Saturday, November 28, 2009

Love, Sex, and Eroticism: Thoughts on John Foxx's Thought Experiment, Pt. 2

Yesterday I wrote about John Foxx's concept of "media ghosts" as discussed in his blog posting entitled "Thought Experiment: Unrecognised Effects of the Media". Today, I want to look at another topic he discusses--love, sex, and/or eroticism.

John points to the porno magazine as the height of deceptive irony. They are frequently purchased as a male sexual stimulant (i.e., to look at during masturbation, and God knows what else), and yet a colored piece of paper is no substitute for the touch, feel, voice, and responsiveness of a real woman. He accurately notes that an animal, relying on certain "tests", would reject such an object as untenable for sexual arousal. Additionally, if sex serves some reproductive function, a picture in a magazine can't serve that function.

I saw an article in Yahoo news the other day about a young man in Japan who married a video game character. If you get past the notion of publicity stunts and legalities (how do you "marry" a fictional character in any real sense)--even at the symbolic level this is pretty pathetic. Just how removed do you have to be from living life to fall in love with a simulation of a real woman? We're not talking a photo of a woman--we're talking an anime-type character--something that never even WAS a woman. The video game is called LoveSim, and is some kind of simulated dating game. Good Lord. That's like saying you've traveled the world when all you've done is watch Rick Steves videos.

But maybe I shouldn't judge this kid too harshly. While the notion of "marrying" a video game character may be extreme, certainly men have been aroused by images of women in all types of media. Women may also do this, but I think men in general are a little bit different here. Men tend to be more aroused by visual stimuli than women. While there are women who get off looking at naked men, I would suggest that the percentage of men who get off looking at naked women is significantly higher.

One theory about why this is comes from the Eastern chakra system. The chakras refer to seven major energy centers in the body that rotate like wheels. When they spin too fast, or are stuck, physical and emotional problems associated with the chakra can manifest. A lot of Eastern medical and meditative practices are based on the chakras. The male sex organs lie in the muladhara or base chakra. This is the chakra that is associated with primal instincts and basic survival. Women's sexual organs are located in the svadisthana, or solar plexus chakra, which is associated with security, confidence, settling down, "nesting". Following this theory, the result is that men's arousal tends to be more associated with a biological need or function, while women see it as a function of "nesting", or settling down. (Girls--how many of you want to clean and organize every fucking thing in the world during or just before your period? That's the hormonal "nesting" instinct.) So, it is not surprising that men may be more interested in a quick means of "getting off", or having a brief one-night hook-up, while women tend to view sex as an indication of a relationship--and why more women may want a commitment. Mind you, this is a theoretical generalization, and you will find cases where the reverse is true.

Of course, hormones are not the only thing that influence relationship behavior. Experience and environment are big ones--how many successful relationships you've had, how often you've been betrayed or rejected, what your parents' relationship was like, the attitudes in general of your friends and family, etc. One also must consider the fantasy factor--one's "perfect" image of the perfect man or woman is often projected onto a living man or woman. This is dangerous, because you may mistake the real human being for your fantasy figure. When the person doesn't match up in real life, you lose interest if there is no other basis for the relationship. And, just like the "media ghosts"--that's another image that one can never live up to, ever.

A couple of illustrations of the fantasy factor--first, I recall an exchange I had with a female friend about a man she had a crush on. "I hope he never asks me out," she said. I was surprised. "Why not?", I asked her. "Because my image of him will be ruined if he does," was her reply. While I disagree that one shouldn't attempt a relationship because of that risk, it's interesting to think about. The other has to do with my own relationships. From what I can gather, I project a "strong" image to men--I can take care of myself, and I don't act "needy". For all the complaints that men have about women who act like helpless appendages, you would think this is a good thing. Not necessarily. What has happened is that I meet intelligent, capable men who are, in some fashion, lazy. It's not that they're stupid or incapable--they just want to be carried through life with as little suffering and effort as possible. What they want in a woman is a perpetual mother, or a female "savior" figure--someone who will come in, clean up after them, put everything in order, and basically make them happy. So, they meet a woman like myself who they view as not needy and self-sufficient, and figure I'm a good candidate for fulfilling their wish. I refer to these men as "parasites", and there are an alarming number of them out there subscribing to this female mother/savior myth. In my own relationship life--if I may carry this through with a bad metaphor--I tend to stay out of the water because there are too many leeches.

At the end of his post, John asks-why are there only images of violence and suffering in the media, and none of relationships that are both loving and erotic? Well, violence has to do with tearing things apart, sex and love has to do with bringing them together. It seems that people identify more with the idea of being torn apart, and the media rallies around that. Portrayals of healthy, loving relationships don't generate as many ratings. But does anyone know what a real, healthy, loving, respectful and sexual relationship looks like? If you have one, how would you explain it or portray it to others? I imagine it's difficult at best--it's like trying to explain what "God" is.

The situation is not helped by society's treatment of sex. How can something be the "most sacred thing" (i.e., religious ideas of sex only within a sanctified marriage) and a filthy, base thing engaged in by "whores" at the same time? Sex, like any force, can be on one end of the spectrum or another, but children are raised with the idea that sex is one thing or the other. If you are taught that sex is purely functional, then it will make eroticism awkward. Eroticism is treated like a taboo. Try to remember your early puberty days--physically awkward, insecure, and drowning in a sea of hormones--and think about how you had to navigate the sexual/erotic landscape. In the book "Female Chauvinist Pigs", Ariel Levy gave what I consider one of the most succinct summaries of the portrayal of sex in the media and in education: Be sexy--show it as much as you can, be as raunchy as you can--but don't have sex. And somehow, attempts to portray loving, sexual relationships come across as embarrassing or silly.

We ought to go back to having secret society rituals for initiation into sexuality. Because let's face it--making it all work together is a great mystery, and no one is comfortable talking about it. You can't learn from your parents, because most people are grossed out at the idea of their parents having a sex life. If your parents are very open with you about their sex life and such from a young age, they risk being arrested for child endangerment. It's the forbidden thing you can't know about until you're some social definition of an adult, and by then it's too late. You've already been screwed up by the multiplicity of contradictory images, legends, and myths surrounding sexuality. Even if you figure it out, good luck finding a partner who's figured it out.

Sexual myths and misconceptions go a long way towards damaging healthy sex relations between men and women. For instance, take the myth of penis size. Men seem to be in agreement that the size of their wanker is critical not only to their status as a man, but to a woman's pleasure, and the bigger, the better. This is horseshit. Size has nothing to do with sexual pleasure unless a woman's vaginal opening is as wide as the Holland Tunnel (and if it is, I hope you guys are getting checked for STDs afterwards--that condition doesn't happen by itself with one or just a few partners, unless she's had a few babies). Women's pelvises are different sizes and shapes--sometimes everything is tilted, or shifted in one direction or another, and the man who is considered a great lover is one who can carefully and respectfully navigate that landscape, regardless of size. A big dick on a man who is inexperienced and/or showing disregard for the female anatomy is a bit like a 2-year-old running around with a flamethrower--it's not going to end well, and not without damage. A big dick on a man who is really good looking and knows it is deadly--I would run, not walk, away from such a man. Why? Because such men tend to have an ego that matches their dick size and opinion of their Adonis-like beauty. Which means they don't care about the woman at all--they just think by gracing her with their presence she should erupt into orgasm. In the meantime, the woman is grimacing in pain because her partner is taking that oversized joke of a member and stabbing her repeatedly in the bladder, or some other organ that lies in that part of her body. By the time he's finished, she's rushing to the bathroom to see how much blood comes out from being stabbed repeatedly in such a manner. (Sounds funny, but I'm not even joking about this). In short--that kind of sex is about as much fun as having a corkscrew shoved up your ass. (And if that sounds enjoyable to you--don't call me. Ever.). The man will either be basking in the delusion of satisfaction, thinking that the woman's screams were of ecstasy and not agony--or he will be puzzled at her post-coitus response and assume that she's a frigid bitch. And the cycle of deception goes on. especially if the woman is too afraid to say anything because she wants to hang on to the relationship. Why would she? Because she's a moron. Many women are morons when it comes to relationships. And I'm not exempting myself from that, though if you've had as many bad relationships as I've had, you tend to get jaded and distrustful, which is not good either. (And since you're wondering at this point--yes, I have had good sex before. ) Healthy relationships are possible, just not plentiful.

I'm sure there are many other examples, but I have to stop somewhere. John's points are well taken--and certainly, if there is no healthy image of loving and sexual relationships to look to, then what does one have to emulate? Even religions have images, and those images don't show you the reality of "God" or whatever--they're just ideas. But portrayals of sexual love are so schizophrenic, one wonders if they can be successfully put together, not just on an individual level, but on a collective one.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors: Thoughts on John Foxx's "Thought Experiment", Part 1

Well, well well. It's Black Friday in the U.S., and, in keeping with tradition, I never go shopping. I have little patience for crowds, and I am not going to fight people over the purchase of stuff. My intention today was to stay home and catch up on my household and academic obligations.

Then, via the Metamatica site (thanks, Mark), I was pointed to a new posting by John Foxx at the Quiet Man blog. John's been quite active at blogging this week, rather unusual. After reading his post, my plans for the day were pretty much done, or at least severely postponed, as I cranked out about 10 pages of rapid-fire thoughts on the topics he addresses. One of the many reasons I just love Mr. Foxx is that he makes me think. I am going to share those thoughts with you in two, possibly three, subsequent blog posts. This is the first one.

First, John's post. It's entitled Thought Experiment: Unrecognised Effects of the Media, and has about 9 parts to it. I recommend reading the post rather than me trying to re-summarize it here--there's a lot to it.

The first thing John discusses is the trust we have in media. There are many things we accept as being real solely on the basis of seeing images in the media--images that can be faked. It's an interesting point, and a rather frightening one in the face of the fact that media is becoming less and less of a reliable source of facts. There may have been a time when the news might have reported actual news--facts were checked before airing, investigate reporting was done to look at all sides of an issue. This still goes on in some places, but it's buried under 24-hour news shows, talk shows promoting themselves as news when in fact they are purely entertainment and not journalism, and a host of scripted "reality" shows. The line between "real" and "fake" is so blurry these days, I'm not even sure there is a line.

Getting back to John's points--he refers to an appearance he had on BBC's Top of the Pops in 1980. The appearance was only 3 minutes long, but when he thought about how many people were reached by that medium, it would have amounted to about 20 years of live performing without TV. What such appearances on TV, in film, and in photographs do is create a multiplicity of images frozen in time that don't go away, even after the person they represent is long gone--John refers to them as "media ghosts". When the artist, musician, or actor looks back at the image, which no doubt has been glossed over and perfected, it starts to make them insecure, and they may compete with it. There is a fear, a "humiliating" experience of going out in public and worrying that you are a disappointment, that you don't measure up to the ghost image someone has of you. Of course, that image never was "you". But if someone forgets that, they may struggle against time with plastic surgery, makeup, and other such things to make themselves look more like that image. At best, they become a caricature.

John actually hits on one of the reasons I like to meet "celebrities", or people I admire that feature in the media--I don't want to see the faked image, I want to see the real person. If John is talking about himself when he compares the "ghost image" to what he sees in the mirror, he needn't worry--he is astonishingly more beautiful in person than in any photograph or film I've ever seen of him. In fact, with few exceptions, I dislike most professional photos of John. They look like images of actors trying to portray John, not John himself.

But the discourse got me thinking about distortions. In reflecting on the idea of a "media ghost" versus the real live person, it occurs to me that there are 3 levels of distortion and potential deception here, just within individuals:

1. The media image versus the real person: This is what John discusses, so there's no need for me to repeat it. The person singing a song or acting onstage is portraying a certain role or character. Never is the person you see on the TV, Internet, or magazine the "real" person.

2. The persona of the real person: Since John wrote this, and I've met him, I'll use him as an example here. When I was in Hudson a couple of weeks ago, I'd spoken to some American fans who were nervous about meeting him. Part of John's media persona, at least in the past, is something that was pretty accurately described by a friend as that of "icy electronica god". There was a certain look and style to John's photos and videos that suggested that he was cool and unapproachable. American fans, who had not seen him in many many years, still had that image of him in their minds. They were very pleasantly surprised to find that John is just the opposite--very amiable and pleasant, and interested in talking to his fans.

Now, I have been fortunate to spend quite a bit of time talking with John over the last year. I may "know" him a little better than some of his other fans because of this--or not. All I know is the persona John shows to me when we're chatting during an event, or having a drink after the event. Even if John were not John Foxx--even if he were just someone I met who had no kind of celebrity at all--there would still be a mask that is presented, an "enhancement" during which we show off our best qualities, or look at others and try to show them what we think they would consider our best qualities. Since I tend to be hyper-observant of people generally, I can say I've seen at least 3 different sides of Foxx--angry/stressed but trying not to show it, over-energized and with a touch of bravado, and friendly/relaxed in an almost paternal way. The one common trait that threads through all of them is a polite and gentlemanly composure. Even if he's ready to pop with stress, he'll give a terse smile and say, "Please excuse me", and walk away--he'll never tell you to fuck off. Are any of those the real "John Foxx" or "Dennis Leigh"? Probably some parts, but I could not say which ones, in all honesty. You can say that he's learned his social graces, but they don't necessarily reveal the true person underneath.

3. The unconscious person: To a certain degree, we all deceive ourselves about who we are. This gets really difficult, because just as you can't see your own physical image except via a mirror or perhaps a photograph, you don't know how you really are in interactions except via the responses of others. It's like sonar--you can't see it, you only know its size and shape via the sound waves bounced off the "object" that come back to you. Our own images of ourselves tend to be much more critical than those of others--the old "You're your own worst enemy" bit. But when we solicit feedback from others, that feedback is always tainted by that person's projections and worldviews, and their relationship to us.

Which brings me to something on a much broader scale--truth and objectivity. I teach a liberal arts religion course that deals with the academic study of religion. One of my students told me that it's of no benefit to study religion this way because religion is "subjective"--there is no "objective" truth that one can obtain. My response to that is that real "objectivity" is a myth-- there is no way anyone can escape their frame of reference. No matter how detached and objective you try to be, your own point of view and experiences will always get in the way.

Moving out farther to a universal scale--the January 17, 2009 issue of New Scientist has an article by Marcus Chown about the idea of a holographic universe. (I'd post the link, but it's by subscription only). He starts with a discussion of the GEO600 experiment in Germany, which involves a detector that is looking for gravitational waves. The detector has not found any gravitational waves, but has been plagued by a strange noise that researchers couldn't explain. Then researcher Craig Hogan came up with an explanation--in fact, he said he'd predicted the noise. Its presence showed a limitation in space-time--

"where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into “grains”, just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. “It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time,” says Hogan. If this doesn’t blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab’s Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: 'If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.'"
(Chown, pg. 24).

This is only the beginning of the article, but the idea is starting to become test-able. If this is true, then everything we experience as physical reality is just a hologram projected off a 2D surface somewhere way out in the universe. No one is entirely sure how this works, but it fits in with a lot of contemporary theory, particularly with the paradoxes of black holes.

What's staggering about this to me (other than that the Hindus are obviously right about the whole "maya" thing) is that it truly makes everything "unreal". What is there to really "know" about ourselves and others? What does "truth" become? What about "reality"? A lot of this ties in with ideas about the "multiverse"--the idea that every possible universe exists and is occurring at the same time. While that is still very theoretical, one thing is known from physics--the frame of reference for understanding the universe is not on Earth or somewhere out in space--it is within each person's frame of reference. In some complicated way, we create the universe.

Media may create ghosts, but are they any more true or false than our daily experiences and perceptions? Perhaps technology just adds another layer of complexity to something that is essentially a "ghost image" already--the whole Universe?

Tomorrow, I'll talk about John's thoughts on love, sex, and eroticism.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Traditional Pre-Christmas Post

I was on the phone with a friend tonight, and she reminded me about my usual pre-Christmas blog posting. It's the day before Thanksgiving here in the U.S., not that this is any kind of starting point for Christmas gift buying anymore. I've been hearing Christmas music since Halloween, and Christmas trees and lights are already going up around the neighborhood houses and businesses. If the trend continues, we're going to start hearing about Christmas in September.

This year, unlike last year, I have been caught up in the pre-Christmas bustle. I am no less busy this year than last year, but I had a couple of weekends where I had some time to do Christmas shopping, so I did it--and finished it. All that remains this year is putting up the Christmas decorations and baking like a fiend. It's a good thing, too, because my schedule is such that I won't have time to do anything in December until the 12th at the earliest. Christmas cards are getting written over Thanksgiving vacation (God bless university shut-down days for holidays), so by the time November is over, I hope to be in good shape for the holidays.

And why not? As I noted in an earlier posting about holidays, most of the fun comes in the weeks leading up to the holiday, not the holiday itself. Christmas Day itself won't be much to talk about--the usual visit to family, opening presents--it will all be over in about 15 minutes. Then winter will come, and it will suck until Spring comes. I have a short tolerance for winter--I like some snow on Christmas, maybe the week after Christmas. By January 1st, I'm ready for Spring. By the end of the first week in January, I want the Christmas decorations taken down, and to be done with the holiday stuff.

The one oddity I've noticed year after year on Christmas Day is the behavior of my animals. Yes, I am one of those whack-jobs that buys presents for my cats. You're thinking, "Why bother? Cats don't care about Christmas." Ah, well, that's the oddity. They DO care about Christmas, or at least about Christmas presents.

Here is the scenario: I wrap Christmas presents about 2 weeks in advance, and put them under the tree. Last year, when I didn't have a tree, I still wrapped presents and left them near the spot where I would usually have a tree. This includes presents for the cats. Naturally, the cats showed a curiosity about these packages when I initially put them downstairs, and may have tried to play with them a bit, but then they usually ignored them. On Christmas morning--and this has been every Christmas morning, regardless of the cat, regardless of the externals--the cats know that something is different. I don't do anything that's different. I get up and make my breakfast as usual. On a regular morning, the cats will pester me until I get up, and then run for their food bowls. But on Christmas morning--and I am not making this up--they run over to the tree and stand by the presents. They look at the presents, and then they look at me expectantly. Even the cats in my basement seem to know--I bring them their food, and they won't eat until they see if I've brought them anything. Normally they will start scarfing down food before I've scarcely had a chance to put the bowl down. It's really weird.

I really don't know what to make of my cats' Christmas behavior. Why they would have any awareness of the holiday, especially when I don't change behavior on the day, makes no rational sense. Maybe it's purely coincidental. I tend to think it's because cats are smarter than we think, and have a greater awareness of the English language than we think (or whatever language they are raised hearing). In any case, it's a mystery.

My cat Shiva is alone in the house this year, so we'll see if he repeats the weird Christmas behavior. In the meantime, I am just hoping that my trip to Bath next weekend goes well (going to see John Foxx--what else?), and that my presentation at the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute goes well on the 8th. And it can't snow. Not til after the 14th, when I give my final exam in Religion. Thank you, Nature, for listening.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Feline Education

I had some good news recently. My neighbor and his pit bulls moved out, and I was looking forward to being able to spend some peaceful time at home. However, my neighbors at the end of the street, who are usually very quiet, have recognized this void in the chaos, and have willingly stepped up to the plate of obnoxiousness. I'm all for kids playing outside, but when you hear nothing but a steady, non-stop stream of screaming for over an hour, it starts to wear on your nerves just a tad. I think I felt a little dip in my intelligence quotient. It may be a plot to make me totally stupid. So far it's working. Right now I'm trying to drown out the noise by watching old episodes of Ghost Hunters. I'll bet Jason and Grant had no idea they were fighting stupidity as well as investigating the paranormal.

Speaking of intelligence, thanks to Mental Floss, I discovered a list of animals with university degrees. Well, they don't REALLY have degrees. They were often test cases for schools that were suspected diploma mills. Someone would sign Toonses up for an MBA, and they would grant it, and claim he had an A average. They would then take the school to court, claiming they were giving fraudulent degrees, because Lord knows Toonses is too busy sleeping to actually show up for classes, online or otherwise. Though come to think of it, Toonses may not be much different from the average undergraduate in many ways.
But it got me thinking that I could get online Ph.D.s for all of my cats. I'm never going to get mine--I have two Masters, and that's it--I have no energy for anything else. The Ph.D. that I actually want would require me to sell my house and enslave myself to an academic department for several years. In the end, I probably will totally overqualify myself for any real job, and will not get a job in academia because I've adjuncted for too long in my career. But my cats could get them, and I could brag about them the way everyone else does about their kids. ("Yes, Whiskers got her doctorate, and graduated top of her class for her dissertation on squirrel migration patterns.")

If I wanted it to be legit, I could look at those programs that give you credit for life experience. Based on their experience, I think my cats could get degrees in the following:

Shiva: Political Science, based on his extensive experience in blatant manipulation.
Joplin: Anatomy and Physiology, based on her experience in dissecting small rodents and leaving their body parts on my front porch.
Whiskers: Communication, based on her ability to specifically communicate such needs as, "I need immediate medical attention. My organs are falling out."

So, I'm going to look into degrees for my cats, or at least fake diplomas, which will still make them more educated than a lot of folks in my neighborhood (no offense to those folks--education isn't everyone's "thing", though I think some critical thinking skills do help.) Whether or not it will help them get real jobs and starting contributing to my income stream remains to be seen. They may be overqualified, and be stuck continuing to get rid of flies, mice, and cave crickets in my house to earn their keep. And alerting me to spiders. That's a big one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Emotions, Awareness, and Creativity

I've been thinking a lot these days about the role of emotions in creative work--writing, in my case. When I am in a no-nonsense, practical frame of mind, it is very difficult for me to write fiction. I can force myself to write in such a state of mind, but when I re-read what I've written later, it seems very inauthentic. I have to be able to empathize, or at least sympathize, with my characters in order for them to come across as believable. And many of my characters present extreme emotional states or disturbed states of mind.

Emotions are tricky. It is the emotional downs--and ups--that lead us to unhappiness. People have often wondered over and over again whether or not it's better to withdraw, and to avoid emotional conflict. But to do so is to avoid playing the game (i.e. life. And I mean your real life, not the board game Life). You never can really avoid emotions anyway, unless you are a master of meditation, and those are few and far between. Many of us can successfully repress our feelings, but that's not the same as not having them. We tend to gravitate towards pleasurable feelings and avoid painful ones. I've noticed that there's a thin line between pleasure and pain, and the price of having a pleasurable experience is dealing with the pain afterwards. I imagine it's like drug addiction--there is that ecstatic high followed by a severe drop into depression. We want to encounter the highs over and over again, but life is cyclical--what goes up must come down. This is why Eastern religions promote the idea of "detachment". This is not the same as repression--detachment acknowledges the highs and lows, but observes them without getting caught up in them. To follow the cyclical metaphor--you sit in the still place in the middle of the wheel, you don't ride on it.

While extensive meditative practice can lead to this ideal detachment, many of us just don't have time for extensive meditation. My own practices are inconsistent, as I have so much going on, and the best meditations I know require at least 45 minutes of quiet time with no eating, drinking, or talking. Before work is the ideal time for this, but if I've gotten in from my evening job at 11:00 in the evening, and have to get up at 4:00 in the morning, I'm not likely to meditate when I get up, and I'm too tired and hungry by the time I get home.

So, we struggle imperfectly with our feelings. But like all things, it's not that things happen to us, it's how we respond to those things. I am a very deeply emotional person, though you might not know it from the surface presentation. I can't avoid the fact that I'm emotional. I can get angry, depressed, and anxious, and at those times I don't think very clearly or I tend to see things in a very negative light. What I've learned to do is take those irrational feelings and put them into writing. If I have an idea for a character that is experiencing an emotional disturbance of some sort, being in an irrational mood helps me to think the way the character might think. If I'm not in that frame of mind, it's more difficult to have any identification with the character. If I can do this, it becomes an opportunity rather than a liability.

There is some evidence in general that depression is not something we have to beat down with drugs, legal or illegal. A recent study by an Australian psychologist suggests that depression enables people to think clearly, communicate more effectively, and make fewer mistakes. In short, it increases awareness. I've often heard the expression, mainly from Buddhists, that sorrow is transformative. If depression leads to awareness, then it's easy to see how this could be true. But humans by their very survival instinct try to avoid pain, though the stronger ones have a higher pain threshold. We live in a culture that has no tolerance for pain, and consequently strives to avoid the challenges of life. Beyond the basic avoidance of pain, I'm not sure why this is. I could attribute it to the whole "self-esteem" movement that was big about 15-20 years ago, though that wouldn't account for all of it. The consequences of trying to make people constantly "feel good" has been the avoidance of responsibility, unfortunately. You hear a lot about entitlement and lack of accountability, and this comes out of a lack of self-awareness or self-examination. Lord knows we might not be perfect, and that's a depressing thought. And we certainly don't want to be depressed. And so it goes. I know a lot of people who suffer from perpetual victim syndrome, and my usual tactic with these people is to challenge their victimhood. Some people think I'm unfeeling or cruel for doing that, but I don't think so--to be 50 years old and still pouting because someone mistreated you in the 3rd grade--really now, time to get over it. You might make some of those friends you've wanted all these years if you did. Everyone suffers--not everyone is crippled by it. As I've mentioned in an earlier posting--the highest cure rates for mental diseases that involve a lack of an "emotional skin" like Borderline Personality Disorder came from treatments that involved forcing the person to deal with life situations and not blot them out with drugs.

As if reading my mind this morning, the Onion has come out with a brilliant article on awareness. Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but right on the money.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


In my blog posting on John Foxx's visit to Hudson, New York, I mentioned a particular question that someone asked him, and his answer, that got me thinking once again about the “goal” of religion, and the idea of “perfection”.

In case you didn't read the posting or don't remember the question—someone asked John about the “religious imagery” (particularly angels) in his artwork. John insisted that he does not use religious imagery, as he considers religion to be dangerous. The angel concept is one of perfection or perfecting, as humans are always striving to do. While this can be admirable, it can also be dangerous—if a powerful person or group gets the idea of creating a “master race” and oppressing or slaughtering those who don't measure up.

The first thing that immediately comes to my mind is something that was said by the late, great Joseph Campbell. In the West, and in Western religion, Nature is corrupt. There is the book of Genesis, there is the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden—nature is corrupted by the Fall, and separated from God. Therefore, it is a Western idea that we are born imperfect, and have to be “perfected” again. In the Christian worldview, this would be through Baptism, and/or all attendant sacraments (if you are Catholic). There are similar ideas in the other great monotheistic religions. It was this idea of corruption that prompted Erik Erikson to discuss the idea of “pseudospeciation”--the idea that a particular group of human beings could be better than another, or greater than another. The idea that some human beings are fundamentally superior to others cannot lead to a positive end. Group psychology almost condemns those involved in such a situation to have one person dominate the others—and if that person does not have the qualities that make a good leader, there will inevitably be persecution or ostracization of someone in the group.

By contrast, the East does not have the same view of Nature. We are part of Nature, and should strive to live in harmony with it. Eastern religion suggests that we are already perfect—the only problem is that we've forgotten. The role of the Guru or Master is to wake you up and make you remember your perfect nature, at which point your suffering will end and you will act in accordance with the best thing in you. In an Egyptian magical text, there was an appropriate phrase--”The Aspirant takes his (or her) seat among the Gods, only to find that he (or she) never left.” As Spinoza pointed out, viewing each other as “gods” in this sense is not a blasphemy, but in recognizing the core perfection or “godliness” of another person, and treating them with the appropriate respect. When you are all imperfect and “sinful” by nature, it is easy to start creating hierarchies and to look down on those who are “lesser”.

But all this begs the question—what is perfection? How do you measure or define that? Is it by how successful you are in a worldly sense? Is it about how kind you are to others? Is it about doing everything exactly right? The word “perfect” comes from the Latin “perficere”, meaning “to cease” or “to finish”. For something to be perfect, it has to be finished. There is nothing else to be done—the person has nothing else to learn, nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Think about moments in your life where you've finally finished something successfully that you've been doing for a long time. After you have the satisfaction of a job well done, what's the next natural thought? “What's next?”, of course.

Humans like to feel useful or to feel that they have a purpose in life, a reason for being here. If we were perfect, what would be the point in being alive? The whole idea of perfection is a sham—it's an El Dorado that can never be reached. With apologies for sounding cliche—life is a journey, not a destination. We are never “finished” until we die, and even the idea that we're finished then is debatable. But finishing necessarily implies annihilation, at least of our worldly identities.

Interestingly, John pointed to the image of the angel as the concept of perfection. But angels by definition are not perfect—in fact, they are supposed to be envious of humans. In this way they are similar to deities in Hinduism—to be a deity in Heaven is not the ultimate perfected state. But the perfected state in Eastern religions requires a merging with the Paramatman, or Primal Soul. Merging with the Paramatman is liberation, but it also means you no longer exist in an identifiable way. According to Hinduism, only humans are capable of reaching this perfected state—a god would have to be reborn as a human to attain it. Back to Campbell—he points to the idea of a Unified existence, where everything is One. In order for life to occur, there has to be a separation into Two, and then further separations. To be alive is to be separated, broken apart. Religion is supposed to serve the function of making you “One” again, but much has to be given up to do that. Alan Watts used the wonderful expression “dismemberment and rememberment”--which goes back to the idea of “remembering” our perfect, Divine being.

One of the problems with religion in the modern world is that it acts as a filter. Carl Jung said that one's religion and image of God is the final obstruction to a religious experience. Religion has not served the function of bringing you back to Unity—instead, it has adopted a social function that fragments things to an absurd extreme, at its worst. To be fair, not everyone is psychologically prepared to try to attain that unified state, nor is it always desirable to try. But religion should not pretend to be something it's not—at best, it should be a road map, a set of guidelines for negotiating the great mystery of Life. Dr. Michael Kogan once suggested that God is infinite potential, and evil comes out of trying to limit that potential. There is no one way to go through life, and no religion should claim to have it. The Buddhists have this idea of learning and unlearning—in the face of that Mystery, there are no words, and none of your learning helps you. Everything just is, and it's “good”. One of the most profound experiences I had was a meditative stillness that carried into my working day. I stood in front of a woman who was screaming, pouting and carrying on about something I no longer remember—and I just looked at her and marveled that she was here, how wonderful it all was that any of this was happening at all. There wasn't any anger, just amazement at the presence of the Mystery in everyone, even her at that moment. Life is an elaborate game, and all you can hope to do is to play along, and play fairly—just don't forget that you are playing.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Carl Jung's "Liber Novus" (The Red Book)

My recent trip to Hudson was only a couple of days, but you’d think I’d been gone for a couple of months. I’ve had so much to catch up on at home and at work, and I hate it when writing has to take a back seat to everything else. Now I’ve caught up with the essentials, so I’m hoping to be more consistent with my posts.

While in Hudson, both John Foxx and Arthur Price mentioned an exhibition going on in New York City that featured Carl Jung’s Liber Novus, or “The Red Book.” The exhibition is at the Rubin Museum of Art on 17th Street, and it runs until early January. I took some time on Wednesday after work to head into Manhattan to see the exhibition.

Some background on the Red Book—it contains some 35 accounts of experiments in “active imagination” undertaken by Jung while he was developing his psychological theory. After fulfilling many of the ambitions of his youth, Jung had a disturbing dream that led him to feel that he had lost touch with his own soul. These experiments in active imagination were an attempt to reconnect with his soul. The active imagination work is not dream work—Jung undertook this work in his quiet time, fully awake, using his fantasies as a means of uncovering the rich imagery of the Soul. Much of his own psychoanalytic technique developed from this private work. Dr. Sonu Shamdasani, who is the general editor of the new W.W. Norton edition of the Red Book and guest curator of the exhibition, said that this particular book is a critical key to all of Jung’s other work. It provides a context for Jungian theory.

The book itself is beautiful, created like an illuminated manuscript. It is huge—probably 40-48 centimeters in height, and from what I understand, almost 1,000 pages. Jung’s highly symbolic mandalas and other drawings illustrate the book, and it is written in calligraphic script, mostly in German and Latin. The Norton edition provides a translation after the facsimile. Jung created the pages on parchment, one at a time, and eventually had them bound together. He had the manuscript typed up and sent to colleagues for review. It appears that he had every intention of publishing it before he died, but it didn’t happen until now. The exhibition also features some of Jung’s original notes and drawings for the book. There is also a recorded interview with Dr. Shamdasani that is about 8 minutes long, and he offers some background about the book. The gallery is having two other types of events in conjunction with this exhibition—one is an “interpretation” of different pages of the Red Book by famous musicians, writers, and authors paired with a psychoanalyst, and a series of films inspired by Jung’s theories. There is more information about these events at the link given above. I haven’t been to either, but I am hoping to make it to at least one of the interpretation series, and one of the films before the exhibition closes.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that my writing is hugely influenced by Jung—all of the stories I’ve been getting published as of late are part of an interpretative collection of stories based on Jungian archetypes. And while my graduate school days were dominated by Erikson’s thinking (and I’m also very influenced by that), Jung is still quite central to my own worldview. I am looking forward to getting a copy of the Red Book in the near future, at which point I will be able to comment on it further. In the meantime, I highly recommend the Jung exhibit, especially if you have an interest in depth psychology—it’s a fascinating peek at Jung’s interpretation of collective imagery.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Hudson, New York and John Foxx

Yesterday I returned from Hudson, New York after seeing John Foxx at the BCB Gallery. This past April was my first visit to the gallery, which I blogged about here. The gallery proprietor, Bruce Bergmann, had featured some of John's artwork in his April exhibition, "The Peaceable Kingdom". I bought one of Foxx's pieces from him, and we've been corresponding ever since. At that time he mentioned to me that they were tossing around tentative dates in early November for Foxx to show a film at his gallery, but I'd kept that to myself as nothing had been finalized yet. The Hudson event was made official in July, and I immediately made my reservations at the Inn at the Hudson. Lodging is tough to come by that's within walking distance of the gallery, and it's still the best place to stay in the area.

The last several weekends in New Jersey have been crappy weather-wise, so it was nice to have a beautiful, sunny weekend for a change. I drove up to Hudson on Friday, and looked forward to an evening relaxing before the event on Saturday. On Saturday morning I went down to breakfast, and met a very nice man from Birmingham, Alabama called Arthur Price. Arthur is a painter, and had an exhibition at Hudson's Basilica Industria that he was planning to take down that day. I drove over to the Basilica with Arthur and his friend Angela to see it before they disassembled it. Arthur also invited his friend Rowland to come along who was staying across the street. Turns out that Rowland is rock photographer Rowland Scherman. You just never know who's hanging around in Hudson.

Arthur's work is magnificent--beautiful floor-to-ceiling canvases that need a large public space to be displayed. They are probably at least 8 feet tall each, and are painted on canvas cloth. (Pretty clever in terms of portability--he can just roll them up and take them to the next place). The images were very appealing, as his work has a Jungian, dreamlike quality--much like William Blake. My favorite piece was called "The Daughter of the Local Sorcerer", which shows a beautiful nude of a woman in the middle, surrounded by many emblems of knowledge--and secret knowledge. It was like looking at a dream image. A lot of his work represents figures from folklore and mythology. You can see a slideshow of Arthur's work at his website.

After saying goodbye to Arthur and Angela, I went back to the B&B for a short time, then headed to Bruce's gallery at noon. I got there just at noon. Bruce opened the door, looked at me, and said, "You're punctual, aren't you?" I looked around at the exhibition of John's work, which was beautifully framed and presented. Two or three American fans came in early--Tom, Eileen, and Maryann (and my apologies if I'm misspelling their names). John Foxx and Steve Malins showed up a little after 12:30, and they spent some time setting up the DVD, and John needed some time to rehearse his narrative cues for the film. Interestingly, John was testing the DVD output with his copy of Tiny Colour Movies. This was kind of funny, given that the film he was showing, "A Man Made of Shadows", was entirely in black and white. There was some initial difficulty with the output--the image from the PAL DVD was shaky, and John and Bruce spent a lot of time pushing buttons, saying "I wonder what will happen if I do this?" Eventually it was decided that color output was problematic, so they switched over entirely to black and white. John pushed some button that suddenly cleared up the image beautifully, so eventually it was set. I told Steve I'd never seen Tiny Colour Movies, and he asked John about showing it. John said, "No, I'm not showing that one today." He pointed out that the monitor was now black and white and this was Tiny "Colour" Movies. Steve suggested it could be a re-interpretation of Tiny Colour Movies in line with the Quiet Man. John laughed, but it was still a no go. One of these years I'll get to see John perform Tiny Colour Movies.

John was looking at his artwork, and we were discussing the resolution of the images. Many of them have obscenely high resolutions (he couldn't give me a number), and the process of combining the images can create files that are as big as 700 MB, which the computer just can't handle. Given the complexity of the images, the sharpness and clarity of them was magnificent. I asked how his computer handles the storage of all of this--he has a standard Mac with external drives appended to it. While that is the obvious solution, I imagine the downside would be trying to figure out where you put stuff (is that on Drive Z?).

John did not play any music for this event--he only showed "A Man Made of Shadows" and provided the narration. He gave a brief introduction to the film which I recorded--you can see it on YouTube here. Afterwards, he had a question and answer session, part of which you can see here. Bruce Bergmann was also recording--but my camera was running out of disk space, and Bruce's camera also shut off at one point. Sadly, neither Bruce nor I caught the best question and answer on tape (at least it was the best in my opinion...). Someone asked John about the religious imagery in his work. They were referring to the statues of angels and such that appear in his artwork. John said he never uses religious imagery, and in fact stays away from religion and anything smacking of spirituality in his work. The reason? He was born and raised Catholic, and decided to leave Catholicism after discovering masturbation. Whatever his own spirituality may or may not be, he thinks religious ideas can be dangerous. With regard to images of angels and such--he said angels were an idea of perfection, and humans are always trying to perfect themselves. Religion is one way that people do this, and while the dedication to self-perfection can be admirable, it can also lead to negative things--the idea of creating a "master race" and oppressing other people, for instance.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly already knows that my wheels are turning on this subject. I generally agree with John, though I think I see religion's function a little differently (though the "perfecting" idea is absolutely prevalent in the West). But I will save that for another blog post.

John spent a lot of time afterwards talking to fans, who were pleasantly surprised at his approachability. There is nothing of the "rock star" mentality in John, which is much to his credit. After a short break, we all came back for the exhibition opening. John was running a bit late for that, and showed up at about a quarter to seven. I spent a lot of time talking to Steve Malins, and another Foxx fan who went by "Mo", who had flown in from Los Angeles. John came over and joined us, and Mo had a lot of interesting questions for John about his musical and creative background. Mo works a lot with mathematics, and was trying to understand creativity and the creative process, in a left brain/right brain context. John suggested that music and mathematics are quite close, and that working with mathematics has a creativity of its own. It was a great discussion, just the sort of conversation I love to get involved with.

By the time the opening was over, we were all a bit punchy. A lot of photos were taken, and for some reason we all started wandering around testing the floorboards in Bruce's gallery to see which ones were the squeakiest. Bruce made dinner reservations at a nearby restaurant, and we talked a lot over dinner about a wide variety of things, mostly art-related. John mentioned an exhibition he wanted to see of Carl Jung's artwork, that is apparently going on in New York right now. That is certainly an exhibition I want to see as well. We all parted company at around 10:00, and John and Steve apparently left very early in the morning to head back to Manhattan. (For those of you unfamiliar with New York--New York City is probably 2 to 2 1/2 hours away from Hudson, in good traffic, 2 hours by train--almost 200 miles). Sunday was a gloriously beautiful Indian summer day, 73 degrees, so it was a wonderful day for the long drive home. I didn't sleep much Saturday night, so I spent time uploading the videos and photos I took at the event. You can see the photos of the event here.

Overall, it was an excellent and tiring day--thanks again to Bruce and Sam for their hospitality, and to John and Steve for making the trek across the pond. BCB Art will be showing John's work from the Quiet Man until late December, if you want to see it, and I recommend that you do--you can find the details about the exhibit here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

John Foxx in Hudson, NY on Saturday November 7

I'm currently in my room at the Inn at the Hudson in Hudson, New York. Tomorrow at 3:00, John Foxx will be at the BCB Gallery on 116 Warren St. in Hudson, showing the film/reading from the Quiet Man, his ongoing novel that has been interpreted in film and a lot of his music. BCB Gallery is also having an exhibition of John's work from the Quiet Man, and there will be an opening from 6-8pm tomorrow evening. Admission is free, so if you're around, please do come! As I mentioned in an earlier post, I saw John do the Quiet Man in London, and it's absolutely worth coming for the experience.

More information about the film and the opening can be found at the BCB Website

I'll be blogging about the event tomorrow or Sunday.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Shoe Genetics

I feel like should get some special award on my blog this week, as they seem to be the inspiration for many of my posts as of late. The latest one that has gotten my thoughts all twisted up is their post on buying shoes.

When we think of genetics, we tend to think about inheriting things like eye color, hair color, body type, diseases, etc. I have also wondered on occasion if certain habits that we consider a result of environment/upbringing aren't also genetic. Shoe-buying is one of them.

Like the Cracked post, it's easy to label shoe-buying as a woman-centric phenomenon. But consider the following example. My paternal grandmother was obsessed with shoes. When we cleaned out her closet at the time she entered a nursing home, she had a shoe collection that rivaled Imelda Marcos's. My sister has a similar passion for shoes. When I fly out to visit her, we'll jump in the car, and hit the mall. She'll always say, "C'mon, Bridge, let's go look at some SHOES."

Eh, not so weird you say. Typical female shoe-buying behavior. But consider that the other obsessive shoe buyer in my family is my father. Yes, that's right. My Dad--a working class, mechanically inclined, Korean war veteran, ditch digging, conservative Republican male--likes to buy shoes. I'm not sure why, and I don't think he knows, either. But he definitely owns more shoes than my mother. It makes me wonder if he didn't inherit this behavior from my grandmother.

As for me, if this is genetic, I didn't inherit it. I'm not a fan of buying shoes. I buy the cheapest pair I can find that looks halfway decent, and wear them until they break in half, or at least until they look like they've been attacked by rabid dogs. My favorite pair of knee-high suede boots cost me a dollar at a rummage sale, and are "still going." The last really nice pair of boots that I bought was purchased at a 75% off sale, and I was lucky enough to find my size. I'm just a real cheapskate with shoes.

But my cheapness is not without rationale. Years ago, I was told by doctors that I have "flawed" feet. This can be defined as "feet like my mother's". My mother is a beautiful woman, but has dreadful feet. One foot continually turns over on its side, all of the veins are broken and bruised, and she has a huge bone spur on the foot that turns over. She needs extra-wide shoes in two different sizes. My feet are not that bad, but they are threatening to head in that direction. My left foot does have a tendency to "turn" on its side, though so far, that's the worst that's happened. (I was born pigeon-toed and had special shoes to straighten that out, but that's a different matter). Nonetheless, my doctor suggested that I only wear certain types of sturdy shoes to keep my foot from getting any worse. She recommended Easy Spirits, as these were supposed to be excellent shoes for problem feet. Well. I bought a pair of Easy Spirits for $70. Within a month they were shot and had to be thrown away. In the meantime--the pair of shoes I'd picked up in a bargain bin 10 years earlier for $5 and still looked okay (and felt better on my feet) were still going strong. We tend to equate dollar amount with actual quality, but I think that shoes are the exception to this rule.