synthetic zero

November 4th, 2009

Years ago I went to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead with a group of friends of mine, one of whom was Ted Park, the younger brother of one of my high school classmates, Ron Park. After the film, while we were walking, Ted said to me “I hope this movie doesn’t corrupt you, Mits.” I was quite surprised by this and I just laughed and laughed. I thought it was sweet that Ted thought this of me, but in fact it was quite a strange concern, from my point of view. By that time I’d already seen so much (my father is an artist and my parents often took me to see all sorts of films, art openings, etc., when I was growing up, Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman or strange art films or performances) that Eraserhead was no big deal to me. But there’s something else, as well.

Some people see me as a somewhat “pure” person, or as one just put it, “incorruptible” — but I don’t think of myself that way at all. To the contrary, I think of myself as, in a way, already corrupted — so totally corrupted that I’ve come right out the other side. A shade of black so black that it appears white again. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but that’s the basic image. My version of “virtue” is not based on trying to preserve my innocence, my lily whiteness; it is based on something very different, being familiar with vice, being one with it, to the point where I simply avoid most of it not because I’m trying to hold myself to some high standard, trying to avoid getting any dirt on my white robes, but simply because I’m bored with a lot of what tempts many people. Been there, done that, in this life or in some previous one, so to speak. I avoid many things people call “evil” just because it’s banal, pointless, simpleminded or uninteresting to me, not because I am exercising some sort of rigid discipline to avoid “temptation”.

It’s a strange sort of approach to virtue which is really a form of worldliness. I don’t drink (very much) not because I am trying to be virtuous but because I dislike the taste of alcohol; I don’t do drugs just because I’d rather do other things, like meditate, etc., but I have nothing against those who take psychoactive drugs in a mindful way, I have plenty of friends who do. I’m not motivated by large amounts of money because it gives you diminishing returns; after you have your basic needs covered, having more money doesn’t incrementally add much to your happiness. And should it seem necessary or worthwhile I certainly would break rules, and I do, quite a lot; I don’t hold to rules arbitrarily but rather to a principle of awakeness. Still, if I don’t see a good reason to break a rule, I probably won’t, because what’s the point? I don’t have a need to rebel any more than I have a need to conform. I think of this, essentially, as related to earlier comments about Eastern vs. Western ideas of virtue; the idea of being “corrupted” coming more from a Western notion of virtue as being “avoiding vice”, being innocent, being a naif; whereas in the East, particularly in schools like Zen, virtue is conceived of more as being skillful, on the ball, savvy.

Of course I don’t claim to be actually incorruptible or without vices or ego or bad habits, etc.; I have plenty of those. In fact I depend on them, I don’t run away from them. I look them in the face, I AM them. So, to the extent possible, I am already so steeped in my own darkness, darkness that goes deep to the whirling void at the bottom of reality, that the idea of being “corrupted” just seems funny — corrupted by what? I’m not naive about the nature of the world, in fact I’m already corrupted, I see and feel it all the time, I accept it and I live with it and through it. I feel more criminal than the criminals — I don’t think of myself as saintly, but rather the king of the crooks; but I’ve learned to play the game better than ordinary crooks, because I skip the stealing part, because it’s pointless. If my behavior looks like virtue in some cases, so be it; but I’m not trying for that. And I let myself follow “temptation” all the time; as I said above, I’m willing to transgress certain boundaries, I’ll break some rules if it seems appropriate, and if that looks like vice to some people, so be it as well. I’m not overly concerned with those labels. Ultimately, I’m just trying to pay attention and not be too wasteful, if at all possible, because wasting life/reality (which includes wasting the life/reality of “others” as well as myself, since there ultimately is no strict boundary between me and you) is, quite simply, about the only true crime I can really think of.

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9 responses to this post:
  1. amarilla says:

    I appreciate your contrast of Western and Eastern virtue. It’s a rich subject and trolls many waters; most cogently Sufi antinomianism, the goal of incorporating the shadow in Jungian analysis as well as Blake’s progression of innocence, experience and synthesis.

    If you don’t mind, please go to my blog and read “seeing in the dark.” I’d appreciate someone of your depth considering it.

    November 4th, 2009 at 5:28 pm
  2. magda says:

    I tend to disagree with you on some of the points because I privilege experience. You know my stance on drugs and their (potential) importance to life.

    I also believe that ‘being one with vice’ cannot happen unless you have gone through it and experienced it on many levels, including the ends of the spectrum - happiness with/because of the vice and misery with/because of the vice.

    When you say you want to be as least wasteful as possible, I see that as you think of ‘vices’ as wasteful. So perhaps is it our own contextualization of the experience that makes something meaningful and significant? Because fuck yea, wasting life is probably the worst ’sin/vice’ of all. You are so right.

    November 7th, 2009 at 4:41 pm
  3. amarilla says:

    Sometimes experience for experience’s sake is just a waste of time, a consumerism, but if its meant to happen, it happens. How often is it just another thing that comes between a person and her self-discovery? Hopefully one can trust her instincts about what to pursue and avoid and stand alone when the gut requires it.

    When you look at a vice as a crutch, a different aspect is revealed. You see something that wastes one’s power and gives superficial gratification so one doesn’t have to feel the pain one needs to deal with. It’s becomes something that one has to lie to oneself about.

    Then there’s those healing drugs that are used ceremonially which I’ve heard help heal and purge negativity, e.g. peyote, yage, psylocybin, iboga and others. Any of them could become a crutch, something pursued for experience’s sake with no sacredness involved, which insults the plant’s gifts and can become a profound abuse of oneself. But we are so used to abusing ourselves and each other we hardly know when we’re doing it. Anyway, a good commentary on the issue is the life of Shaman Maria Sabina.

    November 7th, 2009 at 10:12 pm
  4. mitsu says:

    Magda, I think I detect in your post some misunderstandings of what I’m saying here. The whole point that I’m making is precisely that I don’t view “vice” as separable from virtue, as a separate category of experience, or as something over to one side that one ought to spurn because one is attempting to stay “pure”. What I’m saying is exactly the opposite of that, though it’s so different from the ordinary picture of virtue and vice that I can understand how easy it might be to misunderstand me.

    What I’m essentially saying is that the reason I say I am one with vice is that this is a simple fact about the way I live: I completely dive into life in every way, fully and totally, not excluding anything whatsoever. I don’t choose what I do based on some set of rules or notions of trying to maintain purity. The sense in which I am one with vice is not a theoretical one, it is a simple fact about the way I am, who I am, the way I live, the way I feel and interact with life. So, from that point of view, the notion of being “corrupted” by this or that action is fundamentally a sort of laughable idea to me; it’s like imagining a fish being “corrupted” by water. I am not only surrounded by vice but I am composed of it. There is nothing left outside of it, in some very real sense.

    So yes, of course one has to go through it in both its positive and negative aspects; but there’s a step beyond this, which Buddhists call “one taste” which essentially is a way in which distinctions such as “virtue” and “vice” disappear, and both positive and negative effects unify into a single reality.

    In other words, I question the whole idea of “experience” as some event that happens at a certain time to a particular experiencer. I don’t, however, disagree with what I think you’re recommending, which is to go forward and directly deal with everything in life that comes up, without basing your decisions or choices on an arbitrary set of distinctions of good vs evil, etc. One could call the position I am taking, which I think in this sense is congruent with the position you’re taking, as “evil” in the sense Bataille meant, but of course for me his notion of “evil” is, in fact, good.

    But aside from these high-flying considerations, where I agree with you is that everything is particular and you cannot and shouldn’t try to take up just an abstract, theoretical position on something (such as taking drugs) based on a second-hand description or an idea. Without being able to prove this to you via words, all I can say is that this is not what I am doing, nor what I mean, above. Being one with vice is a palpable, direct part of my moment to moment existence.

    So no, I am absolutely not saying that vices are wasteful! I am saying that waste is the only real vice. It is a total inversion which radically alters the meaning. I don’t actually admit to any external definition of vice, e.g., “taking drugs” is not a vice to me, nor is anything else. One can do anything, tying your shoes, in a way which is wasteful, or not — and one can do anything, including getting totally drunk or taking drugs to excess or whatever, in a way which is wasteful, or not, in a way which isn’t really part of the “act” per se but something else. That “something else” one might relate to Agamben’s idea of a “halo” — that is, I think there is a “halo” around everything, including things that are ordinarily called “vices”.

    I am also, however, talking about not just these ideas but a simple feeling. My basic self-image is not that of someone who is good trying to avoid doing evil, or of someone who is a potential victim trying to avoid being victimized; it is that of a gigantic criminal, like a Mafia boss, who has decided, for various reasons, to be an even better criminal by diving into life in a way that includes more of life than he did before. If I worry about anything as I said above it is wasting my life or that of someone else — I did a lot of that before, and I can feel that and I swim in that, in some sense, all the time. I’ve already committed those crimes, so in a sense I am only half joking when I say I did that in a previous life. It’s both a metaphor and in some sense a reality for me (I can explain more what I mean there in some other post).

    I am not in any way casting any sort of aspersions on your choices, i.e., taking drugs, etc. As I said above, I don’t divide the world in this way. This is not say, by the way, that I even cast aspersions on those who DO choose to follow rules for their ethical guidelines… that is also another choice one can make, a technique one can use, and it might be helpful as well for their ability to enrich their lives. There are many possibilities.

    November 7th, 2009 at 10:56 pm
  5. mitsu says:

    In other words — and it’s impossible for me to fully justify this — but, compared to nearly anyone, the way I am is essentially someone who has *already* gone through “vice” and “experienced” its effects both positive and negative, at the extremes of the spectrum. And not only this but I am doing this now, and every day, every moment, and increasingly at every moment. That is not something I can prove… but I do want to make clear what it is I am claiming, even if I cannot demonstrate it to you via writing or words. But there’s really very little in terms of “indulging” that many people engage in that would “corrupt” me — that’s essentially the point I am trying to make, simply because I’m already in it. Of this I have no doubt whatsoever, and I’ve tested this on many occasions (despite my “pure” reputation as I’ve said before, I have broken many rules and continue to do so).

    I suppose another way of putting this is that while I can and do indulge in ordinary vices, I find most of them not that interesting to me anymore. It’s not that I avoid them because I want to stay pure, I avoid them because I can only do so many things and I am busy indulging in other dimensions of reality which are for me far more interesting and bizarre. However, again — it’s not so much what actions one does as subtly how one does them which is of interest to me, so I can and do go back and indulge in ordinary vices from time to time, but I do it in a way that’s perhaps different from the way I might have done it at other times (or in other lives, so to speak).

    To explain why this is or what I mean is virtually impossible, but it’s certainly what I am claiming.

    November 7th, 2009 at 11:24 pm
  6. amarilla says:

    Inscrutability is your birthright, Mitsu. But it’s nice of you to try so hard to explain. There’s plenty to wonder about regarding the allure and enchantment of various vices which of course are communicated to us on the allure of the practitioner’s charisma and style.

    This subject reminds me that what’s critical is that there are hordes of suffering people for whom vice isn’t enrichment but pathology, who are hard at work numbing the buried pain of abuse. Something was stolen from these people, and they only get it back through going through treacherous gates. So some stay squeezed in the complex of learned self-reduction until they die, continually medicating.

    November 8th, 2009 at 9:14 am
  7. mitsu says:

    Right, which is of course why the alternative approach (i.e., to simply avoid some set of actions one calls “vice” via some form of rules of varying rigidity) is not only very useful for many people but essential. In a sense, one could think of such rules as crutches also, they’re ways of stabilizing your situation long enough to work through issues that would otherwise be intractable for many.

    In Buddhism there’s a notion of “precepts” which are a set of sometimes quite elaborate rules (in the classical Vinaya) or sometimes a bit more abstract (particularly as it is practiced in, say, many Zen sects). But also in Buddhism there’s a notion that at the “higher” levels, precepts are seen not as rigid rules but rather simply a technique, a way of stabilizing things but not an essentialist set of judgements; i.e., precepts are a way to “simulate” virtue before you’ve really gotten a handle on it. Later, it’s possible to expand your notion of virtue so it’s more along the lines of “non-waste” so it becomes possible to do things that would ordinarily be very harmful in a way that has a different quality.

    But I suppose in all this I’m really just trying to point at an alternative way of thinking about vice and corruption; that is, rather than thinking in terms of preserving a natural state of innocence, one starts from a position where you treat everything with a sort of acceptance, both “virtues” and “vices” and move from that point of view. Then one doesn’t have to have this same struggle with vice, it’s no longer threatening to one’s stability. It’s just another aspect of reality like everything else, to be worked with like everything else. This approach isn’t for everyone but I think it ought to be on the table, and it’s the way I personally live.

    November 8th, 2009 at 12:28 pm
  8. amarilla says:

    Good points. Kvond had a post a while back on periods of homeostasis vs entropy or reorganization in a system, I think there’s interesting parallels in these two discussions. Right now he’s post a theme relating to Absolute zero, I don’t know if that would interest you, I just mention it because of the title Synthetic Zero. Is that a real physical state of some kind? Perhaps a metaphor for razor’s edge path between attraction and aversion?

    If you are interested, here you go…

    November 8th, 2009 at 9:27 pm
  9. mitsu says:

    Thanks for that link, I’ll have to dig into it at some point. Looks interesting.

    There’s one other point I wanted to clarify here regarding what appears to be a hierarchy of values I seem to be positing above; i.e., being “bored” with ordinary vices and more attracted to other pursuits. In some rough sense I can talk this way but in another sense I don’t even believe in this sort of hierarchy. It is at most a matter of how I perceive my own decisions, where I go, how I maneuver in the world; which is to say, I attempt to maneuver, gently, towards things that seem interesting and away from things that seem less interesting (rather than towards “virtue” and away from “vice”). But in saying this I don’t mean to create another set of reified categories. In particular, to take Magda’s case of her interest in psychotropic drugs — though I personally don’t take this path I have many friends who do and have and I have the utmost respect for them and what they’re working with. It seems quite interesting and worthwhile, at least for them; I simply chose a different approach but I don’t see this as in any way a matter of choosing the less indulgent path — I’m indulging myself as well, just in different directions.

    Then again there’s the case of the typical drug addict who has gotten themselves into serious trouble; what’s the distinction between these cases? I mean, I take Magda’s point seriously here: in some sense it might be said to be worthwhile even to indulge in some things to the point of excess, to experience that aspect of life, too; but to the point of becoming, say, an out of control addict, that just seems to be a collapsed, uninteresting alternative. In other words the reason I’d do something else is because other alternatives seem far more juicy, not because I’m trying to be pure or a prude or whatever it might be. And none of my friends who have experimented with psychoactive substances have done so in a way that led them down that path, either; they all do it with eyes wide open, so to speak, and it works for them. I’m just working on other things, in other ways.

    November 8th, 2009 at 11:24 pm

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