Facebook vs. friends? (2)

More from the same essay:

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience.

So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. But when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one’s emotional generosity, that one’s moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they’ve done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative. In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.

But that is precisely what the Facebook page does not leave room for, or 500 friends, time for. Literally does not leave room for. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette and scrolling format, already trimmed the letter down to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps a thousand words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving perhaps a third of that length as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation. Each evolved as a space for telling stories, an act that cannot usefully be accomplished in much less.

Facebook vs. friends?

Being just about the only person I know who isn’t on Facebook, I was interested in this essay by William Deresiewicz about human connection in the Age of the Twitterati. Some samples:

Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

…Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. “It’s like they’re all having a conversation,” a woman I know once said about her Facebook page… “Except they’re not.”

Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group, later, in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy… Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Of course, there’s no necessary mutual exclusivity here, but I do wonder to what extent the one form of communication is crowding out the other. More later.

Bonobo – Nightlite (featuring Bajka)

Sitting in a cafe where this has come on, reminding me how much I’ve always liked what Bonobo (a guy called Simon Green) does. The strings in this one really make it for me, adding that extra twist of drizzly-late-autumn-afternoon-melancholy to the gentle swing of the tune.


the genius of Andy Partridge

Gold sun rolls around
Chocolate nipple brown
Tumble from your arms
Like the ground your breasts swell
And awake from sleep
Hares will kick and leap
Flowers climb erect
Smiling from the moist kiss of her rainbow mouth

Simply one of the finest songwriters around, and far too unknown in the US. Something amazing started blossoming in this guy’s head in the mid-80s and the albums beginning at around The Big Express and Skylarking and moving on through Oranges and Lemons, Nonsuch, and Apple Venus Volume 1 contain many gorgeously-crafted creations.

This is one of a dozen or so of theirs that gives me chills everytime. Andy himself says in this very entertaining, hour-plus-long interview that it’s maybe one of two favorite songs of his (the other being “Wrapped in Grey”). He’d come up with the chorus many years before but didn’t do anything with it – it just sat there in the recesses of his unconscious waiting for something. Then one day he found himself playing with these “earthen, lumpen” (as he puts it) chords on his guitar (which end up being orchestrated). They kept rising up the strings until there was nowhere left for them to go and then suddenly … that melody from a decade or more earlier leapt out, and “Easter Theatre” was born.

With no false modesty (entirely appropriately) he says in the interview that sometimes you wonder if you might ever reach the heights of the greatest songs you ever heard (he mentions the best of the Beatles at that point), and that when this one was finished he realized he’d got there:

You know you’re doing alright if at some point during recording a demo, your hair stands on end. Which it did when I reached the ‘Easter. . . in her bonnet’ section in the middle. Self fright or self delight is difficult to achieve at the best of times, but here, bang out of nowhere, it arrived in bucket loads. Every pore of my skin was smiling fit to burst. Where does this stuff come from? Surely it’s not me thinking these songs up? I live in Swindon! Maybe my right arm is an aerial picking up the practical jokes of angels or the whisperings of Genii. Surely my washing machine motor of a secondary modern school brain isn’t capable of thinking up songs like this?

(Stage left)
Enter Easter and she’s dressed in yellow yolk
(Stage right)
Now the son has died, the father can be born
(Stand up)
If we’d all breathe in and blow away the smoke
(New life)
We’d applaud her new life

“buddhism” or “dharma”: what to call it?

I’ve never liked the word “buddhism.” “Isms” tend to be belief systems; “buddhism” is not concerned with beliefs, even understands them as, ultimately, obstacles. Worse still, the word tends to perpetuate the false idea that buddhist practice has something to do with the worship of a man, the historical figure of Siddhartha Gautama.

The alternative approach, which many buddhists adopt, is simply to speak of “the dharma,” an inherently non-sectarian word. “Dharma” simply means something like “the way it is” or “the nature of reality.” It is a much bigger and deeper term than “buddhism,” which is historically and culturally bound. Perhaps we could say that buddhist teachings expound upon and embody dharma in an exceptionally comprehensive way, but dharma is everywhere and ultimately quite independent of buddhism as a concept. Within buddhism, one isn’t trying to become a buddhist but rather a buddha, a fully realized, fully awake being, having completely perfected both wisdom and compassionate skillful means.

So the benefit of using the word is that we can speak of dharmic qualities in people, practices, art, understanding, institutions, businesses etc. that have nothing to do with the narrower entity of buddhism.

The downside is that if the person reading that word is not aware of what it means or how it is being used, it may come across in a manner diametrically opposed to what is intended. I occasionally have used it and then immediately realized that the person I was speaking to must’ve understood it in the same kind of sense I hear phrases like “the Gospel” or “the Word of the Lord” or “the Truth.” In another words, as a sectarian word bound to a particular tradition.

So it’s a dilemma I haven’t worked my way through yet. At the moment I suppose I feel that, as a term for general use, “dharma” doesn’t tend to work so well, unfortunately. So I use “buddhism” (faithful to its Sanskrit and Pali origin, languages with no upper-case letters), and hope that its lower-casedness conveys some kind of distinction at least. (“The tao” versus “taoism” involves exactly the same issue.)

treat yourself…

…to a glimpse of some work of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s (who goes by the name Kongtrul Jigme Namgyel when he paints). His day job is a Tibetan lama in the Dzogchen tradition with thousands of students all over the world. And then he just happened to take up painting one day… Here are a few more that he’s done. Also here.

Meeting reality directly requires confidence in the fundamentally positive nature of our being. The more we trust what arises in our mind to come from this creative source, the more we can let the mind be as it is, rather than approach it with judgment, fear or manipulation based on our likes and dislikes. My hope is that my paintings communicate the beauty of this unhindered practice of free expression.

I attended a weekend program with him some time ago in Brighton, England but haven’t connected with him since, although he has a center within the state and usually visits each year. I appreciated his distinctively spacious style of teaching. And his ever-astonishing paintings, I find, one after another, stop the conceptual mind cold, startling it into really seeing. Reminding it of how to see, of the big view beyond any manipulation and rejection.

In each moment of awareness we encounter impressions of the outer world through our sense perceptions as well as our inner world of thoughts, feelings and emotions. When we are able to let this incredible array of experience be, without trying to reject what we fear or pull in what we are attracted to—when we relax into experience without trying to manipulate it in any way—we have a complete experience of mind, naked and unaltered. Painting, when it is free of such notions as beauty and ugliness or should and shouldn’t, can be used to express this complete experience of mind. When art evolves from this understanding it provides the possibility for those who see it to also experience the unfabricated nature of their own mind.

I wish to urge students of the dharma who may have forsaken their creative impulse in favor of practice to realize there is no conflict between creativity and meditation. Creativity can be understood, in essence, to be the practice of our own nature and that nature’s expression. You may find your way in to the nature through creativity; or you may come out from the nature to express creativity. Both have to be appreciated as the best of our mind’s potential.

This reminds me of something I was told Trungpa Rinpoche once said: that his teachings on “dharma art,” properly understood, were the highest teachings he had to offer.

The role of the artist is to stop creating and allow experience to unfold in a natural way – creative energy is innate and spontaneously present.

Žižek 2

More generally, Žižek does seem quite taken with possibilities for a redemptive use of violence (see for example this essay by Adam Kirsch – I’m aware that his supporters find this piece a hatchet job, but haven’t (yet) seen anything that convinces me it is not at least on the right track).

Simon Critchley’s thoughts on the same subject – Žižek and violence – are also worth reading.

The title of Žižek’s talk this time is “Buddhism Naturalized,” which makes me even more hesitant to attend. For some years now he has been attacking buddhism in ways that suggest he has little understanding of it. Many have demonstrated this already. Here’s an example of where he’s coming from, in the same interview just quoted from:

Buddhism is the predominant ideology in the west now. It plays a very conformist function. It makes you feel good in global capitalism. I read an analysis why all the top managers in the US like to practice Zen and all. Because things are so confusing now with one speculation you can lose billions of dollars in a minute. The only thing that can explain this is Buddhism which says that everything is an appearance and be aware of the inner reality and all that. You are dealing with just fake appearance. The tradition[al] European thinking doesn’t help in explaining the world in a flux. This new age Buddhism gives authenticity to global capitalism. That’s why Dalai Lama is popular in Hollywood. I hope he is aware of what kind of game he is playing there, maybe he is not aware. He is providing them a cheap spiritual path so that you can basically go on with your life — seducing, sex orgies, drugs, earn money — but it gives you a feeling that I am aware I am not really that. It helps you to normalize and neutralize the schizophrenia we live in.

There are soooo many things wrong and even bizarre about his understanding here that it would take something probably essay-length to do justice to it. So I have to decide whether or not I want to listen to two hours along those lines, maybe in the end asking a question which … probably wouldn’t be engaged with. Basically – grinding my teeth!

Do I really want to see Žižek (especially on buddhism)?

He’s coming to my university with great fanfare but…

Here’s the thing. Though it gives me philistine, unhip status amongst a lot of people, I have yet to understand what is so special about the guy. Admittedly, I don’t know his work well. Have not read The Parallax View, in fact have read only one book of his (the slim Welcome to the Desert of the Real), which did not impress me. Beyond this I’ve read a number of shorter pieces of his and interviews with him, watched a bunch of videos, and eventually … gave up. Not permanently, but I don’t leap to read anything from him at this point.

What I find is that his style tires me, especially the obvious glee he takes in inverting language to create provocation and shock. (And I’m guessing he also relishes the moniker that now follows him wherever he goes: “the most dangerous philosopher in the West.”) Here is a now-well-known example from an India Times interview with Shobhan Saxena (but he does this kind of thing constantly):

Žižek: …what people perceive as violence is the direct subjective violence. It’s crucial to see violence which has to be done repeatedly to keep the things the way they are. I am not just talking about structural violence, symbolic violence, violence in language, etc. In that sense Gandhi was more violent than Hitler. Hitler killed millions of people. It was more reactive killing. Hitler was active all the time not to change things but to prevent change.

Saxena: A lot of people will find it ridiculous to even imagine that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler? Are you serious when you say that…

Žižek: Yes he was, although Gandhi didn’t support killing. With his actions — boycott and all that — he helped the British imperialists to stay in India longer. This is something Hitler never wanted. Gandhi didn’t do anything to stop the functioning of the British empire or the way it functioned here. You have to think why was India called the jewel of the empire? That for me is a problem. Let us locate violence properly.

I hardly know where to begin to respond to something like this. And the trouble is that he engages in this tactic all the time. Here’s another example, from the film Zizek!. The first minute or so of this clip I follow what he is saying but then here is how he ends:

I was always disgusted with this notion of “I love the world,” “universal love.” I don’t like the world. I don’t know how I — basically I’m somewhere in-between “I hate the world” or “I’m indifferent towards it.” But the whole of reality: it’s just it, it’s stupid. It’s out there, I don’t care about it. Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love is not “I love you all.” Love means: I pick out something and I, and it’s, you know it’s again this structure of imbalance. Even if this something is just a small detail, a fragile individual person, I say “I love you more than anything else.” In this quite formal sense, love is evil.

So, I look at this and begin to respond but end up just kind of internally spluttering… I’m not even sure it’s worth it. What I sense in him, perhaps unfairly (and I remain open to seeing it in a different way), is someone really in love with the play of conceptualization for its own sake, so in love that I’m not sure he knows when to stop. And doesn’t seem to understand that now more than ever, when the entire world can read your thoughts via a mere tap on a screen, the philosopher bears even greater responsibility for how they express things, in addition to what is being expressed.

More later.

Bai Hao and Prokofiev

Taking a break from piano practice to drink some always delicious Bai Hao tea from Stone Leaf in Middlebury. With the change in season I find myself drinking less green tea (Bi Luo Chun being a great discovery this past year) and old standby Bao Chung (a green-tea-like oolong), and moving to darker oolongs and black teas like the Yunnan Golden Strand. John’s Bai Hao comes from near the northern tip of Taiwan and is a tea famous for its intriguing honey tones. It hits the spot on this early autumn day. (However, I have just run out and must replenish…)

Have been learning the Prokofiev 9th Sonata, his last. Often overlooked in favor of the previous group of “War Sonatas,” it lacks their density and firepower. The 1st movement, which is the one I’m currently working on, is mostly quite serene, with airy textures and a child-like simplicity in places. The sweet opening theme even makes me think of a music box tune (but not in a bad sense at all).

When I first started playing it I couldn’t quite see it as a whole. It’s unhurried and a little rhapsodic (also oddly spare in dynamic markings). Takes a bit of digging beneath the surface to discover some of the more interesting features. For example, the phrasing is worth a closer look: as my teacher pointed out, it’s quite delicate and precise and a clue to making larger decisions about the piece. And then the other day I noticed just how extended the left-hand chromatic counterpoint in the opening theme is. He really stretches that phrase as far as it will go, and it contrasts nicely with the pure diatonicism of the melody above.


So I just received back some comments on a project proposal that contained this word “operationalization.” And it occurred to me that I actually have no idea what this means!

Breaking it apart, 1) we have a root, “opus/opera,” meaning “work” (same as in the musical terms).

And now a whole string of derivational suffixes:

2) the noun “opus/opera” becomes the verb “operate”;

3) which becomes another noun, “operation”;

4) which gets turned into an adjectival form, “operational”;

5) from which we get another verb, “operationalize”;

6) which finally gives us … yet another nominal form, “operationalization.”

That’s 3 nouns, 2 verbs, and an adjective, if anyone is keeping count.

So the question is: how do we simplify this thing? “The procedure whereby something is made operational/workable/usable?” I guess that’s what it’s trying to convey.

But even more fully parsed: “The procedure whereby something is put into a form which can serve as an entity upon which one can do some kind of work.”

Ugh. That’s just one ugly word, isn’t it?

The contextual phrase was “operationalization of theories,” so why not just something like: applying the theories? That’s about half the number of syllables plus pretty much anyone can understand it.

But … that seems to be the point. Non-academic folk aren’t supposed to understand academic-speak anymore. Not just when specialized terms do need to be used, but, like, ever, it seems…

more on this – an extraordinary documentary

Many people can connect with a restorative approach when the hurt or harm involved is quite minor. In the context of really horrific events, most of us will shut down instantly to even the possibility of this. That’s why the documentary mentioned in the previous post is so powerful. Who could even imagine the scene near the end of the film, in which the mother and daughter of a woman raped and murdered at the age of 26 hug Gary Brown, one of the two men responsible? Who could believe the picture below even possible?

It sounds simply crazy, doesn’t it? Why would Ami White, who was five years old when she lost her mother, Cathy, want to ever lay eyes on either of the men responsible for her death? Why would Linda White, Cathy’s mother? The story is told here, and some testimony Linda gave to the House Judiciary Committee in 2009 is here [currently unavailable, it seems]. The documentary, again, is here, in four parts (about 45 minutes).

For many in a similar position, of course, there is no desire to have any connection at all. But for some there are lingering questions, and for some a connection to the perpetrators of the violence is felt to be a necessary part of healing. They feel a need to communicate to the other person something of the quality and depth of their grief, and to feel that they have truly been heard. They may also have a curiosity about the perpetrator: What drove them to do what they did? Where did it come from? They hope that some kind of more human understanding may help the process of living with almost unbearable loss.

The preparation for this kind of meeting takes a long time, needless to say. This particular meeting took place 15 years after the murder and involved over a year of work I think to bring about – many meetings on each side with the really wonderful facilitator, Ellen Halbert, who is the one in the picture below. The first stage of contact was an exchange of letters, and only some time after this was an actual meeting arranged. The courage of Ami and Linda White that comes out of this film, and also the compassion, is just extraordinary. (Interestingly, Ellen Halbert also came to this kind of work in part out of a violent experience in her own life: she had been raped, stabbed four times, and left for dead in her own home by an intruder.)

Another day later and I’m still demolished by this film, finding it hard to focus on much else. One of the things the Whites discovered when they began to participate in the program was the nature of Gary Brown’s life. His childhood was extremely abusive and he was taking all kinds of substances, including heroin and cocaine, by the age of eight, the year, also, of his first (of ten) suicide attempts… As the prison warden says at one point in the film, looking through Gary’s records: this kid never had a chance. And one of the most beautiful moments in the documentary is hearing Ami in voiceover sympathize with his life over the past 15 years, in prison, as we watch scenes of that life.

Obviously this kind of process is not going to work all the time. But if this could be achieved even in such a horrific set of circumstances, imagine how much more we could do across the board if we wanted to.

empathy is not a zero-sum game

I think part of the difficulty people have in letting go of the urge to punish is the notion that somehow any amount of genuine empathy we extend towards someone who has brought about harm is given at the expense of a recipient of that harm.

And going further: that the more unleashed our hatred of the perpetrator, the greater the love we must really have for the victim. You can see this clearly in the phenomenon of people who cheer at public executions.

I honestly feel the reverse of this to be the case. It seems unarguable to me that the deeper and more fearlessly we can go in trying to understand how terrible actions come to be committed, the deeper our empathy for the direct recipients of those actions too.

A documentary I saw yesterday (in gratitude to Newcomb for introducing me to it) highlights this idea in an almost unbearably moving way. It’s close to unwatchable in the horror and pain that is its subject, but for any who can I highly recommend it. (Just don’t plan on being able to focus on anything else for the remainder of the day…) It’s in several parts, the whole thing being about 45 minutes.)

More in other posts.

restorative practices and compassion

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the restorative practices movement (sometimes called restorative justice, though I think the former has become a more inclusive term) is one of the most progressive and amazing things going on out there. Those who work in the field rightly point to all sorts of problematic aspects with the retributive system we have and more generally the impulse to punish. And they demonstrate all kinds of real benefits to the restorative approach.

There’s a lot to say about this. For now I only want to mention one connection that doesn’t seem to get talked about enough. And this is that from the standpoint of radical interdependence, the understanding that every thought, word, deed, phenomenon comes out of an ultimately illimitable mesh of “causes and conditions,” ie that such a mesh is inescapably coextensive with the mesh that is the universe itself, no other basic approach to reparation or justice can be considered truly compassionate.

When we stop condemning/scapegoating some people as simply “Bad”/”Evil” because simply too much of what they have experienced in their life has led them in certain harmful directions, we are left with the far more difficult task of trying to see those paths more clearly. And that, surely, is the beginning of compassion itself: stepping into the other person’s shoes.

Which, of course, can be extremely hard to do because it dissolves the barriers between “good me” and “bad them.” It forces us to see that, if we were that other person … we would be that other person. That’s a tautology only on the surface. Our “goodness” really does depend on someone else’s “badness.” Both are products of far too many conditions to even begin to hold in our heads at once. A retributive attitude, however understandable in certain circumstances, ultimately doesn’t make sense. I don’t think that in the end we have much of a choice but to keep moving, inch by step by leap, in the direction of love. Into an ever more expansive empathy.

for what it’s worth…

Somehow or other I came across this survey, a series of questions designed to place you with regard to current political party platforms and presidential candidates. I almost never take things like this since I always find many of the questions unanswerable as stated. And in general don’t feel they accomplish much.

But I took this one, sitting around one day. There were 40 questions in 8 categories. A number of these I had to leave blank – most of those in the economic section as I simply don’t know enough to have a view, and a few in the foreign policy section (ditto, or because possible answers were too conditional).

This one seemed slightly different in one respect in that it had an answer for each question called “choose another stance,” which when clicked brought up several other possible responses. Also, part of the question involved ranking your sense of its significance (how the algorithm works for all this is of course always one of the crucial aspects).

I took it twice in fact, the second time trying to answer a few more questions. The first time, my results were as follows. They are listed as a percentage of how much I apparently agree with the views, those asked about anyway (more on this later) of the respective candidates.

Stein (Green Party): 98%
Anderson (Justice): 87% [never even heard of this party…]
Johnson (Libertarian): 62%
Obama (Democrat): 57%
Romney (Republican): 0% [hmm]

The second time I took it, with no more than a few added responses, the results were:

Stein: 94%
Johnson: 75%
Anderson: 73%
Obama: 68%
Romney: 1%

Also, apparently I agree with Vermont voters 51% of the time on these questions and American voters 50% of the time.

Lessons to be learned in a subsequent post. But for now, it’s worth pointing out that, in fact, there are definitely “conservative” (in the deeper, older sense of the word) aspects to my political profile. A preference for slower, organic change, whenever remotely possible. A cherishing of the Constitution. A lack of enthusiasm for identity politics. And plenty of others, none of which, it seems ever get measured by these sorts of surveys.