Thinking Time, Drinking Time: A Beginner’s Thought (1)

1.

Somewhere in the world it’s 3 o’clock

Time to get out of school and think

Somewhere in the world it’s 5pm

And quittin time means it’s time to drink

—Boots Riley, lyrics from “Somewhere in the World It’s Midnight,” in Boots Riley: Tell Homeland Security—We Are the Bomb (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015)

 

Schools have failed our individual needs, supporting false and misleading notions of ‘progress’ and development fostered by the belief that ever-increasing production, consumption and profit are proper yardsticks for measuring the quality of human life. Our universities have become recruiting centers for the personnel of the consumer society, certifying citizens for service, while at the same time disposing of those judged unfit for the competitive rat race.

—Back-cover blurb on a paperbound re-edition of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (London: Marion Boyars, 2000)

By my own experience, Boots Riley’s lines about school and thinking are all too true. As I used to tell my own university students, I always learned far more despite school than because of it. Schools present themselves—and the people who work in them (most of whom are good enough, decent enough, caring enough people) typically have to buy the presentation—as places of learning. Schools also like to present themselves, above all to themselves, as devoted to teaching students to think, giving them “critical thinking” skills they can then use to go out and live rich lives of genuine self-awareness. Most schools and teachers would endorse Socrates’ dictum, “The unexamined life if not worth living,” and would claim that the purpose of good schooling is to give students what they need to live an examined, worthwhile life.

However, if we were to judge institutionalized schools and schooling in terms of what they do, rather than what they say, we would be driven to a very different conclusion, by my experience. We would be driven to the conclusion that the real purpose of institutionalized schools and schooling is to teach students not to think—not to dare to do so. In terms of the actual effect on students of being subjected to schooling for year after year from their early years to adulthood, we would have to say that schools do indeed “teach you to think,” but only in the same sense as that in which one might say to an unruly child, “I’ll teach you to sass me!” just before applying the rod the sparing of which the Bible tells us spoils that child. In saying such a thing, one is not promising to help the child acquire effective sassing skills. Rather, one is beginning to inflict punishment on the child for having just done some sassing, punishment designed to teach the child to refrain from doing any more sassing in the future. Judged by their deeds rather than their words, that’s precisely the sense in which schools “teach students to think.” All too many students learn the lesson all too well, though no fault of their own.

Insofar as that is the reality of schools and schooling, then the reality is also that in order to do any thinking, if one doesn’t want to get punished for it one is wise to wait till after the school-bell rings 3 o’clock, announcing the end of the school day. Only once the daily torture of school is finally over is it safe for students to think. Unfortunately, by then it’s unlikely many of them will have enough energy left to try very hard to think, even if despite school they have already somehow managed at least to begin to lean how to do so. About all they will be suited to do is drink—as many will learn soon enough just how to do.

 

I know that’s how school always was for me, at any rate. It was that way ever since my very first day in Kindergarten, which I hated with a passion. Kindergarten made me sick. At least that’s what I’d tell my Kindergarten teacher regularly—especially when she made the class play with some messy, oily clay, from which I recoiled as from excrement. For a while, when I’d leave the clay or other reeking pile of whatever we were made to foul ourselves with and go up to her desk to tell her I was sick to my stomach and needed to go home, she’d have the office call my mother, who’d come the mile from our suburban home to get me and deliver me from my bondage, at least for the rest of that day. Eventually, however, my Kindergarten teacher wised up to my ways. She scheduled a meeting with my mother, with me also to be present. At that meeting she told my mother, having made sure that I would be there to hear it too, that if I did not change my attitude toward school, I’d never even make it through first grade.

She was wrong. I knew that even when she said it, when I was only five. In fact, I never did change my attitude toward school. If anything, it just grew harder every year. Nevertheless, I not only made it through first grade, but through a whole bunch of other grades after that, long enough to get my Ph.D. degree. Then I even stayed in school forty-five years longer, having had to take on her role—a teacher in a school—myself, since it was the only way I could find to make a living doing what I found myself called to do. Thus, I ended up spending pretty much my whole life “making it” in school. I guess I showed her!

Anyway, reading Boots Riley’s lines above brought back for me all the memories of the years and years of dead and deadening boredom I used to experience in school when I was a child, and how I’d keep looking up at the clock on the wall, which never seemed to move. Each day, I had to endure such eternities till 3 o’clock finally set me free for a little while, so I could think. Yet even then I couldn’t really completely relax and think with full freedom, because the constant threat of having to go back the next day for further “schooling” (i.e., more torture) robbed even my after-school hours of truly free time—real time to think.

As a kid, I loved Saturdays. Saturdays were the closest I ever got to any of the carefree days that are so commonly and so falsely attributed to childhood. Saturday was the first of two whole days without school! Time I could use to read and think and do other things I wanted just because I wanted to!

But after Saturday came Sunday. No matter what thoughts I tried to milk on Sundays, the milk was always curdled by my underlying anxiety. I was never that fond of Sunday. Sunday was always poisoned by my knowing that the next day was Monday, and that then I would have to face five more endless days back in hell. Sundays were days ruined by that anxiety. It wasn’t till I learned to drink that I finally found a way to begin to appreciate Sundays.

To make all that abuse even more abusive, throughout all my schooldays nobody, of course, would ever even acknowledged the abuse that was being inflicting on me and all the other kids. That was not really the teachers’ and other immediate abusers’ fault, since it just went with them having been subjected to the same abuse themselves for so long, so unrelentingly, and so effectively over so many years. That long abuse had made them, regardless of their own desires and intentions, into the abuse-system’s unwitting accomplices. Their own histories of being abused had deadened them to all the abuse going on all around them, now being inflicted—often by their own unwitting hands—on all the new kids on the school-block (a block such as farmers use to cut the heads off chickens).

Thus, that schooling conditions students not to think has nothing essential to do with the conscious intentions of teachers as such. The intentions of those who get shanghaied for service as teachers in the schools of our consumer-production system are often tripped up and trapped by their own good qualities, such as a genuine desire to help children learn (teachers’ pay, after all, is hardly that great, so they’re not in it for the money). Rather, it has to do with the institution itself—which is anything but an institution where thought—or life, I will add—is sanctified.

My own long life in schools confirms what the Deschooling Society blurb above says: that “schooling” is really just pure conditioning, designed to turn out good little consumers—fodder for the market system. Boots Riley’s follow-up about quitting time meaning time to drink says the same thing, in high hip-hop style.

Deschooling Society first came out in the early 1970s, when I was already embarked on my own long career of university teaching, after having spent eighteen years of being schooled myself. I found my own way to it at a bookstore. It was a real gift to me. It showed me I was not alone—and not just some ungrateful whiner. It gave me just the sort of general diagnosis of my condition and its causes that reconfirmed for me just who—or, more precisely, what—I should hate.

 

2.

            This means, above all, that our job is to think. As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged toward either the defensive group identity of fandom or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. We graze, we binge, we pick up and discard aesthetic experiences as if they were cheap toys. Which they frequently are—mass-produced widgets from the corporate assembly line.

—A. O. Scott, “Everybody’s a Critic,” NY Times op-ed section for 1/31/16, adapted from his book Better Living through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

A few years ago, the thought occurred to me that the next time someone asked me if I would mind a little helpful criticism, I would reply: “How would I know? I’ve never received any.” Unfortunately, nobody’s asked me that pseudo-question since then, so I have not yet had a chance to use that line—at least until now, in this post.

I can only hope that confessing to thinking such critical thoughts about criticism doesn’t expose me as having taken on the defensive group identity of fandom—or, even worse, put on full display my shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. I take pride in not being some mere consumer of culture, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, if not altogether lulled into pure passivity. I doubt that I could stand the humiliation if my criticism of criticism revealed me to be no better than one of those who graze among aesthetic experiences, bingeing on them, picking them up and then discarding them as though they were cheap toys. (If I have to binge, I’d rather just go back to bingeing on booze instead. That has its own honesty, and would at least allow me to preserve a modicum of self-respect.)

Be that as it may, I shudder to have to admit that from time to time I do indeed catch myself taking seriously some mass-produced widget from the corporate assembly line passing itself off as a work of art—just as I sometimes, to my shame, take seriously what is really no more than just such a widget passing itself off as a work of thought. Maybe not today, though.

But enough about me! (Or maybe not.)

 

3.

To philosophize means to begin to think. We must always become beginners again. Those who hold themselves to be advanced easily fall prey to the danger of taking what they assume they already known to be no longer worthy of thought, and thus to hold themselves exempt from needing to begin. To begin means: every time to think every thought as though it were being thought for the first time.

—Martin Heidegger, Leitgedanken zur Enstehung der Metaphysik, der Neuzeitlichen Wissenschaft und der Modernen Technik (Gesamtausgabe 76, 2009), p. 54 (freely translated)

When I was fifteen, I taught myself enough German to be my family’s interpreter when we spent most of a month in Germany. My parents had managed to pay off the mortgage on our family home in Colorado a few years before. But they had taken out a new one just to finance a trip to Europe for themselves and me, the youngest of their three children and the only one still at home—a trip to Europe to visit my brother, who is three years older than I am. My brother had enlisted in the U. S. Army the year before. After boot camp and some extra army training, he had ended up in the Army Security Agency, for God knows what reason, and was stationed at Frankfurt am Main. He managed to get himself a one-month leave, and we drove all over the place in Western Europe crammed into the VW Bug he’d bought for himself while stationed there.

My family on both sides is mainly of German origin, and I’d long had a fascination with Germany and things German. So I had talked my parents into buying me a set of German language vinyl records, and I’d used them to get a beginner’s sense of the language. When the four of us went driving around Germany that summer, I was the one who asked for rooms at inns, meals from waiters in Bierstuben and other places we ate (including angering my brother at one stop when I ordered him a Pilsner beer, rather than a Lager), asking directions, and the like.

But I never really got a good reading knowledge of German, or mastery of German vocabulary much past guide-book level, until I finally got to graduate school, where I was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in philosophy that required a reading ability in two non-English languages, as demonstrated by results on the standardized Princeton ETS language exams of that age. Given my own interests in philosophy, the two languages that made the most sense were the two standard ones of German and French. I did the German first, then the French.

I went about both in the same way, starting with a vinyl record set for learning the language at issue, to get a sense of the grammar, basic vocabulary, and sound of the language. (For the German, I just had to brush up some, since I’d already done the record thing when I was fifteen.) Then I’d get myself a dictionary for translating the language into English, and start reading through some work of philosophy in that language, a work of my own selection. When I started my reading, going was very slow indeed. But by the time I’d finished my selected book, I was ready to take—and ace—the standardized language exam.

For French, I used a book containing Descartes’ Discourse on Method and his Meditations. After scoring well on the standardized language test, I promptly forgot my French, since my philosophical interests didn’t really give me any special reason back then for continuing to read philosophy written in French. What was available in English translations was sufficient for my purposes, and I never went back to French until our daughter did me the favor of marrying a Frenchman. That gave me incentive to teach myself French again, going about it my same old, proven way—only this time I used CDs, rather than vinyl records. Since then, I regularly read philosophy works in French, both to keep my language skills up, and so that I’m not at the mercy of the translation-industry and its market-driven widget-making decisions.

For German, I used Heidegger’s Holzwege, a collection of essays he’d published at the beginning of the 1950s. It contains his famous lecture “Vom Wesen des Kunstwerkes” (“On the Origin of the Work of Art”), which he originally delivered back in 1935. When I first read it in Holzwege, it was still a few years before that lecture was first published in an English translation by Albert Hofstadter. By the time I and my Langenscheidt’s German-English dictionary were done with Holzwege, I could read German. At least I could read philosophical German, stuff like Heidegger’s Zur Sache des Denkens, which came out in the original German version just a couple of years later (it was eventually translated by Joan Stambaugh and published by Harper under the title On Time and Being), or Kant’s Grundlegung der Metaphysics der Sitten (Foundations–or Groundwork/s—of the Metaphysics of Morals). But when it came to reading the daily newspaper, I still had to use my Langenscheidt’s. I had far less trouble reading Kant in German on the transcendental unity of apperception in his Critique of Pure Reason than I did reading the appeal in the local paper for help finding the lost dog who’d jumped over the fence in some Frankfurt suburb, for example.

As I’ve already mentioned, because I had no ongoing use of my own for it at the time, I soon forgot the French that I taught myself in the first place only in order to jump over one of the hurdles the school I attended made me jump over to get my Ph.D. degree, so I could start to sell myself for money. But when my daughter married a Frenchman and I went back through the very same process to teach myself to read French again, I retained what I’d learned, and have been able to keep my reading knowledge of French current ever since. That is precisely because I want to retain it. I want to, in turn, because I have a French son-in-law, of course, but even more (he’s fluent in English) because I have interests that send me regularly to read stuff in French philosophy before it gets translated into English—if it ever does, since quite a bit of what I find most interesting doesn’t seem to fit the market needs of the current crop of translation publishers.

The German I taught myself by reading Heidegger has stayed with me ever since I first learned it. The timing of my thereby teaching myself to read German was in part dictated by the same need to jump a hurdle my school made me jump before it would finally let me get out of school after all the years I had to be in it. But that really only played a secondary role, even in terms of timing. That’s because by then I was already hooked on Heidegger, including knowing I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on his thought. At the time, not all that much of Heidegger had been translated into English. So I knew I’d need to learn to read him in German.

In fact, had I not had to jump over a number of other hurdles my school also put in the way of people like me getting out of school as quickly as possible, without being penalized for the rest of our lives because we left—the way that those who just can’t stand more abuse drop out of high school are made to pay the penalty for their sassing the school system by dropping out that way: the penalty of dead-end jobs for unconscionably low pay—I’d have probably taught myself to read Heidegger in German even earlier than I did. I’ve read (and reread) Heidegger in German ever since I taught myself to read German by reading him. I continue regularly to read him in German to this day, and plan to continue to do so till death or senility stops me.

I read Heidegger in German even when there are English translations of what I’m reading available. He’s better in German. That’s just another thing I learned despite all my schooling.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Après-Coups After The Coup (3)

This is the third and final post of a series.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Third After-Shock: Flashes of Imagination

I do not, in the conventional sense, know many of these things. I am not making them up, however. I am imagining them. Memory, intuition, interrogation and reflection have given me a vision, and it is this vision that I am telling here. . . . There are kinds of information, sometimes bare scraps and bits, that instantly arrange themselves into coherent, easily perceived patterns, and one either acknowledges those patterns, or one does not. For most of my adult life, I chose not to recognize those patterns, although they were patterns of my own life as much as Wade’s. Once I chose to acknowledge them, however, they came rushing toward me, one after the other, until at last the story I am telling here presented itself to me in its entirety.

For a time, it lived inside me, displacing all other stories until finally I could stand the displacement no longer and determined to open my mouth and speak, to let the secrets emerge, regardless of the cost to me or anyone else. I have done this for no particular social good but simply to be free.

— Russell Banks, Affliction

 

What a great distinction! Making up vs. imagining! To “make up” is to confabulate, to cover, to lie. So, for example, do those who claim power over others make up all sorts of ways in which the usurpation of such power is necessary “for the common good” or the like. In contrast, to imagine is to make without making up. It is to create, which is to say to open out and draw forth sense and meaning. Making up is telling stories in the sense of fibs and prevarications. Imagining is telling stories in the sense of writing fiction. The former is a matter of machinations and manipulations; the latter is a matter of truth and art.

The passage above comes early in Affliction (on pages 47-48). The words are spoken in the voice of the fictional—which means the imagined—narrator of the novel, Rolfe Whitehouse. Rolfe is telling the story of his brother Wade’s life, and therewith of his own life, too, as he remarks in the passage itself.

*     *     *     *     *     *

A mere symmetry, a small observed order, placed like a black box in a corner of one’s turbulent or afflicted life, can make one’s accustomed high tolerance of chaos no longer possible.

— Russell Banks, Affliction (page 246)

 

Imagine, for example, a big black cube, surrounded by a neon glow, appearing in the sky over Oakland, setting off car horns and causing dogs to bark throughout the city in what soon ceases to sound like sheer cacophony, and becomes a new, hitherto unheard of harmony, in the sounding of which everyone is invited to join, each in each’s own way. Such a thing might all of a sudden make those who witnessed it no longer suited to tolerate the chaos in which, they now suddenly see, they had been living till then, without even knowing it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

. . . facts do not make history; facts do not even make events. Without meaning attached, and without understanding causes and connections, a fact is an isolate particle of experience, is reflected light without a source, planet with no sun, star without constellation, constellation beyond galaxy, galaxy outside the universe—fact is nothing. Nonetheless, the facts of a life, even one as lonely and alienated as Wade’s, surely have meaning. But only if that life is portrayed, only if it can be viewed, in terms of its connections to other lives: only if one regard it as having a soul, as the body has a soul—remembering that without a soul, the human body, too, is a mere fact, a pile of minerals, a bag of waters: body is nothing.

— Russell Banks, Affliction (page 339)

 

Ever since my mid-teens I have kept a sort of philosophical journal. That is, I’ve kept notebooks in which I’ve jotted down passages from what I was reading at the time that made me think, along with some of the thoughts they brought to me, or brought me to. For various periods of varied lengths I’ve let that practice lapse since then, but I always pick it up again eventually. For the last few years, there have been no lapses of any duration; and, in fact, my blog posts almost always arise from things I’ve already written more briefly about in my philosophical journals.

On our recent trip to San Francisco to watch our daughter work with The Coup, I carried my current philosophical journal along. Here’s what I wrote one morning while we were still out in the Bay area.

“The Essence of Accident, the Accident of Essence.”

That came to me this morning as the title for a possible blog post in which I’d explore the idea that the essential—or, more strictly speaking, the necessary—is itself essentially accident. That “accident,” the “accidental,” is precisely “essence,” the “essential.”

That goes with the idea of truth as event (and not, as Milner would say, as possible predicate of an event, a pro-position—to give an accidental connection, via my current reading and other experiences, its essential due). It was itself suggested to me by the accidental conjunction of a variety of factors, coming together with/in our trip out here to see [our daughter] perform with “Classical Revolution” (the name of the “group” from which the quartet with her on cello came) at/in conjunction with/as part of The Coup’s performance on Saturday, two days ago. Among those diverse but accidentally/essentially (i.e., as insight-bringing) connected factors are: (1) my reading in Heidegger’s Überlegungen [Reflections: from Heidegger’s so called “Black Notebooks,” which only began to be published this past spring in the Gesamtausgabe, or Complete Edition, of his works] this morning; (2) my ongoing reflection and talk (with [my daughter] and/or [my wife]) about Saturday’s “Coup” event; (3) my noticing yesterday one of the stickers on [my daughter’s] carbon-cello case, which sticker has a quote from Neal Cassady: “Art is good when it springs from necessity. This kind of origin is the guarantee of its value; there is no other.” That third factor was the catalytic one: the “necessity” Cassady is talking about has nothing to do with formal rules or mechanisms, but is precisely a matter of the “accidental,” which is to say be-falling (like a robber on the road), coalescence into a single work/flash/insight of all the diversity of factors that otherwise are chaotically just thrown together as a simultaneous series, as it were. . . . There’s another major factor so far not recorded as such: (4) attending The Coup’s performance at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Saturday. That is the real arch-piece/factor here.

Which brings me to another possible blog post, which [my wife and daughter] yesterday suggested I should do, before the one on accidental essence and essential accidentality suggested itself to me this morning. That is a post about the impact of Saturday night’s event [that is, The Coup’s Shadowbox].

 

As readers of this current series of three posts to my blog already know, of course, I took my wife’s and daughter’s suggestion. But I expanded upon it, doing three posts about my experience of The Coup, rather than just one. And I was also able to incorporate it with my idea for a post on accident and essence, which became my preceding post, the second of the three of this series.

Whether there is any necessity to all that will have to speak for itself. (I can confidently say, at any rate, that it is not art.) All I know for sure is that my journal entry, and this subsequent series of three posts, came about from the accidental conjunction of the four facts I mention in the passage above, taken from my philosophical journal. That entry tells the tale of that conjunction, from which tale alone derives whatever significance or meaning those otherwise isolated particles of my experience may have.

*     *    *     *     *     *

I’ve just recently begun reading Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), a book that has been on my list to read ever since it first appeared, and that I’m finally getting around to. So far, I’m still in the first chapter, which is an introductory discussion. One of the lines that already especially struck me is this (on page 8): “This is a history, not the history of the Hindus.”

One reason that struck me when I read it was that earlier the same day I’d noted a remark Heidegger makes in his Überlegungen (on page 420 of Gesamtausgabe 94) about the “idols” we worship today (which is still the same day, really, as when Heidegger wrote his remark, back in the Nazi period). Today, among the idols we are most tempted to fall prey to worshipping are, by his partial listing: Science (with a capital ‘S’: “ ‘die’ Wissenschaft”), Technology (with a capital ‘T’: “‘die’ Technik”), “the” common good, (“‘die’ Gemeinnutzen), “the” people (“ ‘das’ Volk”), Culture (with a capital ‘C’: “ ‘die’ Kultur”). In all those cases, idolatry happens when we turn what are themselves really ways or paths of our life in the world with one another—including knowledges (“sciences”), know-hows (“technologies”), shared benefits (“common goods”), and cultivations (“cultures”)—into “ ‘purposes’ and ‘causes’ and ‘agents,’ all the forms and ‘goals’ of wheeling and dealing.”

When we restrict the term knowledge only to what can be con-formed to the one form we have come to call “science”—the paradigm of which is taken to be physics and the other so called “natural sciences”—and confine all other forms of knowledge to mere “opinion” (to which, of course, everyone has a right, this being America and all), then we become idolators. In the same way we fall into idolatry when we try to make the rich multiplicity of varied ways of doing things conform to our idea of some unitary, all embracing thing we call techonology—especially insofar as the idea of technology is connected for us with that of science, to create one great, Janus-faced über-idol. No less do we fall into idolatry when we buy into thinking that there is any such thing as “the” one and only one universal “common good,” which itself goes with the idea that there is some one universal “people” to which we all belong, as opposed to a rich diversity of distinct peoples, in the plural, with no “universal” to rule over them all. In turn, the idea of “culture” as itself some sort of goal or purpose that one might strive to attain—such that some folks might come to have “more” of it than others, for example—turns culture itself, which includes all those made things (made, but not made up: so we might even name them “fictions”) we call science, and technology, and common goods, and the like, into idols. No longer cherished as what builds up and opens out, what unfolds worlds, opening them out and holding them open, such matters gets perverted into service to the opposite sort of building, which closes everything down and shuts it away safe.

A few pages later in the same volume of his Überlegungen (on page 423), Heidegger mentions, in passing, “the working of an actual work.” That sounds better in the German: “die Wirkung eines wirklichen Werkes.” To preserve something of the resonance of the line in translation, we might paraphrase: “the effectiveness of an effective work”—keeping in mind that “to work” in English sometimes means “to bring about an effect” (as in the saying, “That works wonders!”). Or, to push the paraphrase even a bit further, we might even say: “the acting of an actual act.”

At any rate, in the remark at issue Heidegger says that “the working of an actual work” is that “the work be-works [or “effects”: the German is “das Werk erwirkt”]—when it works—the transposition [namely, of those upon whom it works] into the wholly other space that first ground itself through it [namely, grounds itself through the very work itself, an artwork, for instance].”

What I have translated as “transposition” is the German tern Versetzung, which comes from the verb setzen, “to place, put, or set.” Heidegger says that the work of the working work—the work of the work insofar as the work works, and doesn’t go bust—is to grab those upon whom it works and to set them down suddenly elsewhere. That is the shock of the work, as he calls it in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” from the same general period. It is the blow or strike, that is, the coup, that the work delivers to us, and in the delivery of which the work delivers us somewhere else. In the face of the work, at least when the working of that works strikes us in the face, then, as Dorothy said to Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Such transposition is indeed shocking. It can be terrifying, in fact; and it is worth remarking that in German one word that can be translated as “to terrify” is Entsetzen, from the same root as Versetzen, “to transpose.” It is challenging to keep ourselves open to such terrifying transposition, such suddenly indisposing re-disposition of ourselves. We tend to close down toward it, trying to bar ourselves against it, withdrawing into safe places. Idolatry is no less than the endeavor so to enclose ourselves within safe places, rather than keeping ourselves open to such transpositions.*

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From the beginning of my interest in them, I have known that the politics of The Coup is communist, at least in one good definition of that term (the definition Boots Riley, cofounder of the group, uses). As I have said before in this blog series, I am not certain about the complexion either of The Coup’s erotics or of their scientificity. However, I have now come to have it on good authority that The Coup are culinary anarchists.

The conjunction of the communist slant of their politics with the anarchist bent of their culinary persuasions gives me nothing but esteem for The Coup. On the other hand, that esteem would have been lessened not one bit if I had learned that they were, in reverse, culinary communists and political anarchists. The point is that neither in their politics nor in their food choices are The Coup into following the dictates of who or what lays claim to authority and power.

Adolf Hitler, who was no slouch when it came to claiming authority and power (all in the name of the common good of “das Volk,” of course), is just one of many claimers to authority from Aristotle on down to today who have cited for their own purposes this line from Homer’s Illiad: “The rule of many is not good, one ruler let there be.” Hitler was into that sort of thing. The Coup are into something different.

So is the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where my wife and I attended the world premier of The Coup’s Shadowbox. Making good on the promise I delivered toward the start of my second post of this three-post series on the after-shocks of that attendance, I want to come back to the “Note from the Curators” that opens the brochure I also mentioned there, the one about the Shadowbox premier. In it, the curators at issue write that YBCA “is in process of coalescing more consistently” with what they call “the energetic and aesthetic trajectories” of “local [aristic] ecologies,” especially the “local dance and music ecologies” of the Bay Area. By engaging in such a process, they write, YBCA, while “identifying itself as a physical place,” is also “aspiring to define itself as something more than brick and mortar.” YBCA is, of course, a physical place, and an imposing one at that, right in the heart of downtown San Francisco. More importantly, however, it “aspires,” as I read the curators’ note, to be a place that gives place to the taking place of works of art. As the two YBCA curators go on to write on behalf of the Center: “We aspire to hold firmly onto our institutional status while softening our institutional walls, locating the joy of less formal performance structure within our particularly austere architecture.” Pursuing that worthy—and, I would say, wonderfully anarchical, chaos-empowering—goal, they go on to write at the end of their note: “We plan to have hella fun** in this enterprise, to reposition participatory sweat as currency, to build momentum through the mechanism of witness, to celebrate the too often unseen, to make serious work of taking ourselves not too seriously while fixing our gaze on the exemplary unsung.”

Given that curators’ note, it strikes me that The Coup is right at home in such a venue as YBCA. So, for that matter, is Classical Revolution, which is the outfit (to use a word that seems to me to be appropriate to the case) from which came the quartet in which our daughter played one of her cellos as part of the world premier of The Coup’s Shadowbox at YBCA recently—and whose website (http://classicalrevolution.org/about/) I encourage my readers to consult, to check my just expressed judgment.

Nor is YBCA the only place-opening place where the performances of place-makers such as The Coup—and Classical Revolution and the other groups with whom The Coup shared their Shadowbox spotlight at the recent premier performance—are given a place to take place. Another such place in the Bay Area, one my wife and I also discovered thanks to our daughter during our recent trip to the West Coast, is The Revolution Café in San Francisco’s Mission District (http://www.revolutioncafesf.com/). That, it turns out, is the place where Classical Revolution was founded back in November 2006 by violist Charith Premawardhana, and where performances by Classical Revolution musicians take place every Monday night. There are many more such places, too, not only throughout the rest of the Bay Area, but also throughout the rest of the United States—and, I dare say, the whole, wide world.

To which I can only say: Amen! Which is to say: So be it!

 

 

*In reading Doniger’s words shortly after reading Heidegger’s, one thought that struck me was the question of whether Heidegger himself might not have succumbed to a sort of idolatry regarding “history,” Geschichte in German. Just as it is idolatry to think that there is any such thing as “the” common good or “the” people, isn’t it idolatrous to think that there is any such thing as “the” human story—“History,” with the capital ‘H’—as opposed to multiple, indeed innumerable, human stories, in the plural—“histories,” we might say, following Doniger’s lead? Yet Heidegger throughout his works talks about die’ Geschichte” (which, by the way, also means “story” in German, in addition to “history,” the latter in the sense of “what happened,” was geschiet), not just multiple Geschichten (“histories” or “stories,” in the plural). Perhaps that was at play in his involvement with the Nazis, despite the fact that, as the passage I’ve cited shows, he knew full well that it was mere idolatry to think in terms of “the” people, “das” Volk, as the Nazis so notoriously and definitively did. That, at least, was the question that came to my mind when I read Doniger’s line so soon after reading Heidegger’s. Even to begin to address that question adequately would take a great deal of careful thought, at least one upshot of which would surely be, in fact, that it is necessary to keep the matter open as a true question—rather than seeking the safety of some neatly enclosed, dismissive answer.

** As out of such things as I am, I don’t know if that is a mistake, or a way currently fashionable in some circles (or “ecologies,” if one prefers) of saying “have a hell of a lot of fun.” Whatever!

 

Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Après-Coups After The Coup (2)

Second After-Shock*: Accidental Strokes of Necessity

Art is good when it springs from necessity. This kind of origin is the guarantee of its value; there is no other.

— Neal Cassady

Our daughter has two cellos. To go with them, she has two cello-cases. Both cases are pretty well covered with various stickers and posts-ups that have struck her fancy from time to time. When we went to San Francisco recently to watch her play the cello in a quartet representing Classical Revolution, as part of The Coup’s Shadowbox premier, I noticed a new sticker on one of her cello cases. It had the lines above, from Neal Cassady.

That’s the same Neal Cassady who inhabited the heart of the Beat movement. Later he was not only “on the bus,” but even drove it. He drove the bus—namely, the psychedelic bus filled with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the same bus Tom Wolfe eventually rode to fame in 1968 with the publication of TheElectric Kool-Aid Acid Test, that foundational text of the “New Journalism” that already long ago became old hat.

I didn’t notice our daughter’s new (to me at least) Neal Cassady sticker till a day or two after we’d attended Shadowbox, and when I read Cassady’s remark it resonated for me with my experience of the concert. That resonance was deepened when, even later, I noticed a brochure our daughter had lying on a bookshelf—an advertisement for the concert we had just attended. Put out by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and by Bay Area Now, the brochure started with “A Note from the Curators”—Marc Bamuthi Joseph, YBCA Director of Performing Arts, and Isabel Yrigoyen, Associate Director of Performing Arts—to which I’ll eventually return. That was followed by “A Note from the Artist,” in which an explanation, of a certain sort, was given for titling the concert Shadowbox. It read:

Late one night in the skies over Oakland, a strange object appeared. A cube. Perfectly still, 200 feet in the air. A reflective black box, with a neon glow surrounding it. Thousands of people hurriedly got out of bed, or filed out of bars and house parties, or left the cash register unattended—to stand on the street and gaze at the sight. Dogs barked and howled, louder and louder, in various pitches and timbres until it was clear that there was a consistent melody and harmony to their vocalizations. The cube started trembling, sending out a low vibration that made the asphalt shake, windows rattle, and car alarms across the city go off. Thousands of car alarms went off in a tidal wave of honks, beeps, and bleeps until they formed a percussive rhythm that accompanied the dogs’ beautiful howling. From the cube, a kick drum was heard that tied it together. A spiral staircase descended from the box. Only a few dared enter. What those few experienced has been the subject of several poorly made documentaries, an article in US Weekly, and three half-assed anthropology dissertations. What you will see tonight is a re-enactment of that experience.

I suggest that the “re-enactment” at issue be taken in the sense of an enacting again, as legislators are said to re-enact a law that will otherwise expire, rather than in the more ordinary sense of a miming, an acting out, as a community theatre group might re-enact Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire or Walt Disney’s Dumbo, or as bunch of court stooges might re-enact a crime in a courtroom at the behest of a prosecuting attorney, let’s say.   The Coup’s Shadowbox doesn’t just represent or mime the enactment of community that seems to have proven necessary following the sudden, unaccountable appearance—“fictitiously,” of course (and I’ll eventually return to that, too)—of a strange, black cube suddenly hovering in the sky over Oakland one night.

After all, The Coup—although it may be erotically capitalist and even, for all I know, scientifically fascist—is “politically communist,” as Wikipedia has it; and what The Coup is trying to do in Shadowbox, at least if we are to believe (as I do) Coup front-man and co-founder Boots Riley, is to get everybody moving. And although the movement at issue may be a dance, it is a dance that even such dance-dysfunctional still-standers as myself can join into, as I also wrote about last time. It is a political dance.

Which brings me to Jean-Claude Milner.

*     *     *     *     *     *

According to Jean-Claude Milner, ever since the ancient Greeks, politics—which term is itself derived from a Greek word, of course: polis, “city”—has been a hostage of mimesis, which is to say of just the sort of acting-out, of play-acting, that “represents” the action it mimes without re-presenting it, that is, without committing that action again. The mimetic re-enactment of a murder as part of a courtroom trial does not culminate in a second murder. In the same way, politics as the mimetic re-enactment of whatever acts mimetic politics re-enacts does not result in any new enactments of those original acts.

The acts that mimetic politics re-enacts are acts whereby the polis or “city” itself–which for the Greeks meant, in effect, the place where all real, truly human be-ing took place, to use again a way of speaking I favor—is first opened and set up, then kept open and going after that. From the days of the ancient Greeks until relatively recently, in one way or another such decisive political acts were taken not by everyone together, but only by a few.

Of course, those few invariably found it useful to represent themselves as making their decisions for the good of “all.” As Milner points out, however (3rd treatise, page 58**): “It is always in the name of all that each is mistreated.”

For the few who did make the decisions, and then impose them on everybody else, to keep their claim to be acting for the good of all even remotely plausible it always also helped to get “the people”—as we’ve grown long used to calling those the rulers rule over, though the term is supposedly inclusive of both—to believe that they were somehow actually participants in the decision-making itself. Those who were being decided over needed to be kept down on the farm, as it were, regardless of whether they ever got a chance to see Paree or not. The decided-over needed to be given the impression that somehow they were themselves deciders—as President George W. Bush once in/famously called himself.

Milner argues that classically, among the ancient Athenians, the theatre, specifically as staged in the great public performances of tragedies, was the crucial device that permitted the governors to govern those they governed—that is, permitted those who exercised power over others to keep those others in line. It did so by regularly bringing together all those who counted as “the people”*** to witness re-enactments, by actors behind masks, of the heroic deeds that were taken originally to have defined the people as the very people they were (with running commentaries provided by choruses that took over the job of being mouth-pieces for “the people,” who were thereby relieved of any need to speak for themselves). By so convening to witness such re-enactments, the citizenry—the public, the people—actually constituted itself as such.

Furthermore, in being brought openly together as an audience to witness the re-enactments of the original, originating tragic acts of the great heroes of Greek tradition, religion, and mythology, the people were also brought, through empathy, to vicarious identification with those people-defining heroes themselves, and their suffering for the people’s sake. Through such identification the people as audience were allowed to process the terror and pity with which the mimetic re-enactments of tragedy filled them, achieving catharsis, as Aristotle observed. That also helped keep them down on the farm.

Precisely because they were assembled as such an otherwise passive audience for the spectacle of decisive acts re-enacted or mimed in front of them, the people were effectively distanced from the underlying definitive decisions and actions being so mimed. They were allowed to feel a part of what was being re-enacted before them, in the sense of being mimed or “acted out,” while they were simultaneously being distanced from all the underlying genuine action itself. They could marvel and weep as “destiny” unfolded itself in the actions being mimed before them, while being dispensed from the need to undergo that destiny themselves.

As Milner puts it (2nd treatise, page 59):) “That distanced object, which in the crucial tradition of tragedy was called destiny, carries in politics, of course, the names: power, state, liberty, justice, or quite simply government.” What is more, he says, in our times the role that used to be played by tragic theatre is now played by—political discussion: the endless expression of opinions compulsively formed about political matters. Such discussion permits the discussants to think that they are really part of the political action, when in fact they are distanced effectively from it by the endless palaver about it. They are merely playing at politics, the way children play at being adults. They are “actors” only it that mimetic sense, not in the sense of decisive agents.

The difference, however, is that today, unlike in ancient Athens, everybody is reduced to the status of such a mere play-actor. That even includes the few who presumably, in the days of the ancient Greeks and for a long while thereafter, used actually to govern—to be genuine agents or “deciders.”

The reality today is simply this: No one decides, decisions just get made. Things of themselves get decided, as though things themselves are dictating the decisions—hence the name of Milner’s first short political treatise, which translates as The Politics of Things—but without anyone doing the actual deciding.

Accordingly, as I already indicated in my previous series of posts on “The Future of Culture,” no possibility of clearly assigning responsibility for decisions remains. Even more importantly, there are therefore no identifiable political pressure points, points where political pressure might be exerted in order to effect significant change. Everything just keeps on chugging along, with no one directing anything, despite how deluded some may still be into thinking they have some impact (for example, the President of the United States, whoever that may happen to be at any given time). The whole thing is no more than a dumb-show. Nobody is in charge of anything.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Sometimes, though, lightning strikes. Or suddenly a huge black cube with a neon glow appears in the sky. The Coup comes, and folks get moving.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Necessity is not causality. For necessity to emerge, in fact, the causal chain must actually be broken. Causality brings inevitability, Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence of the same”—always the same old same old, never anything truly new under the sun (or the moon and stars at night). The necessity that Neal Cassidy says is the only guarantee of real worth in art is not causal inevitability. It is the necessity, the need, of creativity—the need of a pregnancy brought full term finally to burst and bring forth new life.

Any child born of such necessity always comes unexpected. The child always comes as an unexpected, un-expectable surprise, even for parents long filled with the knowledge that they are “expecting.” What can be expected is at most a child, one or another of the innumerably substitutable instances of the class of children, but never this child, the very one who so suddenly, so urgently, so imperiously, insistently comes into the world, and who, once come into it, simply demands, by its very being there, to be named.

Giving a name in the sense of what we call a “proper” name—which is to say “insofar as it is not just another name” (as, for example, dog, Hund, or chien are just three names for the same thing), that is, a name “insofar as it [names] not just anyone,” as Milner writes at one point (3rd treatise, page 75)—always “appears as an obstacle” to whatever or whomever claims to act in the name of “all.” What Milner means in that context is “all” taken in the sense of a closed totality, such as what is ordinarily called a “nation,” for example, the “borders” of which must be secured and protected. The singular, the radically unique, what escapes number, substitutability, and, therewith, any capacity to be “represented” by another, always constitutes a threat to all claims to special authority in the name of any such totalizing “all.”

However, universal quatification, as logicians call it, over “us” or over “human being”—as in “all of us,” or “all human beings”—need not be the move to any such totality as a “nation.” The “all” need not be taken in any such collective sense. Instead, the “all” can be taken in the distributive sense of “each and every single one,” so that “all of us” means each and every one of us as someone who has been given, or at least cries out to be given, a proper name, a name by which that singular one, and that one alone, no other, can be called.

The name by which the singular individual is called, however, calls that one as just that very one, and not as no more than an instance of what that one has in common with a bunch of other ones—for example, being black, white, brown, or yellow, young or old, educated or uneducated, employed or unemployed, American, Mexican, Honduran, Syrian, Iranian, or Indian. The bearer of a proper name—by which I would like above all to mean a name that is truly just that, a genuine name, and not a mere place-holder for a description—is no mere instance of a type, replaceable with any other. The bearer of a proper name is, rather, irreplaceable. (Regular readers of my blog might think of Fluffy, my daughter’s childhood pet guinea pig, for instance.)

*     *     *     *     *     *

As cacophonous as it may initially sound—like the sound of multiple dogs howling and multiple horns blowing in the night—to say so, it is only such an irreplaceable singularity that can be “necessary” in the way Neal Cassady says the authentic work of art is necessary. The necessity of artistic work is the same as the necessity of seizing one’s one and only opportunity to become who one is, when that opportunity suddenly presents itself. It is the same as the necessity of joining the fight against injustice into the reality of which one is suddenly given clear insight, or the necessity of giving oneself over completely to a suddenly awakened love. In short, it is the necessity of selling everything one owns for the sake of pursing what one is given to see is priceless.

Necessity is order, to be sure. However, it is the order that comes from the unexpected emergence of connection between what theretofore seemed to be no more than a randomly thrown together bunch of discreet, isolated facts. Necessity gives birth to the cosmos. That word is from the Greek word for “ordered whole,” but which originally meant “ornament,” which is why we also get cosmetic from the same word.  Cosmos is the “all” of everything insofar as everything has been brought together into one coherent whole, like an ornament. Cosmos is the ornamental whole of everything emerging out of chaos itself, which also a Greek word, which originally meant something like “yawning gap.” Necessity is the origin of that genuine cosmos which is the coming into an ordered whole of chaos itself. Necessity is the origin of that order that is not imposed upon chaos from without, as though by some ruler, but that arises, instead, of necessity, from chaos itself.

Among the same ancient Greeks to whom we owe tragic drama, the emergence of cosmos from chaos was attributed to Zeus. However, Zeus, the god of thunder and the thunder-bolt, was not himself without genesis. King of the gods he might have been, but Zeus himself came from the chaos; and if he came to order the latter, he still came at its bidding, and from within. He came of necessity, which origin demonstrates the authenticity of his glory.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Coming from out of the Greek chaos, Zeus also came from out of the Greek imagination, that same imagination from which sprang all the gods of Greek mythology. The order that the Greek imagination attributed to Zeus was itself anything but an imaginary order. Nevertheless, its origin—and its guarantee of worth, which is also to say its real necessity—lay in the Greek imagination.

Imagine that!

*     *     *    *     *     *

I will try to imagine something of it, in my next post, which will continue—and, I think, end—this present series on the after-coups of The Coup.

* Only while writing this post did it occur to me to call the separate posts of this series not “Parts,” as I had it when I put up the series’ first post a few days ago, but “After-Shocks,” which is much more appropriate. So I went back and edited my first post a couple of days ago. First, I slightly changed the title. Originally, I had used après-coup, French for “after-shock,” in the singular. I turned that into the plural, après-coups. Then I changed the title of the first series’ post itself from “Part One” to “First After-Shock.” Thus, it was only by one of the smaller après-coups of the coup delivered to me by attending The Coup concert that I was coincidentally struck by the need to change my titles a bit. Appropriate indeed!

** Milner has published three “short political treatises,” all brought out in France by Verdier: La Politique des Choses is his Court traité politique 1 (20011), followed by Pour une politique des êtres parlant as treatise 2 (2011) and L’Universal en éclats as treatise 3 (2014). I will give references in the text of this post, when needed, by the number of Milner’s treatise, followed by the page number at issue.

*** That is, the “citizens,” which means literally the habitants of the “city” as such, the polis, the place where human being took place. So, of course, that left out slaves, women, and all the other others who simply didn’t count—including counting as fully human, since they were not “citizens,” not full-fledged inhabitants of the place human beings as such inhabit. As non-citizens, those other others didn’t need to be brought on board the city boat because they were simply subject to force, with no need to rely on subterfuge—conscious and deliberate or not, who cares?—to make them think they were free even while they were being coerced.

Pulling Out of the Traffic: The Après-Coups After The Coup (1)

 

This is the first in a new series of posts.

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First After-Shock:  The Coup and I

Just a week or so ago, my wife and I flew all the way across the country from New Jersey, where we are summering, to California. We made the trip in order to attend Shadowbox, a new multimedia project put together by the hip-hop group The Coup, which was having its world premier at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco.

If you have no idea who The Coup may be, don’t feel alone. I had no idea either, until I attended the concert. Only then did I begin to get an idea of who The Coup may be—an ideational process very definitely still in progress.

We went to The Coup performance in order to see our daughter, a cellist who lives in northern California, perform in a string quartet from one of the other musical groups that The Coup had given a role in their concert. The Coup does that.

Indeed, that is one good place to start knowing who The Coup is—or at least it is for me, given what I saw that night. The Coup is a group of musicians that goes out of its way, whenever and wherever it performs, to share the spotlight, whose shine its presence generates, with other, lesser-known, more “local” groups. Rather than laying claim to all the glory for itself, The Coup would seem to glory in sharing the glory with others.

So who The Coup is, is a group that builds up groups. At least judging from Shadowbox, a Coup performance is the opening up of a place, a space, where groups of musicians, including The Coup itself, can play music together. At the event my wife and I attended, those who played music along with The Coup, on the three stages set up for the purpose, with The Coup on the center-stage, were what some of the YBCA promotional material describes as “up-and-coming Oakland experimental soul act Mortar & Pestle, new wave folksters Snow Angel, NOLA-style second line outfit Extra Action Marching Band, and neo-chamber orchestra Classical Revolution,” the group that included our daughter on cello. Also playing music were some “special guests,” including “longtime Riley co-collaborators and fellow revolutionary hip-hop torchbearers dead prez.” Then there was also “alternative puppet troupe Eat the Fish Presents” (which, as the name suggests, provided puppetry as well as music)—as well as various other musical participant-guests, of both Bay-area and broader provenance.

The same space The Coup opens for musicians to come and play along, is also open to others, besides musicians—others who are also invited to enter and play along, each after each’s own fashion. In the case of Shadowbox, those “others” included visual artist Jon-Paul Bail, who created the noteworthy graphic-art murals that hung on all four sides of the performance space, and production designer David Szlasa, as well as comedian W. Kamau Bell. The “others” also included all the members of the audience who attended the two sold-out premier performances on August 16.   Most of that audience played along by dancing, hopping, jumping, writhing, gyrating, hand-lifting, gesticulating, waving, and in other ways noticeably moving around physically. Some did that more than others, of course. Then, too, there were other “others” who just stood there pretty much immobile. I was one of those other others (and I’ll return to me soon, as I always like to do). In one way or another, musicians or muralists, puppets (and puppeteers) or comedians, gyrators or still-standers, “artists” or “audience,” we all took part in the performance itself, becoming, at least for that few hours, a richly diverse community of our own.

Indeed, judging from my experience of Shadowbox, a Coup performance is precisely that: the creation of a space, an opening, where community can—and in one manner or another actually does—occur. Thus, one might say that a Coup performance creates a communizing space.

That is not a bad way to put it, “a communizing space.” Boots Riley, front-man and lead for The Coup, who co-founded the group back in the beginning of the 1990s, self-identifies as a “communist.” According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Coup), The Coup itself is “politically communist.”*

The end of the Cold War had at least one good side-effect: It made it possible even for Americans to use the term “communist” in a positive way and still find wide popularity, as the success of The Coup attests. The Wikipedia entry for The Coup also tells us how the “communism” at issue for Riley and The Coup is to be defined. It quotes Riley as saying: “I think that people should have democratic control over the profits that they produce. It is not real democracy until you have that. And the plain and simple definition of communism is the people having democratic control over the profits that they create.”

Not a bad definition. Not a bad idea.

Correlated to that idea is something else Riley said at a couple of points during Shadowbox itself, when there would be a pause in the music and other action and he would briefly just speak into the microphone. That was how, when we find ourselves part of a movement—such as the Occupy movement, in which Riley himself has played a part, especially in the Oakland area, or the “communist” movement to give “the people” themselves control over the profits their own efforts create—then we no longer act and live just as isolated individuals, but as parts of a whole, of an “us” in effect.

One of the times he said that sort of thing, Riley added that such movements are the genuine way to address the real problems that we face, which, he affirmed, are not just a bunch isolated, individual problems. “Our” real problems are not just my problems, plus your problems, plus his, her, and their problems, as our global-economy simulacrum of a culture would have us believe (my words there, not his—though I doubt he’d spit them out in disgust). Rather, “our” real problems are group problems, problems that “we” have together (and that we therefore must also address together, in “movements”).

So the message he was delivering nicely matched the delivery-system he was using to deliver it, that is, the delivery-system of The Coup’s Shadowbox project itself, which was such an inclusive, “all of us” sort of thing, as I’ve tried to make clear, and as it so powerfully struck me as being. That effectively effected creation of a new body of which I experienced myself to be a part was a coup The Coup strongly delivered to me, at least. Yet at another of the times Riley said the thing about movements, a bit earlier that same night, I seemed to receive a counter-coup, as it were. The way I was struck by something else he went on to say at that point ended up in-cluding me personally as part of the “us” of the community at/of the performance only, paradoxically, by ex-cluding me. I’ll try to explain.

What Riley said on the occasion in question was to the effect that trying to address the real problems we all face together by trying to maintain our perceived, precious “independence” in refusing to let ourselves become involved in any “movements,” was “like going to a Coup concert and not dancing.” The only way you really could “attend” a Coup concert, he said, was by joining the dancing. Otherwise, you weren’t really in attendance at all. In my words: Your body might have been there, but you weren’t.

My problem, however, is that, you see, I don’t dance. Often, no-longer-drinking drunks such as myself share with one another how they never danced when they were sober, but that once they belted a few drinks they were disinhibited enough to do so. Well, as I will often tell such other now-abstinent drinkers, not only did I not dance when I was sober. I also did not dance when I was drunk. (“But when I drank, I didn’t give a shit,” I always like to add.)

Well, I could tell you that on Saturday night, August 16, in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts during The Coup’s Shadowbox, when Boots Riley said what he did about how the only way to attend a Coup concert is to join in the dancing, he inadvertently threatened my nearly 28-year sobriety! I could tell you that. But I won’t. It would be a lie.

What he did do, though, was to challenge (say “threaten,” if you like, it doesn’t matter) my sense of being part of the “we” who were all there together in the Yerba Beuna Center attending the Coup concert that night. If you have to dance in order really to attend a Coup concert, then it seemed I was not in attendance, despite my physical presence, my mental presence, and even my shock from the coup The Coup was delivering to me. That left me uneasy and uncertain, since my desire, grounded in my multidimensional presence to the presentation that night, was to be one of “us,” and not just some isolated, dis-involved “me.”

My uneasiness and uncertainty did not last long, however. It found itself dispelled when, a bit later, Boots Riley spoke again about “movements,” and said what I recounted first above—the business about our problems really being our problems, a matter of the group, and not just the personal, individual problems of each one of us. Hearing him say that, and appreciating its truth, suddenly gave me the insight that my own lifelong, total, immobilizing disability/disinclination/dis-capacity to dance—and therewith my very isolation and exclusion—was, if you will, not my fault. I was not to blame for it. My problem was in that sense not just my problem any longer, it was our problem.

I believe that I’ve shared before on this blog a line I treasure from the literature of Narcotics Anonymous. NA is a Twelve-Step group for which I lack the qualifications for membership, insofar as narcotics were never my thing at all. Nevertheless, I easily identify with NA members and have nothing but respect for NA as a group. In fact, it would not be at all off the mark to say that, when it comes to NA, I feel myself to be of the group even if I am not in it, as it were.

That is itself an example of what I’m trying to describe about my non-dancer’s relation to the dance requirement for membership in the group/community constituted by and in participation in The Coup concert I’m addressing: an example of how ex-clusion itself, properly undergone, can be a vehicle for a new, more inclusive in-clusion of its own. But that’s not why I brought NA and its literature up. Rather, I brought it up because of the line from that literature that, as I’ve already mentioned, I treasure. In that line the NA member-authors say, with regard to their being hooked on narcotics, “We are not to blame for our own addictions, but we are responsible for our own recovery.”

Well, what struck me when Boots Riley made his remarks about how our problems are group problems, and not just individual problems was that I was not to blame for my own dance-disability, but that I was responsible for my own recovery from it.

Recovery from dance-disability does not consist in all of a sudden miraculously acquiring the capacity to go out and dance, dance, dance the night away. If it did, then it would not be my own responsibility at all. It would be God’s responsibility, or the responsibility of the dance-doctors, or of whatever other higher authority took care of such things, if there is any such authority. Recovery from dance-disability consists of making and then keeping the decision not to let one’s inability to dance exclude one from the party. There’s more than one way to dance, and the challenge to those who would recover from dance-disability is to find how to make not-dancing into its own way to dance.

As it happens, what came to my mind on the recent evening of August 16 as I stood listening to The Coup in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and I heard Boots Riley remind us that our problems are really our problems, was not that fine line from NA. It was, instead, Russell Banks’ 1989 novel Affliction.

I used Banks’ later novel Cloudsplitter, about the abolitionist John Brown, in the final post of the preceding series on this blog. I finished writing that post just a day or so before my wife and I took off for San Francisco to attend The Coup’s concert. (Our internet connection went down just before I finished writing the post, so even though it was already written before we left, I did not actually post it until just the other day, after we got back to New Jersey and were able to get our internet service back.) Because of using Cloudsplitter in that preceding post, I had decided to go back and read Affliction, which I’ve meant to read for years, but never got around to till now. So I downloaded the e-version of the book and took it with me to read while we visited California and attended The Coup’s concert.

Affliction is the story of Wade Whitehouse, a 41-year-old man. Interestingly, Boots Riley is roughly the same age now, by the way, so perhaps my mental pairing up of the two on August 16 at the concert was in part affected by that analogy. At any rate, Wade Whitehouse is an American male who is afflicted by a not uncommon American male condition. He comes from a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a passive, acquiescent mother, and hasn’t a clue about how to own his own feelings, ambitions, aspirations, or, in short, life. Wade is robbed of himself, through no fault of his own. He is no more to be blamed for his affliction than narcotics addicts are to be blamed for their addictions.

Nor does the narrow, rural New England world in which he lives offer Wade any real possibility of escape. Indeed (and this is really the same thing, just put a bit differently), it offers him no real possibility even to become fully aware of his own condition. Thus—unlike narcotics addicts fortunate enough not only to bottom out into desperation, but also to find a new option, unavailable to them until then, through NA or the equivalent—Wade is never given so much as the opportunity to assume responsibility for recovering from his afflicted condition.

As a result, he gets locked into repeating the very cycle of violence and abusive parenting (only with differences, of course, as is always the case in such cases) that he so longs to escape. But there is no escape for him, and Banks’ novel (at least read at the surface level, which is what I am doing in my account of it here) chronicles his relentless spiraling downward into violence and murder.

Wade Whitehouse came to my mind on the night of August 16, just a bit over a week ago, when I was feeling so left out of things at the Coup concert and heard Boots Riley talk about our problems being group problems, and not just individual problems. Hearing his remarks triggered my memory of Russell Banks’ novel, which so caringly details how Wade Whitehouse’s problems were, just as Riley was saying, not just Wade’s individual problems, but were generated by the whole constellation of factors that made up Wade’s world: They were “group” problems.

Unlike Wade Whitehouse, who was offered no options, I have found myself offered options for recovering from the afflictions with which I have myself been beset. I have been offered such options more than once, for more than one affliction—or at least for more than one manifestation of my affliction, if there is really only one, in the final analysis. On the night of August 16, 2014, I was offered an option for recovering from the affliction of my radical, total, and irremediable dance-disability. I was shown that my very not-dancing could become, if I would have it be so, a dancing of its own.

For that, I would like to thank The Coup.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Next time, Part Two.

* I must confess I’m not sure whether Wikipedia means that the politics of The Coup is communist, or wants to suggest that there are non-political ways of being communist, such that The Coup might not be communist in those other, non-political ways (maybe The Coup is politically communist but erotically capitalist, for example—whatever that would mean). Either way, the remark raises some questions worth a thought or two—questions that could be summed up under two, using two richly ambiguous expressions: Just what is the politics of art? And just what is the art of politics?