30 October 2011

Ten Minute Occupation

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:48 pm

3 NOV UPDATE — Two and a half hours today, but that last hour might have pushed me over the edge back into non-participation. In honor of the Greek situation I brought a hand-made REFERENDUM sign, which stimulated some good conversations with occupiers and passers-by alike. When I arrived there were maybe 8 of us, but at 5:15 it was down to me and one other person. I thought it would be solidarity-ish of me to stick around until 6, when the “GA” (general assembly — is it really necessary to adopt these off-putting abbreviations?) would convene for a planning session. The other occupier was an organizer who had taken on the task of writing an all-purpose “vision statement” (not to be confused with a “mission statement” which, I was told,  comes after vision and before objectives). This person’s vision revolved around non-corrupt government; I said I thought it was a fine statement but that the idea of Occupy had to do more with Wall Street than with Washington. “We’re occupying Washington too,” I was informed. I was told that the Occupiers were working with the city to get a 24/7 occupation permit, allowing them to camp overnight. “But we don’t call it camping (which is illegal on Boulder city property); we call it occupying.” Don’t you think it would be good to support the homeless, who are not allowed to sleep out on city property? “We’ll set a precedent for them; they can call themselves Occupiers.” But only right here, at the Occupation location, right, and not in the rest of town? “The police are not the enemy; we don’t want to get arrested; we have to avoid the conflicts with ‘those people’ (i.e., the homeless) that’s happening in Occupy Denver. Plus we’re not going to sleep out until spring when it’s warmer.” If it’s still going by then. “Some of us are idealists, not skeptics.” And blah blah blah. When 6 o’clock rolled around and others started arriving for the GA I split.

*   *   *

1 NOV UPDATE — I went back to Occupy Boulder this afternoon. I spent maybe an hour and a half, and it was actually pretty much fun. I even held a sign that somebody handed me: “Break Up the Big Banks,” or something to that effect. Maybe ten people were occupying this time. I engaged in a few good conversations addressing economic concerns with a variety of other occupiers, including a high school student, a university grad student, a woman who brought pastries, and a homeless guy. Most Occupiers seemed to be disaffected liberals, not particularly radical. My favorite passing horn-honker was a woman driving a car with a “Palin for President” sticker on the rear windshield.

*   *   *

Ten minutes — that’s what I accomplished this afternoon. Late last week the Occupy Boulder people decided to ramp up from once-a-week demonstration to a daily presence, beginning today. Counting Anne and me there were five occupiers. One guy asked if we wanted to hold a sign; another asked if he could interview us for a website featuring people’s opinions of the Occupy intervention. We declined both offers. We talked about yesterday’s encounter in Denver between occupiers and the police — apparently a bicycled policeman ran over an occupier’s foot, who reacted by pushing the bike, at which point the cops amped it up with pepper spray, paintball rifles, and 20 arrests. A passer-by stopped briefly to recount the tale of a confrontation in Rome where the occupiers arrested the police. Quite a few autos tooted their horns in support of the occupation.

I said that I would return later in the week, and I will, but I have to confess that the experience seemed more desultory than inspiring. The movement is occupying the same city park where I’ve previously participated in protests against occupations — of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Gaza. As far as I could discern the impact of those protests had been nil, except for their negative effect on my own enthusiasm for that sort of political action. To me the Occupy Boulder seemed like the same old thing, except with even fewer participants than the usual meager turnout. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Maybe Occupy Boulder will grow as people begin to notice the daily presence, but I suspect that this university town of 100 thousand people isn’t big enough to be Occupied for more than an hour or two per week.

27 October 2011

One Guess

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 4:50 pm

Here’s a sentence I wrote today in the novel:

A hideous underwater creature, as thick and long as his thigh, as shiny and wet and red as the jesters’ lips, would flop out onto the bar, writhing and pulsating and wafting its seaweed reek.

24 October 2011

Last Year at Marienbad by Resnais, 1960

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:11 am

What is Alfred Hitchcock doing there, on the right, in the shadows, hovering a few inches above the floor?

20 October 2011

Folk Psychology and Me

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:05 pm

One line of research in cognitive psychology explores how people understand each other. There are variants on the theme — perspective-taking, joint intentionality, empathy, mirror neurons, theory theory, simulation, embodied/extended mind, etc. — but much of it is predicated on the subjective and often unconscious sense of the self being similar to the other, of being fellow-members of the same species interacting in a shared social space. In contrast to these investigations, one of my more common subjective experiences is how different other people seem from me, how incomprehensible their actions and reactions. Sometimes I impose speculative and scholarly abstractions on my interactions with them in an attempt to make sense. Or I invent fictional versions of real people and put them through simulated situations in an attempt to come to grips. It’s as if I’m making first contact with an alien species.

It could be that my sense of alienation from others is symptomatic of self-alienation:  because I refuse to acknowledge certain characteristics in myself I am incapable of acknowledging them in others. By implication, I should be better able to understand the seemingly alien actions of others if I could create a realistic fictional version of myself onto which I would assign these seemingly alien emotions, thoughts, motivations, and actions. I could put my fictional double through simulated experiences and interactions to see how it responds. Then I could rely on my ability to empathize with my own fictional doppelganger as a means of understanding other people.

It’s certainly the case that over the past ten years or so I’ve come to see in myself the potential to be a wide variety of creepy or crazy or violent or antisocial people. Paradoxically, this self-awareness of my own strangenesses, both overt and latent, may have made me feel less alienated from a wider variety of others. I’ve also become less of an alien to various alternate versions of myself. At the same time, I feel more alienated from people who seem unaware of their own potential to be strange. Maybe they actually lack the potential to be strange, this incipient craziness. Maybe they really are quite different from me after all, quite alien from my own alienation.

It’s not particularly pleasant, this awareness, nor does it necessarily make me any happier to be in others’ company, or even in my own company. Also, becoming consciously aware of certain aspects of myself and others that presumably have been there all along but that I have ignored or repressed or failed to formulate — it doesn’t mean that I therefore find these previously hidden facets pleasurable or worthy of cultivation and full expression in the world. At the same time I recognize that others do find pleasure and value in expressing aspects of themselves, and in encountering aspects in others, that I might find distasteful or even reprehensible. I see no reason to restrict their pleasure of self-expression or social interaction. At the same time, if they infringe on my own pleasure then I’m free to walk away.

As host of a blog, do I simply ignore discussion threads unfolding here that I don’t find pleasurable, letting them play themselves out among the participants and spectators who like that sort of thing? Or, if I find it disagreeable myself, do I stifle the discussion? Do I assume that other readers not participating in the discussion are like me in their reactions and would rather see these discussions either curtailed or taken offline? Here’s the thing though: if I were to read some of these interactions on somebody else’s blog I would find them — I have found them — entertaining. At the same time, I would be reluctant to comment on that blog for fear of becoming embroiled myself in a conversation I would find unpleasant and not at all entertaining as a participant. What is that? It’s the world where Michael Haneke holds the mirror in front of my face. It makes me uncomfortable; I turn away.

Tomorrow at a literary conference in Canada a friend will be delivering a talk on “the cognitive turn” in narratology. He will explore the idea that readers invoke similar cognitive mechanisms in understanding and relating to fictional characters as they do in interacting with real people. If I were in the audience at this talk I would ask my friend something like this: Fiction reading is on the decline. Can you speculate on why this is the case, specifically in light of what you’ve said about readers identifying with, empathizing with, simulating, and taking the perspective of fictional characters?

The other day, in a completely different context, I was thinking about the “tomb world” in PK Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  But empathy is after all the central theme of Dick’s book, so it’s not surprising that Dick would have a response to the question my imaginary self will be posing tomorrow at the literary conference. Here’s a passage from chapter 3:

The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence. In other words, androids equipped with the new Nexus-6 brain unit had from a sort of rough, pragmatic, no-nonsense standpoint evolved beyond a major — but inferior — segment of mankind. For better or worse. The servant had in some cases become more adroit than its master. But new scales of achievement, for example the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, had emerged as criteria by which to judge. An android, no matter how gifted as to pure intellectual capacity, could make no sense out of the fusion which took place routinely among the followers of Mercerism — an experience which he, and virtually everyone else, including subnormal chickenheads, managed with no difficulty.

He had wondered as had most people at one time or another precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnids. For one thing, the empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve.

Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated. As in the fusion with Mercer, everyone ascended together or, when the cycle had come to an end, fell together into the trough of the tomb world. Oddly, it resembled a sort of biological insurance, but double-edged. As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.

Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.

Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable. In retiring — i.e. killing — an andy he did not violate the rule of life laid down by Mercer. You shall kill only the killers, Mercer had told them the year empathy boxes first appeared on Earth. And in Mercerism, as it evolved into a full theology, the concept of The Killers had grown insidiously. In Mercerism, an absolute evil plucked at the threadbare cloak of the tottering, ascending old man, but it was never clear who or what this evil presence was. A Mercerite sensed evil without understanding it. Put another way, a Mercerite was free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit. For Rick Deckard an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master, which had been equipped with an intelligence greater than that of many human beings, which had no regard for animals, which possessed no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat — that, for him, epitomized The Killers.

Rick Deckard is trying to persuade himself that it’s normal not to feel empathy for the rogue replicants he “retires.” But he can’t help but wonder: if I administered the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test to myself, would I pass? Or am I a solitary predator, a Killer, surrounded by prey and competitors? I can simulate empathy when it suits my predatory purposes — gaining the trust of my victims, disguising myself from the guy who comes to retire me when my shelf life is up and I’m no longer productive — but do I really feel the connection with the others of my kind? When you read the book you ask yourself: Can I relate to Deckard? Am I sympathetic with the replicants he’s tracking down? If you never bother to read the book you don’t have to ask yourself these questions. But you ask yourself: If I did read it, would I pass the fictional empathy test? Maybe fewer and fewer people are willing to give it a try, or are even curious about the results.

16 October 2011

Breaking Bad by Gilligan, 2011

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 5:32 pm

13 October 2011

Procession and Silesium

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:32 am

On my walk yesterday afternoon I found myself approaching two women walking ahead of me. Both wore broad-brimmed straw hats, held to the head against the brisk wind by a kerchief wound over the crown and tied under the chin. The two were walking in single file, with perhaps fifteen feet separating them. The second woman stayed on the concrete sidewalk, whereas the first woman walked in the grass parallel to the paved walkway. Their progress was slow and halting so I soon caught up with them. Rather than passing them by I added myself to their procession, staying about fifteen feet behind the second woman, who was very pale and who wore a heavy coat in the mild early autumn weather. Occasionally the woman at the front, whom I could now see was Asian, would raise one or both hands in the air and mumble something as if in benediction to the mountains rising sharply in the near distance ahead of us. Twice she stopped and knelt with both knees on the ground. When she did this the other woman and I both stopped and waited. We maintained our three-person procession until our pathway intersected with a road. Then the two women stopped, the leader grasping the hand of the other woman. She turned and smiled as I approached them. We exchanged hellos as I walked to the right along the roadway. About twenty strides later I looked behind me: the two women were still standing where I had left them.

About 3:30 this morning I got out of bed to write down something from a dream I had just had. I have the little square of toilet paper in front of me now, the purple ink distorted by the slash marks the pen nib made on a fragile surface not meant for being inscribed. “Silesium mud,” is what I wrote. To my recollection I had never heard this word before, so I googled it and found that it has two primary meanings. Silesia is a geographic area and an ethnic group that is currently part of  Poland bordering Germany and Czech. This region gave its name to the Silesian geological epoch, which dates from around 300 to 325 million years ago. I recall that I was using my bare hands for scraping up some Silesium mud, which was light colored and quite gritty, even partly crystalized, and placing it into a container. In the dream I had some sense that this mud was either rare or valuable.

11 October 2011

Night and the City by Dassin, 1950

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 3:28 pm

9 October 2011

While Waiting for Lunch to Arrive

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 1:04 pm

The retractor emptied its cartridge onto the floor, sucking it down and out of sight. We were left pinioned to the walls like insects, afraid to step across the empty space toward the open door. We could see that the driveway was still there, and the lawn. Maybe it was the sunlight slicing across the field of vision that made us afraid. I’d read that, if you ever found yourself at the bottom of a deep well, you could look up at the sky in broad daylight and see the stars. Looking horizontally across that void I could see all the way to the edge of the world, as if the trees and buildings weren’t even there, as if the curvature of the world could bend my line of sight.

Slowly — I presume my progress was slow, since every increment of intervening space stands out now in my memory as clearly as separate universes linked together only by my passage between them — and with an equanimity that surprised me I edged my way along the wall. I passed the now-empty space where the plant pots had been stored, next to the potting soil and the dessicated earthworms I had collected from sidewalks after the rain. The tools still hung from their pegs: I hoped that, once I could reach them, I would know what to do with them.

Cantilevered along the edge of the opening, the hydraulics twitched and sweated — I knew it wanted to activate itself, pulling the door down along its track, consigning us to darkness and the vertical plunge. Maybe if I jammed a rake into the mechanism? Pulling it from its holster, I grasped the rake in the wrong hand and so of course it fell. I waited for it to hit bottom, and so I waited for an eternity; then I began inching along again.

When at last I turned the corner I glanced back toward my companion. I observed that she had not moved at all, still positioned midway between the spare tires and the half-empty paint cans. Despite the positional stability, however, the distance had increased enormously. I remained silent, knowing that if I called out to her she would be consigned to another eternity of waiting before my voice reached her.

I grasped the…


Lunch is here; I can stop now.

6 October 2011

Melancholia by von Trier, 2011

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 9:46 am

5 October 2011

Agents Provocateurs in the Pumpkin Patch

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:29 am

UPDATE: K said that the Bachmann supporters were particularly irked for having paid good money for good seats in the barn, only to have the headliner not show up. Of course they blamed the students. K said that the students got a brief glimpse of the candidate at a distance, accompanied by her posse of PR people, walking down the trail leading to the baby goat pen. The only reason they knew it was her? They cheered, and she waved.

The “PumpkinGate” non-event was picked up by the New York Times:

GRINNELL, Iowa — Representative Michele Bachmann is committed to crisscrossing Iowa to personally impress as many voters as possible, but it is a good bet she won’t be returning to this college town any time soon.

Some 50 students from Grinnell College showed up at Carroll’s Pumpkin Patch on Tuesday evening, where Mrs. Bachmann had scheduled a fund-raising event on behalf of a conservative Christian group, the Family Leader. Soon after, police officers arrived and threw a cordon sanitaire around the students while Mrs. Bachmann toured the baby goat corral and pumpkin-washing station.

A few students, who had been alerted to the visit by an e-mail from the campus Democrats, unfurled signs protesting Mrs. Bachmann’s opposition to gay rights (“Pumpkins are the Gayest”). But there was no chanting and no heckling. Most students said they had come to hear her speak and to ask a question or two.

“Grinnell’s known for being a very liberal and politically active campus, but we’re very peaceful,’’ said one student, Jillian Johnson. “We weren’t going to throw anything. We just wanted her to talk to us.”


Our daughter K and some of her pals attended a scheduled Bachmann rally yesterday, apparently forcing the candidate not to appear at her own event. From the Des Moines Register:

Grinnell, Ia. – Michele Bachmann’s appearance at a fundraiser on a pumpkin farm here this evening was delayed and then curtailed after several dozen Grinnell College students showed up.

Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, was to speak at an ostensibly open event in the hayloft of a barn at Carroll’s Pumpkin Farm during a fundraiser for the Iowa Family Leader, an advocacy group for socially conservative issues.

But the event’s 5:30 start time came and went with no sign of the candidate after the event space filled up with college students, some carrying signs. Bachmann ended up not appearing until about 6:40 – after a truck from the Poweshiek County Sheriff and two police cars arrived on the scene and officers cordoned off part of the farm with police tape.

Rather than speaking publicly from the barn – which was festooned with Bachmann campaign posters and clearly arranged for her to speak – Bachmann met with Family Leader donors privately in a house on the property and then took a short walking tour with farm owners Danny Carroll – a former state lawmaker – and his wife.

The students, meanwhile, stood behind the cordon waving signs supporting gay marriage and playing on misstatements the candidate has made. They clapped rhythmically and yelled questions and entreaties in Bachmann’s general direction.

Grinnell College students wait for Michele Bachmann (The Register/Jason Noble)

Taking questions from the press, Bachmann said the event was private, and that she did not intend make comments to an audience that wasn’t part of the fundraiser.

“This was never intended to be a big public event,” she said. “This was always intended to be a private fundraiser.”

When pressed on why she didn’t engage with the students, Bachmann deflected the question.

2 October 2011

Freedom by Franzen, 2010

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 2:07 pm

He hugged her and lightly rubbed her, cursing her constantly, cursing the position she’d put him in. For a long time she didn’t get any warmer, kept falling asleep and barely waking up, but finally something clicked on inside her, and she began to shiver and clutch him. He kept rubbing and hugging, and then, all at once, her eyes were wide open and she was looking into him.

Her eyes weren’t blinking. There was still something almost dead in them, something very far away. She seemed to be seeing all the way through to the back of him and beyond, out into the cold space of the future in which they would both soon be dead, out into the nothingness that Lalitha and his mother and his father had already passed into, and yet she was looking straight into his eyes, and he could feel her getting warmer by the minute. And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after life was lost, and let her see all the vileness inside him, all the hatreds of two thousand solitary nights, while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they’d ever said or done, every pain they’d inflicted, every joy they’d share, would weigh less than the smallest feather on the wind.

“It’s me,” she said. “Just me.”


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