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February 27, 2000

On our way back from Fry's Electronics after buying various items which we're going to use in Miranda's next performance piece, The Swan Tool, Miranda and I started to talk about the type of work which both of us are actually interested in doing. I told her how I came to realize that I really couldn't bring myself to do certain jobs just for the money, even though the money might be very good indeed. Miranda told me that when she was younger, people would often play games like: "Would you eat that bug for ... ten cents? A dollar? Ten dollars?" and so forth, until they would finally get to: "How about a MILLION dollars? Come on, you'd eat that bug for a MILLION DOLLARS!" and she just knew, somehow, deep down, that no, in fact, there was no amount of money that would get her to do something that she wouldn't choose to do on her own, for free.

Even in the business world, money can be a demotivator, but it is almost never a motivator.

February 20, 2000

The thing about the hyperreal is that it can only sustain itself within the context of itself; that is to say, if it is closed, or a better way of saying it is if it has no boundary, as I have mentioned before. For a system to be completely without boundary, however, it must encompass the entire universe, for all time... (see James P. Carse's Finite and Infinite Games for a related discussion). Thus, we are left with only partial simulations, which arise and fall each in their turn, and the extent of the reality that they impose upon us only as large and as long as they persist; but they are doomed to disappear or fade or merge with another system, and they always fray at the edges. Fundamentalist religion is an attempt to impose a simulacrum upon us, which is why they tend to become violent in their desire to suppress alternative views; they well realize that the simulacrum will collapse unless you prop it up!

If a system is not closed, however, there is always the possibility of a challenge from the outside. For a while, for example, automakers in Detroit tried to create a self-perpetuating closed world through their policy of "more car per car"; an almost forgotten phrase which did not mean that the customer was to get more car, but that the automakers would get more profit for each car sold. What this meant was they would make the cars more and more cheaply, designing them to break down early so consumers would be forced to buy new ones --- this worked in the 70's for a little while, when all three big automakers worked in unison on this scheme, but it failed when the Japanese burst onto the scene.

Of course, what this proves is certainly not the cultural superiority of the Japanese, who are struggling to keep up with us today as we remain far ahead of them in the information economy, but the fact that when one partial simulacrum begins to decay, another one, hailing from elsewhere, one which has been evolving relatively independently, can retain or advance a system pattern which is being lost or degraded elsewhere. It is only when a system gets entirely cut off from the outside world that this protective mechanism can begin to fail; such as the case where the island of Tasmania, originally a peninsula, became cut off from Australia, and the inhabitants lost the knowledge of how to make boats, how to fish, and even how to make sewn clothing. Without other cultures to retain the information, the culture de-evolved. As Jared Diamond put it,

All human societies go through fads in which they temporarily either adopt practices of little use or else abandon practices of considerable use. Whenever such economically senseless taboos arise in an area with many competing human societies, only some societies will adopt the taboo at a given time. Other societies will retain the useful practice, and will either outcompete the societies that lost it, or else will be there as a model for the societies with the taboos to repent their error and reacquire the practice. If Tasmanians had remained in contact with mainland Australians, they could have rediscovered the value and techniques of fishing and making bone tools that they had lost. But that couldn't happen in the complete isolation of Tasmania, where cultural losses became irreversible.
That is to say, too much provincialism can be very unhealthy. Every subsystem and simulacrum can have an outside, and for this reason it is important to remain aware of what is happening, open to that which is other or different (alterity). The ship of any subsystem isn't going to be wrecked on the reefs of an absolute reality, but it can be shaken or shattered by the reverberations from other parts of the universe.

February 13, 2000

I find this quote and this quote which Miranda July asked me to put on her web site rather inspiring. From the second one, by the early twentieth-century multi-media artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy:

People are taught that the best way of living is to buy another person's energy, to use other people's skill. In other words, a dangerous metropolitan dogma developed that the different subject matters are best handled by experts... through the division of labor and the mechanized methods not only the production of daily necessities and goods has passed into the hands of specialists, but almost every outlet for the emotional life as well. Today the artist-specialists have to provide for emotions. They are paid--if they are--for that. The sad consequence is that the biological interest in everything within the human spheres of existence becomes suffocated by the tinself of a seemingly easygoing life. People who have biologically the potential to comprehend the world with the entirety of his abilities, to conceive and express himself through different media, the word, tone, color, etc., agree voluntarily to the amputation of these most valuable potentialities. Nothing proves better the lost feeling for the fundamentals of human life than that it has to be emphasized today: Feeling and thinking and their expression in any media belong to the normal living standard of all people. (italics added)
I think it's important to continue to strive for quality even in the face of doubt, which can be poisonous no matter how small it is: because there is a difference between healthy questioning of one's work (after all, we have to always stay attentive and learn from our mistakes) and that doubt which says: you don't have the right to do this, who do you think you are?

Which reminds me of something my father once said to me, which was that when I was growing up, if he disagreed with me he would try to argue against what I wanted to do, but if he failed to convince me he would never forbid it, because he figured one of two things would happen that way: 1) I would turn out to have been right, and he wrong, in which case everything was fine, or 2) he would be right, and I'd find out soon enough. Whereas if he forbid it, I would always wonder: what could have been.

Strategy for lazy people: just commit to a few seconds or minutes a day. There is a huge difference between slow progress and none at all. This is a sort of yogic trick, of course, because the point is not the few seconds but the context switch: a few seconds of [whatever] can lead to many minutes or hours (but you don't think about that part of it!)

February 9, 2000

Via Alamut: Dirk Hine's weblog, Subterranean Notes.

Back on 3 February, Jouke linked to William Beaty's Traffic Physics web page, in which he describes, among other things, certain amusing amateur traffic experiments one can conduct with one's car. I found this particularly amusing because I tried the exact same thing when I used to drive to high school through dense rush hour traffic in Los Angeles. Like Beaty, I would attempt to "smooth out" the waves in the traffic by driving at the average speed, thereby causing traffic behind me to flow more uniformly. I also noticed other interesting patterns: the "fast lane" in heavy traffic was invariably the slowest, and traffic flowed faster on Friday mornings and on days after it rained--- in Los Angeles, the rain would wash the air, making the sky beautiful and the smog lessened to the point you could see the mountains--- I figured that this gave people an extra psychological boost which got me to school a bit faster (meaning, of course, I could procrastinate at home for a few extra minutes).

The interesting thing is that although I haven't had the energy to really think about traffic patterns much since I was in high school, it seems to me that traffic in Los Angeles today flows slightly differently from the way it did back when I was in high school. I've noticed drivers almost unconsciously adopting patterns of behavior which allow for smoother flows, easier lane-changes, etc. This "social knowledge" seems to be a peculiar feature of Los Angeles driving in particular; for example, the same patterns which I seem to observe in Los Angeles do not appear as much in other West Coast cities like San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle (and I like Portland over L.A. in most other ways, I add here--- but not as much in terms of driving habits). It is as though Los Angeles, with its hoary freeway culture, has had more time to develop a driving etiquette which "everyone" seems to know (except for new arrivals, who often complain to me about their inability to navigate in L.A. until I give them tips on the traffic "rules"), but which are not written anywhere.

February 7, 2000

Very happy to see Lemonyellow reviving.

Via Geegaw: Jessie Ferguson's musings on philosophy. She's very young, an undergrad at the University of Chicago, but I like her overall bent.

Been reading a fascinating and amusing recent history of American art, with a particular (but not entirely exclusive) focus on the New York scene, It Hurts: New York art from Warhol to now, by the British art critic Matthew Collings. The tone is lighthearted and filled with plenty of irreverent British sardonic wit, yet despite its glib tone it is quite clear that Collings cares a great deal about both the people and the work he discusses. Collings places art in a living, breathing, accessible, down-to-earth context, reminiscent, somehow, of the spirit behind the work of Gordon Matta-Clark (whom Collings affectionately discusses in great depth), which had a quality of being embedded in the everyday. Though the book focuses primarily on the art scene from the sixties forward, and on work that was primarily a rejection or reaction against Greenbergian formalism, he nevertheless says that despite the fact that everyone seems to hate Greenberg today, he still puts Clement Greenberg at the top of his list of critical heroes, even as he recognizes that Greenberg's work was no longer relevant to much of the art that was produced from the 70's onward.

Finally broke down and added some links to my 'deeper' page. If your site is not on the list please don't hurt me. Send me email instead.

February 4, 2000

Some words on wordlessness.

There is a Zen saying, "the moment one opens one's mouth to speak, one makes a mistake." On the other hand, there is another saying: "the life of a Zen master is a series of mistake following mistake" (literally: a continuous series of mistakes). Expressing things in words always involves a sort of violence against the truth; the truth itself being inexpressible. (Even the word "truth" evokes something that can be nailed down in some way, or a thought, or a state of affairs, and that isn't what I mean to suggest.)

Which reminds me of a famous Zen story: Shakyamuni was in a grove with many monks, and he held up a flower; of all the monks, only Mahakasyapa smiled. Shakyamuni then declared that of all those present, only Mahakyasyapa truly understood.

February 1, 2000

Sculptor Rhonda Roland Shearer of the Art Science Research Lab in New York has made some rather interesting discoveries about the work of Marcel Duchamp. For example, Shearer has found significant evidence that Duchamp's readymades which have long been assumed to be merely unaltered household objects chosen by Duchamp, turn out not to be so "readymade" after all. Shearer believes that these pieces, far from being conventional store-bought items, were in fact extensively manipulated and/or constructed by Duchamp. Careful analysis of surviving photographs by Man Ray and Alfred Steiglitz of some of the objects reveals a coat rack with hooks that curve the wrong way, a snow shovel with a square, not round, cross section, which is also improperly reinforced so as to make it useless for shoveling snow (Duchamp called this piece "In Advance of a Broken Arm," perhaps to hint at this), and many other oddities. The lab reports on these and other discoveries in their online journal, Tout Fait.

Finished the opening version of the Big Miss Moviola site for Miranda July today! Stayed up all night to get it all working before Miranda arrived for the Rotterdam International Film Festival. It was well worth the effort (at least I felt gratified to get it done).