Let's try something different (The Cracked Vessel: April 16th, 2018)

Hello friends,

As some of you may already know, I no longer have a Facebook account.

Why, you may ask, would I leave? I’m sure that at this point, with Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Congress or the myriad privacy scandals that have emerged over the past several years, that you know a few reasons why you would leave yourself.

Even if Facebook hasn’t threatened your privacy itself, a globally conscious, civically minded person may also be incensed by Facebook’s manipulation of people’s emotions for clicks, its deliberate interference with entire country’s politics, such as in Myanmar and Cambodia, its willful decimation of the digital publishing industry in its cutthroat pursuit of lock-in, and, of course, its enormous knowing role in the dissemination of extremist views and false information in the US and the UK during our election seasons.

Unfortunately, these reasons alone weren’t enough to compel me to leave. Like many of us, the spectacle of overwhelming technological progress and its absorption of every aspect of my life had left me with a cold, submissive resignation in my heart. Years of inculcation into the cult of technological progress had convinced me, rather ironically, that nothing will ever change.

As the years have gone by, I became aware that something had gone terribly wrong. I’ve gotten into trouble in the past, whether it was resisting to do work that I didn’t believe in at the school or office, or just plain refusing to be told to sit down and stay quiet. Yet, the more I used Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the more I felt this rebellious spirit dim. I realized that my own courage to confront the world became dissipated, while these technologies and platforms frictionlessly transformed my cowardice into a thin waxy skin over my life.

I have also seen public life change drastically. Train cars have gone quiet, everyone tilting their head downwards into their phone, unaware of the bodies around them (as a small person, it has been really annoying navigating myself through fleshy pillars of stupor to find a hanger strap on a crowded commute). Restaurant patrons place their phones in front of them and mediate their social interactions, even with the people they are on a date with, through social platforms. Coworkers endlessly scroll through Facebook during meetings and between frenzied, anxious bouts of “Oh shit, we have to get this done now!” (in their defense, most jobs in the “knowledge economy” are bullshit). I have even seen my own friends and relations drown. But how could I tell how much we’ve submerged together if I’m drowning too?

I have found that social media, smartphones, and other daily technological agents of distraction were small ways  by which the great vitality of our lives could be chopped into chunks that could be bought and sold. As a generation of renters we’ve given up the right to own our homes and neighborhoods. As contract workers we’ve given up our say in what we do. And as media addicts, we’ve given up our time. Now it has become clear that we’ve been giving up our relationships, our voice, and even, as Audre Lorde would put it, our uses of the erotic.

Most importantly though, I found that the addictive qualities of modern life, its consumptions, its distractions, and its anxieties, made me depressed. It;s been making others depressed too. And its effects rend relationships and understandings like a river of daggers coursing through our body politics and our personal communities. I found that the longer I was in the hamster wheel of Facebook and its like, the more I became de-socialized. I have been losing my ability to be graceful and well-tempered because I had fallen out of the practice of being socially present.

We are all addicted to it. It may not be Facebook, but it may be Instagram. It may be buying things on Amazon. It may be all sorts of digital and non-digital distractions that refract us away from just sitting with our own lives in all their terrifying beauty and pain and saying these lives are ours, this life is mine. Thus addicted, we feel like we have no control except over these little tchotchkes that form our identity and appearance, and the poverty of our collective imagination leaves us unable to imagine how things could be otherwise.

If we continue to live this way, this Age of Anxiety we live in will surely culminate in an Age of Despair.

We don’t have to live this way. Every path to salvation emerges from the gaps of what cannot be controlled. In every interaction between us and the world, and between ourselves, exists an electric frisson of possibilities yet to be seen and understood.

This ether is the unknown, and unknowing is how it can be seen. In a world where everything is proscribed by rational, scientific progress, and thus the world fully known and persistently able to be known, unknowing seeks to reveal what has been hidden away and unseen.

Unknowing is the practice of living in truth by seeing.

I've decided to start a project called The School of Unknowing (SOU). This performance of law, art, science, and politics is my attempt to break out of the addictive cycles of the world we live in through the practice of unknowing. It's the next stage in a project I started years ago under the mentorship of the late Dr. David Finkelstein to develop a poetic action-based language for describing a "praxiological" world.

So, how does unknowing differ from other practices of seeing and being present? Many of these practices focus intensely on the individual and that individual’s struggle to cope with the world, whereas unknowing seeks to be more generative and willing to foster something new. As a school, unknowing places a strong emphasis on teaching to learn. As a canon of knowledge, it seeks to bring to light and draw connections from around the world and throughout history between criticisms of our modern order, much as the philosopher Isaiah Berlin struggled to do through his essays. As a community, the school of unknowing seeks to build a revised moral order and to create or nourish institutions that encourage this order in all sectors of society.

By unknowing what we’ve been taught about the markets, progress, human nature, the “correct” order of things, relationships, science, religion, and even our own mortality, we may gradually accumulate the symbols, myths, and rituals to emerge from this vicious cycle of addiction in which we’re trapped.

Furthermore, unknowing allows us to live in our own lives and not the projected lives of others. It gives us a chance to exercise control over our own sense of truth. There are no arbiters of what is true, no ontological overlords, no professional, specialized authorities to appeal to for truth. What is seen and felt sincerely is true.

Unknowing is the cultivation of taste. It acknowledges beauty and the sublime, rejects the tyranny of choice, and by cultivating ethical tastes, seeks moral conviction. As we say at Distilled, it encourages people to stand their ground and defend it, wisely.

Finally, unknowing is engaging with the world. Only by acting in the world can one learn wisdom and cultivate one’s knowledge and experience. Unknowing stagnates when it is never acted upon because it merely generates the same questions over and over again. If power is the ability to act and produce an effect, then to unknow is to seek power, exercise it with wisdom, and observe carefully the consequences. By unknowing something and acting on it, you change what is being unknown and allowing oneself to be changed. Unknowing seeks to adapt the artists, writers, and actors’ craft into the realm of politics and social relations.

The School of Unknowing project is a performance dedicated to teaching unknowing to others so they may practice and teach it themselves. By this process, these students of unknowing may seek to cultivate their own gardens wherever they are, whether that’s in their home, their workplace, their church or temple, or their public square.

The SOU will be a series of lectures, performances, meetups, and publications, starting with this newsletter. The intent is to grow the SOU into an organization that is harmonizing, humanizing, and civilizing of our human desires and needs. It seeks to channel the essential, undeniable dignity accorded to each person into a powerful force for inner freedom.

There’s a lot more to write and do. Thankfully, without Facebook and other distractions, I’ll have a lot more time on my hands. I’d like to delve into what the practice of unknowing looks like, apart from shunning soul-sapping distractions. I’d like to explore the shifting canon of work that has informed this project for me, and to borrow from the personal canons of others. And I’d like to greatly expand the performative aspect of this project in the short-term with lectures and plays. I suspect that it will take a very long time before the School of Unknowing project comes to a graceful end.

But for now, this feels like a sufficient beginning. Every one of us has to take a first step towards expressing that great web of meaning that lies at the core of our being. I hope that I have just taken mine.

Announcements

I am going to Berkeley Law School this fall.
I'd love to receive any advice or thoughts on law school and pursuing a legal career.


As for this newsletter, I'll be publishing weekly on Monday mornings (with future e-mails likely being shorter than today's introductory edition). I'll also see if I can insert a table of contents into these things at the top of the e-mail.

Events

Fragments (Shored)

T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding    

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing    

Memory and desire, stirring    

Dull roots with spring rain.    

Winter kept us warm, covering             

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding    

A little life with dried tubers.    

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee    

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,    

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,      

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

 

On Philip Roth in the NY Review of Books:

On a morning walk in Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution, with a crowd of people laughing at giant television screens showing footage of a Communist Party meeting held several months earlier. “I thought that this must be the highest purpose of laughter, to bury wickedness in ridicule”

 

John Ruskin in Modern Painters:

“The power which causes the several portions of a plant to help each other we call life. Intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption.”

 

From Vaclav Havel’s Politics and Conscience

Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power the phenomenon of human conscience?

 

Will Davies on the "data sublime" in The New Inquiry:

This is the possibility that lurks within the Data Sublime. Sheer quantitative magnitude is as disturbing as exciting, no matter from which angle one perceives it. The engineers of the smart city or the sharing economy undoubtedly want to be rich. But the capacity for social control has now outgrown any currently available political project. Its sole purpose is to sate the more dispersed desire to be controlled.

 

Barbara Ehrenreich on dying (as told to The Guardian):

“When you think about some of these issues, like how a cell can make decisions, and a lot of other things I talk about in the book, like an electron deciding whether to go through this place in a grid or that place. When you see there’s agency even in the natural world. When you think about it all being sort of alive like that, it’s very different from dying if you think there’s nothing but your mind in the universe, or your mind and God’s mind.”
 

Death becomes less a terrifying leap into the abyss and more like an embrace of ongoing life, she believes.

“If you think of the whole thing as potentially thriving and jumping around and having agency at some level, it’s fine to die,” she adds reassuringly.

 

Italo Calvino in "Six Memos for the Next Millenium"

“The mind of the poet and in certain key moments the mind of the scientist both function according to a process of image association, which is the quickest way to link and choose among the infinite forms of the possible and the impossible.”

 

Restaurants are doing it for the gram

“They saw the photos and they say, ‘I want that for my Instagram,’” she says. The average guest takes pictures for 10 minutes before ordering anything, Markoe says. Many bring tripods to better frame their shots. “It’s just really insane,” she says.


Saul Bellow: “The noise of life is the great threat, the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.”


Tom Scocca's classic treatise On Smarm

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
...
Where does the grease go? Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.
...

Anger is upsetting to smarm. But so is humor and confidence.
...

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.

Output

Lord Acton on freedom: “Not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

Onwards,

Sarang