Saturday, March 17, 2012

How We Fight

Pelham Bay, Bronx, NYC

"You give a head of canvas and oakum an expression of anger and leave it with it, with the convulsion, the tension enclosed once and for all, with a blind fury for which there is no outlet. The crowd laughs at the misery of imprisoned matter, of tortured matter which does not know what it is and why it is, nor where the gesture may lead that has been imposed on it for ever.” – Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, “Treatise on Tailor's Dummies.”
The title "Why We Fight" was taken, twice, so I figured I'd look today at how we fight, presuming only to answer how we fight without our bodies and without our bodies' extensions -- weapons. Again, only because I can't stand the competition, and there is an enormous amount of competition on "how to fight" with and without weapons for Internet readers.

Sometimes we fight because of a proposal or a clash of viewpoints. It happens, but it happens very rarely. Present tense fights are dialogs that become a list of charge sheets, and the charges become battery.
"Dodd-Frank is more regulation, and it's killing the banking industry. In fact, that's why no one's getting a loan."
"That's crazy. Dodd-Frank hasn't even been funded, so how it can be killing anything is beyond me."
"I know a guy who is on the board of a bank, and they had to hire someone just to keep up with all the regulations and make sure that the bank could fill out all the new paperwork. That's 100% Dodd-Frank, and that's profit that should go to the bank instead of the government."
"What the? If they hired someone, then that's good, but the money from hiring that person isn't going to the government, and I'm sorry they didn't have their books in order, but..."
"Their books were fine! This is regulation killing the business."
"If they're doing fine, they're not getting killed...."
These two people are about to fight, if one of them doesn't find a way to Zen out.
 You see, the evidence to support the claim is anecdotal ("I know a guy") and the interpretation of the data is a non-sequitur on both sides (just because it isn't funded doesn't mean it can't have an effect; hiring a compliance officer doesn't mean the "government" is getting anything; supposing D-F required funds, which it doesn't, there would be no conclusion that this were harming, much less killing banks, which are showing high profits). The two are confirming a past position with new ones, probably. One began with an allegiance to what is today called "conservative," and the other at least didn't. This meant that the fight was like enemy troops discovering each other in thick woods: the fight that happens is bloody, sloppy, unwinnable in a conventional sense, and frequently the one that survived was the one most flexible, not the one most powerful.

We fight, actually fight, not in the present, but over the past tense. 

A huge, lysurgic photo to download. Call it GFDL.A crepe myrtle holding its empty seed pods.

Our memories are monologs. In fact, the problem with people who try to write fantasy novels or memoirs from memory is that those memories can't hold conversations, and those imaginations can't actually give dialog with blocking intent or separation from the speaking mind. Our memories, then, are what she said. They are what we said. 

If I offend you, right now, you object. It takes knowing me, having an architecture of hurt and malice, six cylinders of  unredressed grievance, to get the fight going, and then there has to be an objective. Given that we're talking about fighting and not arguing, there is only one real objective, and that is to make the other person into your own image to correct her or him. Barring that, the objective is obliteration of the other person.

Why you're fighting (dang it! I know -- it's because we are free and they put no value on life and we are defense contractors) is that the other person's differences (of opinion, of outlook, of value) are so great that your memory has an object in it that needs to be addressed. You have, in your past tense, a hurtfulness, unpleasantness, and disgust, and now, 
"Of course she got the job. She's black, isn't she."
Here it is. Oh, no, not again. You warned him (in your monolog in your mind) not to spout this racist crap again, and yet....

Because you need to get rid of the disgust, unpleasantness, and hurt, you have to get the other person to 1) agree with you, 2) agree with you enough to no longer elicit these feelings, 3) no longer elicit these feelings. Fights like this are idiotic, of course, because they can't be won. The most anyone ever gets is #3, and that by silence or evasion. How often have you had or heard a fight, a real fight, where one person says, "You're right. I didn't realize that I harbored such racist views. I'll be more careful from now on?"

Outside of marriage, where I doubt the sincerity or neutrality, I've never seen or heard of it.

Outside of marriage, what people get is behind Door #3. They get silent resentment. They get, "I'll never say nothing around her again" or "She's simply insane."  However, that works. It's functional. Civilization persists. The value of the two individuals has changed, as far as each is concerned. The one who thinks he won and the one who thinks he lost each knows that there was no victory, and each thinks that the other person is foul, and now the other person exists in memory as "Disagreeable jerk that I have to watch what I say around."

The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.  ~Sigmund Freud
 What I have described is what Freud was thinking of. It means that we reconceptualize each other, sure, but civilization continues. We stay out of each other's garden, wait for the next elevator, pretend to have cramps when there is a get together after work, and generally keep an averaged piece by fighting viciously until there is silence. Our objective had been to "correct" the other person by bringing the other person's rough edge into compliance with our own smooth side.

Balthasar van der Ast, Fruit with Shells, 1620
There is another way we fight, though. Remember how I said that fights are in the past tense? Remember how I said that they come because there is an affective state attached to a person before the incident that sparks the fight? Sometimes, people do not seek necessarily to get the other person to think the same things, but to feel the same things.

If you made me angry with what you did, I am angry. Now, when I call you into my office, I could explain your error and wring a confession out of you, show your error and teach the right way, ask for a narrative and see if you confess your error, or show the error and explain how that makes me look. I can pretty quickly get you to agree to never do it again, and you may do it again afterward or not, but it probably won't be lack of respect if you do.

Some people, when angry, do not want to have the other person see the right. In fact, the way the boss will explain things will demonstrate this. "So, Jane, tell me about typing up the assessment report."
"Well, I looked at the guidelines from the NEA and compared those to the SACS requirements and took the material we had submitted last year as well as this year's statistics, and I put the new data into the fields for instruments. I then changed the narrative for the learning objectives to match the updated statements, like you said to do. And. Um, that's... Oh! I called Renee to be sure that we were using the right form this time."
"And did you think about the Mission Statement?"
"The Mission Statement is listed."
"Oh really, Jane? Perhaps you can show it to me, then. Considering the fact that I distinctly remember telling you that the Mission Statement had to be at the top of every form, I'm at a loss to see where it is. I swear! First you don't put it in, and then you use the one from fifteen years ago!"
Many of us work for Executive Hardcase.
It goes on like this. (I apologize for any workplace flashbacks. I drew upon a real boss of mine for the above, where I was Jane.) Now the boss in this case is not looking to fix anything. The boss is not even being a sadist. The boss is, rather, fighting for the same objective, but a different value as other fights. He wants sympathy/remaking. In this case, he is angry, and he demands that the employee be made to feel the emotion that he was made to feel.

This is something that often separates masculine and feminine discourse in argument, as well. It is by no means always the case, but it is often the case that women will fight for an emotional sympathy. "You made me feel unhappy, and this fight is not over until you show that you feel as unhappy as you made me feel" is the dynamic of the argument. Is it fair? It's not any less fair than, "We won't stop until you agree with my logic" is. Both, in the end, are about achieving an overwriting of the other's state to show the power of the one, even as, paradoxically, they seem to be revenge. The person not letting go until fear is achieved is doing so because she or he felt powerless against the other inflicting that emotion.

The only reason I feel like sharing this guide to How We Fight is to bemoan a simple fact. The fight that depends on agreeing with propositions has a sort of annihilating draw option. There is a way to walk away in silence, with both parties thinking less of the other but peace achieved. In the instances where a person demands emotional pounds of tears, I know of no such thing. Perhaps skilled acting might work, with the cost only of integrity, but I don't know what to do with someone who wants anger from me, or sadness from me, because, honestly, that's asking for something that's not in the public sphere.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Ennervation Never Knows

"I can endure my own despair,
But not another's hope." -- William Walsh

The child skins its knee, and the pain is the worst of its life. It moans and keens with all of its mind at the unending and raging pain. The adult cuts itself with a knife while doing a routinely dangerous task, sucks air between its teeth, curses, sends reason to caution the primitive mind, invokes time's wisdom to know that all pains end, rushes to find unguents, wraps the wound, closes its eyes in mastery, and controls the impulse of pain. The older person's night time undressing reveals wounds along the legs, dried blood smears like comet tails from punctures on the forearm or thigh, and fear, a dull fear, comes up, and the older person asks itself when these damages happened, which enemies had struck during the night, and how unprotected it is against the environment, and then its reason and sense of time, stronger now than the senses of touch, say that such things are predictable and inconsequential.

The teenaged boy jostles its friends. They slam dance to socialize, because the little demons that inhabit them will not allow stillness, and looking one another in the eye would be faggy, and they rate women. The most imaginary flaw could cause emesis or impotence, they claim. Else nothing could stop their mighty virility from accomplishing its mission, but they would demand that the waif lose weight and the buxom woman get enhanced.
Their oppositely arrayed army mourn the imperfection of all the boys and perfection of all the imaginary men. Those who breathe are vile, and those who shimmer on screens or reflect from pages have every desire locked inside them. These here are immature -- a just complaint if ever there were one -- but those. . . those understand. Those are prettier, kinder, and listen.

The older person fails to notice. The mate, even the child, was a formula solved some time earlier. Since that time it has remained an integer of certain quantity and an attribute of certain quality. Only the things that are jarring, disagreeable, unsolved show up, and these as things that will not rest, will not allow the natural process to go its way. The woman cannot believe that the man isn't taking things seriously, as he is happy all the time, which means that he is indifferent, and the man cannot believe that the woman can never be satisfied, as things are not in crisis, and they have both formed conclusions. It is now just a matter of time between fights and resolution.

Sorry about that. Rather grand sounding, isn't it? After all, it is the way of us to be fresh and then grow stale, to lose connection to our sense of each thing as time goes on. People speak of the senses growing dull. Ears, eyes, tongue -- each has its own diminishing returns. However, there is also a simple process of ennervation, whereby the nerves running to these senses decrease and our ability to feel decreases. Ennervation is aging, and all of our awareness follows the pattern of the physical.
"I've got a wild man wizard, and he's hiding in me.
Illuminating my mind." -- Harry Chapin, "Taxi."
In youth, a fantasy strikes, and it fills up the horizon, fills in the holes of the heart left by disappointment in strength, attention, love, accomplishment. In youth, we can devote days to exploring our other selves: the knights, the shield maidens, the saviors of D-cup desperate women wearing thin their leather bikinis, the neglected beauty of the realm of power discovered by the lovely man, the radioactive scientist, the battle hardened soldier of either sex, the gang star, the respected woman who wins all she desires by her fire-hardened femininity and toughness, the cowboy, the Indian, and we can write it out in dreams -- visual, poetic, waking, sleeping, and prose.
"Julie Daydreaming," by Berthe Morisot
  As adults, we toy with our psychic familiars, pulling them from the closet in times of stress, embarrassed to be seen in public with them. Older still, we cannot capture even a half hour of what was once whole days of fascination, and we have no patience for reading or seeing another person's dreams realized. 'Oh, that fantasy book series is treacle for teenagers,' or 'That series on HBO is some middle aged guy's fantasy life; whoopee for him,' we say. The truth is that we feel guilty looking in at what we had.
I do not mean to complain of time's many gifts.
"Death and the Girl," Ego Schiele, 1915

 Our greatest desire, when young, and we do not know it, is to be free of the "insane and furious master" lashing us (Republic 329), lust. Our greatest desire as adults is to cease being the half-persons that everyone since Aristophanes has said is the way of sex (Aristophanes says, in Symposium that we were one ball, and we were trying to be gods, so Zeus split us in half, into male and female, and now we spend all our lives trying to reunite). In age, we can call on lust unreliably, but it's there, and the raging fire becomes a steady flame.

When young, a disappointment leaves us screaming our nights away as surely as the scraped knee left us howling as toddlers. Anger goes to destruction. We wish we could escape our own ability to feel so deeply. Time takes care of that, at least for a while.
By practice and discipline, we can tame the winds of youth. There is less to help us feel again when the nerves no longer connect. And, at last, when they reach no farther than the mind itself, there is no place for feeling to go but to the mind itself, and we go back again to our impulse, desire, and wish.

Monday, March 05, 2012


I have found myself in the unenviable position of explaining punk rock to a generation that has no contact with it. It has heard the term, but the meaning of that term is at least doubly remote. It is remote in the sense that any musical movement is a fossil due to the destruction of radio, and it is remote in the sense that whatever this movement denoted, it simply is neither spoken of in a coherent manner nor played on whatever musical media as exist.
Photograph by Man Ray

"Well, like, um, The Clash?" crickets. "Ok, Blondie?" Nope. "Talking Heads? The Police? The Buzzcocks? Joy Division? The Ramones?" They have, some of them, heard of The Ramones, largely due to the habit of set decorators and costumers in Hollywood to put Ramones paraphernalia in television shows and movies. Now, a fair amount of what they have heard is punk at two removes, but the all stars of 1977 - 1985 are unknown to them.

Honestly, it is not germane to anything, and so I should not spend precious seconds mentioning any of this irrelevant history to college students, as both the free market and the shifting historical record that is culture have determined that what changed my world has been erased, but I have devoted perhaps five minutes, total, to this task, and I usually mention, as an example of the kind of punk I was, Talking Heads. I'll focus on what I think is the song they're most likely to have heard, "Once in a Lifetime." (Actually, "Burning Down the House" is more likely, I guess.) I tell them to imagine that they woke up one morning with complete amnesia. Imagine looking at their lives without any history at all. Just look at where they are and who they are at this exact moment. Cut a slice through time like a slide under a microscope and examine it. What conclusions would you draw?
The Nativity, Robert Campin

"That's deep," they say. Yes, I say.

W. H. Auden squeezed a whole anthology entry out of Breugel, so I figure I can use the Master of Flemalle for a blog post. Auden was talking about suffering's banality as a corollary of the banality of evil, though. If the Nazi executioner might look like a businessman, then the martyr might look like a piece of paper crossing that businessman's desk.

What I try to tell kids, from David Byrne's artistic game, is about the nature of hierarchy in time, how sense-making depends on time and how lost emphasis is without priority. When I was a collegian, exploring everything, sticking my tongue into every crevice and trying to pry the lid off of every jar, Mr. Byrne was always the upper classman I admired. He was ahead of me intellectually and creatively. He had cooler friends, and he did the drugs I never would, but he and I were thinking along the same lines, but I was following.

Now, I have probably caught up with him intellectually. He still has some mighty cool friends, and money frees him to a courage that I will never have. Reading his journal, I have to say that he's awfully interesting and still more creative than I'll hope for, but he's no longer commanding spaces I haven't seen.

We were both interested in the idea of how the createdness of art altered its experience. We both wondered about how everyday utterance was shaped by ritual and how poetic cadences had roles in the group experience.

The Man at the Cafe, 1912, Juan Gris
What is the present moment?

In truth, not only do we fail to understand the slices of living and perceiving that together go into the narration that we call "our lives," but each individual moment is itself unperceived for the most part. Even without going to the radical Taoists and asking that we know all the sky, water, earth and that we lose our selves in the process, there is simply more of you than you will credit at a single time.

Your "now" is only the part of sensation and memory and desire that crosses into the organizing facility of the mind. If the ego is "the thing that knows what sort of person you are," then "now" is merely what the ego wishes to credit. There are a thousand things that a "person like you" or that "you, in particular" would not care about that are happening to and with you at this instance, and these are silent. They leave no impression on the tablet.

I do not know what is happening. I only know what I said happened.

One time is no time, after all, because we are continuous if we are at all.