Another Note on Smartphones

<this was written in response to a student who wrote disparagingly of the obsession that we have with buying technology, like smartphones>

You note that it is kind of ridiculous that we buy so many things that we can conceive of not having, i.e. smartphones, computers, etc. But isn’t it the case that our lives would be significantly (at least relative to our contemporaries) more difficult if we didn’t have those technologies? Here’s an example: the other day, my wife’s car broke down, and she asked me to come from campus to help her. I missed the bus, and then discovered on the next bus that my transit account was empty. This meant that it was going to take a really long time to get up to where she was, and so I decided to get a car instead.

The only problem is, I don’t have a smartphone, and so I was at a disadvantage in at least two ways. First, because our access to money has migrated to more digital media (more credit cards, online banking, banking through phone apps, etc.) rather than cash, I am not accustomed to carrying bills to pay for buses, nor can I transfer money to my account through my smartphone (because I don’t have one). Second, I couldn’t get an uber or a lyft. Rather, I had to rely on a more dated mode of transportation: the cab. The only problem is, there are less cab drivers now than previously (this is also the case with bus lines in Chicago) because uber and lyft have overwhelmed the market. So, I am put at a disadvantage, relative to the rest of the (smartphone toting) population, because of this lack of technology. Both social and living conditions shift with technological innovations. I am thus less well adapted to the structure of contemporary transportation than others who have smartphones, and thus have a harder time getting around than them.

Now, of course, I’m not going to die because of my lack of a smartphone (We could conceive of a future where the only way to get in contact with a doctor or the police is via smartphone, but this is probably unlikely). Nevertheless, because we live in an affluent society, our immediate concerns never really are ones of survival, but rather of fitness to social and cultural fulfillment. To go back to my example, not being able to take a cab up to my family meant that I reasonably could have (had I had a smartphone and the Uber app), but failed to do so.

This might seem to be a trivial example (it is), but it points to the fact that we can find cases where transportation is made more difficult in more serious circumstances. If, for example, you have to become registered to vote by attaining a state issued ID, or have to travel a distance to vote at all, and transportation is more difficult to get because of whatever reason (poverty, immobility, lack of technology, etc.), then you are going to be less likely to get your ID, and be less likely to vote/participate in the democratic process. Or, if you do not have access to certain medical technologies, then you may be at a higher risk of harm than those who do. This is because diseases and viruses are evolving rapidly as we create ever more complex technology (medicine, etc.) to combat them. “Superbugs” and other artificially weaponized natural agents are a threat even to those who do have access to current technology, and therefore much more so to those without it.

While I definitely agree that we should think more critically about our reliance on technology, I think we should also acknowledge that the problem perhaps lies not in those who have or use advanced technology (by accusing them of frivolous spending), but rather in the way that we have let these technologies insinuate themselves into our everyday lives and make themselves necessary.

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3quarksdaily: The Pollinators of Technology

Here’s a link to (and preview of) something I wrote about Technology, Ecology, and Vital Materialism.

“When the capacities of smartphones—with their highly evolved ability to convey shared experiences with a vast network of (strongly needed) social relations and render us highly visible—mixed with those of the other non-human elements (such as adrenaline and alcohol) on the evening of the championship, the imperative was clear: “pics or it didn’t happen.” In other words, bring your phone to take a video, take a picture, or stream the event, or else “nothing will have taken place except, perhaps, a constellation.” Photos prove to the subject that they participated in significant moments, and to their viewers that the moment was lit, and that they should have been there.”

Source: 3quarksdaily: The Pollinators of Technology

spoons

spoons

that’s how we laid there
in the park
on those days the autumnal vestiges of some other year
leached into our summer

savoring the copper tasting sun
filtered through the branches

where squirrels and starlings wild and nomadic
howled like men at how near we came

and the homely way that trees fork
in cervical contortions at the crown

now the trash cans at the beach
are full of beer cans
and whiskey bottles

it’s mid october

the heart is cumbersome
pushing up against my sacrum

your mother’s belly is full of you
has been for a lifetime

so much i forget
the way we forget the sound of passing airplanes
the booming overtones of their engines
in a wavering decrescendo
over the city

the strange immensity of it

i said to a friend last week
that you come in waves

psychic contractions as the months
crawl
on

some specter of each person you can be
carving out a place here beneath the stars

and when you’re born that’s what you’ll be
a specter with a narrow face
living into a wrinkled body
nothing more than what you’ll be
though all the world’s potency lies curled up
beneath your breastplate like
a coiled spring

the way you are now
huddled in your mother
huddled next to me
the way we lay there in the park

shame/repulsion

<this was originally published as part of an online art gallery organized by my friend Alyssa Arney>

Shame

“I did that,” says my memory. “I could not have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually-the memory yields. – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 68

This man is called ashamed. He covers himself up. Skem, an old word meaning “to cover” in the language of those whose tongues and voice boxes have rot out so thoroughly that they make up the dust that hangs in our offices and lays still on our eyes, stinging out tears. This man, covered up, ashamed, his fingers interlaced across the back of his skull. The skull that covers over the brain the seat of all the thoughts and prayers he had before the act. The act itself, covered over by the bone and brain and fingers interlaced as a yarmulke holding god at bay. This act (whatever it is) being the spectre of the body, the virtual made manifest of the infinite fold and connexion of the cerveau. The act itself, then, also a cover, laying over the mystery of consciousness like a film on dark milk.

These layers — the act, the body crouched over in response, the fingers covering the skull, the skull covering over the brain, the brain holding in its folds and covering the ineradicable kosmos raging within me. These layers all a form of shame, skem, covering that about which we’ll be ignorant. That bit which rational elucidation lets slip whenever it takes hold. That bit which is the font of indecision and uncertainty. That part we call the soul [the christians were always wrong] The soul, the ungraspable, unfathomable mystery, is not a source of assuredness, but looks more like a fissure for a faultline. Toss in a stone, you hear it sing as it tumbles down, but you never hear it end. It becomes an echo chamber with four parts. A symphony. A Heart. This is what we have come to cover over.

Heaping up stones and osseous metacarpal materials makes for a good bridge, an observatory ledge to make the deep a spectacle. It does not do away with it. This man will do anything to escape the act, the fear that inspired it. What he fears now is his stammering over its disconnexion to the good. The drooling repetition as he circles back over his arguments that make less sense as he makes them, these KOANS in reverse.

HE tries to explain why he did it, why it happened, to find some ground upon which to stand and turn his face — now downturned — upward to his associations of angels. For now, he hides covered beneath his act, his brain, his skull, his fingers. He cannot look them in the eyes. He wants to explain, but his foot slips into the fault line and down he falls,

down he keeps falling.

This man’s body hands him no key to securing his life, nor the actions contained therein. It seems solid enough, but the mystery is that it will fall apart, and he can hang no argument upon it. The covers he lays down reach up to the heavens as he tries to drive back (re-pellere) this uncertainty. Shame, ultimately, is an inner repulsion, a repulsion away from oneself, for better or worse.

 

Interlude:

[The eye: the fact of being seen. One cannot be seen except by one we can imagine can accuse. We cannot imagine one can accuse unless we find in them the agency to do what we can do. We cannot imagine one can accuse without knowing that we can accuse ourselves. The eye is the throne of this power, among others.]

[The fingers: the virtue of holding. Holding is dialectical, insofar as the hands would have no purpose unless the world was full of things which hold themselves forward to be held, or let alone. This means dishes, toys, a child, a pen, necks, skulls, the hips. That we find the world so ready made for our letting alone or holding is miraculous, and utterly without meaning.]

 

Repulsion

“Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be” – Julia Kristeva, The Powers of Horror, p. 10

This man turns away from the abject. His neck is nearly rent with the turning, the pulling away, the seeking greener pastures. The abject moves life the way that a gadfly moves a ruminating heifer. This man is content with the simple pleasure of continuing, when he can; he is not partial to the rueful, pain, the woeful, and moves away from them, when he must. So now his fingers are upflung like stars in the gloaming, and he hopes his thin skeleton is enough to move the abject away from him forever.

The abject is, by definition, not a thing to which this man is acclimated, and he is totally unprepared for it. No one could have seen it coming. They did, but only in the recesses of their minds. How could this have happened? This repugnant, repellent, repulsive thing? He is not prepared for it, because of its abjectness, its unbearableness. If he had seen it coming, it would not have been a joke, but a thing more real than life itself. But he did not see it coming. It hid like fish among the rocks, starting and lowing in predation. It is this unpredictability, this ductile anchor riding chaos, which is the heart of its abjectness, its essential repulsiveness.

The light that glints off the abject through his backstretched hand, resentfully settling in his backturned eye, is an image of dysbiosis, which is both the destruction of life and is motor. The sur-prise — a “taking over” — of the abject is the moment when life can perish or adapt. When he man casts his eye through the cracks in his fingers at the repulsive thing beside him, the abject appears as the end of life. The termination and the telos, the cessation and completion. The image of the abject, then, is a better picture of life than the man had known before: a self-moving cow, a gadfly seeking itself behind a veil of dying. The repulsive thing causing movement, being the movement of life, because it manifests a field of wildness which is as destructive as it is productive. Life, in evolving, is a turning away from stasis in the search of stasis. This is what Hegel sought in his Logic, the creative negativity and contradiction in the essence of reality, the image of the repulsive as the motor of creation.

This relation is amoral, perhaps even premoral. Everything about the repulsive, the abject, occurs in a sphere of premorality. The man has preemptively rejected the abject, before conscience [for good or ill] can stay his upturned hand and curl back his fingers and change them from a warning to a supplication and offer. To turn the hand from a palm that pushes and repels, to a palm that rides in on donkeys, this is a moral turn. The man turns his digits down and they hover for a moment between a fist and a handshake, a hammer and a tear. Everything about this moment shudders. The moment when he realizes that repulsion is an outer shame: a shame either at having been so callous, or a shame at the state of the world that he had been building, and to which he is now reacting, always too late.

Restaurant Pitch

<the following is an ‘intuition pump’ that is intended to induce thought about the time that goes into what we eat>

RESTAURANT NAME: kronos

MENU: a nearly infinite list of extraordinary dishes, from simple salads to 400 year old quahogs grown in the north atlantic.

RESERVATIONS: made in accordance with the dish you order.

RESERVATION PROCESS: when you order a dish at KRONOS, we will set a reservation for a date in the future that is comparable to the time it takes to grow the constitutive ingredients from the ground up.

SAMPLE ORDERS:

simple salad with salt: book 80 days in advance, as it takes 5-7 days to dry salt and 75-80 days to grow a full bodies head of romaine.

southern fried tofu with asparagus and mashed potatoes: book about 100 days in advance, as we must grow the soybeans, then process them into tofu, all the while growing the wheat needed to make the flour that coats the tofu, etc.

beef tenderloin: book about 1100 days in advance, as we encourage our cows to grow to full maturity before butchering.

kimchi bowl with soy sauce and rice: while rice is fast growing, book this meal for about 5000 days in advance to allow the kimchi and soy sauce to properly age.

wine: dependent on your style, we ask you to book anywhere from 3000 (for Pinot Noirs) to 6750 (for cabernets) days in advance. grape vines take at least three years to become viable, and to produce a proper vintage, the wine requires anywhere from five to fifteen years to age.

whiskey: for our finest whiskeys, book 10,000 days in advance.

quahog chowder: book 146,000 (or 400 years) in advance, to allow the clams to grow to full maturity and flavor in the north atlantic. great for connecting with great-great-great-great-grandchildren!

landscape

landscape

 

we’ll say        that in the landscape       that is all the time that humanity has been on earth     and in all the places        during all those times that is the history of all the nations        and every solitary man and woman as well         there lopes through the crags of that landscape a run of genius        like a vein of molten rock that branches off        like the vascular and lymphic and pulmonary ramuses of the body        into every hide of human activity

 

we’ll say        that silence is a field at night        beneath the moon        the wind is something we don’t quite get yet        and the gibbous figure overhead is like a symbol of you        how does the day come to such a place        it seems inconceivable        and still        the wind is blowing

 

we’ll say        that on the lake at dawn        when the runners are sweating it out           and the smell of bodies still clings        from night sweats        and sex        we smell it as they go by        we smell it on ourselves        as a kind of horror and sublimity        dancing on the waves        there beckons and suggest we bathe        even when it is winter        and you are that dancer        with bent back toes        and arching spine        that juts out into flesh that is  where solitude is never        absence

 

we’ll say        that in the stretch of there        between mackinaw and flint        we’ll find ourselves one day        even if it seems unlikely         because the city is too crowded        and we feel compress upon our chest        every time we make footfall

On Loafing

<This essay originally appeared at 3QuarksDaily, where I have a monthly column>

Between the trailhead and where we stood, my son and I, there was a vast expanse of time and a very small amount of space. I’d carried him, with the dog’s leash on one wrist, from the parking lot, up through a small thicket of brambles to where an old railroad must have run, past the bridge, and steeply down the hill to the flat banks of the river where the path began. Here, thirty feet down from where the rest of the landscape lay, the water, in moments of heavy flooding, would rise up and wash out all the foliage on which we were now standing, leaving fertile silt behind as if in repentance. This periodic effect might have been part of the reason that this flat of land beside the water was so open and uncrowded by the thick of trees that dominated the landscape at higher grounds. With the land so leveled by the water’s irregular rising, and the foliage thin and unobtrusive, it was the perfect place to explore.
I had set my son, River, down on the cleared out space upon which we were supposed to walk and went ahead in an attempt to coax him more quickly down the trail. I half wanted to wear him out so that he’d take a good nap, but I also had hoped that by letting him walk on his own, he’d at least try to keep up so that we could do together what I love doing so much alone: walking through the woods. Of course, the same thing happened that always happens when I take him along on a walk without carrying him. That is, we ended up spending a significant amount of time milling around while he explored and pointed at things I didn’t immediately see.
In this particular instance, we spent about fifteen minutes near the trailhead. I had our Malinois’ leash in my hand, and a diaper bag strapped across my back, walking along the ground where other walkers feet had beat a path. I went back and forth, slowly, and sought a goad to move River along the water’s edge, against the current that was moving lazily in the cold, snowless and rainless drought of January. I could see where we’d “started” our walk, could get back there in a moment if I wanted, and couldn’t shake the feeling that we were wasting our time. Our goal, I thought, was to get as far into the woods as we could, in the shortest amount of time. Moving quickly away from the parking lot, the Sunday afternoon volunteers clearing out Buckthorn growth, the dogs that hikers let wander through the preserve at their discretion, all of this was, to me, a necessary precondition for taking a satisfying and fulfilling walk.
Of course, writing about it now, this seems like a ridiculous goal. Not only the vague ideal of somehow getting away from society and hiking into the woods for a communion with nature, but more practically, the unrealistic goal of doing so at the pace of a fifteen month old toddler. If you have ever tried walking with a small child, you’ll know what I mean. With a kid so young, you have two options. Either you admit defeat and pick them up, carrying them down the trail, or you let them do their own thing, and end up habituating yourself to their unique engagement with temporality and space.
The former option is entirely legitimate, of course. Going for a walk seems to mean, after all, moving along and not just staying in one place. But why do we want this out of a walk in the first place? Isn’t it because a walk forces us to engage thoroughly with our environment? Isn’t part of the reason we find walking therapeutic that this particular act affords us the capacity to remove ourselves from what we ought to be doing — i.e. working, making progress, generating value, etc. — and instead just enjoy the feeling of our body in a world? If this is what constitutes a “good walk,” then isn’t milling about in the first fifteen feet of a trail an exceptionally good example of a “good walk?”
After all, what is a better way to get to know the immediate environment than to move slowly and without purpose over a small amount of dirt for an extended period of time? Walking over a small patch of land day in and day out is how the agriculturist learns to work her land more knowingly. Perhaps the same thing was at work here. I’ve been writing about the different words we use to describe the ways we walk for a while now, and for a long time I thought that the one attribute that gave them a family resemblance was that they described moving from one point to another. These walks with River, though, give me reason to pause. We are clearly “on a walk,” but not really going anywhere. We’re moving around in space, deliberately, by means of our legs, but not walking to any place. Among the prose pieces Walt Whitman published late in life is a fragment that gives a name to this kind of movement: loafing.

On March 8th, 1880, under the title “Loafing in the Woods,” Whitman writes:

I write this down in the country again, but in a new spot, seated on a log in the woods, warm, sunny, midday. Have been loafing here deep among the trees, shafts of tall pines, oak, hickory, with a thick undergrowth of laurels and grapevines — the ground cover’d with debris, dead leaves, breakage, moss — everything solitary, ancient, grim. Paths (such as they are) leading hither and yon — (how made I know not, for nobody seems to come here, nor man nor cattle-kind.) Temperature today around 60, the wind through the pine-tops; I sit and listen to its hoarse sighing above (and to the stillness) long and long, varied by aimless rambles in the old roads and paths, and by exercise-pulls at the young saplings, to keep my joints from getting stiff. Blue-birds, robins, meadow-larks begin to appear.

And then the next day, under the same heading, he continues:

A snow-storm in the morning, and continuing most of the day. But I took a walk over two hours, the same woods and paths, amid the falling flakes. No wind, yet the musical low murmur through the pines, quite pronounced, curious, like waterfalls, now still’d, now pouring again. All the senses, sight, sound, smell, delicately gratified. Every snowflake lay where it fell on the evergreens, holly-trees, laurels, &c., the multitudinous leaves and branches piled, bulging-white, defined by edge-lines of emerald — the tall straight columns of the plentiful bronze-topt pines — a slight resinous odor blending with that of the snow. (For there is a scent to everything, even the snow, if you can only detect it — no two places, hardly any two hours, anywhere, exactly alike. How different the odor of noon from midnight, or winter from summer, or a windy spell from a still one.)

Whitman describes a comportment that lies somewhere between walking and some other form of activity. He describes the day in which he loafes as alternating between sitting and rambling, suggesting that he thinks of loafing as something that encompasses both. His “loafings” take him through the woods, in time, but they also involve a significant amount of sitting, reading, smelling, thinking, and listening “long and long.” Like River and I, Whitman’s loafings make him familiar with his environment because of the immense amount of time he spends in each place.
With these exquisitely beautiful lines, Whitman seeks to turn around the fortunes of this term. The word “loafing” was introduced in America in roughly the 1830s. Unlike literary terms, it was almost certainly born in the vernacular, so dating it precisely is difficult. It comes from the noun “loafer,” meaning a lay-about, a good-for-nothing, basically anyone that we would call “unproductive.” It was a derogatory term associated with a certain class of people who, as Whitman biographer David Reynolds writes, “were mainly young working-class men and women who had been impelled by hard times to reject normal capitalist pursuits and find other means of gratification and amusement.” It was used by Whig politicians in the 1840s and 50s as a pejorative term for the supporters of their main political rivals, the Democrats, whom they associated with rowdyism and rascalhood (never forget that the 19th century had a lot of fun words).
“Loafer” ultimately comes from the German landlaufer, a word roughly equivalent to “tramp.” This term, a contraction of land (land) and laufen (to run, or to walk) served to mark certain individuals as “living on the land,” passing through estates and not respecting property lines, and by extension, the institution of private property itself. It was likely this sense that the American language picked up, as the Whig party of the United States was largely made up of capitalists, lawyers, bankers, and factory owners of the North. That is, of those who have the greatest stake in the preservation of the concept of private property. By calling their enemies “loafers,” the Whigs and their supporters meant not only to slander their opponents as lazy, but to frame them as threatening the very institutions that they believed made America noble.
When he was heavily involved in Democratic politics in the 1840s and 50s, Whitman sought to turn the sense of this work to good use. In 1840, he writes: “I have sometimes amused myself with picturing out a nation of loafers,” and argues that “All the old philosophers were loafers. Take Diogenes for instance. He lived in a tub, and demeaned himself like a true child of the great loafer family. Or go back farther, if you like, even to the very beginning. What was Adam, I should like to know, but a loafer? Did he do any thing but loaf? Who is foolish enough to say that Adam was a working man? Who dare aver that he dealt in stocks, or was busy in the sugar line?” He reveres the word and all that it entails so deeply that after he announces his intention to “celebrate” himself at the beginning of his masterpiece, “Song of Myself,” he goes on to introduce himself and the scene of the poem by writing: “I loafe and invite my soul/ I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.”
For Whitman, there is something deeply democratic about loafing. In “Song of Myself,” he mentions the act in the same breath as the first mention of the central image of his paean to democracy: the single spear of summer grass. The leaves of grass to which he refers carry a wealth of democratic symbolism; from the fact that it grows “among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff,” to the possibility that it is “the uncut hair of graves,” signalling the fact that everyone dies, to the simple insight that grass almost never exists in isolation, but only as a mass, a whole. In the same 1840 essay from above, he declares loaferism an anarchic, democratic, leaderless movement, writing:

I hope you will not so far expose yourself as to ask, who was the founder of loafers. Know you not, ignorance, that there never was such a thing as the origin of loaferism? We don’t acknowledge any founder. There have always been loafers, as they were in the beginning, are now, and ever shall be—having no material difference. Without any doubt, when Chaos had his acquaintance cut, and the morning stars sang together, and the little rivers danced a cotillion for pure fun—there were loafers somewhere about, enjoying the scene in all their accustomed philosophick quietude.

As with most ways of walking, loafing is satisfying because it gives us a deep sense of autonomy. Walks that are undertaken simply for the sake of walking nearly never have a predetermined end or purpose. We are free, when walking, if only for a moment, to move our bodies through space in whatever way we feel most liberating at the time. What I’ve found, in writing about the ways we walk, is that each mode of moving conceives of this freedom in a unique way. In these passages, Whitman draws our attention to the way that loafing takes this freedom to an extreme, uncoupling the walk even from the otherwise minimal requirement of moving from point A to point B.
In what sense, then, is loafing even “walking” at all? We could say that it involves a lot of standing still, but this misses the fact that any mode of walking does the same thing: we have to stop at crosswalks when trudging through the snow-crowded streets, we stop at vistas when hiking to take in the sights, the ambling flaneur even stops from time to time to peruse shop windows or trace the winding of morning-glory vines up a trellis. Nor can we say that loafing is not “walking” because of the non-linearity of the activity, since many walks—nearly all of them—begin and end in the same place.
No, any reticence to include “loafing” in a list of words for walking perhaps simply reveals the nature of some of our prejudices about what we ‘ought’ to be doing when we walk. When we get over them, we find that loafing in fact reveals aspects of this simplest of locomotion that we might have otherwise overlooked. And it is perhaps the way that loafing—the word and the act—makes us pay attention to these overlooked details, the small and insignificant parts of our environment, that make it most valuable to us.

Once, I took River out in front of our apartment building when giving the dog an opportunity to use the bathroom. We made it down to the end of the block, holding hands as we went, and then turned around to head back in for afternoon snack. At the end of the street, however, we found a tree whose bark had been stripped away by growth or some other damage. We looked at the bark, and counted all the shades of green we could find in the mosses growing on it. We loafed around for nearly ten minutes, playing hide and go seek around the trunk, moving back and forth between the tree and a sapling nearby. He pointed out a small patch of grass that had grown in the divot caused by the stripped bark. We’d missed it, dead and browned from the January cold, for all the time we’d been there. I stuck my finger in, and stood it up, and asked him if he knew what it was (even though he can’t quite talk yet), and as we loafed there, it seemed to me “A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,/ Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?”