Monday, March 16, 2009

Thoughts on "Electricity and Ghosts", Pt. 1

My last posting was my impressions from listening to John Foxx’s “My Lost City” for the first time. Subsequently, more detailed notes written by Foxx on the origins of the album were posted on Foxx’s MySpace blog, under the title “Electricity and Ghosts”. Foxx is a brilliant writer, so even if you’re not a big fan, I would recommend reading the notes. I have figured out the reason that I like Foxx and his work so much—he creates things on a mythic level, something that humans in the 21st century are desperately lacking. When I say “mythic”, what I mean is that his work intelligently reflects and comments on the way things are—it stirs things up, it challenges you to look at the world and to try to make some sense out of it. A lot of what passes as “art” or “music” only distracts or entertains. Foxx is not “merely” entertaining.

Foxx covers a lot of ground in the notes, but I found myself focusing on 3 specific things. One is the observation that much of modern media was borne out of attempts to communicate with the spirit world. The second is the idea of cities and their inhabitants as a kind of “swarm organism”. The third is Foxx’s observations about the cities he’s visited in his lifetime, and his relationship to them.

With regard to the first thing—that’s a pretty amazing connection, and I’d never thought of it. But it’s true—the discoveries of things like television, radio, and electricity came initially from attempts at spirit communication. What one hears or sees via any electronic media is very much like a ghost—a disembodied voice, or an image that is not really the person—it’s not the same as face-to-face contact with a real flesh and blood person. But that got me thinking about even the face-to-face contact. Much of that is like talking to the dead as well. Interaction with others involves smoke and mirrors—projections, agendas—people don’t listen, they are more interested in what they can get from you, interpret what you say in the light of their own issues and circumstances. It is very rare to find someone who really listens to you and tries to understand you on your terms, not theirs. Honesty is a hateful thing in communication—no one really wants to “know”, everyone wants things politely glossed over. It happens every day in all sorts of “political” situations; it’s also why those types of political meetings and interactions are useless and empty.

This is because the two sides of communication—talking and listening—are tied up in personal boundaries. We are talking across fences to each other. Even with love—that most intimate form of personal interaction and contact—real love is predicated on trust and respect. Both of those things have to do with personal boundaries. If I “respect” you, I respect your space, I stay back tactfully unless invited. If I “trust” you, I’ve invited you into my space, and you haven’t violated it. In order to respect someone’s boundaries and defenses, one treads lightly in conversation, not wanting to accidentally open old wounds. The person who engages in real communication is unfortunately open to having their boundaries violated. People want to be heard, validated, and understood, and simply retreat into themselves when they see the hopelessness of that. If someone actually listens—there is the danger of the feeding frenzy, of desperately clinging to the listener as someone who finally “understands” them. The distinction between listener and talker is lost, and the listener becomes a distraction for the real problem. The only way the listener can save him or herself is to cut off the talker, to reinforce the boundary. It’s a vicious circle, and there’s no graceful way out of it.

Which brings me to the topic of cities as “swarm organisms”. Foxx suggests that there is no real individuality, that we are all like bees to a hive, or cnidarians to a coral reef. Are the boundaries that we retain false ones? The problem between the priorities of the individual versus the priorities of the society is not a new issue. Ironically, as we have more and more media for communicating with each other, societies become more and more fragmented. The identity that binds a society together is often no more than a name, or a set of abstract characteristics. Yet, on some level, there is a forgotten unity that transcends all ideas of identity. Identity itself is temporal. Religion is supposed to be a social link to that unified state, but that also has fragmented. With the advent of Peoples of the “Book”, there is no longer an implied trust between the temporal and the eternal. There needs to be a written “covenant”, and for all the simplicity of it extolled by evangelicals, it’s not simple at all—much of it is patently absurd. Any attempt to interpret the ultimate and eternal is distorted and absurd. In the end, that connection too is forgotten, leaving people deader than ever.

In another of Foxx’s writings (I want to say “The Quiet Man” but I can’t find the chapter now) there is a chapter deals with the man deciding to become “electric”, and how that doesn’t change the empty, shadowy feeling. That is true—high energy only wears you out, gives you a rush, and you become addicted to the rush. You forget about what’s beyond the rush. Even with religious experiences (which are a rush in and of themselves), many people cling to the experience and never move beyond it. Jolts of ecstasy do not bring happiness. Happiness has little to do with feeling ecstatic. What goes up comes down, and the only way to get out of that is to get off the wheel.

I have not yet gotten to the discussion of the cities themselves, but I think I will save that for tomorrow...

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