Friday, April 07, 2017

A Manifesto, dedicated to Fernando Pessoa

Your style is a straitjacket.

You've figured out what you think is beautiful, and what kind of work you're committed to, and what kind of character you have as an artist, and this is your protective stance as you present yourself to the world. Every time you give the public a new artifact, a new piece of yourself, you put yourself at their mercy... and yet, you've shut out so many others. Because by choosing your style, you've excluded all other styles, and those exclusions have become part of your identity.

Your identity is built on an unstable affirmative and a rigid infinity of negatives.

I don't have a style. Each new work looks for a style, and they don't find it in me, and so they struggle. So my exclusions are washed away, and my potential fills the infinite space that my pretensions have vacated.

. . . . .

Your popularity is a poison.

You know the taste of validation, of feedback and response and appreciation. It's a sweet acidity that penetrates every level of your praxis. It softens your commitment and puts cracks in your sovereignty, and once it's in there, it can't be washed out.

You may embrace it. You may say you "do it for the fans," that your followers are "the most important thing to you." Some people love the things that are killing them.

I have no fans. I've learned the long asceticism of failure, and it keeps my creative organs pure. If I love any of my own output, I know that it has a 100% approval rating, that the only person in the world who cares about it is enamored of it. Hate follows the same path.

. . . . .

Your productiveness is a failure mode.

You know how to turn an idea into a product. You have a pipeline, a process, a series of technical steps that lead you to something complete, that you're happy with, that you can show the world. You've dug away the soft loam of unfinished projects.

But that vast incompleteness was you at your most fertile, your most robust. When you finish a work, you strip away all its beautiful indecision, its vastness, the unfulfilled potential that gives it those cosmic roots. Each signature and sale is a cord of wood, and your range is notably short of trees.

I don't finish projects, and they remain seeds and saplings in the primeval woodland of my imagination. I may produce artifacts, little bundles to burn as kindling or desiccated limbs shaped into walking sticks, but this only happens when the work has already died. And so I leave my best work to the wild, nascent, leafy, unrealized, hopeful and beautifully hopeless.

. . . . .

"And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes."

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dads and Daughters and Dozing Off

John Crowley wrote about Sleep more perfectly than I could ever hope to rival, so I’ll use his words (culled from his novel Little, Big) as padding between my mutterings.
“But life is wakings-up, all unexpected, all surprising. On a certain November afternoon, twelve years ago, from a certain nap (why that day? Why that nap?) she had awakened from sleeping: eyes-closed, blankets-up-to-chin, pillow-sleep Sophie awakened, or had been awakened, for good.”
Little, Big pg. 254
Sleep is every sentience’s fellow-traveler, and so, naturally, we’ve all cultivated very personal relationships with her.

For some, it’s affection, even to self-indulgence: a full embrace of the co-dependence, a love that won’t be ashamed when it dozes off at a dinner party or starts its day at twilight.

For others, it’s more of a disciplined respect. Sleep is a solid partner, a trusted support, and neglecting her is unwise. She has time slots and minimum commitments. We can’t make this work without her.

For me, and others like me (though I don’t hear from us very often), it’s another thing entirely. Where others have affection and codependence, we have resentment. Where others have respect, we have defiance. When she lurks in our bedrooms, we try to ignore her, or step outside. If we could cut ties with her, we would do it at a moment. As it is, we are stuck with her.

We are the Citizens Against Slumber, the odd hour keepers, the midnight oil burners. We know Sleeping is a Sucker’s Game, and we only play it because biology bullies us into it.
“You still up?” she said, and at the same moment he asked the same of her.
“It’s awful,” she said, coming in. She wore a long white nightgown which gave her even more the air of an unlaid ghost. “Tossing and turning. Do you know that feeling? As though your mind’s asleep but your body’s awake—and won’t give in—and has to keep jumping from one position to another…”
“Awful.” He felt, but would never admit to, a sense of fitness that Sophie, long the champion sleeper, had come in recent years to be a fair insomniac, and knew now even better than Smoky, a chancy sleeper at the best of times, the pursuit of fleeing oblivion. 
Little, Big pg 289

What makes sleep so interesting, for me, is how it unhitches my consciousness from continuity.

What is my brain doing, that it has to forget where I am, how old I am, and what’s happened in my life since high school? How does sleep, for a few hours each night, manage to persuade my consciousness to let go of those anchors and drift off into this oneiric ocean?

You’ve seen that moment on-screen… most recently in The Night Of, for instance, but also in The Hangover: where am I? What happened last night? Cinema is the best medium to simulate the sudden break, the jump cut, and the resulting scramble for context. Editing is the art of (dis)continuity.

It happens so fast, too. One serviceable definition of “dozing off” is losing continuity without really losing time: blinking stupidly in your driver’s seat, having to remember why you’re at this light, why you’re on this road, and panicking for a moment, checking to ensure your foot is still on the brake.

This example is especially salient for me, because on a few occasions, I’ve stupidly dozed off while driving. I never hurt myself, or anyone else — dents in cars, maybe, and some calls from insurance companies — but it significantly heightened my awareness of my own mortality. I seem to have outgrown the danger, but I still wonder about those occasions and their counterfactual universe where I veered off the road, collided with the end of a guardrail, or crumpled into the space between a semi’s front and back tires.

It didn’t take many incidents to really amplify this anxiety, and it’s been with me ever since. I don’t grow out of it. I generally trust myself behind a wheel now, but I still don’t really trust myself to sleep.

How does this manifest? It happens when I’m sitting in my car in the driveway, listening to the end of a song before I head inside. It’s warm, and I’m not in a rush, so of course my consciousness drifts a little bit.

I should know I’m safe, shouldn’t I? Isn’t that why I’m so relaxed in the first place?

But when I come out of that doze… when my eyes snap open and my ears recognize the same song, still playing… it’s always accompanied by a moment of panic, feeling like I’ve fallen asleep at the wheel, expecting to see a car’s headlights as it collides with my little Nissan.

That’s one of the little offenses that Sleep has for me. I don’t blame her — it’s self-inflicted — just a little prick of karmic retaliation for my tendency to fight her, belittle her, act like I don’t need her.

She also likes to interrupt Netflix movies, and sometimes she smothers me on train rides, or when I’m trying to write essays.
“Now, child,” she said. “What was it you learned from the bears?”
“Sleep,” Lilac said, looking doubtful.
“Sleep, indeed,” said Mrs. Underhill. “Now…”
“I don’t want to sleep,” Lilac said. “Please.”
“Well, how do you know till you’ve tried it? The bears were comfortable enough.” 
Little, Big pg 268
Sleep has a stronger hand to play, now that I’m getting older. She visits me with more regularity — the end of work, the last hour on the edge of normal-person bedtime — and she usually wins.

I remember, with bitter nostalgia, my time as the dominant party in this rivalry.

From my teens until my late twenties, I was assertive with sleep, stern in guarding my boundaries. In a week, I could get by on 30 hours of sleep… several short, productive nights, followed by a low-key “catch up” night, and then back into the fray. I don’t know whether it affected my life expectancy, but it gave me a feeling of control over my time, and I got a lot of writing and gaming and movie-watching and exploring done.

I have a kid now… a toddler, a fucking dream come true of a little girl… and I’ve lost a lot of leverage in these negotiations with Sleep. Even when the little one’s not waking up for comfort in the scarce morning hours, she gets up at 6:30 AM — always, like a milk-crazy alarm clock — so I can’t have those short Saturdays and Sundays any more, where I lose a whole half-day to the blissful, achy shame of daytime slumber.

You know how parents always seem to have these uptight, early-bedtime, high maintenance sleep habits? Well, there’s a reason for that: having a child changes your whole economy of time and energy. It’s such a humbling, such a paradigm shift, it’s hard to imagine it could possibly be worth it, unless you’ve actually had the experience (where you suddenly realize it’s “worth” pretty much anything).

She looks so peaceful in her crib, and she’s so happy when she’s sleeping well, it’s easy to forget that Sleep and I haven’t resolved our antagonism. It’s up to me to mediate that Daughter/Sleep relationship, after all… creating a “good relationship” with Sleep, i.e. creating good sleep habits, is a imperative parenting role.

But I need to remind myself: Sleep isn’t always a friend. We foster these good sleep habits so the little girl has an opportunity to be on good terms with Sleep, so Sleep is ready to help us take care of her. But we are not here to force it on her. And seeing her and admiring her peaceful breathing when she’s asleep? That “Ah, she’s so perfect” moment? That’s for my own satisfaction, not purely for her well-being.

The girl might love Sleep, like her mommy. That would be fine with me. But she also might fight with it, resent it, keep her distance from it. She deserves that chance, too.

So I’m not going to surrender to Sleep. I’m not going to bow down, promise her my Witching Hours in return for comfort and consistency. I will keep resisting her, at my own discretion, until the day when she wins that final battle and my eyes close forever. I think, after this lifetime of short nights, I’ll be able to appreciate that restful eternity even more.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Defense Against the Dark Clouds

A post shared by Jesse Miksic (@miksimum) on

It's hard to think about anything except politics these days.

I'm not the first to notice this. It's a known issue, especially within the media-elite bubble of anxiety and outrage. Checking Twitter and Google News and WhatTheFuckJustHappened... these things eat up more of my cognitive real estate than I ever thought I could spare for something so unproductive.

There are other effects, though. One of the most pronounced: I've felt pressured, nigh compelled, to question my creative priorities. I've suddenly grown skeptical of my more fanciful pursuits, like writing fiction (a long-term project) and experimenting in visual art. This is a time for serious reflection and education, right? ... a time when I need to be sharp and intelligible and writing powerful polemics that contribute to the political discourse? No cool drawings or notes on character backgrounds these days! My country needs me to write thinkpieces!

This might be depressing as hell, except for the fact that, the more I think about it, the more I sense that those pursuits of the imagination are not only necessary... they may be more important for than ever, at least for my own ego-integrity. They may, in fact, be one of my only defenses against the dark clouds of the zeitgeist.

I've read a lot of think pieces lately. A LOT. I've never been so responsive to targeted pitches from Medium authors, and I'd never spent so much time reading The Guardian. I have my list (still very short) of essays that really struck me... like this one on Trump as disjunctive president, and this one on Identity-Affirming Society... but even with these nuggets of insight, I have to say, the perennial reading of think pieces has gone well beyond "processing," drifted down through "treading water," and is now turning into genuine masochistic navel-gazing.

The problem is, after a certain amount of ineffectual explaining, I start to sense the emptiness at the heart of this endeavor. Analyzing, investigating, diagnosing... it's always been therapeutic, but it's becoming clear that the syndrome isn't progressing.

I'm quite confident that this is because of the intentional, deeply entrenched ambiguity that's become a tactical framework of the current regime. It's so full of paradox and dissembly, so contemptuous of earnest representation and transparency, that it makes a plaything of the rational instinct. It invites those deconstructions, and then renders them useless, because its leverage is not reasonable or persuasive or principled.

On one hand, as Katherine Cross argues in the essay linked above, it's crucial that we (writers in their writing, and readers in our understanding) remain precise and rigorous about language, so we don't cede the discourse to the irrational forces. However, equally important: we can't be locked into a state of crisis by the regime's linguistic slippage. Even as we maintain our standards, we also have to wrestle with those ambiguities in an endless, infinite-game kind of way. Reality will never entirely submit to reason.

That's where I have to let go of the essayist instinct, and return to art and fiction. These are the sites where I can truly wrestle with ambiguity... where I can diffuse the reality in an image with a spontaneous splash of the formal, or where I can write a character to perform those paradoxical processes of dissolution and reconstruction. There is nothing more satisfying (at least to me) than crafting something that only makes sense in that special, non-verbal language that it constructs for itself.

I am not saying that my art, or anybody's art, will save the country or the world from Trumpism, or from drone strikes, or from structural racism.

What I am saying is that we are all going to need something... some way of thinking or seeing or surrendering... that lets us confront the irrationality bubbling under the surface of the Real. I see it as a sort of hardiness, a personal integrity -- a quality that outlasts the present absurdity, and makes room for the permanent paradoxes -- that's cultivated privately, intimately. In my case, it has to be through these creative gestures.

This is, after all, a monster that can't be debated down, or harassed and vandalized out of existence... it has to be survived, appropriated, and integrated into whatever fortress we eventually build on the debris of the present.

Friday, January 06, 2017

An Aesthetics of Aspect (on Medium)

Today, a sort of philosophy/media theory post on the CREATOR-CONSUMER-CRITIC triad, which I'm calling the Aspect Aesthetic. It provides a quick summary of the big picture, with the triadic diagram to map out the poles and paths, and then it goes into a deeper discussion of the CONSUMER role, touching on fandom, worldbuilding, and the joys of inhabiting a work of art.

Post can be found here:
An Aesthetics of Aspect

Monday, January 02, 2017

Bubble Universes (Welcome to 2017)

First of all, to head off any elevated expectations: this post is mostly about movies. The title sounds broad and philosophical, partly because I'm trying to stretch my frame a little, but movies are where this idea started, and I doubt it's going to wander too far from that starting point.

On New Year's Eve, I did what a lot of people do, aside from watching the ball drop: I caught a couple on-demand movies. In my case, these were The Witch (2015, but really 2016 as far as public release) and The Lobster (2016). These choices were entirely arbitrary, no more thematic than "oh, I remember wanting to see that one!"... and yet, in retrospect (where so many things become more orderly), I feel like they were pretty perfect for closing out 2016 and moving into a new solar cycle.

There's been a lot of talk, of course, about how rough 2016 was, and 2017 is a frontier under such a dark cloud... it's not really a pleasant transition, even if change is welcome. It kind of puts into relief that angst that comes with every New Year... the feeling that under all the celebration, all the rhetoric about renewal, the truth is that it's exactly the same world, just tagged as the next iteration.

But a couple movies like The Witch and The Lobster helped with that transition, it turned out... and not just in a way that every other movie would help (which is distraction and spectacle, mostly). These helped because they did something unique among movies: they created self-contained little bubble universes, and these gave me the stepping stones I needed to move between two troubled years and really feel that threshold.

The Witch creates its bubble universe out of vivid sensory detail and historical specificity. Beyond the incessant use of "thee" and "thou," the world was relentless and textured and -- probably my favorite word for it -- grimy. Full of grime. After William and Katherine leave their Puritan plantation, they are caught in, essentially, a tiny world of two settings: the homestead, and the forest.

The immersion on display here isn't just stylistic or aesthetic. Director Robert Eggers (by his own admission, here) was trying to place his audience in an authentically Puritan frame of mind. This means a gawking fascination with sin and perversion, a manic-depressive relationship with Christianity, and a belief in Satan and witchcraft in their most literal forms. Eggers is trying to rip us out of our modernity and instill in us the fear of a wild, corrupted abyss populated by malevolent forces.

The Lobster does something similar in the abstract, but in almost the opposite way. It also creates a small, self-contained universe ("city," "woods," and a hotel make up the whole world). However, instead of a jarring injection of detail and history, it fashions this world out of the familiar and the taken-for-granted, reconstructed in absurd and unexpected ways. The City has the feeling of Washington, DC (at least that's the closest analog from my own experience), and the hotel feels like any mid-priced Hilton convention center hosting a huge conference.

This world is structured metaphorically, emphasizing the absurdity of the familiar. The Lobster's bubble universe alienates us from everyday life, floating up above and letting us look back on social psychology and romantic conventions as they might appear to an alien anthropologist.

The longer I sit and stare at these films side by side, the more parallels I see. They're both about a breakdown at the margins of an overly-structured society... they're both about exiles, creating rituals in defiance of the rituals that initially excluded them. They're both about the terror and anxiety instilled by the demands of conventional thinking, whether it's consensus or superstition.

All that aside, I'll go back to the title. It was this little skipping action, this move between bubble universes, that's helping me make sense of the New Year transition. In every practical sense, the new world is the same as the old one... I just stepped out of it for a couple movies. But in another sense, we're moving into a reality with a new framework... a whole new set of rules are coming into play.

These new global rules include an escalating authoritarian trend, sudden fractious instability in international consensus (both political and economic), and a step back from reasoned discourse, idealism, and accountability. So in this sense, the "bubble universe" concept might not be such a bad tool: a focus-shifted lens for seeing 2017 as radically, qualitatively different.

In honor of this effect, I'd like to reflect for a moment: what other films have this sort of feeling, that they're taking place in a tightly-constrained reality whose rules are alien and temporarily absolute?

I'll note, and set aside, those horror and science-fiction films that make this a point of premise... The Cube, Snowpiercer, THX 1138, Alien, The Village. Even The Shining is a little more explicit than I'm talking about. I'm trying to come up with movies that tease a larger reality, but then compress it, to wring every drop of significance out of the setting.

Hitchcock tended to do this... The Birds is such a film, I think, since it takes place in an island village, isolated from the outside world.

Rules of the Game has this sense, as well (it's been quite a while since I've seen it).

There must be others... Gilliam? Haneke? Anderson? ... BUELLER?

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Pendulum

Published a piece on Medium called The Pendulum, about the shift from despair to tentative hope while I ponder all the catastrophic implications of the Trump presidency. I also mention the Thai Blind Orchestra. Both of these things came to me in an NPR report this morning, on a drive to take care of some errands.

The Pendulum on Medium:
The future does not look bright. In fact, in some moments, like driving down the road listening to these NPR reports, it looks frankly terrifying. My head constructs something that looks like Flint in the middle of its water crisis, and NYC and Detroit at the height of urban decay, and the Rust Belt and Appalachia at their most desolate, featuring lone-wolf terrorists in prominent roles, both Middle Eastern and radicalized American. I think this is what they call “catastrophizing”… or just “hysteria,” if you want to spare a syllable. 
At these times, I tell myself that I just have to protect my family and seek high ground. Civil society has always been build on the bedrock of a hostile wilderness, after all… will that world, where we have to fight for survival, finally start peeking through? When is it ethical for a non-violent leftist to buy a gun? Is a coming apocalypse the right time to rethink that principle?
At this point, it was not a pleasant drive.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Trump and The Spectacle

Wrote a thing on Medium. Sounds very Guy Debord/Critical Theory, but don't worry, there's nothing particularly rigorous about it. It's just one more moment of me thinking I've "figured it out" because I just had a new thought that seems to have overturned a few previous thoughts at once.

A selection:
The hardest part about reconciling with the present moment — not submitting to it, of course, but finding the right way to exist in relation to it — is going to be resisting the spectacle of it all. We are all, even unto the most cynical and steady, vulnerable to the distraction that comes from bearing witness. Our own need to gaze awestruck upon the bigness of history, and the bigness of our own imperfection, is going to leave us dazzled.
Find it here: The Spectacle