Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Normative Norman & the Centrics

'Yeah, Johnnie,' I said, 'it's a screwed up, bitched up world, and I'm afraid it's going to stay that way. And I'll tell you why. Because no one, almost no one, sees anything wrong with it. They can't see that things are screwed up, so they're not worried about it.'  - Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me

The United States has these key fundamental features: imperialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. - bell hooks

I have been thinking about normativity a lot lately.

What's a normative? If something has ever been criticized as being "____-centric," it's probably a normative. If something is "frowned upon" in conventional society, it has probably challenged a normative. Normativity could be another word simply for "culture." There are of course the normatives -- assumptions in a society about mores, customs, law, beliefs, etc -- based on what group of people hold a majority and thus can impose by force on minorities; and normatives, such as the 1% of the US holding 90% of the wealth, that come from an elite minority but which influence and control the majority. There are the normatives that, like the bell hooks quote above, social justice movements and educators have called into question: patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism (sort of*), imperialism, etc.

These are fine and dandy, but there are more, sometimes more subtle, normatives, that I've identified in American culture (and in some cases beyond):

  • Christianity 
  • Baby Boomerism (including hippy- and neo-hippyism)
  • Pronatalism
  • Facebook (often the only way to access programs or apps is to be on Facebook first)
  • Consumerism/materialism
  • Work/labor
  • Diversity
  • Green/environmental/greenwash
  • Positivity/smiling/upbeat attitude
  • Voting/civic engagement
  • Perseverance/overcoming obstacles (rugged individualism) 
I would argue that all of these create a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt bias in our society that few people seem to ever question. 

In a bit more detail, some of the points: 

Xtianity: The US's First Amendment of course provides protection for a myriad of different belief systems. But there is a strong undercurrent of people who equate the US with Xtianity (and, often, also whiteness), and sometimes it's more subtle: a person I know from a state in the Bible Belt is uncomfortable with St. Peter's Cross, even though, like turning a map upside down and looking at it from a different view, one could argue that Christian churches' crosses, being right side up, are upside down. Anti-Christians are a minority, but, to them, the cross that's right side up is upside down. Xtian churches have become a norm, even though the US is growing increasingly spiritually diverse, science-minded, and even atheistic and agnostic. And even though a minority of people exist who are anti-Christian (and not just pimply teens rebelling, but thinkers such as Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell, Sammy Davis, Jr, et al). 

Baby Boomerism: There are of course some, even many, cool BBs, and they are all individuals. I think the best thing about the BBs is (was) their inclination to free-range parent, which has largely and sadly disappeared in today's generation of parents. But the criticisms of the BBs (see link) ring true, and because of their sheer numbers, this Baby-Boomer-centrism has largely shaped society, creating normatives.

Pronatalism: I'm reading philosopher David Benatar's book on antinatalism, Better Never to Have Been, and it's tough to argue against. But it's far easier to produce a human life than it is to get a driver's license, business license, college degree, etc. Society obviously values the continuance of the species and makes it easy for people to do so (just have sex!), even despite deformations, mutations, overpopulation, etc.  

Voting: anarchist thinker/lawyer Bob Black has made some downright excellent points about democracy (in his Debunking Democracy) and voting (in the essay "Electing Not to Vote") that most people, sadly, don't know about, have never heard of, and might just go to their graves without thinking about. 

Perseverance: Wataru Tsurumi, a Japanese author who penned a controversial suicide how-to manual, has shown a similar compassion as David Benatar in noting the "hardness of living" and that not everyone is meant to be a Teddy Roosevelt, rugged individual, can-do spirit overcomer of obstacles.  

But here's how it works: if you go against a normative, expect resistance and punishment. It takes awhile to change a norm. But society is in flux and norms are constantly shifting. As much as I sometimes find norm-questioners on the Left worthy of their many appearances as targets of ridicule and criticism on South Park, I do admire that at least people are thinking and questioning. That's the important part. 

* We are seeing right now, with the 2016 presidential election, a strong split on the Left between corporate Democrats and progressives, the latter of which are far more prone to question capitalism as a normative. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Ego Disintegration

I had always liked William Basinski's beautiful Disintegration Loop "dlp 1.1." It's cool that he recorded some music in 1982 and many years later tried to play it and record it for digital transfer, but the magnetic tape it was recorded on was decaying. As the loop went on, the tape disintegrated further, altering the music itself.

I had never listened to the whole song, which runs about an hour (this may seem tortuously repetitive, since the piece of music is a short loop, but it's pretty fascinating how the song changes over the course of the hour). I had always found the melody hauntingly beautiful and profoundly sad, and it reminded me of someone special. Thus it was hard to listen to, for me.

The other day I listened all the way through, and heard how the song decays more and more, slowing down, creating gaps and space, like an animal slowly and gracefully dying. By the song's end there is almost more space than music. What starts out energetically enough loses steam over the course of the song, like an old-fashioned machine that has a slow wind-down/turn off time.

And I thought about Buddhism and meditation, how -- depending on what school of meditation you follow -- in meditation there is an opening of space, a noticing of the gaps, however small or subtle, between thoughts, the gap at the end of the in and out breath, the space that, if we learn to not get caught up in the stickiness of thought, bodily sensation, and emotion (for this is all our consciousness is really composed of), there is a vast space, calm, gentle, a kind of void that everything emerges from and decays back into. I have heard it described as a "gone." You can notice it after a sound ends or at the end of someone who's speaking's sentence. If you get skilled enough, you can notice it as the emptiness or nothingness from which thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations are born out of, "smelling fresh of the void," as I heard meditation coach Michael Taft once beautifully describe it. It's the kind of still, quiet emptiness that people fill up with "um"s, foot-tapping and nervous energy, and idle chatter.

But it's hard, especially in today's world, with so much distractiveness, sensory stimulation and overload, and information, to notice this stillness and vastness. Our own thoughts, body sensations, and emotions give us plenty to occupy our minds, to over-occupy our minds. We talk to ourselves, we caught get up in narratives (our own, others'), we daydream, we remember, strategize for the future, and move around at times like zombies in the present moment. In meditation, and those that are really "good" at meditation can apply this to non-meditative moments, too: we come back to the present moment, back to the breath, and we focus on the space between thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves. I've heard it described as focusing on the paper a book is composed of rather than the words in the book, or looking at the sky behind the clouds or weather.* Despite the changing nature of emotion, thought, and what's going on with the body, there is something there that is foundational to everything and does not change, and (ironically) this something is nothingness, emptiness, calm, gently smiling (as I've experienced it), void. Not a scary void, but a neutral one, an okay one. It's the place, vast, empty, and open, that all experiences of consciousness seem to arise out of and disintegrate back into, a kind of homeostasis.

Basinski's song really illustrates this, to me, as it starts off looping and pretty and full of little sounds, but gradually more and more space opens up. It's a perfect soundtrack or musical interpretation of meditation itself. It's Buddhism in a nutshell: we go from sensation, mental busy-ness, emotional surfing, to a place that is calmer, quieter, and more neutral, via the central practice of Buddhism, simple meditation.**

* See Storms Can't Hurt the Sky by Gabriel Cohen.

** There are of course different types of meditation, and one can notice a very different exprience doing a guided meditation versus a Zen-style zazen. But I think despite how one meditates, there is something unifying about the different schools and styles, and that is that meditation, like Basinski's song: opens up space, disrupts our mental narrative, brings us into the present moment, and shows the fundamental egolessness or emptiness of everything. (I am not saying ego doesn't exist, I am saying it's created.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dog(me) Island

There are some strange connections and coincidences in this world. One of my favorite films, The King is Alive, was the fourth Dogme film, an interesting story that centers around a disparate group of American and European travelers in rural Namibia whose bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Adhering to the Dogme 95 rules, it takes an absurd turn when one of the travelers gets the idea, as the group faces in-fighting (and sexual tensions), starvation, and the elements, to stage a production of a Shakespeare play, King Lear -- for no audience except the sand dunes (and one lone Namibian native). The play director recalls the play's dialogue from memory. It is a quite bleak but fascinating film that shows both the resilient goodness of humans, and their darkest sides. 

I stumbled upon some info about Gilligan's Island while Web-exploring one day. In its third season, episode four (from 1966), "The Producer," a film producer somehow washes up on the island, and decides to mount a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet with the island cast. The parallels to The King is Alive should be obvious: a group of stranded and desperate-to-be-rescued people acting in a Shakespeare play. Gilligan's Island couldn't be further from a Dogme experience, but I can't help wonder if King's director, Kristian Levring, was somehow influenced by this episode. 

Maybe the next step is to make a Dogme film in which a group of disaster-facing people mount a production of a Gilligan's Island episode from memory.