Friday, June 12, 2020

The Really Difficult Conversations

We can't have these conversations from home over the Internet. The teacher-student connection has been terminally disrupted. Not that it wasn't already on its way out. At about the time that the country started really to thrive - after we were the only intact power after the second world war - mass media lubricated the polarization of our cities, even as, politically, we'd begun to fix things.

Black and white distancing has been going on for a long time. 

Perhaps it was because the world seemed so relatively stable to all those GI-Bill-enhanced war returnees, that everyone focused on making their own lives better. We hoped that the rising tide would float all ships, as we all escaped to ever more idyllic suburbs. We didn't know we'd swamp our coastal populations. 

Perhaps that almost excuses the life-tenured political class from turning their attention from serving the people to servicing the power structure. We thought things would always be OK, and that modern industrial progress would solve all problems. Someday to include even racism.

The relative homeostasis of the bipolar political parties is no mistake. It's by design. It's maintained by those institutions which actually run our lives. The Big Businesses. And now they are largely run by kids. That's while the kids who are not in power - as kids generally will - grab for simple certainties on one side or the other of various political and intellectual divides.

As our personal biomes now follow the pattern of our historical process of radical individuation grace social distancing, most of us are afraid even to open our mouths lest we touch off some shit-storm of protest that we spewed the wrong thing. That is even while those in power don't seem to care what they do or say. We wear our masks in many ways, while those refusing to wear masks shout banal abuse.

I feel certain that most of the abusers on the Internet are kids too. And yet they do tweak us.

How is our reality formed, and how do we 'disrupt' it when it turns sour? What if the really bad ideas are the ones which never get questioned, because they are so fundamental that we hardly know that they are there? What if the media and the kids both are just powering our distraction for kicks? Or money.

Lately - and it is really late - I've been introduced to the writing of William Gibson. I'm now in the thick of his Agency, and because he keeps mentioning it, I'm stuck watching the film Inception again, just to find out why I disliked it so much at its inception.

Of course I didn't dislike watching the film - it was gorgeous - but I disliked the base-level understanding of what it means to be human. I'm not through it yet, but I'm hating it all over again. It paints life as something constructed in the mind, and which is depicted as an expansion from inside out.

I'm not really very good at attributions, and so I had no idea that Christopher Nolan, the director of Inception also directed Interstellar, which I rather liked. So, I have to give a pass to authors, working out difficult matters by way of difficult artistic creations. Or do I?

I have to give a pass to Gibson, who is also evidently brilliant. In a way, I like his usage of "stubs" as an experimental way to interrogate history. A stub - an off-branch from history toward an alternate reality - is a lovely fictional device. Gibson constructs passages through time as limited and mediated by information portals, where actors from the future or from the past can revisit alternate pasts (or futures) by way of inhabiting cyborg "peripherals." These are like physical hyper avatars. They work in ways not unlike the dream sequences in the film Inception. Almost like being there! But the fact of contact is the inception of the new branch. He doesn't break the rule that you can't change your own past.

Agency then, is what gets interrogated when someone from the future wants to short-circuit dystopic "stubs," which are just branches off the main (agency embodying) line of history. It seems that certain players - the klepts - like to play out dystopian histories, and it seems that there is some benefit to disrupting those. Of course, the benefit is that the people who inhabit those stubs are real, and therefore so is their suffering. 

That's even though Gibson is not the sort of writer who makes them feel real. At least not as much as less SciFi-ish writers do, IMHO. OK, OK, I'm just in the wrong demographic. Sorry!

But overall, the story as told might be a variation on that awful streaming series Westworld, where the players are enabled to live out cruel fantasies because the humanoids they cosplay with aren't actually human. Those alternate histories aren't ours. They belong to cyborg reality. A dream. And the dreams we'd like to live out aren't, apparently, always nice

I don't know yet, and I certainly don't remember, if the Leonardo DiCaprio character is evil. I know he breaks the law. I get sick of the do anything to be back with wife and kids stuff. Get real!

And I don't know yet what Gibson really means by agency. But both works involve interrogations about the efficacy of changing someone's mind. Does that change history? Can it even be done? If so, how? Certainly not by inhabiting dreams, nor by projecting innocent criminality. Right? 

Doesn't changing minds have to involve some teaching?

So by way of young and genderfluid former women of my relation (pronouns they/them) I learn of contrapoints on YouTube and I learn that my take on feminist anti-fascism is old school. Meanwhile, I must say that it is nice to witness same-gender love. Given the very real tensions that are evident in cis-gendered relations, I can see why someone (man/woman/fluid) would always chose a gendered-fluid-tending-female partner. It just seems to be a more comfortable relation. 

So, yes, we must all hate the politics of white supremacy and incel approaches to sexuality and rape-culture generally. We must all hate the plundering of agency that those imply. But having read Jill Lepore's These Truths, I feel empowered now about what I dislike about identity politics. I dislike the evident fact that it rests on a Platonic-descended notion of what an individual is; someone having a unique and God-granted "soul." The soul being, of course, the ideal distillation of the individual.

Being from the old school, I am rather attached to the sense that individuals are embedded in cultures, and to the sense that they can be liberated from oppressive structures and that these structures, while subject to individual agency, cannot be changed so long as we are hating microcosmically as individuals. I fundamentally agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, insofar as I understand him.

So the difficult conversations are those we must have with the white supremacists and the incels and the Republicans, and the police. Hating and deriding them only deepens the issues. They suffer as much as you and I do (certainly as much as I do, which isn't very much). Their behaviors are embedded in a system which must be changed. 

So when we blame the individual policemen (I'll use the gendered form here, because it seems reasonably accurate) and feel gratified when they are finally incarcerated and charged with crimes, we are also denying (I'm thinking it might be proper to call it "cancelling") their lived reality.

What we used to call "The System" is happy to jump in here and throw the bastards in jail. That deflects the responsibility away from the system, and especially from those in charge. I feel saddened that the mayor of Minneapolis doesn't have any access to language for debating those who ask him for a yes/no answer to the question of "will you agree to defund the police." Now he becomes the enemy, or as the National Review would have it, the left are eating their own.

We are asking the police (and the teachers and the nurses and more and more) to do impossible jobs in response to how society is constructed. The violence is built in, and we shouldn't be interrogating the politics of police, which can be no better or less informed than the politics of the general public. We require empathy for the lived lives of policemen, and how their realities are constructed.

So somehow I watched this interview of Richard Spencer by Gary Younge. I was alerted to it by the New York Review of Books, which at least hasn't gone so far as to allow an opinion piece by Tom Cotton. That editor's ass was fired from the New York Times, but there you go.

The horror to me about what Richard Spencer articulated was how very mainstream he is. He has internalized what we all, in our hearts, believe. That the world that we have constructed is quite wonderful for the lives that it has allowed us to live. We may be embarrassed that it is a white persons' world constructed by and for white people, but the remedy is to let the black and brown people join in, and not to wonder if there is something very wrong with the world as we constructed it.

I mean, there is global warming, and our general lack preparation for the end-times that we know in our guts are coming. Shouldn't we, maybe, pay more attention to the Yoruba ways, the native American ways, the ways with words of women?

We should be asking, in other words, how the world would be different if it were constructed by woman and black and brown people, and not how to get girls into STEM and blacks into universities and into positions of power (don't get me wrong, these things are very very important). We aren't really making the connection until we really really ask about the world that those excluded from the one we have really want.

So yes, I get it. Inception is just a long long excursion into the Chuang Tzu parable of the dream. To quote from David Hinton's translation:

Long ago, a certain Chuang Tzu dreamt he was a butterfly – a butterfly fluttering here and there on a whim, happy and carefree, knowing nothing of Chuang Tzu. Then all of a sudden he woke to find that he was, beyond all doubt, Chuang Tzu. Who knows if it was Chuang Tzu dreaming a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming Chuang Tzu? Chuang Tzu and butterfly: clearly there’s a difference. This is called the transformation of things.

Now of course I won't claim to translate better. I'm not a recognized expert. But the experts can't agree and sometimes nobody who needs to understand can trust the experts. The experts are speaking to other experts, while the rest of us are left confused. Plus, I don't always like Hinton's translations. I like mine better. Yeah, right.

I've recently been a grad student (again and again across my shambolic life (why has that word become suddenly so popular?), despite my age. It was fun to be introduced to politically correct academic discourse. It was easy for me to learn that microaggressions are real, and to expunge from my own rhetoric the most offensive terminology and locutions.

But I really don't know how easy that would be for someone less educated and less alert. I accompanied said gender-fluid relation on a tour of colleges, and was glad that they knew how to decode the language of the transgendered tour guide at Bard College. But I wondered how someone from a less privileged background might feel as a newcomer to such language and reality. Wasn't it just another way to determine who has the "merit" to attend?

I really don't know. I only know that I'm often afraid to open my own mouth.

We can get angry and we can hate and we can blame the people who aren't even engaged in the transformations which must be performed if we are to thrive on the planet. But if we do that from our comfortable lives, feeling angry with people who aren't comfortable with the trends, then status quo prevails. Until it explodes. 

Lots of people think that there is reverse racism. Sure, some black people can hate white people on the whole, But when the hating isn't coming from a position of power and privilege, then it's not racism. It's just hatred. And the fear engaged is a one-way street. I'm not hearing hate from blacks just now. I'm hearing frustration and desperation and a desire to be heard. 

So please, let's at least address the low-hanging fruit. Let's set term limits for all elected office, let's do away with gerrymandering, let's be certain of universal voter registration and make election day a holiday, and let's get money out of voting, and especially let's shut the revolving doors of profit from power in the lobbying industry. Then we will at least have a chance to address the systemic change that we require.

We deride the Chinese communist party even while we employ a professional political class to run things here. The rules of engagement between Team Red and Team Blue are set by the business community in the same way that the NFL assures the semblance of a level playing field among the teams. The players tend to get rich from it. 

The cool thing is that Bib Business can't afford to deny science and deny systemic racism. Wouldn't it be just weird if it were "the system" which sets things right this time? Hype-rich Gates and Cook and Bezos seem to know what the right thing is even as they continue to glory in their wealth as begotten by Attila the Hun business tactics (in their youths). Even the military is now showing honor to their Republican supporters in the Senate, and certainly in the House. 

It doesn't matter, Democrat or Republican, when the party system is so embedded and so bizarrely balanced against each other that we have to elect someone like Donald Trump to disrupt it. As if he got elected. He was selected by those who profit from the state of dysfunction as it is, pretty much despite themselves. 

We just swap the racism from Democrat to Republican every few decades when things move out of whack. Trivial, right? How and why did all the Republicans get in line unless their team spirit is more important than their American spirit. In fact there is evidence for nothing other than that. This goes well beyond moral certainty. This is 'our party, right or wrong' which is exactly what our founding fathers warned us about.

These pols are the true dreamers. These are the deniers of reality whose lovers greet them in their private dreams. Their lived reality is our distant dream. Agency without responsibility! Wow! No wonder they don't want to change anything. Denying climate change is a small price to pay for your locally wonderful life, even as the world burns down around you. 

Now Lady G is a cute package, I've got to say. But wouldn't you like to wake up and be yourself in public? It's not my place to out anyone, but there are people who would accept you if you simply repudiated your dream-state fantasy-land of power. It's hurting us.

We need to hire an army of translators now to talk with one another. Too bad translation pays less than to be a greeter at Walmart. Too bad that we can't even agree about what is a good translation and what is not. Too bad we all believe in our secret heart of hearts that we are mostly right most of the time.

As a translator from Chinese to English myself, it's very tempting to say that some things just simply don't translate. Well, it's certainly true that some things don't translate without a lot of work on the part of the reader to penetrate the alien poetics. 

Some of the most fun I've ever had in China (I know, I'm pathetic) was to attend a graduate seminar led by the most celebrated translator of Samuel Beckett in China. Just because I was obviously a white American, they wanted me to sit at the table. Not! I hung back with the hoi-polloi in the crowded seminar room at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Still, you have to hand it to the guy for trying. He older than me, and had endured far more suffering. He was quite evidently brilliant. But the Chinese translations did nothing. By the time anyone could make sense of those translations they would have to be as multi-lingual as Beckett was. The Chinese  translations that I heard and heard explicated didn't even lead a person in to want to understand Beckett. As I recall, the translations misled nearly each and every time, even while the translator did evidently know how to read Beckett. A very humbling experience indeed!

The fact is that we can't have the difficult conversations that we need to have unless we have them face to face and without masks to cover our expression. We can't have them from a digital safe distance. 

Now I hate digital for the same reason that William Blake hated the infernal machinery of the looming industrial revolution. I hate it on the level where it replaces reality and where it leads Bill Gates to say out loud that his brain is a CPU. And he's a pretty smart guy!

The cortical regions of the brain can simulate a computer, if very poorly. Gibson's novel Agency ends with the presentation of a benign machine intelligence to the world, as its black-faced female sim savior. Her personality derived from an actual black woman named Clarissa; no Eunice, actually. A name derived from the military/industrial project which had an acronym which sounded like that. A personality uploaded and enhanced by universal access and distributed multi-tasking connected to access and control of lots of the hidden processes called out by Benjamin Bratton (for instance). 

The novel asks a question, and it's a good question when we can watch people trotting out insane certainties as though they don't know how to cognate, er cogitate. Think. The question is about how we get good and rational competent people in charge. How about we exclude the ones out for themselves?

Well, despite the sense of reality when we dream, we dream because we need to allow our brains to run through reality to make it useful. Brains without sleep just hallucinate awake. They don't deal. 

While I would never put a machine in charge of anything, that doesn't make them all bad. The trouble with digital reality is that it can seem so real. If actual responsible people aren't in charge of it, we end up getting Donald Trump as president; an avatar in place of a human. 

I know that I recently read a story, set in China, about someone joining what he thought was a drug trial. I'm pretty sure that I read it in Chinese, so I'm pretty sure that you haven't seen it. But it might as well have been a dream. He wakes up with a missing kidney. Chinese cyberpunk?

Then there was that restaurant I visited somewhere with someone intimate. It was a real find, and I can even envision the roads we took and the wrong turns, but I can't come up with who was with me (I'm pretty sure it was one of my daughters) or where we were, or which city. It feels like the vicinity of Seattle, but no daughter was there recently. Wracking my brain hardly helps.

As I age out, perhaps the distinction between dreaming and reality does grow dim. Perhaps the Chuang Tzu parable isn't as silly as it seems. Perhaps we need to wake up.

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