Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On the nightstand

Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" - after it took me 2-1/2 days to decipher each word with Webster's dictionary & the Greek alphabet, an online Latin & Greek dictionary, and the OED; Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism" (to which Heidegger is presumably responding); the Tao Te Ching (two different translations); the Bible (NIV) - especially I Thessalonians; an introduction to Heidegger's "Letter" from another anthology; mechanical pencil with which to fill the margins with my emendations; a cup of coffee; Griga - not on the table but who always needs to be pressed against me, asleep, while he throws off heat like a little furnace must be mentioned as part of the scene; Inalcik's The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600; remote control for when the headiness gets too much; dirty mouth guard I wear in order to breathe at night; a box of TLC crackers; a used yoghurt container - licked clean; dirty spoon; cell phone that never rings (or is never answered when it does); old comic sections from last week's newspaper; a wooden bowl; various articles about translation theory & practice; my feet

Monday, August 28, 2006

Homeward Bound (I Wish I Was)

I’ve been meditating on “home” lately, coming around to realizing that this concept has not only driven me to chase the wind around the world several times but has also made my mourning always a process of wishing to be elsewhere. To be (here) in a (perceived) perpetual state of absence, or not to be (here) and to be full – these are the false choices that always (already) present themselves to me.
Tao Te Ching 80

Let your community be small, with only a few people;
Keep tools in abundance, but do not depend upon them;
Appreciate your life and be content with your home;
Sail boats and ride horses, but don't go too far;
Keep weapons and armour, but do not employ them;
Let everyone read and write,
Eat well and make beautiful things.

Live peacefully and delight in your own society;
Dwell within cock-crow of your neighbours,
But maintain your independence from them.
"Home is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there." ["This Must Be the Place" -Talking Heads]

Friday, August 18, 2006

Fashion with a gun my love

I'm a Psychedelic Furs fan. Not a crazy, over-the-top fanatic, but I really like the band. I first saw them in concert in the summer of 1987. They played the Bronco Bowl - rest in peace - and the reason I went was because The Call opened. I knew only a few songs by the Furs at the time, but I was really into The Call. (I'm certain I was one of two people in Texas at the time who knew of them.) By the end of the night, I was a convert.

When I moved back to Arlington in 1993, I was dirt poor and barely employed. But I made the bold purchase of the All of This and Nothing two-track at Half-Price Books for $2.99. The price tag is still on the plastic case, and this is still one of my most listened to audio cassettes.

I was so worked up about all those crazy lyrics and twisted word games that I used them in my sig file when the Internet was barely hatched. After initially dismissing "Pretty in Pink" just because of the John Hughes film, I learned to relove that song, listening to it over and over on those long drives to my graduate school during rush-hour traffic. I even somehow managed to get my university to issue "pinkboy" as my official university email ID. I'm not quite sure anyone ever realized that was in reference to a Psychedelic Furs songs....

When I was in Beijing in the summer of 1999, the opening lyrics to "Love My Way" summed up my experience at the disco:
There's an army on the dance floor
It's a fashion with a gun, my love
Everyday I excavate new meanings from these old songs. And I now have tickets to their concert tonight. They open for Devo and When in Rome at the Fair Park Band Shell. But after spending all morning reading about them online, looking through old photos, and listening to various versions and covers of their songs, I found out they cancelled their show in El Paso yesterday. Will they actually be here tonight?
Love my way, it's a new road
I follow where my mind goes
So swallow
All your tears my love
And put on
Your new face
You can never win or lose
If you don't
Run the race
Words to live by. Words to love by.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

HBJ ...

I met you in 1999 just a few months before leaving Japan, and we became fast friends. Since then, I've loved keeping in touch with you ... even all those teary-eyed international phone calls. Your funny, little voice always makes me smile. I still tell the story of how you taught English to unsuspecting Japanese housewives and made up arbitrary rules of gender for animals: dogs are masculine, cats are feminine, monkeys and birds are always male. I hated the times we lost contact, but I'm glad to know you're not too far away now ... in Toronto. Even though you never (ever) gave me a photograph of yourself, I remember your Enrique Iglesias features. (Without the mole!) You prepared a Middle Eastern feast for me - falafel and all. I introduced you to Morrissey and Laurie Anderson, and you shared your Fairuz with me. I hope we always remain friends.

... Happy Birthday, Jihad.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Landmark VII: The Angel of History

My wing is poised to beat
but I would gladly return home
were I to stay to the end of days
I would still be this forlorn
-- Gershom Scholem, "Greetings from Angelus"

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows 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 how the angel of history must look. 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.

--Walter Benjamin's "Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History" Sholem's poem on the Klee painting was written for Benjamin's twenty-ninth birthday (July 15, 1921). Benjamin purchased the Klee painting in 1921.

"The Dream Before" by Laurie Anderson (for Benjamin)

Hansel and Gretel are alive and well
And they're living in Berlin
She is a cocktail waitress
He had a part in a Fassbinder film
And they sit around at night now drinking schnapps and gin
And she says: Hansel, you're really bringing me down
And he says: Gretel, you can really be a bitch
He says: I've wasted my life on our stupid legend
When my one and only love was the wicked witch.

She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
Being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel
Backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm is called Progress

A painting by Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. A poem by a Jewish mystic. An essay by a German Jewish philosopher who was both a Marxist and a surrealist. (I suspect that he was a better surrealist than Marxist.) He penned these words mere weeks before taking his own life on the Spanish border after he and his group of refugees were denied entry as the Nazi death-machine closed in on them. A song by American performance artist Laurie Anderson. In her video for this song, her digitized twin sings the lyrics - a midget man with a moustache (a la Duchamp, perhaps) and a low voice. Anderson's lyrics add a new creation myth to the Benjamin text: a postmodern and appropriately urbanized Adam and Eve, fable characters we haven't seen since our own childhoods; they are all grown up now like us. Their dream, however, is over, having lived through the logical trajectory of their illusions. What Fassbinder film is it? The one where the one-armed man comes into the flower shop and says, "What flower expresses: Days go by and they just keep going by? On and on. Endlessly going by?" And the florist says, "White lily." Everything returns to what the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Herclitus wrote 2500 years ago: "The fairest universe is but a heap of rubbish piled up at random" (Fragment 40). But we, in our overly technologized and productionist view, still call this progress, but it's a progress of discovering that all that we assume we know is wrong.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Landmark VI: Charlie the Tramp

Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character in Modern Times questions productionist modes of being in ways that would make even Heidegger proud. His job is unfulfilling and monotonous, and he is driven to not only insanity but probably the first reported case of repetitive motion disorder. His only other option, however, is unemployment. He accidentally becomes a leader of a unionist march when a red flag falls off the back of a flatbed truck and the unemployed masses appear from around the corner as he attempts to return the flag, waving it to catch the eye of the driver. His boss is a capitalist ogre, taking time out from working on a jigsaw puzzle to order the workers to speed up production. Ever in the pursuit of trying to "increase productivity" and to further technologize the workplace, he commands Charlie to try out the lunchbreak machine that feeds employees while they continue working on the line. It is the feeding machine that throws the pie in his face. Just as nature imposes itself into the factory (in the form of the bee and the bathroom break), technology breaks down and causes more problems, especially when Charlie literally becomes part of the "daily grind" - he is swallowed by the great machine and winds up moving throughout its gearwork. Charlie has become a mere human turd being pushed through the bowels of the industrial machine.

Unemployment and workers' rights. Starvation. Surveillance. Police brutality and unchecked authority. Religious pretensions. Drug abuse. Charlie's world is not unlike our own modern world. The only safe and comfortable place is in his jail cell, but he is evicted back into the real world as a "reward" for foiling a prison break while buzzed out of his mind on cocaine. From Marx to Heidegger, Charlie is the bridge from contemporary philosophy to the laughter that did and still does unite the workers against their faceless and nameless existence as mere workers.

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Landmark V: Coatlicue

The Mother of all the gods. The Mother of the Moon and Stars. The Goddess of the Sun and of War. Our Lady of the Serpents. Patron of those who die while giving birth.

In Nahuatl her name means "one with the skirt of serpents." She has been decapitated, and her missing head replaced with two great snakes. Her hands and feet are claws. In her, eagle-nature and serpent-nature are joined. Not merely earthbound and mortal, not merely heavenly and divine, she is the combination of both natures - the original dragon-lady, the serpent that takes flight. Her nature is still displayed on the Mexican flag: an eagle with a serpent in its mouth. She still rules over the heirs to the Aztec lands.

Above her skirt of writhing snakes, she wears a necklace of human hands, hearts, and skulls - the voluntary sacrifices of her faithful. Without their blood, she would wither and die, so her people line up 40,000 strong to climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun to present their gifts. The decapitations go on for days. She is both Mother and Monster, symbol of the womb and the tomb, insatiable in her thirst for blood and sacrifice.

Gloria Anzaldúa reminds us, "Coatlicue is a rupture in our everyday world. As the Earth, she opens and swallows us, plunging us into the underworld where the soul resides, allowing us to dwell in darkness." She is our fate when we refuse to live up to our own personal potential, impeding the evolution of the soul.

Coatlicue can now be found in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico, D.F.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Landmark IV: Siva Nataraja

Lord Siva represents the positive aspect of the destruction of the world because creation comes out of every destruction. He dances the world into and out of being surrounded by tongues of fire with his right leg firmly on the back of the small dwarf - representing human frailty and the lie of all dualities. He displays his omnipotence by waving his many arms throughout the dance. And yet he is frozen in time within the sculpture. In this way, he is both static and dynamic; both creator and destroyer. He is the oldest and the youngest; he is the eternal youth as well as the infant. And the sage. He is the source of fertility in all living beings. He is omnipresent and resides in everyone as pure consciousness. As Nataraja (Lord of the Dance), Siva symbolizes the dance of the universe, with all its heavenly bodies and natural laws complimenting and balancing one another. He dances away maya, the world of illusion, so that each person can attain enlightenment. He has tamed the poisonous cobra, and the sacred Ganges flows from his hair. When he lowers his left leg, the universe will cease to exist ... until a new dance begins.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Landmark III: Jerusalem

Currently home to the three warmongering (i.e., monotheistic) Mesopotamian religions, Jerusalem was depicted as the center of the world on medieval maps. This city has been destroyed twenty times. A Kabbalist legend says that YHWH created ten blessings and ten curses. To Jerusalem, He gave nine of the blessings and nine of the curses, spreading the remainders to the rest of the world.

Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Dome of the Rock - the entire history and culture of Jerusalem revolves around Mt. Moriah and its rocks. It is the site of Abraham's (almost) sacrifice of Isaac, of Jesus' ministry and crucifixion, and of Mohammed's ascent into Heaven. It is also the site of not only the petty antagonisms of these three religions against one another but also the various wars waged amongst members of their various sects: Orthodox Christians against Catholic, Ethiopian against Armenian, Orthodox Jews against Reform, and perhaps to a lesser extent Shi'ites against Sunnis.

The Western teleological worldview sees the end of time and of history beginning here (despite St. John's revelation that Mt. Megiddo, i.e., Armageddon, plays a significant role). Daily there are corpses flown in to be buried on the slopes of the city. Much like the Ganges River - the most sacred (and therefore polluted) site to Hindus - Jerusalem will continue to be piled high with dead bodies long after the next millenial event.

I imagine the Jebusites laughing in their Jebusite heaven.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Landmark II: Artemisium Zeus

This larger-than-life sculpture of Zeus (or possibly Poseidon) was made in bronze circa 460 - 450 B.C.E. It is 2.09 m (6' 10.5") high and 2.10 m (6' 10.75") fingertip to fingertip. It was found in the sea near Cape Artemisio. It is housed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece.

There is some debate whether or not this sculpture depicts Zeus or Poseidon, but I think the most important aspect of this work is that it depicts a god in purely human form. It was most likely carved by a master craftsman (possibly Kalamis) using an Olympian athlete as a model. The muscles, the beard, the genitalia are all perfectly masculine and human. The gods interacted with the Greeks with their petty jealousies and arrogances - that is, their human frailties - fully intact. It has been said that the Greeks' interest in the gods was really only as an exploration of the human - the human psyche, the human body, the human soul.

The name Zeus became Deus in Roman Latin and later Diós, or "God" in Spanish, giving us an explanation for words such as adiós: literally "to Zeus." We have the same sort of farewell in English with goodbye, a contracted form of "God be with you."

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Landmark I: Venus of Willendorf


One of the assignments I give my humanities students is a Landmark Journal - short free-writing exercises about seven landmarks from the various historical periods or cultural themes we explore as a group. I've decided - based on a conversation with Stephen - to create my own online version of the entries I have my students write about in class. Here is my offering of what a professor does when the tables are turned.

Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is a Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) statuette about 11.1 cm (4 3/8 inches) high. It was discovered by archaeologist Josef Szombathy in Willendorf, Austria, in 1908. It was carved from non-native limestone and tinted with ochre 22,000 to 24,000 years ago. It is currently housed at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Fertility charm? Good-luck fetish? Child's toy? We do not know what purpose the Venus had, if any, to the people who carved her. Her swollen belly, breasts, and vulva as well as her huge ass suggest a sympathetic magic ritual for abundance. Her face is hidden by rows of braids; her tiny arms fold over her breasts. Her small feet do not allow her to stand upright on her own.

Earth goddess? Mother to us all? When we understand her, we will understand ourselves.

Friday, August 4, 2006

The Week in Review


Before going to bed every night I scan the entertainment headlines of the BBC, ITN, and Reuters. I used to read the "real" news, but it became unbearable. My favorite headline last night was "Rome unites to condemn Madonna." All three news sources covered this story. Apparently the Catholic Church (thinks it) has a monopoly on crucifixion imagery (despite the fact that it was the heathen Romans who utilized this particularly effective form of state torture/murder - Gitmo wasn't developed till centuries later), and they want Madonna to stop wearing a crown of thorns on stage while gyrating around a cross. Several Jewish and Muslim groups based in Rome have also spoken out against her. Leave it to a slutty girl from Detroit to unite all three backwater religions. We all know that the only way Madonna is ever going to get the Catholic Church from speaking out against her is if she starts raping the parishioners' children.

Proxy War: US vs. Iran

Professor Robert Pape made a significant contribution to the latest Middle East crisis:
What these [Lebanese] suicide attackers [from 1982-1986] -— and their heirs today - shared was not a religious or political ideology but simply a commitment to resisting a foreign occupation. Nearly two decades of Israeli military presence did not root out Hezbollah. The only thing that has proven to end suicide attacks, in Lebanon and elsewhere, is withdrawal by the occupying force.

Thus the new Israeli land offensive may take ground and destroy weapons, but it has little chance of destroying the Hezbollah movement. In fact, in the wake of the bombings of civilians, the incursion will probably aid Hezbollah'’s recruiting.
My prediction: no one will listen to him.

I loved how Israel, after murdering a few dozen children, decided to stop bombing for a bit to give people the chance to leave the area. It reminds me of when "the experts" told people to leave New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit. Poor people don't have the luxury of leaving, whether it's for a hurricane or an Israeli bomb!

Maybe some day I'll share my theory with the world that contemporary America is but a mirror of ancient Persia, created in its image, in order to play out their teleological view of history. It's a really fascinating theory.

Mel Gibson

So Mel's a bigot who can't hold his liquor? Sounds like every other self-righteous Christian I've ever met. What's the big deal? Hollywood may be uniting to oust him from their celebrity circles, but Hillbilly-wood is uniting to organize busloads of congregations to watch his next flick. So, who ultimately has the most power: the Jews who make Mel's movies or the white trash assholes who watch them? Please let it be a fight to the death.

Silver Medals for Silver-Haired Ladies

Congratulations to the Motor City Menopause for winning the silver medal at the Gay Games in Chicago. You ladies rock!

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Land of Ur, Here I Come

Nanna the Moon God
I am already so excited - in that hyper-nerdy, über-intellectual sort of way - about my trip next week to Houston. First on the list of things to hit is the "Royal Tombs of Ur" exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Ur was one of the main city-states of Sumer, a region considered to be the Cradle of Civilization in ancient Mesopotamia and site of the world's first written language (cuneiform) as well as the world's first alcoholic beverages. (Is Ur the origin of the drunk author?!?!) The Sumerians were also the first people to dwell in permanent settlements and the first to use the 60-second minute and 60-minute hour because of their sophisticated mathematical systems. The region has been settled for at least nine thousand years. In 1922, British archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley excavated Ur, discovering Queen Puabi's unlooted tomb filled with all sorts of nifty items.

Ur is also considered the (traditional) site of the Garden of Eden and home to Abraham, revered patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.