Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Thought On Originality

The central problem of originality in art is as follows: boundaries create baggage, but they also provide definition.

You will not be able to write any coherent piece of any great length without dealing with literary tropes. There are a few ways of doing this, and the two most common appear to be the following:

  1. Playing it straight. You can simply follow the trope as-is.
  2. Inversion. You invert the trope, by beginning with something that looks similar to the trope and then going in the opposite direction.
I think that most good stories have a balance of these two. If you invert every trope, it would be hard to build a coherent narrative, and if you play them all straight, the story will just be cliched and boring. Interestingly, this mirrors the use of consonance and dissonance in music; too much consonance and you get something boring like plainchant, and too much dissonance and you abandon tonality altogether and end up having to create a new paradigm (system of tropes) to replace it, e.g. tone rows. In literature, you can lean toward playing tropes straight, with occasional variation to add interest, or you can lead toward inversion, and end up doing something more avant-garde.

I tend to be more of a traditionalist, taking the Bruce Lee-esque "There are no new ideas" tack. I think that originality comes at the cost of coherence, and coherence comes at the cost of interest. If you wanted to make really original music, you'd have to invent all-new instruments of your own design. Or you could decide that music itself is a cliche and try to invent an entirely new artform.

This leads us to the "central problem" I alluded to in the first paragraph. If you break all the boundaries, you're not doing the same thing anymore, and possibly not even doing anything coherent. And if you break none of the boundaries, you're basically just going through the motions.

I can't propose a single method that can be used to solve this problem. And why would I want to? This problem is arguably, in many ways, the tension that creates art. Navigating this process is part of what makes art so challenging and thus, so rewarding. The artistic process is largely about choosing which precedents to break, and how many.

A New Look, Dream III

A New Look, Dream II
" their lack of judgment they fall prey to shifting emotions that sweep them into the very things they fear; it is because they fear death that they often pray for it... Yet that time they love is short-lived and swift, and it is their own fault that makes it much shorter." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca
After the meeting with my child-self, things fell apart. I found that, if I wasn't careful to stay on task, the world around me became less coherent. I'd given up trying to tell if I was crazy or if reality had just burst at the seems, and I was beginning to wonder if there was any difference between those two. And I found that I was no longer disturbed by it as I had been with the incident with the flash drive.

The next incident occurred when I decided to go to a club for the first time in a few years. I was never that good at dancing but there was something fun about getting a little buzzed and cutting loose that made everything worth it. I was out on the dance floor, looking at all of the people around me. There were kids in their early 20s and some people a little older, and everyone was gussied up. The dance floor was a fever dream of laser lights, pounding techno, $50 Alfani button--downs and pony-tails whipping through the air, choked with perfume, cologne, sweat, and the ever-present smell of booze. Here they all were, mostly upper-middle class college kids, throwing themselves into a frenzy to forget the world before their little four-year vacation ended and the rat race began. Ancient Roman debauchery, oblivious of the news of invading Visigoths in the border provinces. One girl stood alone in the corner, seemingly distracted. She was short and curvy in a black dress and pearl necklace, with heavy makeup and dark eyeliner. She cast a glance my way and smiled. I held her gaze for a moment, and she looked away, distracted again. I'd spoken with her earlier at the bar. She had introduced herself as Kelly. She had just requested a song that was going to come on, by someone named "MC Shiva."

After she smiled at me, she looked up to the speakers in the corners of the ceiling, and that was when the music changed. I noticed that it was no longer techno, but contained dissonant wind instruments that sounded as if they were coming through a blown-out speaker. There was a deep guttural voice, barely audible, chanting beneath it, and the whole ensemble sounded like a cross between old church chants and folk music. A girl sailed past me, and I noticed something a little off. She didn't look too happy. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were bugged out and her eyebrows pointing up toward the center of her forehead is if terrified. It looked like something out of a nightmare. Around me, I noticed that the ecstatic bobbing and popping of ordinary club dancing had changed to a peculiar set of motions, involving leaping and twirling, like medieval dancers. Their faces, too, had changed, from giggling and laughing to the same smile as the girl, half-grimace. Some of them had tears streaming from their eyes, and I thought I heard someone sob. They leapt and danced, and though their mouths did not move, I heard them shouting.
"Stop it! Stop it!"
"Here it comes! No!"
"I can't do this anymore. It's coming!"
"Turn the music up, I can hear it coming!"
They leapt and twirled and screamed and sobbed, dancing and shrieking like banshees. I couldn't take it anymore, not now that I had seen what was really going on, so I turned and walked hurriedly out. I looked over my shoulder, and saw that Kelly, the girl in the black dress, the one who watched and waited, was following me. I left the club, and so did she. And, one by one, the crowd came with her.
I stepped out in the street and my eyes widened. The cars had stopped, and the doors were left open. The drivers and passengers were out dancing in the street, sobbing and laughing hysterically like those in the club. Great throngs of people passed around me, dancing their way down the streets.
"Why?" I said. Then I turned and saw Kelly. She was older, now - not young and voluptuous as she was in the club, but not an old crone, either. She was now taller than I was, thinner than before, and there were little shocks of gray in the black hair around her temples. Her skin had a faint unnatural tint - blue, it was. And when I looked at the pearls on her neck, they looked like little skulls. She shrugged as if my question had been addressed to her.
"The truth hurts." she said. There was a short silence.
"What's happening to me?" I asked. "Am I crazy?"
"You're not crazier than anybody else, I guess," said Kelly. "You aren't losing your mind and secretly sitting in a coma in a hospital somewhere. You're still in control. But you probably should try and pretend that everything is normal, at least while you're in public, or they will lock you up."
I turned back to the street and shook my head. She was right. Reality, as I had known it, had crumbled, but only I could make the choice to hold things together and push through until it came back together. She walked up beside me. I closed my eyes and concentrated, trying to bring the illusion back. When I opened them, everything was normal again, or appeared that way.
"Kelly," I said, looking over to her, "What were you doing in the club?"
She was young again, no longer old or with blueish skin.
"Waiting," she replied. "Eventually, they'll all stop dancing, and then I'll dance on them." She smiled. It was a cold smile, only with her mouth. Her eyes were emotionless.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Are (some) Philosophers So Egocentric?

The cult of genius is strong in contemporary philosophy. When I read a new philosopher whom I have not read before, I often catch myself unconsciously wondering, "Is this philosopher one of the Great Ones?" And it's no mistake that many philosophers have written on the subject of 'genius', although the sense in which the word is used varies widely among the philosophers who write on it. But even though, for example, Schopenhauer's use of the term 'genius' refers to a 'personal quality that can be possessed in varying degrees', and not to 'a really smart person', it is not hard to see that a 'genius' in our contemporary use of the word (a really smart person) would certainly possess the personal quality that Schopenhauer referred to as genius. And this is an example of philosophy's preoccupation with the genius (contemporary sense).

On top of this, if you talk to people who hang out with academics, you may find that among some (though not all) of them, students of philosophy have a certain reputation for being, to use a term of art, arrogant pompous pretentious self-congratulatory narcissistic self-absorbed pricks. You'll see a similar exasperation among historical philosophers themselves; expressions of frustration with philosophy and polemical indictments of the whole discipline are not uncommon. Marx tells us that philosophers spend too much time trying to interpret the world rather than change it; Hobbes wonders aloud if the Scholastic philosophers didn't write their mind-numbingly dense tracts with the intention of driving people insane; Al-Ghazali titles one of his treatises "The Incoherence of the Philosophers"; Kant bemoans metaphysics as a sea strewn with hopeless shipwrecks; Wittgenstein's stated intention in doing philosophy was to put an end to the whole mess; and Hume reminds you to be a man in the midst of all of your philosophizing, because he evidently thinks you need to be reminded to be a man if you like to philosophize. What other discipline is so frustrating, and full of such frustrating people, that spending some time loathing it is a de facto rite of passage for its practitioners?

I have reacted to this, rather predictably, by turning it over in my head endlessly to understand it. I have finally produced a hypothesis: philosophy has a tendency to attract egocentric people because, more than any other, philosophy is the discipline that demands its practitioners spend time locked inside of their own heads. Any discipline that demands you to concentrate all of your attention on things inside of you is going to attract self-absorbed navel gazers, and if you're not like that already, it may even have a tendency to make you that way. One is tempted to pick some low-hanging fruit here and make a disparaging joke about the etiology, as it were, of idealism.

I have a deep-seated suspicion that the trap of never leaving your own head is also what tends to ruin your ability to do philosophy at all, but that's another essay. Suffice to say, Wittgenstein's admonition, "Don't think, look!" is well-taken.

A New Look, Dream II

A New Look, Dream I

Yet trees are not 'trees,' until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech's involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world -
J.R.R. Tolkien

Some years after the incident with the flash drive I found myself in another situation, although I sort of made this one happen on purpose. I had gone to a piercing place downtown to get a tattoo touched up because it had been messed up by a scar. I hadn't been to that place since I got the tattoo a few years back and I didn't know the area well, so I ended up parking a little ways away and walking there. It took me a while to find it.

After the touch up, it was dark out and chilly. I stepped out of the parlor into a crisp November night and barely felt the chill silent breeze brush my skin through my jacket. The stars were few, fogged out by light pollution from the city, and the windows of bars and shops down the street looked like the light glowing from inside of your fridge at night.

I walked for about thirty minutes before I realized I was lost, and had wandered into a not-so-nice part of town. The buildings around me were mostly old warehouses that were either empty or stuffed full of guns and cocaine, and I made it a point to avoid alleys and doorways, giving them a wide birth so nobody with a knife and a drug habit could shake me down for their next fix. I passed one such alley and peered down it. At first it looked like an alley, but then I found myself looking at it as a cave, or a mouth. Then it looked like a doorway, but not the mundane door to your bathroom or a bank. Like an old church, perhaps.

I paused and squinted, peering into the gloom. There, on the side of the alleyway, was a piece of graffiti - the duckrabbit. That's when I first had an inkling that this would be another "incident." I stood for a moment and then shook my head slowly, smiling to myself. Time to grow a set. I walked into the alleyway.

As I walked, it looked more and more like a church. To my surprise, the alleyway turned a corner, and then another. There was no more trash, and I was surprised to find I was walking on... Cobblestones? Yes, cobblestones. Who built this place? I walked further. It took me a couple seconds to notice that something was wrong. I looked up and realized that buildings were much taller than I had thought at first. The height of the buildings made the alleyway darker, blocking out the light pollution and making the stars look much more clear. I continued a little farther, rounded another corner, and then had a Dorothy moment - I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

In front of me were two long rows of pillars, perfectly round and smooth, and at least a hundred feet tall. And there was a bright glow at the end of the rows, a ball of light. I sighed. This was going to be much, much more strange than I had anticipated. Ah, well. If I'm gonna go crazy, I might as well have some fun with it. I walked up to the light. Standing there, right behind it, grinning in its eerie glow, was a child. Specifically, me as a child. I recognized myself from old photos and home videos my dad had made.
"Hey!" he said, looking up and smiling at me. I wasn't frightened as i had been with the flash drive. This time, I was just amused. Being nuts was a lot more fun than I had thought.
"Fancy meeting me here!" he said, laughing. Was he the one doing the fancying, or was - oh.
"Have I lost my marbles, or is this real?" I asked. Child-me shrugged.
"It's as real as anything else I've seen in our life," he replied. "And as to marbles, I think it's good to lose one occasionally. Particularly the ones you got in school and from your coworkers." He giggled, the way kids do when you tickle them. I laughed with him. There was silence for a moment, and I looked at the ball of light.
"So," I said, gesturing toward it, "What is this thing, exactly?"
"That?" he said, looking at it closely, "That's the light we've been seeing by all this time. You decided to meet you here and see it in person together. Look at it so you can see naively."
"Naively?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Naively. Not a duck, not a rabbit, just lines, and then not lines, just raw spirit. Like we did when you were this age. Capische?"
I smiled, looking into the light. I couldn't see to the center of it. The outer layers were faint and shimmering, straining toward the center, and made a faint humming sound like a sigh. Beneath that it was bright, quiet, and cold. Beneath that, there was something I couldn't quite focus on. The core kept moving out of the way whenever I tried to look at it.
"It keeps getting away," I said, "I can't see the center. It keeps -"
"No it doesn't," said child-me, "It's not moving at all. It never moves. You just can't keep your eyes still." He giggled again.
I took his advice and managed to let go of my vision long enough for it to settle. Next thing I knew, I was standing in the center of the light. Or was the light hovering in my chest? I promptly realized that that was a silly question, and laughed, and my surroundings laughed with me. I closed my eyes slowly, or at least, that's what it felt like - I'm not sure, now, who was closing what or whether I had eyes to close. But when I opened them, I saw two more glowing spheres, and realized I'd left my headlights on. It was time to go.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Thoughts On Dying Well

"What do you want to do with your life?" That's one of those cliched and overworked questions that is infuriating because, no matter how cliched and overworked it is, you can't avoid it unless you decide to just give up or if it never occurs to you in the first place. I am accustomed to hearing middle-aged people say that they still haven't figured out what to do with themselves, which is a little bit frightening.

There was a time when I really wanted to create some Earth-shattering work that people would remember me by. I think that a lot of people do when they're younger. There was a time when I thought my life wouldn't be complete until I achieved "greatness." I am embarrassed to say that this continued well into my early 20s, and I say I'm embarrassed because I get the impression that most people get over that nonsense when they're in their mid-teens. Then again, while immaturity is not a good thing, it's also not the worst thing, and being a couple years behind is a trait that becomes less noticeable as you get older and the relevant life-phases get longer.

In my early to mid-20s, I chilled out a little from the previous intensity but also became a little bit confused. If I don't want to create some Earth-shattering work, then what will I do? If grandiose aspirations are the thing that keeps you from doing anything great (and in my case, at least, they were), then what, exactly, would I do? My life is not especially significant among humans, nor is my life the only one, but it's mine, and I have to figure out what to do with it. You have to come to terms with your own insignificance without losing sight of what is important to you personally, and that's a delicate balancing act.

In the past few years, I have slowly come to the realization that the thing that I would find satisfying is dying well. That is to say, when I die, I want to be ready for it. It's the last thing I'll ever do, and the most personally significant event for a person, I am convinced, is that person's death. Of course, I don't have control over when I die, but this just means that I need to get my shit together ASAP. I have to become serene and balanced and what-not, and then I'll be ready to die.

What is really good about this outlook is that it forces everything into place. Because you're planning backwards from a goal, it makes it easier to see which direction you're headed in. I want to eventually retire to some serene little cottage somewhere and pass the rest of my life in meditation, and this is something I've talked about often with other people. The thing is, I can't do that yet. I have come to the conclusion that this little serene hermit existence in a little Hobbit hole in the mountains somewhere is something you have to earn. The Bhagavad-Ghita sums this up beautifully: "For the man who wishes to mature, the yoga of action is the path; for the man already mature, serenity is the path."

So now the big question is, "How do I earn it?" I know that this is a difficult question, but it's a smaller question than "What will I do with my life?", and thus, more manageable.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A New Look, Dream I

"What if something really unheard-of happened? - If I, say, saw houses gradually turning into steam without any obvious cause, it the cattle in the fields stood on their heads and laughed and spoke comprehensible words; if trees gradually changed into men and men into trees. Now, was I right when I said before all these things happened "I know that that's a house" etc., or simply "that's a house" etc.?" - Ludwig Wittgenstein

I never did find out if the message came from a person. Maybe it was computer generated. Maybe it was just a prank and I'm crazy. Or maybe it was a dispatch from a world very different from this one. I never found out, no, and I don't intend to. Not out of fear, at least, not entirely. Mostly out of caution. It just wasn't the kind of thing that someone like me should be messing around with. Maybe it wasn't evil, but it was certainly too weird for me. But I have a feeling I might end up finding out, whether I like it or not.

It was in a thumb drive, one of those little USB sticks you attach to your computer to transfer files around. The thumb drive was in an envelope, plain white with some neat cursive on the front that said, "A gift for you!". And the envelope was in my mail box. I'd gotten off work and decided to check my mail for the first time in a few days. I do all of my bills and stuff online, so I don't really need to check it that often. I felt strangely compelled to.

I walked out of my apartment and into the hallway. The bulb that lit the place was high up on the second floor, at the top of the stairwell, and it didn't always work perfectly. It was dull and flickering a bit, and the apartment hallway was a little dingy anyway, so the whole place looked like a still out of a still from a 70s movie. The mail box was built into the wall, four skinny little metal cases for the four apartments in the building. The floorboards squeaked as I walked up to the mailbox. I squinted a little and opened the box with the mail key, and that's when I found the envelope.

I took it back into my apartment, sat down on the couch, and looked at it. It was marked with my name and address. I turned it over in my hands. It was square, with a little bulge in the middle, and the seal wasn't closed all the way, with a little opening on the right side. I paused. What if somebody was trying to poison me, or send me anthrax, or something like that? Meh. I wasn't anybody important. Who would want me out of the way? I put the key into the edge of the envelope, and slowly dragged it through like a letter-opener to tear it open at the seal. It made a sticky sound as the glue seal broke - it hadn't been sealed very well. I folded it open. The apartment was dead quiet and the sound of the paper crinkling seemed loud, acerbic, almost enough to make me wince. Inside of it was the thumb drive. It was small, green, with a curious symbol scrawled on it in ink and a single compound word on the reverse side, seemingly printed or stamped. I can draw it from memory:
I frowned. I'd seen that picture before - you look at it one way and it looks like a duck, and another way and it looks like a rabbit. Like that transparent cube thing where you can switch the front and back by thinking about it.

A thumb drive? Strange. I didn't want to plug it into my desktop. I'd seen too many stories about thumb drive programs that could snatch important info off of a computer. I didn't need to find out that all of my passwords had been stolen and sent to some crackhead in Mozambique or whatever. I was curious, though, so I got out my old laptop. It was a Linux machine. If this had malware on it, it was probably designed to steal stuff on Windows anyway. I fired up the computer and plugged in the thumb drive, and that's when the screen went blank.

"For fuck's sake," I said, resisting the urge to punch the screen. Who would put a virus like that on a thumb drive and send it to someone? Why would anyone - 

The screen came back on. There was text on it.


There was a button marked "continue" below it. This was weird, and whatever it was might fry my computer. But it was an old laptop, and I was just curious enough to click.

The next screen was a picture of a woman in a wedding dress, smiling, holding a bouquet. There was text above the picture that said, "SEE HER AS INNOCENT. CONCENTRATE, AND INTERNALIZE, THEN CONTINUE." After ten seconds or so, the continue button appeared below the picture again. I clicked it, and the next screen was a picture of the same woman, looking troubled, wearing a prison jumpsuit and standing in front of a concrete wall. The text above said, "SEE HER AS GUILTY. CONCENTRATE, AND INTERNALIZE, THEN CONTINUE." Another ten seconds, another button. The next screen only stayed up for about ten seconds and then automatically switched. It was just text, saying:


The next screen was a picture of the same woman. It was just her face, with a completely neutral expression. The text above her said, "SEE HER AS...." The word, "INNOCENT," popped up on her left, stayed there for a few seconds, and disappeared. Then, the word "GUILTY" popped up on her right, and disappeared in the same way. It kept alternating. I scratched my head, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do, and that's when it happened.

My eyes widened. As bizarre as this whole situation was, I was shocked when I realized that I could see the face before me as a guilty or an innocent person, and switch them, just like the duck and the rabbit.

It went on like that for a while. I was shown a person dressed as a priest and as a Rabbi, and asked to see him as Christian or Jewish. I was shown a crying baby and asked to see it as angry or frightened. I was shown a flower in a wedding bouquet and on a grave. I was asked to see a man as arrogant or humble. It got steadily more abstract; I was shown a circle and asked to the Earth, the Sun, a mouth, and an eye. I was shown a line and asked to see infinite and closure. After a while, the pictures stopped, and the screen went black for a moment. Then the webcam turned on, and I saw my own face displayed on the monitor. More text came up below it.


I looked at my face on the monitor, seeing it as myself. Then I tried the same switch, seeing it as someone else who only looked like me. It was a little eerie, like looking in a mirror and seeing someone else looking back at you.
"Strange, isn't it?" said my voice from the speakers. The person on the webcam grinned at me, the mouth not moving to the words. I screamed and shoved the laptop off of my lap and onto the ground. It snapped shut and hibernated.

I sat there for a moment, staring wide-eyed down at the laptop, breathing heavily and raggedly. I realized that my palms were sweating and my knees were shaking. What the hell was wrong with me? Was I going crazy? Was I dreaming? Was this some kind of cursed flash drive from Hell? I needed to get rid of it.

I reached down and yanked on the flash drive, but it wouldn't come out. The plastic casing came off, exposing the little circuit board inside. I pulled on that, and eventually had to twist it to rip it out, breaking it apart in the process. I finally got the USB connector out of the drive, leaving the thing in three pieces. I stood up with the flash drive in pieces in my hands, looking down at it like it was going to bite me. I didn't want to go outside. I work second shift and it was dark outside and like Hell was I going outside to put it in the dumpster, although I wanted it out of my apartment. Eventually, I just opened the window and tossed it out, then slammed it shut.

I've never been the same since then, and I never found the drive. I guess somebody picked it up, unless I just dreamed that whole incident or made it up or something. I have no idea. But I've never been the same. I can't look at my own feed on a webcam anymore if I'm not talking to someone, and I hate looking in mirrors at night. That stuff creeped me out to begin with, but it's gotten worse, because I've learned to do that thing where you switch your perception. I can look at my own face and see someone else. And then I have to look away, before my reflection grins at me. I don't know if it will, but I'm really scared it will happen.

More than frightening, though, things have just gotten strange. When I take a walk in the park, I look at trees, and sometimes I see them as spirits. They don't look any different, but I look at them differently.

I'd be lying if I said I don't know what's real anymore. Most of the time, I do. But the edges of the world have gotten a little more blurry. Now, when someone talks about bigfoot or miracles or haunted houses or fortune-telling, I don't just filter it out the way I used to. I'm starting to wonder if this world, this reality, contains a lot more than I learned about in school or see on the news.

A New Look, Dream II

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Note On Davidson

People who have spent a decent amount of time studying Anglophone philosophy will, in all likelihood, run across Donald Davidson's work at some point. However, I have noticed a common misunderstanding (or perhaps oversimplification) with regards to his essay, On The Very Nature of a Conceptual Scheme. In that essay, Davidson makes an argument that we can't make sense of the idea of a language so radically different from our own that it can't be translated into our own - or, indeed, of two languages that cannot, even in principle, be translated into one another.

I have noticed a tendency for people who know about this argument to paraphrase it like this: "Basically, Davidson is saying that, if you can't translate another language into your own, then whatever it is that you can't translate just isn't a language. If it has nothing in common with our language, then how is it a language, exactly?" The thing is, this paraphrase is dead wrong. Davidson himself says, in the essay,

It is tempting to take a very short line indeed: nothing, it may be said, could count as evidence that some form of activity could not be interpreted in our language that was not at the same time evidence that that form of activity was not speech behavior...

...Putting matters this way is unsatisfactory, however, for it comes to little more than making translatability into a familiar tongue a criterion of languagehood. As fiat, the thesis lacks the appeal of self-evidence.
The argument that Davidson actually uses is more complex, of course. The core of his argument is that there is no such thing as disagreement without common ground, and we can see this in action by looking at any given case of disagreement. For example, if I say that the cat is on the mat, and you disagree with me, then we only "disagree" inasmuch as we disagree about whether the cat is on the mat, which means that we agree on a number of other things; we both understand the same thing by "cat" and "mat," and we have a common idea about cats being on mats that we can disagree on. This is to say nothing of the peripheral agreements that are not necessary for us to have the conversation but likely to obtain between us, e.g. that we agree that cats exist.

More generally, what do we mean when we say that two things fail to correspond? We mean that there is some way in which they could have corresponded, but failed to. For example, you didn't arrange the flowers in your vase the way I arranged the flowers in mine, but we're both arranging flowers. It makes sense to say that the arrangement of your flowers "disagrees" with the arrangement of mine, but not that the arrangement of your flowers "disagrees" with the arrangement of my rock garden. It is tempting to say that the arrangement of my rock garden does disagree with the arrangement of your flowers; you could say, for example, that my rock garden is arranged in a triangular lattice, while your flowers are arranged in as square grid. But notice that this only makes sense if you abstract out to brute spatial arrangements! In order to find a disagreement (differing spatial arrangement), you had to find something they had in common (spatial arrangement simpliciter). And this is really the crux of Davidson's argument; there can be no disagreement without a more fundamental agreement.