synthetic zero


October 13th, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently about the notion of “nice guys” vs “bad boys” or “dangerous” men as it plays out in Western culture, or at least in, say, North American culture, because that dichotomy has never made sense to me, intuitively, despite the fact that I was born and grew up in the US. This came home to me when I was on the plane the other day watching the forgettable teen flick “I Love You Beth Cooper” about a valedictorian who, for some reason, is in love with the head cheerleader, who, aside from being pretty, doesn’t seem to have much going for her. Watching this guy I was struck both by how I identified with some aspects of the lead character (nerdy, intellectual, considerate, etc.) and found other aspects totally unfamiliar (nervousness, awkwardness, inability to execute his plans, clumsiness, fear in the face of physical threat, not to mention atrocious taste in women.) This movie really epitomizes the ways in which the typical nice guy/bad boy dichotomy never made sense to me.

It’s not that I don’t have a weak/strong duality in my mind — it’s just that it looks very different. My version of it draws, I think, more from Japanese culture, and it relates a bit to the difference between Japanese ideas about the relationship between power and virtue, and Western ideas of the same. In the West, there’s a sort of presumption that to be “good” is to be somehow a bit of a sap; being good is sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of others, not being willing to do what it takes to get ahead, and so on. People have to be threatened by a vengeful God in order to act in a virtuous way; without that threat, the idea is that you would act selfishly and crassly.

In the East, and particularly in Japanese culture, however, the idea is a bit different. Instead of a meek saint, you have the image of a Zen master or a samurai warrior. A samurai is not someone you’d want to fuck with, he’s someone who could kill you in a second without a second thought if he needed to, and someone who could easily crush the average asshole, yet whatever motivates the samurai isn’t selfishness. Selfish people, on the other hand, are seen as weak (because they are); selfishness provides many targets for manipulation, for being open to getting conned, it’s a weakness, with even an air of the pathetic. In the West, selfishness is seen as an advantage; in the East, particularly in Japan, it’s a weakness. The most paradigmatic insult in Western culture is to call someone an asshole; in Japanese culture, you call someone an idiot (bakatare) — because being selfish (an asshole) isn’t seen as the primary vice, it’s ineptitude that’s the vice.

In the end, I think of the Western idea of nice guy vs bad boy as a sort of unevolved notion; that is, a samurai is basically an “advanced” bad boy. In the end, in other words, I am on the side of the bad boys, because I myself am not someone who is motivated by sentiment or by sympathy for people in the ordinary sense; I don’t do things for people because I feel their pain or am trying to be “nice”. Beneath my apparently nice exterior is actually a fairly ruthless person, just like my samurai ancestors. But I’m not out to get you, or anyone else, because, unlike the asshole bad boys out there, I find the notion of working primarily for your own selfish ends to be quite simpleminded, an easy way to get taken advantage of, a vulnerability, and a form of ineptitude. If you really examine the world, the way things work, and you really do your best to find a way to live in the world in the most effective way possible, then the idea of being primarily selfish makes no sense, it’s stupid and constraining, and it leads to failure and loss in the long run, because it’s based on the false notion that we can be separated out from everything around us. It’s a weakness in the most direct sense: because it’s based on a limited perspective, nine times out of ten, the selfish person is going to be defeated by the unselfish, but not meek, strong, together person.

The samurai personality does share some traits with the bad boys of Western culture: we do think of ourselves as the alpha male (or in the case of women, the alpha female), the top dog, in most situations. It’s an egotistical stance, of course, but there’s an egalitarian component to it: it’s not that we think that we’re on top and everyone else has to be “below” us by virtue of our birth, or something — everyone has the potential to be great, everyone could be great if they woke up to their full potentiality, their full dimensionality. And it has a humble aspect, because in this same world view we recognize that there are other people who have it together, or even more so (our comrades, the ones we “fight” alongside, as well as the people who agree to be our spouses, or our teachers, our parents, etc.) The fact, however, that the samurai personality or the Zen master may be considerate and honorable doesn’t, however, make them akin to the “nice guys” of Western culture. However much we want to acknowledge the true potential of all people, there is, for better or worse, an arrogance about us, which takes the following form — unlike, perhaps, the Western “bad boy” who might demand respect, in an odd way, the samurai simply withdraws their respect (or our support, or our desire) from those who don’t respect them. We withdraw from those who don’t recognize what is really going on: if someone mistakes consideration for weakness, that person simply gets to be free from what we might have offered to them. We are arrogant, but unless you attack us or other people we’re trying to help, the worst we’ll do to you is withdraw what we’d offered, whether it’s help, support, desire, love, or whatever else.

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October 6th, 2009

After a lot of travel finally back in New York, which means, finally back online more regularly. While I was travelling I kept my internet usage primarily to working, a little bit of IM, Facebook, and Twitter, but generally speaking spent less time online than usual. This was great in a lot of ways; yesterday I explored Lava Canyon near Mt. St. Helens in the afternoon, and it was a wonderful adventure… lots of dramatic lava rock formations that have been exposed by a powerful mudflow caused by the 1980 explosion/eruption of Mt. St. Helens; so strange to explore a canyon which basically was covered by soil and trees up until less than 20 years ago… and on that hike I had no connection to the internet at all.

But now I’m finally back in New York for an extended period, and in a way it’s kind of a relief to be here in my familiar, beautiful loft, and able to just relax and be at home — but also to be back “home”, online.

On a different note… I realized recently that I have a lot of capacity to accept situations, when I have some idea why people are behaving the way they are; but when I don’t understand, it’s very difficult for me to let things go. It’s as though I need to have an idea what it is I’m accepting before I can really accept it. Yet, once I have an idea what the situation is, how people feel, etc., I can accept nearly anything. I suppose I just need to really feel that there’s nothing I have left undone, nothing I ought to do that I haven’t tried; if nothing can be done, then so be it: I can live with it.

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September 27th, 2009

Things familiar to most Canadians but unknown, prior to today, to me: Terry Fox (a national hero in Canada who ran on one leg, because his other leg had been amputated due to cancer, across Canada to raise money for cancer research), the sentence “Do you have air miles?” as uttered by someone at a store checkout (apparently in Canada it’s common to be able to get air miles for shopping at particular stores, and you swipe an “air miles card” which is NOT a credit card), the term “Kraft dinner” or “KD” for short (which apparently refers to Kraft macaroni and cheese), and “Smarties” (which in Canada refer to an M&M-type candy, rather than the colored sugar discs we have in the States; the colored sugar discs are here, but they’re called, instead, “Rockets”).

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September 20th, 2009

Inspired by Ginna Álvarez posting the original Spanish version of Borges’ meditation on the Golem, I’m posting Matias Giovanni’s translation:

If (as one Greek states in the Cratylus)
the name is archetype for the thing,
in the letters for rose is the rose
and all of the Nile in the word Nile.

So, made of consonants and vowels,
there’d be a terrible Name, the essence
of God its cipher, that Omnipotence
guards in letters and syllables full.

Adam and the stars knew it
in the Garden. Sin’s stain
(so the kabbalists say) erased it
and the many generations lost it.

The cunning and candor of man
have no end. We know that in their day
God’s own people searched for the Name
in the small hours of the Jewry.

Unlike that of some other vague
shadow betrayed in vague history,
there is still fresh and living memory
of Judah Loew, a rabbi in Prague.

Thirsty to see what God would see,
Judah Loew gave in to permutations
with letters in such complex variations
that he at last uttered the Name that is Key.

Portal, Echo, Host and Palace,
upon a doll with clumsy hands
he engraved, and taught it the strands
of Word, of Time and Space.

Through dreamy lids was this likeness
confounded by forms and colors,
utterly mixed in subtle rumors
and made its first timid movements.

By small degrees, like us it was
imprisoned in this resounding net
of Before, After, Yesterday, While, Now,
Left, Right, I, You, Them, Others.

(The kabbalist that gave it home
this vast creature nicknamed Golem;
these truths are told by Scholem
in a learned passage of his tome.)

The rabbi taught to it the universe
“My foot, and yours; here is a clog.”
After some years this thing perverse
could sweep, well or not, the Synagogue.

It could have been a miswriting,
or an error uttering the Holy Name;
despite so high a spell, it did not
learn to speak, this apprentice of man.

Its eyes, less a man’s than a dog’s
and so much less of dog than of thing,
tracked the rabbi through the trembling
shadows of their closed quarters.

Something odd and crude was in the Golem,
since out of its way the rabbi’s cat
scurried. (This cat is not in Scholem
but, across time, I can glimpse that.)

Raising its pious hands to God
it mimed his God’s devotions
or, dull and smiling, it sank
in hollow oriental genuflections.

The rabbi looked upon it with pride
and with some horror. How (he mused)
could I give birth to a pitiful son
and lose the sanity of inaction?

Why did I add yet another symbol
to the infinite Series? Why bring
to the vain skein spun by eternity
another cause, another effect and pain?

In that hour of dread and blurred light,
his eyes lingered on his Golem.
Who will tell us, what did God feel,
looking upon His rabbi in Prague?

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September 20th, 2009

New York is a great city, the most powerful city in the wealthiest country in the world, it has some of the greatest cultural institutions and some of the smartest people in the nation, it’s even managed to become the safest major city in the country, and it’s made many strides recently in adding bike lanes, opening new parks such as the High Line, and other quality of life improvements. But, despite all this, there’s also something sort of Mickey Mouse about the place; something trashy, dysfunctional… half-assed. Many, perhaps most subway stations are in disrepair; paint peels off the walls and beams (not in spots, but everywhere, massively), making the stations look like sets from a post-apocalyptic movie. Many of the city’s public schools lack adequate resources. In some neighborhoods, even mail delivery is hit and miss. Road construction seems to take forever, and even when it’s done, you can end up with roads that flood easily in moderate rain, have confusing signage and odd, awkward routing. A woman was electrocuted to death because she stepped on a metal plate in the street which hadn’t been properly insulated by ConEd, the electric utility, yet even after this incident, they still failed to completely fix the problems in their system. In a building project I am familiar with, the contractors tried to get away with doing the absolute minimum they had to do, putting in the least amount of wiring they needed to, sealing bathroom fixtures sloppily, installing doors, windows, and other items skewed or slightly off, requiring a lot of extra work after the contractors were done to fix their lack of attention to detail. There’s a common attitude of just sort of sliding by, here.

I was reminded of this while at LaGuardia airport, where I saw this sign:

No, I didn’t take it mid-scroll; that’s it, that’s the sign, static, frozen, “WELCOME” smashed up against the dots along the top; a perfect symbol of the pervasive New York culture of “let’s eke by.” Or, take this vending machine I tried to use, also in the airport:

Of course, this machine is owned by Best Buy, not the airport. But no one in the airport has yet reported this crash. Customers who try to use the machine may not have even informed anyone; New Yorkers are famously blase about things going wrong like this; they go wrong all the time, all around everyone. Escalators, for example, are constantly broken, everywhere (the fact that escalators and elevators in the transit system are constantly broken has even been the subject of stories in the New York Times — apparently the mechanics are poorly trained and overworked). And these are just two examples; living in New York you come across things like this all the time, constantly.

It’s funny, in a way, but it’s also kind of sad and a bit strange. How is it that America can be so powerful, yet in its most powerful city, there can be such a pervasive, half-assed approach to things?

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September 17th, 2009

When I first met George, I was living in Portland, Oregon; George was a feral cat who had wandered onto our back porch because he wanted to get to know another cat, owned by one of my roommates, Laura. For a long time, George wouldn’t let us pet him, but he seemed curious about us, so we began to feed him. He quickly became attached to us; for example, one day, Susan and I were walking in the neighborhood and he saw us, and he came up and followed us for quite a while. Each day he allowed himself to get physically closer and closer, and finally, one day, he overcame his fear and nuzzled my hand. After this, we let him inside, and at first he was quite disturbed by it, but rapidly he caught on: inside meant warmth, food, and safety… He went from being a wild cat to being a domestic, mostly indoor cat. He’s also one of the smartest cats I’ve ever known; he’s attuned to the behaviors of human beings, even empathetic; he clearly has an idea of the internal mental state of people, far more so than most cats I’ve known. For example, like many cats, he liked to knead when he would sit on you, but the first couple times he did this, we would cry out in pain if he dug his claws in too much. Subsequently he bent his paws back when he kneaded so his claws wouldn’t press into our skin! I don’t think I’ve ever known a cat learn something like that so quickly.

I’m thinking of him right now because he just came out of the bedroom to see what I was doing, typing on my computer late at night, and jumped onto the couch to greet me.

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September 16th, 2009

Saw my friend Alyse Emdur’s film “Something Small” at the Little Tokyo Marketplace on Sunday; it was fun to watch people suddenly start watching the film on the monitors, confusing the shoppers in the market who had no idea there was a film premiere transpiring. Alyse’s work is beautiful, strange, innocent, and sophisticated at the same time. She has a wonderful sense of timing in her editing, and she appears as an actress in the film (as well as her sister Remi). My old friend Peter Cerrato saw my tweet about going to see the film, and he was there, and he and I, Alyse, and a bunch of Alyse’s friends went out to eat afterwards at a hip new bratwurst restaurant called Wurstküche; yes, hip bratwurst, if you can believe it; they have tons of vegetarian and non-red-meat options, not to mention a healthy variety of both alcoholic and non-alchoholic beverages (including lots of exotic sodas, sasparillas, and the like, which I really appreciated.) It’s a very West Coast restaurant; hip, traditional, healthy, and indulgent all at the same time… hard to find that sort of combination on the East Coast, where restaurants tend to be either inexpensive and a bit greasy or expensive and fancy but also pretentious and somewhat unfulfilling.

As I dozed on the plane coming back to New York, I woke suddenly and decided to look at the GPS channel; we were passing by Denver. I peered out the window and saw dim city lights in the distance. It was pitch black so I couldn’t see the mountains directly but I could see them as dark masses surrounding the lights below. Denver is the city where my parents first met, where my mother grew up, in the center of the country and high above it, my aunt and cousins are there still, and other people I love and think about. I imagined them nestled in amongst the lights far below, strangely close, for a little while. I wrote someone down there a note, flying above them in the night, and set it to send when we landed.

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September 12th, 2009

Flew into Portland to see the Time-Based Art Festival; working from my hotel room during the day, seeing performances at night. In general I’ve been impressed with the quality of work I’ve seen during my short stay here; some highlights included the remarkable Winnipeg artist Daniel Barrow’s animated piece Everytime I See Your Picture I Cry, in which Barrow manipulates transparencies on an overhead projector while narrating it live, my friend Melody Owen’s wonderfully curated short film series, circles and spinning wheels & if i could crowd all my souls into that mountain (check it out today or tomorrow if you’re in Portland), Ma Qiusha’s short films, one of which was in Melody Owen’s shows, and one which was on view at the The Works, a converted, formerly closed, high school (Washington High School), Stephen Slappe’s installation We Are Legion, Daniel Barrow’s second piece at the TBA, Winnipeg Babysitter, an amazing collection of hilarious, creative, and surprisingly well produced video segments from Winnipeg’s long lost public access cable golden age, I also liked Ireland-based Pan Pan Theatre’s The Crumb Trail, “The Original YouTube Cover Band” Rush N Disco, and HEALTH, an intense LA-based noise/post-punk band, followed by the great Denver-based DJ, Pictureplane. Very few really low spots; probably the thing I least liked was the Portland-based Oregon Painting Society, which had its moments but was rather uneven. Meanwhile, also had a chance to hang out with my friends Nora Robertson, Caroline Paquette, Tiffany Lee Brown, Evonne and Howard from the Tao of Tea days, and Susan Ploetz aka Pashly. Portland’s got a deep well of local talent as well as some really impressive curating; what I’ve seen here is far better than most of the shows I see in New York, including those curated by the Whitney and PS1.

I’ve had a lot of fun on this trip (courtesy the JetBlue All-You-Can-Jet Pass, a promotion which I hope they repeat next year.)

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September 9th, 2009

There are times when you’re making love and the boundaries of the self seem to become porous, and the energy of the other person and your own seems to merge together. It happens spontaneously, without effort; and every time this has happened to me, the other person reported experiencing the same thing, at the same time, even using the same words to describe it (i.e., it felt like energy merging, or I felt your breathing flowing into the interior of my body through our skin and vice-versa, etc.) Magda O told me, however, that she feels this interest in “merging” is somehow reductive, because it assumes that the merging occurs between two separated individuals, whereas actual merging can only happen between someone and the entire universe.

When I’ve experienced this, however, it always seems to be when there’s an element of that larger sense of opening to the universe, as well; that is, both people seem to have to have their sense of a personal boundary weakened, so you become somewhat transparent or porous, to everyone, to the world as well as other people and beings. It seems to be made much more likely when both people are in a mode, so to speak, of relating to the world in this way, i.e., in a way which emphasizes separateness much less.

So I suppose I both agree and disagree with Magda regarding whether thinking about this merging is reductive. I certainly think the usual idea of merging, in terms of trying to encompass or unify with the other as a sort of hysterical romantic ideal involves all sorts of assumptions about individuality, acquisition, separation and unification. But, on the other hand, the fact that the concrete experience of merging can happen spontaneously, mutually, and intensely with someone when both people are already feeling open to the universe, where their sense of a personal boundary is opened up, suggests that this merging can be a side effect of authentic presence, a way of being which has a transpersonal quality beyond just the relation of two individuals.

And while I certainly agree that this merging ultimately has to be about an opening to the whole universe, one cannot discount the specific relatedness of it; I don’t love you only because you’re part of the universe and I love the universe; I also love you in your absolute particularity; not as a separated individual, but including your specific radical presence, right here with me. You’re not just a tiny fragment of the vastness, you are the vastness, right here and now, including me and everything else, but very much paying attention to you as that vastness. And in this merging I do not encompass you, swallow you, but rather we remain radically unknowable to both ourselves and each other, while not being in any fundamental sense, apart.

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September 9th, 2009

Some further comments on “object-oriented philosophy”, based on a personal communication with Nick Srnicek:

Gabriel Catren has come up with a clever argument which Nick Srnicek kindly pointed out to me; it’s summarized pretty well in his article “Can Classical Description of Reality Be Considered Complete?” in which he essentially argues that quantum mechanics is not an incomplete description of reality; for mathematical, aesthetic, and symmetry reasons, one can argue that it is classical mechanics, which specifies both the precise position and momentum (i.e., velocity) of a particle, which is overly specific. While I have objections to the idea of objects, I think Catren’s argument is a clever way to capture what is probably the intuition of most physicists today, and has certainly always been my intuition: that there are no “hidden variables” which allow a particle to take up a definitive position and momentum at any given moment; that the Uncertainty Principle represents a fundamental quality of nature, not a limit to our ability to know underlying reality. In essence, he’s arguing against Einstein more than anything else. If I have any dispute with his argument it’s perhaps his desire to use the word “objective” over and over — I suspect he has a sort of attachment to the idea that physics is discovering “objective” properties of the universe which are driven by mathematical necessity or elegance. I certainly think it’s reasonable to posit that the universe has stable objective properties, but no matter how elegant the math we can’t know for certain that the patterns we have uncovered are that way out of necessity, or that future discoveries won’t replace our current models with radically different ones with completely different terms; though, naturally, those new models wouldn’t completely invalidate the old ones, as typically all paradigms capture some patterns in the world which are beyond the purely subjective with some degree of accuracy, or we wouldn’t adopt them at all.

My objection to “object-oriented philosophy”, however, isn’t an attempt to suggest that reality has no objective structure (even if we can’t know what that structure is for certain). The patterns we’ve uncovered so far do seem not only moderately stable but we may even be able to speculate as to their logical necessity, though not without positing postulates of some kind which themselves can’t be known to be correct for certain. In other words, I don’t doubt there is some non-subjective aspect to the structure of the universe which is reflected to some degree in our models of the world, but this mostly has to do with structures at a very basic, underlying level; a totally different level of organization from the objects that people ordinarily talk about, yet these objects are being considered for ontological status by object-oriented philosophy. What Catren is talking about, and what fundamental physics is about, is at a very different level of organization. Furthermore I believe the measurement problem in QM, which hasn’t been resolved, is another very important factor here (Catren’s argument doesn’t resolve that problem; he’s talking about the uncertainty principle, which is related to the measurement problem but by no means the entirety of it.)

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