN works of art in the tradition of, say, Hawthorne or James) but whereas MADMEN, as good as it is, resolves those questions in ways that are limiting and certain, and above all in conformity with certain beliefs we already have about emotion and psychology, CURB raises those questions not to be finally and fully answered but as an opportunity for yet further questioning. If MADMEN is enjoyable and entertaining (though at times for me irritating because of its aesthetic conservatism) CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is sublime. It is curious that as a comedy CURB is of course utterly dependent on commonplace sentiments and notions we have about human nature since that is one of the ingredients that generates laughter. Yet in the the course of a single episode such ideas are rigorously scrutinized chiefly through the tension between the anti-hero Larry David and the larger community. The answers are never so certain. Sometimes the problem is the political correctness and earnestness of the community, sometimes in the brutal honesty and tactlessness of Larry David or Jeff Garlin.

In MADMEN we are never in doubt about the repressiveness of Roger Sterling, for example. We are never for a moment allowed to forget the dilemma for women in the historical period in which it is set. And it is NOT a question of drama because the three playwrights Shields cited for their indirection were not chiefly comic. Because CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is largely improvised and MADMEN is painstakingly written this would appear to match Shield's opposition of spontaneity to contrived. But this is of little help because Andrew Bujalski's films are written yet appear to many onlookers as excessively improvised and CURB would appear to have been intricately planned in how all the misunderstandings and mixups play out and all of the story lines tie together at the end. Thus how a work of art FEELS has little relation to some of its most important constitutive procedures.

But some of the greatest works of art are comprised of exactly opposite modes to those on Shield's list. Anna Biller's films are most artful. They are painstakingly constructed and indeed often call attention to their craft. And yet the end results are marvelous, indeed marvelous precisely because of the resistance to a certain kind of accident in their construction and the most diligent commitment to a certain kind of planning. Tsai Ming Liang's films are from Taiwan and they are some of the most interesting and vital in cinema today. Yet Ming-Liang's films, like Biller's, are absolutely dependent upon qualities very different from those found on Shield's list. To name one example, to invoke the influence of Jacques Tati and Antonioni as Tsai does would be impossible without a certain commitment to rigorous planning. Conversely, it is equally true that certain works of art achieve their greatness from a principled commitment to accident. The controlled affect of the actors alone (In both Biller and Liang) is one crucial exception and a contrast to Shield's confession. Like the approach to rock criticism I decried in a previous post, Shields, for all of his devotion to the aesthetic is too tied to the journalistic, he believes the art to be a matter of "the scene" alone.

And if Shields has his Lydia Davis what of more traditional modes of fiction? indeed what does it mean to even discuss traditional versus modern styles of fiction? Joyce Carol Oates' accounts of consciousness are the most involved and involving imaginable as are those of Alice Monroe. That is, they avoid the sort of conscious (or seemingly unconscious?) omissions or ellipses of which Shields is so enamored. Both Oates and Munro situate their works in a seemingly naturalistic world and the kind of hermetic and imaginative enclosed spaces found in Lydia Davis' stories would be unthinkable and impossible in Oates and Munro.

And what of Frederick Seidel's poetry? In some ways it is raw and confessional yet Seidel is one of the last of the Decadents in that his poetry is the most worked over, gloriously exhibitionistic voice around. They speak of worlds and realms as far removed as possible than is found in, say, Gary Snyder, or Jorie Graham. And in jazz, the "rawness" of pianist Brad Mehldau's playing, the spontaneity of his angular lines and sparse ballads is something to revel in. But it is worlds apart from the planned extraversion and exuberance of someone closer to Oscar Peterson like Benny Green. Must we be forced to choose? And if so, what reasons are there to be given? And, how is any of it connected to issues of morality per se?

Another way of putting it is to say that different styles have different ways of doing things if only because we as individuals are so different from one another. David Shields worries about our middlebrow tastes lead him to be unduly exclusive at times in his assessments.

It is telling that at a conference at the Philoctetes Center it was a novelist, Rick Moody, who argued with Shields. Rick Moody was not so interested in questions of genre at all, still less in whether something was new or relevant; like most artists Rick Moody was interested above all in finding a way to express what he had to and finding the right form for that. This is a different matter than finding the correct form for the age we happen to be living in. Rick Moody has little patience for Shields' dismissive attitude towards certain forms thought to be tired - like the novel. After writing The Ice Storm and Purple America, surely if Moody believes in anything, its the novel. David Shields believes in the world too much; he has almost too much faith in the saving powers of documentary, broadly understood.

But might this faith in documentary be seen one day as in part a fashion and enthusiasm from the past? As always we are faced with the same questions with which I introduced this blog a month ago: what is the value of a thing? Where is this value to be found? What in its value is bound by a time and what in its value flows freely outside of a given time? Theses are good questions. David Shields is to commended for taking such questions seriously. He is a marvelous literary stylist to be sure. I had hoped, though, in the end that he were more skeptical and less sure than he is.

But perhaps I had wanted more criticism and less manifesto. He might proclaim his attraction for Sara Silverman but he missed an opportunity for a close reading of her linguistic achievements. For all of Shields' commitment to "rawness" and "spontaneity" he had already decided in advance what he thought and rather than see criticism as an opportunity for better or more interesting questions, Shields seemed to have had perhaps one answer too many.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My Life In The 1970s part 1

I am no expert on child development but even from my limited experience on this planet it is pretty clear to me that my childhood and adolescence were highly unusual. Vogue words and jargon like dysfuntional do not seem to do justice to its weirdness. On e thing that strikes me as I look back on those years is the extremity and weirdness of the people I encountered, the diversity of beliefs that surrounded me, and the peculiar particularity of my own family dramas made all the more mysterious by my status as an only child, a social position that denied me the usual route by which developing individuals seek some empirical and objective grounding for their perception via siblings.

I could go on for hours and pages about all of the odd stories and people I met in my youth. At some point I hope to create a book out of it, but, in the the spirit of David Shields in his REALITY HUNGER, A Manifesto. I should like to eviscerate the boundary between the "genre" of journalistic obsession with facts on the one hand, an obsession which is like a poison to our sense of aesthetics and imagination, and the "genre" of poetry and fiction on the other. I was deeply inspired by Shield's criticism and could not agree with parts of his important book more than when he inveighs against our literalness.

Thus in that spirit I could tell a tale here and say that it is really all true, but according to Shields, and me, that would be almost trivial and banal an assertion. Or I could spontaneously write the first images and sensations that come into my mind.

One of the first things I remember about that time is that for a variety of reasons I was shipped from school to school and had to encounter radically differing school systems and pedagogy. One of the reasons is that I had trouble fitting in with peers. Another reason was that I got along better with my teachers, thus alienating the peers. Another reason is that my parents were never satisfied with one school style. I went to hippie schools, born again Christian evangelical schools, a Catholic school, rough public schools (that was in first grade where I first got my fill of soul music) and schools so weird and experimental, with classes without texts, and teachers who ranted on about anythings, and kids groping each other in the open, that I am sure that in today's more accountable and regimented age many of the teachers would surely be out of a job if not brought up under some kind of charges. Usually when my parents decided they didn't like a school I would get pulled from it and be forced into another school. This is the kind of thing the rise of the automobile and the highway system will do.

One of these schools was what was later to be called a hippie school. I was in fifth or sixth grade. Most of the school was conducted outside around a pond and, if it was absolutely necessary, in these ramshackle rustic cabins. I remember the headmaster was a tall man that we likened to John Bunyan and he had an enormous beard and hair and the largest pair of Foster Grant Aviator sunglasses I had ever seen. We saw that headmaster a total of four times the entire school year. Where he went when he wasn't in school nobody knew. When he was present he said very little.

One time the headmaster - let us call him Mr. Highsmith - actually gave a speech for the parents. How I wish I had a tape recorder on that day. I remembered little of the syntactical content but certain "keywords" stuck out and these were the words:

"values, choice and choose". and "space". I remember lots and lots of space, as in "giving us our space as children to grow" and so on. Perhaps he was an improvement over the redneck ex-marine headmaster with a thick bull neck from the school and year previously, whose idea of leadership was to take a few of us boys over his knee and desk and strike us, evidently for his own pleasure, with the longest, thickest and oldest of wooden rulers.

In keeping with Highsmith's speech, us kids had to do Esalen-like mind exercises where we would get into groups and in order that we "get in touch" with our feelings and report on them. My trouble was that I didn't HAVE that many feelings or at least feelings I considered terribly important on which to report. I would share my discovery of Ravel's Bolero on the phonograph or my desire to learn the trumpet only to be verbally punished by the "group leader" for not being real enough and copping out. This made me more confused because I did not feel as if I was doing anything wrong.

What we did know about Highsmith was that on one of those four times where he actually came top school (he was said to be away on important research on "family dynamics" and "values clarification"), was a school activity where we had to "paint" his customized van. I had little say in the themes or execution of this paint job, except that some of the dominant motifs were indeed rainbows and unicorns and white horses and elves. I remember that the Florida heat was oppressive that day and, to say nothing of the smell, I was so appalled by those motifs and colors that I tried to escape by climbing those large, old growth trees that surrounded the school.

But the other kids LOVED that van. They would caress it and take such care with it and surely envied its almost totemic power with the 8 Track that pumped out all of these Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy tunes. But I had other interests than that van which actually frightened me. That van reminded me of the blacklight posters in my neighbors' older brothers' rooms.

It was at this time too that I had two of my first girlfriends who were both a year older than me and best friends with one another. I had a great deal of trouble choosing between them. At first I liked Lydia who had wavy brunette hair and loved to wear denim overalls, and then I met Sally who was blonde and only wore dresses and was rumored to be of Swedish descent. Strangely, I did not know that I had to choose between them as I felt I genuinely loved them both, and as they evidently loved each other as well. It was rather like a childhood version of Jules and Jim. But we would spend more time sitting in the trees and talking about philosophy and the latest Woody Allen movies we had seen since both girls LOVED Annie Hall and would go over the fine points of the story with me and fill me in on certain romantic jokes and misunderstandings and neurosis of the main characters that I would not quite have fully understood on my own. In return I would regale Sally and Lydia of the French movies I had seen on my trip to New York City. These French comedies, I assured them, were far more interesting than anything Woody Allen had come up with, but alas, in this school district movies like that were not available. (I LOVED those dollar a movie theaters and the Burt Reynolds and other fare I saw there but that is a tale for another time).

I don't think there were any grades and the sole intellectual memory I had of that year was when one of the teachers, feeling sorry for me and my lack of stimulation academically proceeded to read part of Animal Farm to me and encouraged me to write a book report on it for extra credit. I will never forget that one teacher. Like the headmaster he too had a groovy beard, but he kept it trim and seemed genuinely concerned about the world he lived in and my mental development. If it weren't for Animal Farm I wouldn't have moved on to 1984 and he somehow knew that I craved a world other than one dreamed up by Spencers Gifts or Electric Light Orchestra.

To be continued

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reading the World

It was recently suggested to me that I read a text to demonstrate what it is to read, criticize, or analyze it. There have been many vogues in reading over the years, and the tide of new fashions continues unabated. What I should like to do, before picking out something in particular, is to discuss some general things that I feel need repeating, as an invitation for you the reader to perhaps reflect upon your life in a new way.

One way of looking at culture is that it involves the HOW of things rather than the WHAT. Now the "what" surely matters. If we are looking at a book those sentences and paragraphs matter, and of course if those sentences and paragraphs build to create the illusion of a plot, that matters as well, and some of the meaning resides in precisely the general impression or summary we draw from that book. We get a sense of Joseph K, or Dorothea Brooke, or Pip because of the effect of accumulation of assertions about that "person" (whether through a newer free indirect style or older narrative authority). But equally, and, in what I would refer to as the highest works of literature, the means by which this process is carried out might eclipse in importance the summary. Too often, though a reader wants just the summary and reads for that alone. In quite a few cases this might be an egregious mistake, not because that summary or shorthand doesn't matter, but because the meaning of the thing dwells in how it is told. In fiction this sometimes takes the form of twisting and turning the figures written about in such a way that how selfhood is constructed by fictional character and reader alike becomes itself the theme.

I thought it might be fun to look at the world in this way too. We can read our friends, our fashions, our buildings and see how they are made. In this sense the poststructuralists were right to say that the whole world is a text. (Where they were wrong is in their excessive suspicion about what is given in a text, and in their tendency to be uninterested in older humanistic criteria for evaluation, criteria I will try and uphold on this site). Some spiritualist type people and astrologers often talk about reading a person's chart for insight into their character. We rarely have the fortune or opportunity - it is magical really - to step outside of our habits and read the world in this way. What would it be like to step back from our practices and do anthropological field work on ourselves? We might ask why so many males wear baseball caps en masse, for example. Or why certain females have the need to get into oversized and gaudy white machines with flashing lights and drive around a lot and get drunk and giggle incessantly upon planning for a wedding for one in their party. The trick, of course is to defamiliarize all of this, but not to do it in such a way that is neither functionalist on the one hand, nor censorious on the other. The functionalist, like a certain sociologist typically sees the WHAT of the situation. Thus, those girls are doing a timeless ritual of bonding before a wedding. The trouble with this functional account is that it leaves behind some of the most salient facts about that bacholerette party. Why usually the white limo for example? It is completely inadequate to reduce the world into use value in this way. This is one of the problems with NeoDarwninian accounts of human behavior: it turns matters of what into how, which often even ignores the how.

One way we usually get perspective upon our familiar styles is by a certain kind of travel where we live with others who are rather different. But the questions of how we eat, how we dress, how we contain ourselves are opportunities for reflection, meditation and contemplation, whether we are faced with challenging difference from those ways or not.

Before we really make any provisional evaluations we must be sensitive to this issue of how. Of course we do it all the time when our pundits and nutritionists and foodies evaluate the health and nutrition of what we eat. But there are other areas of life that are taken absolutely for granted to the point where the readings of those areas are shamefully poor. The development of the Interstate Highway is one example of the tragic consequences of an abandonment of the power of how. We were in such a hurry to summarize (we read for the plot), that we just built the most unattractive strips of concrete, the better to get from one location to the other and (in theory) the quickest time.

We also read from a particular standpoint. There are two salient facts about me that make me read a certain way. For one I don't drive, and for another I don't drink. As a relentless pedestrian a compulsive peripatetic I am struck by the absolute domination by and love for the automobile. The world is hostile to me at every turn because it potentially threatens me with large machines whose speed extraordinarily surpasses what my feet can do.

Being a nondrinker in a world in which drink is deeply important is another standpoint issue. To make matters more tricky I don't not drink for moral or medical or philosophic reasons as I am not in recovery from anything alcohol related. People can be hostile and irritated by my non drinking. Drinking is an important means for people to connect and maintain those connections.

Now, even though I expressed my alienation from the world of drink, I would be most dissatisfied if someone only looked at drinking as a pretext for people to meet or as a means for people to alter their psychology (to relax or to get into a certain state). I may be a nondrinker but I am fully aware that there is this extraordinary art - and it is ever changing - to beer and wine, to say nothing of, say, whiskey or liquours. There is talk of vineyards, and grapes, and the right climate for this or that preparation and heady and ecstatic talk of tones in a drink, and dryness, and heaviness, and lightness, and bitterness. The writing on our alcoholic beverages in the most mediocre food column can read like Dr. Johnson writing on Shakespeare. And none of it concerns mere functionality.

Thus we can look at the world as a work of art, as we would regard a poem or sculpture. And my guess is, though I can't quite prove it, that if we looked at the world in this way, it would not slow us down or distract us from matters of great importance, but rather, we might become better judges of character in the people in our lives and avoid signing on to projects that in the long scope of history turn out to be disappointing at best or tragic at worst.