Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Feelings

There are so many ways to feel. And yet, we humans have the tendency to:

a) mistake the feelings that we have about a certain person, situation or object as the only proper feeling suited to said person, situation or object; and

b) assume that the way we feel at a particular moment—especially when we’re feeling “bad”—is the way that we are going to feel into the foreseeable future, possibly forever.

The fear or anxiety associated with this last assumption is, I believe, really the fear or anxiety that our present feeling is the last thing we will ever feel—as if, at the moment of death, whatever we were feeling would be both the single feeling that defined our lives as well as the sole feeling to accompany us throughout eternity.

Chogyam Trungpa said that feelings are just “heavy-handed thoughts.” I’ve often used these words to calm myself in moments of panic or dread (or, frankly, remorse). I also use them to understand this (irrational) insistence that any feeling is the only feeling.

When the horizon looms up, and we’re swallowed up by its shadow, recall that the lip of the Earth has not obliterated the sun, merely obscured it.

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Sean Parker, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Size of Numbers

Mark Zuckerberg by Mathieu ThouveninIn a recent interview with the Googliest leather-clad author around, Paul Coelho, Napster founder Sean Parker called The Social Network “a complete work of fiction.”

While I could write a book about that last statement, the thing that jumped out at me in the Mashable write-up just referenced was a quote attributed to Mark Zuckerberg.

Apparently, when asked if he liked The Social Network, Zuckerberg responded by focusing not on its fictionalization of a reality that he has supposedly lived but rather on the size of its audience saying, “We build products that 500 million people see… If 5 million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter that much.”

Let me just repeat that last line: “If 5 million people see a movie, it doesn’t really matter much.”

Is that true? Can it really “not matter much” if 5 million people all engage in the same activity? Of course it could be true given that 7 billion humans live on this planet. I mean, how much can the isolated actions of .07% truly matter?

If human beings are merely ciphers—numbers, eyeballs, data points—then I guess we can play a purely quantitative game and determine what really matters by simply doing the math. Billions of people have looked at McDonald’s hamburgers (most following this period of observation with the act of consumption), so they must matter more than the hundreds of millions who have looked at Facebook, right? In fact, the Facebook-seers are basically a subset of the hamburger-seers, so, if we want to understand the world and how it works, we ought to by rights spend more time focusing on the latter instead of the former.

Of course, numbers are themselves merely ciphers. They don’t have a meaning in and of themselves nor does the comparison of any two numbers have any particular meaning in itself. What meaning might be had from such comparisons depends less on the counting than on what got counted.

As far as the what behind the numbers goes, how much sense does it make to compare the number of people who have “looked at” Facebook to the number of people who have looked at a particular movie? Wouldn’t it make more sense to compare it to the number of people who have looked at movies in general? I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I would wager that many more people have seen movies than have looked at Facebook (and that all people who have seen Facebook have seen movies, while the opposite certainly does not hold). Does that mean that Facebook “doesn’t really matter that much”?

The answer to that question has to be, “No.” Facebook is more important and will have a more lasting impact on our culture than the relatively well-made feature film on its origins (which is not to say that Facebook will have a more lasting impact than movies, generally speaking). Why? Because Facebook is a medium, like film, and not a mediated object, like a movie (though, to stick with a strictly McLuhanesque taxonomy, we’d have to acknowledge that Facebook too is a mediated object insofar as it is accessed via a meta-medium like the Web).

For the same reason, I believe that the printing press has had a more lasting impact on human culture than any book printed on it, even though many more people have seen said books than have ever actually seen a printing press.

Image Source: Mathieu Thouvenin.

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Lord, Give Us the Strength to Understand Ourselves

I set up a blog on Blogspot (now Blogger) back in 2000. I haven’t posted anything there since 2009 and, frankly, my activity on said blog—universal destroyer, inc.—was pretty spotty. For example, I posted nothing at all in 2004 or 2005, bracketing this lack with six posts in ’03 and four in ’06.

I was re-reading my posts last night and was struck by several things, chief among them that I used to indulge in a highly poetical style of writing. For example:

formidable jaws gaping wide – who will clean these teeth? lambswool clotted with blood, crown and throne up-ended and shattered. a blizzard of flaming stones, a sea of ground glass. take a step. take a breath. the eyes are open. the ears are listening. what subtle words of destruction and awesome commandments of revelation await? turn away the curve of the earth. peel away the sun. behind the underneath of everything it is slumbering now. it is dreaming then. now: AWAKEN

Similarly:

plastered to the thick of it. daring to blush in anguish. several more instances of that and we will have an entire catalog. just think, us, we, the morning after the apocalypse, which everyone thinks means death and dying destruction, but, of course, the word simply means “revelation.” what do we fear to confront revealed before us? the veil rent, the bandaid removed with a quick, skin-shredding yank? as if this situation were not “real” and, when facing the brunt of the real real, we will evaporate, obliterated by this uncompromising, uncompromised force. who told us the world is not real and we have to wait and see the real thing later, after death, when the universal death leaps up onto the stage and everything be laid terrible waste? who makes brains think this way?

I was also very partial to cryptic philosophizing:

The “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” however, may be the last refuge of the slacker – or merely the dream of the quiet suburban home where anything goes as long as the doors are closed and the shades drawn (and volume is kept to reasonable levels). As the structures solidify, the gaps too become institutionalized, disciplined. Anything completely outside the system, is irrelevant to it. Think different.

Along the same lines:

The forces of chaos can only be circumscribed – no thing or agent penetrates to the heart, because, unlike order, chaos is primal, the fundamental state – order is an afterthought, epiphenomenal, and the evolving persistence of chaos demands ever increasing energy expenditure on the part of the order-worshippers. Their scheme is a house of cards. The meanings they erect are fetishes to the ego and vain ambitions. There are local victories, of course, subjugated zones, degrees of tolerance. And, naturally, what has been done, will always have been done – this is the nature of occurence. But the goal to which they aspire – permanent, unassailable control – is an illusion, though it can be real enough in specific, timebound circumstances.

Indeed, I frequently wrote about chaos, ethics, and nihilism back then, as well as the war on terror (particularly in 2002 when I was blogging most actively and the war was new, not something that had been grinding on for a decade). I also wrote about music, sometimes like this (written, if I’m not mistaken, about Meshell Ndegeocello):

and reminded yesterday in the presence of an androgynous funk sorceress of the power of music. this is materialist mysticism. no gods. no beyond. no elsewhere. music, generated and evaporated in the flux of time. that we can spend our time this way, dancing, playing. and every religion on earth a construct, a convention. “would you walk the path of righteousness if you knew that there was no heaven, no god, no eternal reward?” many would hesitate; many more would simply walk the path, realizing that that too is one way to live here on earth, to reenact the dramas of faith, the carnival of belief. not believing is possible as well. knowing is possible. not knowing, also. but a bunch of humans together under the spell of music, the energy focused and broadcast through one particularly active node, nodding, funking, precipitating the flow. we’re in it too.

And once like this:

“war is their reality; music is their escape.” saw this on the side of a train this morning advertising some show about people in the military (the “service,” as it is called – they always say that soldiers “serve,” rather than “obey”). picture of a soldier with headphones pressed to his helmet. many consider music an escape, though, more accurately I suppose, you’d have to say that music is an “avenue of escape” or a “line of flight” [deleuze/guattari]. we escape through music to somewhere else. where is that place? different musics describe/conjure up different places/spaces. trungpa rinpoche wrote, “true escape is impossible.” that is, the escape afforded by music is a false escape. why? because it is stationary, insular, solipsistic. “in my head” [black flag] the statement should be reversed: “music is their reality. war is their escape.” music takes place in our heads, a construct of our minds. it is an escape only in the sense that sleep or dreaming is an escape. war, on the other hand, takes place “out there” in the world. in fact, it consists primarily of conquering and occupying territory, contesting or maintaining geographical boundaries, enforcing or preventing specific physical movements by actual human bodies. war takes us outside of our heads; it explodes heads (the true seat of music). war also sets aside every convention and expectation of civil society (the real reality for many). war frees the warrior, the soldier, from the inhibitions and codes of this society, in fact, often demands that he leave them behind in order to triumph in victory. in this sense, it is an escape, and its idolators have often celebrated it as a return to the origin, the essence, to reality in its realest sense, a liberation from the false fetters of civilian life. of course, there has always been a specific music of war and, in fact, the regimented beats of popular music are derived from the martial beats of war. so, in this sense, the reality of music is war and, again, it provides no real escape from it (since, at its core, it is an expression/extension of it). etc….

And where did this walk down memory lane lead me? First to the insight that some things haven’t changed much. I am still obsessed with music, metaphysics (“Why is there anything at all instead of just nothing?”), and ethics in a world without God. On the other hand, my thoughts dwell less and less on chaos, war (for the time being), and political paranoia.

Secondly, and this is sort of what this post is about, it pointed out to me how much I can forget about myself, about both what I have written over time (and I’ve been writing regularly and obsessively for more than 25 years) and how I have written. My style is tighter now, more focused (at times), and far less likely to veer off into the oracular. Remembering this latter tendency, however, I can’t help but feel its absence as a kind of loss.

The web is a memory bank. It remembers what we have forgotten, regardless of whether that forgetting was intentional or just the way things go. For this reason it can serve as a powerful tool for self-reflection and, when we’re lucky, illumination.

Of course, it also means that the web may be the only thing that remembers us after we’re gone. Indeed, to the extent that our web-published musings go unread and unnoticed, it may be the only thing that remembers us now.

PS. For the curious, the title of my post comes from the amazing Funkadelic piece, “March to the Witch’s Castle.” That song is about soldiers returning from Vietnam but also addresses the broader human problem of self-awareness in the face of trauma and time’s passing.

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The Apolitical Blues

Shephard Fairey's Angela Davis (Boston, MA) by takomabibelot“The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” – W.B. Yeats

I didn’t watch the State of the Union address last night; I was playing jazz with my friends.

When I was younger, I might have gotten into an argument about which was the more political act, championing the latter over the former. The presidential address to the legislature, I would have insisted, was little more than spectacle, a distraction. Believing that our leader’s words would in some fundamental way solve our problems or address the unease (Freud called it “discontent“) that haunts the citizenry of the most advanced and powerful nation on Earth was, I might have added, passive and infantile.

Moreover, the real machinations of government, I’d have pointed out, have little to do with speeches and posturing, driven as these machinations are by a complex competition for wealth and prestige between personal empires, well-funded interests and entrenched, institutional agendas. The words spoken for the assembled politicians and the atomized television viewers provide a surface reflecting both our insecurity and the hope we all harbor that someone (not us, for God’s sake!) is doing something to grapple with the myriad problems facing the massively intricate and over-developed system we inhabit, problems that beggar our comprehension.

Shunning the superficial solace of such civic theatricality, I would point out, I chose to lose myself in the the act of improvised creation and communal music-making. Rather than wrangling about how to protect freedom—which is only real and manifest in the free act itself—or provide for future generations—which, much like the future itself, do not exist—we were celebrating our freedom in the pursuit of the beautiful or the cool or the outrageous. And not for money or because we had to or to build our egos and dominate others, but because we sought that evanescent abandon where the aesthetic and the ecstatic converge—a realm beyond limit or contingency where true freedom, however fleetingly, dwells.

Of course, I’m older now and wouldn’t be so pretentious as to make such ludicrous claims. I was playing an instrument worth several thousand dollars through an amplifier that cost the same in a private studio built next to a million dollar home. The immediate neighbors had hosted a fund-raiser for the Republican Senator Scott Brown not seven months before. The freedom that we were celebrating was not hard-won, but bought and paid for. If we weren’t watching Obama, it was because whatever he was saying really didn’t matter to us. The class structure that supported our liberty provided us a comforting cocoon from within which we could indulge our be-bop whimsy, calmly assured that nothing this supposed socialist (now seeming ever more “business friendly”) was going to do or say would upset the apple-cart enough for us to be in the least concerned.

And if this situation gives me the blues, it’s because I believe, at a very basic level, that something about this set-up just isn’t right.

Image Source: takomabibelot.

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The Myth of Freedom

The New York Times ran a story on Friday about the spotlight Glenn Beck had cast on an “obscure CUNY professor,” Frances Fox Piven, and how this had attracted some very hostile attention from Beck’s followers. One fine fellow had left this comment on Beck’s site, The Blaze, “Somebody tell Frances I have 5000 roundas ready and I’ll give My life to take Our freedom back.”

The thing that struck me about this quote wasn’t the threat of gun-related violence but the idea that we need to take our freedom back. As I told a friend the other night, I can’t relate to this sentiment at all. Specifically, I don’t feel any less “free” today than I did before Barack Obama became president. Indeed, my friend responded that he felt more free since Obama was elected.

I’m not sure if my perception of the Tea Party (or Tea Party-ish Republicans) is simply a caricature invented by the liberal media, but it seems like this notion of freedom is near and dear to them and that they see the Obama presidency as an assault thereupon. However, I’m hard-pressed to name a freedom that has been lost during the last two years (and the “individual mandate” in the healthcare bill doesn’t count since it hasn’t gone into effect yet – though, even then, it’s really just a tax issue for those who don’t have insurance. Of course, freedom from taxation is a freedom we have never truly enjoyed).

Now, I love freedom just as much, if not more, than the next guy, but I also believe that freedom is relative and that actual freedom is different from formal freedom. We are all formally free, for example, to own property here in the United States, but one’s ability to actually exercise that freedom is constrained by one’s available resources. Similarly, we are formally free to pursue whatever career we wish, but our ability to do so depends on education, physical or intellectual abilities, available resources (again), and so on.

In other words, while we have not lost any fundamental formal freedoms over the last two (or more) years, the economic downturn has definitely impinged on the ability of millions to actually exercise said freedoms. Having lost my own job two years ago, I can relate to that feeling. However, I don’t understand how assaulting an economics professor, let alone trying her for treason, would restore that dimension of freedom.

Having said that, I do think that lashing out would at least give someone the sense that they were reclaiming the most fundamental freedom that humans enjoy: the freedom to act. Nevertheless, this raises another question about freedom and one that few have the existential wherewithal to adequately face let alone answer: If we are parts of the physical universe, and every thought or action cannot be separated from its physical underpinnings (think: neurochemistry), isn’t possible that our sense of freedom is itself an illusion imposed by the physical system that enables us to sense anything at all? What if, for instance, the evolutionary advantage that has made human beings the dominant species (at least among vertebrates) is not that we can act freely, but that we can believe we act freely?

In other words, the freedom to act that the lone gunman seizes could be, and in most cases probably is, just the symptom of an underlying neuro-chemical or otherwise conditioned physical state and thus not free in any sense of the word other than when physicists speak of an object, subject to the gravitational pull of another object, being in “free fall.”

And that’s a freedom that, frankly, no one can take from you.

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Playing It Safe

An old friend accused me of “playing it safe” on my blog. Apparently, writing about death metal, however aesthetically outlandish the music or my love of it may be, is of little consequence, big picture-wise.

Of course, I thought that my post on communism and change was kind of edgy—not to mention my frequent advocacy of atheism and/or nihilism—but apparently such musings neither touch nerves, shatter preconceived notions, nor speak truth to power.

Can it be true that there is nothing dangerous about this blog? Have I remained too scrupulously within the lines of accepted opinion, too conscientiously observed protocols of civility, too gently treated the thoughts and feelings of my contemporaries, even when I found them preposterous, stupid, or atrocious?

I suppose this is possible.

Will I henceforth change my approach?

This, too, is possible.

Am I playing it safe with this post?

Undoubtedly.

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