Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Picktures and Pieces 4: I See It Feelingly, or the World According to Prag

“The World According to Prag, or I See It Feelingly”

This cryptic banner hangs over a pretty sorry carwash in Carbondale. I suppose Wal-Mart couldn’t corner the smiley-face market. Imagine the royalties if it could be done. Pondering the sign, and the carwashes, I started thinking about the idea of something being “touchless,” as though that were some sort of advantage, not to have to touch things. It’s not just that I don’t mind touching my car, but touching anything seems like the essence of intimacy.

It reminded me of two stories, sort of mirror images of each other. One was from John Irving, The World According to Garp, when the protagonist explains to his mom about a man who has magic gloves. In the movie version, Garp says:

“Mom, it's very simple. He can do wonders when he's wearing his magic gloves. If his wife is sad, he touches her with his gloves, she's happy. If his children are crying, he touches them, and they smile. But he can't feel them! He yearns to feel. He can even hold off death with his magic gloves, but he can't feel life. So, he takes off the gloves, and he dies. But, he finally feels life as he's flying into the arms of death.”

The other story is Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” about a scientist from Padua in its glory days who raises his daughter Beatrice confined among poisonous plants. She develops a resistance and gradually becomes poisonous to others, so that no one can touch her. Naturally a young man falls in love with Beatrice and in attempting to cure her condition, he kills her instead with the antidote. Of course it raises the question whether it would have been better to live without touching one another.

What occurred to me was the nice complementarity. Beatrice is poisonous to the world, while the world is poisonous to Garp’s hero. Both make the same choice, but not quite the same. Beatrice chooses to be touched while the man with the magic gloves chooses to touch. It makes me wonder. If I had to choose only one, forsaking the other, would I choose to be able to touch without feeling it myself, or to be able to feel the touch of others without being able to touch them? What would you choose? And what does the choice reveal.

I think I know what I would choose. I would choose to be able to feel and not initiate touch, but I would be sad all the time. This may mean that selfishness runs deep in my case, or at least deeper than the desire to please others, but maybe not. I leave it to you to consider your own case, but a few more observations before I let the subject go.

I think we habitually forget that touching and feeling are different and complementary things –feeling is sort of the gift we get for touching. But we know they are different, we just don’t notice. Once in while an arm will “go to sleep,” and we can touch without feeling. Or maybe we go to the art gallery and we have to feel without touching. (Here is some of the work of Vicki Walsh who specifically creates it to be touched, although she makes you question whether you would really want to feel it.)

But there is something more going on. When we see something, we touch it through the "medium" of photons. When we hear something, we touch it through the "medium" of sound waves. In the end, even touching something in the regular sense isn’t without a "medium." The electromagnetic fields that surround our bodies encounter those of other so-called "objects" in the practical mode of “solidity.” The electromagnetic and thermodynamic (entropic) systems encounter one another in adorable complexity. But the real issue is not physical or metaphysical, it is moral.

In light of that, I considered Shakespeare’s character, the Earl of Gloucester, in King Lear. He is an arrogant man but not a bad man. Like Lear, Gloucester cannot distinguish the good from the bad in his offspring. But he pays for that lack of insight with his eyesight, after which, humbled and dependent, he tells his good son that when it comes to the world, “I see it feelingly.” (Act IV, Scene 6) Aristotle said that “contact and assertion are truth . . . and ignorance is non-contact.” (1051b 24-25) The Greek here for “contact” is thigein which literally means to touch or reach.

Wanting a touchless car wash amounts to wanting the experience of being clean without the experience of cleaning. But would you choose having feelings without touching? That's analogous, isn't it? It’s like amputating everything about the truth that makes it true. I have friends and neighbors watching a convention this week. I’m not watching it. I see it feelingly. It’s poisonous to this country. Their magic gloves bring you touchless carwashes in about the same way they brought you wars you didn’t have to feel, poor people you don’t have to feed, and sick people you don’t have to tend. But in truth, nothing is quite that clean, America least of all. I don't want the version of my country that was made only to look at; I want the one I can touch, and having touched, can feel.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Picktures and Pieces 3: Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay

"Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" 

by Randall Auxier

I asked my spouse, “what does this sign say to you?” She said “serious car wash ahead.” Memory is a very strange thing. On our honeymoon in 1986, we ate in a diner somewhere between Mammoth Cave and Cumberland Falls. At the next table, two thirty-something men were having an enthusiastic conversation about investing in self-service car wash facilities. Given their decibel level, my bride and I couldn’t have a conversation of our own and really couldn’t help listening in. These guys were speaking in code, like listening to the Waffle House waitress call an order to a grizzled cook: “two over well, smothered, covered, and scattered, and put shoes on it.” What?

So we endured discussions of foaming brushes and spray nozzles, and so on. But they kept returning to how many bays you should have to get maximal return on your investment. Three bays or four? They discussed existing facilities, locations, initial land cost, building costs, materials, and how fast an extra bay could pay for itself. It was infinitely interesting (to them). From that day to this, and without warning, my wife will remark, as we drive down the road, “look, four bays,” to which I’ll answer “wonder what kind of nozzles they have.”

Here is a four bay facility in our little town. As you can see, it’s pretty spiffy, and I have a feeling that this investment had to be newly capitalized to include the “touchless” bay. My investor friends would say "Market share was negatively enhanced by the filling stations adding the lazy man’s option, and the detailing companies were automating too. You have to compete." You know, spruce up the place, add a bay, steal McDonalds’ color scheme.(Can you copyright a palette?)

Down the road in Carbondale, there is this rather plain six-bay model. Clearly these investors haven’t gotten the memo. Yes, they have a “touchless” bay, I mean, of course they have a touchless bay. This isn’t the 20th century, you know. But no one told them they need a fast-food color scheme to make the whole place look like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. It looks like you could raise rabbits on their roof, pick up a little extra liquidity. I briefly considered trying the place out, help pay for the extra bays. But in fact, I never wash my car. Neither does my wife. We have learned to buy cars in colors that don’t show dirt. Best is champagne colored cars, like my Toyota minvan (washed only once since 2006, and that was an accident). Good colors include white, and red. The worst color is black. Never buy a black car. You have to wash it.

I am not the customer those investors were dreaming of. But they got us eventually. A couple of years back I surprised my wife with a classic car for Christmas. She is sentimental about one she had growing up. One our favorite musicians wrote a song about that kind of car. I drove my well-kept secret up to the house on Christmas morning, with a big red bow on top (not easily attached –try it some time). In a few minutes the spouse wandered out in her robe and slippers, noticed it in the driveway, said nothing. “You have a new car,” I offered hopefully. “I have a new car?” Mildly incredulous, she filled her coffee cup and wandered back to the bedroom as both our families kindly suppressed grins. It’s pretty hard to get anything past my wife.

The car was cheap, comparatively speaking. Ninety bucks a year to insure, but there are hidden costs with such investments. For example, this car has to be washed. So I went to my friend Ron, who is an expert in classic cars (well, he has 300 old Pontiacs in his yard –yes, 300). “Ron, how should I wash this thing?” He said, “Well Randy, the old rubber seals won’t take the high-pressure guns at those self-serve places, and that’s the original paint, isn’t it? Well, you can’t take it through a machine.” He said we could use a self serve bay to wash below the windows if we were careful and never sprayed the gun full on, but the best way was a soft cloth and a bucket of soapy water, rinse with a hose and no nozzle.

Yeah right. We did that twice, I think. Too much work; takes 45 minutes. No way Jose. Then I always looked for kids raising money, but that was too unpredictable. So here we are at another place in Carbondale that did get the memo. Looks like Burger King blue to me. That guy with white truck is a Marine. He will spend the next hour spit-shining that truck. I hope he had a date, and I hope she doesn’t marry him thinking she can compete with this truck. But he would buy her a nice one and wash it without being asked. And his garage will be perfectly organized. And his grill will be clean. God help his children. They’ll be a lot like me.

Here is the spouse washing from the windows down. Note that the car is barefoot, as is the spouse. The car was made in Dallas. The spouse was made in Kentucky. They don’t like shoes in places like Dallas and Kentucky.

And here is the spouse creating small mountains of foam with the deluxe foaming brush. After initial indifference, she started liking the car pretty well, and maybe she’s even taking to washing it. Maybe I won’t have to do this after all. Maybe I will invest in a four-bay car wash. Maybe pigs will fly. (Well, they might.)

But something puzzles me. Back at the big ole six bay wash, where they were doing it wrong, they had this sign. What? Apart from its deteriorating condition, I’m wondering, with the eyes of a highway ontologist, what this sign means. Are tokens less than a dollar to buy? Must I really do math like this, combining my money with some company scrip to avoid touching anything while washing my car? This is a question that has a more general significance, I strongly suspect. I will think about it and get back to you next week.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Picktures and Pieces 2: Dangerous Crosswinds May Exist

“Dangerous Crosswinds May Exist”
by Randall Auxier

I mentioned in my last post that I had been driving along “Future I-26 West” in North Carolina. As we always do these days, my spouse looked it up to see what was going on.
The wireless modem has replaced family sing-alongs, but I’m not sorry to see 99 Bottles of Beer take up its place among the forgotten music of the 20th century. Besides, traveling is more educational, interesting, and dare I say, memorable, when one can supplement the sights and sites with the history connectivity brings. I like to think that long before we could get such easy access, all that history was still hovering like a cloud at each place, waiting for some change in temperature, condensing it into drops of clear thought.

Future I-26 doesn’t come up to federal standards for an official “interstate highway.” (Now, now, there can be no civilization without bureaucracy, so don’t go there and I won’t either.) Apparently there are a couple of curves that are too sharp and grades that are too steep, or some such. So somebody has to come up with the money to tear up a perfectly good road and bring it up to federal code. Pretty expensive. No one seems in a great hurry to do it. Hence, this road has been “Future I-26” since 2005. With my fellow motorists I drive into a perpetual “not yet.” I couldn’t help wondering whether I was seeing “Past I-26” in the rearview mirror. Probably not.

But by the law of association, I considered other places and other signs that led me to similar ponderings. Most closely related is the sign marking several acres of empty lots just north of Cairo, Illinois, a place appropriately named “Future City.” All we have to do is wait, right? But then, when the city descends from the sky, or erupts from the ground, will it not, then, need a new name?

This sign, and others like it, have opened up a new branch of philosophy, which I call “Highway Ontology.” This is a study of the modes of temporality, space, and even Being, Itself, based on our difficulty describing things as limited by road signs. We use pictures when we can. But that doesn’t always work. It’s not easy, for instance, to find a picture showing crosswinds. This is what the Irish worked out. To me this seems to say “Used Rough Rider Condom Ahead.”

On the other hand, the state of New Mexico decided to try a more discursive approach. On both I-40 and I-25, one encounters yellow caution signs saying “Dangerous Crosswinds May Exist.” And so they may. No, no, that isn’t strong enough. I insist, as an empiricist that they do, in fact, exist. I have written to the NMDOT, as a philosopher, to advise that they strengthen their stand on this issue. I see this as my civic duty.

Then there are the signs that say things like “Caution Possible Flooding.” And here I really do worry. Possible flooding has never taken a single life or damaged so much as a gopher hole, but actual flooding, now, that’s another matter. If I am constantly on my guard for possibilities, how can I give adequate attention to actualities? Possibilities are not few in number. I am writing a treatise on this to send to all of the highway departments, just something introductory.

“Bridge Ices before Road” is solid empiricism, and some states, states that surely employ philosophy majors, also make these signs for seasonal display. On the other hand, that approach makes more sense for “Watch for Ice on Bridge” than for this sign. Even in July, the bridge would ice before the road, so folding the sign wastes tax money. And “Watch for Ice on Bridge” seems to promise a spectacle where Elvis Stojko may appear. Elvis sightings help tourism. As a professional Highway Ontologist, I endorse it.

I think every highway department may need more than a mere philosophy major as an adviser. I think we might need graduate level radical empiricists, people with expertise in temporality, space, and possibility. I have a feeling that someone pretty advanced came up with this sign in Ireland. It reduces things to their most iconic significance. One need not describe this possibility; one truly sees it. The subtlety of this piece of work is ontologically amazing. It is here, after all, to prevent what it depicts, right? By virtualizing a possibility, it prevents the actuality. And we all thought that possibilities were powerless, but this may be a principle we can appeal to in life as well.

Monday, August 6, 2012

September Issue Is In Our Office

The September issue has arrived in our office, and is being shipped to stores around the world. Dorion Sagan, son of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis, has written our lead feature article. In honor of Labor Day, Peter Laarman, Executive Director of Progressive Christians Uniting, has written an article about the "freefall" of the labor movement. Randall Auxier reflects on his experience as a union leader at Southern Illinois University Carbondale during a recent strike. Our fiction and poetry prize winners are announced and published in this issue. Jennifer Hanno won first place in the short story competition, and Robert Balun won first place in the poetry contest. John Cobb has written on the "Resurrection of God," which is a follow-up to last month's "Resurgence of Purpose." Vernon Andrews has written on the Art Murmur of Oakland. And there's much more. Pick up an issue and enjoy!

Picktures and Pieces 1: Days of Miracle and Wonder

“Days of Miracle and Wonder”
by Randall Auxier

This is travelling music for sure. We are northbound on “Future I-26 West.” You read that right. (North Carolina has a quasi-interstate by that name; I’ll take this up in a later blog.) My travelling companion is the wife of my first marriage, united in 1986, which was a very good year (apart from the politics). We recently received a complimentary copy of the silver anniversary edition of Paul Simon’s classic recording Graceland, released that same year. As soon as it landed on the kitchen table, I felt a little tingle that I would interpret as “ya-hoo,” followed closely by the sinking realization that if this was Graceland’s 25th year in existence, what the hell happened to the last quarter century? Then I looked at the pictures of Paul Simon from 1986 and realized that I didn’t need to examine any pictures of myself from that year to confirm that both he and I are wearing the evidence. At the very least, we were squinting at the sun and eating dinner for that longish lapse. (Why am I soft in the middle, Mr. Beerbelly?)
So I planned and then anticipated my opportunity to revisit Graceland on an upcoming road trip. I suppose I could have waited for a trip down the Delta that looms in my future, but somehow late summer, as the days converge on school-year bustle, is a time for reflections over longer epochs of our durational awareness. Everyone thinks that New Year’s Eve is the moment for this kind of consciousness, but in truth, that occasion is forced, the length of the epoch is too fixed – a year, a decade, a century, a millennium – all meaninglessly arbitrary numbers and invented occasions, imposed like incidents and accidents on a fluid field of passage.

But a quarter century from a milestone moment we shared, as communities, as nations, as a globe . . . well, there’s nothing arbitrary about that. Twenty-five years ago, Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, and Truth and Reconciliation was an impossible dream. Now it is the finest accomplishment in human history. Paul Simon’s role in the unfolding events of the late-80’s and early-90’s, events that would bring apartheid to an end, is ambiguous. The heavy lifting was done by tens of thousands of ordinary folks with iron wills and soft hearts, almost none of them from our hemisphere. But the Americans needed a symbol, some vessel from which our collective incomprehension of South African suffering could be poured out over the suburbs, sprinkled on the heads of Protestants and Catholics and Jews, incorporating them into the struggle, however lightly.

What Simon learned during his artistic journey was that we knew more about this world than we thought. Something sleeping in the sounds, seeping out of the roots of the Delta rhythms and creeping into our brains still remains. It isn’t just an analogy between American apartheid and the movement that struck it down. Rather, there is something 400 years removed that still calls and answers across the centuries, something that wells up in the body when the beat commences. Our music is African music. Some vestige of the simple freedom song flows over the jerky gyrations of colonizers and middle-passage merchants, smoothing it into a heartbeat. That is what Graceland feels like, and that is what we felt as a culture when we put it on the turntable. Paul Simon was not the songwriter, although he claimed credit perhaps beyond what was appropriate, but he was undoubtedly the conduit through which this remembrance passed from the present into the future. Or so it seems to me 26 years later, northbound on Future I-26 West.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Voices for Peace in Syria

It is being reported that thousands of people are fleeing the city of Aleppo. It makes me wonder as I watch these civilians: how many of them really wanted war? Didn't most of them just want to live quiet, peaceful lives where they could enjoy their friends and family and take care of their basic needs? Many of them, I'm sure, are praying for peace through this Ramadan. But their voices get drowned out in the midst of the loud noise of war.

The girl shown here didn't ask for this war. We should practice "listening between the lines" for those quiet voices for peace, attuning with them, and praying with them.

Kofi Annan resigns as envoy to Syria

Kofi Annan has resigned his post as UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, the Washington Post has reported. Annan said “When the Syrian people desperately need action, there continues to be finger-pointing and name-calling in the Security Council,” the former U.N. secretary general said, according to a transcript. “It is impossible for me or anyone to compel the Syrian government and also the opposition to take the steps to bring about the political process.”