Characterization

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A: Characterize yourself in two words.

B: Hm. No.

A: Perhaps in three words.

B: I think not.

A: One word?

B: No.

*

I wake at dawn, unable to sleep for the discomfort, the mental fatigue, the sunshine bright at the windows—too bright. Anxiety digs into me, burrows, multiplies, dies again. What’s the point? I wonder. The wife and daughter sleep. I do not speak but move slowly, cautiously, downstairs to the kitchen for water, then onto the couch to read the newspaper. My scent lingers about me like bad perfume. What have I become? I think. Again, I do not speak. The world inside me quakes. I am alone.

*

A: Do you seek to feel normal?

B: No.

A: Do you seek attention?

B: No.

A: What do you seek?

B: Freedom.

*

I write in the notebook by the light of a candle, the flame quaking above and beyond the page. The phone alerts and disturbs my mental trajectory. I have grown to hate the phone, my forced attachment to it, the dull, conformed wretch I become each time I reach to gaze at its screen. The screen glass reflects an external world rather than the authentic, co-opted, internal world.

*

A: Are you prepared to submit?

B: No.

A: Are you prepared to be forced to submit?

B: …

A: Are you prepared to be forced to submit?

B: …

the worm

Open your eyes, says a voice.

Close-up of an insect, dead and brown, appendages curled and blackened.

I can’t, I whisper.

The lens pans slowly from the insect, one object of many in a gutter.

My mouth is full of worms.

The lens slides left to a patch of dead grass, yellowed and dry.

My mouth is full of worms! I say, drooling onto the pillow.

To the left of the grass: an old toy firetruck, broken, faded by the seasons.

A worm says: Follow the dead insect’s trajectory backward in time.

The lens returns to the dead insect, fixates on it.

Zoom in on the insect! says the worm, its voice an expanding drain.

And your ceaseless inquiries will be the end of you.

Fragrant cardboard, rotten food.

Zoom in until we enter the insect! says the worm.

No, I think.

Zoom in until we become the insect! says the worm.

The lens spirals toward, then onto the insect, gaining speed, catapulting into the insect—

Fear arms the heart, engages the lungs—

I wake—

Chills crisscross sweat like dew on my skin.

Your connection to this world will never be severed.

Open your eyes, says a voice.

Notes from Jan-Werner Müller

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From Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016.

*

Populism arises with the introduction of liberal democracy; it is its shadow.[1]

Populism is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—narrative of people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. In addition to being anti-elitist, populists are always anti-pluralist: populists claim that they and only they represent the people. There can be no populism without someone speaking in the name of the people as a whole.[2]

A core claim of populism is that only some of the people are really the people.[3]

Principled, moralized anti-pluralism and the reliance on a non-institutionalized notion of “the people” also helps explain why populists so frequently oppose the “morally correct” outcome of a vote to the actual empirical results of an election, especially when the latter was not in their favor. […] Convention itself is rigged. In short, the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. Even if the institutions look properly democratic, there must be something happening behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.[4]

Populists always want to cut out the middle man and rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true for wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of “mediating,” which is exactly what they are supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.[5]

While populist parties do indeed protest against elites, this does not mean that populism in government is contradictory. Many populist victors continue to behave like victims … polarizing and preparing the people for nothing less than what is conjured up as a kind of apocalyptic confrontation. They seek to moralize political conflict as much as possible. There is never a dearth of enemies, and these are always nothing less than enemies of the people as a whole.[6]

It is with the rise of the Tea Party and Donald Trump’s rise in 2015-2016 that populism has become of major importance in American politics. Clearly, anger has played a role, but anger by itself is not much of an explanation of anything. The reasons for that anger have something to do with a sense that the country is changing culturally in ways deeply objectionable to a certain percentage of American citizens. There is the increasing influence of social-sexual liberal values in which white Protestants (the “real people”) have less and less purchase on social reality.[7]

Populists should be criticized for what they are—a real danger to democracy. But that does not mean one should not engage them in political debate. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the problems they raise seriously without accepting the ways in which they frame these problems.[8]


[1] 20

[2] 19-20

[3] 21

[4] 31-32

[5] 35

[6] 42

[7] 91

[8] 103

Deconstructionist pt. V

 

 

 

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The wall opposite the hearth pulses light, my head and shoulders cut sharply in shadow. I am a man, former architect. Everything else is mystery. Warmth from the fire marches over me, into me. I stare into it, captivated by its light and color, its disorder. In the next room a harsh rectangle of silver light is etched into the wall. I rise and walk toward it. The glass is cold and fogged. Beyond are white-capped trees and snowy rooftops, glinting particles of light. Bookcases dominate the wall opposite the window and I stand before them as if naked before strangers. They know me but I don’t know them. I don’t even know myself; the books are supposed to remind me. I take down a large, handsome volume: Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect. I open to a random page by the light of the window and begin reading.

Page 161: Throughout his life as an architect, Wright attempted to relate the spaces and forms of his designs to the structures and materials with which they were made. Wright believed this was essential if his buildings were to be edifying for those who inhabited them: aedificare, the ancient word for building, means both to edify (instruct) and to build (construct) with an ethical intention. Wright engaged in a constant search for a comprehensive order that would encompass both composition and construction, an order similar to the fusion of structure, material, form, and space that he found in his studies of nature.

I remember nothing of my career, my creations. Reality is dreamlike. Events and situations unfold then wash away entirely. A warm breath on the window fogs it. Nearby a radio plays a man’s voice. Twenty-eight degrees, he says. The book is filled with large photos and I admire them. I am often angered by the memory loss, saddened, fatigued, but fortified by the notion that I might uncover the hidden jewel to unlock everything. The answers are buried inside me, inside the books.

Page 87 – As we have seen, Wright’s public buildings invariably focus on introspective, top-lit central spaces, protected by solid walls that deny eye-level views outwards. Introverted at ground level with their closed exteriors and open centers, these buildings are vertically oriented, opening up and out, directed towards the sky.

Trankworth—I remember the name but nothing else. I built it. Perhaps it was a success. It does not matter. It’s a ghost that haunts. Surrounded by ghosts, I am also a ghost. I stopped writing when days passed after adding nothing to the pages. Nothing to recall into print. I often smile but not in moments like this, by the window with a book, nor at the hearth, watching the flames. The souls of the ancients remain alive in the flames, and to flames I shall also go.

Page 63: With his statements, and more importantly with his own design works of this period (c.1908), Wright sought to reclaim ancient architecture for those who would examine it analytically, searching for the underlying principles that shaped it; to accomplish this he could not allow ancient architecture to be claimed and defined by those merely seeking models for copying.

A man’s legacy is his contribution to history. His history is what he leaves behind. The world of light beyond the window seems an abstraction. So much history. I once moved through that world a claimant. The weight of the world belongs to each inhabitant. I don’t remember why I built but there was a purpose. The man on the radio says, probably a good day to stay inside

Page 225: Approaching [Taliesin West] through the desert, we first see it silhouetted against the low mountains immediately behind, its materials and colors drawn from the material site itself, and its broken, serrated profile intended to merge with the desert.

The window is cold, my legs are tired from standing. I return the book to the shelf. My arms sigh in relief. I revisit the hearth and poke the logs. I know how to do this. I watch the fire and merge with it. Silence and stillness weave a path and time escapes me.

The wall opposite the hearth pulses with light, my head and shoulders cut sharply in shadow. I am a man, former architect. All else is mystery. Warmth from the fire marches over me, into me. I stare into it, captivated by its light and color, its disorder. I am tired. In the next room a harsh rectangle of gray light is etched into the wall. I rise and walk toward it. The glass is cold and fogged. Beyond are white-capped trees and snowy rooftops, glinting particles of light. Bookcases dominate the wall opposite the window and I stand before them as if naked before strangers. They know me but I don’t know them. I don’t even know myself; the books are supposed to remind me. I take down a small, neat volume: The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard. I open to a random page by the light of the window and begin reading.

Page 43: There is nothing like silence to suggest a sense of unlimited space. Sounds lend color to space, and confer a sort of sound body upon it. But absence of sound leaves it quite pure and, in the silence, we are seized with the sensation of something vast and deep and boundless.

I know silence. I know it in spaces and in myself. I am a house, my life is a home that has been rearranged beyond comprehension. A light burns eternal in its attic-a sole occupant there hard at work. Papers and debris scatter the floor endlessly. The worker is confused and loses time. He loses focus. Again he is lost.

Page 15: The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream. Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there. The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone, furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone could succeed in achieving completely.

Beyond the window men and women move about the world with their memories intact, accessible. Perhaps they take their memories for granted. I don’t remember if I did or not. Perhaps Bachelard can tell me, or one of the others. Shapes and angles, those were my life. Principles, ideals, realism—and their invaluable synthesis. Now what is my life? The enduring change of the seasons, the endearing breath of night. Absence populates most everything. Biology is my only schedule.

Page 41: Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons. Not only does it confer age upon our memories, taking us back to a remote past but, on snowy days, the house too is old. It is as though living in the past of centuries gone by.

The window is cold and my back is tired. I return the book to the shelf, my elbows sigh in relief. I revisit the hearth and carefully add a log. I know how to do this. I watch the fire and merge with it. Time escapes me.

 

Works
Bachelard, Gaston, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1958.
McCarter, Robert, Frank Lloyd Wright, Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1997.

 

 

 

Zero K: The Master Speaketh

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Every time another Don DeLillo novel is published I wonder if it will be his last. He is 79 this year, the author of 16 masterful novels, three plays, and a story collection. I eased into his latest novel Zero K with the master’s age in mind, reading gingerly at first, cautious; it pains me to imagine DeLillo’s mighty pen reduced by the erosion of age. But soon I’m reading at that familiar tempo that lives in his novels, a pulse of language that carries the reader through, slowly, returning over almost every sentence to examine the breadth and beauty of them.

Just as the pulse of language runs through each novel, there’s also a feeling, an ethos of paranoia, intelligent detachment, but also something unique to each work. White Noise makes us afraid and self-aware, Great Jones Street isolates us. We are particles adrift in the great expanse of Underworld. All DeLillo’s works carry an electric hum, Kubrickian overtones, post-modern antiseptic, and the desperate search for perfection. Zero K is no different. What makes it unique among DeLillo’s works is its ability to pull humanity from inhuman subjects and abstract space. It’s largely a novel about science, or cryogenics, in particular. From the book jacket:

Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body. 

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?” 

These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.” 

Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.” 

But as with all DeLillo’s novels, it’s about so much more. It might not be his final novel but it is one of his best. DeLillo masterfully weaves readers through themes of suspension (physical and metaphysical), re-immersion, immortality, and our growing dependence on technology. But there’s also something soft at work here, burrowing, delicate as human flesh. There is love and grief and human sacrifice. The novel cuts but kisses our wounds. And I’ll probably not forget it for months.

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“Bite the serpent’s head off!- so it cried out of me; my horror, my hatred, my loathing, my pity, all my good and bad with one voice out of me.” – Nietzsche, Zarathustra

*

Today’s video games are hyperrealist and meticulously designed cinematic experiences. The first-person shooter (FPS) is the second-most popular video game genre[1] among gamers, and FPS games possess some of the most profound examples of hyperrealism. The violence in these games is astounding. One of the gentlest people I know freely heaps bullets onto her virtual enemies as often as her personal schedule allows. A woman who wouldn’t hurt a fly in non-virtual reality eagerly awaits loading her latest game to dissolve her enemies with an impossible array of virtual gunfire. It’s fun, this recklessness. It’s also morbid. I eagerly seize the control, wondering why I enjoy playing these games or watching others play them. What instinctive horror does this virtual violence satisfy?

[1] https://www.statista.com/chart/3599/americas-favorite-video-game-genres/

Ourselves

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…as we proceed across fenced-in ghetto landscapes and through urban and suburban war zones infested with drugs and weapons designed to infiltrate homes like cockroaches; as we proceed through flooded wastelands comprised of failure—failure of the community, of elected officials, failures of mothers and fathers—a tangled mess of failed systems with THIS PLACE (and places like it) as the webbed epicenter; as we proceed through blighted examples of failed capitalism, failed cold-war policy, failed environmental and social policies, and failed educational infrastructures; as we proceed through desolate, insignificant prairies reserved for shattered generations of people, through packed penitentiaries full of history’s patsies; as we proceed we must look closely lest we overlook the mirrors of time, for EVERYWHERE we find ourselves.