Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

From Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn: A Literary Investigation Into the Writings of Confinement

April 25, 2017

The majority of Anton Chekhov’s short stories are grim vignettes of a troubled and intellectually frustrated people of pre-revolutionary Russia. In many of Chekhov’s works, characters wax philosophically on such subjects as human nature, the contemporarily fraught political climate of Russia, life following the industrial revolution, and so on. Chekhov’s writings, however, always couch his own critiques through his characters, and it is not uncommon for Chekhov to interrupt (or outright ignore) these moments of seriousness and sincerity, leaving the reader with a rather fragmented sense of Chekhov’s own views on these matters. One of his short stories, Ward No. 6, however, is uniquely vivid, charged with mordant critique of the injustices inflicted upon the mentally ill. The degree to which Chekhov’s account is fictionalized remains unclear. It is accepted, however, amongst the Russian people, that Chekhov published Ward No. 6 as a case study depicting the simultaneously ignorant and malicious aspects of Russian medicine. Despite the morbid despair that Chekhov so masterfully captured, this story has influenced Russian intellectuals for a century. It’s a wonder, then, that the obvious links between Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have been rather un(der)explored by literary critics and scholars. For, in reading the works of Solzhenitsyn, one gets the impression that Chekhov’s prescient presence persists in a 21st century Russia.

Chekhov’s influence on Russian thought was such that Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary, once remarked to his sister of the “horror” of reading Ward No. 6. Chekhov’s story was so powerful that Lenin “could not bear to stay in his room” due to the “horror” that had seized him, and went out to find someone to confide in. “‘I absolutely had the feeling,’ he told his sister the next day, ‘that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!’” And indeed, the narrator of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 takes deliberate care to walk the reader into the ward, where they are then confined and forced to bear witness to its secrets. The story begins with a description of the “burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp” of the hospital yard. As if these thorny, unkempt, weedy images were not enough to deter the reader from entering the hospital – “if you are not afraid of being stung by the nettles” – the bleak images only decay in invitingness. Chekhov’s narrator describes the hospital’s “rusty” roof of the hospital, the “tumbling” (presumably crumbling) chimney, the “rotting” steps of the entrance, and the overall overgrown nature of the lifeless place. Indeed, even the “grey” fence has nails on it which “point upwards,” deterring any possibility of cheerful visitors. Chekhov’s narrator concludes these observations by noting that the whole environment had “that peculiar, desolate, God-forsaken look which is only found in our hospital and prison buildings.” These observations take but a paragraph, and yet the tedium of detail contained within harbors the dread of an eternity – the opening paragraph feels, like Lenin said, real, as though the reader is in fact shut up in Ward 6.

Chekhov’s centripetal introduction to Ward No. 6 only worsens in detail as the reader enters the hospital, as the narrator forces the reader to endure the “sickly smell” of the building, the “heaps” of rubbish lining the building’s interior. The building’s walls are “dirty,” its ceiling is “sooty,” the windows are “disfigured” by iron bars, and the grey, wooden floor is “full of splinters.” Finally, after walking past this disgusting scene, Chekhov’s narrator introduces the “lunatics” of the ward.

Compared to the dismal setting, the five lunatics are surprisingly normal, one of which is described as “upper class,” while the rest are “artisans.” Each ward member’s mental illness is unique: the Jew Moiseika is described as a harmless simpleton (always begging for a kopeck), Ivan Dmitritch Gromov suffers from a (not altogether unreasonable) mania of persecution, and so on. With the exception of Nikita, the brutal porter, each member of the story is described in genuinely pitiable terms. Chekhov’s portrayal of the contextual and causal stories of degenerative mental health illustrates the compassionate view that, unfairly, the “dull” and “stifling” town was what drove people into the ward; that is, the Russian people were bound to end up in the “monotonous” ward. The ward, once entered, functions as all such isolating government institutions are designed: to prevent people from escaping.

It is with these aporetic insights into the inner machinations of the hospital that the morally aggressive tenor of Chekhov’s story first asserts itself. The character Ivan, with whom the doctor Andrey would later argue, muses on theories of justice in relation to his own position in the ward. Recalling Chekhov’s earlier likening of the hospital to a prison, Ivan’s observation that “the agelong experience of the simple people teaches that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from,” suggests a moment where Chekhov’s own moral indictments arise in the story. Ivan observes how a “judicial mistake” could be at the heart of some of the country’s worst sufferings, and concludes that “people who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings […] in the course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients.” One thing – “time” – is at the heart of this callousness.

Ivan’s indictment of the professional, callous relationship to suffering eventually manifests itself in the ward’s doctor, Andrey Yefimitch Ragin. Chekhov introduces the doctor in optimistic terms. Andrey is described as shabby but intelligent, with a morally alert conscience: “Andrey Yefimitch came to the conclusion that [the ward] was an immoral institution and extremely prejudicial to the health of the townspeople.” Thusfar in the story, Chekhov has given the reader reason to agree with Andrey’s moral concern towards the ward’s institutional efficacy. As Chekhov’s descriptions continue, however, the “callousness” that Ivan described becomes evident. For instance, Andrey loses his status as a sympathetic character through the deadpan delivery of his cynical realization that he is only a cog in the inevitable social machine: “‘I serve in a pernicious institution and receive a salary from people whom I am deceiving. I am not honest, but then, I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” Thus, a culminating moment of the doctor’s waning moral convictions bursts forth in a discussion with Ivan: “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them’” [my italics]. This moment of realization seems to be one of the few moments when Chekhov’s own views bleed through the dialogue of his characters. Andrey’s suggestion that the evils of the ward were “inevitable,” that the very existence of the institution was “pernicious,” as their empty wards magnetically trapped their future patients – all of these observations speak to the existing institutions that Chekhov was clearly critiquing in his short story. Similarly, all of them undermine the attitude that the doctor was “an oracle who must be believed without any criticism even if he had poured molten lead into their mouths.”

Another trenchant critique in Ward No. 6 is displayed through Chekhov’s scrutiny of stoic philosophy, as argued by Andrey. During an exchange between Andrey and Ivan, Chekhov’s position on the question of how to properly address the problem of human suffering is illuminated. By this point in the story, the reader has good reason to scrutinize Andrey’s aphoristic suggestion that “the wise man, or simply the reflecting, thoughtful man, is distinguished precisely by his contempt for suffering; he is always contented and surprised at nothing.” Here, Andrey is parroting Marcus Aurelius, the great stoic philosopher. It is very possible that Chekhov was sympathetic with the stoics’ existential project, as he demonstrates a deep understanding of their ideals, but the passion with which his character, Ivan, refutes Andrey suggests an opposing interpretation:

To pain I respond with tears and outcries, to baseness with indignation, to filth with loathing. To my mind, that is just what is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is, and the more feebly it reacts to stimulus; and the higher it is, the more responsively and vigorously it reacts to reality. How do you not know that?

Ivan continues, arguing that Andrey’s adherence to stoicism is insincere, and in fact “quite unintelligible” to the majority of all men. The reason that the doctor is able to speak with such blasé regarding human suffering, Ivan argues, is that Andrey was “only theoretically acquainted with reality.” Similarly, the doctor is only theoretically acquainted with suffering, hence his stoic view. Chekhov’s own attitude towards human suffering, cloaked within this argument, starts to take shape through the bickering of the ward members.

Chekhov’s commentary on human suffering is left unspoken for the majority of the story’s final pages, until, suddenly, Andrey finds himself thrown in the ward with Ivan and the others. Upon realizing that the new ward member was the (now former) doctor, Ivan hoots with excitement, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours. Excellent!” In other words, Andrey no longer will be able to maintain his strictly “theoretical” understanding with suffering; he is now one of the “lunatics” that he was in charge of. “Cursed life,” grumbles Andrey, “and what’s bitter and insulting, this life will not end in compensation for our sufferings, it will not end with apotheosis […] but with death.” As Andrey curses his new condition, he tries to find any possible way to break the monotony of the ward. He looks out the window, observing the yard, the moon, the fence, and thinks, “This [is a] prison.” Again, the analogy between prisons and hospitals becomes unignorable. The key connection, for Chekhov, seems to be in the forced “waiting” that is shared both in prisons and in hospitals; it is in the waiting that insanity truly develops, that psychological suffering becomes unimaginable:

[Andrey] bit the pillow from pain and clenched his teeth, and all at once through the chaos in his brain there flashed the terrible unbearable thought that these people, who seemed now like black shadows in the moonlight, had to endure such pain day by day for years. How could it have happened that for more than twenty years he had not known it and had refused to know it?

It is with this realization that Andrey finally regains some sympathetic qualities to his character. After beginning to experience the suffering of others, he can finally begin to understand it as well. Like so many of Chekhov’s prescient writings, this discussion of human suffering would remain relevant throughout the eminent Russian revolutions, specifically in the labor camps where unspeakable, incalculable amounts of human suffering were inflicted on the Russian people.

One can find the perennial relevance of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6, its critique of contemporary institutions, and its investigation into the problem of human suffering, all within the writings of another powerful Russian writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Chekhov’s influence is most explicitly acknowledged in the “Interrogation” chapter of Solzhenitsyn’s infamous (and formerly banned) book, The Gulag Archipelago:

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia […] not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

This insight must not be taken lightly, and is nested in a broader discussion – the topic Solzhenitsyn’s chapter refers to – of the tortures inflicted on Solzhenitsyn and others in the Gulag. Half a century divides Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, and so one senses in Solzhenitsyn’s writings a matured view of mental health from Chekhov’s 19th century understanding. To that end, one of the largest differences between these authors is the aforementioned normalcy with which Chekhov cloaks the conditions of the ward members. That is, the characters of Ward No. 6 all seem to have fallen ill gradually, with little explanation; Solzhenitsyn suggests that the Gulag was enough to reliably produce insanity. And it is no coincidence that Solzhenitsyn evokes the insane asylum in the same sentence that he mentions Chekhov’s characters.

As Chekhov’s story condemns the tendency of institutions to fill themselves (specifically the hospital, but also the prison system), so too does Solzhenitsyn indict the system of Russian prison camps. Though these prison camps were entirely unlike any prison contemporary to Chekhov’s life, one can still trace a similar critique through Chekhov’s writings and into Solzhenitsyn’s. The early chapters of Gulag Archipelago describe the soaring rates of arrest in Russia – which led to Solzhenitsyn’s own imprisonment – the contagiousness of which spared no one. “The circles kept getting bigger,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “as they raked in ordinary believers as well, old people, and particularly women.” The “circles” Solzhenitsyn describes refer to are the concentric social circles which grew exponentially as the definition of a “traitor” broadened. Whereas Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs began arresting people on ostensibly evidential grounds, soon they were arresting people to inspire political fear, citing “incidental irrelevancies” as warrant for arrest. And thus one can see the connection to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and the warnings embedded in Andrey’s observation that “‘So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them.’” It’s as though Solzhenitsyn’s writings demonstrate the veracity of Andrey’s cynical pronouncement in Ward No. 6. For as soon as the parameters expand of what constitutes grounds for arrest, naturally more arrests were made in Russia. This influx of arrested citizens would require more, larger institutions and, thus, “someone must be shut up in them” [again, my italics].  

The parallels between the writings of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov are so obvious, that even Solzhenitsyn’s gloomy description of the prison -an unintelligibly dismal venue – echoes the depressing introduction to Chekhov’s Ward No. 6. “We have been happily borne,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings.” Immediately this description of the “crooked streets” recalls the “narrow footpath” leading to the hospital in Ward No. 6. Furthermore, the adjectives in Solzhenitsyn’s description – “rotting,” “rammed earth” – match with the objects in Chekhov’s story – the rusted roof, the iron gratings, barbed fences, crumbling brick, and so on. Solzhenitsyn goes further, however, to explicate the authorial intent which Chekhov has hidden in Ward No. 6, namely that “We have never given a thought to what lies behind [the walls of the institution]. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.” While Solzhenitsyn is writing of prison walls, as opposed to hospital walls, the broader principle rings true throughout Chekhov’s story. Not only has Chekhov already made the connection between the “God-forsaken” atmospheres of prisons and hospitals, but one can also find a double meaning in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. It’s as though Chekhov wrote Ward No. 6 because we have “never given a thought” to what lies behind the hospital walls; furthermore, “we have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or our understanding.”

A final, crucial consideration regarding the similarities between Ward No. 6 and Gulag Archipelago is in the way both authors pull the reader into a confined space along with the prisoner or ward member. As Chekhov’s introductory description makes the reader feel like a patient being escorted into the ward, so too does Solzhenitsyn drag the arrested reader into the Gulag: “And all of a sudden the fateful gate swings quickly open, and four white male hands, unaccustomed to physical labor but nonetheless strong and tenacious, grab us by the leg, arm, collar, cap, ear, and drag us in like a sack, and the gate behind us, the gate to our past life, is slammed shut once and for all.” Solzhenitsyn’s description is startling in its brevity – “all of a sudden” the gate “swings quickly” open – and yet also suggests the agony, through precision of detail, that one must have felt while being grabbed. Solzhenitsyn names the series of body parts these prisoners are likely to be grabbed by, which evoke the multiple “white male hands,” indiscriminate in their treatment of the prisoners. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn’s analogy of the human body being treated like a “sack” reinforces the inhuman, impersonal nature of the prison guards. And, as the doors to the ward close forever on Andrey, a physical barrier between the doctor’s old “sane” life and his new “insane” one, so too do the prison gates close between Solzhenitsyn’s old and new life.

A less explicit connection between the writings of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn is to be found in Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Though the titles share the word “Ward” in their title, the narrative arc of the two stories – Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward – could hardly be more different. The ward of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, unlike Chekhov’s, is number thirteen, the cancer wing of the hospital. Time had progressed many decades since Ward No. 6, and the characters within Solzhenitsyn’s ward are written very differently. Yet, there are intense similarities as well throughout both stories. Early on in the novel, Solzhenitsyn repurposes a nearly identical description from Gulag of the “door to all your past life” being slammed behind you upon entry into the ward: “it frightened you more than the actual tumor.” This could also be said of Chekhov’s mental ward, and the fear Andrey feels upon his entry as a patient. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s protagonist, Pavel Nikolayevich, shares the same disdain for the “uncultured creatures” of the town and the ward that is displayed in Chekhov’s character, Andrey, and his pretentious arrangements and tastes. And, as with Chekhov’s ward and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, characters in Cancer Ward remark on the idea that “even if [the hospital staff] do let you go home, you’ll be back here pretty quick […] once [the doctor has] grabbed you with his pincers, he won’t let go till you croak.” This common theme, as it runs through the works of Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov, maintains the idea that institutions function to prevent escape, even if patients don’t belong in them.

The Chekhovian parallels in Cancer Ward continue, recalling Ivan’s accusation in Ward No. 6 that Andrey’s intellectualism was insincere, that his theoretical understanding of suffering was insufficient to truly understand suffering. Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, reminds Dyomka, another ward member, that “education doesn’t make you smarter.” Dyomka questions this, to which Kostoglotov clarifies, “Life, that’s what [makes you smarter].” Though the power dynamics of this scene differ from Chekhov’s ward, there is still the intense debate of ideas – distinguishing the differing values of theoretical versus practical education and understanding – which seems to be Solzhenitsyn speaking, like Chekhov, through the characters in the ward.

As Chekhov’s story describes the callous, professional relation to suffering that doctors have, so too does Solzhenitsyn’s story remark that “an unpleasant feature of all public hospitals is that nobody stops for a moment to exchange a few words.” The impersonal haste of hospitals is reflected more in the contemporary story of the cancer ward than in Chekhov’s mental ward. Likewise, even Solzhenitsyn’s doctor parallels that of Chekhov’s doctor, Andrey, recalling – through a more contemporary lens – the desensitization of doctors to their patients. Kostoglotov, in a rare moment of gentle conversation, remarks to the doctor in charge of his care:

‘No sooner does a patient come to you than you begin to do all his thinking for him. After that, the thinking’s done by your standing orders, your five-minute conferences, your program, your plan and the honor of your medical department. And once again I become a grain of sand, just as I was in the camp. Once again nothing depends on me.’

This exchange recalls, not only the “callous” professional interactions of doctor and patient, but also Andrey’s nihilistic declaration that “‘I of myself am nothing, I am only part of an inevitable social evil.’” The tone of Solzhenitsyn’s character, Kostoglotov, has the same tenor of feeling like “nothing” is of consequence for their position in the ward. Like Chekhov’s characters, the physical space of the ward – the sheer proximity of it, the closeness, the “God-forsaken” nature of the building – shapes the interactions more than any moral qualities of the characters themselves.

As though the parallels were not enough between the prose, plot, setting, and other crucial features of Ward No. 6 and Cancer Ward, there is the deeper political critique of their stories. As John Arnold suggests in his book, Life Conquers Death, “just as Chekhov’s Ward 6 was read as an allegory of Tsarist Russia, so Cancer Ward can be read as an allegory of the contemporary Soviet Union.” Arnold’s analogy is apt, especially in that Chekhov’s critique of Russia was less overt than Solzhenitsyn’s. Though, the concern remains, that “the allegorical method of interpretation” tends toward “simplistic [political] exegesis,” thus, we should limit such speculation when explicit evidence isn’t present in these texts. And yet, as Jeffrey Meyers argues in his article, “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease,” there is an undeniable connection between the project of these two writers: courageously confronting disease, profound sympathy for the diseased, a “transformation of the clinical into the poetical,” and the moral examination of social pathology. Even if we are to ignore the similarities between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn in terms of style, detail, prose, or subject matter, these writers indisputably have overlapping moral concern with aspects of Russian medicine and confinement.

It would be impossible to exhaust the literary connections between Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s writings within the space of a single essay. Rather, other critics have suggested, “[Chekhov] is indeed a cultural inheritance and always present in the consciousness of any Russian reader,” an inheritance which can certainly be seen in the writings of Solzhenitsyn. A plethora of possible connections remain between Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag Archipelago and Chekhov’s similarly autobiographical exploration of Russian penal camps, as recounted in Sakhalin Island. Natalia Pervukhin goes so far as to suggest that Solzhenitsyn practically litters his writings with references to Chekhov – forty in one book alone. These connections, rich as they surely are, would require an entirely additional literary investigation to bear out.


Works Cited

Arnold, John. Life Conquers Death: Meditations on the Garden, the Cross, and the Tree of Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, Richard Ford, and Constance Garnett. “Ward No. 6.” The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, NY: Ecco, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015. N. pag. Print.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 1983, pp. 54–68.,

Pervukhin, Natalia. “The ‘Experiment in Literary Investigation’ (Čexov’s Saxalin and Solženicyn’s Gulag).” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 35, no. 4, 1991, pp. 489–502.,

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Cancer Ward. New York: Dell, 1968. Print.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956. an Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007. Print.

Wilson, Edmund. To the Finland Station: A Study in Writing and Acting of History with a New Introduction. New York, NY: Noonday, 1999. Print.


Narratricide: An Analysis of the Tree in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot

March 1, 2017


“I don’t know why, but I just don’t trust trees. I appreciate that they are supposed to provide oxygen for us, but I’m not entirely sure that I believe that. They intimidate me—probably because I’ll end up dressed in one before long.”
—Jarvis Cocker

The famously sparse stage directions of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot begin with three terse images: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Beckett’s simple images are often deceptive and transmographic – ideas that resist any artistic tendency to linger over specificity or detail. Lest the mind become lulled into lazy, comfortable patterns of thinking, Beckett creates images that take on quasi-symbolic roles, serving to provoke an unclarity in the imagination. This lack of clarity is employed by Beckett to suggest what is suggestible but isn’t already there on stage, or on paper, mise en scene. Of the three opening stage directions, the tree becomes of most concern – mostly because it recurringly appears, but also because of its narratological significance. Though the tree appears to be as symbolically feeble as its branches, it keeps Godot’s characters rooted to the spot throughout the play.

Beckett’s stage directions are rather bare like Godot’s tree, and have presented a challenge to set designers over the years. Indeed, Beckett himself fell victim to his own brevity in 1961, attempting to revive Godot in Paris. At the time, Beckett had found himself persistently critical of the productions of his own works, particularly the shortcomings of set designers for Godot. Thus, in 1961, Beckett reached out to Alberto Giacometti, a sculptor with whom he had long held drinking ties. Giacometti’s task was to collaborate with Beckett on the (in)famed tree’s design, a task which “confounded them both.” Beckett and Giacometti spent the whole night sculpting Godot’s tree, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good,” wrote Giacometti, “and neither he nor I liked it. And we kept saying to each other, Perhaps like this…” It is with this anecdote in mind that Siobhan Bohnacker writes, “What motivates Beckett’s protagonists is the pursuit of the Absolute, similar to [Beckett and Giacometti’s] persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.” In comparing Beckett and Giacometti to Godot’s characters, Estragon and Vladimir, one can see how Beckett eventually embodied the very “plot” to which he subjected Godot’s characters: waiting. It’s as though Beckett, in leaving the stage directions as bare as the tree he wrote, was playing a trick on himself, taunting his future self’s frustrated attempts to reify what would otherwise belong to the hidden, personal realms of the imagination.

Beckett’s tree frustrated not only himself and his sculpting companion, but the characters in (and audiences to) Godot as well. In Beckett’s play, the tree is first acknowledged by the characters when Estragon questions Vladimir on why they are, in fact, waiting for Godot – and yet this serves to calm no one and solves no questions:

Estragon: [despairingly] Ah! [Pause.] You’re sure it was here?
Vladimir: What?
Estragon: That we were to wait.
Vladimir: He said by the tree. [They look at the tree.] Do you see any others.
Estragon: What is it?
Vladimir: I don’t know. A willow.
Estragon: Where are the leaves?
Vladimir: It must be dead.
Estragon: No more weeping.
Vladimir: Or perhaps it’s not the season.

The tree, in this scene, serves as an organizing plot device which anchors Vladimir and Estragon to the location that will remain constant on stage throughout Godot’s performance. They are waiting there, on stage, because “he” (presumably Godot) told them to wait by the tree. And yet, “he” is never quite specified, nor is Godot ever made present to Beckett’s characters. It’s as though this tree were a stand-in for Godot himself. What’s curious about this interpretation, however, is in the symbolism underlying Vladimir’s characterization of the tree as “a willow” and the subsequent exchange that follows. For the image of the willow tree is religiously charged, both in the Celtic and Christian traditions (which Beckett, an Irish expatriate, would be no stranger to). Planted in memorial of the dead, a willow tree is a sign both of grief and of hope for new life. Furthermore, willows are usually planted along the coast of a body of water, at a site that physically represents the ever-changing nature of life. It is with these mortal concerns in mind that one can find morbid humor in Estragon’s classic non-sequitur, “No more weeping.”

The debate between Estragon and Vladimir regarding the tree’s “tree” status is also of note for Godot. In an otherwise humorous exchange that wouldn’t be out of place in a Monty Python skit, the tree is examined:

Estragon: Looks to me more like a bush.
Vladimir: A shrub.
Estragon: A bush.
Vladimir: A–. What are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

As the characters argue about the nature of the tree (as a beaconing object) by which they were told to wait for Godot, they simultaneously call its role as a symbol into question. If we entertain the common interpretation of Godot’s (lack of) arrival as symbolizing salvation for Vladimir and Estragon (i.e. Waiting for Salvation), then the characters, as early as the sixth page of the play, negate the tree’s possibility as a “site of salvation.” For, in questioning its existence as a tree, Vladimir and Estragon question salvation itself. Despite their simultaneous faith and eschatological skepticism towards Godot’s arrival, the characters remain rooted to the spot, in vain, waiting for Godot.

Staring into the blank, infinite morass of boredom, Estragon eventually offers to Vladimir a solution to confront their own existential ennui: “What about hanging ourselves?” In other words, Estragon presents an inversion to their own hopeless situation of boredom; if salvation isn’t coming for them, then they must confront it themselves, by suicide. Both characters rather abruptly agree that hanging themselves would indeed be a welcome respite from their endless waiting (as Estragon continues, “Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”). Yet, Beckett doesn’t allow the tree to provide the characters (or the audience, in fact) with the means to flee their existential confinement. Rather, as the characters quickly discover, the tree’s branches wouldn’t be strong enough to hang even one of them. Thus, Estragon and Vladimir are forced to abandon their suicidal impulses (to kill time), lingering around this tree, waiting for Godot.

Act Two begins with more robust stage directions, including how “The tree has four or five leaves,” a marked change from yesterday’s bare limbs. The stage directions continue, as Vladimir enters “agitatedly” and “halts,” taking a long look at the tree. Then, as though the tree’s regeneration has sparked some kind of revelation (or panic) in Vladimir’s mind, he “suddenly begins to move feverishly about the stage.” Unlike the introduction to Act One, the second act overtly begins with the tree as the main object of concern in the play. As critics of Godot, such as Emily Atkins, have suggested, the tree’s very obvious presence in the beginning of the second act is an “indication of the characters’ impending salvation.” The dawn of the new day in Act Two is accompanied by a seemingly symbolic regeneration of the tree – an act which harkens (and yet subverts) mythology from time immemorial such as the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, and so on. The tree’s regeneration deceptively suggests that the second act will bring about the conclusion for which Vladimir, Estragon, and the audience, are waiting for.

Further on in Godot’s second act, Vladimir and Estragon reenact a scene from Act One. Estragon asks Vladimir what they do now that they are “happy,” to which Vladimir responds, “Wait for Godot. [Estragon groans. Silence.] Things have changed here since yesterday.” After a moment of puzzlement between the two characters, Vladimir implores Estragon to look at the tree:

Vladimir: The tree, look at the tree. [Estragon looks at the tree.]
Estragon: Was it not there yesterday?
Vladimir: Yes of course it was there. Do you not remember? We nearly hanged ourselves
    from it. But you wouldn’t. Do you remember?
Estragon: You dreamt it.
Vladimir: Is it possible you’ve forgotten already?
Estragon: That’s the way I am. Either I forget immediately or I never forget.

This exchange between Beckett’s characters must indeed be as frustrating to the audience as it is to his characters. As far as the audience (and Vladimir) is concerned, the tree is the same – give or take a few leaves. Estragon, on the other hand, in the act of forgetting, radically calls the tree’s continuity into question: “Recognize! What is there to recognize?” However, as Atkins suggests, Estragon is not madly arguing against Vladimir’s memory – the tree is clearly on set, and the characters have interacted with it multiple times – thus Estragon’s “exclamation” of recognition must be interpreted as his undermining the very stability of symbolic meaning, as well as the stability of memory’s fixation of objects (such as the tree) in time. Atkins concludes that Estragon’s outburst “undermines any hope that the tree is moving toward a symbol of possible redemption, despite its new leaves.”

Further on in Godot, Vladimir and Estragon return to their hollow affirmations of happiness. Trailing off between ellipses, Vladimir drones on:

Vladimir: Wait…we embraced…we were happy..happy…what do we do now that we’re happy…go on waiting…waiting…let me think…it’s coming…go on waiting…now that we’re happy…let me see…ah! The tree!
Estragon: The tree?
Vladimir: Do you not remember?
Estragon: I’m tired.
Vladimir: Look at it. [They look at the tree.]
Estragon: I see nothing.

As Vladimir seems to recognize in this scene of meditation around the tree, happiness is manifest through his memory, not through his experience of the present. His insistence that “we were happy” [my italics] coupled with “go on waiting” indicates that happiness, as conceptualized in Godot, is as transient as the other fleeting aspects of this play. That is, happiness is something only identifiable in retrospect, and if we seek to prosthetically emulate the feeling in the present, then we will, like Vladimir, “go on waiting.” The characters in Godot are so intent on coming to an end – a conclusion, a closed stage curtain, Godot’s arrival, etc. – that they have, like Estragon, missed what has been right in front of their eyes for the entire play: the tree and its new leaves.

Vladimir is not willing to allow Estragon’s forgetfulness to distract the audience from the tree’s newly formed leaves. He insists that the tree has significance, that the seasons have changed, that time has passed:

Vladimir: But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it’s covered with leaves.
Estragon: Leaves?
Vladimir: In a single night.
Estragon: It must be the Spring.
Vladimir: But in a single night!

Vladimir and Estragon have radically different interpretations of the tree’s imbued significance, both as a stage prop and a symbol of potential meaning. Vladimir, excited by the tree’s new leaves, projects hope (for the future, for life, for creation) onto the tree, while Estragon sees the tree with a sense of loss (of memory, of time, of meaning). Atkins suggests that, “by playing with the image in this way, Beckett removes its ability to convey a set answer or explanation to his characters or his audience. It is up to each person to determine for himself the tree’s ultimate significance.” The tree, devoid of objective meaning, purposefully presented as an anti-symbolic image, becomes itself a kind of character – one which the audience must interact with as they negotiate the tree’s meaning.

The tree, understood as a symbol of a symbol, is an instance of what H. Porter Abbot calls “narratricide,” a dismemberment of narrative meaning. In his book, Beckett Writing Beckett, Abbot writes, “[Beckett’s] texts are littered everywhere with the barest fragments of narrative irrelevancy which lead nowhere and […] frequently feature objects,” a tree in this case, “which augment their alinear, achronological condition.” The tree in Godot, according to Abbot, augments the achronological condition of Vladimir and Estragon’s predicament, serving to alienate (rather than situate) them within the broader narrative arc – if that could be said – of Godot. Beckett, it would seem, “unwrites” his images as soon as he allows us to see them.

As the second act progresses, Vladimir and Estragon mistakenly hope for a moment that Godot is on his way (“At last!” “We’re saved!”), only to panic in the realization that they are “surrounded.” The characters rush to escape the scene, and Vladimir says to Estragon:

Vladimir: Your only hope is to disappear.
Estragon: Where?
Vladimir: Behind the tree. [Estragon hesitates.] Quick! Behind the tree. [Estragon goes and crouches behind the tree, realizes he is not hidden, comes out from behind the tree.] Decidedly this tree will not have been the slightest use to us.

This moment of comic relief demonstrates yet again the tree’s loss of all objective meaning. Not only is the tree “useless” to the characters as a source of symbolic meaning, but it is useless as a physical prop to hide behind. Vladimir’s remark, despite its self-referential tone, speaks to our need as an audience to have allegorical meaning imbued in scenes such as this one in Godot. By resisting the obvious symbolism of trees, Beckett presents to us an image as image, or, as Abbot writes, “an image of an image.” The image of an image, in Abbot’s conception, is not penetrable in the way that a traditionally symbolic image would be. The tree, then, does not offer concrete, objective meaning to the audience; it rather opens up the audience to projecting their own meaning onto the tree.

As Godot concludes, Estragon suggests to Vladimir that they abandon their persistent waiting. This sense of downtrodden failure, fatigue, and spiritual famine culminates in one final scene with the tree:

Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.
Estragon: [looking at the tree] What is it?
Vladimir: It’s the tree.

To this end, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s On Certainty comes to mind, in which he expounds upon theories of epistemic agreement. “The information ‘That is a tree,’ when no one could doubt it,” Wittgenstein writes, “might be a kind of joke and as such have meaning.” In this light, Vladimir’s remark, “It’s the tree,” become itself a sort of joke which we, the audience, are in on. Wittgenstein’s idea is that making obvious remarks, such as Vladimir’s, is a way of turning what is otherwise forgettably mundane into something remarkably memorable – in this case, Godot’s tree. Vladmir’s comment could also be interpreted as “a platitude that houses a profundity,” as Matthew Bevin suggests, or that the presence of the tree is a paradox: “things are both clear and not clear.” If Bevin is correct, then Wittgenstein’s remark that “a good and serious philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes” becomes all the more relevant to Beckett’s play. For, as is frustratingly evident in Beckett’s writings, Beckett was well-versed in philosophy and yet refused to engage seriously in its work. If Wittgenstein can be read as applying to Beckett, then it seems that this tree – a joke, in Wittgenstein’s conception – appears to meta-textually evoke the sort of “serious” philosophical work that Beckett refused to write.

[Estragon draws Vladimir towards the tree. They stand motionless before it. Silence.]
Estragon: Why don’t we hang ourselves?


Threading the Temporal Needle: The Dada Movement’s Flight From Time

December 11, 2016



Many Dadaist authors accept the malleable and elusive nature of trying to aphoristically define “Dada” in a traditional line definition. To that end, my own survey of the Dada movement has been tailored towards proposing my own definition. But, as one might expect, this aim has yielded little in the way of conceptual motif. One idea, however, is constant throughout the works of each Dadaist author: a hyper-sensitivity and resistance to time passing. Embedded in this line of inquiry is the implicit division between scholarly understanding of the Dada movement as a historical phenomenon–as “creatures of their epoch”–and as state of mind, something enduring beyond its historical situation. Inevitably and inexorably, the Dadaist’s attempt to escape time failed–time moved on–but looking at the Dada movement as “anti-time” serves as an example as to how we can better understand our mortal relation to time’s passing.

Creatures of their Epoch

Looking back on the Dada movement, Hans Richter concluded that “each generation must have its own avant-garde.” Given that the Dada movement was, in essence, the definitive avant-garde around the time of World War I, the immediate aim of the avant-garde, for Richter, “was an action directed against the conventional routine with which the generation preceding [them] made war, rules, art, and [the Dadaists].” The negation of convention and historical precedent “broke up what was past & dead, and opened the way to emotional experience from which all the arts profited and still profit.” Thus, ironically, despite the Dada movement’s recalcitrance to their own epoch, we have inherited the Dada movement as a tradition in art, an emotional experience (often of shock or liberation) that is both immediate and historical.

The Dada movement didn’t announce itself as the self-appointed avant-garde, though they readily adopted the title and exploited it. “It wasn’t Dadaists who made Dada;” writes Jed Rasula, “the times themselves propitiously excreted Dadaists like lava from a volcano…they were merely holding a mirror up to the audience to cull its opposite, a pure distillation straight from the age itself.” Reflected in the mirror, the tempestuous conditions of their time would have appeared so disgusting to the Dadaists that their art would have very consciously, according to Tristan Tzara, presented the “thousandfold problems of the day, the art which has been visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash.”. Tzara continues to argue that the “true” artist would be one who, at every hour, would “snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.” The “frenzied cataract of life,” the historical epoch in which the Dadaists found themselves, was to be torn away as an ultimate project of the “true” Dadaists.

The essence of how the Dada movement responded to their historical epoch, is captured in Tzara’s Zurich Chronicle: “But the mechanism turns / turn turn Baedeker nocturnes of history / brush the teeth of the hours.” The “mechanism” Tzara refers to can be understood as the rise of industrialism and nationalism that swept the turn of the century, almost as if history itself–the myth of human progress–was a machine that ground up all in its wake. As this machine turns, Tzara points us to “Baedeker nocturnes of history.” Understanding “Baedeker” as a term for map or guide to the “nocturnes” of history, Tzara suggests that an understanding of the “mechanism” of time serves as a roadmap through human history, specifically the dark parts: namely, war. Thus, we understand Tzara’s final line, “brush the teeth of the hours,” to convey our need for a hygienic cleansing of the temporal palette–so as to live better, more harmonious lives–which Modernism had, in Tzara’s view, corrupted.

Tzara’s jabbings at modernity are echoes in Hans Arp’s Notes from a Dada Diary, in which Arp jabs instead at expressions of modern economics, namely, capitalism: “was there ever a bigger swine than the man who invented the expression time is money. time and space no longer exist for modern man.” If we ignore Arp’s resistance to punctuation and capitalization, the critique of modernity embedded within his writings suggests a similar account to Tzara’s own. For instance, in asserting that the cliche, “time is money,” came from the mouth of a swine, Arp echoes the grumblings of Marx and the anti-capitalists, Tzara’s notion of the “Baedeker nocturnes” of Modernism’s unhygienic palette. Arp’s critique of modern values, specifically capitalistic currency and its commodification of time, is yet another instance of the Dadaists undermining the imposing presence of both modernity and time’s passage.

In considering the question of Dada’s relation to time’s passage, the question inevitably arises regarding the dualistic nature of the Dada movement: that of being a historical phenomena and/or an attitudinal state of mind. “Dada is ageless,” proposes George Hugnet in his The Dada Spirit in Painting. Hugnet’s conception of Dada as “ageless” is clear evidence to ground an understanding of the Dada movement as a state of mind, a flight from time. But Hugnet’s indelible image of Dada being a “scarecrow erected at the crossroads of the epoch” is ample reason to take both views into serious consideration. As scarecrows were first invented to protect the land of Egyptian farmers, so too was the Dada movement itself a scarecrow to protect art (and reason) from itself, as manifest in modernity. “Dada made a clean sweep of the past,” writes Hugnet, “the state of mind represented by Dada was only a state of mind.” In negating the past as a value, Hugnet clarifies how the Dada movement repudiated time’s passage by rendering itself an “an astonishing halting-place, an escape, a liberating, shocking force”; in this instance, Hugnet’s diction is revealing, as it implicitly endorses the notion that the Dadaists succeeded in their attempt to flee from time though the Dada state of mind.

Think Like a Child

The Dada movement, understood as a state of mind which seeks to escape and negate the passage of time, implies the question of what kind of “state of mind” is most characteristic of the attitude of Dadaism. An answer is suggested in Hugo Ball’s Dada Fragments, namely the entry labeled “August 5, 1916,” and its discussion of childhood. Ball writes of childhood as a “new world” which embraces the phantastic, direct, and symbolical “opposition to the senilities of the world of grown ups.” This opposition indicates an implicit duality between adulthood and childhood, the former of which can be characterized as rational (or orderly/boring), indirect, and literal (or, as I prefer, material). The “senilities” to which Ball refers are to be found in these qualities of adulthood, “of a youth which never knew how to be young.” The child, in other words, has access to something alert and real, something not senile, which we as adults have lost access to.

Further on in Ball’s Fragments, he states that “Childhood is not at all as obvious as is generally assumed. It is a world to which hardly any attention is paid, with its own laws, without whose application there is no art.” If we “generally assume” childhood to be “obvious,” then the obviousness of it must be in relation to age. Childhood, in other words, is a very explicit period that our society recognizes; childhood is understood to eventually cease. Furthermore, Ball’s suggestion that the “obvious” characterization of childhood is mistaken, that we are “senile,” invites us to explore childhood as something else, which I’d argue is to be understood as a process of perception. That is, childhood is not just a period of time but a way of being in time. Childhood, then, is accessible to all of us, even now.

In asserting that without the application of childhood there would be no “art,” Ball commits to the claim that all art requires a childlike state of mind. If we consider the Dada movement to be “art” (as opposed to anti-art), then it follows that the Dada movement was, at its heart, a return to a childlike state of mind, a way to escape time.

To further embolden the notion that childhood is an activity of mind (and body), rather than a straightjacket of prepubescence, consider what children are best known for doing: play. Playtime is a common activity in which children are allowed to have fun, that is obvious; but recall, Ball warned us not to buy into “obvious” understandings of childhood. Play–at its essence–is the manipulation of objects and ideas, altering their function in the world; this can be understood as a manifestation of the “credulous imagination” of children that Ball describes. That is, a credulous and imaginative mind is the mind of a child at play (i.e. role playing, acting, even sports, etc.). Due to necessity and responsibility, it is not characteristic of adults to spend time “playing.” To see an adult pretending that a toy airplane is real, or to see them having conversations with a stuffed animal, would lead most bystanding adults to the reasonable conclusion that the “playing” adult were a bit mad. In considering this example of anachronistic childhood (adulthood?), we arrive at the critical component linking Dadaism to childhood: play. Thus, we can see how the Dadaists willingly and actively subverted their “sanity” as adults to escape time’s passage. They became children to avoid going mad.

Our discussion of the Dadaist “childlike” state of mind can be grounded in empiricism through Henri Bergson’s book, Duration and Simultaneity, which discusses the relationship between simultaneity and time. “Ageing and duration belong to the order of quality,” writes Bergson, “no work of analysis can resolve them into pure quantity. Here the thing remains separate from its measurement, which besides, bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself.” Bergson’s distinction between the quality and quantity of ageing (and duration) harkens the Dada movement’s regard for childhood as a (qualitative) state of mind. In dividing the “thing” from its “measurement,” Bergson, like the Dadaists, complicates the self-evidence of childhood. Childhood, then, “bears upon a space representative of time rather than upon time itself,” which is to say that we no longer have “obvious” (recall Ball) means to discuss what childhood is and isn’t.

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows

Time flows flows flows flows Time flows flows

flows flows flows drop by drop

drop drop by drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop drop drop drop by drop drop drop drop

Tristan Tzara, “Handkerchief of the Clouds”

We’ve seen how the child is allowed to play–an activity that otherwise, in adulthood, equates with madness and the absurd–but the adult is not, per se. Adults have professions, not playtime. This lack of play is evidence of what Ball describes as the “corruption and deformation” of the child’s imagination; in learning the rules of society and adulthood, no longer playing, our imaginations–once that of a child–are corrupted and deformed. The antidote, for Ball, is to “surpass oneself in naivete and childishness.” Ask yourself, dear reader, if naivete and childishness of the mind isn’t precisely the right frame from which to participate in producing Dada works. Recall Tristan Tzara’s prescription to cut out every word of the newspaper, gently shake it in a bag, and assemble a poem resembling yourself. Tzara offers us a literal process by which we can, I’d argue, access childhood through the act of playfulness–or, with Ball in mind, a cultivated naivete and childishness.

A final consideration regarding Dadaism and its commitments to a childlike state of mind arises (again) from a rather unexpected discussion of war. War, as discussed in Richard Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, is another activity which challenges our understanding and experience of time. Huelsenbeck writes of war as “the highest expression of the conflicts of things, as a spontaneous eruption of possibilities, as movement, as a simultaneous poem, as a symphony of cries, shots, commands, embodying an attempted solution of the problem of life in motion” [my italics]. War, in other words, is a quintessentially Dadaist facet of humanity. Life, understood as “in motion,” for the Dadaist, is not to be understood simply in terms of physical movement, but rather through movements in time. Hence, the “problem of life,” is that of approaching one’s mortality, of finding oneself in the world, being-towards-death, yet with every action affirming one’s own will-to-live (Nietzschean life-affirmation). Time, in the Dadaist conception, as we’ve explored, is something to be rallied against, a force to be objected to and (simultaneously) obeyed. This temporal function of war yields a particularly odd view of time, namely, simultaneity.

Huelsenbeck continues these aporetic threads of war and simultaneity, regarding Bruitism, as a “return to nature,” and as “the music produced by circuits of atoms,” thus “death ceases to be an escape of the soul from earthly misery and becomes a vomiting, screaming and choking.” Death, for the Dadaists, was likely more real and terrifying than it is for those of us who are not so incriminated in war as they were. In fact, their draft dodging–as opposed to the millions who faced combat in the early 20th century–speaks to their attitudes towards time, as death positioned itself as more immanent for those who’d otherwise be drafted. In avoiding the “vomiting, screaming and choking” of war and death, they were seeking out a creation of the opposite: that which consumes (instead of vomits), which listens (instead of screams), and which breathes (instead of chokes). These qualities are at the essence of life, the essence of childhood, once again; kids don’t do much but consume (food and information), listen (eventually speaking back), and breathe back into the world (as we all must do). In the childlike state of mind, there is no thanatos, only eros; the Dadaist had to confront thanatos to rediscover eros. Furthermore, in understanding the simultaneous nature of childhood–the barrage of new experiences–we now turn to a specific, refined instance of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time: the simultaneous poem.

Hurrah for Simultaneity!

The word “simultaneous,” is first explicated in Huelsenbeck’s En Avant Dada, where he describes simultaneity as that which is “an abstraction, a concept referring to the occurrence of different events at the same time.” Simultaneity, though straightforward as a concept, is complicated by its “abstraction,” in the same way that, when we try to pin down what defines “childhood” (apart from the arbitrary markers of psychological development and physical age) we are faced with capricious distinctions. “[Simultaneity] presupposes a heightened sensitivity to the passage of things in time,” Huelsenbeck writes, “it turns the sequences a=b=c=d into an a-b-c-d,” confusing our distinctions between positions in time, “and attempts to transform the problem of the ear into a problem of the face.” We, in other words, try to falsely identify the distinct moments of transition between the sounds of simultaneity, as manifest in the Dadaist simultaneous poem. “Simultaneity,” for the Dadaist, “is against what has become, and for what is becoming.” It’s as if one could replace the word, “simultaneity” with “childhood”: childhood is against what has become, and is for what is becoming (i.e. Kids are the future!). The simultaneity of the childlike experience was understood by the Dadaists to be a more authentic state of being, a state in which, Huelsenbeck writes, “I become directly aware that I am alive.” This awareness is such that Huelsenbeck concludes, “And so ultimately a simultaneous poem means nothing but ‘Hurrah for life!’” Through this rejoice, one can find further justification for seeking refuge in the childlike state of mind–a celebration for life and a rebellion against death–through simultaneity, as means for escaping the horrors (death) of adulthood.

Returning to the works of Bergson, we find an empirically grounded and philosophically nuanced discussion of simultaneity. It turns out that the Dadaists, lunatics though they might have been, were anticipating contemporaneous (simultaneous!) developments in physics. Bergson first rhetorically asks what simultaneity is, to which he responds, “First, [it is] an instantaneous perception; second, the capacity of our attention to divide itself without being split up.” Thinking of the Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” one can imagine how the experience of either performing or spectating the act of poetic simultaneity would be “instantaneous,” as Bergson writes, and “[divided] without being split up.” That is, perception oscillates between noticing multiple and singular instances of the simultaneous performance. Bergson continues with an appeal to our own faculties: “I open my eyes for a moment: I perceive two flashes in that instant, coming from separate points.” The two “flashes” can be understood as the multiple languages of the simultaneous poem, while the “separate points” represent the performers, separate on stage. “I call them simultaneous because they are both one and two at the same time: they are one in that my act of attention is indivisible, yet they are two in as much [sic] as my attention is at once shared between both of them, divided but not split up.” Thus, an aporia of the mind arises between an “indivisible” perceptive capacity, and the fact that the simultaneous poem demands of the audience to “divide but not split up” this “indivisible” perception. This tension between performer and audience, between indivisible and forcibly divided perception, noticeably alters the experience of identity and time’s passage throughout the performance.

Bergson’s description of simultaneity in physics, as well as in terms of the Dadaist simultaneous poem, has been further explored in modern psychology. These experiences of simultaneity, in which one’s sense of identity is lost and one’s sense of time is distorted, are known in the modern vernacular as “flow states.” Though in their scientific infancy, the study of flow states, specifically the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, reveals that we can improve both our quality of life and our quantity of it by accruing more “flow” in our everyday lives. Understood through the empirical lens, Hugo Ball’s charge to “rewrite life every day!” seems all the more prescient, as Csikzentmihalyi’s work accounts for flow states being a way to escape one’s sense of time’s passage; that is, flow-inducing activities reduce one’s sense of the past and the future. In these states, Bergson might suggest, “I can also conceive how every part of the universe which is mathematically linked to the present and past — that is, the future unfolding of the inorganic world — may be representable in the same schema.” In describing the future as an “inorganic” unfolding of the world, Bergson subtly critiques the conventions of clock time without explicitly naming it. The collapsing of time into one continuous “flow,” as it were–understanding, as the Dadaists did, that “now” is the only moment ever experienced by humans–is best exemplified in the energy of the simultaneous poem, and serves as a successful instance of the Dada movement’s perpetual flight from time.

Be Drunk

Through a temporal survey of the Dada movement, we know that many of the Dadaists had scholarly backgrounds, borrowing from Nietzsche, Freud, and Einstein. What is often scantily explored in the relevant scholarly literature, however, is Charles Baudelaire’s influence on the Dada movement. Regarding our question of how time’s passage appears in the Dada movement, Baudelaire’s figure looms above our discussion. An essential project of the Dada movement was to escape the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time,” according to Hugo Ball. The language of Ball’s declaration is uncannily similar to the language of Baudelaire’s poem, “Be Drunk”, which beautifully wraps up the varying projects of the Dada movement’s attempted escape from time.

“You have to be always drunk,” begins Baudelaire’s poem, “That’s all there is to it–it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.” From the outset, this poem strings together the ideas of time’s passage, death, and drunkenness. The senseless and commonplace death of World War I would have intensely revealed to the Dadaists the “horrible burden” of time, as described by Baudelaire. But, as far as we know, the Dadaists weren’t all raging alcoholics, so Baudelaire continues: “But [drunk] on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.” Baudelaire’s broad definition of drunkenness, as achievable through wine, poetry or virtue, is further revealed in his book, The Painter of Modern Life, through a discussion of the child: “The child sees everything as a novelty; the child is always drunk.” As we’ve seen, the Dadaist imperative to think like a child can be said in another way: the Dadaist imperative is to be drunk. Drunk on wine, drunk on poetry, drunk on virtue or, in the case of the Dadaists, drunk on art, so as to escape time’s “horrible burden.”

Baudelaire’s poem continues with a discussion of sobriety, which is a state that, if we find ourselves in it, we must ask “everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking” what time it is, to which they unanimously reply, “It is time to be drunk!” This beautiful series of images recalls, like childhood, another crucial feature of our discussion: simultaneity. For, if “everything” replies, then everything is happening at once, everything is simultaneous. The response of simultaneity, in Baudelaire’s poem, is an impulse towards drunkenness, an impulse away from time’s “horrible burden.” The Baudelairian sense of drunkenness was, for the Dada movement, at the heart of all their spontaneity, simultaneity, and creativity. They got “drunk” on playfulness, childishness, and were able to forget, for the time, their own passage through time.

In concluding our discussion of Baudelaire’s poem–its precise encapsulation of the Dadaists’ time anxiety and the means to escape it–there is one final consideration. That is, Huelsenbeck’s notion that “everyone can be a Dadaist.” The recurrence of the openness and accessibility of the Dada movement to all individuals is, like time, at the heart of the Dada movement. However, an exploration of Dadaism as a democratic ethos would require another discussion entirely. For our purposes, we are to understand Huelsenbeck to be offering a similar account to Baudelaire’s; that is, the notion that we must always be drunk (regardless of our means and social status) coincides with the notion that we must rewrite life every day (because we all can be (and are!) Dadaists). If we take the Dadaists at their word, and Baudelaire’s drunken proffering, then it becomes apparent that both the Dadaists and Baudelaire found their own unique ways to escape time’s “horrible burden.” Furthermore, if we reinterpret their solution through the lens of modern psychology and its affinity with “flow states,” then we have a road map to reinvigorate the immortality projects of Baudelaire and the Dadaists, recreating them in the twenty-first century, one hundred years later.

The Clock is Ticking

Understanding the Dada movement as a flight from time, the writings of Ball, Tzara, Huelsenbeck and Arp, all propose one constant: the notion that we can, at any moment, escape our epoch, return to childhood, steep ourselves in the simultaneity of the world, allowing for a temporary (temporal) escape from the clutches of clocktime. All of this can be achieved, simply by being a Dadaist. The Dadaist formula is thus one that allows us to veritably “rewrite life every day!”


Dada, Nietzsche, and the Art of Madness:

November 4, 2016


dadaThe Dada movement–a counter-revolutionary recalcitrance to the cultural enshrinement of art, politics, and reason–has been described as “anti-art.” Despite Dadaism’s antagonism towards art, and such post-Enlightenment ideals listed above, many Dadaists and, consequently, much Dadaist art, rebrands the robust and philosophically respected tradition of Nietzschean thought. Their art, in other words, often pays homage to the enduring literary works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

One must not confuse the Dadaists’ ardent interest with the Nietzsche of the Futurists, nor of the Expressionists, but instead, of “the Nietzsche who questioned everything, who found every idol, every truth to be hollow.” The Dadaists are often credited with transgressing the frontiers of the avant-garde, but one can conclude a more academic vision of the Dada movement, that is, as an explosion of Nietzschean thought–manifested through art–at a pertinent and poignant epoch in human history.

Part I: “There are no facts, only interpretations.”

“All becoming conscious is bound up with great and radical perversion, falsification, superficialization, and generalization.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Most fundamental to the Nietzschean influence on the Dadaist movement is what Rudolf Kuenzli calls, Nietzsche’s “radical critique of all cultural values and truths. ” Nietzschean thought is very critical of the “will to truth” because of the intrinsic errors accompanying our normative value judgments regarding existence itself.  The same can be said of the Dadaist attitude toward truth, for asserting that humans don’t accurately understand the world, or that it could be improved, is an act of negation of our own lives. Our will-to-truth, according to Nietzsche, is in bad taste because it vainly seeks something “better,” a state which in actuality does not exist and, thus, makes us miserable. The Dadaists embrace Nietzschean life-affirmation instead, in which life–and, in this case, art–is invited to express itself in its ugliest, otherwise repugnant, forms. In the writings of Andre Breton, for instance, he claims the effect of Dadaist thought serves to “keep us in a state of perfect readiness, from which we now head clear-mindedly toward that which beckons us.” In other words, Dadaism frees one from preoccupation with the culturally invented “truths” of science, reason, and art. These truths are not “clear-minded,” rather they shroud that which is, for Nietzsche and the Dadaists, clear: the naked fact of reality, undisguised. The Dadaists’ skepticism of truth-seeking is predicated on society’s precarious assumption that an objective, epistemological, metaphysical, or moral truth exists; or, that we could obtain some kind of answers from such truth. Nihilistic towards truth, the Dadaists emphatically reject this proposition, chanting, “Nothing, Nothing, Nothing!” These attitudes of Dadaism are, in a self-aware manner, practically plagiaristic of Nietzschean thought.

The Dadaists’ critical (perhaps acritical) attitude towards society’s “will to truth” is revealed in Hugo Ball’s charge that “life asserts itself in contradictions.” This crucial tenet of Dadaist thought is an embrace of what Nietzsche describes as a “Dionysian” worldview, that is, accepting things in totalities. Ball’s conception of the Dadaist is of one who “no longer believes in the comprehension of things from one point of departure, but is nevertheless convinced of the union of all things, of totality, to such an extent that he suffers from dissonances to the point of self dissolution.” The Dionysian reality of the Dadaists resisted the world of “Apollonian” linearity and distinctions, no longer trusting in the straightforwardness of the world. The Dadaist “simultaneous poem,” for instance, is a non-linear rejection of cultural values, expectations, and especially what is thought to be “reasonable” to expect in poetry: clarity, insight, poignance, diction, etc.

Though never explicitly described as a dichotomous blend of the Apollonian and Dionysian worldview, as explored by Nietzsche, one can read Dadaism as parroting The Birth of Tragedy. In the book, Nietzsche writes of Greek tragedy, anticipating the Dada movement, as a “Dionysian chorus which discharges itself over and over again in an Apolline world of images. ” It’s as if the Dadaists stripped this description of Greek tragedy from Nietzsche’s florid prose as their modus operandi, and became living Dionysians. Nietzsche’s description, in other words, anticipates Ball’s own mantra that “life asserts itself in contradictions,” implying a Dionysian tendency for reality to sometimes assert itself all at once (yes-no), against the Apollonian wish for distinction, logical agreement, and linearity. Nietzsche’s “Dionysian chorus” can be understood as the “contradictions” that Ball mentions; while the “Apolline world of images” is the rational, post-Enlightenment ideology that had gifted Europeans with, for instance, World War I.

Nietzsche’s echo, priming the artistic scene for what would later be described as the  “madness” of Dadaism, can be heard specifically in his discussion of tragedy:

“[The] primal ground of tragedy radiates, in a succession of discharges, that vision of drama which is entirely a dream-appearance, and thus epic in nature; on the other hand, as the objectification of a Dionysiac state, the vision represents not Apolline release and redemption in semblance, but rather the breaking-asunder of the individual and its becoming one with the primal being itself.” 

The precision of language here, from which Ball borrows, is crucial. Ball repeatedly uses the words “primal” and “primitive,” for instance, to describe the state of mind to which Dadaism returns the artist. “The direct and the primitive,” Ball writes, “appear to [the Dadaist], in the midst of this huge anti-nature, as being the supernatural itself”; this is the language of Nietzsche, written with the pen of Ball. As the Dadaist “suffers from dissonances to the point of self-dissolution,” so too does Nietzsche’s objectification of the Dionysian state manifest itself as a “[breaking]-asunder of the individual” and “becoming one” with all. Both Nietzsche and the Dadaists take up life in its totality, incorporating the uncanny, dissolving the boundaries between self and other, which then set the stage for a truly unique art (of anti-art) that would ricochet through the world.

By channelling the Dionysian worldview as an artistic starting point to reject the modern Apollonian tradition of society generally, and art specifically, the Dadaists effectively warred against what Ball describes as the “death-throes and death-drunkenness of [their] time.” Not only has the “world of systems” been torn asunder, for the Dadaists; the “bargain sale of godless philosophies” (nearly an explicit reference to Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”) has led to the travesty that was the first World War. The Dadaist movement responds–one surmises–to the slaughter of millions, in not-so-frank terms: If this is the product of rationality, science, and reason, we want no part of it! Or, in the Nietzschean vernacular: If this is the product of an Apollonian approach to reality, we will take up the Dionysian cause! Dadaism and Nietzschean thought both wage war on, and in defense of, themselves. Freud’s thanatos lurks in the background of Dadaism, that is, a death instinct. The Dadaists, and Nietzsche, understood that they must lay waste to traditional values for new ones to arise in their place.

Part II: “Destroy, Rebuild, Until God Shows”

“Only those who perpetually destroy what is behind them to rebuild themselves for the future can arrive at the new and the true.”
– Theo van Doesburg, De Stijl

With Nietzsche in mind, one can begin to appreciate the permeation of what appears to be “madness” in the disorienting Dada movement. The Dadaist wields what one might call “madness” as a politically provocative, counter-intuitive, revolutionary catalyst for creativity. Many of the original Dadaists directly confronted this accusation of “madness,” and most of them embraced the veneer of insanity as a shroud, or one might say a badge of honor, for the more serious precepts of their movement, namely the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Dada initially appeared to be nearing the brink of institutionalization (i.e. the extreme irreverence towards the sacred cows of their time), but was soon revealed to be a very calculated, channeled madness, properly (but playfully!) explored on the frontiers of the avant-garde. Through the exploration of Nietzschean thought, the works of the Dadaist movement become less strange to art critics, and can be better understood as an existentialist project, practicing a temporary suspension of the rational. In suspending rationality, one becomes unfettered by the chains of reason, logic, and “common sense,” which would otherwise hinder one’s conception of what constituted art. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” for instance, would not have seemed so shocking and transgressive had there not been artistic rules in place to be broken.

The organization of the modern world was, for both Nietzsche and the Dadaists, a “misapplication of reason.” The madness of Dada, then, must in fact be a proper application of reason. A proper application of reason presupposes a willpower–or a “will to power,” in the Nietzschean vernacular–behind the reasonable or deliberative act. This worship of rational faculties is pernicious when solely relied upon; the human animal, at its most reasonable, still wages war and destruction on life forms everywhere. The world’s attitude towards reason (a disregard for what was perceived to be “non-human” or “sub-human” life) was so common during the early twentieth century, that the charge of “madness” levied against the Dada movement was rendered laughably insipid. Francis Picabia, for instance, must have been fed-up with the familiar pejorative of “madness” when he wrote, “One thing opposes this assertion [that we are mad]: lunacy necessitates the obstruction or at least the alleviation of the will, and we have willpower.” Again, the degree to which Picabia’s language reflects that of Nietzsche is stunning. If the Dadaists had “willpower,” or a “will to power,” what was it aimed at? Perhaps the Dadaists wielded Nietzsche to unlearn sanity, so as to break free of the values of what Tzara described as the “vulgar herd.” One might respond in kind that at the heart of both Dadaism and Nietzschean thought is a critique of the “herd mentality,” the idea that consciousness is mediated by the degree of its usefulness insofar that it benefits society as a whole. We are, in other words, “slaves” to our own collective consciousness.

The Dadaists agree with the Nietzschean insight that thought is controlled by the boundaries of signs and symbols that are developed and commonly imposed on, and by, the society in which one finds oneself. For instance, Tristan Tzara writes, “My words are not mine. My words are everybody else’s words: I mix them very nicely.” Understanding “words” as “symbols,” Nietzsche claims that grammar itself is the “metaphysics of the people,” which points again to the fact that we tend to only recognize things through the words we have been exposed to and the symbols–Tzara’s “commodities of conversation”–through which we have been taught to understand experience. 

The peculiarity of Dadaism is its outright repudiation of expectation, that is, the Dadaists reject the accustomed nature by which we engage language, as it has lulled us into lazy thinking. We can’t, in other words, help but see language as language. Dadaism exploits this linguistic expectation (and expectation in general), using fragments of language to disorient us from meaning; in sum, we temporarily escape the metaphysics of the herd. Our expectation for language to make sense is undermined with embarrasing ease, as demonstrated in Hugo Ball’s “sound poems.” Dadaism’s linguistic manipulations reveal both the fragility of language and its tenuous grasp on truth. In rejecting the “herd’s” rules of language, Nietzsche’s “metaphysics of the people,” the Dadaists freed their artistic antics from the shackles of sanity. Understood in this way, Andre Breton’s charge against Tzara’s Dadaism, as that which “today no longer corresponds to any reality,” becomes, ironically, all the more reasonable. 

Of course, it would be absurd to suppose, as Breton ostensibly did, that Tzara’s Dadaism lacked direct correspondence with reality as such, through its purported madness. A cynical observation of that nature clashes with Breton’s own notion that Dadaism was “where one idea is equal to any other idea, where stupidity encompasses a certain amount of intelligence, and where emotion takes pleasure in being denied,” spelling out Dadaism’s wink-and-nod “madness.” Dadaism was, in truth, a series of conceptual experiments, in terms of its seeming stupidity or lunacy. These mental orchestrations arose from the playfulness of one of Picabia’s aphorisms, “Our head is round to allow thoughts to change direction.” One might imagine a thought changing directions as a precondition for logical contradictions, in other words, negating itself by making a conceptual U-turn, so-to-speak. Returning to Ball’s “contradictions,” one might even imagine thoughts changing multiple directions at the same time. Thus one begins to unravel the deliberative playfulness, naivety, and craziness which manifests itself as the “impotent, desperate laugh” of the Dadaists in the face of a shattered culture, of so much destruction and tragedy in the world. One can’t help but marvel at the Dadaists’ playful reaction to such a bleak situation.

The negative, counter-culture machinations of Dadaism have been elucidated at length, here, notably through Nietzsche’s paternal relationship to the Dadaists. But, given their heavily Nietzschean framework, I would be amiss to neglect the affirmative, culture-creating activity of Dadaism. “It takes discipline to be modern,” observes a critic of the Dadaist movement. One can see, through the conceptual rigor of Dadaism’s flagrant Nietzscheanism, that it takes discipline to be a Dadaist. As Rasula notes, “Dada negation was a force, not simply a dispirited wail,” nor simply an adolescent reading of Nietzsche. The Dadaists were destroying to create, boasting ignorance as a means for understanding, and searching through the eyes of madness to disconceal the principles of sanity.

Modern reactions to Dadaism are softened by the cushion of history. What was once shocking, new, and unusual, now has been integrated into our culture such that some aspects of Dadaism are practically pedestrian (i.e. photomontage). “[Ubiquitous] on the Internet,” Rasula writes, “the proprietary relationship to images is presumably swept away because of their universal accessibility.” During the time of the Dadaists, what was considered to be “art” and “high culture” was not, as Rasula writes, “universally [accessible].” Dadaist works, in the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, have lost much of their “shocking” quality that once led art critics so readily to the charge of madness. Ensconced by history, the emancipation of the Dadaists no longer strikes onlookers as “radical” (and thus “mad”) as it once did. In some ways, though, Dadaism still retains its “madness” (i.e. sound poetry).

Members of the “De Stijl” movement, a movement designed to rebuild art from the ashes of Dada’s destruction, capitalized on Dadaism’s historical donation, demanding “the annulment of any distinction between life and art.” Art, by such a conception, is everything that breathes, that experiences, that is experienced, and has Being. The emulsification of life and art, then, elucidates critics of Dadaism as to the uncanny characteristics which have often manifested themselves as “madness.” That is, the Dadaists’ fixation on states of madness was foregrounded in a reaction to the trauma of World War I; for the Dadaists, and the members of De Stijl, there was no distinction between art and life, nor sanity and madness. This seemingly obvious insight regarding World War I’s effect on Dadaism becomes less obvious when one recalls that many Dadaists actively avoided conscription into the war, notably, through “feigning madness.” “Consequently,” writes Elizabeth Benjamin, “it might be suggested that [the Dadaists] came to identify with this mental state, where it seemed to them that it was the world itself that had gone mad.”

In quintessential Dadaist “yes-no” fashion, acting mad to avoid conscription was a strategic performance which kept alive (and thus sane) the Dadaists who would avoid the true madness of combat at any cost: “in this respect, madness equals sanity.” The emancipation of the Dadaists who grew accustomed to their “feigned madness” to avoid conscription must have no doubt been addicting. Thus, one can surmise how “feigned madness” could have been conceptually integrated into Dadaism as a way to emancipate art itself from the austere, quasi-despotic monopoly of post-Enlightenment, rationalistic and capitalistic ideals. If sanity was learnable, so was madness.

The Dadaist approach to artistic creation–the act of destroying in order to create–became itself a metaphor for life, thus fulfilling the aim of the De Stijl movement: to render art and life indistinguishable. The division between sanity and madness, blurred through the kaleidoscopic lens of Dadaism, affords the “madness” of Dadaism both historical merit and artistic distinction. At the heart of Dadaism, one sees the refrains of how life (art) consumes in order to produce, it kills (destroys) in order to live (create). At its essence, Dadaism was a mirror which all-too-accurately reflects the all-too-human state of modernity. Unfortunately, the state of modernity, for Dadaism, was that of true madness, a neurotic, quasi-pathological madness of feigned normalcy and “sanity,” a state of mind which denied the inevitable destructive participation accompanying one’s being in the world. Thus, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes’ remarks on Dadaism come into clearer focus: “[Dadaism] freed the individual from the mind itself.”

One must not be surprised at how those who viewed art conservatively, when seeing their reflection in the proverbial mirror of Dadaism, would recoil at their own bad faith, quickly smashing the mirror into pieces, denouncing Dadaism as “mad.” The conservative contemporaries of the Dadaists who did not revel in irreverence would think they had done away with Dadaism by writing it off as insane (which it certainly wasn’t) and ridiculous (which is undoubtedly was), thereby smashing the mirror. To conclude the conservatives won and the presumed sanity in art resumed, however, would be mistaken, as we’ve seen. For, even in pieces, the fragmentations of Dadaism, like a mirror, still had (and has!) the capacity to veritably reflect life itself, sanity itself, better than any deliberative, rational thought would be able, or willing, to produce.

Garnering Insight from the Garden: Environmental Food Justice

May 6, 2016

Most of my time gardening has been spent with ornamentals, but this year I decided to finally start a garden of proper food-growing plants. Food growth appears deceptively simple: buy a tomato plant, dig a hole, water it in, harvest. But, of course, that mental image is far from the truth. Mid-April, as I’m currently learning, brings the night moths, the snails, the aphids, the leaf borers. If you want your tomatoes to stay vegetarian, some kind of insecticide is to be called upon. Thus, in a flustered attempt to debug my tomato plants, I learned a lot about the relationship between food-bearing plants and the environment which they are embedded in. I also realized how ill-equipped Florida’s soil is for the naive gardener. But the more I learned, the more I realized that I, and others like me, didn’t know about the broader implications regarding our food choices and their impact on the macro-environment.

Everything we do as humans is implicated in the broader context of the planet. We build, we create, we destroy. This is true of food as it is of any human endeavor. But food is a unique issue, in terms of our ability to ignore it as something potentially problematic and pernicious on the globe itself. With fewer than 2% of our population currently employed in the agricultural industry, and most of them cordoned off in large scale operations far from any urban eye, it’s no wonder how oblivious most of us can be. For the vast majority of the American population don’t see the topsoil runoff, we don’t see the aquifers being polluted by pesticides, we don’t have to endure negative health consequences (neurophysiological and respiratory damage, predominantly) from being downwind of a slaughterhouse. The simple reality is that we have our backs turned on the very mechanism which brings food to our fridge.

An Agricultural Actuality

The issue of food justice and its concern with environmental justice are not particularly sexy, certainly not “BREAKING NEWS” in CNN’s liberal use of the term, but these issues are in fact worth caring about and, whether we realize it or not, will become defining issues of the future (my) generation. The United Nations, for instance, projects a world population of roughly 9.8 billion by 2050–that’s a rather large bump from our current 7 billion: roughly 3 billion more mouths to feed. Compile this reality with the State of the World’s observation in 2001 that between 1950 and 1990, “world grain yield per hectare rose 2.1 percent a year,” but “between 1990 and 2000, however, the annual gain was only 1.2 percent.” Effectively, this figure suggests an unpalatable truth: crop yield is decreasing simultaneously with an increasing at the rate of population rise, meaning that some people are going to go hungry. Many already are going hungry.

This trend of mutually reinforcing factors contributing to hunger are only worsened when we zoom out and ask how we can meet the needs of the projected future population. Not only are we running out of arable land, but we are running out of water. Our agricultural system uses approximately 50 billion gallons of water per day, 60% of which is directly draining from our groundwater aquifers. These figures exclude the other uses (often misuses) of water in other areas of our society (i.e. drinking, cooking, showering, watering your lawn, etc.). The scary reality of groundwater depletion is heightened by the reality of a growing global population, which will only metastasize through the havoc of climate change. And, of course, we could always desalinate water, or cut down hectares of forest to grow food, but the common environmentalist is already disquieted by such prospects. If there is a more agreeable alternative to our unsustainable food system, then we should seek out that path.

Climate Cataclysm

Pivoting to the broader impacts on the food system by climate change, the scientific consensus currently projects hundred of millions of people being forcibly relocated due to unlivable conditions. This is relevant to the question of food justice precisely because so many agricultural hubs in the tropics are projected to be forcibly relocated within the coming century. My home state of Florida is one such locale of climate change’s ability to turn a billionaire into a refugee, almost overnight. Florida, funnily enough, is an agricultural hotbed: 62% of the United States’ grapefruits are grown here, for a start. If my state sinks due to rising sea levels, as predicted, then we’ve got a lot more than grapefruits to worry about. For instance, as sea levels rise, they eventually overflow into our freshwater reserves–largely underground–thereby contaminating wells and poisoning farmlands (literally salting the earth). Not only will people have to relocate, but we will have to relocate our resources anew. And this is a double-effect: people lose their financial security at the same time that they lose their croplands. Climate change, as predicted, robs us of our homes, of large swaths of farmland, of our water, and thus, our very lives.

Beyond the isolated concerns regarding Florida, it’s important to understand how environmental refugees are spawned by more than sea level rise alone, and how this exacerbates the strain on our already unsustainable food system. Frederik A Kaufman, in his book, Foundations of Environmental Philosophy, writes of environmental refugees as “people who can no longer live in their traditional homelands because of environmental degradation.” This broad definition encompasses those victims of repeated/prolonged droughts, storms, floods, and rising oceans. So, in other words, any climatic region is vulnerable to climate impacts. Norman Myers, staunch defender of environmental justice, writes of how climate change will affect areas like southern Canada, southern Europe, mid-western United States, Australia, etc. which are all crucial regions to food production. Climate change threatens the food system from every front, forcing farmers off their lands and eliminating the supply chain for over 100 of the words developing countries. We are very likely facing famine on a scale we have never seen, dwarfing that of Mao’s China. A prolonged drought in these areas would cause an estimated 50 to 400 million people to die due to lack of food access; this estimate excludes impaired growth, cognitive function, physical ability, and all the residual effects on those who survive the famine, but only just so. And, in terms of worldly concerns, the amount of lost revenue and, thus, increased unemployment will be staggering. In this grim future, starvation would almost become normal.

* * *

Solving mass starvation, climate change, and a world population on the trajectory to double, is no easy task. From the literature I have steeped myself in, I don’t think any one person could say with a straight face that they have a solution. But we are bound by duty to feed our fellow neighbors, to protect our planet, to harbor the climate refugees when they come, to restructure society in a sustainable way, to curb population growth, etc. Though I am of the belief that there is no panacea for this problem, I will attempt to sell you on what I perceive to be the closest things to it. And making those changes, in terms of practicality of reinventing our food system, requires an antecedent ideological restructuring of our food values (aesthetically, ethically, and environmentally).

Japan: A Lesson in Innovation

Traditional agriculture relies on expansive farmland which to some extent restructures the physical landscape such that it is optimal for maximum yield. Obviously, given the interconnectedness of environmental concerns and concerns of food justice, we have to change the way we are growing food. And, as we’ve seen, this comes at all levels: water management, topsoil conservation, biochemical sensitivity, etc. Japan has taken up this challenge mightily, but it has yet to expand its scope beyond a few prototypical factories. Their idea is to grow more food in less amounts of space by building vertically: Japanese scientists repurposed an old Sony factory, beginning in 2004, and progressively onward, which has become arguably one of the most agriculturally efficient food production facilities in the world.

This Japanese operation consists of a mere 25,000 square feet, yet yields over 10,000 heads of lettuce per day. This vertical interpretation of farming is over one hundred times more efficient, inch for inch, than traditional agricultural methods (horizontal and outdoors). Not to mention, they have fewer insect problems, less fungal issues, a decrease in power usage by 40%, a decrease in food waste by 80%, and a decrease in water usage by an astounding 99%.

An unexpected benefit to this new form of vertical farming is disease resistance: if one greenhouse breaks out with a plague (akin to the great potato famine, only one crop yield suffers). They are physically isolated in the way that open-air, outdoor farming is not.

Following the disastrous earthquakes and tsunamis to wreck Japan over the last few decades, notably the recent 2011 travesty, scientist Shingeharu Shimimura determined this new method of vertical farming to be the future. Much cropland in Japan was lost in the recent tsunami event, and this seemed like an obvious solution. The factory, repurposed, not only reclaimed old urban space, but offered somewhat of a food sovereignty to the locals of Japan. Rows of LED lighting line the vertical racks of lettuce and, in conjunction with temperature and humidity controls, artificial days and nights, water retention and soil preservation, this previously abandoned space has transformed into one of the most promising beacons of the future.

Prototypes of this vertical farming have expanded to Russia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, and beyond. If the United States, one of the most prolific food wasters, inefficient agriculturalists, and most neglecting environmentalists in the world, adopted this program, there are untold benefits to such an endeavor.

Importing Agricultural Ideology

If we accept this new Japanese method of vertical farming as a potential solution to the multifaceted problems we’ve so grimly outlined above, then we must take this application and integration into American society very seriously. The first question arising is a logistical one: Where would we build these factories? An obvious answer would be to repurpose our own buildings in America, akin to the Sony factory in Japan. It is no secret that America is not only home to the free and the brave, but the deforested and abandoned strip mall. These large spaces, impractical for retail restructuring, serve as ideal floor plans for a similar grow-op in nearly every urban city in America. As these buildings are climate controlled to an almost unrealistic degree, they can be located anywhere: north, south, east, and west.

Though Shimimura’s prototype factory has not experimented with a gamut of popular crops, one could easily envision a crop like Quinoa–which requires high elevation to maintain its consistency of firmness, taste, nutrients, and yield–being grown through controlled air conditions. One could, in theory, harvest winter crops like kale in the dead heat of a Floridian summer. Not only does is this farming more efficient, it is expandable, it has diverse purposes, and it serves to reinvigorate American jobs directly in their native communities. Thus, in terms of food justice, vertical farming in urban spaces attacks all facets of modern food justice: food deserts, grocery gaps, food insovereignty, gender and racial inequity, socio-economic barriers, environmental degradation, worker exploitation, and the list goes on.

Questions? Comments? Concerns?

As rosy as the picture I have painted sounds, we have to take into account some immediate concerns, worries, and potential objections to the proposal I have just outlined. The first and most obvious concern is the question of startup cost: who is going to pay to renovate these abandoned properties and repurpose them with expensive equipment, American wages, distribution costs, etc. There is, in other words, a large up-front cost which may not be met: the demand might just not be there on the consumer end. While this is indeed a viable concern, it is a very narrow and short sighted approach to the problem. At best, this concern is cynical, because it assumes a parsimonious society, placing primacy on the pecuniary and not the longevity of the planet. This has some merit, but I would simply reply to the cynic here by pointing out how, as with solar power, the immediate costs are practically paid off overnight: lower energy requirements, more efficiency of crop yield, lower water usage, less square footage required, less chemical to protect crops, etc. are all immediate gains by method alone. If we take Shimimura’s 100% increased efficiency at its word, then one would, in theory, make 100% more profits per harvest. In all but the immediate, this vertical farming approach pays for itself before the first investment check has been cashed.

Another objection to my proposal is what I’ve alluded to somewhat already: the concern regarding crop biodiversity. If we take food justice concerns to heart, including culturally significant foods as worthy of concern, then it is important that we don’t look to vertical farming as a panacea. For watermelons, for example, require an abundance of horizontal space to produce sizable fruits. How could this be alleviated by vertical farming? In a sense, this objection has some veracity; but even on its worst day, vertical farming still outperforms horizontal farming in aggregate. A watermelon-producing vertical farm would, in every case, produce more than a horizontal one, but it may not be the touted “100%” more efficiency of lettuce. But what about fruit trees? In some cases, fruit trees can peak out at fifty feet tall; wouldn’t this eliminate the benefits of going vertical? Yes and no, for not many fruit trees peak at such height, and none of them–to my knowledge–cannot produce fruit at a more petite size. So, in a sense, this objection has merit, but only if we are being pedantic about the specific percentage of increased efficiency of this farming method. In all cases, we are being wiser–both economically and environmentally–to move indoors, to move vertical.

Eating Animals

In Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, he puts to bed the question concerning the relationship between one’s diet and one’s environmental impact: “Omnivores contribute seven times the volume of greenhouse gases that vegans do.” His analysis of environmentalism draws on research from the University of Chicago, which reveals how our food choices contribute at least as much to climate change as do our transportative choices. And, according to his research, drawing on Pew and the United Nations, farmed animals contribute more globally to climate change than transport. He cites 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions–“around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector”–as due to eating animals at the factory farming, industrial scale. Somehow, in our political discourse, all we hear about regarding climate change is fossil fuels. Yet, according to the UN, factory farming is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems” especially “land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” As Safran Foer so damningly puts it, “someone who regularly eats factory-farmed animal products cannot call [oneself] an environmentalist without divorcing that word from its meaning.”

The case presented by Safran Foer is exactly why I was so hesitant, at the top of this essay, to call vertical farming a “solution.” Yes, it solves the problems of plant raising. But we cannot realistically expect to eliminate meat eating if we are to properly feed the projected 9.8 billion population by 2050. We need a stable protein source, we need the extremely calorie-dense meats to adequately serve the nutritional needs of the many–right?

A Creepy Crawly Solution

Most people find the thought of insects disgusting. We pay people hundreds of dollars a year to eliminate them from our homes, from our yards, from our lives, and yes, from our food. But, as evidenced across many cultures, insects are extremely nutrient dense foods. Unlike livestock, they are ubiquitous, affordable, and rapidly procreating. Compare 100 grams of insect protein with that of chicken, pork or beef: the protein content is much the same, but crickets (for instance) report higher levels of essential vitamins and minerals (i.e. calcium, zinc, and iron), gram for gram, than that of traditional livestock. Not only is this a more nutrient-dense solution to the question of increasing global hunger, but it is also a spatially considerate solution, akin to my proposal to vertical farming. The 1.53 billion hectares of cropland, and 3.38 billion hectares of pastures, accounts for a resulting 38% of land you’ll see on a map being used for agriculture and farming. But, whereas one pound of beef requires 200 square meters of land to produce, insect protein requires just 15 square meters for the same production of crickets. Again, fixing one factor of our agricultural system, the inefficiency of growth space, affects many other aspects of our problems concerning food justice.

Another way insect protein solves our issues of food justice and environmentalism is the question we have raised above concerning water. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live without regular access to drinking water. Returning to the inefficiencies of our water use in agriculture, this could be reduced dramatically. One kilogram of beef requires no less than 22,000 liters of water to produce; one kilogram of crickets requires no more than one liter of water. Farming insects instead of livestock is, simply, twenty-two thousand times more water efficient, kilo for kilo. There is no question that transitioning to insects is a better environmental alternative to current livestock farming. And, as though this were not enough, insects as food are demonstrably more efficient in terms of digestive capability: roughly 80% of a cricket is edible and digestible, whereas just 40% of cattle is edible.

A final consideration regarding eating insects is the obvious one: the gross factor. Most westerners like myself are repulsed at the idea of snacking on a cricket for breakfast. But, despite such resistances, it’s not as though you and I are strangers to eating insects. That’s right, for every 100 grams of lettuce consumed, an average of 50 insects have made it into our mouths as well (i.e. aphids, mites). This is true not only of lettuce, but of foods like peanut butter, and drinks like beer. We may not care to admit it to ourselves, but bugs are extremely common to the human diet.

Synthesizing our Supper

Throughout the previous pages, I have tried to approach some multifaceted concerns regarding food justice (population increase, climate change, starvation, etc.) and propose practical, immediate solutions to those concerns (vertical farming, shifting our diets from animals to insects, etc.). None of these strategies on their own will cause a volte face in our food system. There is too much entrenched corruption, bureaucracy, greed, and tradition at stake to see such an overnight change. But these shifts in agricultural practice, location, dietary makeup, and environmental relationships, can be taken up in any location, by anyone, at any time. The science has yielded quite an abundant harvest of innovation and technology to move forward, it is up to us to ensure we don’t let that harvest rot and go to waste.

Floridian Failure: Repairing a Diminished Democracy

April 1, 2016

Voting in America is a rather ambiguous affair, even considering the fact that voting is considered to be a right of citizenship. And, in being the bastion of democracy, one does not often consider America to be a place of voter suppression, but voter disenfranchisement is widespread in this country.

Be it forcible suppression, gerrymandering, arbitrary state-level obstacles to register (i.e. closed primaries, lack of absentee ballots, etc.), or just plain apathy, there is much to criticize about the American democratic process. These multifaceted problems are deeply entrenched in American culture, unfortunately, and are metastasized by the media echo chamber of sensationalism. What no one ever bothers to report on, however, is the problem of voter disenfranchisement on behalf of ex-offenders.

As things stand, a felon loses their right to vote. This, on its own, makes no sense. But Florida, our home state, is one of the three states which revokes an ex-offender’s right to vote for life. One mistake could cost you the central pride of American citizenship: your democratic voice. In America, roughly 2.5% of citizens, due to their criminal history, are ineligible to vote. And, courtesy of  Rick Scott’s benevolence, it’s looking like the path towards voter restoration is even more tangled than before.

A widespread entrenched feeling amongst the American people, regarding the voting rights of ex-offenders, is largely in favor of restoration. Admittedly, only one-third approve of allowing the currently convicted to vote. But roughly 60% of Americans favor restoring voting rights to ex-offenders who “served the time” or were on parole. Furthermore, two-thirds endorse voting rights restorations for those on probation. These numbers are both statistically significant, and culturally turbulent such that we cannot make a firm determination on the rightness/wrongness of the state of modern ex-offenders’ voting rights. Maybe there is some veracity to the hesitance to disallowing the currently convicted to vote–though we fail to find warrant for such a parsimonious view. It is our position, and motive in co-authoring this editorial, that one should at least not be devoid of rights after serving time in what is purportedly a “correctional” facility.

We are motivated by viewing ex-offenders not in terms of the crimes they have committed, or the sentence they have served, but the views they now express, the hopes and values they wish to bring about into the world. This is what is known as basic human decency, extending one’s sense of worth to another person, especially someone as powerless as an ex-offender. If America is truly a “democracy,” then we will not be motivated by fear of former law-breakers to guide our moral concerns regarding political rights.

Florida’s current legal position on the restoration of voting rights for the recently-released is rather straightforward. Ex-convicts are allowed to petition for restoration of rights (non-violent offenders are also automatically considered), however, this process is lengthy and yields low results. Despite legal strides toward progress, the system remains ineffective. The levels of offense and their legal access to restoration are paltry, as a result. And nearly every examination on the issue of voter disenfranchisement has yielded akin results: voter laws which restrict offenders’ voting rights are disproportionately affecting racial minorities and, thus, we should reexamine the conclusions of the federal courts regarding this matter. Gov. Scott’s overturning of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s automatic restoration policy, for instance, is one case in which African-Americans are directly targeted as an unwanted voting population. In our view, that needs to change.

The legislative decisions Governor Scott has made regarding voting rights deserve far closer scrutiny than they have heretofore received. Something broadly progressive and democratizing, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is antipodal to the decisions our Governor has made (allegedly on our behalf). A brief Googling of “Gov Scott Voter Purge” will paint a bloody picture of the kind of ruthlessness which Scott has become known for, regarding voting rights.

Before the lack of renewal of the act by Congress in 2014, Scott’s unsavory positions would have never taken clot. Despite his demonstrable cynicism towards the democratic process, there is some hope in one thing: the federal legality of Florida’s laws in comparison to federal statutes are questionable. One could use the information to make a case for the ultimate unconstitutionality of some parts of Florida’s current legal system, and we hope to undermine his (mistaken) decisions in the near future.

Given these briefly sketched concerns, we ask you to take the briefest of moments to sign our petition to Governor Scott to reconsider his actions and views on voting rights. Too many ex-offenders are being unfairly discriminated against after their release–ranging from job applications to bank accounts–and the least we can do to facilitate their reintegration into society is to restore their voice: allow them to be heard once more. Let them vote.

Reacting to the Regressive Left

December 31, 2015


The year 2015 has been fecund to the lunatical ideas of the ideologically repressive cultural authoritarians on the left. My ideological neighbors have invented genders, manufactured outrage, increasingly barricaded us against dissenting ideas, and have even maddeningly tried to repeal free speech protections. Enough, I say. Somehow this vocal minority dominates political dialogue, parroting absurd maxims like “Check your privilege.” These intolerable, insufferable, regressive ideas have unwittingly abandoned their very liberal founding principle: Liberty for all.

Notable public figures such as Sam Harris, Douglas Murray, Dave Rubin, Majiid Nawaz, Milo Yiannopoulos etc. have merely began naming the problem. Every side of the political spectrum has begun to wake up to this unconscionably stupid movement on the left. The dogma of minority groups has seeped its way into the very fabric of public universities, social media, and now our government. Let’s not be cowardly and ignore what these hateful “liberal” goals are: The subjugation of the straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-class male. These gender, race, class warriors have no idea what the hell they are talking about and, thus, don’t notice the glaring contradiction of their skeletal ideology. With one hand, they preach tolerance, with the other, they oppress the group they are preaching to.

Roughly a year ago, I penned two brief essays alluding to these problems. My writings weren’t nearly ambitious and honest enough; my rhetoric was hedged by an urge to remain neutral and politically correct to my friends on the left. Unfortunately, neutrality is no longer possible if we are to maintain the kind of free speech and liberty I value as a participant in the democratization of society.

I’ve defined Regressive Leftists as cultural authoritarians; that is, collectivist ideologues who dictatorially and unorganically impose their values onto society. Regressives are most clearly exemplified in millennials who, in their attempt to subvert racism, sexism, xenophobia, ageism, etc., become vitally and dogmatically concerned with social justice. (Funnily enough, my generation is the most tolerant, least xenophobic in history.) On the surface, this is wonderful to see. There are no tenable arguments in support of such unreasonable, prejudicial views about human beings, in my view. Trickles of discrimination clearly have festered to some extent in America and, sometimes, are far from surreptitious. Thus, we must address these bad views through civil discourse. To this extent, my views on these issues are indistinguishable from my fellow liberals. That all human beings should be treated with equal dignity and respect, is a self-evident truth.

Regressives go further than the position I have outlined, however, for these views on basic human decency have been hijacked by angry, ignorant, misanthropic, imbecilic values. There are explicit ideological tenets and doctrine to which one must adhere if one is to nowadays be “politically correct.” Whether explicit or implicit, one must be ideologically hegemonic in these politically correct circles, lest one be smeared with a laundry-list of pejoratives. These pejoratives are tools with which to immediately besmirch the insulted person’s intelligence, integrity, opinions, and beliefs, thus dismissing their argument without every needing to engage it. That alone is an embarrassingly immature way to begin civil discourse, especially regarding politically salient issues (i.e. disproportionate black men in prison). Radical as it is, I find it a deontic imperative that one listens to differing views from one’s own. My fellow leftist Regressives are too often not acknowledging the humanity of their interlocutors, which is terrifyingly pernicious.

I’d go as far as to characterize this regressive, cultural authoritarian movement as religious. Borrowing from Maajid Nawaz’s excellent work, consider these four elements of religious social movements: Ideas, Narratives, Symbols, and Leaders. Ideas–or, more accurately, dogma–are the cause one believes in, the goal of the social movement. Narratives are the propagandistic mechanisms employed to sell the aforementioned idea. Symbols are identity tools of iconography to congregate followers under one banner. Leaders are the charismatic individuals which we transfer the symbolic meaning of the social movement onto. Collectively, all of these elements comprise what are being called “Social Justice Warriors.” I’d go further, as these uncannily religious qualities are the very foundation on which my regressive political neighbors make their arguments–well, claims really.

I deplore the trend of regressivism so vitriolically because of this uncanny resemblance to organized religion. Religion, to my mind, is beyond mere theism–which I will table for now so as not to derail the broader discussion of the regressives. Let it suffice for me to supply you with Steven Weinberg’s famous quip about religion, supplementing (in this case) regressive leftists: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” The semantic shift here, is doctrine. There’s even the metaphysical component to regressive religion, “the Patriarchy.” The same, I think, applies to these issues between the progressive left, the regressive left, libertarians, and other political affiliations. Identity politics are at the heart of regressivism, which stem from misdirected collectivist ideology. That is, by forming a collective you implicitly have barricaded yourself to those outside of the collective. In being so obsessed with engendering minority groups (are women even minorities at more than half the population?) with power–which is frankly a poorly disguised imposition of historical guilt–we have razed the voices and issues of the majority.

In Islamic doctrine, for example, there is the declaration of hatred (and violence) towards apostates. The analogy is most boldly paralleled with regressivism because of the same ideological mechanism of collectivism. We can all agree that killing someone, or maybe even hating someone, for having dissimilar beliefs from your own is a bad idea. Why is it not a bad idea when regressives commit such ideological insult? That’s not a rhetorical question because, as aforementioned, we are seeing hate, vitriol, straw manning, and cruel punishment for ideological heterogeneity. But I propose that it’s wrong for anyone to get fired because of something they said on their private account, outside of work. It’s wrong to spread patent lies and mischaracterizations of anyone’s view, without charitable interpretation. It’s wrong to dismiss someone’s humanity because they disagree with you. The list goes on, and the regressive left have misstepped on each account.

As I have mentioned, the irony of the regressive left is that with one hand they preach tolerance, acceptance, anti-bigotry, equality, etc. yet, with that very same hand, they dogmatically attack ideological opponents like no other. (We wouldn’t have coined the neologism, “doxxing,” had we no regressives.) In preaching tolerance, they intolerantly scream at people, unloading their quiver of pejoratives. In enacting acceptance, they, by definition, exclude those who have opposing ideological commitments. In fighting bigotry, they become quintessential bigots. In waving the rainbow flag of equality, they shut down the very group they are trying to dissent: Straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-class males. I can’t emphasize this irony enough. Take, for example, Milo Yiannopolous’ breathtaking closing speech at the recent Oxford debate on the question, “Have we reached an age of gender equality?” Regressive ideology is hilariously wrong, but has terrifying consequences for classical liberals such as myself.

Take another example, the popular pejorative of “Islamaphobe.” Not only does my spellchecker indicate that this word is meaningless but, often, so is the way in which regressives use this term. Any time a political commentator on the left wants to link Islam to terrorism, they are met by charlatans. These charlatans operate in the trade of obscurantism and religious apologetics. “ISIS is just a symptom of US foreign policy,” is an all-too-common equivocation from dealing with the specific problems in Islamic doctrine. If you are already flaring up at the fact that I am criticizing these ideas, then you are probably a regressive; it’s a pretty easy litmus test, really, as I haven’t once made a criticism about specific people. Again, to borrow from Nawaz, “No ideas are above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity.” I wholeheartedly believe in this maxim. My regressive friends make the mistake of apologizing for Muslims, “Not all Muslims…” as though I had made that generalization; more comical is calling a critic of Islam a “racist.” I object to this insipid, cowardly, two-faced religious apology, for the sake of political correctness, because Islamic theocracies in the Middle East offend on the very cause these regressives scream about in the West. When the Qur’an and Hadith are taken literally, vacuously, fundamentally, we get societies where women are oppressed, apostates are murdered, free thought is restricted, sexual fluidity is stamped out, etc. I cannot allow these farcically contradictory mental gymnastics to dominate the political discourse on the left any longer. I reject Islamic theocracy, as I reject anything which impedes on the liberty of all.

The absurdity of the modern movements for “equality” is no secret which I alone have the ability to identify. Regressive, cultural authoritarian influence in our society is ubiquitous. They take it much further than Islamaphobia (which, a good case can be made for its existence, particularly on the right), as each group under the regressive umbrella has emerged its own language, that of privilege, oppression, trigger warningsmicroaggressions, safe-spaces, transphobia, misogyny, etc. To those of us who speak English, these pseudonyms and neologisms are intentionally, unintelligibly, childish and provocative. And, though there are absolutely marginal cases of these terms doing some intellectual work, they are largely vacuous, commonly referring to innocuous, insipid, bastardized versions of what these terms were intended for. That is, regressives abuse these words–they see them everywhere–and, thus, they lose their meaning almost immediately.

Douglas Murray argues that this abuse of language stems from the left’s “supply and demand problem” for bigotry. That is, there aren’t enough genuine racists in the West anymore to really make a case against. There aren’t enough raging sexists, homophobes, etc. Thus, we begin to hear the regressive language of a “microaggression” if I make a joke which steps on the toes of minorities. We begin to see college students cordoned off into “safe spaces” when they can’t handle elementary argument and disagreement. It’s intellectually embarrassing, linguistically inept, and–to those who suffer from actual discrimination, oppression, violence, and hatred–disgustingly insulting. The abuse with which regressives treat the language of oppression stultifies, rather than inspires, positive social change.

The skeletal structure of the regressive language is so hollow precisely because it is used too often, and often wrongly. Sexism is not a man asking a woman out at a bar; racism is not criticizing someone who happens to have black skin; homophobia is not being unattracted to your own gender. Yet, surprisingly, regressives smear these actions, those “privileged” people, with these pejoratives at every turn. This is an embarrassment in every sense of the word, for I pride myself on being a liberal, being someone who treats all equally and with respect. Regressives have dismantled the meaning of oppression and xenophobia such that we are beginning to see otherwise political allies disassociating themselves from liberalism, as such, hence the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. Oppression, for instance, is synonymous with a tyrant, despot, slave-driver, autocrat, dictator, etc. Being a recipient of social “privilege,” (which is in scare quotes despite my acknowledgement that such social forces do subtly remain in everyday life) does not equal these damning definitions of oppression. Generalizing about people is not an evil, despite what regressives will scream at you; if we can’t make generalizations, we can’t discuss anything at all. It’s insanity that, in the year 2015, I have to defend the position that men are not oppressing women in modern day America such that we are “slave-drivers.” But regressives now have entirely tipped the scales in the other direction such that I must dissent; minorities are treated with incessant privilege, and regressives–in defining men as oppressors–have by definition generalized against a gender. This point deserves no further justification.

Are we so cowardly as to not refute this utter nonsense? The answer is yes, we are terrified. Professionals are having their careers ruined, individuals are being harassed simply for expressing skepticism about these views (but so far we have no shootings. I guess that’s an anomaly in and of itself in modern day America. The regressives, to their credit, are remarkably non-violent), and there are increasingly larger scale penalties for ideological dissent on these matters. New York, for example, has now made it legal to fine someone up to $250,000 for misgendering a transsexual person. I understand the psychological rammifications of being misgendered, and I don’t intend to dismiss that; but it’s hard enough to remember faces and names, yet we’re now criminalizing ectopic pronoun usage. If this indicates the trendline of the political climate, then I think those of us who believe in the necessity of unfettered civil liberties have a lot to be wary of in the coming years.

The real problem with regressives is in their socio-political power–particularly in the news media and on college campuses. In my previous writings, I have characterized a common and weak evasion of argument called “the offence card.” When one invokes the phrase, “I’m offended,” or nowadays, “That’s problematic!” we know all reason has flown out the window. For, who are we to pontificate on an area of genuine dispute and ambiguity of interpretation if we haven’t heard both sides? Perhaps there are, in fact, measurable differences between sexes, genders, differing ethnicities, different abilities, etc. Regressivism, as things stand, fundamentally resists these possibilities. I don’t have a well-informed opinion on whether or not these differences exist. But the mere supplication of argument about these concerns is translated, through the foggy regressive lens, into bigotry and intolerance.

To be charitable, I am not determined to be a voice of authority on these issues of social justice; this brief essay is merely opening the door to the broader conversation (i.e. change my mind). I have seen this phenomena in my ideological neighborhood and I am tired of being evangelized about something I already practice and believe. I don’t need consent classes, for I am not a rapist. I don’t need to check my privilege (even though I just did?), for I do not take advantage of others. I am not a sexist simply for eyeing a woman or asking her out for a drink. I am not a racist because I don’t like the behaviors and qualities of someone who happens to be of a different race than myself. etc. Each one of these claims devolves into further, mad contortions of political correctness which I, frankly, will not waste more time accounting for. If my mere writing causes offence, I have done my job well.

I wonder if we have outgrown our infantile human tendency to hold historical grudges. The only reason for violence in many areas of the world are because of historical injustices. The only reason for the regressive left is that we used to actually oppress those members in which the cultural authoritarians, i.e. intersectional feminist community, broadly speaking, are advocating to now privilege and whose issues we prioritize. This kind of thinking, of assigning blame to someone for what their predecessors or progenitors committed, is absolutely untenable. I’ve written about the native Americans, how we killed nearly all of them, how we stole their land, their culture, their lives. That is actual oppression, that is actual evil, that is actual despotism. But when these atrocities happened, I was not born. My grandfather’s grandfather hadn’t even made it to America yet. In which way am I culpable for the crimes of my associative ancestors? Furthermore, am I morally responsible for cruelties which, if happening today, I would rail against? The urgency to abandon historical prejudice is equally salient for border conflicts, for religious conflicts, and this is currently most true for the regressives. We have not learned the lessons of history. The regressives are busy legislating about pronouns whilst we ignore the North Koreas of the world.

I have not denied the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in this essay. I am simply saying that we are at a point in society where these regressive groups have taken these ideas too far. There exists, simply, Murray’s supply and demand problem regarding the bigotry regressives are begging to find. Cultural Authoritarians, to my mind, are looking for excuses to be assholes to people who they think are assholes. The supply of racists, sexists, and homophobes is paltry; the demand for them is longer than a Black Friday (racism??!??!) line. The logical conclusion of safe-spaces, scholarships for seemingly everyone who isn’t a straight white man, having gender quotas in the workplace, etc. is evolving into a new form of “oppression.” To even propose that men could be marginalized is laughable to regressives; they often, hypocritically, hold no sympathies for men. It matters not to these “bleeding heart liberals” that men comprise over 90% of the prison and jail population, that men comprise nearly 80% of the homeless, that 75% of murder victims are men, etc. The regressive rhetoric flicks these statistics out the window like cigarette ash. And I worry that these groups will end up becoming the very despots they rail so hard and vocally against.

Usually, my philosophy for approaching disagreements of this kind is to first lay out what we have in common. Only then do we explore towards the realms of disagreement. Humanizing your interlocutor in a debate or an argument is fundamental if you’re serious about seeking what is true. Immediately closing off their point of view because they have a differently self-assigned label than yourself isn’t helpful. You aren’t going to change your mind if you don’t want it changed. But, conversely, you should not being jamming your ideology down someone else’s throat if you aren’t willing to have the same done in exchange. That’s what a conversation, argument, or debate, implies: multiple voices in the conversation.

To the regressives, I would brandish the fact that I am not your enemy, I am an ally. But being incessantly criticized and dismissed for how I am privileged, oppressing, demeaning, etc. for factors beyond my reasonable control (straight, white, cis-gendered, male) does not help start the conversation. It shuts our minds down rather than opening them up. You are a deplorable, disreputable hypocrite if you don’t think every human being has a voice to add to the conversation, a role to play in the quest for equality and social change.

Recently, I have been told that my opinion–my thoughts, ideas, beliefs, research, etc–had no value in the conversation of social justice. As a contrarian, this strategy naturally backfired and I had a long passionate exchange against a handful of friends online. I was defending attacks from all sides; rather than spam their social media feeds, I have chosen to pen this brief essay. Out of pure spite, I vow to write about this issue more frequently, specifically, and honestly in 2016. I understand minorities need a voice in civil discourse, and I would never deny that. Yet, the regressive tendency is to push my ideas aside–not on their merit–because we need to fill a gender or race quota. Treating ideas unequally is antithetical to equality, and if the regressives believed in civil liberties for even half a second, they would shudder at the vile hypocrisy of their constitutional cowardice.

In contrast to the regressives, I don’t care at all about your sex, gender, race, age, etc. It has no value whatsoever in the quest for figuring things out about the world. If a fresh idea, undermining tradition, works better and maps more accurately onto reality, then it must be apprehended in practice. Yet, above all, my philosophy is to divorce ideas from people. Ideas are criticizable, modifiable, and easily tossed aside when no longer useful. It’s a bad idea when we treat people in this manner (i.e. You are X, therefore Y).

2015 was the year victimhood and grievance culture peaked, where irrationality dominated the discourse, where fear drove decision-making. Next year will be better.

Neutering Neoliberalism

December 7, 2015


It is almost tautological to criticize and problematize the state of modern public education in America. No one, from either side of the political spectrum, is satisfied with it. In the University setting, tuition has been on the rise, mainly due to an “administrative bloat;” in other words, college costs are rising and yet faculty spending has decreased. The root cause to these gamut of problems is easily found at the ideological foundations underpinning these dissatisfactory shifts in education, namely, Neoliberalism. College has three potential purposes, according to William Deresiewicz: (1) The commercial, (2) the cognitive, and (3) the moral. Neoliberalism has “capitalized” on the commercial and has trickled down into ever-earlier, vocationally-minded educational aims. College now looks more like a business than a place of learning. Scarcely decades ago, it was not uncommon for one’s education to cease at age fourteen; the once powerful high school diploma has now inflated into the baccalaureate degree. College and, consequently, earlier public education has suffered from this shift. This inflation of modern education, along with a slew of other errors are, to my mind, rectified through Henry Giroux’s radical imposition of Critical Pedagogy. But first, it would be useful to get clear, borrowing from the writings of Wendy Brown and Deresiewicz, on what Neoliberalism is and why it is culpable for the shortcomings of modern education.

Neoliberalism, on the surface, is a free-market model that has been liberally applied to education. That is, Neoliberalism prioritizes economic liberty over social welfare. This pervasive ideology in America has chewed its way into the educational system, now redefining the role of the school to be business-oriented, satisfying its customer-students. One can plainly see the appeal of Neoliberalism as a model for educational efficiency; as it is a career-oriented approach, there is specificity to the direction of the student, results are quantitative, etc. Additionally, a Neoliberal framework for education is a mechanism through which societal norms–the status quo–are preserved.

One could justify Neoliberalism (as politicians frequently do) in an educational appeal to our country’s need for trained, skilled workers in technical fields. Senator Marco Rubio, for example,  recently swiped at my very discipline with the wisecrack that “We need more welders than philosophers.” And, though he’s obviously incorrect, Senator Rubio has reasonable aims: An increase in skilled workers is a way to better society through an increase in social mobility, human utility, and innovation. That much seems innocuous until we realize the severe incongruities in treating education as market model instead of the social welfare model it should be. According to Deresiewicz, the Neoliberal college–and earlier education for that matter–is no longer a place intended for learning, it is has been reduced to a form of job training. Education, as many have argued, needs a severe ideological overhaul in this country. To this end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt once penned a “Second Bill of Rights,” which, amongst other things, underscored the access to a good education as a fundamental human right–as an end in itself. The Neoliberal model entirely rejects this view of education, given how the primary value of Neoliberalism is a reduction of all things to economic choices. Thus, an “artificial scarcity” of education has now emerged in which students are evermore rapidly thrown onto the vocational treadmill; the underbelly of this is an overinflated, oversaturated market of unemployed, overqualified college graduates.

Digging deeper, it becomes clear how Neoliberalism places primacy to the pecuniary, is married to meritocracy, and is a compatriot with capitalism. The most basic thing Neoliberalism advocates for is maintaining the socio-political structure we have seen for roughly the last 50 years in America. Privatization, for the Neoliberal, is the paragon of priorities. That is, a rhetoric of privatization is premised on free-market fundamentalism, i.e. Adam Smith’s invisible guiding hand of the unregulated market forces. Neoliberalism seems to have worked rather well, at least economically; America is, after all, the richest nation in the history of the world. But there is a very distinct difference between economic liberties and social welfare in this model which is too often neglected: The former has all the power in a Neoliberal society, whereas the latter is completely subverted to individuals (i.e. Randianism).

We will temporarily table the broader societal problems birthed of Neoliberalism, and first hone in on the effects Neoliberalism has had on modern education, namely a reduction of knowledge, thought, and learning, to capital enhancement. Schooling, through Neoliberalism, has become purely an instrumental good, for the Neoliberal purpose of education is to “produce producers,” not people. This implicates a detachment from social life insofar that, as Neoliberalism despotically marches into earlier and earlier aged classrooms, the children’s lives and interests become increasingly quantified–sanitized from their humanity. The social aspects of education are nonexistent when education is seen purely as an instrumental good. Creativity, as well, is now seen as a marketing tool, a business concept. Never does the Neoliberal model of education consider parental, teacher, or student consent; nor does it ever give them genuine platforms to dissent.

Neoliberalism, having infected the very purpose of education, has deteriorated everything to its market value such that students’ interests are stultified, tailored to what is “commercially viable” . Everything about education has become symbolized, through Neoliberalism, to the market language of supply and demand. But even our conception of the student is murdered through the Neoliberal lens; when the purpose of school becomes to “produce producers,” students first become “products,” which are to become future “producers,” human and economic “capital,” “investors” in themselves, etc. And as kids mature through the Neoliberal educational system, they begin to adopt a Stockholm Syndrome-like attitude towards the market language–including human beings–via the lens of cost-benefit analysis. Everything in education, then, is constrained to the dominant values of those who are in control of finances. The Neoliberal education has abjured “the project of producing a public readied for participation in popular sovereignty,” i.e. democracy. However, the Neoliberal education isn’t just a conspiratorial, top-down model. For adhering to the economic aims of education seems to be, for many people, the only way to organize society. But this also affects teachers, subjecting them to the empty buzzwords of “accountability,” and “merit pay,” for example. These ideas polarizingly divorce the vocation of the teacher from the broader context of their own lives. And the subjects of schooling have been boiled down such that, according to Deresiewicz, the “scholar” has been killed. In other words, Neoliberalism has effaced the conception of knowledge pursued as an end in itself; it has transmogrified everything about modern education into economics.

My immediate objection to applying the Neoliberal framework to education is that the very model precludes social critique. It is arrived at through appealing to economic scarcity which, frankly, is an appeal to the base instincts of ignorance and fear. Neoliberalism ascribes a moral worth to the very idea of working hard and earning money for their own sake. Not once are the psychological ramifications of such a view accounted for in Neoliberal education. And this is plainly evident in the small talk of everyday life. For, it never fails that, when I am meeting someone new, the first question out of their lips is, “What are you going to do with a degree in Philosophy?” This question is at its most insulting when the question is well-intended because of the tacit social presupposition that I, as a student, should only seek an education to train for a vocation. It bleeds a Neoliberal ideology. Never once does anyone presume that I simply enjoy learning about philosophy or engaging in vigorous intellectual debate in an academic arena. The real question should be “What interests you about Philosophy?” This anecdote highlights the ideological shift–from nearly all citizens–regarding the function of American Neoliberal education. The modern college degree is seen as valuable insofar that is has a “positive ROI.” Thus, a “war on learning” has successfully been waged in the educational arena. Instead of college preparing for life, it now prepares you to work for the rest of your life.

The worst offense of Neoliberalism in education is that it severely undercuts and inhibits democracy. Rather, Neoliberalism forestalls “democratization.” For we are not a democracy without a vibrant, well-informed, and earnestly critical citizenry; this entails the viewing of democracy as a still-unfinished process, never an object we have passively apprehended. By precluding social critique, Neoliberalism entirely runs against the very foundations of social democracy, because its sufficient conditions are “limited extremes of concentrated wealth and poverty, orientation toward citizenship as a practice of considering the public good, and citizens modestly discerning about the ways of power, history, representation, and justice.”. Democracy, then, thrives on Neoliberalism’s antipode. Neoliberalism exists through the “gentle despotism” of people’s “wholesale ignorance” about the forces shaping their lives. Thus, by reducing education to the economic, we have subverted the idea of a democratic “society” with personal interests, needs, and values. In other words, leadership has replaced citizenship.

Looking back to Deresiewicz’s three potential aims of college, through Neoliberalism, modern education is almost entirely ignoring the cognitive and moral realms. College is no longer about taking time to think about the world and how it could be better. No longer do we look to the youth to step outside the world and question it; we now fear that they may in fact change it. Giroux adds to this account of youth, noting how “nurturance, trust and respect” for future generations have been replaced by “fear, disdain, and suspicion.” These are symptoms of thinking about everything–including people–in Neoliberal market terms; we are all “economic competitors.” In short, the attitude of apathy in America is that the world isn’t going to change, so we don’t need young people to imagine how it might. Furthermore, by rendering youth in the market language, they threaten the old guard. If we are to continue championing our devotion to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as well as the social welfare of all, then Neoliberalism has long overstayed its welcome.

In response to the egregious, repugnant consequences of Neoliberalism, and in terms of its pernicious effects on education, I propose the introduction of Critical Pedagogy into the pedagogical and political spheres. Critical Pedagogy is a radical redefinition of education, which aims to vitally inspire “political intervention,” or social change, through active participation in democratic evaluation and critique. In Critical Pedagogy, everything in education is always aimed at possibility and envisioning the way we want the world to be. Thus, a precondition of this view is to resist ever totalizing certainties and answers; for as soon as we have fixed society into place–made it an object–we have lost democracy–as an action.

Repudiating the stultifying Neoliberal model, Critical Pedagogy takes an interdisciplinary approach to education. It is radically contextual, always taking care to ground schooling in everyday life concerns. Critical Pedagogy also values social relations, economic concerns do not shut them down as Neoliberalism does. These social relations function to foster a mix of compassion, ethics, and hope in students. Critical Pedagogy also always aims to inspire the core tenets of democracy: equality, justice, and freedom; the Neoliberal model has reduced those terms, including democracy, to their mere “economic valances.” Thus, a Critical Pedagogy is ongoing. As with democracy, it is never complete; democratization in education is what is needed to solve the problems of monolithic Neoliberalism.

Critical Pedagogy is unique in its approach because it doesn’t guarantee certainty, nor does it impose ideology of any kind. Rather, it aims to birth an ongoing “culture of questioning,” which involves taking critical approaches through a gamut of lenses: Neo-Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, critical theory, etc. If there is any “ideology” involved in the approach of a Critical Pedagogy, it is to resurrect a militant democratic socialism beyond the “dream world” of capitalism. That is, the main function of Critical Pedagogy is to problematize modernity’s universal project of citizenship. Critical Pedagogy aims to educate for a life of freedom, of intellectual sovereignty and participation in collective self-rule. Pedagogy, then, becomes political; politics, consequently, become pedagogical.

At the heart of Critical Pedagogy, there is the concern–against Neoliberalism–that education must address real social needs. Education can’t be some top-down imposition from a detached authority figure whose needs don’t remotely reflect the students’. Thus, critical pedagogy is always open to debate, as with democracy. Involved in this openness is ditching the “materiality” of politics by first understanding the dominating, interweaved structures of power in society. Critical Pedagogy, furthermore, commits itself to providing opportunities for the mobilization of collective action and outrage, in terms of politics. It makes visible the alternative models of radical democratic relations in a wide variety of sites. Critical Pedagogy even goes so far as to create, ideally, a “hegemony of democratic values.” It does this by revitalizing the “language” of civic education as a part of the broader discourse; Neoliberalism, meanwhile, has all but expunged civics courses before higher education. At the heart of Critical Pedagogy is the grounding of a “defense of militant utopian thinking,” that things can be better and we can, as social agents, take charge of politics and bring about the change we want to see in society. Critical Pedagogy commands much respect in its core aim to reinstate a “politics of possibility” in everyday life. Neoliberalism rejects the consent of those participating; Critical Pedagogy is predicated on it. To these ends, I propose Critical Pedagogy as a radical answer–”cultural politics”–to Neoliberalism’s immense influence on education.

To bring about a Critical Pedagogy would require an overhaul of our conceptions of the roles of the teacher and student. Educators begin to revitalize struggles to instigate social change, not based on their own values, but responsive to a reestablishment of political and social agency in all. The pedagogue’s main role is to teach the “language” of critique; they are politically, socially, and ethically accountable. Students, in this approach, are actively involved in their own problematizing of politics and pedagogy. Thus, education is no longer just vocationally aimed, as with Neoliberal education. Education’s main concern, as politicized pedagogy, is to unite and motivate citizens to participate in social movements. This requires vigorous, constant opposition to commercializing or corporatizing the educational sphere. Thus, Critical Pedagogy aims for students to adopt three main learning outcomes: Critical learning, ethical deliberation, and civic engagement.

Many problems appear for bringing a Critical Pedagogy to ubiquity in American society. This is most clearly illustrated by the American population’s general political apathy. For example, a national poll of senatorial approval ratings was recently published by the Morning Consult. At the top of the list was senator Bernie Sanders, who managed 83% approval. If this were a standardized test, we would be extremely concerned if the highest grade in the class was a B minus. For context, the tenth highest senator, Elizabeth Warren, polled in at a mere 64% approval, and the list gets progressively worse. Though the fallibility of polls is well documented, I think this indicates an obstacle for Critical Pedagogy. That is, to radically democratize our society at the pedagogical level is hard enough. But the broader political current in which the Critical Pedagogue has to swim is severely powerful, for the general American population has been deeply discouraged into an entrenched political apathy, one which is easily explained: The news media is nothing but sensationalism and fear-mongering; political campaigns are nothing but vacuous, capricious pandering; cases of voter fraud are not infrequently brought to light; gerrymandering of voter districts and precincts is rampant from republicans and democrats alike; the stagnation of bureaucracy is as much a truism as the failures of modern public education. The list continues, but I will arbitrarily stop there. Political apathy is but one of the many challenges Critical Pedagogy must face in the fight against Neoliberalism.

Furthermore, according to Deresiewicz, the market has now become so powerful that it is “swallowing” the very counterbalancing institutions of government which this country was founded on. For example, in wake of the American Supreme Court’s narrow approval of the nail-in-the-coffin Citizens United case in 2010, Neoliberalism has invaded politics from all sides. By allowing the inundation of money in politics, it has become all-but-impossible to mobilize collective social groups to inspire political change responsive to the general population. Those with immense wealth have translated that wealth into political power. Neoliberalism, recall, ascribes a moral worth to meritocracy. Many people, if they know about Citizens United at all, haven’t explored the ramifications of money invading politics. It’s difficult to effectively critique the power of political bribes in a system which is married to meritocracy and compatriot with capitalism. So, if we are to create an educational system to tackle Neoliberalism, we must first overturn Citizens United and similar legislative embarrassments.

But there are additional problems for bringing about a thriving Critical Pedagogy into public education. Government officials and educational administrators have obvious stake in preventing Critical Pedagogy from replacing the current model of education. Additionally, a handful of megacorporations have readily created monopolies on the buying power of schools; this is true especially of textbooks, student breakfast/lunch, computer systems, etc. The lottery, which allegedly allocates funds to education, is a lot slimier and less effective than the adverts would like us to believe. A similar trend continues all the way down. So, effectively, critical pedagogy is pitted against almost all the “powers that be” in society.

At this point, one might agree that a the Critical Pedagogy approach is needed in order to thwart Neoliberalism’s monopolistic stranglehold of education. But one might also be inclined to doubt that Critical Pedagogy is possible; there are simply too many powerful societal antagonists to attack. Yet, I think that to conclude this would be mistaken. In fact, it would be in bad faith to ignore the irony of such a conclusion, for the Critical Pedagogue would respond that this helpless attitude is due to the very pervasion of Neoliberal ideology. The central aim of Critical Pedagogy is to convert all the “impossible” forms of social change into fundamentally possible ones. The Critical Pedagogue might reply to one who doubts in the viability of such an approach that, in spite of their doubt, Critical Pedagogy is all the more urgently necessitated. It is because of this feeling of “helplessness” in the face of Neoliberalism’s immense power; Critical Pedagogy is the mechanism through which democratization is demonstrated, equality is enacted, freedom is fastened, etc. Neoliberalism, then, only dominates through our passivity to it.

Critical Pedagogy, to my mind, is the best approach to grappling with the inefficiencies and aporetic complexities of the political sphere. To bring this about, I’d argue that we need to wage a war of ideas in this country. This “war” of ideas is to be waged on the public and the powerful. Positive social change cannot happen without civil discourse; this means shedding our fears of argument, apprehending the language of critique, and even talking politics with your uncle on Thanksgiving. The very impediment to living in a desirable society is a disengagement from the social, ethical, and political realms of the public sphere. Here, I quote Brown at length:

Consider this justification, from the 1946 President’s Commission of Higher Education, for immense federal investment in public higher education: “It is an investment in social welfare, better living standards, better health and less crime. It is an investment in a bulwark against garbled information, half-truths and untruths, against ignorance and intolerance. It is an investment in human talent, better human relationships, democracy and peace.” Critical Pedagogy does not stop in the classroom, but that is where it must start. I believe that Critical Pedagogy is not failsafe, but it is forward looking. It is, in the Neoliberal language, an “investment.”

In my previous writings, I have advocated for the aims of education to be Aristotle’s “Eudaimonia,” a good life oriented towards living well. It seems to me that, of all approaches to education, Critical Pedagogy is needed in order to bring that good life about. For, if we continue to wear the pseudonym of democracy, whilst not participating in it throughout our lives, at every level, then we are deeply mistaken. As things are now, it takes everyone–not just a few–to come together and actively participate in finding what our common values are and the best way to reify them. Critical Pedagogy does not promise panacea, but it does promise possibility and progress. Democracy, if it is to exist at all, has to start in the classroom.


Works Cited:

Brown, Wendy. Undoing the DemosNeoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Massachusetts: MIT,

Deresiewicz, William. “The Neoliberal Arts.” Harper’s Magazine September 2015: 1-8. Web.

Giroux, Henry A. On Critical Pedagogy. New York: Contiuum International Group, 2011.

Wilson, Reid. Bernie Sanders is the Most Popular Senator in America. Morning Consult, 2015.

“…and the Clock strikes the Hour of Drunkenness.”

December 5, 2015


A fear of time and death is the fuel for many aspects of human behavior; they are the two inexorable adversaries of life. Both death and time loom in the background of our minds, repressed, flirting with the periphery of conscious thought. In the mind-altered states of intoxication, however, these notions of death and time take on a new shape. Nearly every single author we’ve studied this semester has encountered or investigated their idiosyncratic relation, through intoxication, to time and death. Frequently in the drug experience, eternity and infinity are evoked; they give rise to our two main themes of time and death. But the question I want to keep in mind throughout this paper is as follows: What significance does an altered experience of time have on one’s own notions of death (and vice-versa)?

Time dilation is most profoundly present in writings of Henri Michaux’s experiments with mescaline. Michaux describes how, in mescaline, “time is immense…it is supreme.” Time, for Michaux, has adopted a deity-like status in his experience of mescaline. In fact, Michaux goes as far as to blasphemously declare that, “Pullulation and Time” have taken over the roles inhabited by god; he writes that the altered experience of time on mescaline is “the kind of time God would inhabit if he existed.” Not only is there a god-like manifestation of time in Michaux’s writings, but there remains a shadowy implication for the kind of time we experience in sobriety. That is, Michaux’s writings of a consecrated, sanctified time seem to profane our sober experience of undilated time. The regal, mescalinian time of Michaux’s writings renders our clock-time paltry in comparison. Michaux, in fact, even proclaims that the mescalinian time he is describing, alone, is natural. Our everyday concepts of time, then, is implicated as something unnatural and lacunary. In this case, Michaux might argue that this implication is due to the truncated, pigeonholing tendency of clock-time; we have profaned the infinite by chunking clock-time into symbolic segments.

Further on in Michaux’s writings, he provides us a more unequivocal account of his dilated mescalinian time. It has abandoned the profanity of our customary clock-time: “I have once more become a passage, a passage in time. This then was the furrow with the fluid in it, absolutely devoid of viscosity, and that is how I pass from second 51 to second 52, to second 53, then to second 54 and so on. It is my passage forward…I feel nothing now but the going forward.” Here, one can feel the tedium of clock-time through the lingering of seconds. Clock-time, here, feels unnatural, which explicates Michaux’s earlier description of mescalinian time as “true time rediscovered.” The mescalinian experience of time seems to violently tear apart our (false) divisions of time into seconds, minutes, and hours. Rather, Michaux appears to be experiencing time in all of its fullness. If we are to trust the sanctity in which Michaux ascribes to mescalinian time, then it seems something worth experiencing.

Michaux, furthermore, presents us with a “new time,” in which one’s minutes are made up of “three million instants,” in which one will “never be in a hurry” with one’s attention; in “new time,” attention becomes “superdivided” and never “outdistanced.” Mescaline, in other words, functionally acts as an “infinity mechanism” which drags the intoxicated person to the margins of madness. The only difference between the intoxicated and the mad, in Michaux’s writings, is that, because of his sense of infinity, the madman “offers no resistance.” The mescaline user, ceteris paribus, does. To reinforce the maddening quality of this “new time” Michaux’s writings are supplying, he describes the typical madman as a “brave fellow” who, on his own, tries to cope with the “destructive phenomenon” of an infinite sense of time; the mescaline user, on the other hand, cannot endure the “destructive phenomenon.” The mescaline experience–regardless of subjective alterations–is temporal, fleeting, and will end.

Mescaline’s effects, according to the writings of Aldous Huxley, can be quite different from Michaux’s account. In fact, unlike Michaux, Huxley writes of having a “complete indifference to time.” This complete indifference comes from, what Huxley admits to be, a completely absurd place. He continues, very matter-of-factly, that, “‘There seems to be plenty of [time],’” as though that statement was supposed to help his interlocutors understand his experience. The peculiarity of Huxley’s statement is only rivaled by the way in which he acknowledges his capability to have looked at his watch; he writes that to check his watch would be to dive into “another universe.” So, we are already beginning to see the antipodal effects on time that Huxley’s writings emanate, as opposed to Michaux’s utter submersion in it. But, despite Huxley’s initial “complete indifference” to time, his subsequent experience is described as “an infinite duration…of a perpetual present made up of one continually changing apocalypse.” This seems to entirely contradict any “indifference” Huxley had initially proclaimed. Thus, it isn’t too crazy to suppose that Huxley’s indifference to time is very similar to Michaux’s. That is, both authors have invoked the “infinite” in considering the manner of time; they both seem to resist the segmenting of clock-time.

Huxley’s contribution to our budding taxonomy of time comes to fruition in his writings of how, under the influence of mescaline, one is “shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception,” in which the hours spent on the drug are “timeless.” Huxley writes of an experience, like Michaux, that is “beyond time, of union with the divine Ground.” Here again, transcendent time has been evoked. Time, through mescaline, has become “divine”; ground, furthermore, has been capitalized. By taking care to ascribe those qualities to time, Huxley seems to be referring to time as the ground for experience itself. Time just happens to be the vessel through which all of our transactions with the world are made. He further characterizes mescalinian time dilation to be of “inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.” Huxley, as a naturalist, is pointing to something truly spiritual about human experience: the temporal contingency of our being.

Amidst further material is a smattering of thoughts about death and time, which return us to the core relationship of our initial concern. Theophile Gautier, for instance, equates death with a plunge into a “frozen eternity,” which has temporal traces of Michaux and Huxley. Furthermore, in Gautier’s writings on hashish, he describes his experience of a “temporary demise.” Within this phrasing, both death and time are evoked. But, although phrases like “frozen eternity” and “temporary demise” don’t conjure up rosy, joyous images, Gautier argues that these are a “necessary apprenticeship for one’s definitive death.” Gautier’s use of the word “apprenticeship” is peculiar, suggesting a teacher-student relationship between the hashish and himself. He seems to be suggesting, here, that intoxication is a pedagogical strategy in which one temporarily encounters one’s own mortality. The regions of space-time, as we’ve seen above, are distorted and deranged in various states of intoxication. This distortion might be the way in which a “temporary demise” can be achieved. And, by calling this encounter “necessary,” Gautier is implying that there is a moral/psychological benefit in this brief death.

In addition to Gautier’s linking of death and time, Mary Hungerford’s An Overdose of Hashish provides similar insights. For example, after ingesting far too much hashish, Hungerford writes how her body transmogrified into a “living temple of flesh in time.”Again, the word “temple” conjures up a religious encounter with time; life is the gift from, and the payment for, time. Hungerford’s writings on hashish explore, not only wild distortions of time, but a lucid, hallucinogenic encounter with death anxiety. She writes of being filled with a “bitter, dark despair” with a “wild, unreasoning terror.” One can almost feel her pen trembling on the page underneath the horrific gravity of this encounter with death. In her intoxication, “the door of time seemed to close on [her]” such that she was “thrust shuddering into a hopeless eternity, each time falling…[into] the dread of the unknown.” This vision, in which Hungerford is thrusted into the unknown, is beyond her own descriptive capacities.

Like Gautier, there is a temporary demise at play in Hungerford’s writings. Hungerford, petrified, plummets into the realm of the unknown, a place with no time. But, in addition to these fears, she is also–in her hallucination–forcefully propelled towards a great black ocean, bounding the “formless chaos” where “each tiny drop of [ocean] spray was a human existence which in that passing instant had its birth, life, and death.” Not only has Hungerford experienced a kind of deified time, she is seeing from above–like a god herself–the fragility and futility in the brevity of human existence. To this end, she indignantly exclaims, “How short a life!” to which a formless, faceless voice unexpectedly replies, “Not short in time.” Here, Hungerford obtains insight regarding human existence: It is all a part of a “universal system” which is, invariably, “reabsorbed into infinity.” Like our other authors, Hungerford, too, sobers up eventually and these proportions of the infinite lose their supernatural qualities. But her encounters with the great black ocean, the door of time, and the infinite, all seem to reflect Gautier’s “temporary demise” and “frozen eternity.” It seems there is much to be learned from the extremities of intoxication.

We should now spend some time on the author who first formulated my correspondence between intoxication, death, and time: Charles Baudelaire. Both his poetry and his writings on intoxication repeatedly evoke their interdependence. Specifically, in his poem titled “Poison,” Baudelaire writes how “Opium can dilate boundless space / and plumb eternity, / emptying out time itself” to which he concludes, “my soul…sinks / unconscious on the shores of death!” Both time and death are implicated in Baudelaire’s writings of opium’s effects, in addition to his writings on other intoxicants. The “emptying out” of “time itself” through opium is suggestive of Huxley and Michaux’s dismantling of clock-time. That is, by “plumbing time”–emptying it out–it loses the rigid quality that clock-time imposes upon the kind of time these authors are describing. And, as these effects progress, Baudelaire’s narrator ends up on the shores of death itself, further motivating intoxication as a “flight-from-time.” So, there is obviously a deep-seated coupling of time and death for mescaline, hashish, and opium users alike. These three drugs are all quite different, but the motif and recursive meditations of their mutual relationship reveals that death and time are not only evoked by intoxicants, they are the static furniture of our psychological landscape.

I first paid deep attention to the links between intoxication, death, and time, when I read Baudelaire’s poem titled “The Clock.” The clarity of this link can only be explicated by taking a look at this poem in its entirety:

Impassive god! whose minatory hands
repeat their sinister and single charge:
Remember! Pain is the unfailing bow,
as arrow after arrow finds your heart.

Pleasure fades and dances out of sight–
one pirouette, the theatre goes dark;
each instant snatches from you what you had,
the crumb of happiness within your grasp.

Thirty-six hundred times in every hour
the Second whispers: Remember! and Now replies
in its maddening mosquito hum: I am Past,
who passing lit and sucked your life and left! 

Remember! Souviens-toi! Esto memor!
(My metal throat is polyglot.) The ore
of mortal minutes crumbles, unrefined,
from which your golden nuggets must be panned.

Remember! Time, that tireless gambler, wins
on every turn of the wheel: that is the law.
The daylight fades…Remember! Night comes on:
the pit is thirsty and the sands run out… 

Soon it will sound, the tocsin of your Fate–
from noble Virtue, your still-virgin bride,
or from Repentance, last resort…from all
the message comes: “Too late, old coward! Die!”

Baudelaire’s “The Clock” flagrantly, and without remorse, draws together the notions of death and time. The invocation of a clock as an “impassive god” is particularly provocative, considering our earlier discussion regarding the profane qualities of clock-time. Baudelaire’s clock is deified, the arbiter of time itself. Death is also heavily intertwined, both implicitly and explicitly, in this poem. It is unclear how Baudelaire, the man, thought about time. But Baudelaire, the poet, is paying attention to the importance of keeping time in mind with regards to death. They are intimately connected for the narrator of this poem.

There is also Baudelaire’s formulation of “your still-virgin bride,” in this poem, which I interpret as the life you’ve been afraid to live or the body you’re afraid to push to its limits. Keeping time and death in mind as “fate,” the narrator is urgently trying to keep the reality of one’s own death in plain sight. Using one’s own death as motivation in defiance of time’s “impassive” nature seems to be the narrator’s purpose for the poem. To this end, the poem succeeds in that I, personally, will never forget the fact of thirty-six hundred seconds passing with every hour.

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Finally, we would be remiss to gloss over Baudelaire’s prose poem which inspired the theme of this class: “Be Drunk!” In this poem, the narrator declares that “One must always be drunk; That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as to not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.” This poem’s opening gambit is a clear nod towards the link between intoxication and time, which are further intertwined with death. The act of getting drunk, in this poem, is recalcitrant to the oppressing forces of time and death. Getting drunk, as described in this poem, is a dulling of, or escape from, “Time’s horrible burden,” namely, death. Yet, Baudelaire muddles up this clean connection of intoxication, death, and time, with his following paragraph: “But [get drunk] with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk.”  Here, “drunkenness” is much broader than chemical intoxicants which we have been exploring thus far.

In considering the urgency of Baudelaire’s poem “The Clock,” this poem, “Be Drunk,” too, echoes similar themes of the severity involved in linking intoxication with time, and death. There is even a familiar character invoked in “Be Drunk,” namely, the clock. Baudelaire writes, towards the end of this poem, that “the clock will reply: ‘It is time to get drunk! So that you may not be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk.’”As we saw in “The Clock,” it is vital that we understand the power of intoxication so as to flout the eventual victory of time and death over our bodies. By considering us the “martyred slaves of Time,” intoxication is being poetically prescribed–not just by Baudelaire, but by all our authors–as the way to make the most of our mortal situation.

Thus, we must return to our initial considerations. We saw, through Michaux, the divine presence of time in our lives. His mescaline-driven dilation of experience reminds us that there is but an eternal–an infinite–now. Our dissection of “now” into clock-time has severely sculpted our sentiments of, and sensitivity to, time. Through Huxley, we saw the deep profundities of time as a precondition to our being. His writings not only reinforce Michaux’s, they build off of them so as to ground the holiness of time in a secularly-oriented life. The writings of Gautier and Hungerford serve as our bridge between time and death; intoxication exacerbates one’s awareness of time, and of one’s own mortality. And Baudelaire’s writings most plainly illustrate the relationship intoxication has with time and death. There is a vital connection, for Baudelaire, between the act of getting drunk–on wine, poetry, or virtue–and the temporary escape from time and death. These authors, all functioning in concert, provide us a palliative prescription to the aporetic despotism of time and death in our lives. Their imposition are to be rebelled against, or so we must conclude, by intoxication. Following the sagacity of Baudelaire’s broad definition of intoxication, we might have something to learn, in fact, by turning to the bottle.


Works Cited:

Baudelaire, Charles. Poems. New York: AA Knopf, 1993. Print.

Gautier, Theophile. Hashish, Wine, and Opium. London: Calder and Boyars, 1972. Print.

Hungerford, Mary. An Overdose of Hashish.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper and Row, 1963. Print.

Michaux, Henri. Miserable Miracle. San Francisco: City Lights, 1963. Print.

Linguistic Limitations

November 26, 2015


In the information age, many people appear to have forgotten the analogical limitations of language; culture now incessantly produces and reproduces new information such that it seems to have an infallible apprehension of the world. Language has convinced us, in short, that words can be taken at face value for truth. Because of this, many of the fundamental questions about language have started to collect dust on the shelf. I think it’s crucial to continue an exploration as to the functions and limits of language, particularly in the face of inundating information. Alan Watts and Friedrich Nietzsche present views on language that appear to both question and cripple the assumption embedded in Western culture–if not all cultures–that language maps onto reality. Watts and Nietzsche resist the tendency of language to dissect the world apart; drawing from Eastern philosophy, they view the universe as being one, indistinct, chaotic process. If they are right in their assessment of our language and its misrepresentation of reality, then what does that mean for us?

Language, according to Watts and Nietzsche, falsely fragments reality. By the very act of labelling things, it ascribes distinctions that aren’t necessarily representative of reality itself. The cultured Western mind will inevitably want to resist this claim insofar that our experience of the world is, in fact, comprised of individual and separate objects or actions. To this end, Nietzsche rejects the distinction between “perceivable appearances,” on the one hand, and a “concealed, underlying reality” on the other. Nietzsche, here, is undermining one of the foundations of western philosophy, Platonism, the view that appearance and reality are at odds. Nietzsche’s rejection of Platonism is contingent upon one’s perspective, however; but one’s perspective is drenched in metaphorical potential.

Nietzsche examines, in The Gay Science, what it’s like to be us. He posits that our experience in the world is primarily mediated by our individual perspective. This view gets built into “Perspectivism,” which Nietzsche considers as the fundamental condition of all life. To unpack this, perspectivism arises from our “take” on the world, so to speak. We’ve been thrown into the culminating world of human culture; thus, we inherit the language, symbols, values, and beliefs of our ancestry. This inheritance greatly, if not primarily, shapes our understanding of reality. At birth, we get taught “one, two, three” and “A, B, C” until we successfully prattle the terms back at our parents. However, they soon start to mean something to us. So, our perspectives are individual at the literal level but become collective at the symbolic level. All of this has two major implications for us: (1) The fact of multiple perspectives problematizes the concept of an “objective” take on the world, and (2) otherwise epistemic peers can disagree on their interpretations about the world.

Watts further problematizes this idea of Perspectivism by picking apart the way in which attention interacts with reality. Attention, at least the way we speak of it, is noticing things. The consequence of Nietzsche’s view of Perspectivism, according to Watts, is that our perspective and, thus, our attention, are mediated by the intervals we ignore–what we don’t notice. We experience all kinds of things that we don’t notice (i.e. radiation, microbial life, the hum of the AC, etc.). Watts proposes that more of our life is like this than we’d care to admit.

To demonstrate how language is a corollary of attention, Watts asks us to consider the act of driving. Driving is a case, he argues, where we multitask, usually at the expense of our attention to the act of driving itself. As I listen to audiobooks in my car, I somehow make it from point A to point B without colliding with another car or killing a squirrel. In this example, behavior has been automated. Thus, attention seems to be predicated on the degree to which an activity is automated for us. This example of driving applies to language. The extent to which we have automated language–from childhood onward–is so deeply ingrained in us that it’s almost impossible to break free from its shackles. In some real sense, language has been automated such that I don’t consciously control the linguistic tendencies I have internalized. Watts goes further to suggest that this automaticity of attention is in large part due to the main function of language: The symbolization of our world. It has compartmentalized phenomena into words, numbers, notations, etc. all of which facilitate the classifications of perception. Language, as a function of both Perspectivism and attention, “pigeonholes” our experience into easily classifiable bits for our memory to store and sort. But, the implication of this, as Watts notes, is that we have a really hard time noticing things for which we do not have the words.

This “pigeonholing” is evident in Watts’ example of Eskimos vs. Aztecs: The Eskimos have five words for different kinds of snow, whereas the Aztec language has only one word for all forms of precipitation. This is evidence for how our perceptions and, thus, our words, reflect what we value. The Eskimos value snow because they live in it, whereas the Aztecs did not. And you can see this today with the rise of internet culture, where the hashtag has sprouted organically from our minds. Words like “selfie” wouldn’t even be comprehensible to someone living before the age of cameras. But as we now have cameras in our pockets, it has become important to us and, thus, we now have a range of words to grapple with “selfie-culture.” With this in mind, there appears to be a kernel of truth to the quip William Burroughs once made when he wrote that “Language is a virus from outer space.” Or, at least, the “virus” part seems true; language inexorably infects our thoughts. It seems Watts and Nietzsche are in agreement here that our language distorts–and reflects the short-sightedness of–our immediate experience.

Now that the relationship between perspective, attention, and language have been problematized, one might object to Watts and Nietzsche here. It seems necessary that we filter out parts of our experience to hone in on fragments of reality. But Watts accounts this immediate impulse, however, by agreeing: “To perceive [everything] at once would be pandemonium, as when someone slams down all the keys of the piano at the same time”. So, what’s the problem? Frankly, just because language is necessitated by our culture doesn’t mean we can’t scrutinize it. If our perspective and attention filter reality and, thus, the language we use, then this has severe implications for the way we experience life. These implications, according to Watts, present us with two functional failures of language: (1) We mistake antipodal concepts like black and white, on and off, etc. as opposites, and (2) we really think that the world is an assemblage of separate, discrete, individual objects.

The world Watts and Nietzsche are presenting is one not full of separate, individual objects and actions. They see our common notion of reality as a byproduct–a mistake–of our language. We have rendered everything into symbols, but we forget that symbols can never be what they signify. So, instead of seeing these antipodal concepts as going together, as a part of the single thing (the Universe), we see these opposites as pitted against each other. Hence, concepts like Good and Evil. We see these oppositions as battles and, thus, we really believe they don’t necessitate each other by their very existence–that we can get rid of the Evil while keeping the Good. Both Watts and Nietzsche reject this perspective on reality. Watts goes as far as to say that, as far as language is concerned, “the logic of thought is quite arbitrary…it is a purely and strictly human invention without any basis in the physical universe”. In other words, the symbols we have to represent reality are just capriciously chosen placeholders. Yet, though I think Watts is incontrovertibly correct about this position on thought and language, everything about my subjective experience wants to reject this view. The ontological structure of our language is such that I can’t help but think of things in terms of objects and actions. It is incoherent to our systems of logic to cease compartmentalizing aspects of our experience. But, as Watts argues, there is no way to draw the line between subject and object, cause and effect, etc. without that line being mercurial. This is because each distinction we make necessitates, by implication, two opposites. Watts attempts to palliate this issue by interjecting a new, admittedly clumsy, word into our language: “Goeswith.”

Goeswith is a way of rectifying the failure of our grammatical structure. We break things (nouns) and actions (verbs) apart into distinct words that “go with” each other. Objects and actions are spoken of as separate and distinct from one another but, in reality, neither can exist without the other. The implication for our own experience is that, because of our language, we forget that these patterns of noun/verb do not reflect the patterns of nature. This is no new insight, but our culture seems to have forgotten it. This is bizarre because, for decades, anthropologists have espoused the incongruities of languages around the world. Color, for example, is expressed in some languages as a verb as opposed to an adjective (i.e. a painting is not “red” to these cultures, it is “redding,” and so on).

The very fact that there are other, seemingly coherent, languages which treat the world differently than we do begins to reveal how tremulous our linguistic distinctions really are. Returning to goeswith, the failures of our grammatical structures become clearer: It’s not that “the plant is growing” but, rather, that “the plant goeswith growing.” Again, Watts is careful to underscore how cumbersome this word is; but, conceptually, he’s putting us back on the right track in terms of accurately describing the world. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that there can be no plant without the action of growth, and no growth without the object of the plant. Not only are our linguistic distinctions fragile, they’re objectively incoherent and patently false. Language represents, rather than reflects, reality. And yet, our linguistic distinctions seem internally consistent; in dividing up the world piece by piece we form a coherence of our own.

In terms of our language’s “coherence,” consider a spider-web. No thread of spider silk does much, or holds much weight, on its own. But as the spider weaves together strand after strand, each piece ends up supporting the rest and, thus, they are much stronger together than any individual thread alone. This spider-web analogy is, in my view, the way our language functions; together it all coheres, but is individually meaningless. Watts wants to further pick apart this collective coherence to investigate which ways language can be fixed so as to be independently coherent, instead of relying on the whole web of meanings.

By no means am I in a position to pontificate about the ways in which we can fix our language. In fact, the problem appears to be intractable. But one such solution can be revealed, through Watts: Everything in existence is a process. This process understands the subject/object, noun/verb, distinction as a false one. Watts says that these conceptual categories exist primarily because we are still operating in the language of “Newtonian billiards.” But it’s easier and more accurate to regard all situations, not as active agents and passive objects, but as processes. Borrowing again from Eastern philosophy, Watts notes how everything in the world acts like a magnet, both entailing and attracting its opposite, only more complexly patterned–like the spider-web analogy. As our language exists now, we never allow ourselves more than a “sketch” of a situation. But, if we are to aim our efforts towards rectifying the errors in our conceptions of the world, we must begin to understand that nothing exists independently, and nothing acts independently, of anything else.

Furthermore, we as human beings are a process not apart from our actions: We are what we do, and what we do is who we are. By dividing our experience into symbolic parts (words), we have fallen prey to, what Watts calls, “fictions of language.” If Watts is correct that dividing the world into words is fictive, then this seems to put to bed the age old questions such as the nature vs. nurture debate (gene-environment interactions) in biology. That is, if our polar divisions are false, then it’s incoherent to posit that an organism could be independent of its environment and, conversely, that an environment is independent of the organism. This returns us to our initial concern, Nietzsche’s Perspectivism, in that we only understand our environment in terms of our perspective or, rather, our perspective is mediated by our environment. Using Watts’ language of goeswith, we goeswith our environment as much as our environment goeswith us. To speak of either as distinct from the other, according to Watts, is make-believe.

We have contextualized the relationship between perspectivism and goeswith, but we have yet to explore the severity of what this means for us. Consider the age old, eye-roll inducing, question of the philosophers: If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound? The clear answer, in this conception of perspectivism and goeswith, is no. Sound only would exist in accordance with one’s perspective. To make this conclusion clear, Watts describes how all of our “senses” (taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing) are forms of touch: “All these phenomena are interactions, or transactions, of vibrations with a certain arrangement of neurons.” In other words, everything we experience is an environmental interaction with our bodies. If I goeswith hearing, then hearing (or sound) goeswith me. Sound cannot be produced without the interaction of the vibrating air, my cochlea, and my auditory cortex. Sound, then, is itself the interaction of these parts. These implications become clearer through Watts’ example of chasing a rainbow. Our language treats a rainbow as an object which, if it were an object, could be apprehended in space-time. But, like sound, the rainbow only exists in its interaction with water, sunlight, and one’s perspective. I think that “chasing the rainbow” is an apt metaphor for the way we experience the world through language.

Language leads us into conceptual wormholes that are equally fictive as the rainbow. We are lost in the illusion of things, primarily because our grammar necessitates illusion. In fact, all language boils down to metaphor. Watts goes as far as to call this metaphoric tendency a “mythology.” It would be intellectually dishonest to posit that, like the rainbow, things (nouns) exist (verb) on their own. This mythology of language leads us to believe that we are not really “in the world” in the way other things are. Rather, this mythology supports the illusion that we can observe reality–objectively and independently–without having an effect on it. Our language dictates that the world is “out there,” and we are “in here” in our bodies. We even have words for the experience of being in control of our bodies from just behind our eyes. But this illusory linguistic trick of being “confronted” by reality is clearly a misrepresentation of the way we and the world really are, according to Watts and Nietzsche. This is because our perspective has gotten in the way, birthed language and, thus, has restricted our access to the fluctuating fullness of reality.

Returning again to Perspectivism, it seems to be the case that knowledge is always obfuscated by us. But Nietzsche goes further than Watts with this claim, which I admire. Perspectivism is a claim about truth as well. Our access to truth is contingent upon our perspective, sure, but it doesn’t seem to follow that truth is itself ethereal. Perspectivism grinds up against our conceptual framework for championing the multitudinous successes of the sciences. But Nietzsche dismisses this urge to bolster science–as a counterexample–as a mistaken metaphysical presumption which is worthy of repudiation. Yet, we desire that everyone agree on truth; that is, our culture tacitly denies Perspectivism. Nietzsche, however, recognizes that there is no one “truth,” there are but many perspectives on truth. The degree to which we confer the value of “truth” to a perspective is another matter.

Watts’ view on truth, in contrast, appears to be at odds with Nietzsche’s inconclusive view. After all, if everything goeswith everything else, then there could, in fact, be a unified “truth” about the nature of things. Yet, I think Watts and Nietzsche are more in alignment than they initially appear. In fact, Watts seems to outright deny the importance of seeking an absolute truth about everything, or that we could possibly be arrogant enough to try and know it. Watts might agree that each perspective is different, sure, but each is as much a part of other perspectives as other perspectives are a part of it. Here, Watts and Nietzsche seem to agree that language is simply the way we communicate between perspectives.

To this end, Watts anticipates the question, “So what?” It might seem to the casual reader that Nietzsche and Watts are just playing semantic games in redefining language; that is, they aren’t really giving us anything to fix the problems with. But there is a psychologically important insight to these views: By making linguistic distinctions, we create antagonists and out-groups that are more destructive than we’d care to admit. We end up defining ourselves in terms of negatives, and unfairly excluding parts of experience from our lives that we might otherwise not feel so averse towards. Watts responds to the question posed above by saying that, regarding language, “the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline which this involves.” And this seems to be what Nietzsche is saying with his views on life-affirmation and the eternal recurrence of the same (which I will succinctly summarize, because these notions constitute another discussion entirely); we need to live here and now, without prejudice and regret.

This is all well and good, yet one might still be unclear as to how a better understanding of language could help us achieve this end. If Watts and Nietzsche are correct–which I think they are–then language prevents us at every turn from meeting these life-affirming conditions in the present moment. This discussion of language is so crippling for us precisely because it severely damages our capacities to enjoy life. Less melodramatically, the act of conceptually separating ourselves from the world–from objects, persons, actions, environments, and moments in time–limits our experience of it. We’ve seen, through Watts, how indistinguishable we are from the world. In its current incarnation, language wedges itself in between that fact of inseparability.

Another damning fact about language is to be found in the Library of Babel, an internet archive which, through an algorithm, has combined every possible arrangement of the English language’s letters, including the comma, space, and period. The implications for the existence of such a site are enormous. Compose any 3,200 character query and the Library of Babel will have already accounted for what you submit. The Library of Babel blurs the line–regarding the functions of language–between something we invent, and something we discover. You can find details of your birth, death, a love note you wrote in middle school, the emails you just sent, etc. Anything that could be said can be found–it just needs to be looked up. Because of this tool, all language starts to look a little suspicious, skeletal, and stale. But stepping back from the confines of culture, this quantification of language seems laughably inevitable. Yet, culture has convinced us that language is something we command with agency. The Library of Babel’s very existence poses a threat to that alleged agency over language. In fact, to undercut language is to undercut an essential feature of our humanity.

Are we to now abandon all thought and language, all the sciences, and the quest for truth? Surely not. The takeaway from Nietzsche is that language gave rise to consciousness in the first place; it was necessary for survival and is even more crucial today. The consequence here is that language doesn’t describe the world, as our culture says; language prescribes–it gives rise to thought, not the other way around. Given that we can only operate from our perspective, yet inherit the symbolic structure of other perspectives, we have to be vitally aware of when we’re passively accepting language as reality. A pragmatic solution to this problem of language might be easily formulated. But Nietzsche makes the effort of calling language into question–and its interpolating command on us as agents–precisely to illustrate how crucial this understanding is to living a good life. This conclusion reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s declaration that, “The limits of my language [are] the limits of my world.” Given this, I don’t think any self-respecting person would willingly choose a “limited” experience of the world; Nietzsche and Watts are providing an opportunity to reexamine the role of language in our lives. This examination of language is a step towards reformulating a life in accordance with the way the universe really is.

In addition to our considerations, Nietzsche proposes a solution to our linguistic problem: A “new science,” one which shakes us away from metaphor. This new science abandons the pretense and age-old notions of “hierarchically arranged oppositions” like Good and Evil, light and darkness, appearance and reality, fiction and truth, etc. This new science is content to live at the level of immediacy, of appearances.

A similar move is made by Watts in his conception of “IT.” To define IT would be to fall into the traps of language that we’ve been exploring. IT, if we are to try an explicate a meaning, is everything (Watts, 113). Nothing isn’t IT, including us. IT resists our dualistic tendencies of language in that there is nothing to define against IT. Watts goes further to suppose that IT entails all of everything such that IT can never become an object; Watts thinks IT is too central and basic to the totality of existence.

No wonder our language has such a hard time latching onto the facts of reality (can we even call them facts at this point?). According to Watts, there is no way to stand outside “IT,” and there is, in fact, no need to do so. He continues, rather profoundly, that “so long as I am trying to grasp IT, I am implying that IT is not really myself” and, in doing so, am making a grievous error about reality. In essence, if Watts is right about IT, then Nietzsche’s new science succeeds. A new science taken at the level of surface appearances would more honestly reflect reality than the empiricism which has swept up the ideology of the western world. But at this point, haven’t we just crippled language to the point of paralysis? I don’t think so. In fact, there is some optimism embedded in this seemingly damning indictment. Here, I’ll quote Watts at length:

“the fact that IT eludes every description must not, as happens so often, be mistaken for the description of IT as the airiest of abstractions, as a literal transparent continuum or undifferentiated cosmic jello…Yet in speaking and thinking of IT, there is no alternative to the use of conceptions and images, and no harm in it so long as we realize what we are doing. Idolatry is not the use of images, but confusing them with what they represent, and in this respect mental images and lofty abstractions can be more insidious than bronze

If I’m reading Watts correctly, here, then it seems that he’s giving us a pass on our linguistic representation of reality; it’s permissible insofar that we are aware of the fact that we are representing reality, not reflecting it. Language’s limitations become problematic when we treat them as a fixed truth about reality (or “IT,” to use Watts’ language). Watts is not turning us loose, lassiez-faire. He is bringing to our attention–which, remember, is vital to our language–to the fact that language doesn’t always get it right. Often, if not always, we are speaking relative to something else. To resist this view of language is to distort, diminish, and degrade, reality itself. Like all things, language is a temporal process contingent upon our perspectives on IT (pun intended). Language, then, is the story we are telling about our perspectives.

Finally, I defer to the great modern poet, Les Murray, who quite beautifully sums up a lot of the work Nietzsche and Watts are trying to do regarding the limitations of language: “Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence. / Trees, planets, rivers, time / know nothing else. They express it / moment by moment as the universe. / Even this fool of a body / lives it in part, and would / have full dignity within it / but for the ignorant freedom / of my talking mind.” Looking through these lenses, it seems crucial to me that we take time to absorb the world apart from our labels for it. If language has fundamental limitations and is always confined to the metaphorical, then it becomes all the more vital to open ourselves to the raw experience of “IT.” But, can we take hold of language such that we account for this in the way that Watts and Nietzsche are suggesting? Whatever the case, language must always be held accountable to its limits.


Works Cited

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. The Gay Science: With a Prelude
in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York: Vintage, 1974. Print.

Watts, Alan. The Book; on the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are. New York: Pantheon,
1966. Print.