Danaë (1636), oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg | artwork by Rembrandt
My concern is that we feel compelled to dissect and runs tests on the appreciations, longings, and interests of one another not for the admiration we feel towards them, but because we view them with suspicion. At having expressed interest in or appreciation of anything–a painting, a band, a political thought or ideology, a quote from a novel–have you ever been placed under interrogation, directly or indirectly, about said object or idea? Did they ask if you knew every member of the band? Did they ask you about the author’s history with a rare blood disease? Did they ask in what year the association had been founded and under what cirumstances? Did they ask about the secret handshake? Or are we guarding ourselves against the onslaught of faddism? When appropriation without investment or appreciation is rampant, wouldn’t we demand to know more about someone’s intrigues?
Art and philosophy have become less about consideration and admiration and more about an encyclopedic comprehension and encyclopedic comprehensiveness. Much like the dichotomy of producer and consumer swollen under capitalist regimentation, this new era of the internet has stressed the role of the documentarian, a sort of consumer spin-off, that indexes facts–facts, facts, facts and numbers–and stores them like ammunition at best and for nothing at worst. Even ideas and criticism become facts rather than interpretation or anything to be treated with a degree of discretion.
Have you been to a museum lately? How long does anyone linger before one piece? It doesn’t matter anymore, if it ever did, whether you are scrolling through tumblr or whether you are on location at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, because you view the art in almost the same way. Have you seen people interact with the art? It is not even photography anymore, great photographic instruments being for some not all, but an act of capture via cellphones, a tool of amateur pornography. Everything must be documented even though the quality of the picture is crap and there are a million images of this famous painting or this famous sculpture–or this famous photograph!–or this famous vista, available online already. So why bother with the picture? The story of the well-meaning tourists visiting Mexico Sontag’s On Photography come accelerating back to mind. These photographs serve only to confirm that one was there, to document one’s time–I am guilty of this–,to place on the instagram feed, the tumblr blog, the facebook profile, and to gain approval from having saw what one was supposed to see and to have added another plot line to the narrative of your life.
It doesn’t add up to me, because the fact-based craze seems to indicate a desire for precision and exploration, whereas the pornographic documentation reveals a shallowness, a lack of intimacy with the things of admiration or observation. Even a destruction.
Everything should already be known and any lack of prior knowledge is a severe deficiency. Of course the search for knowledge, the practice of erudition, is central to our human lives, but it is always central to our life for we know nothing at any given point, whereas under current sentiment we are expected to know everything. And when we don’t, we must be prepared for ridicule or prepared to GET educated, and by that what is meant is, to GET schooled, not to become educated or enlightened in any real affecting way. In the case of viral phenomenae on the internet which are based on revelation–uncovering history (because we’re all cyberspace sleuths)–you are not confronted with a fact you did not previously know, you are confronted with an ideology, with indignation at how foolish you are for having previously walked the earth unaware of all historical truths. Of course so much truth, so many stories, have already been lost to us. It is almost never about truth and reality and a documentation of what happened. It is about ideology, rhetorical combat, or in the more emotional context, longings.
There are contradictions everywhere. It is supposedly an age where personal opinions are tolerated. And isn’t this true? Oftentimes at least we do tolerate each other. I was listening to Doris Sommer, professor at Harvard, speak one day, and she was discussing the concept of tolerance. When we tolerate each other, she said, what do we do? We wait for the other person to stop speaking.
We are entitled to what we think and what we think we know. No one should tell us we are wrong, it is our duty to tell others they are wrong, because we are armed with facts. If we are armed with facts, then we should not be wrong. In a time when many people in the West and East of the United States, Europe, China, and Japan are deserting the ancient religions, they are, counter to common rhetoric, falling into new ones. The world is quantifiable, argued as if it is built not of atoms, themselves nearing some sort of energy ghostliness, but of objectives, and most of all, facts, a new race of demi-gods–if you worship them you are fallen into good graces. If you do not you descend into the pits of hell. We are surrounded by people who think they have escaped the old religions, people who are “not religious, but spiritual,” who have simply replaced one set of Ten Commandments with another, the Bill of Rights. More intangibles. It is no longer about consideration or admiration or appreciation or true emotional depth, true feeling (the emotional spectrum now a binary between outrage and inane ‘feels’), because to take that plunge is to attempt to pick away at, or to go beyond, so-called facts, to see without google glasses, that is, without information clutter. It is about seeing and feeling and understanding, not about knowing, and this is sacrilege and pagan, it is autonomous rather than pious. It is pretentious to avoid facts, when facts are so easily consumable, because it means that we may gain more from our own consideration of something than from being told something from the compiled information.
Supposedly, personal opinions and feelings and expression have never been so lauded over, and yet when one tries to display passion, or exercise autonomy over facts, or muddle through a Monet in search of a beating heart among the lily pads–one we cannot distinguish from our own,– it is loathed, met with sighs, indignation, indifference, or a performative incomprehension. We proudly express our inability to understand and proudly decree anything short of information and objective frigidness as being nothing but pretense, just as we might shun or stone any heretic who does not follow the True Word of God or we might slay anyone who refrains from our ideology.
So that if I might attend a discussion on race and bring up the argumentation and philosophies of those I’ve read, if I want to talk about Albert Murray or Sojourner Truth or Malcolm X or Frantz Fanton or bell hooks or Stanley Crouch or W.E.B. DuBois or anyone else, then it is not seen so much as the injection of fact into a debate but forms of passion and pretense, stirred by my emotional investment in an issue or an idea, the historical lineage of which has been sought in a way frighteningly dissociated from the way we scroll through social media’s uncontextualized confetti unconcerned with its origin and genealogy, or the way Wikipedia treats time, history, and lineage, where it should seemingly facilitate this multi-linear inheritance of ideas, passions, and knowledge.
Even love is affected by these turn of events. What is heterosexuality anymore? Has there ever been a time in history when homos like me and other non-straight people should envy heterosexuals less? Love and sex are unaffectionate, not vulgar in the sexy sense but vulgar in the sense that they are afraid of themselves. Heterosexuality has lost so much “the sizzle,” as Camille Paglia refers to it at one point. Hook-ups and online dating and dating apps and “banging”–again, I’m fraught with guilt–slice away love and sex from seduction. They don’t simply shy away from, but contract at the thought of the mental depths of these fundamental human experiences exposed by the formerly necessary acts of risk and the depth of a connection rather than an exchange, and idea of feeling and navigating through and into the other, the stranger, which requires acuteness and interpretation of highly subjective gestures, wordplay, changes in physical complexion and other actions and signals. It is what Slavoj Zizek calls “the contractual.”
It is similar to–though not exactly the same as–the painting or the song. The knowledge is skewed. You very well may know from the other person’s online profile that they love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and that they are 5’7’’ and that they go to the gym every tuesday and thursday, and you may facebook stalk them and figure out they went to Roosevelt High School and that they graduated as a National Honor Society student or that they were convicted of a DUI when they were eighteen. But any interpretation of these facts, and therefore, any interpretation of the individual, is foregone and rejected. You don’t really know what turns this person on because you have not figured out how to seduce them (figuerd out what it is that does turn them on), because you have not seduced them, and if you’re like me and you crave romance, if you wait to be seduced or attempt to seduce, you’ll be met with, if not outright rejection, then consternation, hesitation, and confusion.
You are not dialoguing with anyone. And we are not used to dialoguing with anyone anyways. Not here, right now, anyways. Not very much. We are insulated–our blogs, our feeds, the news sites we choose to read, the radio stations we choose to listen to, the lectures we choose to attend–a completely personalized space where anything threatening is not allowed for fear it violate our fundamental, universal, natural or inherent (inherent from whom?) rights. A space that cultivates, as Elias Aboujaoude describes, narcissism and other crude parts of ourselves. You cannot have a dialogue with a soundbite or a “fact.” When we look for love or sex we’re not speaking, we’re negotiating terms of agreement.
We are even more isolated because we have not addressed the invisible world. In fact, we make fewer and fewer things visible everyday in part by dissociating them from the world. This overpersonalization is as a church of a certain denomination we attend. Except we do not attend every Sunday anymore but nearly constantly. And when we are preaching we are often preaching like those people on the street. Maybe you saw them when you were younger. I used to know them in places like Downtown Crossing or Faneuil Hall or any other highly public location, shouting into crowds for hour after hour converting no one, rousing no one (in any way they might hope, anyways), replete with facts and biblical verse and condemnation for anyone who did not already know the words or who would not adopt them immediately, sans education. That wasn’t the point, the point was for you to get “schooled.” To walk away in shock, awe, and harboring more than a little guilt.
And again we are buried under rhetoric, or rather, our rhetoric buries others. We are a globalized society, an interconnected world. Yet still billions remain off the grid, disconnected, certainly effected by this reality but not consuming the same knowledge and not engaging in the same social interaction. And certainly not on a day-to-day basis. This is the creation of a false ‘we’. I’m on a unveristy campus, which gives me some first hand examples of this process.
On a campus there will be a leadership club. They will be The Leaders. There will be an LGBT+ association. They will The Gays. There will be fraternities and sororities. They are creating a power structure, a hierarchy, perhaps a hegemony. No one will say they are the only leaders or the only gays, but they will be the center of gravity. They will speak as The Leaders and The Gays and The Engineers and The South Asian Students and The Drama Students and The Republican Students and the harm is not in the organization–organization has toppled centuries worth of dictators–but that they will inadvertently fall into the trap of thinking that they are the world, the bearer of the things to gospel or the ideology, that everyone else recognizes them with as much legitimacy as they recognize themselves.
Such as any cinematic or literary or athletic hierarchy, they begin to see themselves not so much as the organized community, but as The Community. They are exerting dominance and power and obscuring the underworld. They are priests and bishops and they have the blessing and the word of God. They regard one another, and so are overtaken by further hallucinations of the alter. You will of course understand that you have not”made it” until you’ve made it with them. You have not made the best film until you’ve made the Best Picture. You will not have been one of the greatest baseball players of all time until you have made it onto the wall in Cooperstown, a house of the sanctified. And if we have not reached–out of failure or choice or ignorance or ostracization–to reach these realms, we will remain invisible and our inferiority will be factually calculated and considered.
Even the city will be navigated according to this dogma. It has been this way, in fact, for so long, due to the only very recent ubiquitous proliferation of quick and fast mobility. It has lasted so long because we all live in small worlds. There is no difference between the mental scale of a person who lives in a big city, a suburb, a village, on a farm miles and miles away from the next nearest family, or in the middle of the ocean, even if the topography is varied. The cosmopolis suffers under the weight of balkanization. South Boston or Sudbury or Cummington or Aurora, South Dakota. We go to cities to become better people and then what happens? We are pinpoints on a GPS map cutting our way down avenues and through parks. We are still in a small town, but the thing is that we may avoid the local citizens (our friends, family, co-workers, classmates) by interacting with a zillion other populations every day. And once in a while we will still fall in with one another. And then we are urbanists.
But until that point, or at other points, the city is to be regarded as a set of notions. If on social networking sites and in the museums and now during dating and seduction–we do not linger on one another with the absence of seduc(a)tion, do we?–we are barely observing and then there is not much left to process. If we know that Compton is a dangerous place then we know that as a fact. So we may make the clear, logical deduction that if Compton is a dangerous place, it is dangerous for us. And because there is no reasonable temporal dimension to these crime statistics (decades perhaps: “Compton was so dangerous in the 90s, it is not as dangerous now.”) except for day and night, we assume that Compton is dangerous at any time, and it is especially dangerous at night. Again a fear of darkness: inwardness, contemplation, earthliness, in favor of the light and illumination of fact and divinity and truth.
Or we will make a different claim, that Compton is not as dangerous as we think. Or it as dangerous as we think, but less dangerous for normal citizens as it is for gang members. In any case, we will not know this by visiting the city, walking around, talking to people, and observing and processing it. A good measure of both is good, for what is to stop someone from extrapolating their own day as a trend–today I was perfectly fine, so this place is always fine. Or I was mugged, so this place is dangerous. But this is short-changing the process, for someone should be able to contain the facts and the observations to reach the conclusion. “Compton is dangerous according to general knowledge and statistics, however, walking around today I was unharmed and unthreatened, and this is partly because I know that in the middle of the day I am unlikely to be threatened or attacked , although how likely or unlikely that is I do not know.” Nobody would think exactly like that, or most of us wouldn’t, but that is the process.
Or maybe scrap the whole thing. Maybe talk in terms of “I feel safe when I am in Compton.” “I’ve haven’t felt unsafe in Compton yet.” This might make us uncomfortable. Is it devoid of ideology or not? It’s not real data, it’s not a factoid, it’s not an objective piece of information. It might be pretense–we are perceived to believe we can “set the facts” and “make others believe what we want them to believe.” We are so used to threatening one another with our artilleries of facts, opinions, positions, arguments, data, and other forms of confrontational information that we would place ourselves in the defensive position. This is why we don’t believe in certain kinds of myth–the supernatural, the God of the Christian Bible, Allah, the Hindu Gods, ghosts–things that have been exposed because there are such clear Others who want us to believe in them (the Pope, the Priests, Unlce Tony, the weird neighbor kid) but we believe so vehemently in The Economy, The State, The Fact, The Objective, The Right, and the secularity of all our beliefs (which we are being indoctrinated with through books and internet databases and the anonymous voices of radio and television we have tuned into, leading us to believe we are discovering this information), as Columbus is said to have discovered the America’s, a religious and ideological statement that calcifies into fact until new ideologies topple old ones and the masses riot against it, arguing the negative, obvious, and semantic point of view that Columbus did not discover anything, because the people who lived in the Americas were already there and were self-aware.
But one other thing he did, and I was again surprised when I came to this country: how segregated culture has become, like if you’re an Iranian woman coming from a country that is now just known as Muslim without defining what Muslim means, everybody told me ‘Great, you have a great opportunity to go into women’s studies and teach Islamic literature.’ I said, ‘No you go to women’s studies and teach Islamic literature,’ because the whole idea of literature and thought is about the Other.
It is about a man named Dick Davis who is a British poet teaching at Ohio State University translating Firdawsi and Gurgani. And someone from Iran, a young girl who has never left the Islamic Republic of Iran who reads Nabokov in English in a way that maybe her English peers would not. You know, that is the whole idea of literature; it is about the Other. It is investigation of the stranger, that intimate stranger, within you and without."
i. learn to cut your loses. trying to carry everything will only wear you down. letting go of things doesn’t make you cynical or heartless. it lightens you up. the world is not yours to carry alone. you can do a many things on your own but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let people help you.…
I am currently enjoying a marvelous collection of lengthy articles on Jazz, Pop, Youth, and Middle Age written by Francis Davis.
We’re biting seventy out of New York
mid-July heat, tires crushing
down on Connecticut road
sweat dampens the seats
windows thrown open
to net any lost souls
caught on the wind
One week prior a wreck
down in Rhode Island
two kids—driver and passenger—dead on arrival
history will note this phrase
as the most common condition of human birth
one survived, and they called it a miracle
the ratio, then, is two to one
I’ve been afraid
of death but not today
I’ll wait for her
she knows my last name
it’s long line of living
the only inheritance I have
and the only gamble I’ve ever been willing to make
The gas gets up to seventy-five
sleeping on the passenger side
jolted back to the waking state
plume of gray
through the smoke and dust
two red eyes, electric
One week later I hit the blacktop
doing ninety out of Worcester
drifting on a hip-hop daydream
when my heart skipped a mile marker
perched on a ledge in the corner of my eye
black hoodie drawn up, legs dangling somewhere
Don’t know what I just saw
don’t remember a drop or not
keep driving east until I’m running
straight into a sunrise
rarer and rarer these days
the endangered species man
The nightmare dissipates
settles on the road, swept away
by traffic, shattered light
she puts it in park when I would have preferred reverse
three cars and an eighteen-wheeler
at the head of our mortal caravan
stopped just short of the only and true eternal city
How did you die?
I should have pulled over
and told the kid to jump
or wait until winter
bloody snow angels with
passion red on Roman marble
that repudiates the horizon
What did you reach for?
hands in mid-air,
spare right arm for child
say it’s a plane descent, sixty seconds
willing the tears from your eyes
a hand creeping up your thigh
I am wondering still
who from his concrete thrown
almost collided with the earth that day
a falling star
how I found my pieces in the brake lights
how many met the eyes without blinking,
with their blessing and unyielding entrapment?
Novak: “I think a lot of the sincerity [in today’s art] is cloying and narcissistic and intended to draw praise and standing ovations. And I don’t necessarily think it’s honest. I think that pessimism or cynicism, or irony–the world I’m looking for–irony is often more honest. That’s where irony comes from.”
Easton Ellis: “I wanted to seriously talk about film. I didn’t want any of it to be a joke. I didn’t want quotation marks around anything. And I would realize that I had been getting tense doing this…and I think that the tension comes from the fact that in this moment of sincerity we also understand the trap of drowning in it–drowning in that sincerity. Jerry Saltz who is an art critic in New York said recently that he ‘really likes’ the art of the moment, or most of it, but the real problem plaguing the art that’s being created right now is that so much of it is ‘begging for acceptance.’…The need to be liked, to be followed, to be relevant, I mean, I think that’s now being reflected in the kind of art that’s being created, though I don’t know what relevance means anymore, I don’t even know what posterity means anymore.”
My mother said I’d be alone
and when I cried (she said)
I’d be Columbus of my ships
and sail the garden round
the tears that fell into my hand.
Edward Kamau Brathwaite