Dionysian Dreaming with Industrial Revelation

Photo credit: Eric Stobin

Photo credit: Eric Stobin

The set was bookended by stunningly vivid and specific sensations. At the start, the feeling of being a little kid in springtime, walking to the corner store to buy this candy I loved, little Styrofoamy flying saucers of pastel-colored rice paper filled with sour powder, birds rioting overhead, blossoms garlanding the way, sweet benevolent promise in the air. At the end, venturing out to find a smoke on a grownup summer’s day, slouching through sultry heat in a blissed-out post-coital daze, content and spent and porous to the world.

In between, dancing like a Medieval fool at a Mystery play, moving like a crazy in the throes of primordial religious rapture. The band laying down something raw and undeniable: Coruscating keys spinning tales of blue earth seen from empty distance. Driving drumbeats grabbing hapless sinners by ankles, hips, and shoulders, shaking us into a trance then BOOM! Smacking us aware. Bass leading you on adventures up rickety old steps to glimpse mind-bending treasures, then pushing you down, laughing at your blinking bewildered ass, helping you up to do the Charleston. Trumpet soaring high, crying for soul’s rending in love and rejoicing in its mending in song. Those cats were in it. Commanding and surrendering, absorbed whole-hearted in the moment, communing with each other and with us, with the dead and the yet-to-be-born.

I heard tittering behind me, and knew from experience that those who move with the kind of abandon I was throwing down are often the subject of ridicule. Felt the presence of my fellow beings, insidious self-consciousness nibbling at my awareness, telling me how ridiculous I must look. I gave it a moment’s attention, decided I didn’t give a fuck. Because, really, what’s so bad about being laughed at? What’s really at stake? Prestige? Social status? Coolness? Not gonna lie: At one point I shouted and flailed with such vigorous intensity that I peed myself a bit. Grotesque and repulsive? Maybe. Real and defiant and raw? Yep. I’d rather be hot than cool, rather be worked up than settled down, rather be in it than off to the side. Because when you have no defenses, you’re vulnerable – but when you have nothing to defend, no fragile elaborately structured identity to protect, you’re free to be as foolish as you damn well please.

I thought about older women I’d seen dancing alone at shows in the past, their uninhibited joy in response to the music, all silvering hair and slack breasts and softened edges and wrinkled faces. I thought about my own historical response: It’s an ugly thing to cop to, but I had on occasion felt creeping revulsion. This is a young person’s game, nasty mean little voices would whisper in my brain. Why are you not ashamed of your deteriorating physical body, your faded form? Why do you dance so wild and free while us taut-skinned, bright-lipped beauties hang back in self-conscious stiltedness?

Last night, I got it. I, too, am destined to deteriorate and decay. I already am deteriorating and decaying. We are born in sweat and piss and will most likely die that way. In a wild moment, I had an urge to somehow disfigure myself in a giant “Fuck you!” to our society’s conventions. Instead, I made monstrous faces, surrendered to my imperfections and ugliness, let my expressions be a part of my dance, felt the music in the contortion of my lips and eyebrows, dared haters to point and laugh.

As Industrial Revelation played, my identity dissolved. My “self” became permeable, woven into the music, caught up, tossed hither and thither carried along flowing through the sound. Elated but supremely relaxed, warm, secure, held: a sense of primal connectivity. A feeling of being safe, supremely at ease, invulnerable in my very vulnerability: home. Like being in the womb.

It hit me: Though being in the womb is the ultimate metaphor for safety and security, we were never actually safe in there. We were, in fact, supremely vulnerable: To the substances our mothers chose to ingest, to blows upon her belly, to the hormonal caprices of a volatile host body. And yet – we didn’t know how vulnerable we were. Last night I came into the awareness that  relinquishing the stories we tell ourselves about the stories other people tell themselves about us can bring us into the most marvelous place of acceptance and ease.

All the while, Industrial Revelation carried us up and down and out to space and into the depths to cross the river, swirled us into Dionysian frenzy, dared us to look back as we fled Hades, brought in the sheaves, broke the earth’s frozen crust with the violent defiance of spring, stirred and shook and tore it up. I wasn’t the only one dancing hard.

I’ve seen a lot of live music. And whether is was their artistry, our receptivity, or some combination thereof, Industrial Revelation at Lo-Fi on February 21, 2014 was the best fucking live show I’ve ever seen.

The Joy of Suffering: Towards a Romantic Transhumanism

romantic trans wb

I have a dog. Not just any dog: Ayla is the product of many generations of selection for hardiness, speed, intelligence, and extreme endurance. She’s a mix of several herding breeds, designed by cattlemen and sheepherders to travel long distances over rough terrain in harsh weather, to respond fearlessly to predators, to be simultaneously ultra-responsive to human commands and highly independent. As a result, my dog is a complex, potent being. And like any complex, potent being, she requires stimulation and challenge.

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That’s why I found myself scourged by icy pellets of wind-driven rain on a recent stormy afternoon. Standing on a bluff high above an unquiet grey sea, my body in sway to the bluster, chilly hands red and raw, I felt a surge of fierce joy. My very embodiment, my capacity to feel the sting of the rain, the force of the wind, seemed cause for celebration. My solitude amongst the howling trees and roaring water and racing, many-colored clouds drew me into the muscular embrace of the sublime, at once a singular self-contained consciousness, and a vessel filled with universal essence. It was glorious and raw and transcendent, and it wouldn’t have come about if I didn’t have a dog who needs lots of exercise.

The presence of pets in our lives is weird. While humans have been coexisting with animals for much of our history, they have, for the most part, had an easily identifiable purpose: Farm labor, hunting and herding help, transportation, pest control, food. Pets, in contrast, provide something far more amorphous and hard to define: They are companions, surrogate family members, projections of our identity and proclivities. But their actual utility is arguable. We spend money and time caring for them that we could devote to other pursuits. Keeping my dog happy and sane requires an enormous expenditure of energy on my part: She is a burden and a liability, even as she brings me great joy and pleasure.

As Hal Herzog argues convincingly in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, there’s little reason to think that keeping pets provides measurable benefit. And yet – having Ayla prompted me to venture out into the cold and rain, to immerse myself in the intensity of untrammeled nature. This experience brought me unanticipated bliss, a deep sense of myself as an embodied being – and a resonant awareness of my own mortality. While her actual “use-value” might be nil, the unlooked-for benefits of having Ayla in my life are profound.

Just as we don’t “need” to keep animals around, there may come a time when we don’t “need” these fallible meat-bodies.

I’m firmly against the simple acceptance of received wisdom, the shrugging justification, “That’s just the way things are.” Some transhumanists argue that the stories we tell ourselves about death and suffering are just that: Hollow justifications made by people who had no other option but to accept the horror of consciousness’ obliteration. Now that technologies of cyberneticsradical life-extension, and uploading are beginning to seem not only possible, but likely, avenues of human enhancement, shouldn’t we do our utmost to lengthen human life and eliminate suffering?

Transhumanist thinkers have long wrestled with the ethical implications of life extension and human enhancement (see Nick Bostrom’s excellent summary of the literature, “A History of Transhumanist Thought”). However, the prevailing view among transhumanists is one of optimism and excitement. Far from impoverishing the human experience, they argue, the elimination of pain, suffering, and physiological and psychological limitations will enable us (and perhaps all sentient beings) to experience greater satisfaction and joy.

Novel technologies of human enhancement (ones that will perhaps obviate our need for bodies) present intriguing possibilities. But feeling the vulnerability of my form before the immensity of nature (and the concomitant awareness of myself as vigorous and vital) was an occasion for ecstasy. Experiencing the sting of rain on my exposed face, the chill of wind beneath my collar, the scent of my own acrid sweat, I was unafraid of my dissolution in death, even as I became acutely aware of its inevitability (or probability, at least). Yes, some would dismiss my response as mere self-delusion, a desperate attempt to drown out my own objections to impending mortality. But, just as I’m not compelled by the promise of an afterlife, the potential for a much longer lifespan or immortality in the material realm (or in a computer) doesn’t really excite me. Glimpsing the eternal from my limited, embodied vantage, on the other hand – that is glorious!

Just as owning a dog got me out into the fearsome, wild weather, and brought me a totally unexpected experience of transcendent joy, owning a body capable of suffering (with which my consciousness is inextricably entwined) yields unanticipated riches.* A posthuman being could experience more net joy, less suffering. A disembodied consciousness could experience entirely novel sensations many orders of magnitude more intense than those available to us primates. But our embodiment, as much as our technology, makes us human. Even as we are destined to evolve and change, there’s value in our current form. Our limitations are precious.

I’m a proponent of scientific endeavor and striving after progress. I embrace – revel in! – humanity’s complex and ever-changing relationship with technology. I’m open to a radical transformation of the human person through technological means. But all of this is tempered by respect for the depth of our connection with the irrational and the sublime, that which is mysterious and beyond our control. So – I’m going to go ahead and call myself a Romantic Transhumanist.

*Of course, some people’s (and non-human animals’) lives are characterized by almost unremitting suffering, and that’s troubling – but does that make the wholesale elimination of suffering a viable goal?

“Touch Me: I am Violent”

Last night I had the singular good fortune to be present at a real, soul-rocking happening. Yonnas T. Getahun has brought together artists working in diverse media to create a show of tactile art that, in defiance of longstanding art gallery convention, invites you to reach out and touch it.

The title of the show ended up being startlingly prescient: One work in particular, by Daveda Russell, touched us even as we touched it, provoking violent outbursts, deep engagement, and visceral passion.

A vertical form like a door: On one side, names written in marker of 150 black women who’d been murdered in lynchings. On the other, a mirror, a noose, the words: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall… Who’s the fairest… Strange Fruit?” (I may be missing something; Please forgive any misrepresentation.)

When I saw my reflection in that mirror, my face framed by the noose I felt a pang of grief deep in my gut. For the women whose light had been snuffed out by the evil of white supremacy. For my own ancestors who’d been exterminated in the Holocaust. For all of those who’ve been victimized by the insane systems of oppression that deem certain human lives unfit for existence, that disseminate hatred and fear.

Later in the evening, I talked to a man who’d been brought to tears by the piece as he reflected on the hardship experienced by his family in Latvia, his parents who’d been forced to flee, his aunt who’d spent time at a labor camp in Siberia. He cried. This was real. This was raw. This work made us hurt.

And yet – there was someone who was pissed about it. She argued that it cheapened the experiences of black women, made their suffering into a circus attraction for “white folks milling around a gallery.” She contended that the dialog that was occurring as a direct result of the piece was only possible because she was standing there and talking about it, that most visitors to the gallery wouldn’t be able to understand it, and that, therefore, it was an invalid representation of black women’s suffering.

A few thoughts on this…

1. Art is meant to be received and experienced by whomever happens to be engaging with it at the time. To suggest that the potential for misunderstanding of a piece (unless the artist is on hand to explain their intent) makes it inherently disrespectful seems pretty bizarre. There are as many perspectives as there are human beings, and each of us interprets art – music, painting, literature, film, whatever – through our own unique filter.

2. Dismissing someone’s power to empathize, to deeply, viscerally feel you, just because they happen to look different, puts up walls. It narrows your circle of alliance, diminishes mutual understanding, and feeds into the Self/Other paradigm that’s responsible for systemic racism in the first place. I wanted to enter the discussion, to talk about how the piece had moved me, how I, as a “white person” (an identity with which, by the way, I’m uneasy – my dad is brown-skinned and Jewish) really got it. But I felt excluded, shut down, unable to contribute my voice.

3. Racism is real. We don’t live in a post-racial society. White privilege is a thing. I have had countless advantages as a white-looking woman that wouldn’t have been available to me had I been born with skin of a different color. But: I’ve also spent many years mired in the misery of isolation, depression, a deeply distorted self-concept. White privilege didn’t protect me from that.

I am enraged that Jim Crow lives on in racist policing practices, in a for-profit prison system, in schools that are separate and most certainly not equal, in a broken penal system that makes a mockery of the word “justice.” FUCK THAT. Fuck the forces that let Trayvon Martin’s murderer get away with it, that label Richard Sherman a thug for refusing false modesty, that dishonor the bodies of my black sisters.

Having said all that… Privilege is as privilege does. What of rich white dudes, the rulers of the world, the ones who have all the shit locked down? Who are so insulated by their material and cultural privilege that they can’t access the kind of vulnerability that would allow them to be truly moved? Who are so wrapped up in maintaining their vacuous, shallow identity that they never experience true community, true pleasure, true love? Constantly worried about their money, their things. Busting illicit nuts in bathroom stalls because their position won’t allow them wholesome open expressions of love. Lonely and numb and terrified of the void that’s always in their peripheral vision, ready to swallow them up.

I have no sympathy for the forces of evil. Prejudice and greed are abhorrent. But: On an individual level, inside each human heart, there is a spark, a common essence. We all suffer. And those who are disconnected from their own suffering are terribly impoverished.

Art has the power to shake people out of their complacency, to open new realms of understanding, to make a middle-aged white man weep openly in response to a piece about the rape and torture of black women.

The person who felt that the piece was disrespectful was “offended,” and thought it shouldn’t be there. It’s righteous and necessary to stand up to systemic injustice and to a culture in which racism, for all that people try to gloss over it, is still deeply entrenched. But eschewing fruitful dialog in favor of circular narratives of victimhood is entrapping. It’s narrowing. It’s excluding. That shit is fear based.

In the end, she was vindicated: The piece came down. Against her protestations, her appeals to civility, a man who’d been opposing her claims, in a paroxysm of violent passion and visceral emotion, took the noose down. Threw it in the street. Removed the mirror. Tore his pants in the process. Unwilling to follow her contention that the piece shouldn’t exist to its logical conclusion (the destruction of said piece), the woman retreated behind pleas for restraint.

But what had risen up would not be contained.  Art happened.*

*I’m not condoning the destruction of the piece. Yonnas made it clear that, while the art should be touched, it shouldn’t be altered. I do, however, condone zealous, disruptive displays of raw feeling.