Category Archives: Philosophy

Silent Prayer

After writing two books—the first on philosophy, the second a collection of poetry—I see my writing in a new light. I am a better philosopher than a poet, and this is fine because I write always with the spirit of a poet. Blogs, emails, research papers. Even grocery lists.

I’m writing this now because I want to say what I truly am: a reader.

Yesterday my mother and I visited my father’s grave. She brought a book of prayers that bring her comfort. She insisted I read a prayer out loud, and I did because we both needed to hear it.

Afterwards my mother paused and turned to me. “You have always been a great reader, even as a child.” I took her at her word and said a silent prayer. At night I read a little Baudrillard and thought of this blog and the books I have written and the things I still want to say.

Have I ever written a word without reading it to myself first? Am I not my ideal reader?

A great writer is a patient reader who knows when to pause and see the world anew—not as it appears, but how it might have been, or how it will never come to be. A great writer erases him- or herself from the world word by word, offering a different version of events in which he or she has already disappeared, or never arrived.

Socrates, as envisioned by Plato, said philosophy is a preparation for death. Socrates wrote nothing down. He couldn’t see for himself that writing, too, is a preparation for death—that writing about the departed brings us closer to death.

Two interpretations among many: I went to read a prayer in a cemetery, but there was no sign of my father. Or it wasn’t clear I had read a prayer in a cemetery until I blogged about it here. All that remains of my father is a sign.

Until I die I will write, but not before reading every word back to myself—not to ensure clarity, but to suspend meaning, to render the world more enigmatic for those I’ll leave behind.

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Death By A Thousand Eternities

“Without the threat of death there’s no reason to live at all.” –Brian Warner

We are told to exercise, to improve the quality of our lives, to above all be happy. We buy a Fitbit. It counts our steps, checks our vitals, monitors our sleep cycles. Measuring, labeling, categorizing—our Fitbit is as a body sensor and a mind censor. A census-taker of souls.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves: the final goal of science and technology is to exterminate death. It may take forever, but future generations of scientists will risk their lives to get dying under control.

Are we not heading towards a man-made eternity without God? Are we not destined to create a permanent Heaven on Earth that would put to rest all hope of an afterlife?

Thanks to technology we’ve forgotten how to die.

We must resist the consumerist imperative to buy ourselves more time at all costs. Embrace death. Let it come for us, naturally or accidentally, as a devastating act of mercy. A blessing in demise.

To kill death with technological precision—to be forced to live with ourselves forever—this is Hell Unending. Death by a thousand eternities.

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Final Fantasy

On February 23, 2008, close to 200 volunteers flushed, at coordinated intervals, every toilet and urinal at newly built Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., to ensure the pipes could handle the load.

Imagine a moment when everyone in the world with a cellphone sent each other a smiley face emoji at the same time—not to test the limits of all the networks, just for shits and giggles. Put yourself in that micro-second between everyone hitting send in unison and the possibility that no one would remain on the planet afterwards to respond. Are we not right now suspended between the fantasy of synchronized global suicide and its fulfillment via technology?

Humans are all equal before the Law of Communication. We’re compelled to send and receive information—useless information. In fact the more useless, the better. Just do it. Just speak.

Technology actualizes every possibility. If our ultimate wish is to destroy reality, technology will make it happen.

The most efficient way to eliminate reality is to realize every fantasy. Realizing every fantasy, however, destroys the symbolic power of fantasy itself. We’re left with a literal translation of every metaphor, a logical explanation for every random thought. No more latent content to our dreams–every secret must be dragged out of our minds like a false confession and streamed “as is” in real time. Data infestations, digital plagues: such is our new manifest destiny.

The most radical message left for us is to say nothing at all.

Until then imagine a moment when everyone on the planet with a cellphone refused, at the same time, to send a text. Or a moment when everyone on the planet flushed a cellphone down a toilet. Dream up a fantasy so spectacular it threatens to end the world and then, for the sake of fantasy, make sure it never happens.

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So To Speak

I can’t write anymore. I hire an editor. She recommends a therapist.

I arrive at the front desk. I share a recent dream in which I tell a stranger nobody understands what I’m trying to say. The stranger agrees but this resolves nothing.

The receptionist says she’s not a therapist. She will be with me in a moment. I give her my number and a cup of water. She looks thirsty. I’m talking about the receptionist. I am told in no uncertain terms to keep my voice down.

I author a book from front to back in a waiting room. I quit dreaming.

I tell a stranger I’m vulnerable. I don’t recommend announcing this in a dark alley after midnight. Or on a first date if you’re into meeting people. A blog is fine. I’m done with books.

I am vulnerable. I write books nobody reads. Books nobody bothered to write but me. Nobody understands what I’m trying to write. Books aren’t blogs aren’t dreams. I fire my editor. This resolves nothing.

I enter a stranger’s dream and say nobody understands what it’s like to tell people on the internet you’re vulnerable. He’s angry with me. I bite my tongue. He throws his voice.

Books are for dummies.

I buy a book on Amazon. I date a receptionist.

Books are finished.

A stranger tells his therapist in my dream I don’t understand what I’m trying to say. I agree and this resolves everything. I decide to write cryptic blogs to throw off people on the internet.

I fuck my editor in a dark alley. She says I’m a bad writer. Repeat after me. I’m a bad rider.

I take back my book. Every word.

I write down everything I’m trying to say. I quit therapy because I’m too smart for this shit.

I am dumber than a blog post.

Somebody buys my book and it arrives by drone.

I am thirsty. An author waiting for my therapist tells me he can’t write any more.

I ask him to elaborate. This adds words to the universe. Words aren’t people aren’t drones. I see right through the universe. My book drops. Nobody picks it up.

A stranger will see me now. My therapist asks me to elaborate at the same time I ask her to elaborate. She doesn’t get paid to analyze dreams.

I ask my therapist for water. She gives me a voice. I’ve already got her number. So to speak.

She says I am valuable. Repeat after me. I am vulnerable.

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Cynic-In-Chief

Many of us are familiar with the definition of a cynic. Disillusioned by “politics as usual,” cynical Americans don’t trust Washington insiders to work for the common good.

This is not how the Ancient Greeks defined the term. According to Robin Hard, translator of Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes (2012), the word is attributed to a philosopher named Diogenes who lived from approximately 412 to 323 BC. “Cynic” roughly translated means “dog.”

Diogenes gave up his possessions for the life of a beggar to show that true happiness is possible only when humans satisfy their basic needs in simple ways. Material wealth, he argued while shamelessly displaying his half-naked body in public, bankrupts the soul.

The father of the contemporary performance artist, Diogenes strived for the virtuous life, challenging social conventions by shocking citizens out of their stupor. He famously carried a lit lamp through Athens in the middle of the afternoon, looking for (but never finding) a man committed to the truth. In an act of civil disobedience, he walked into the theater as crowds poured out, forging his own path against the herd.

In the final chapter of Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity (2014), Maurizio Lazzarato discusses Michel Foucault’s belief in the revolutionary potential of the original Cynics’ way of life. Foucault valorizes the Ancient Greek principle of parrhesia, or truth-telling. A citizen who stood up in the assembly to speak difficult truths risked his credibility, his very life, in the name of democracy. Cynics risked their lives every day in the streets to save the souls of their misguided brothers and sisters.

What is the status of truth in the era of alternative facts? Conservatives have accused liberals of championing relativism for decades, but when philosophers argue that Truth is socially constructed they aren’t suggesting that nothing is true anymore.

Today a Republican president and his inner circle are flat out lying.

An important story the liberal media refuses to report: Diogenes’ top adviser, Kellyannopoulos of Jersey, spoke to supporters outside the assembly shortly after his death and said that the number of people who attended his funeral was twice the amount of those who mourned the death of Socrates.

“Amazing crowds, tremendous crowds,” she said.

Too bad we don’t have aerial shots—or any shots—of the ceremony.

The Reign of Trump begs for spectacular displays of outrage. I agree with Lazzarato that we need to cultivate new ways of being in the world as economic forces beyond our control condemn more and more global citizens to a sub-human existence.

But how do we overcome cynicism to summon the moral strength of the Cynics? How can we be sure that images of our dissent won’t be co-opted and sold as prepackaged lifestyle choices?

“He will not divide us. He will not divide us.” Actor Shia LaBeouf and his comrades have been chanting this slogan outside the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens since the day Trump took office. They plan to have at least one person repeat the refrain into a webcam all day every day for the next four years. Is this the start of a movement bigger than ourselves? A call to arms for brave truth-tellers to stand up and follow each other on social media?

Will the revolution be live-streamed across all compatible devices?

I admire Lazzarato’s poetic sensibilities, but is romanticizing the archetype of the eccentric street prophet all we have left? Am I entitled only to an esoteric, navel-gazing revolution in my corner of the internet because collective political action is no longer possible? Does holding up clever signs or publishing obscure blogs challenge the constitutionality of Trump’s hastily produced executive orders?

He wasn’t on Facebook but Diogenes had a huge public profile. He’s seen as the first cosmopolitan philosopher, a mystic roaming from city to city in the hustle and bustle of daily life, shouting his worldview at people more interested in Ancient Memes than ethics.

What if Diogenes believed he was really more dog than man?

To “figure out what the hell is going on,” Trump has banned all pagans and pantheists from entering America against the flow of the crowd. Diogenes wasn’t Christian after all.

The president doesn’t really want to be president. He wants to build walls and promote the “bigly-ness” of his brand name. He wants to stir the passions of God-fearing Americans longing for a sense of security that no longer exists. He would rather pout over perceived personal slights than listen to the so-called expertise of five-star generals.

Anointed by the Resentful, Maligned and Dispossessed, the leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the rule of law. He disrespects federal judges on Twitter and insults congressional leaders of his own party (also on Twitter).

Donald J. Trump is the democratically selected winner of the Cynic-in-Chief sweepstakes. Against the common good, he’s the executive seducer of a reality-show circus in which his hubris is the main attraction for a mass of cynics who require more and more spectacle to conceal the truth of their (political) impotence.

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The Weight Of A Thousand Ghosts

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing instead a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Five years later I instructed the cemetery director to add these lines to my father’s headstone:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by”.

I read recently that Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road. Actually, Frost was poking fun at Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, many readers believe Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t imagine a life we didn’t lead—we only know the road we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. He carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts.

Naturally I inherited his nerves. I was hurting so bad after college I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses. But it’s easy, when you think about it, to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There is no magic pill, I’ve learned, no invisible ink for writing goodbye. Once you’re born, you’re in the thick of things. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down. “This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems, stories and songs. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father, recasting his shadows, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. Faith requires both a leap and a precipice.

It’s easy to get lost in the woods.

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The Reversible Straitjacket Of History

Alan W. Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), deconstructs our faith in the power of belief:

Most of us believe in order to feel secure, in order to make our individual lives seem valuable and meaningful. Belief has thus become an attempt to hang on to life, to grasp and keep it for one’s own. But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To “have” running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God. (24)

Watts exposes the profound absurdity of human existence: the pursuit of life gets us nowhere in the end. The wise know there is no security. This is the beginning and end of the proverbial human story.

The grand narrative of modernity centers on the indestructibility of Progress. Mankind is constantly getting smarter and moving faster, onward and upward to bigger and better things. The sky’s a limitation—for now.

Baudrillard challenged self-perpetuating systems of modernity, working hard to destroy them, theoretically, in his polemical prose. A disillusioned postmodern mystic, Baudrillard believed in the power of reversibility. Systems, he said, have the ability to undermine themselves. Computer viruses, for example, circulate in vast networks built for the smooth transmission of critical data. Superbugs continually infect residents of meticulously scrubbed hospital rooms, mocking the germaphobe morality we’ve waged against the natural dirt and stink of the human body.

Baudrillard tells us to celebrate reversibility; when we try to perfect systems, they fight back for our own good. We reclaim what makes us human in the face of out-of-control technically efficient machines. In a blessed moment of poetic resolution, the violence of perfection becomes the perfect violence against our increasingly sophisticated attempts to realize the world in its totality. Reversibility itself is subject to reversal.

History has the uncanny ability to jump over its own shadow. At their peak performance, oppressive economic, political and social systems engineer their own implosion. The most spectacular events of terror set the scene for the one-upmanship of further murderous replies. Clever machines compute themselves into exhaustion, activating the internal suicide switch of their planned obsolescence.

What’s “done” today is free to be undone tomorrow or next year or next century.

A recent example: Billy Bush conducts the “pussy grabbing” interview with Donald Trump in 2005. Hot mic audio of the exchange resurfaces in 2016; Bush’s career is finished within days of the leak. Trump, no matter his place in history, remains a tool.

A new year is upon us as the world rushes headlong into the past. Russia and the United States are engaged in full-blown Cold War mode again. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, if Congressional Republicans get their way, more than twenty million Americans currently covered under Obamacare will lose their benefits.

We’re forever bound in the straitjacket of history, but when we relax and let our minds run, things have a way of turning inside out. One day the poor man will be rich and the rich man poor. We make poetic resolutions every day, not just on New Year’s Eve.

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