August 30, 2006

One Year and a Day


I have now been doing this blog for one year and a day. In the beginning I posted quite contentiously every Monday. However, more recently I have posted only occasionally and quite often not at all. What started as a fun idea has slowly graduated into a confusing chore. More precisely, I have become quite self-conscious about the relative merits of any given post. On several occasions it has been brought to my attention that the general tone of my postings is consderably bleak. Of course, I already knew my writing was bleak but there is something very specific about the process of a blog – the assumption of a diaristic/autobiographical tone, the near-instantaneous distribution into the void, the readership of friends and acquaintances who perhaps read into these musings aspects simply never (or only barely) intended – that makes me aware of this bleakness in a different light. There is a rather famous art work by John Baldessari where he wrote “I will make no more boring art” on a chalk board over and over again, like a student kept late after class, and I suspect I should undergo a similar exercise with the phrase “I will make no more depressing art.” It is this fear of posting something too bleak and dispiriting that most often keeps me from posting: a strangely specific form of self-censorship. (If E.M. Cioran had done the same he might have written nothing.)

In the current issue of Artforum, in an article about the queer collective LTTR written by Julia Bryan-Wilson, the following passage caught my attention: “Lauren Berlant, a professor at the University of Chicago, has recently proposed that negativity and depression could be politically necessary responses to the disenfranchised character of our contemporary age. Yet during an era of real despair, a time marked by hatred of all types of difference, we also need these localized moments of pleasure and unsecured possibility, moments motored not only by passion but also a willingness to fail.” It is the first part of the quote that I originally focused on, that “negativity and depression could be politically necessary responses to the disenfranchised character of our contemporary age.” And yes, as the post-Sept 11th debacle – the ever-sharpening acuity of the proto-fascist, globalized now – continues to increase, my ability to look on the bright side of things (never my strongest suit to begin with) continues to apathetically drain away into not even the image of embers. Yet as I copied this quotation into my blue notebook the second part also seemed strangely relevant, that: “we need […] moments of pleasure and unsecured possibility, moments motored not only by passion but also a willingness to fail.” Passion and a willingness to fail, the connection between them at first seemingly slight but with further consideration it grows stronger. To enter into an endeavor in which success seems likely or guaranteed requires no passion. Only under threat of failure, only under the strictures of such risk, is ones passion required to push through the limitations and break through the fear.

[P.S. For the next year, as a small challenge to myself, I will attempt to post one passionate, engaged, non-depressing text on the first Monday of every month. This proposed year of anti-depressing texts will begin on Monday October 2nd.]


August 14, 2006

Appetite and fear are inextricably connected...


Appetite and fear are inextricably connected; and all creatures are endangered by the fundamental project of meeting their needs. But the human creature meets his needs, in both senses; unlike every other animal. He must meet his needs in order to survive, and over time, he will have to become acquainted, too, with what he will learn to call his needs. And what he will meet, unlike any other animal, is the exorbitance, the hubris of his appetites. Indeed the stories he will be told about his appetite – explicitly in words, and implicitly in the way his appetite is responded to by other people – is that it is, at least potentially, way in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy. He will be told, in short, that he is by nature greedy. He will discover, whether or not this is quite his experience, that he apparently always wants more than he can have; that his appetite, the lifeline that is his nature, that is at once so intimate and so obscure to him, can in the end drive him mad. He may be sane, but his appetite is not. This is what it is to be a human being; to be, at least at the outset, too demanding.

Satisfactions are of course possible but disappointment and disillusionment are unavoidable. At best one can develop a bearable sense of one’s limitations; at worst one is driven mad. Given one’s appetite – given the ways we have inherited of describing it – one becomes realistic, or one lives in the no man’s land of the tantrum and the grudge. To talk about appetite, in other words, is to talk about whatever it is that we have to complain about.

– Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p 101-102

All the new thinking, like all the old thinking, agrees that there is something catastrophic about being a person. The catastrophe is located in various places; in our being born at all, in our being condemned to death; in our vulnerability as organisms, or in our cruel injustices as political animals; in the scarcity of our natural resources, or in our greedy depredation of them; in our Fall, or in our hubris. But all these catastrophes, one way or another, are linked to our appetites, as creatures who want, and who are driven by, what is at once necessary and missing from our lives. Our wants may be ‘constructed’ – given form by the language available in the culture – but that we want is not in doubt. It is whether our wanting has catastrophe built into it - whether our wanting is such that ruinous frustration or ruinous aggression is inevitable; or is indeed a necessity to keep wanting on the go – or whether our wanting is made unbearable only by the ways in which it is responded to, that is now in question. The language of sanity and madness provides a vocabulary for asking and answering questions about appetite.

– Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p 120-121

The sane adult is protective – and not only of children, but of himself and others – in a way that avoids covertly undermining the strengths of those who are apparently in need of protection (‘The friends of the born nurse / Are always getting worse,’ as W.H. Auden wrote). The sane adult assumes that it is possible for people to get pleasure from who they happen to be, and that part of this pleasure is bound up with versions of self-reliance that are not merely a more or less bitter denial of a need for other people. The two most dispiriting forms of modern relationship are the protection racket and the sadomasochistic contract in which, respectively, one person’s strength depends on the other person’s weakness, or one person’s pleasure depends upon the other person’s suffering. The sane person’s project is to find more appealing ways of being weak and strong; or to find alternative pleasures to the pleasures of power and of helplessness. The way most people are prone to see what they call human nature now makes even the thought of alternative forms of pleasure and excitement sound hopelessly naïve. It would be part of the sane person’s sanity to want new forms of pleasure in which neither one’s kindness nor one’s excitement are overly compromised (one emblem of this might be those gay men who experiment in coming without getting an erection). The sane person knows that being able to only be a nice person is the death of sexual excitement; and that being able to only be nasty is too isolating.

– Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p 234-235


August 2, 2006

From such frustrations...


From such frustrations no clear thought will come. Step back, a few steps or a few miles, start slowly, gradually discover the slight, frail moments in which it is possible to pretend it is once again possible to glimpse a few precise aspects as if for the first time. Over time resentments build, one can no longer tell the thing from its distortions. And what's more, the thing slowly becomes the distortions, envelops and integrates them: one big, tangled up, fused together mess. Do not, at first, attempt to untangle. Step back, wait, perhaps over time the taste of a pattern might emerge. And patterns, even imagined ones, so often lend clarity. Step back.