Feeding the Ouroboros: A Response to the Manchester Bombing

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I’ve been thinking of the future lately. Apparently, so have the more nefarious forces in our world.

I lived in Manchester, UK for four years. It’s a city close to my heart. I won’t pretend I have the deeply ingrained connection that long-time natives hold, but it’s where I became an adult, and therefore it’s special to me. There was a pang of violation on the night of May 22nd, when a young man of Libyan descent shattered his body and those of children and other concert-goers into a unspeakable morass of pain and anguish. The morning after of such events is often lined by a sheen of unreality, which I imagine was more palpable than ever in the streets I walked and laughed and loved and fretted.

I’m not an expert on ISIS or its simulacra, the mechanics of their operation, or the intricacies of their ideology. But I know that they are technologically savvy. They are on Twitter, FaceBook, Tumblr, and they read and watch everything from Breitbart to Jacobin and Democracy now to Fox News. They are moving with us, not always silently, along the avenues of political discourse, observing and documenting and feeling out the emergent Zeitgeist as we do. And I know that they have a quasi-Manichean worldview, a disgust with materiality–with history, nature, bodies–and a yearning for some pure reality beyond time. They have death-wish for themselves and the world. They are anti-materialist to the extreme. And this all amounts to a simple observation of them: they don’t believe in Future.

The attack earlier this week coincided with the Labour Party’s considerable gain in polls for the British national election. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, they released a new manifesto radiating with a promise of a better future: nationalizing the railways, abolishing the water tax, free childcare for 2-4 year olds, an increase of the minimum wage, among others. Introducing to the manifesto, Corbyn said, “let’s build a fairer Britain where no one is held back. A country where everybody is able to get on in life, to have security at work and at home, to be decently paid for the work they do, and to live their lives with the dignity they deserve.” In simpler terms: let’s move towards Future, not simply preserve what we have.

The Tories, on the other hand, emphasize the maintenance and management of Now, and in some cases Then. They offer us nothing new and empowering, although they often dress up their promises as such. This commitment is painfully evident in their response to terrorist attacks. For example, in her speech announcing and justifying the implementation of a literal police-state in the aftermath of Monday night’s attack, conservative PM Theresa May cited the “liberal, pluralistic values of Britain” as a source of resistance by which “evil can be overcome by good”. In extolling this value-system, May implies its adequacy, thereby indicating little awareness or acknowledgement of the heightening contradictions this system harbors (i.e. rising inequality, deteriorating health outcomes, intensifying surveillance, ecological catastrophes, etc). This ideological farming is the result of a severe cognitive dissonance: conservatives think that the world as it is and as it was is fair, equal, liberating, just, and good. Although I suspect some are more aware of the ruse of this view, most literally think this. The remarkable and impressive feat of modern conservative movements has been to sell this worldview to the very people it disenfranchises, by which I mean not only the working classes or communities of colour, but also the middle-classes, women, and the upwardly mobile.A theme common to so much conservative rhetoric is a devoted advocacy to the Now– an appeal to agree to our own cannibalization. For example,  in a speech on the “Big Society”, which pushed for the replacement of government run services by troops of volunteers and corporate-sponsored community groups, former PM David Cameron framed it as “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”. Although the “Big Society” project was discredited widely, the cuts to services it required were enacted and uncondemned for some time. It’s a clear example of the sleight-of-hand conservative rhetoric often performs, a ruse that is both obvious and elliptically dizzying.

ISIS and its associates are well aware of these contradictions. Indeed, I am convinced increasingly that they aim to accelerate and exacerbate them–to feed the ouroboros. 

Aside from all the practical elements which are entailed undoubtedly by such heinous acts of violence, this observation is at work in the engineering of these attacks. Although I would love to indulge the conspiracy theories being floated on the left (that the attack was orchestrated by the conservatives themselves since it will tilt public avour towards the incumbents, or at least distract from their laughable attempts to appeal to a disaffected public), I think there is a simpler explanation: they want political elites to succeed; they want money in politics; they want the AHCA to succeed; they want Brexit; they want us to ramp up weapon production; they want Trump; they want us to to revere, to love, to cherish, to pleasure ourselves on the festering feast of our coprophagiac Now.

Borders, war, surveillance, affluenza are Now.

Universal healthcare, free higher education, state-supported housing, unilateral disarmament, and sustainable environmental practices are Future

There is only one way out of our stomachs.

healthcare in America: a returned expat fulminates

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A subconscious habit afflicting me recently is the compulsion to flip my tongue over to the right-side of my mouth and press it against the smooth porcelain of my new crown. It’s my first dental intervention of this sort, and I’m amazed at how real it feels: better than the original tooth. By far. Oh–and it cost me around $1,400.00.

Who would of thought a tooth could break the bank?, I wrote as the first line of a poem at a workshop about a week after the implant. That sentence was all I could muster, consumed as I was by the fury and weariness of that simple fact, knowing how shriekingly unjust it is.

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Eight years ago I went to a doctor in a socialized healthcare system for the first time in my life. I was living in Belfast, Ireland, a member state of the United Kingdom with access to the National Healthcare Service (NHS). Before going to my appointment I called my health insurance provider (Blue Cross/Blue Shield) to double-check that my healthcare would be covered. They told me that 80% expenses were covered and I just needed to email or fax them documentation. Later, I looked like an absolute idiot when I approached reception after the appointment and tried to pay my co-pay. Healthcare in the UK is free. You just register and go.

I had made that appointment because I had a slight and infrequent pang in my lower stomach. I was convinced it was either giardia, an ectopic pregnancy, or an ovarian cyst (the latter I had had before). This hypochondriac mindset, I would later realize, is a symptom of being able to afford healthcare in one of most exorbitant markets on the planet.

The doctor asked me a couple of questions and once we established that all the symptoms pointed to an ovarian cyst he said not to worry about it and come back only if the pain becomes constant and intense. I was very, very confused. A year earlier, I was working in the theater at my college when I collapsed in total agony. I was ambulanced to the hospital ($300+) where a bunch of tests, including a cat-scan ($1,000+), determined that a small cyst, about the size of a grape, had ruptured. It was extremely painful at the time, but ultimately entirely harmless. Nonetheless, I made an appointment with my primary care physician (PCP) and was advised to see a gynaecologist, who in turn recommended that I come in for monitoring every 5-6 months.  It must be serious, I thought.

In the spirit of this thought, I relayed the episode to the NHS doctor and asked when I should come back to have the cyst monitored. The doctor explained–very patiently–that even if they found a cyst, unless it was the size of a orange they would not be able to do anything about it. There was no need to. Cysts happen, then they go away. It’s fine.

That day I learned about more than just the medical contingencies of ovarian cysts; I learned that as a consumer of American healthcare, at least some of the healthcare I receive is a waste of precious resources. In healthcare terms, I was equivalent to royalty. My parents work for Mass General Hospital, one of the top hospitals in the world. We paid for the most exclusive healthcare package available under Blue Cross, and MGH footed a huge portion of that monthly bill. This all went to my head. Me, my mother, my family, we all believed that recommended treatment is a necessary treatment, and that since it was important and necessary we were fully entitled to it. Doctors help propagate this disposition, which is not to say doctors are nefarious, greedy individuals. They work in system that relies on healthcare being purchased, and this fundamental impetus of capital is of course dressed-up in their minds (and ours) as benevolent “care”. And “care” is what we consumers of healthcare expect, what we feel entitled to. Happily or not, the proponents of the system usually oblige. They need our business and they want to think of themselves as custodians of a system that ultimately does good in the world.

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This morass of expectations is toxic to one’s relationship to healthcare. Among those who can access healthcare (and even those who cannot), it breeds a trenchant privilege that spirals into unbridled hypochondria. When my step-mother, a self-employed real-estate agent, married my father over a decade ago, she had steady health insurance for the first time in her life. Since that time, she has gotten multiple elective surgeries and treatments, from the removal of benign moles, to something done on her elbow, to the most advanced pre-emptive bunion surgery possible, among others. These interventions are always elective, and there have been times when his insurance refused to pay for them. When my grandmother, who by contrast has had insurance her whole life, visited me in Belfast one summer, my friends were astonished by the arsenal of medications and vitamins she carried around in her bag and popped throughout the day.

An outcome of this wasteful and neurotic orientation towards our health is that quick-fixes are often offered over more tried-and-true solutions to health problems. This propensity makes us vulnerable to the more pernicious elements of the system.

During elementary, middle and high-school, my mother sent me and my siblings to the local chiropractor because she was worried about the effect of our school bags on our spinal health. He told my mother that I had a condition called a “sway back”, which is just a circuitous term for slouching. Instead of encouraging me to do a couple of sit-ups to strengthen my core, he recommended I come in each week for adjustments and electro-therapy. My mother, a full-time nurse, also attended the practice, sometimes multiple times a week for similar treatments (I don’t doubt her back was hurting, but as someone who underwent those electro-treatments I now wonder whether they did more harm than good). At one point in high-school, my right shoulder started hurting a bit. More electro-therapy.

Mine and my mother’s pathological need for healthcare set us up to become complete suckers. At some point in college I received word that that chiropractor had been investigated and convicted of insurance fraud. Apparently, we was selling droves of patients expensive treatments that they did not need so that he could charge insurance companies.

Years later, I started to develop serious knee, back, and shoulder pain. This was when I was living in England, and my GP referred me to a podiatrist, who laid me down on a table and told me within two seconds that one of my legs was shorter than the other, my feet were slightly flat, and my shoulder just needed to be exercised a certain way to build up muscle in a certain spot. Twenty minutes later, I left the office with new orthodontic insoles and within a couple of weeks of doing the stretches and exercises she taught me I was free of pain. Notably, my former chiropractor had laid me on the table and conducted the exact same examinations.

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In recent months, the Affordable Care Act has survived a failed assault by congress, and although I find this consoling,  I stand by the position that healthcare in America blows. Why we cannot see it as a fundamental right that provides more freedom than restriction is a myopia that I find hard to fathom now. It’s a injustice I bump up against constantly.

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As I sat in the dentist’s office waiting for the crown application a young woman dressed in sweats and carrying a skateboard was trying to check out. She had just had a tooth cleaning under the first-time customer discount plan: $57.00 for a cleaning and examination. The receptionist asked her for payment or her insurance card. She handed her a New Hampshire medicaid card. The receptionist looked it over and said there was nothing indicating dental coverage on it. The young woman looked at her with passive perplexity, insisting that it was covered. The receptionist humoured her for a few more minutes, offering to call the insurance provider to double-check, but I knew she knew that this would amount to nothing. I don’t know why that young woman was on medicaid, but I expect that even $57.00 was a lot of money to her.

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Later on that week I received an email from one of my students that she was withdrawing from my class and going on a leave of absence from the school. A few days earlier she had been sitting in my office, an exhausted heap, telling me that her insurance plan was refusing to pay for her medications. Her father had been laid off at the start of the year and she and her family just switched onto medicaid in their home state. She had to drive back every weekend to see her doctors for an incapacitating anxiety disorder. She also caught mono and someone rear-ended her a few weeks back, leading her neck to begin hurting. The college knows about her situation, but there is no hardship fund available. She was one of my brightest students and we had connected over the course of the year. Her email also mentioned that she would be transferring to a school in her home state.

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My brother was kicked out of my mom’s house a couple of months ago. He was stealing money from my younger brother, taking cash and forging checks to buy pills. He needs to go to detox. He is unemployed so he’s eligible for medicaid, but he’s living in a world where paper-work and ringing call-centers is difficult to carry out. If he could just walk in, like one does in the NHS, maybe things would be different. My father wants to section him through the courts in order to streamline him right into detox and rehab, but the risk is that if there are no beds available at the time of his sectioning–and the current statewide opioid epidemic is making that scenario likely–he would have to go to prison until a bed is open. I was sorting through some papers the other day and found a photograph of us siblings at my 11th birthday. He has missing teeth and the widest smile.

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In early March I noticed my urine smelled slightly rancid. This persisted for a few weeks until a minute burn became noticeable. I bought some cranberry juice and started to drink a lot of liquids. More weeks. The burn persisted. I finally made an appointment with my PCP, and when the nurse practitioner confirmed I had a minor urinary tract infection I beamed with relief. Thank god I didn’t pay a $20.00 co-pay for nothing.

I don’t think someone would think that anywhere but America.  

Yes – new state legislation impacts students

This piece has been adapted from a submission to a NH college newspaper. 

I am disappointed to see that the new amendment to the voter registration law (Senate Bill 3) “draws support from students.” Disappointed, but hardly surprised. When I asked a group of students last year, during one of the most heated primaries in recent election cycles, whether they were planning to vote that day only a few said yes. The quotes from students in the previous article demonstrate that the problems raised by this bill are not on students’ radar. This is unfortunate, because since the gutting of the Voting Act of 1965 by the supreme court in 2013 such legislation has proliferated across the country—and more will come. As an institution of learning committed to civic engagement, the response of student, faculty, and staff of our college should not be “ho hum”; rather, we should be fighting tooth-and-nail against attacks on the most elemental of our democratic rights.

Until the passing of this bill, New Hampshire—the state of “live free or die”—had been a model for accessible voting. This bill commences a trend of voter suppression that will impact students in NH. For instance, the act requires voters to prove they have a domicile in the state of NH. This can be proven with documentation such as a NH driver’s license, a rental lease for NH, a NH car registration, a mortgage statement for a property in NH, or a property tax statement for a NH property (notably, a student ID is not accepted as a proof of residence for any statutory matters). Given that many students retain out-of-state licenses or residency at their parents’ homes in other states (from Maine to California), these are documents many students will not be able to show. Thus, although the Crier article claims that registration at an institute of learning counts as a “verifiable act” (also, “verifiable act” is a phrase not found in the bill), the eligibility of the student ID is not stipulated anywhere in the bill. Rather, it states merely that one’s domicile is “the place where a person spends most nights of the year”. This has been further clarified as the requirement that one must have lived in New Hampshire for a period of at least 30 days before voting and must show intent to stay. How can all this be proved with a student ID card, which lists only the year of enrollment and is a renewed every fall upon re-enrollment? Proponents of the bill insist that students’ right to vote is protected, but nothing in the bill guarantees this. If the student-ID is someday deemed ineligible, NH students will only be able to vote in the state if, for example, they register their car in NH, which incidentally requires one of the documents listed above and costs upwards of $60-$100 (effectively creating a poll-tax, i.e. a requirement that one pays to vote). Let’s grant that the clerk accepts the student ID as proof of domicile; problems persist. For example, the New Hampshire primary for the 2020 election is set for early February. Spring semester typically begins in the middle of January. This means that non-NH transferring students will be caught in a no-mans-land, unable to vote in NH and possibly unable to get back to their resident state of voter registration. For outgoing seniors, the stipulation that they show intent to stay may mean that those returning homes in other states after graduation could be barred from voting. Will the clerk ask if you are a senior or if you are planning to transfer? Should they be able to ask this, or is this complicating matters unnecessarily?

Overall, the bill puts in place a system whereby to vote you need to prove you’re a citizen of New Hampshire rather than a citizen of the United States of America. Despite the seeming unconstitutionality of this, other states impose similar obstacles—and it does impact students’ say in their government. As a volunteer for the Bernie campaign in 2016, I often phoned or visited homes to talk to a voter only to find s/he was away at college. I talked with many students who expressed frustration at not being able to vote in the state where they went to school, and not being able to find the time or money to get back home “just to vote.” By leaving room for interpretation, the bill makes it possible for NH students to be barred from voting. Its vague language does not adequately protect students’ right to vote. Our response should be vociferous condemnation, not a complacent shrug.

The Modern Meaning of Art

This piece has been adapted from a lecture on Art and Beauty given for a humanities program on March 27, 2017. 

Preamble

In this post I tell a story about Western art in the 20th century. The story is simple: in the 20th century, art as a category of artifacts and activity was destabilized. Once a settled concept, something around which there was a relatively clear and consistent consensus, art-enterprise became an object of art-making–a target of artistic probing, teasing, disfiguring, eulogizing, and criticizing. Western art as we know it today is a concept produced by deconstructing and reconstructing art as we once knew it: as something sacred, as a way of distilling truths, the mystery of nature, beauty, or morality, or as a way of connecting with the divine. Today’s art is different because today’s art is the result of two developments: 1) the proliferation of technology through which art can be reproduced; 2) the use of art by artists and commentators to question the prevailing conventions of beauty, representation, medium, and mode of presentation.

Art to Object / Object to Art

Art of the 20th century precipitated a shift in prevailing definitions of art-enterprise. Below I provide a few illustrative examples. This shift was brought about by a dissolution between the art-object and the everyday-object. In his enlightening documentary “Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art?”, the BBC’s resident art-enthusiast Dr. James Fox (of Cambridge) delineates this category shift: art became everyday-artifacts, and everyday-artifacts became artworks.

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The translation of everyday-artifacts to artworks is most clearly encapsulated in the objet trouvé approach, a movement commenced by Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece Fountain, among others. What Fox neglects to explain, however, is how this shift was predicated on the translation of objects-of-art into everyday-objects.

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Another story of the 20th century is how our lives became filled with objects. The advent of mass-production is one of the most defining material realities of life as we know it, and its impact on art is unquestionable. As John Berger notes in his seminal essays and documentary series Ways of Seeing, art used to be removed from the day-to-day lives of the common man: art was in churches, in the houses of the rich, in faraway countries, or in lofty municipal buildings. Museums for the masses are a relatively recent invention. The task of making art was equally out of reach for most. The materials of the fine arts were expensive. Take the color of gold, for example. Another documentary series by Fox (The Story of Art in Three Colours) documents how 19th century electrolytic processes made it possible to gild metal objects—from jewelry to housewares—with a thin gold layer, thus making the color of gold widely available to the broader public not just an elite few. Other technologies, such as lithography, photography, color printing presses, and later television, film, and, more recently, laser reproductions, have made some of the most foundational works of Western art available for use on a variety of surfaces of everyday-artifacts—from school binders, to coffee mugs, t-shirts, etc. The fine arts—reproduced on textiles, ceramics, music, and prints—was suddenly available everywhere.

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The reproducibility of art thus eroded its status as a marker of the aristocracy and their haute monde society. Writing about this shift in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), the philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin noted: “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations that would be out of reach for the original itself. […] The cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing room.” Art thus began to appear so much in our lives that it became like any other object–and, similarly, objects became so abundant in our lives, that they overflowed in our art.

Art as Perfection

Many people found this slippage between art-object and everyday-object, and vice versa, scandalous. This is because this reorganization of the artwork/object divide undermined the traditional system for defining art. This conception of art is best encapsulated in a broad constellation of theories united by a perfectionist methodology.  Roughly put, this approach to defining and evaluating art holds that the aim of art-enterprise is to distill and translate into objects eternal and universal truths of some sort. These include divinity, virtue, and beauty. An artifact counts as a work of art if it expresses (as fully as possible) a universal and eternal idea through a medium (or several media). For instance, with respect to the ideal of “beauty”, a set of parameters is posited (i.e. that the object is in “possession of the formal property of being an ‘organic whole’ or a ‘configurational unity’” (see John Gallie, 1956) against which an artwork is evaluated. The lesser degree to which an object-artifact realizes this ideal, the weaker its case for being recognized a work of art.

Ballet is good example of an art-form grounded in perfectionist aspiration. Its aim is to position a moving body into poses that reflect the most beautiful ideal shape of the human body–the formal elements of the dancer’s body. At any point during a routine, a snapshot of the body of the dancer—if they are good–will be positioned to emphasize the symmetry of the human body.

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Indeed, this can be contrasted—to some degree—with contemporary dance, which tends to emphasize the unexpected–and therefore awkward–positions into which bodies can bend.

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This methodology for defining and evaluating art has its root in Platonic thinking. In the “Allegory of the Cave” the shadows projected on the walls of the cave were posited as poor formulations of their counterparts outside the cave: a shadow of an elephant cast from a puppet of an elephant by firelight is no substitute for a real elephant standing before you in full daylight. The latter is thus more valuable than the former. This applies to art in the following way: art is valuable because it can represent the expressive and formal qualities of universal and eternal ideals. Something is art if uses a medium—for example oil paint—to make that ideal manifest. For example, if we take as an example Michelangelo’s sculpture of David before he defeats Goliath, we could posit its value on the basis of the way it represents and expresses the abstract ideals of courage and faith. A work of art is thus like a shadow, but good art is mimetic of a greater abstract ideal—it provides a faithful or as-perfect-as-possible appearance of the Platonic form it is supposed to represent.

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The German philosopher Joseph Pieper can be located in this way of thinking. According to him, art is a conduit, something that points towards us with a distinct realm of divine experience and knowledge. He shares with Plato the idea that art connects us with an unchanging reality from which we can reliably anchor and elucidate a virtuous life. Art is an attempt to distill the perfect representation of a reality that is not subject to the chaos of social, physical, and psychological contingencies.  For Pieper, such ideals are Platonic archetypes of divine reality:

“The artist who […] keeps the recesses of his soul in silence and simplicity, receptive to the breath of creative inspiration, which then flows […] unadulterated into the unfolding form of his work—this artist then, may just perchance create a statue such as the “Young Woman Reclining”. The statue is compellingly original, not at all a mere photographic description, because it is entirely “different” from our everyday reality. And yet, it prompts those beholding it to recall their own remembrance of the primordial archetypes veiled in this same reality.” […] “to see in contemplation […] is not limited only to the tangible surface of reality […] art flowing from contemplation does not so much attempt to copy reality as rather capture the archetypes of all that is. Such art does not want to depict what everybody already sees but to make visible what not everybody sees.”

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Similarly, the art critic and historian Kenneth Clark, whose fabulous and ground-breaking BBC documentary on Western art, Civilisation, aired in 1969, claims that art-making gives vent to humankind’s “pent-up need to give some permanent shape to the flux of experience, to make something perfect in their singularly imperfect existence.” (Clarke 1969: 8). In the book based on the documentary, he writes: “at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself–body and spirit–which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.” (Clarke 1969: 3)

These statements assert art as a perfection of an eternal and universal ideal in a medium. They are inadequate for evaluating much contemporary art for the following reasons. First, as you can see in the case of Duchamp’s urinal, the art of the 20th century used mediums—namely objects—that had other uses, that were constructed not for the expression of universal abstract forms, but for a particular everyday use. Art in the 20th century suggested that something could be two things at once—heck more than two things at once. Or it could be both of them at once, and neither of them, like the sculpture from the Artists Man Ray, called the Gift.

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Second, this definition does not allow for works of art that are about art itself. The perfectionist concept posits ideas external to art as the conditions of art—art is a vehicle for their expression. By contrast, much art in the 20th century was not concerned with transhistorical ideas, but with the situated process of art-making. Art in the 20th century was concerned with the use (and misuse) of mediums, the value of impermanence, the experience of viewing art, the role (or lack thereof) of the artist, or the norms and institutions through which art was displayed or legitimized.

For those of the perfectionist persuasion, much art in the 20th century represents merely fatuous and superficial play; rebellious reaction waged for the sake of being obstreperous and strident. Moreover, the focus of artmaking on art-enterprise constitutes nothing more than myopic navel-gazing. Such art fails to tell us anything meaningful about the nature of the human condition, morality, or the internal mechanics of nature and life.

But the implication of this shift in artistic concern and practice does offer profound—perhaps the most profound—insight into living. In my view, art in the 20th century explores and augments the fundamental capacity of human beings to create, to express themselves, to react to others, to imprint a moment for a moment. I can’t think of any aspect of the human condition that is more valuable than this.

Art as Power

Art in the 20th century  offers art-enterprise as a means of personal and political flourishing. The reproducibility of art and the questioning of art-enterprise has expanded the possibilities of art-making, creating opportunities for art to be a means of questioning and reworking norms, and opening up the means of artistic expression to those lacking technical skills. To quote the late art critic and writer John Berger, “for the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way language surrounds us […] if the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate.” (Berger, 1972: 32-3)

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However, this newly conferred power of art it is good if and only if we recognize that this revolution in the meaning and conduct of art-making contains simultaneously a revolution in the role art plays in relations of social power. In destabilizing the authority of traditional meanings and methods of art, which evaluate works of art against a universal standard of mimetic, aesthetic, or moral perfection, the artists of this revolution have repositioned art-enterprise as a possible means of democratic expression and political struggle.

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Artists and their works model for us the possibility of expression that is not beholden to universal and eternal ideals in which the demos has no say, ideals of which we are not the authors because we lack the technical skills and training, or the accepted ideological covenants, or access to materials, money,  and time, or induction into institutions and associative networks (contingent on the approval of art’s gatekeepers: curators, critics, other artists, philanthropists, art sellers, philosophers, and the public at large).

Art used to be an elite project. In many respects this remains the case. But is this a natural and expected result, or does it suggest that the revolution has gone awry? I think the latter; I think we have only just began to grasp this newly fledged capacity of art. This is because art has been co-opted by the denizens of the ruling class to obfuscate the creative power of art by the oppressed.  Just as democracies are becoming increasingly controlled by elite financial and corporate interests, the creative potential of art has also been stifled by the entrenched despots of the artworld. John Berger calls this the mystification of art. The agents of this mystification include well-meaning philanthropists, museum curators, art historians, auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, art critics, politicians, teachers and professors, and artists themselves who perpetuate the idea that art is an aloof, mystical entity. This is reflected in the available ways through which we engage with art. We go to museums where we are under constant watch. We look at paintings in darkened rooms behind bullet proof glass. We marvel at the extraordinary cost of a painting by Picasso. We scoff at conceptual art, and are weirded out by the site of a performance artists. We refuse to take the time to sit with these artworks or be inspired them. Instead we consume facile art en masse: we watch Netflix for hours on end, alone, supine, and dazed; we listen to singles on iTunes and never to albums; we buy tickets in droves to see Top 40 artists, while symphonies perform for empty halls. Many of us feel that “art” is someone else’s thing.A-Hint-Of-BS

This is sad. Not because I think pop-art, such as artists like Beyoncé or artworks like Parks and Recreation are tasteless exploits (I very much love them), but because we are increasingly living in a world where our creative faculties are atrophying.

The kernel of hope offered by 20th century art is fading. Berger argues in his essays entitled “Ways of Seeing” that an understanding of how art gives us a language for constructing our world forces us to be engaged, creative participants. Knowing this language is, he contends, essential to resisting all the nefarious forms of oppression in our lives. I leave you with this quote:

“What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it – or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce – from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way language surrounds us […] Yet very few people are aware of what happened because the means of reproduction are used nearly all the time to promote the illusion that nothing has changed except that the masses, thanks to reproductions, can now begin to appreciate art as the cultured minority once did. Understandably, the masses remained uninterested and skeptical. If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate […] The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.” (Berger, 1972: 32-33)

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Activist Burnout: CurbIt

I was recently given the honour of speaking to a group of young, budding activists about the perils and rewards of life at the political front. I am by no means an expert at anything, much less activism, but I thought of a couple tips that I’ve found useful in the organizing I have had the honour to do. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Think lily pads — not mountains.

I must begin by conceding that I cannot take credit for this advice; rather, I pull it from the wonderful book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. (On a side note — this book probably saved me from killing myself while finishing my PhD. Get it. ) The idea behind this simple concept is that we should of life is comprised of lily pads not mountains. Thinking of life like mountains–goals or achievements towards which we’re assiduously striving–is wrong and deleterious. Mountains imply one-directionality and tunnel-vision. On the mountain-view-of-life, failure to move in a direction towards that narrowly defined goal at the summit is tantamount to defeat. No sin is greater in our achievement-oriented culture. But surely this is ridiculous. Over the course of our lives we change, and our interests and energy change accordingly. The lily-pad-view-of-life holds that if we get tired, or fed-up, or interested in something else, we can just switch lily pads. If you don’t like your lily pad, just jump to another one. It’s not a mark of defeat. It’s not an indication of failure. It’s just a switch. No fine print.

The analogy to activist undertakings should be obvious. Sometimes you just get annoyed or tired of an activist project. It may be hard to quit because people rely on you, but it’s ok to get things to a certain point and move on. Otherwise activism becomes a mountain that drains us of the energy and wherewithal to do any activism whatsoever

2. Accept You

Gushy as hell, right? Allow me to explain. In my limited but illuminating experience as an activist I discern two types of activist instinct. Type A Activist is someone who grabs the means of power and yields it with ease and affect. Type B Activist focuses on outreach, on getting someone from A to B. These are dispositions, proclivities–whatever you want to call them. The fact is these typologies have a huge impact on how campaigns process or groups function. Importantly, both are integral to successful activism, but only when activated in appropriate spaces, and only when we have the humility to recognize who were are and what our limits are. There are times when “civility” and “outreach”  is inappropriate. For example, when an elected official or spokesperson uses offensive language or ideas to diminish the claims of a political group. This is a familiar dynamic at many Thanksgiving dinner tables.  My instinct during such scenarios is to probe the person’s assumptions, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to nod approvingly while scheming to chart some course of persuasion. I am Type B. Type A is my sister: she rolls her eyes, says something equally erudite and scathing, and lampoons the offensive remark for the remainder of the dinner. She has balls. She is Type A.

Successful activism needs both Type A and Type B. But what it doesn’t need is Type A responding to situations where a Type B approach is a) potentially more productive and b) more respectful. Equally, Type B activists need to develop the capacity to identify situation where Type A methods are most effective, and perhaps develop their own balls (apologies for the gendered language—I’m drinking).

This is hard. And it require a lot of lengthy self-reflection and discipline. But it is vital to accept yourself and recognize where your innate talents will work best for the cause.

3. Don’t be mad at privilege.

Allow me to clarify: yes, object to privilege. But objecting to privilege and being mad at it are two different undertakings. The former is reasonable, somewhat detached, and consistent with socialist sentiment and philosophy. The second is wasteful, over-involved, and potentially balkanizing. Anger is useful. But it can also cripple. It can drain us, making us tired and disheartened; or it can  or make us hateful, tapering our capacity to sympathize, understand, and reason. As a white person, I can appreciate that this “tip” reminisces of excusenikism–but as an educator I see often the damage of knee-jerk reactions to badly worded statements, or instances of genuine and inevitable ignorance. Because there is a difference between ignorance and prejudice. Until I began babysitting my Haitian-born cousin in my teens, I had absolutely no idea that African hair was soft to the touch. Raised in a virtually white, Boston suburb, I didn’t know otherwise. But I did know better than to ask about it. And this meant that until I had to sort out my cousin’s hair one morning after a swim at the pool I had no idea that although it looked very different than mine it felt exactly the same. Yes, this is privilege, but it is also ignorance, a lack of awareness shifted only by the opportunity of integration.

We should object to privilege. We should not be shy about pointing out. But to invest ourselves in policing it with full force and dedication at every utterance is to surrender valuable internal resources and possibly burn bridges we don’t want to burn.

4. Artistic release.

This is the tip I can articulate the least. I don’t know exactly how it will play out for each and every individual. But what I do know is this: the daily grind of activism and the emotional labour it demands is soul-destroying. This we know. What we perhaps fail to realize is the equally pernicious toll it takes on our capacity to imagine. The politics of today is not the politics of tomorrow. This is why we can hope. But it’s unreality is also an obstacle, because it means that we don’t have obvious precedents for a future society. Art can fix by transporting us to a different version of reality in which the degradations of the now become illuminated and obvious, and the alternatives become visible and tangible. Whatever it is — films, podcasts, architecture, food, visual art, literature, music — use it as a way to get of your head. Because we all know that out minds is what an activist most urgently needs a break from.

5. Build your people.

I take this point from Chapo Trap House, specifically, the episode where the venerable Amber A’Lee Frost talks about the “burnt-out” activists she knows in her life, and where she advocates for the centrality of friendship and community in our socialist endeavours.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Activism built on trust, friendship, and laughter is robust. It is a form of community that can absorb defeat, failure, and abuse. Most of all, it fosters, as I emphasized in point 4, creativity. At the academic institution where I work, gender consciousness was virtually nonexistent. Where it did percolate, it often faded out in a whimper. This drove me crazy. I cannot be the energy for myself. Can anyone? I needed dialogue, I needed others’ perspectives, I needed opportunities to vent about issues related to gender and sexuality. Thankfully, I was not the only one, and over the course of the year myself and others built up a small but vibrant,  supportive of friends and interlocutors. In this space we were able to come together in the spirit of good-will to discuss gender and its many ramifications for our lives and work. This form of consciousness raising takes time, but its rewards are ample and indispensable. Liberals speak often of the importance of self-care. Sure. But self-care cannot consist in just yoga, just meditation, or just long walks in the woods — it arises also from the practice of sharing, negotiation, and forgiveness with others. Self care is communal.

 

I laid out these points originally for students ages 18-22. But they apply, I think,to all of us, in our many walks of life, not just activism but also in our relationships and work-spaces. I would love to hear your feedback. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

Some Poetry I

DON’T FORGET YOU ARE WHITE

I saw a black man on a train.

Two girls, daughters, decked in pink.

Shoulders slumping under gravity

Tired glower across brow

The face of resignation.

 

Pounding the ceiling with her broom

Disapproval gushing from a crack

I neglected to plaster.

Typical, Mother screams.

 

We did not stop my head from shaking.

 

I saw a white man on a train

Two girls, daughters, decked in pink.

Shoulders slumping under gravity

Tired glower across brow

The face of resignation.

 

Resting hands upon her lap,

Contentment rippling

Across warm sips of tea.

Gallant, Mother sighs.

 

We did not stop my head from nodding.

 

Mother

1 To write, much.

2 Too much to write.

3 Written too much.

4 Too much written

5 Much to write.

6 Much.

 

Love Letter to Self

You

take that space

within

reserved for others

cup it in your hands

bring it to your breath

take it in

cold iced tea

on a sticky hammock, as the sun departs

succour for restless legs

and

a heart that beats too fast.

It is yours.

When Bigger is Better

Last week I drive to NH with my father and we talked politics. I couldn’t help but think how the antics of the recent election parallel his own longstanding convictions and reflect a set of aspirations bundled up in a knot of desire and frustration shared by so many. There are roots to the present, and the arcs of society and our lives sit side by side. 10 years ago I was riding in back of his black Ford Expedition, the second of two vehicular ogres that would put him in debt for the years I was in high-school and college. I was 19 and just starting to get my adult legs. Our discussion was not atypical:something about politics, and my father, per usual, was expressing trenchant frustration with the status-quo. To this day, he punctuates his diatribes with the vituperative phrase “love your country, hate your government”, as if inhabiting the tension between the two is not only easy but completely obvious.

When I was in my sophomore year of high-school my father purchased his first Expedition, a blue, cartoonish thing that rolled into our drive with great pomp and circumstance. My brother, sister and I slotted ourselves into the seats and started watching a DVD on the flip-down TV. It was so unlike his previous cars that it seemed unreal. When I was seven, my father had a 1-seat yellow pick-up. I remember helping him pant a green stripe across it on a spring afternoon and loading my bike into the back alongside my brother’s battery-powered toy jeep. Every weekend we’d travel to his hometown, West Springfield MA, all four of us, contiguously allayed on a hurtling leather bench, no AC, and manual windows that none of us were strong enough to get down all the way. Mary, the youngest and therefore lowest in the family pecking order, would be squeezed onto the floor while Stephen and I squabbled for elbow room above. If someone spilled something–a prerequisite for any car trip or restaurant outing in my family–the liquid would run down the back of the seat like a river through a canyon, indiscriminately soaking everyone’s backside.

It was this experience that, my father professed, drove him to buy the Expeditions. In them we each had our own spacious territories: Mary in the front seat, me in the middle, my brother in back, doing what brothers do when they’re out of sight and out of mind. This parcelling-out of offspring  was–for my father–the realisation of a longstanding aspiration: the dream of acquiring the space into which he could expand– expand his body, his progeny, his self. Encapsulated in that dream, I want to suggest, is a notion of human flourishing that is not entirely distinct from his politics or from the widespread social sentiment that galvanised Trump’s rise and simultaneously diminished the Democrats’ appeal.

My father is a boomer who grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, a working-class city whose primary claim to notoriety is the basketball hall of fame and the annual agricultural-meets-carnival melee known as the Eastern Exposition. He grew up with five other siblings in a small, beige cape on a road that grew busier and busier as the years progressed. His father was an accountant and his mother a housewife. Money was always tight and family dynamics often tense. School was not a priority, especially for my father, who often brags about the detention record he (allegedly) still holds. To put it diplomatically, my father and his siblings were a rambunctious bunch. Make of that what you will.

Over the course of their lives, my father and his siblings experienced what sociologists call “mobility”.  They are middle class, but their experience on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder are clearly formative on their characters and the aspirations they hold. Thanks to a stint in the army at the tail-end of the Vietnam war, my father received medical training and afterwards was trained as a physician assistant at Howard University (a fact he always pins to his chest as some testament to his woke-ness whenever we argue about race relations–but that’s a story for another time). He thus had strong prospects for material prosperity. He purchased the latest gadgets (which he always managed to lose or break or never use properly), bought a ski condo, multiple boats, frequently took elaborate vacations, and his car was always littered with the carcasses of spent scratch tickets. But he has never, ever been good with money. Bills were frequently paid late, bank accounts often empty, and cars and apartments dirty, ramshackle, and cramped. I believe my father was aware of this skewed symmetry of priorities. Yet it made sense to him keep recklessly chasing–as many people from working class backgrounds do–the markers of success that society dangles just within reach.

I was young and mostly oblivious to the political world in the the early noughties, but I remember having the impression that the whole package of the American dream seemed within reach. The 90’s had boomed, we survived Y2K, housing was affordable but also profitable, and the looming recession was eclipsed by low gas prices and a president who didn’t have much to do aside from golfing. The cake was ours to have and eat. It is the psycho-social matrix in which my father moved through his mid-life: full of expectation that things would finally pan out, that the gains the boomer generation has secured would be carried on and handed on. We could cash in, stop playing it safe, stop thinking small, and comfortably stretch into the ample legroom of our well-deserved first-class lives. All of this was of course slowly eroded as the decade progressed: the dotcom burst, the events on 9/11, rising fuel prices and college tuition, the sniper attacks in DC, etc, all contirbuted to a sense of mounting precarity. For my father, a vestibular fistula resulted in the partial paralysis of his left leg, a condition that, as it turned out, would never be reversed. We kept dreaming of worlds as each of these realities chipped away at our little islands. This was when he began to buy the Expeditions.

At the age of 19 that black expedition was costing about $150 per week to run, and since Ford had in adopted  poor manufacturing and engineering practices at that time it was constantly breaking down. Despite all this my father took immense pride in his $45,000 chattel. A Freudian would say that he was insecure about his masculinity, and while this may be true, it’s certainly not the whole picture. He claims to have bought the car so we could each have our own dominion, but I was 16 at the time and my brother 15 and in boarding schools, so within a couple of years we were out of the picture. He pursued this ideal until his credit was so poor he could never get a new car again.

It’s easy to say that he was not being sensible. But this was precisely the privilege he wanted — to not play it safe, to shoot for the stars, to flourish in directions that seemed previously impossible. This aspiration was made incarnate in his reckless pursuit of material wealth, but this route was take because it is the only means of flourishing made available to us in the age of neoliberalism. Ironically, it is this pursuit that has finally led Americans to turn on the denizens of neoliberalism itself, the Democrats and their moderate Republican brethren.

The political establishment has always courted the discourse of sensibility. The goalposts of that discourse have shifted over the course of political history, but each iteration is immured in conservative tone, in the demand that a vision of society either be attenuated and tuned to the values and apparatuses that “work”, that keep the status quo ticking away. Within the context of neoliberal global capitalism this has meant several things: let the bankers run the economy; buy houses with a view to selling them; don’t let unions rock the boat; get a degree in something with job prospects;  get a 401(K) rather than a pension; seek tax cuts at every juncture; let HMOs run healthcare and weapons manufacturing shape our foreign policy; and, most importantly, your value lays in your consumption.  The implicit message is: stay in your box, buy your shit, and let us do the rest.

But this is not flourishing. This is incarceration.

I think the impulse that spurred my father to buy that ridiculous car is the same impulse that spurred many to vote for Trump and many more not to vote at all. To be clear, I don’t think that Trump won the election; it was the Democrats’ to lose and they did. But I want to suggest that this arrangement of power into which we are now entering is the result of failing to provide citizens from across the political spectrum with the possibilities, means,  opportunities and space through which we can unfold ourselves and create through civil and political action–not merely passive consumption–a life we can call our own. As of now our lives are not of our own making. We are lead to think that cannot create, cannot act outwards on the world. We given different visions, ones that in reality makes us small and alienated. We need a new vision for how to order ourselves. And this vision demands thinking beyond the sensible, beyond the “safe” status quo we know so well.

This desire to throw caution to the wind is, I propose, part of the appeal of Trump. He embodies a way of things that is far removed from the “sensible”. But Trump also won because the  Democrats, and their establishment brethren within the Republican party, have failed to recognise the growing distaste and indifference to the “sensible”. For the past 25 years they have plied the rhetoric of sensibility, using it to disguise insidious moral and political agendas such as the war on terror or the refusal to persecute the “too big to fail” banks. It is integral to maintaining the neoliberal social order or a strong state and free-market capitalism.

But this has clearly backfired in two crucial ways. First, the tacit paternalism of  these messages has generated frustration amongst those who have experienced a gradual stifling of opportunity in their working and personal lives over the past 20 years. These people, like my father, desire prosperity, but have been told that they can only get it by playing the neoliberal game. The ruse of this message has of late run its course. Second, by touting the consumer market as the linchpin of economic sensibility and personal-life-meaning, the establishment has conceded the struggle for defining aspiration to capitalist consumer ideologies. It is these ideologies and their outlandish formulation in materialistic prosperity which have come to represent the very terms by which a refusal of neoliberal “sensibility”–embodied quite clearly in Donald Trump– can be waged.  The SUV, the McMansion, 70-inch television, and the rise of brand-name fashion  are pursuits of flourishing that fit within the very terms that the neoliberal establishment has laid out as legitimate aspirations, but  in Trump they constitute also a showy and very satisfying “fuck you”.

Because of the establishment agenda the Left has not been able to secure a platform from which they can can harness the desires Americans hold: to have the time and resources to determine the course of their lives. As much as Bill, Obama, Hillary and others have invoked the notion of “dreaming”, they have also qualified these exhortations with aloof, technocratic provisos about “deficits” and “personal responsibility” and  “means testing”. Their dominance on the Left has derailed progressives from being able to put forward a vision of flourishing and prosperity  whose end-point is not stuff but self. Measures like universal healthcare, collective bargaining rights, campaign finance reforms,  universal basic income, state-sponsored housing, democratic energy production, and free higher education are just some means by which the scope for expanding the self can be secured. If those aspects of life are covered by the state, then it becomes easier to focus on doing the things we want to do to be fulfilled person, to engage in cultural activities, to be neighbourly, to have the time to pursue meaningful life projects, and to participate in democratic processes more fully. These policies are never raised by the establishment politic, despite the mounting evidence that their social vision has not only failed to galvanise electoral gains, but has actively undercut their institutional power.

I didn’t have any of these thoughts all those years ago when the first Expedition arrived. Over the years I developed a more critical attitude towards the life the SUV ostensibly and rather desperately promise. Now that I’m older I’m no less critical, but much more charitable. I see it differently, as the embodiment of a story, a very American story, one that is sad but illuminating, and, most importantly, instructive. In these difficult times such stories are necessary to tell.