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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Metamodernism or Post-Postmodernism or ?????

It recently dawned on me that I have no definite position. On anything, really. I’ve been so against “labels” that I just shrug when someone asks for my position on political matters, I hem and haw when it comes to spiritual enlightenment or on the purported “progress” of humanity and whether it is actually in cyborgish declension.

This doesn’t mean I’m apathetic. Far from it. I just realize that there’s this destructive self-defeating pattern in human thought that we haven’t evolved past yet: Utter Certainty.

In other words, if I have a position on anything, it’s likely to entail this self-generated maxim: “Don’t be too certain about anything. Ideological extremism kills. Like for reals.”

I’ve been fighting the Oklahoma sun’s sweltering calls to bask in vegetable-like postsemesteritis like mad. I’ve been hermiting up and reading about seven books a week trying to discover what I can “call” my theoretical stance. In other words, even though I arguably have “some” time to do fun things, I’ve been using all my time by being more monkish than a temple full ‘o Jainists. Yay for celibacy and meditative enlightenment! 

My artist friend painted this. It was easy for him because I didn’t move from this position for a few days. Don’t expect me to engage in lustful acts or talk to other humans in a while, in other words. 

I have this tendency to float between the seductive certainty of scientific positivism and the relativity of poststructuralist constructivism. Michel Foucault and Auguste Comte are bare-chested, battle-scarred warriors chucking spears at each other in my head, in other words. One carries the large, weighty weapon of experience-based epistemology and the promise of “progress,” while the other carries the subtly powerful a priori spear (possibly invisible and made of binaries) and mumbles something about “progress” being code for the proliferation of ideological state apparatuses.

My psychology background taught me to adore hard data, no matter how small, obscure or tainted the sample size from which it is derived. Something about numerical precision—the “1” being absent of ontological qualifications or specifications…it is a singular entity that is whole and there is no debate about such matters—is extremely seductive, and I always wondered what it would look like if psychological analyses were applied to research in the humanities. A significant Z-Score from a bunch of extra-credit bribed undergrads taking a subjective questionnaire about their emotional reactions to Paradise Lost, in other words.

Troubling, to say the least. Are we talking about a different field if we incorporate such research strategies into the humanities?

This guy, Jonathan Gottschall, has already answered this question in the negative: Indeed, empirical research, as he sees it, is the future of the humanities. It is the sole savior for a sector of academic thought abused by budget cuts and disrespect, he says.  

Others, called the adherents of cognitive cultural studies, ala Lisa Zunshine, think that we should incorporate empirical evidence with Derrida and Lacan as another kind of narrative. Not “the” Truth (with a capital T), but “a” truth (little t). One of many, in other words, and maybe not privileged over others.

I’m more inclined to agree with Zunshine more than Gottschall. I’ve come to the determination that I see problems with empirical research outright replacing traditional literary criticism. Art is art for a reason: Its answers can’t be quantified, and it’s probably dangerous to think that we can do so. There’s nothing more grim than a future, at least to me, where something all of a sudden isn’t “art” because it hasn’t fit previous numerical patterns. Sometimes, we should just cease trying to think we can give X=this formulaic answers to everything in human existence. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek likely answers for questions about art, but we should never be dogmatic when it comes to our positions about them.

Empiricism is seductive. I see no reason why I can’t draw on studies from cognitive psychology regarding empathy if I’m analyzing a given text’s treatment of empathy. But when I do so, I expect to deploy at as another kind of narrative that tells a portion of the story.

So…I still don’t know where I “stand” necessarily.

 I suppose it won’t matter when all professors are replaced by robots in 2050 anyway, dispensing pre-packaged knowledge nuggets like cashiers at a McDonalds branch.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tool and Other Auditory Friends

I was asked recently why Tool is my favorite band. It’s one of those questions you’re almost annoyed to hear because it’s so incredibly painful to explain. It’s like being asked why I think trees and oceans are pretty.

 I should have qualified my previous statement to this person by saying that Tool is usually my favorite band, but I suppose to most straightforward thinkers this wouldn’t make much sense. Either you prefer it above all other possible choices or you don’t, for most people. But I rarely think this way. As an indication, some days I immensely prefer Coldplay to Tool when I feel that surge of inspirational life-energy, usually just after heavy doses of caffeine.

I think most people have dimly lit 90s memories of Tool, of distorted claymation figures zombie-walking about the penumbra of their MTV-charged thoughts to roiling tribal drums and pulsing bass notes. Here’s “Stinkfist,” as a case in point:

The vocalist, Maynard James Keenan, sounds alternately angelic and demonic, changing form quickly or slowly—ecliptic or apocalyptic. I suppose I say that Tool is usually my favorite band because it usually corresponds with my mood. Contrary to popular thought, Tool does not dwell in negativity. Rather, it appeals to highly sensitive people (like muah) who get the thought sniffles when they observed the tragic world around them. In this regard they’re often read analogously to Friedrich Nietzsche, one of my favorite philosophers, in that those with short attention spans often mistakenly accuse them of celebrating nihilism, like the inept, ferret-bearing German dudes from The Big Lebowski

Maybe people think he’s filled with despair because young Nietzsche looks kinda like Viggo from Ghostbusters 2? It looks like his flesh can barely contain the intensity in his skull. Which is why his eyeballs protrude so much.

Music for me has always been about emotional movement –the oceanic rumble of the drums to the predatory bird-screech of strings. But it’s always in some kind of confined space, and it summons a kind of landscape as a result, which, if you pay attention long enough, is actually far from still. Animals move, wind bends the trees, snow coats trees at odd angles. Each visual space has a musical movement of its own, and I seem to summon a unique soundtrack for every piece of scenery I look at. This is probably because I’m naturally visual or because my generation has been programmed to dutifully translate all emotions into cinematic landscapes so we’re more susceptible to commodity fetishism. Either way, visual poetry bubbles about my brain when music hits my ears, like a very distorted, creepier version of a Terence Malick film.

Tool for me will always be an Alaskan landscape during dead winter, the time of year when the sun begins setting absurdly early—3:30 or 4 in the afternoon. As the light dims and the world’s eye slowly crumbles into the dark, snowy sleepiness, I can’t help but think the auditory equivalent would be an overactive and rhythmic primal heartbeat, some symbol of brutal interconnectedness like the irony smell present in the blood of almost everything, the kind of thing that would could, alternately, evoke the loving tenderness of a wolf mother sheltering its cub from the cold or the hungry grizzly breaking the neck of a moose calf and dragging it screaming into the woods. The brutality and the tenderness of nature awakened with one scene or one strong piece of music. That’s Tool to me, and I suppose it explains a lot about the way I am. I appreciate the people and artists who can stare into the abyss but always come back and find the positive in what they saw—how they can learn and grow just as much from tragedy as they do from seeing symbiosis and kindness.

They aren’t afraid to feel, in other words, everything there IS to feel.