[This text was originally published in Fiktion: Concentration.]
All profound distraction opens certain doors. You have to allow yourself to be distracted when you are unable to concentrate. —Julio Cortázar
If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all. —John Cage
I don’t think I know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I think I’m doing. I stare at these two sentences. I know they each have a distinctly different meaning but for a long moment can’t intuit which means which, or which one I mean. Either way, I don’t know what I’m doing and haven’t for a very long time. This ‘not-knowing’ is something I tell myself I believe in, and might be reformulated as a fairly specific kind of concentration. I even find myself searching for a ‘more real’ not-knowing, while at the same time experiencing anxiety that I’ve accidentally fallen into a false one: that I do actually know what I’m doing, only pretending I don’t in service of some half-articulated ideal of how an artist should or shouldn’t proceed.
Directly next to any not-knowing I perform or attempt to conjure while creating work, there is another, perhaps more honest, not-knowing that keeps me awake at night, and that, more often than not, makes me almost unbearably sad. This awake-at-night not-knowing has something to do with all the injustice and suffering in the world. Why don’t we simply just know how to reduce it, fight it, undermine it? This must be pure naiveté on my part, but I cannot believe it would be so impossible or so difficult. Yet apparently it is all that and more. I can think about these problems endlessly, read about them endlessly, turn them over and over in my mind, and get virtually nowhere, back around in circles to things I already know and seem so obvious that there was little need to give them any thought in the first place.
So what I now find myself wondering is: what is the connection between these two aspects of my not-knowing? Between not-knowing as a longing for artistic breakthrough, as desire to leave behind both acknowledged and unacknowledged habits, and not-knowing as not knowing how to save or even slightly improve the world?
When I write I often listen to hip-hop. On a line by line basis, I have to admit that my comprehension of what they’re getting at in any given track is, to say the least, somewhat limited. Some things are of course clear, others I’ve listened to hundreds of times and remain, for me, in the realm of multiple possible meanings. As a writer, at least I think it’s because I’m a writer, when I listen to music I focus on the lyrics. So listening to hip-hop while writing is often a distraction that almost completely prevents me from actually writing, focusing on lyrics I’m perpetually unable to fully decipher instead of on the blank screen in front of me I’m supposed to be filling with words. My solution is to turn down the volume until the track is barely a murmur. This hip-hop murmur pulses in the background as I type and somehow gives me a feeling that somewhere in the world there is an energy greater than the dull silence in the room that surrounds me.
My computer is full of hip-hop that I mainly listen to on shuffle. Often when a track comes on that seems too sexist or homophobic I simply delete it. I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but I’m nervous about sexism and homophobia seeping into my subconscious through tracks I listen to sometimes hundreds of times. It might be stating the obvious to say that this hip-hop also exists as an artistic otherness, completely removed from anything I immediately identify as part of my daily life or experience. Many tracks speak of socioeconomic experiences I haven’t had: life-threatening poverty or almost comically conspicuous wealth (or both at the same time.) I also listen to a lot of hip-hop that has nothing to do with either of these things yet the modality of the language itself is mostly enough to separate me from relating it to my own experiences too directly. (It just occurred to me that I delete tracks that are too sexist or homophobic, but don’t delete tracks that are too capitalist, which might be equally important.)
When I ask myself why I like hip-hop so much there is one aspect to the pleasure that is fairly straightforward. I am a writer with a certain faculty for language. In many ways my writing is performative; it asks to be spoken aloud. However, even mediocre hip-hop displays a virtuosity of spoken language that I could never approach or aspire to. It is simply something I can’t do. The pleasure I get from it might be analogous to the pleasure I assume others get from watching sports, seeing someone do something that you could never possibly do that well yourself.
I remember something I said in a recent interview and go looking for it in my computer. When I find it I’m disappointed; it doesn’t quite say what I had hoped. What it does say is: “I’m searching for breakthroughs, if one is still allowed to think in such romantic terms. At the given juncture of any breakthrough one momentarily feels there is no precedent. It is only later that one might see how everything fits (or doesn’t fit) into various histories and narratives.” This feeling, this momentary feeling that there’s no precedent, must in another sense be a kind of concentration, almost tunnel vision. A radical openness combined with an equally intense focus on a few key aspects of a current endeavour. Do artists still want to have breakthroughs? Do people? Is it something we can still imagine having at every stage of our life, right until the end, or is it only for the young?
Thinking about the many ways my love of hip-hop is problematic, I begin to think about Descartes as one of the foundations for white Western thought. How he decided to sit in front of that fireplace and simply concentrate on the core philosophical problem, get rid of all distractions, all assumptions, and begin again. Descartes wanted to know, to get to the truth of the matter, while when I concentrate on a given artistic question I claim to want to not-know. But either way, isn’t there something a bit anaemic about this idea of what it means to concentrate—to block out distractions and focus—when another word for distractions might be life: other people, the sensual world that surrounds us.
My thinking takes places in dialogue with so many things, texts and people, and yet I most often feel I’m working in almost complete isolation. I regularly complain about this isolation but now also wonder if it is a sort of Cartesian ideal that I claim not to want but perhaps actually do. What does it mean to actually want something you claim not to want? I know relatively little about Descartes but he is an unquestioned stand-in for something in the daily habits of my thought. He is a stand-in for a mode of scientific thinking that focuses on certain questions at the expense of everything else. To give a cartoon example: that focuses on how to get the oil out of the earth as efficiently as possible at the expense of all the repercussions involved in doing so. This also has something to do with a desire for certainty, often connected to domination of things and/or people. Within a certain theoretical framework, much of this has also become, over time, a cliché.
I’ve made 20516 posts on Tumblr but only two have gone viral. The first was from a Rwandan speaking as part of the Moth podcast ‘Notes on an Exorcism’:
We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgement of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.The second was from Walter Benjamin:
Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.In the space between these two quotations lies almost the entirety of the problem.
In 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh, the then newly elected president of Iran, was overthrown in a CIA-sponsored coup . His crime was his desire to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. I often wonder what that part of the world would look like today if he had successfully managed to build a working socialist-democratic precedent in the region. When I lie awake at night, more and more often it is history that fills my thoughts: Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Republic of Congo, Salvador Allende in Chile. There is another moment I often think of: shortly after Mussolini was elected he apparently managed to either kill or jail almost every single card-carrying member of the Italian communist party.
When you start reading the history of the left, stories like these pile up one atop of another. (As I’m writing this I chance upon a New York Times piece about Operation Condor: six South American military dictatorships meeting in 1976 to “concoct a secret plan to eliminate their left-wing opponents.”) It is stories like these that form the background for Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative.” The more I read the clearer this background becomes: over the course of the twentieth century, all attempted alternatives have been systematically undermined using money, propaganda, dirty tricks and, whenever necessary, extreme violence.
Of course, we can’t change the past, things that are done cannot be undone. But how to effectively think possibilities for the present and future while at the same time keeping this history at the front of one’s mind? How to actually feel the fact that the world we currently live in didn’t just happen, that battles were fought, won and lost, and in so many ways we are living the desired outcome of the victors. Through posing these questions, I am attempting to walk myself towards activism. In most of what I have witnessed, single-issue activism has the greatest chance of success. But I always fear this is little more than blocking out larger realities in favour of short term gains. Is it possible to have a genuine overview and still effectively fight? This fight might resemble the familiar slogan: think globally, act locally. In this sense I can always get behind the hope of setting a precedent: success in one context can create a sense of possibility elsewhere—a sense that there is, in fact, an alternative.
If I concentrate my energies on the specific activist battle at hand, it does not necessarily mean I am ignoring the global history that has brought us to this point. But I do feel there is something painful, almost enervating, in attempting to focus on both levels of reality at the same time, both on the devastations of history and on possible gains in the present moment. So many battles have already been lost that the playing field feels almost nihilistically askew.
There is a most-likely apocryphal story I’ve seen mentioned in various forms over the years. In it, there was a secret meeting of all the major record labels at which they decided to work together to promote gangsta rap, to make gangsta rap the dominant form in hip-hop. Whether or not this meeting actually took place, any hip-hop fan can’t help but notice that the lyrical content of early hip-hop was considerably more varied, often more sunny, and generally more political than it is today . When one form dominates, other perspectives fall by the wayside. Even if marginalized, however , they never completely disappear. When concentrating on the things directly in front of us, our peripheral vision remains rife with every possibility not currently pursued. The peripheral might be seen as a distraction or it might, perhaps as effectively, be seen as our only chance for discovery.