November 25, 2010

Into the Same River Twice

Continuous circular thinking about the relevance of what one encounters in life is what blurs the distinction between being of one's time or being in one's time. And I am skeptical of the idea that one can ever create anything if one is continuously thinking that all of what one encounters is equally relevant, or deserving of reaction.

To me, being of one's time implies a state of mind where one maintains some intellectual objectivity or fluidity about the relative importance of what one encounters in daily life. Being in one's time = incessant Twittering.

Evidence that you are in your time: having an abiding belief that your view of things is comprehensive, that your thinking is socially validated by the act of you having lived your thoughts, and that your thinking is or should be applicable to all. Evidence that you are of your time: having a belief that your view of things is subjective, that your view is contextually valid, and that how you think is not applicable to all.

Those who are in their time seem to get pleasure from reaction, identification, classification. Those who are of their time seem to get pleasure from reflection, connection, expansion.

If you are in this time, you pride yourself on knowing all the knowable things, and on placing new experiences into a category, based on your own previous personal experience. If you are of this time, you take pride in allowing for new things to integrate themselves into your understanding over time, through experience and experiment.

If you are in this time, the space you make in your head for new information is space that is partitioned from pre-existing rooms. If you are of this time, the new spaces you make tend to be additions -- built with no blueprint, and inconsistently sized.

And perhaps that is the distinction, in the end: is your mind is a solid house with uniformly-sized rooms, built from a plan, or is it an endless series of rooms to be discovered, explored, and furnished? Or perhaps the distinction is deeper still, more a matter of how fearful you are of unplanned additions, and how you respond to that fear.

To paraphrase Charles Sanders Pierce, do you allow your mind to adapt and let truth happen to an idea...or is living (and thinking) all about shooting it before it moves?

November 16, 2010

Everything That Has a History of Its Own

Three scientists in bright orange jackets and black hats take up positions on the Antarctica ice just above an area where seals are cavorting and loudly communing. The scientists each have a different pose -- one lays prone on the ice, on has his leg extended back and rests his head on one arm near the ice, the other is bent over as far as he can go, his face almost stuck to the frozen surface.

All three are absolutely still, and they are listening to some of the weirdest sounds in nature, Arctic seal sounds, as part of their ongoing research. They are being filmed while engaged in this act of intense listening by Werner Herzog, who is following these scientists as part of his research for his movie "Encounters at the End of the World."

And I am watching Herzog's film, which is primarily about watching intense people doing their own intense watching of surreal looking Antarctic life forms. The image of the three orange-coated scientists burns into my eyeballs and my brain.

Then I immediately translate this image into my own version of the image, morphing the colors of the snow, the jackets, the shadows, incorporating in color and form the pleasure and awe the scientists express about their seal subjects, incorporating too the odd feeling that Herzog's film gives me, a feeling that I am violating the privacy of the scientists, the seals, and even the frozen landscape somehow by watching a film like his from the warmth and comfort of my Northern California living room.

I am translating as I go. We all are. And as I translate, I am imbuing something with something that was not there at the creation, at the moment of origination. As we all do, with our own histories, our own stories, with other people, or with the art we encounter around us. I am deriving, but I am also giving something a kind of life beyond its own moment; my painting of that image from Antarctica is a record of what I saw and is simultaneously a translation of an image, incorporating context and emotion and my own distance. I'll never actually see Antarctica, but I can know my response to the image I was presented. And the "life" of that painting will have its own arc, its own trajectory, which will never overlap with those three scientists, or with Arctic seal research, or with Herzog.

This activity of translation and creation happens ceaselessly, no matter how constraining the current cultural conversations may be. For which I am truly thankful. As Walter Benjamin put it about 100 years ago, "Even in times of narrowly prejudiced thought there was an inkling that life was not limited to organic corporeality...The concept of life is given its due only if everything that has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life...And indeed, is not the continued life of works of art far easier to recognize than the continual life of animal species?"

Recognition is connection. The Herzog film shows that some people will go all the way to Antarctica to be with their tribe (of eccentric cold-loving scientist-types) so that they may find themselves easily recognized, more easily translated, more connected than they may be elsewhere. I know that when I see a work of art that moves me in some way, it is moving me in part because something in the work is translatable, and therefore the work is alive to me. I think that people move us in a similar way; I am always awed by finding another person who is in my tribe. And sometimes, I paint about them.

September 16, 2010

I See it Feelingly

When I am creating an image, I am aware of my own role in translating what I know and feel into an art piece, and I am aware also of having my own standards for that creative process. Those standards are not based on a desire for difference or a desire for conformity or a desire for comprehension, or frankly any desire at all. If my work is, by any other person's standard, familiar, or does not conform, or is incomprehensible, so it is.

The painting is not there to convince any other mind of anything at all; the painting is there as proof to the painter that an inner life exists. The painting is there as a reiteration that an inner life matters -- that comprehension is possible, and reflection is necessary, and that aggression and action are often not.

This activity, done alone, to silent standards, with a self-defined process, to the satisfaction of only the author, is activity that does not cause harm to others, does not pull resources from others, does not impede on others. Almost all other human interactions, it seems, do all of those things. Sometimes unduly.

And when these things are done by people who are not aware of their own role in translating their feelings or experience into actions, or who are not aware that they can apply standards and judgement and self-control to their beliefs, real harm results.

Of course one reason this is on my mind is that it is election season in America again, and a fresh crop of strident believers has taken the national stage. Several of them seem unfamiliar with the idea of reason or evidence-based debate...but of course they don't have to be, because they base their movements forward in life on their own emotional responses.

Listening to them, I realize that I truly do not know what they see when they look at the same object, person, or moment as me. I suspect they see every one and every thing as tagged and named, all the better to organize into categories. I suspect their thoughts are tagged too -- "acceptable" or "unacceptable" and "blasphemy" or "God's very own words delivered into my very own skull." They profess as much; I should believe them when they do. And I should know what is coming next: the imposition onto others of a personal ideology that is not impacted by evidence or experience beyond the speaker's own feelings.

Any remotely sensitive person often becomes a receiver for others' emotional incoherence, and I would guess any super-intelligent person (yes I am thinking of you, random awesome NASA scientist) becomes a caretaker for others' intellectual mess-making, or intellectual vacuity. In this we have no real choice.

We all have to live with the loud crank who spews the stupid as if it is brilliance (yes I am thinking of you, Newt Gingrich), always unduly. And their limitations are harmful. Like this morning...when a gentlemen who had just picked up his dry cleaning approached a group of us clinic escorts outside of Planned Parenthood, and gleefully offered us all easy-to-use hangers.

July 23, 2010

The Current-Worked Mind

I've been coming to an understanding about some things lately. For instance, Predators (the cinematic variety) may have awesome blade skills, but they see in low and slow infrared, while we humans (not just the cinematic variety) see at a higher energy level of the electromagnetic spectrum, so apparently that means we always get to win.

Looked at in a certain way, chemistry could be called The Before-and-After Study of Electrons. Ions have unique personalities, protons are smaller than we always thought, and atoms of the same type are not all the same mass, which means there is diversity all the way down. Not just turtles.

Altruism is not limited to humans, and altruism and morality vary depending on one's environment, and one's level of wealth. The search for alien life is really just the search for biological potential. The Maunder Minimum that is coming up in about a generation will not, from what we have gathered so far, offset man-made climate change. A few proteins matter a great deal. Moral illusions can cause suffering. Why is it again that believing, in the absence of evidence, is considered a virtue?

The universe has no particular axis, and the universe is isotropic. And it's probably flat. Lightning is the re-balancing of a charge build up. Every element has a color spectrum. Chemical bonds have unique geometries, and the orbitals of electrons have different shapes. In the beginning, there were oscillations in the plasma. Then things chilled out. In the end, entropy wins.

The wave-particle "duality" of photons is not really duality...its more like photon situational awareness/dance dance revolution. And nuclear physics is the interminable study of predicting the probability cloud of every fricking isotope of every fricking element. Why isn't physics called The Study of the Not Intuitively Knowable but Nonetheless Possibly Logically Explainable?

Spherules leave behind simple and beautiful imprints in sedimentary rocks. Nobody really knows what the people who lived on Easter Island back in the day were writing about. Some pain fibers, called C-LTMRs, are very easily activated and express a protein that creates a neural circuit that makes pain stick around much longer than is necessary. I think there is a correlation between C-LTMRs and anti-abortion protesters.

Dark City went there with re-imagined dreamscapes way before Inception, but The Lathe of Heaven went there even earlier. The clutch lever is my friend, and a high side fall means the rear tire of my motorcycle is out of alignment with my direction of travel. The signs of the zodiac are named after star groups that are on the same plane of travel as the moon and the sun.

When you are navigating your boat by the stars, you must remember to watch the wake, and take into account that the current is always pushing you, one way or another.

June 22, 2010

World of Wonders

Every human starts out with one cell and we develop, via regulatory processes we are still learning about, into a collection of about 10 trillion cells. To date those 10 trillion cells have been categorized into about 300 types, and we know how to turn one type of cell into another type, and we know that different cells seem to have different preferences about where they like to live and what surfaces they like to grow on. And we know that the proteins within cells cluster together. Just like stars.

Another thing we know now is that "waltzing" pairs of black holes way way way out in space do their dance (follow their pattern of movement) in a way that echoes the movement pattern of electrons in their little tiny orbits around tiny nuclei in tiny atoms. This seems both revelatory and common sensical -- that the movement in atoms, which make up all stuff, echoes the movement of all objects made of stuff.

But who is the "we" I am referring to here? How many people really have an active engagement in the connections between atomic motion and the motion of invisible, immortal celestial bodies? And of course there is the question of what one does with the knowledge. Does knowing a thing compel one to spread the word? And what does knowing a thing mean, anyway? Facts are mutable, in time, and history is mutable as well. I used to "know" that punk rock would change modern life forever, that architecture was apolitical, that no one could ever be as bad a president as Reagan, and that Einstein wasn't a slut.

I also used to "know" that new endeavors of the mind were always their own reward, that curiosity was always a fuel for happiness, and that travel was always thrilling. But with age comes wisdom, especially about plane travel...and the recognition that it is patterns (of thought, of motion, of experience) rather than new and unique instances that make up most of what is.

So, if one recognizes a pattern, is one compelled to spread the word? I realize most of my paintings are exactly that. They are expressions about the sudden recognition of a pattern. I know I often feel something like compulsion when I approach the canvas -- not to capture something of myself there, but to capture a moment of recognition before it blinks by.

As if I can see, however briefly, what a vast collection of individual movements (thoughts, memories, reactions, words) looks like as a whole. And as if capturing that perception is worthwhile.

June 1, 2010

Whites at the End of Their Time

Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty's liberal ironist engages in self-creation as a way of living a purposeful life, as metaphysical considerations (or supernatural forces, or promises of what happens after you die) play no definitive part in waking life. In bad dreams maybe, but not in waking life.

The liberal ironist is aware of their own context, of their own moment in cultural time; this person is not living to leave a legacy, or to appease a god, or to avoid hell. And since the languages (meanings, references, contexts, histories) this person comprehends are reality, this person is continually aware of the morphing of language use, manipulation, and rules.

Most compelling for me, on re-reading Rorty, was what he makes of an ironist striving to not be limited (I paraphrase) by the language use/context making/tradition of their upbringing. And just how does one not remain limited by the values, speech, context, and the "known knowns" in the world of one's parents and their cohorts? By expanding acquaintances, by expanding experience, by becoming aware of the connection between persuasive words and cruelty (which a liberal ironist abhors), and by expanding one's own language use.

This expansion process is a pain in the ass, and disconcerting, and means continual revision and revisiting of what one thought one knew. And it is also joyful, liberating, and awe-inspiring. Because the sheer volume of ways of being and ways of thinking among humans is staggering.

Recently I have spent some time with people for whom status competition is what life is about, and what they talk about is 1) the stuff they have, 2) the stuff they want their children to have, and 3) the hopes they have for acquiring more stuff. I have also spent time recently around cause-and-effect thinkers, for whom artmaking or meaning making is quite humdrum, since talking about the cosmos (and how complex a puzzle this is to decipher) is far more engaging than talking about anything a human could make. And I have been listening to the talk of deeply religious people recently too, and I hear them as bonded in submission, and bounded by moral illusions.

And this last reflection led me back to an article written a few years ago by Stephen Pinker, on "The Moral Instinct." In the article, Pinker discusses how social and neurological research has shown that "our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish. It seems we all may be vulnerable to moral illusions, the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes..."

Moral illusions are the blankets of mental safety we wrap ourselves in; moral illusions are the "universal" rules or laws that people claim exist and to which each individually clings to, or thinks other people should adhere to (like supporting racial segregation policies, or saying homosexuality is wrong) and they are almost always bound by an historical context. They are also often a justification for cruelty. And we don't tend to reason these moral illusions out, we instead engage in moral rationalization -- we "begin with a conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification."

Of course I wonder why (biological imperative, survival instinct, communal understanding?) we are wired to be susceptible in this manner, and lots of research is going on in that arena, I am sure. But Pinker sums up that, in our current understanding of this process, "our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing." This is a compelling question, why we seem wired to let "unconscious emotion" impair ethical, respectful, community-minded acts.

And that last thought led me back further, to a short piece by David Kirp about the Supreme Court's 2007 decision nullifying race/diversity as a factor in the assignment of students in public schools. Offering a reflection on the Court's moral thinking and language use in that decision, UCLA Prof. Gary Orfield said "This is the last generation of Euro-American leadership in the country...and we are blowing it. We're not creating a unified culture. Instead we are polarizing the country. Down the road this will be an extremely puzzling decision -- it shows the craziness of whites at the end of their time."

I keep that quote on a wall in my studio, since that is a context that resonates for me, as a denizen of this time.

A footnote: Artist/sculptor Louise Bourgeois, she of the disconcerting mom-as-spider sculptures -- and a clear-sighted creative force who seemed to not suffer from moral illusions, and continuously revisited and revised her world of self -- died yesterday, at 98.

May 17, 2010

Everything, All the Time

I really believe that willful ignorance is a dangerous thing, right up there with intentional passivity and blind obedience. And it seems like this desire for mental safety (or for sentimental hygiene, thank you Zevon) is just the desire for a mythical permanent mooring, at a stable dock, on eternally calm water. No place for the curious. No place for waves, either.

This state of being is continuously touted as a good thing to attain, which is a value I have never understood. Or, to put it another way...why is it that people listen to Sarah Palin again?

To get to that waveless life you have to exert a great deal of control, or else be willing to be controlled -- in thought, word and deed. And I get that this can be pleasurable; someone else is doing the driving, something supernatural is tracking everything, you have clear rules to follow, you have excuses for loss. But there is also an element of such cruelty in this.

And what happens when you get bored? When you feel limited? When you find yourself yearning for a bit of a wave? When you start to wonder just why the things which you have been told must be there and are vital to your survival got to be there in the first place? In that questioning there is the matter of which will be crushed first -- your own desire for change, your state of comfort, or your self-esteem. I imagine this is harrowing. For a time. Until you give up and return to your blinkered path up the seven-story mountain...or you adapt to the actual, the real, the continuous current.

But promoting the desire for a mythical calm, an ordered-via-human-agency universe, is not just limiting to one's consciousness, its dangerous. It requires willful ignorance of human history and the preference for a personal-sized scope of awareness. It demands loyalty in the face of challenge, even if the challenge is factual. And it provides, as Palin's speechifying always does, a cover for intolerance of difference. For how can you share a world with people making waves if the divine goal is waveless calm?

Obviously something has to be done about "those others." You can't live with them, and risk becoming unmoored, and you can't kill them, or convert them, all. You need, beyond all reason, the stable dock. You need, beyond all reason, an enclave of safe. If you are a Tea Partier or one of Palin's grizzly moms, you want this enclave to be the future, to be in place for all generations, to be your whole country. And if it can't be a whole country, then you must work on creating it state by state. Starting with Arizona.

April 24, 2010

Aphelion is Imminent Too

Can one really understand how fear acts on the motion of belief?

One NASA scientist who is tasked with answering the public's questions about the 2012 Doomsday end-of-the-world hoopla has named this unique fear; he calls it "cosmophobia." Every day he hears from people who are actually fearful that an invisible planet (possibly guided by aliens) is on a collision course with the earth right now. Or that solar storms will cause a polarity shift in the sun and cause an earth-wide electromagentic pulse to wipe out all electronics in about two years. They fear the event, they fear for their lives, and they fear "the government" is covering up the truth.

Sure, people claim that they are scared of imminent death, but is that the root cause of the force that is fear? I see people react with fear to passive, non-threatening things all the time -- particularly to "challenging" works of art, and, of course, to abstraction. And anything in the cosmos is also an abstract idea, in the sense that it is out of the realm of our immediate experience. But why does it follow that the response is fear?

Is it that all fearful people think communication of any sort is an expression of a belief system, and therefore an inherent challenge?

This morning I encountered a man who challenged me on my "belief" that we are all made up of atoms. "Don't believe it" he said, "you are made of the spirit!" I honestly had no idea what to say. It is tempting to dismiss his challenge as evidence of his ignorance, but if he does not regard himself as ignorant, what point is there in me claiming so? What is more interesting to me it the idea that he is threatened somehow (or his belief system is destabilized somehow) by...atoms.

If you want to change motion, you need a force which will act on an object and cause acceleration. But if you want to maintain the status of a belief, is a forcefield of fear required?

I wonder about that as the Catholic Church sex-abuse story grows globally, and as the impact of Arizona's new immigration status law plays out here...and as veil-wearing women in Yemen protest in favor of the practice of granting men child brides. The same atom-fearer mentioned above also believes that rape is "not always bad" since it is God's prerogative that sperm is destined for a unique egg, and man must follow God's law without question.

What is it like to live a life of submission? And if you submit to life within that forcefield of fear which is required to maintain your beliefs about weird art, or African American Presidents, or alien-guided killer planets...can you really ever view yourself as a free human being, as free as any of the rest of us?

March 4, 2010

Your Mind A Bounded Set

All the planes were late; a gusty storm in San Francisco had everyone in an anxious hover. So as we waited and waited at the over-crowded gate for our plane to depart to Portland, I slowly browsed the newspaper. And I came across a headline which gave me pause: "France May Make Mental Violence A Crime."

France is considering a non-gender specific law that would punish anyone in an ongoing relationship who engages in psychological violence, what the French Prime Minister called "insidious situations...[that] can mutilate the victim's inner self." Part of the motivation for the law is the high number of victims of domestic abuse in France, and the high rate of females deaths from domestic violence. The lawmakers see this new law as a preventative measure, for use before verbal abuse morphs into physical contact, as it so often does.

The article made me reflect on how people have evolved their thinking on what violence is in general, and specifically on what impact others' words and views can have on the intellectually or emotionally vulnerable. In my mind I pictured the people gathered at Tea Party rallies, and I recalled a woman telling me once about her family's engagement in a church where people speak in tongues and fixate on casting out devils, and I envisioned the Limbaugh listeners I have known. Lots of elephant talk, as King Crimson would say, but persuasive and repetitive and mentally engaging talk nonetheless. And the end result of this type of talk is often violence, because truly the starting point for this type of talk is violence; partners who engage in psychological violence start from a place of personal insecurity that feels as real as a physical threat, as do the Tea Partiers. And I am fascinated by threat.

We were in Portland for that city's excellent annual jazz festival, but we also stopped by the Portland Art Museum, where they had just opened a new exhibition of work by contemporary artists called 'Disquieted'. The intention of the exhibition is to show work by a range of artists who create art about the moment we live in, pieces "challenging our preconceptions and exposing our vulnerability in these turbulent times."

As you enter the exhibition space, you are confronted by a sculpture by Charles Ray, a life-like sculpture of a white woman dressed in a 1990's power suit and low heels -- a sculpture that is 10 feet tall. She has her hands on her hips and she is looking (eternally) down at you with disdain as you crane your neck to look up to her. She is the misogynist's nightmare of the emasculating female boss, circa 1992. She is the embodiment of a threat, and of disquiet, for those intimidated by women in roles of authority. Charles Ray just brilliantly captured a moment in our modern times, and seeing this sculpture first set the tone for much of the rest of the exhibition, which contained many reflections on forms violence (from the interpersonal to acts of war) in contemporary life.

For better or worse, I tend to believe that persuasive repetitive language is a form of violence, and feel dismissive language (and intentionally dismissive acts in general) are also forms of violence -- because they shove a player off the field of conversation when there is plenty of room on that field for all players. And this happens a lot in conversations where the two sides don't concur, or where the subject matter under discussion for some reason makes one person feel threatened. This happens so often when talking about art with people who are not art-inclined that I have gone through long periods of simply remaining silent. And it happens too when talking about esoteric subjects with someone who is defined by their practical responsibilities. A recent conversation I had with one such acquaintance (a parent of 2 small kids) went something like this: Me: "And after that I went to a very cool lecture, given by an Astro-geophysicist, all about the process by which NASA scientists developed an assessment model for analyzing whether elements on the surface of Mars provide an environment capable of supporting (bacterial) Martian life similar to Earth life." Other: "Not to be rude, but really, who cares? I mean, why should I care? I get so tired of hearing people spending money on science projects in space when, you know, we have shit to take care of here."

So then we started talking about that person's kids' Montessori school.

I think if one is a pacifist in one's approach to living -- meaning one is not inherently competitive externally and one tends to be on the reflective or analytical side of the seesaw -- fewer outlets exist for expression that is not impinged upon, or that is not forced or forceful, or that is not a form of persuasion, and yes, even violence. But creating a wordless reflection on the threat of the larger-than-life female is a powerful thing; creating work, like that shown in 'Disquieted', which reflects the weird tumult of life around us now is a powerful thing.

And in the silence of my own studio, after months of chewing on how my own brain makes sense of what I live, and how others make sense of what they live, and on how the incompatibility in that sense-making can result in such tremendous strife, I finally finished a new painting. It is called 'The Binding Problem'.

February 8, 2010

I Saw It That Way Too

When you first learn to draw objects or figures, you engage in training your mind, not your eye. A goal is to see the parts of everything before you. Gradually, your brain allows for a way of seeing that reveals some essential elements in the process of constructing an image -- that all objects are held in space, are shaped and bisected or transected by light, and are impacted by color.

The other day one of my students was drawing a bowl that was turned on its side, so the opening of the bowl was facing her. And she kept moving her pencil in a circle, over and over again, because she saw the bowl (and all bowls) as round. She paid no attention to the fact that the bowl was lit from the side, so half of the bowl was in shadow; she did not see that what she was transcribing from the real world, the world of 3-d wholes, was actually two curved halves of a bowl, one in darkness, the other lit. Her eyes were fine, but her mind could not yet see the whole object before her as component parts, divided by light.

Another student was working on a sketch copy of a painting of a farmhouse in which the artist had presented the house and the space around it geometrically; the structure, outlined in tones of brown, was intersected by trapezoids and parallelograms of light, and organic objects (like a tree and vines) were presented as vibrating circular masses of color. This student approached the sketch by seeing only the whole, without the geometric parts, and fixated to a point of anxiety on the "rightness" of the colors of the leaves.

Now I am sure I am stretching a point here, but reflecting on learning to draw makes me think about nihilism and all its philosophical cohorts -- including the idea that there are no complete objects, only parts, outside of us. But real nihilism (at least in my interpretation) really contains three ideas: that all there is is in your own mind, that there is no metaphysical frame for any human values, and that the destruction of an untenable or undesirable social order is ok, on occasion, as it will be ideally replaced by a newer, more effective, entirely human-constructed order.

I suspect the philosophical giants who wrote about and struggled with nihilism could not draw.

If they could, I doubt there would have been such furious debate about the existence of objects and component parts outside of the self...for if their minds had been trained to draw, they would have begun to see everything around them as parts, combining to wholes, held by light and space. Held by shared light and space. This sounds simplistic, I know, and I do also know that philosophy is about language use, not the physical realm, but I think there is something to be said about the limitations of vision (of all kinds) resulting in limitations in philosophical pronouncements.

I've written before about the false reality created by scientists and theologians alike in the era before eyeglasses were in use; the limits of sight resulted in severely limited readings of the state of the universe and our place in it. The same occurred before the advent of photography. Generations ago nihilists justified their stance about the unseen as unknowable when the idea that we could actually see atoms was completely unimaginable -- but now we can even "see" down to the molecular level, our essential component parts.

Traditional nihilism was a reaction to the decline of religious belief, presented as a stark and frightening contrast to life without a metaphysical root. Modern nihilism seems a bit different, more about the promotion of the individual as an inviolate and pure ideal, more about self-aggrandizement as a social good. As if the only alternative to not having an innate, spirit-generated set of human values was to have no belief in or even sense of the importance of shared human values at all. And as if existence itself is not just an isolated but a static state, instead of a process of mutual engagement and retreat, a process of changing and reforming, a process of emerging from seeing only the wholes for years and years and then learning to see anew.

January 25, 2010

The Ministries of Oceania

I am beginning to wonder if I am feeling a strange sense of dislocation at the moment because I am a proponent of privacy and limits in a time that recognizes and respects neither. My generation evolved through the slow peeling away of privacy; my nieces and nephews are growing up in a world that promotes full exposure as not just a norm, but a new social good.

Living as I do at the ground zero of technological-advancements-in-privacy-stripping (Google is just down the street, Facebook is just up the road) and married as I am to a technology guru, I get a large dose of this daily. And in response, I often find myself floating on my own tiny cloud, made up of equal parts resistance and denial, trying hard to hover just above the furious expose-all activities on the ground. Truly, I do not want to live in a time where anyone and their mother can post pictures of me anywhere, or 'tag' me, or document me, without my consent -- but more so, I don't want to live in a time where people think that doing so is living, is community, is communication. But I do. As do we all.

I have moved beyond the "why" on this one; all the generations that follow me (I am 44 this year) will have no cognitive dissonance. They will not experience the death of privacy, the letting go of limits, any feeling of distant regard for others, because apparently now those things just do not exist as part of the human community. Instead we have endless reportage and visuals on all the moments of everyone's life available all the time. And I find the pressure to engage in this way of being totally exhausting. Not because I don't care about all those representations of real persons, myself included, commenting on themselves on the Internet, but because feeling that I am or we all are now required to care, as part of being human, is exhausting. And it makes me worry about others' understanding of free will.

A few weeks back, I got into a brief discussion about legalizing marijuana in California with a man who is all for it, and I pointed out that I would prefer that people who smoke pot don't do so near me, since I don't want to be exposed to THC or have it impact my brain activity against my will. I said I thought, as an aspect of a civil community, it really was worth considering the violation of others' free will when you are smoking a mind-altering substance in their presence -- unlike, say, the impact of someone drinking alcohol near me, which would not impact my brain at all. And this had not occurred to him, or anyone else around the table. To me this was the most relevant point in the whole discussion about legalizing marijuana, and here I was talking to some who were actually activists on the subject, and they had not considered what it was to violate someone's free will.

I do view human experience as totally subjective; like every other person out there, I see and think things in my own manner. I respect everyone has their own will, limits, desires. And though I do fail at times, I generally try not to impede. But I am, I find, often impeded upon, when I encounter people who do not see privacy as an actual aspect of a real life.

The wonderful thing about having a sense of privacy is that your life is shared with those you care for and trust, and strong bonds are built on the sharing. A dearth of privacy, of limits, makes everything shared seem commonplace and not unique; the singular experience of one's self, one's view, one's truly particular perspective is not reveled in or valued, but runs second to the communal self, the shared-on-Facebook self. And ultimately, and perhaps to me most disturbing, is the idea that shared information in a shared format means a shared emotional state -- or at least a shared sense of 'correct' emotional responses. But in truth, 90% of what I feel when I read others' status updates is never shared, and what is shared is often pablum. And I doubt I am alone in this.

The poet Yeats said "It is no little thing to accept one's own thought when the thought of others has the authority of the world behind it" -- and he encouraged readers to strive to accept their own thoughts over others' anyway, because he knew the "authority of the world" is a seriously constraining idea. Because no, we don't all wear the same shoes. Conformity of response is a constraining idea. Not recognizing others' free will is a constraining idea. And perhaps setting aside respect for privacy in favor of swimming in the communal pool is the most constraining idea of all.