Friday, December 30, 2011

intelligent, angry elephant

An extended version of my blog post on anger from last week has just appeared in elephant, an online journal devoted to yoga, sustainability, politics and spirituality. Take a look.

elephant journal: Yoga, Sustainability, Politics, Spirituality

New Year's Wishes

On Wednesday, I went for a walk to find a wishing well. I’d heard about this place, and seen signs pointing to it in the Morton National Park, near Bundanoon. It seemed like a good place to visit in the few days remaining before the new year, an auspicious spot to contemplate the year to come. Resolutions seem all too likely to result in bad conscience later on — I prefer the idea of new year’s wishes (keeping in mind the old fairy tale warning, be careful what you wish for…)

On the way, I came across an echidna, snuffling in the bush. She put her sturdy front claws up on an old log and blinked in my direction, sniffing the air, before waddling away on her ancient looking legs, black and yellow spines smooth against her body. I took this as a good sign.

The account I’d heard of the wishing well led me to imagine it nestled in a glen. I expected that at some point I would leave the fire trail style track I was following through eucalypt forest near the edge of a cliff, and descend via a narrower track into rainforest, before reaching a shadowy and mysterious place, suitable for magical transactions. 

There’s a spot that fits this description called the Fairy Bower falls, which I visited last time I was in this park. I remembered being enchanted by a glistening curtain of water adorning the rock face, and tantalised by the sound of a large bird beating its powerful wings ahead of me as I climbed back out of the valley. At one point on that earlier walk, I noticed tufts of very soft grey hair on the track, and turned a steep corner to discover fresh entrails laid out in the middle of the path. There was nothing more of the animal that had been taken, probably a possum or glider. I gazed up the enormous trunks of the nearby gums, but never did see the bird of prey.

When I came to a neat sign reading “Wishing Well,” I was still on high ground, however, and there was no sign of a track leading downwards or anywhere, for that matter. Next to the sign was a spot for a car, and beyond that a rocky area stretching away. Slightly confused, I walked up onto a kind of rock platform and was surprised to see what appeared to be a large metal cage perched at one end of it. On closer inspection, I realized that I had found the “well,” a natural formation in the rock. It was remarkably round and quite small – less than a metre wide and deep, filled with rainwater and lichen. In the mud at the bottom, visitors had tossed a few coins. What had appeared to be a cage was actually a large, clumsy but solid fence, constructed around this small depression in the rock. Presumably it was designed to guarantee the safety of young children, who might be left unattended at the “well” by extremely careless parents.

Needless to say, the fence dispelled any sense of mystery or wonder that might have been evoked by the curiously symmetric hole in the rock. Instead, the unattractive, oversized barrier emanated a vaguely menacing sense of the reach of institutionalized paternalism all the way into this relatively remote spot in the wild. At the same time, this effort to guarantee the safety of tiny tourists seemed touchingly naïve and inadequate. A few steps from the fence, a child bent on self-harm could easily throw himself off the rock ledge into a small valley where with a bit of luck he could be bitten by a snake, or perhaps be taken by a bird of prey, his entrails to be discovered later by startled bushwalkers…

I sat down on the sun-warmed rock a short distance from the “wishing well” and pondered the strangely myopic and earnest attitude of the National Park rangers who, I supposed, had erected this ungainly looking safety structure.

Then it dawned on me: of course, the primary purpose of the fence was not to protect unsupervised toddlers from drowning, but to protect the relevant authorities from the possibility of being sued. That’s why there are similar barriers at every official lookout in the park, partially obscuring the view, right next to vast, unfenced stretches of cliff where there is nothing to interrupt the line of sight or of accidental flight.

These barriers don’t relate in any very practical or commonsensical way to the visible, material world, the landscape or the people hiking across it, looking at views and making wishes. But this makes perfect sense once you realise that they are there chiefly to protect an abstract legal identity. The objectionably solid fence in front of me unveiled itself as an oddly metaphysical entity, a creation of law, whose true purpose and meaning could only become fully apparent in the actual or merely anxiously anticipated context of a courtroom.

This was at once depressing and intriguing. Ever since Australia was colonized by the British, the powerful and sometimes violently fictional constructs of Western law have been getting in the way of any more graceful, sensitive, or simply sensible way of relating to the natural environment and its inhabitants, here. But the presence of this fence also demonstrated the potential of wishes. If an idea, shared by enough people, can cause a bloody big metal fence to appear on a rock in the middle of the wilderness, where it clearly doesn’t belong, then what other, more beautiful and apt creations (or disappearances) might result from well-formed wishes, the kind that an echnidna might lend a little of her spiny magic to support?

May all your new year’s wishes for 2012 be true, and come true.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The intelligence of anger

Mid-way through a peaceful ramble through the bush at Wentworth Falls a few weeks ago, my friends Maddy, Tess and I came to a standstill when our conversation got on to the topic of how much anger is expressed, in sometimes astonishingly vitriolic forms, when unpopular views are voiced in the media. Writers of opinion pieces regularly devote columns to expressing their shock and dismay at receiving floods of abusive and threatening messages after touching, sometimes quite innocently, on a topic that unleashes unrestrained fury in a large number of their readers. It’s a disturbing phenomenon –we found we weren’t capable of walking and talking about it at the same time. Maddy’s little son Zeke looked on quizzically from his vantage point in a pack on Maddy’s back while we gesticulated. At one point, attempting to move along the track while still conversing, I fell off the wooden walkway into the reeds on one side. What’s going on, here?

An obvious point is that it is difficult to do tango philosophy, bushwalk backwards, and maintain your dignity and physical safety all at the same time. I don’t suggest you try it at home. Another obvious point, which is more to the point, is that the possibility of instantaneous, electronic communication with strangers (as well as friends) means that anger can be expressed with fewer inhibitions than ever before. You can let yourself go when writing an email or contributing to an online discussion, and send the message while passion is still running high, in a way that you wouldn’t normally do in face to face communication, or if you had to wait until the next day to post a letter, and certainly not if you had to get the message past an editor in order for it to reach its audience. The restraints that operate to keep anger in check in other communicative situations aren’t readily available online.

Another, slightly less obvious point is that many people seem to contain a reservoir of anger, that has been filled drip by drip, day by day, until it’s ready to overflow, so that the next irritant that triggers it, however minor or impersonal it may be, can break the restraining wall and unleash a wave that comes crashing towards the person who provoked that final drop.

Jungle Yoga
I observed this phenomenon in my own response to a teacher on a ten-day meditation retreat at the beginning of this year. The retreat was held in Thailand, in an extraordinarily beautiful location. We stayed in floating bungalows on a lake surrounded by ancient rainforest, said to have greater biodiversity than the Amazon. The water was a perfect temperature for lazy swimming; there were kayaks readily available; there was even a masseuse on hand in case you developed some tension in your muscles from the hard work of daily yoga classes and meditation. And the quality of meditation instruction was very high – there were two teachers, an American man and an Australian woman, who had both trained extensively in Burma. On top of their skillful and engaging group instruction, they made themselves available for daily personal interviews with each member of our small group.

You might think that it would be practically impossible to get angry, or to sustain any anger that might somehow arise, in such a blissful and well-supported situation. But of course, you would be wrong.

After my first personal interview with the male teacher, I found myself crying tears of fury and frustration into the delicious green pawpaw salad I was eating for lunch. The retreat was held in silence, so no one asked me what was wrong, but the woman who was sitting closest to me later said that when she saw me crying she thought to herself, “Wow, that woman is really in touch with her feelings.” My own view was that I was way too much in touch with them. Who wants to spend ten days in an earthly paradise getting up close and personal with anger?

But this was a situation in which there was no easy outlet for aggressive emotion. I couldn’t send an abusive email, or even have a bitch to a third party about the way the teacher had spoken to me. I had no choice but to get still more deeply “in touch” with my anger. It was an interesting investigation. One thing I realized pretty quickly was that my reaction was out of all proportion to the apparent cause. It didn’t seem plausible that I was really this angry, purely over the condescending, dismissive attitude a man whom I didn’t even know had taken toward me. Why should I even care about what he thought of me, especially on first, superficial impression?

I recently told this story at a dinner, and a woman at the table jumped in at this point to tell me I was right to be angry, that intelligent women are constantly treated this way by men in positions of authority, especially in spiritual circles, and that too often we accept this demeaning behavior, or blame ourselves, feeling that we have somehow failed in the exchange, rather than recognizing that anger is an appropriate response: women shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of thing, and they shouldn’t support it by accepting it. Too often, you see a man playing the dubious role of guru in front of twenty women in leotards who treat him like a minor, or even major deity. Obviously the women involved get something out of the exchange, too, but respect for women’s intelligence, and for intelligent women, is a likely, early casualty.

She had a good point; I recognized the scenario she was describing (which can manifest with or without leotards, or even any kind of spiritually signifying fashion statement). At the same time, I knew it wouldn’t have been helpful or just for me to unleash my anger over this kind of thing on the teacher I met in Thailand. He was only the last in a series. Alone he wouldn’t have provoked more than mild frustration and surprise.

It turned out that “getting in touch” with my anger meant realizing this – seeing the structural causes, and the long chain of events that had contributed to the store of anger that I carried with me to Thailand. At this level, anger becomes understanding, even wisdom, an energy that can drive action rather than reaction. It takes restraint to resist reacting to anger while it’s raw, but it seems to me that if you manage to do this and stay “in touch” with the feeling rather than suppressing it, you can get to a point of understanding where it’s possible to let the anger move you in invigorating, positive ways that don’t do violence to anyone.

A few days after the dinner, I did a yoga class taught by the woman who’d intervened so passionately when I was talking about my experience in Thailand. I watched and followed as she demonstrated breathing exercises and yoga postures surrounded by a group of about twenty women wearing leotards, plus a couple of men in similar outfits. She herself was dressed in loose white dance top and shorts, of very thin, soft material, worn over black tights and a tight black top, and although she was sitting on the floor like the rest of us, she seemed somehow elevated. She had the rapt attention of the whole group, whether she was simply drawing her hand slowly toward her chest, exhaling, or executing an impossibly perfect upward dog (that last bit is not a abrupt departure into automatic writing, it makes quite ordinary sense in the language of yoga). Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that we were gazing at her as if in the presence of a goddess, but there was certainly an air of devotion in the room…

In this season, traditionally known for festivity and family tension, I won’t go so far as to wish you a cranky Christmas, an angry Hannukah, or a simply furious solstice (summer or winter) but may you recognise the divine in yourself and others, and give your anger time to reveal its deep and supple intelligence.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


My weekly blog-post is a bit late this week, due to having too good a time at the annual conference of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference on "The Times of Our Lives," held at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

One of many highlights was a key-note paper by Elizabeth Grosz, on "Deleuze, Ruyer and becoming-brain: the music of life's temporality." In question time, she expanded on the notion of consciousness as "self-enjoyment" by saying that when you have an idea, "and it doesn't happen very often," suddenly everything changes, you see and feel everything differently.

In this spirit, here's taste of the paper I presented. Prepare yourself for a brief tour of...

          Walter Benjamin's famous Construction Site of History!

At the entrance, you are invited to play chess with an automaton, a puppet in Turkish attire seated before a chess board placed on a large table. Ingeniously hidden inside the table is a hunchbacked dwarf, a master at chess, who manipulates the puppet so that it wins every game. This was a real device which amazed audiences in the Nineteenth century. In Benjamin's version, the puppet represents historical materialism, while the dwarf is theology, which today, as he says, “is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight.”

I Progress and catastrophe

During the game, you are permitted to observe the secret heliotropism of past events as they turn like flowers toward a sun rising in the sky of history. The almost inconspicuous change in their orientation is brought about by sheer bogan confidence, courage, humour, cunning and fortitude, energies that constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. We can turn the past in our favour, secretly, gently, almost imperceptibly, if we know how to play with the qualities that are the living spoils of the class struggle.

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus

This sunny vision gives way to a more troubling one, however. The sky clouds over and we see an angel “who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.” This is the angel of history. “His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.”

(As Gershom Scholem, a great scholar of Jewish mysticism, and one of Benjamin’s closest friends, puts it, “Jewish Messianism is in its origins and by its nature – this cannot be sufficiently emphasized – a theory of catastrophe.”)

I will leave you to imagine the images of wreckage and of the dead that the angel of history is staring at. Literally, of course, he is looking at us.

II Heroism and Utopia

You may wish to turn away from this vision of catastrophe. Let us leave the storm of progress behind, and focus on the heroic utopian possibilities offered by Now-time (Jetztzeit). 

In this very instant, you are encouraged to attempt a fashionable or even revolutionary tiger’s leap into the past.

(The utopian, redemptive element in the Messianic vision involves the “wild indulgence of fantasy” but also “fascinating vitality to which no historical reality can do justice” – Scholem.)

Robespierre demonstrates this move as he performed it during the French Revolution, “citing Rome exactly the way fashion cites a bygone mode of dress.” Recall that Robespierre was known as “the incorruptible” for his high and inflexible standards of personal morality. He famously defended revolutionary terror, and eventually fell victim to it.

Like all stylish and heroic activities, leaping into the past comes with a standard warning: beware of sirens, in particular a whore called “Once upon a time,” who pedals the eternal image of the past in historicism’s bordello. Here, Benjamin tells us, only the historical materialist remains in control of his powers – “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”

III Contemplation

As tension mounts, the historical materialist (or is it the dwarf of theology who secretly animates him?) performs the astonishing feat of arresting thought, provoking the crystallization of a historical object in the form of a monad. This is a sign, ladies and gentlemen… “the sign of a messianic arrest of happening, or (to put it differently) a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”

What does it mean to seize this chance? Witness the historical materialist blast an era from the homogenous time of history, a life from the era, a work from the lifework! “As a result of this method,” says Benjamin, “the lifework is both preserved and sublated in the work, the era in the lifework, and the entire course of history in the era. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed.”

In Benjamin’s method of immanent critique, the time of the world is finally encapsulated and redeemed in each historical object and the work of critical understanding through which it becomes crystallized.

This completes the show. But to take home with you, the souvenir-pack with everything:

“Now-time, which, as a model of messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in a tremendous abbreviation, coincides exactly with the figure which the history of mankind describes in the universe.”

(Except where otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Walter Benjamin's essay "On the Concept of History," also known as his "Theses on the Philosophy of History.")

Monday, December 5, 2011

We are the 100%

He-man with flying troll
I recently got involved in a discussion on facebook about the percentage of income tax paid in the US by the richest 1%. This was the very first exchange I have participated in on the topic of the American tax system, and I have to admit that my contribution was somewhat childish, not to say troll-like (in my opening parry, I accused one of my friends of “capitalist he-man posturing”). Feeling remorseful about this, I have decided to attempt to redeem myself here, with some musings which may still appear naïve to some, but have at least benefited from a little more time to mature.

Apparently the wealthiest 1% in the US pay about 40% of all annual income tax collected in that country. This figure has increased since tax rates for the richest Americans were reduced under Bush; this means that although very rich Americans now pay a smaller proportion of their income as tax, their share of total income has increased so much that have ended up paying a larger proportion of the national tax bill – the reduction in their tax rates may have helped to achieve this result. So while the figure of 40% might initially seem to suggest that the richest Americans contribute an impressively large share of tax, on reflection, it is a stark indication of how extremely unequal the distribution of wealth in that country has become.

It could be seen as a very short explanation of the situation that has provoked, and sustained, the Occupy movement. But it can also be seen as a succinct summary of a mindset that the Occupy movement has created.

Without the existence and persistence of the Occupy movement figures like this would not currently be circulating on the internet. The rhetoric of Occupy has somewhat arbitrarily divided the US population into two camps: the wealthiest 1% and the other 99%. This is designed to give the movement credibility – it is not speaking on behalf of a small, marginalized group, but is voicing the concerns of an overwhelming majority, the 99%.

An unfortunate side-effect of this strategy is to make those cordoned off as the 1% seem embattled and accused, held exclusively responsible for problems created by the society as a whole. This has motivated some to come up with statistics or slogans to defend this group, aiming to point out that the super rich do contribute to society (in many cases this is precisely how they’ve gotten so rich), and don’t typically spend large swathes of their time sitting around scheming about how to rip its fabric apart.

As the brief discussion of US income tax shows, this tactic backfires when it involves a denial of the problem. The inequalities are extreme. So are some of the rips and tears in American society - and the anger and sense of insecurity they incite.

(A quick digression: last week Tom and I saw the Cohen Bros film, Burn before Reading. It’s a great example of intelligent American humour – humour underpinned and abruptly interrupted by rage. But Americans have no monopoly on inequality, insecurity, or ax-wielding maniacs. Consider what’s happening right now at the University of Sydney.)

OWS Ladies' Choir
But to get back to the main topic: a remarkable thing about the Occupy movement is that although it is a protest movement, it is not dominated by anger. Rather, it can be seen as an antidote to the anger that often seems to be tightly coiled just under the surface of contemporary social life. It is resolutely non-violent, and committed to inclusive, creative, frequently humorous and truly democratic forms of communication. Just one example: a musician friend of mine who lives in NY, Greta Gertler, has contributed by forming a choir that regularly sings four part harmonies in Zuccotti Park in Brooklyn. It's called the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) Ladies’ Choir. In spite of the name, I understand that female gender is not a prerequisite for membership. Protest may have been high-pitched before, but never has it been so mellifluous (here is one of the songs they sing).

So is there a way of challenging the divisive element in the 99% versus 1% slogan that doesn’t deny the problems, or lead to even more divisive discussions? Thanks to Bhante Sujato, I recently came across a counter-slogan, devised by Zen peacemaker Ari Setsudo Pliskin, that fits this bill perfectly. Instead of “We are the 99%” he advocates: “We are the 100%.”

Imagine if the rich and poor in America and elsewhere came together to defend democracy, and let lucid arguments rather than money determine the outcome of political struggles, for the benefit of society (and the planet) as a whole. You may say I'm a dreamer... But the concerns of the Occupy movement affect us all.

A gracious gadfly on the rump of the state