Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Writing is the opposite of working. Georges Bataille has given us this formulation. He says it with a casual seriousness, as if it was evident. The things that are evident for him make him an alien, in a way, utterly bizarre given our culture, awash in post-Reagan, post-Clinton productivity triumphalism, self-satisfied egotism, corporate narcissism, ignored guilty secrets.

Bataille is on the fringe of French thought, the one who is too strange for the surrealists, too surreal for them. For him the guilty secret is to be opened up and pushed forward into the open that is literature, but literature itself is a guilty secret, is built upon a mountain of secrets and culpability, all having to do with the escape from work to fabulate, to effervesce. Exuberance is beauty, and exuberance is waste.

But why is writing the opposite of working? I love writing, and I love it so much that I have found a way to make it utterly un-workable, to spread it out over many internet message boards and blog posts and emails and hidden word documents which nobody may ever see, including myself. Writing pushes open an abandon that has no interest in work, although work may take it up. You can make a work out of writing, but writing itself is not work and can't be. This is why finding a job is so difficult for me, overcoming this 'crisis of confidence' which may instead be a crisis in the real world, in the political economy, such that people are so terrified of the future that they close off jobs that were left for people who were less interested in making money.

Jewish guilt? Bataille wasn't a Jew, but he understood guilt better than most Jews. Hitler said that guilt was a Jewish invention. This shows that Hitler was afraid of his own guilt, unable to admit that he felt guilty for the crimes of society. His suicidal drive comes directly from this, from the same place as the drive that made Cho Seung-Hui and the Columbine shooters act in the ways that they did.

Jews feel too much guilt--this is the problem. The guilt is what keeps them--us--trapped in a prison of productivity, of the bottom line. Even as communists they become trapped in this prison. The prison has to do with being obsessed with a final point, an overall message, something non-banal, a higher function, something rational, civilized, ignorant of eroticism and timely.

Jewish guilt is what led the Jews into whiteness. Jews felt more guilty than ever after the Shoah, because they had survived, because they had not been the ones with the skin and bones, looking desolately at the camera, dying of diarrhea and being stacked in piles like firewood. Returned to the earth with large machinery like soil being tilled. Because of this spectacle of pity, the remaining Jews, some of them at least, the ones who held some degree of political and cultural power, began to feel that their burden was equivalent to the white man's. They could now take that great plunge, that noble leap, and enlist themselves into the infantry of superiority which governs wall street which governs the continents.

A boy is enamored with computers. There is something about the computers which fascinates him, a sense of profound innovation, a sense of democratic possibility: new forums, new modes of engagement, new discoveries. He takes refuge in front of his computer as he had taken refuge in video games from early childhood: they do not judge you when you look at them, their rules are more stable than social rules, they titillate you only according to your own strict guidelines, they are not concerned with what you are wearing or how you speak, only with your writing, which does not have to be writing like in a book or on the news but lives in small, short bursts, peppered with acronyms and obscenities. He submits quotes that he copied and pasted from instant messaging chats with his best friend, late at night, between games of first person shooters and real time strategy games. He submits quotes to a website which logs funny quotes, moments of the technological mundane which unite geeks across the world, people like him who feel alienated by much of the world but not by technology, and not by each other's virtual representations of themselves. One of his quotes appears on the top 10 of the website, having been rated highly by the other users. It exists in enormous contradistinction to his actual life, which is very comfortable, supported by an unfailingly supportive family with a healthy income and a nice house in a safe neighborhood. In the quote his friend cites a survey that showed that people are more likely to be healthy when they spend time with friends. The boy responds, "not if they're sharing needles."

It's unclear where this joke came from; maybe he saw it on TV, maybe he had wondered, one day, what it would be like to be a heroin user, even though he had neither used heroin nor any other drug, and would not until he was 17 years old. He would not go on a date until the age of 18, persuaded and teased by his friends until he gave in. He prefers his own worlds which he creates to these outside distractions. "His soul squints," wrote Nietzsche, "he loves back doors, hideouts, and secret paths. They are his balm, his serenity."

I knew this boy when I was younger. I used him, or he used me, or both. At this point in our lives I know that we both have serious problems with each other, almost like a sibling rivalry, like twins separated and placed with different parents who ended up growing up together. We are born on the same day, grew up in the same kind of family, went to the same schools. We shared some interests. His obsessions became obsessions for me, as well. In elementary school I wanted to know about video games and television like he did: I was convinced that my lack of exposure to them were responsible for my social alienation. I wanted to be just like him, and as far as I could tell, he didn't know that I existed. This was a moment in which the erotic and the childish were one and the same: I pursued him just like I would pursue a woman today, and this is probably why we weren't friends. I learned about his interests and tried to ingratiate myself to him. For years I let him know, subtly and directly, that I thought he was cool and I wanted to be popular like he was. People genuinely liked him: he was the kid who never got in trouble with the teachers like I did, never cried like I did, never hit the other kids like I did. Unlike me, he'd had no serious traumas as a child, he brought things to school in his lunchbox that other kids wanted. His lunchbox contained, basically, schoolyard capital: fruit roll-ups and lunchables, while mine, ironically less cheaply made, were too wholesome and healthy to command any interest on the bartering market. Throughout his childhood, as far as I remember, he had one haircut and about three shirts, with stripes on them. His haircut was reminiscent of an early-90's child star, with straight brown waves, parted in the middle, framing his forehead like curtains. My haircuts were ever-changing. My hair would not part like his did--it wasn't straight enough.

It wasn't until high school that we became friends, and I use this term because we began to see each other outside of school. Still, however, there was a constant sense that he was less friendly to me than I was to him. But it's possible that he had the same impression toward me: my political views, my anger, my relatively reckless interest in things like women and drugs (which was, in fact, quite tame compared to most American teenagers) bothered him. I began to participate in his concealed worlds of strategy games and first person shooters, of LAN parties and chat rooms and the very beginnings of internet memes (before Youtube, we spent hours on sites that agglomerated videos of the profane and the bizarre). I wanted into these worlds because they seemed to accept me, and he wanted into my world because he knew it would be necessary to learn about the outside world. Women, more than anything, represented this world, because they were entirely absent from the secret masturbatory internet communities in which he lived (there was a longstanding joke, continued on more vicious contemporary sites like encyclopedia dramatica, that There Are No Women on the Internet).

There were also no black people on the internet, it seemed, except in videos which portrayed them as buffoons. To say there were no black people or Latinos or anyone besides Jews and white people and Asians means that they did not get to control the content on the internet or participate in the conversations. And if they did they had better hide it.

I constantly wanted to discuss things outside of the internet, the ways that the internet connected to the real world. He was more interested in going deeper into the interstices of his obsessions. For example, he was at the very top of the worldwide rankings for Warcraft III players, which was the crowning achievement of thousands of hours of practice. I logged hundreds, but not nearly as many as him, which is why I never ranked at all. He got to this high level by developing, perhaps in conversation with other players, the most efficient means possible of winning each game. Instead of clicking on a unit, he would set the unit to a hotkey; instead of clicking on a building to build a unit, he would press a hotkey which represented the building. He was a master of the secret, unplanned ways of exploiting the game, like rushing the enemy's base with just a hero and making it impossible for the enemy to build units. I watched him at the height of his game, and it was like watching a savant, like the autistic man who can draw an entire cityscape from memory. His fingers flashed across the keyboard and he won the game in about five minutes.

I stopped wondering why he was like this. It was probably at this point that I stopped trying to reach him. He was in my history classes, where we studied Marxism and Black Power in great depth, and he got better grades than I did. He understood how to ace the essay tests, how to say exactly the right terms in the questions on Lenin or James Baldwin.

These ideas challenged, upset, and remade me. Almost every day I think about capitalism and racism, homophobia and heteronormativity, colonialism and genocide: to me they are what part of what is most real about life, and part of what is most overlooked. I've often wished I felt otherwise, especially when my friendship began to unravel with this boy. I wanted to genuinely not care about politics like he did, and still be able to ace these tests. I thought that maybe I would do better on them if I didn't care as much, although I did pretty well on them.

My friend said that Marx and Angela Davis were more or less irrelevant now; these were bygone struggles from bygone times, what we should really do is play this new video game or maybe go to the all-night burger place. I couldn't, try as I might, prove to him that our history lessons mattered, because he hadn't grown up the way I did. It's like trying to describe a sunset to a blind person--that's how I began to feel. Feminism, black power, worker's rights--all of these things were irrelevant to him, and our mutual friends seemed to vacillate between his position and mine. He wasn't exactly fun to be around, because he was a recluse, but he could be fun when he decided to be social.

There was a time when I pestered him about girls all the time, sometimes over his shoulder while he played warcraft or talked to his friends on their webcams. He was curious, and he had seen a man's share of porn, but at 18 years old he was still, more or less, prepubescent. I had only lost my virginity a couple of years earlier, in a terrible drunken episode, and I had lied and pretended I wasn't a virgin before that, figuring I'd fake it till I made it. But I finally had something that he didn't, because he knew that he couldn't go too much longer as a virgin.

The only advice I could give him was that he didn't need any advice--just go out there and be social. It didn't work. He might have a couple of drinks with his friends, but he wouldn't talk to girls. He chose the most desired small cute blonde girl to have a crush on, tried to ask her on a date at a dance, and was so bashful about it that the date never happened. He would get visibly hurt when we brought it up.

He had told me that his friend--a chubby, equally nerdy guy, but with a redeemingly spontaneous, fun streak--was dating a girl that was "actually pretty cute, not bad looking." He showed me a picture of her on his cell phone. Ever a step behind, my cell phone had no camera. I couldn't really see what she looked like from the blurry photo, but I could see that she was small and Asian, enough for your average middle class white guy.

About six months later I was friends with her. I had decided, for a change of scenery maybe, and out of a profound curiosity, to become friends with her and her friends at an elite prep school in the hills. My school was a prep school, and it could have been called elite, but it was also for "problem kids," or really intelligent kids who got beat up at public school. In sum, the kids at my school were not very cool: they were quirky, they wore weird hats and a lot of them were punks and neo-hippies and smelled bad. Our school itself smelled bad: it was upstairs from a soup kitchen and crawling with homeless people. The cute Asian girl's school, on the other hand, was perched atop East Oakland like a castle, constantly being remodeled. They had given me the pass when my mom applied for me to go there after elementary school--I'm sure it didn't help that my social skills were well below par.

But the elite school kids liked me. I was always the new guy, the guy who had tried drugs, who was not a virgin, who didn't have a car, who never had a nuclear family, and so on. I represented the rest of the world to them as I had to my Warcraft-playing friend. I dated the cutest, blondest, most innocent one. My acquaintance with them was intense and changed everyone. They relied on me because I was not from their world, and I relied on them because they represented success, or that success which is increasingly allied with money, the success of the O.C. Not coincidentally, they were religiously devoted to the O.C., and they would get together to watch every episode. I remember a particularly piglike, red-faced slimy boy whose real name will probably be Googleable very soon who used to host the O.C. parties. Even when I was dating the cutest, blondest attendant of these parties, I was not really invited. One time I did set foot in his mansion overlooking the city to play pool in his game room. I remember that the outside of his house was all glass and mirrors, and even the deck in front of his front door was made of glass. A huge chandelier hung in the foyer. The house was so fragile...is this why I wasn't invited?

The O.C. is brilliant because it addresses the real world while avoiding it entirely. It starts with a real contrast, and a very stark one: the difference between the gritty lifestyle of Ryan, the poor white Brando or Dean-esque teenager, and the opulent lifestyle of the Jewish Malibu lawyer's family which adopts him. Already, however, in choosing a blonde white actor with a model's appearance, the producers have begun to manipulate their audience, to reassure them that this soap opera will not be dealing with the real world. Sure, there will be deaths and drugs and scandals, but all of them will occur within a pristine aura of opulence and lavish beauty, vistas and high fashion. Nowadays it might be a reality show and hold the same audience.

I was not Ryan, but maybe I did want to be seen as Ryan at times. He was "from the wrong side of the tracks with a heart of gold." He got to sleep with the most beautiful of all the rich girls, because when she asked him who he was, when they first met, he said "anyone you want me to be."

This was an angle that my warcraft-playing friend could never use, having never been on the wrong side of the tracks past dusk. To be fair, I hadn't either, but to him my apartment was on the wrong side of the tracks. To me, the tracks were further west or south, toward the burned-out shells of black working-class neighborhoods which looked for all the world like they had been bombed.

The only advice I could give him was: stop turning it down. Girls are attracted to you, because they're just as horny as you are. Just don't do anything too weird, and don't be too nice or too shy. He wouldn't dance with girls at dances. He'd barely go to dances.

Anyway, you can see where this is going. The Asian girl decided she wanted him. I convinced her via the internet that if she went to his house and seduced him he wouldn't turn her down. I wasn't entirely sure about that. But it worked. That's how I remember the story, at least.

At this moment he began to move out into the world, officially speaking. He became a man, and so on. He became an upstanding citizen. He was seen places. His girlfriend absorbed an enormous amount of his energy and social life. They stayed together in college, her on the east coast and him at my school in california, talking on webcams.

By this time he was studying economics. I was studying Marxism, or, I guess, post-Marxism, something even more unmarketable than Marxism. Building on Marx with Bataille, Foucault, trying to balance that "high theory" with something more grounded, theories of imperialism and race, gender, and class. This was a lot of work. I joined a new department which was designed to study critical race theory, psychoanalysis, marxism, queer theory... He was doing research projects in economics. We quickly began unable to talk to each other about our projects in any depth, because we were more or less unfamiliar with each other's specialized vocabularies. Or we each believed ourselves to be already familiar with what the other was doing, and each time we heard each other talk about his interests, we knew that our paths had diverged. To me, everything he was doing was a New Economy corporatism: what are the incentives which motivate people to make certain choices? To me this was one of the more inane questions, not because it didn't matter but because there were thousands of people who took home nice paychecks and supported mistresses with claims to answer this question. I realized eventually that this question came out of Public Relations, which was founded by the nephew of Freud, someone who I had studied with some interest, but to me this was a waste of Freud, wasting him on something useful. If learning or study or discussion was to mean anything to me it had to be shot through with the kind of evil that belongs to Georges Bataille's literature, the evil that kept Kafka writing, the evil that makes hip hop a public act, the most public of all music in the 90's. We were not learning about Bataille and Foucault and even James Baldwin and Oku Onuora in order to get jobs. For my friend it was as though his passion and his desire to make money had fused, and had fused long ago, before high school.

Time and again he espoused his theory to me, which belonged to Adam Smith and to Milton Friedman before him, that the best and most ethical thing to do is to pursue one's own rational economic self-interest. The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand called it. Isn't that great news? This is when, I guess, I found it difficult not to hate him again. I said, it's only because we studied the Torah together that I love this guy, out of a kind of communal, cultural love, and that love doesn't allow me to see him as my enemy. But, as with the state of Israel, in a way he was beginning to express the exact things against which I wanted to dedicate my time and effort--my life. I wanted to plot to sabotage this self-satisfied ideology. I wanted to commit intellectual mutiny against it, because I knew that it was the structure within which I had to live. I knew that he was right, in the sense that the colonizer was right to call the native a savage: it became right in saying it while holding power. This doesn't mean that it was the only truth, or the one which mattered most. In one way or another, yes, I do need to pursue my self-interest, but only as and through the interests of others.

This is the childishness and the evil of literature. The pursuit of the opposite of work, which is sharing or parcelling-out, giving oneself away and sharing one's body through a labor of love, exactly like Jesus. This point has been made by Altizer and many others, but when you really reflect on it, there is an evil to Jesus that has been almost completely annihilated by our culture which is obsessed with the mirages of happiness and "prosperity." True love, in capitalism, is the utmost evil, because it requires conviction and the breakdown of work for the good of everyday people. And this is what had dried up in my friend.

Or maybe it hasn't dried up, and this is what sustains him and keeps him alive, keeps him on this side of suicide. He has love, but he can no longer show me love, because he doesn't trust me, and never really has. The problem was that he didn't trust me, especially with information about him. He told me a thousand times that I was a gossip, that I needed to learn not to gossip. So the writing of these words is the betrayal, not only of work, but of him, that has forever colored our relationship.

"who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...shadows."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Can you (begin to) explain these statistics?

Many ignored causes...

Oakland, CA: population 399,000
London, England: population 7.5 million

In 2009, London had 15 murders.
Oakland had more than 100 (the SF Chronicle website on the topic is no longer updated...)