Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
2Apr/130

Amor Mundi 3/31/13

Arendtamormundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi:Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Are Animals One of Us?

animalJohn Jeremiah Sullivan has an essay in the new Lapham's Quarterly on animals. Sullivan begins his essay "One of Us" with this description of studies that upend our view of humankind's unique place in the universe. Against the view that humans are special, that we think differently than animals, and that only humans have consciousness, Sullivan writes, "If we put aside the self-awareness standard-and really, how arbitrary and arrogant is that, to take the attribute of consciousness we happen to possess over all creatures and set it atop the hierarchy, proclaiming it the very definition of consciousness (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote something wise in his notebooks, to the effect of: only a man can draw a self-portrait, but only a man wants to)-it becomes possible to say at least the following: the overwhelming tendency of all this scientific work, of its results, has been toward more consciousness. More species having it, and species having more of it than assumed." For Sullivan, we can no longer rely on an easy distinction between human and animal; on the Arendt Center blog Roger Berkowitz responds.

Writing After Tahrir

typeLast year Stephen Morison Jr. went to Egypt to seek out the country's post-Mubarak literary culture. What he found were people alternately disillusioned and still hopeful, including the short story writer Muhamed "Nebo" Abdelnaby, who told him that, as the possibility of censorship has replaced the reality of corruption, the Western expectations for Egyptian writers has changed little: "They don't want us to be experimental; they don't want us to be a little bit crazy; this is for their writers."

 

 

Traveling America's Arteries

Prison Compound at Angola. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934.

Prison Compound at Angola. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934.

John F. Cline recently began a trip that will retrace many of the routes African Americans took from the South into the North in the early parts of the 20th century. One of his first stops was Louisiana's infamous Angola prison, which he was allowed to tour. Among other things, he describes Angola's hospice program, at which inmates care for dying members of the prison population. Cline notes that those who pass are buried with dignity and respect: "when the hospice patients die, they are no longer buried in a corner of the facility in Styrofoam containers: wooden coffins are built in the prison's carpentry shop, covered with hand-quilted palls, and the dead are taken to their graves in a horse-drawn hearse trailed by an inmate procession."

 

The Trial of General Rios Montt

rios

Flickr via Ian Bunn

Aryeh Neier points to the beginnings of Guatemala's proceedings against its former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt as a "repudiation" of America's Latin America policies in the 1980s. This is the first time "a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country." The charges against Rios Montt include the deaths of more than 1,700 Ixils, one of the country's indigenous populations, and his trial includes testimony from Ixil survivors, something that Neier thinks is, of itself, "a remarkable development."

 

Charles Krafft and the Conundrum of Nazi Art

artRachel Arons considers the recent outing of fine artist Charles Krafft as a neo nazi and Holocaust denier. Krafft's work has often included Nazi imagery, which was previously widely believed to have been used ironically. As Arons points out, however, interpreting Krafft, and other artists who appropriate Nazi iconography, has always been complicated. "There isn't," she writes, "a clear line between 'irony' and 'homage' in Krafft's work, and it's a mistake to assume, as many members of the art world apparently have, that an ironic artistic appropriation of Nazi symbols safely amounts to an anti-Nazi critique."

Featured Upcoming N.Y.C. Event

Blogging and the New Public Intellectual

An Ongoing Series of discussions moderated by Roger Berkowitz and Walter Russell Mead.

April 9, 2013 at Bard Graduate Center

David Frum, blogger for

The Daily Beast&

The Huffington Post.

Learn more here.

"David Frum is back. And he's jockeying to be the front and center of the post-Romney American conservative movement". - Eddy Moretti

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

 

This week on the blog, Nikita Nelin rites about his experience as a teacher of literature working with students focused on employment and Jeff Jurgens wonders whether Americans will ever understand what the invasion of Iraq meant for Iraqis.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
27Mar/130

Water and Desert: Perspectives in Education

AredntNola

For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”

think

I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.

I was regularly reminded that the  immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.

I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.

Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?”  Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.

The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.

wallace

Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”

I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”

To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.

“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.

I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.

I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.

Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.

They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River”  would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.

More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.

employ

Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.

“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.

Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”

“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?

Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”

Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.

-Nikita Nelin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
12Mar/131

The Brain Activity Map

AredntNola

I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.

This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.

Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.

Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?

Ars Electronica, Flickr

Ars Electronica, Flickr

BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.

But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.

The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.

The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.

Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!

I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.

Flickr Creative Commons by @Tati

Flickr Creative Commons by @Tati

I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.

Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.

-Nikita Nelin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
13Feb/130

Let’s Talk About Power

Something happened on February 3rd that has never happened before, and in contrast to the event that provided the circumstance for its happening, it is almost a footnote in our discussion of what we really witnessed that day.

Superbowl XLVII was held in New Orleans last week. It was an awesome game filled with unique shows of strength, human agility and competition, and momentum swings. I have always loved sports for this reason, they can showcase the apex of physical discipline, potential, and unity. They are an active metaphor -- literally, of action.

Football may be the most apt war metaphor we have. A team is a conquering nation set upon invading the other teams turf. No individual effort of strength or force can bring victory. A win is a team win, brought upon only through clear unity. But last Monday these representations became even more pronounced. Just after halftime Jacoby Jones, a speedy receiver who now plays for the Baltimore Ravens and is a product of New Orleans, took a kickoff 108 yards for a score. The guy was flying, clearly the fastest man on the field that day. Don’t tell me that in part he was not driven by the energy of performing back on his hometown. The man represented the city in this game. It was a triumph for New Orleans. There was a cheer beyond the Stadium. Frankly, most in the stadium were outsiders, only visiting the city for the event, unaware of the fact that Jones was a native. Just after Jones scored the power in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out. Oh yeah, the Superdome has been renamed the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, because that changes things... Anyway, according to Entergy, the energy company supplying the power to the stadium, the outage was the product of a glitch from outside of the Superdome. Does anyone else find this oddly poetic?

I know, who wants on the festive day of the Super Bowl, with all its earning potential, both inside and outside of the city, all of its ability to showcase the most celebratory elements of the crescent city, who wants to return to the conversation of race, gentrification, education, and power, and their relationship to one another? But we are not over it. New Orleans is not over it. Yes, thousands of people descend upon this city for the Super Bowl to spend millions of dollars in the most extravagant of ways. The restaurants stock up on expensive meats. Champagne and Courvoisier VSOP are flowing. The private escort sector brings in outside recruits and stocks up on Bolivian marching powder (I mean, come on, do we really think that’s not happening?). Thousands of locals pay their rent and grocery bills through this commerce contract. But is this not an opportunity to re-examine what happened?

Katrina was a stark reminder of the inequality within our county. It awoke the common shout of the forgotten. This lens is not only applicable to the gulf region. It was an opportunity to zoom out and see where else this glitch is taking place. But that of course takes action. An action of self-inventory on the part of the power institutions in this county, as well as individuals. And for the most part these institutions have proven themselves anything but ‘powerful‘ at least in terms of Arendt’s vision of the word. They are money-strong and possess the weight of force, but these alone can lead only to a politic of totalitarianism. “True power,” again, “is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

Have we done that? Have we, as a nation, conducted the self-inventory necessitated by Katrina?

For thirty four minutes the power in the Superdome was out. The images of the players stretching on the field were an odd, ironic, peculiar, haunting flashback to the Fall of 2005, when the turf of the Superdome became the staging ground of a mismanaged relief effort, and another reality TV show for so many around the county watching it on television.

I do not mean to say that people were not moved to action by Katrina. On the contrary, the country united in the wake of the storm and at the shocking disclosures of our government's impotence. But, possibly we have let a great part of the story go, cataloguing it under ‘what happened” We have disbanded. Labeled what happened in New Orleans as “there” and thus divorced from the “here.” We have allowed ourselves to become disempowered. I’m just saying, just asking, have we moved beyond our active, democratic right (and even mandate) to diagnose the source of a power outage?

It was a great game though. After 34 minutes of sedation the momentum shifted. The San Francisco 49ers almost pulled off a historic comeback, before the Ravens defense finally held its ground on a last down goal-line stance. It was a pretty game. A show of individual strength, a collision of forces, an art brought to being in the action of power.

For 34 minutes the fans at the Superdome, as well as the hundreds of millions of people watching across the globe, waited for power to come back. Advertisers, of course, lapped up the extra T.V. time. In between the commercials images of players from both teams laying or sitting and stretching on the turf of the Superdome were broadcast out to the world.

Let’s talk about power...Hannah Arendt writes, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In addition, Arendt makes a clear distinction between power, force and strength. Power is the only of the three that in order to exist requires a union of people, “and vanishes the moment they disperse.” It is only in the “public realm” that power meets its “action potential,” and what “first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” Cease to actualize, and the power is out. In this sense democracy is the products of power, and legitimate, firm standing, only in this active action of its members, and not on the collection of force or display of strength.

In many ways New Orleans has moved beyond Katrina. The rebuilding, re-conceptualizing of the city is well, well on the way. Much of this movement has come from grass-root structures, as well as political institutions, though the latter are often mired in a economics based debate over what New Orleans ‘should‘ look like. And yet the discussion of what happened here and what still happens is often brushed aside too quickly. In 2005, a glitch from outside of the city, outside of the congregation space, had completely disempowered it.

-Nikita Nelin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
6Feb/130

“If”

My girlfriend and I walked by a clothing storefront and noticed the print on some of the t-shirts at the lower right corner of the window and went in. She had mentioned this Imaginary Foundation (IF) before. They make print t-shirts.

I went to school at an expensive liberal arts college in the Hudson Valley—everyone there makes print t-shirts. It is like a business you start as a college sophomore as a way to convince yourself that you are a ‘creative entrepreneur’ before you enter the corporate world (or, alternatively, as a penance for inherited culture and comfort) the not-for-profit world.

Often, I cannot stand them —the print t-shirts. There is something out of shape about them, as if the juxtaposition of body/shirt/image, sets askew some intrinsic agreement in the marriage of fashion and identity. And yet, the IF designs spoke to me. There is something dreamy and yet sincere about these prints. If le petit prince was looking for a print t-shirt, he would buy one of these.

It just so happened that the owner of the company was visiting this Seattle distributor and was in the store. He was awkward, skittish and European. I liked him, and before we left I told him that I blog for a thinking and humanities institute out east and may want to write about his brand. That’s how I got into the Imaginary Foundation.

The shirts are not exactly ‘pretty,’ or ‘fashionable,’ rather, their attraction is a gesture beyond themselves -- a rare feat in a culture that positions branding as the apex of success. I’ll describe one shirt and if interested you can invest your own time in the Imaginary Foundation.

The “Being There” shirt has three anonymous human heads (one of the cloud suit, one of the water suit, and one of the fire suit). The heads are in peripheral view and are aligned, with a slight skew (allowing us the view of all three faces), as they break through a wall, the veil of the universe.

Other shirts handle concepts of psychosis and love “Love Science,” science and discovery in a reach towards heaven “Reach,” and other such concepts widely considered esoteric or cliché within the lens of our popular culture. But, we no longer understand what a ‘cliché’ is. I have long held the view that a cliché is a truth, or a point of interest and perspective insight, that has simply been worn out by overexposure. But who has worn it out? How have we taken the liberty and quiet pleasure of the private sphere (the realms of reflection, contemplation, meditation as it is thought of in the Greek terms), out of our living cycle, our consciousness, our daily existence? Why is the call for private contemplation no longer a necessity of existence? It seems we should have more time then ever for such practices. So many of our daily chores, our basic needs, are met through the economic matrix. I no longer have to chop wood for warmth, hunt a boar for food, trek down to the river for a water simply, etc... Why shouldn’t I spend more time in private contemplation, or even public conversation on these more subtle topics of the human necessity? Why shouldn’t I be making something in an effort to communicate those private necessities? The actualization of the humanist requires space for such a practice. And yet, anything that requires a slowing down of, a calling for the work of the mind and private reasoning, is now, quite often immediately, labeled a cliché.

In The Human Condition Arendt writes “The emancipation of labor and the concomitant emancipation of the laboring classes from oppression and exploitation certainly means progress in the direction of non-violence. It is much less certain that it was also progress in the direction of freedom.” She is not saying that laboring classes should not have been emancipated. Rather, that the humanist goal has been blurred by some glitch. Instead of moving towards freedom from wasteful labor (a waste of human power -- physical, mental, spiritual) we instead have emancipated labor. Most of us have become imprisoned in a non-sustainable cycle that for the continuation of its forward motion requires an ever-increasing consumption and waste. This waste can be seen in terms of power. The core power of the human psyche originates in the liberty of free private thoughts—a psychological space for contemplation. A mapping of one’s stillness that is only possible in the acquisition of free time. Free time is a result of freedom from labors necessity. What Arendt’s thoughts gesture towards is that the set of basic necessities that we have been freed from, have been replaced by another, far more complicated and disguised set—the necessity to perpetuate a system that is moving much faster then us; a necessity to consume and continue consuming. To be ‘a part of‘ is, today, to be a consumer—to take ones place in the labor of waste.

Oh right, I wanted to tell you about a product...

“IF” is a creative project. It gains the viewers attention and borrows the imagination. This is a beginning. It does not steal, it borrows. It suggests the prospect of resonance rather than ownership.

I checked out the company website. The “about” page describes the development of the Imaginary Foundation: “a think tank from Switzerland that does experimental research on new ways of thinking and the power of the imagination. They hold dear a belief in human potential and seek progress in all directions.” The page is dotted with black and white images from the sixties, shaggy haired men and turtle-neck clad women engaged in contemplative, laissez-faire, light spirited dialogue. The imaginary director of the foundation is described as a “70-something uber-intellectual whose father founded the Dadaist movement.” The foundation is imaginary. It is a base, a canvas, for the products (the t-shirts) and the ideas behind them.

The blog section of the site imagines a list of contributors: Isadore Muggll, Kamilla Rousseau, etc. These architects, as is the back story, are too imaginary. “IF” is a fictional foundation for the product. But the product is real and engaging.

What is captured here goes beyond the tangible properties of the product (t-shirts). It is about what the product delivers—the wonder of creativity and science, the archetypes of the IF.  Imagination IS the foundation of this product.

The blog itself is a venue for artists who marry technology and art, as well as other thought provoking materials. The image I use at the head of this article is taken from the blog. Cloud, idea, light, community, play—IF: all these are represented in the Cloud installation. This art installation is a discovery I am brought to by the Imaginary Foundation.

I once taught a course on the development of contemporary advertising, heavily focused on Edward Bernays and the peripheral route of persuasion. Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Woodrow Wilson’s image advisor, the father of the term "Public Relations," and the architect of the torches of freedom (Lucky Strikes) campaign, among many others. His theory, though terribly simplified here, was that the modern consumer does not purchase with his mind; rather, he defers to his emotions in most choices. The rational-actor is a fiction. If consumerism became god, branding became its religion.

Ad campaigns have become remarkably creative, and even, at times, beautiful. Have you ever felt the urge to cry during a Jeep commercial? Many have. I think I have. The central conceptual premise of the AMC show Mad Men, depends upon this tension: between art and consumption; the rendering from black and white, to color; the effective marketing and selling off of the human experience. In question is the art aspect of advertising. It is at the core of Don Draper’s motivations, and the one that despite his many character failings keeps endearing him to us. Ultimately we are asking, will he reconcile his artistic urge (his private motivation) with his office at the homunculus of the consumerism model (his role in the corporate arena). Exposed is a manipulation, an incongruence, an infidelity in the marriage of advertising and art. Where as art points towards something beyond itself, beyond even the image and the medium, the ad campaign points only to one purpose—back into itself. No idea behind it. Nothing living. It consumes.

Advertising is like the Ouroboros, the dragon that swallows its own tail; having entirely swallowed itself, the modern advertising campaign defies the laws of balance, it is only the un-relentless, hungry serpent head of consumption -- devoid of the body of life. The only urge driving it is to possess.

It is the difference between the work of Egon Schiele and Penthouse, the writings of Georges Bataille and a godaddy.com super bowl campaign.

Seduce ->consume. This is the current mandate of the ad campaign. But this relationship is only sustainable through incompletion. It requires continual doses. Seduce -> consume -> feel a lack even in the possession of product (contract unfulfilled) -> be seduced again -> consume. Ad infinitum. A terrible loop.

How can consumerism and individual consciousness (the most private sector) be made sustainable? Is it possible for a product to speak beyond itself? To fulfill the promise of its persuasion? And if it could, what would that mean for us?

Here I position the word sustainability to face two directions. In part it refers to what Arendt terms as “worldly,” the creation produced through work and not labor, something that has the potential to last beyond the productions of time, something that maneuvers into the arena of the eternal. I also want to posit the word in terms of its evolving contemporary potential. The one sector of the public, and political sphere that allows for the platform of this conversation is the environmental movement. It is where we have begun to contemplate the world beyond the shortsighted view of individual lifetimes. We speak of the sustainability of our planet; we are considering new ways to move our habits from wasteful and consumptive, towards lasting and sustainable power. It is a fairly new conversation and the word “sustainability” is evolving with each new perspective we bring to it.

Sustainability goes beyond consumer awareness. It is about the awareness of the product, how a brand gains consciousness. I need to explore here a definition of “consciousness.”

I have come to understand definitions as ever evolving in accordance with society and the pressures put upon it by the conditions of the time, the fractals of our world (more simply put, the culture stew).

Consciousness is the expanding of space into which one can resonate. To learn of the world around us, to acknowledge it, to consider its multiple dimensions, is to become more conscious -- to create space into which we can move by the will of our imagination and invention.

The Imaginary Foundation is an example of this bridge. It acknowledges itself and its fiction. It allows for play. It is a small company that uses the fabrication of its narrative to bring the consumers attention to the mimetic principles behind its product. Revealing the architects conceit brings me (the consumer) into co-authorship of the story. It endears itself to me. We do not only consume the product. We consume the narrative of the product. Even if I do not purchase, if I am thinking about it, I am talking about it, I have bought in. If it generates new ideas and deeper order thoughts, then I have begun to take ownership of the product. I consume the myth, I begin to co-author it -- I don it in the neural network of culture. And thus the product has gained consciousness, has begun to be carried beyond the object -- it resonates.

My study of this product is limited. I am not encouraging anyone here to purchase a shirt. I have not purchased a shirt. What I think this opens up is a table for negotiations between the current consumerism model, and individual consciousness—an opportunity to examine sustainable consumerism in all implications.

-Nikita Nelin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Sep/121

Destructive Criticism

Nikita Nelin continues his report of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, 8/15/12-9/5/12. You can read his first post here.

“Art washed away the dust of everyday living.”

-Pablo Picasso

Here, on the Playa, you are covered in dust. “Playa,” is what this stretch of desert is referred to as. It is Spanish for “beach.” Someone thought it was funny. Maybe this is irony? Maybe a gesture to what is obviously missing? Maybe a metaphor to what has been created in its place. Either way, I like the sound of “Playa.” Here, you get a Playa name. There are few rules about the name except you cannot name yourself. “The Playa names you.” Here are no trash receptacles and yet there is no trash left behind. Here, you participate, you take stock, ownership, time. Here, you juxtapose the here to the there, and back again, just to see what can happen -- to see what remains when the dust is washed away.

I have been off of the Playa for less then 24 hours. I am in Circus Circus hotel in Reno. What more appropriate place to orient one's self. Hunter S. Thompson did it. I may as well steal that little bit. The Playa still feels like the here. The there is quite unclear to me right now. Here, in the circus, I can practice making time work again as an abstraction rather than a point of location. In the mean time here is a little something of what remains and what does not.

The ornate temple, filled with messages from loved ones to the departed. The forty foot man with his 60 foot base, stapled with an alpha symbol on one side and an omega symbol on the other, a nod to the theme of this years Burning Man (Fertility 2.0), and honoring the equilibrium of the genders. The smaller projects round the playa: a ten foot wooden head, with a cave and deck, decorated with Osho Zen pictures, and phrases of compassion; the glittering three letters of EGO, which from a far looks simple and gregarious but upon close encounter is revealed to be made from intricate carvings reaching towards the religious and sociocultural milieu; a brass, broken heart (I sat in it); a laser harp (I played it), a wooden hive which held space for sunrise tea ceremonies (I drank it). All of them, and more, I saw, and lived inside, and then I watched them burn. All those I experienced, I celebrated, and I acknowledged their passing -- all those except for one. The one I had worked on; Burn Wall Street.

My initial invitation here was as a reporter -- to work on, and write about the Burn Wall Street project. The project was the largest non-temple, non-Man, Playa built to-date. Two city blocks. Five buildings. Two weeks on site to put the walls together, and up. It was first meant to make a statement and to encourage unity. The mock approach, to build buildings with names like “Bank of unAmerica,” “Goldman Sucks,” “Merrill Lynched,” “Chaos Manhattan,” you get the picture. The idea was to unite through outrage. Otto Von Danger stated clearly, “the Tea Party and Occupy are getting [worked over] by the same enemy.”

Yet, once they finally burned I did not celebrate. I felt no sense of relief or unity. I just saw buildings burning. Fire in windows. And as much as I wanted to feel a sense of completion or inspiration, I just kept coming back to those windows, and the idea of people. This is not an easy entry for me. I want to tell you about everything beautiful I saw, all the unity, all the dimensions of gratitude -- a chaos so gifted and dense that it approaches the image of the divine, a vision of what Burning Man approaches for me. But first I have to tell you about irony, anarchy and terrorism.

I arrived to Reno on a Wednesday. A guest of Joe Olivier, a brilliant engineer who became involved with Burning Man in 2001 and has since been a central player in the development of the event. This year Joe (a.k.a. Exact Lee) committed to the Burn Wall Street project. Like me, he was impressed with the scale of the installation and the potential of its resonance. If we consider Burning Man to be space created for the creative engineering of the human experience, who better then an engineer to be central in its evolution.

This concept of engineering (of experience, of environment, of society) is key here, and something I want to return to in a future post. Burning Man is both a test lab, and a sample of society. When we begin to extrapolate we begin to see this act of “engineering” in every facet of our regular world. Similarly, the identification of everything built on the Playa as an “installation,” has reach into the regular world. All is an installation, in one part because it is intent with creating an experience, and in another, because it is acknowledged as impermanent (remember, everything burns). No wonder I felt so disoriented once I left the playa and drove into Reno yesterday. I was reentering the familiar, and yet I continued relating to everything I saw as an installation (a patch of grass, which I had not seen in almost three weeks, a stream with trees and a canopy, the bright outlines of Reno’s casino center, the Wal-Mart installation, the curved golden arches, of a fast food joint, etc...). Could we, in fact, be engineering our society, removed from the words of Ozymandias? What is our creative intention? What experience are we burning to facilitate?

Back to the story.

After a day spent in Reno, Joe drove me into the desert. It was a surreal site. At the time there was only the base of The Man, the outline of the Temple, and the BWS territory. Otherwise just the cracked white desert floor and dust storms. I made introductions, helped fetch some water, and fell asleep.

I was awoken at 6 a.m. to the sound of someone yelling through a bullhorn. “Get up, mother fuckers, up, up, up.” I put on my goggles and bandana (both necessary for protection from the dust storms) and went out to find my place. It would not have been enough to just watch. If I was to understand anything, if I was to have something to write about, I had be involved, to participate (for a definition of “participate” please reference my earlier post).

Here is the thing, it is quite awe inspiring how quickly we can assimilate to the demands of our conditions. Scorching sun, one plate, one spoon, one cup, dust storms and 16 hour workdays, become normalcy rather quickly. We can even become accustomed to a type of chaos, a disorder of environment and circumstance, a certain disorganization. Such chaos breeds surprise and even serendipity. You are in a desert. You are thirsty, exhausted. Someone wanders by with gatorade and sits down to tell you their story. How they got there. It is something akin to the sense of deja vu.

My first day, I painted some, I butchered chicken carcasses without gloves, and then I landed on a build crew. Mind you, despite the wishes of my Russian father I have never had to build anything. I barely knew how to use a screw gun. Aren’t there special angles for optimal hold?

I spend the next nine days helping to build. No one was prepared. The build was run by two former military men whose idea of leadership was the application of pressure. The problem was that we were behind schedule and the original designs were not holding up well in the environment, and we had five buildings to put together. Oh, yeah, and there were only two real carpenters on crew.

The crew consisted of three classes. There were the war veterans who had joined the project either out of anger at our political system or out of their loyalty to Otto Von Danger (the artist behind the project, a staple name at Burning Man and a veteran suffering from Gulf War syndrome). There were the wanderers who wanted a ticket into Burning Man, and thus joined the project. And there were the professionals who through some strange chain of events ended up at 10 o’clock on the playa (the Playa is designed as a clock with the Man as the central point, and all distance is measured by time): a teacher, painter, and women's rights activist from Reno who ultimately began to function as a leader of a wall-build crew; a former brew master from the midwest who had been laid off without cause some months before and stumbled upon an ad for Burn Wall Street on the internet; a former ad man for a legal firm who had also been laid off some months before the build; a mother of two from Michigan who had lost her home some months before; among others... This last group fascinated me most. For them the projects' ideals communicated directly the experiences of their everyday lives. They were there with a purpose. BWS could be a voice to their outrage. They were the last to leave the build. When others began to abandon the site, me included, these were the people that held it together, these were the people we who fled felt guilty towards.

As the project deteriorated the morning bullhorn became meaner and more demanding. A meeting would be held in the morning. There would be threats: those who tried to leave the site would be “thrown off the playa.” Then the bullhorns would disappear. They would reemerge through out the day to monitor the progress, or the lack-thereof, and then again would be gone.

Decisions were made. Some walls had to be deconstructed as we had been putting them together in a way that could not hold up. Put together, take apart, rinse, repeat. “We had built and taken this thing apart twice already,” someone remarked.

Two of buildings were to be cut a floor short. Graffiti art was to be sacrificed (the graffiti artist having been, um, “thrown off the playa.” He was now sitting in a jail outside of Reno having been busted for hitchhiking). Construction would grind to a halt as either the winds were too harsh for the cranes, or another meeting of the red and blue hats was called (1 green, 4 red, 8 blue, and 50 white, is how you knew your place). The crews would huddle down for cover in front of the wall corners that had been built but were yet to be hoisted up to be made into buildings, drink water, smoke, eat granola bars. The playa was littered with them, the corners. In their own right the corners had become an installation. An interactive maze in which everyone got lost. Kind of pretty, almost. Chaos. Send someone out for more nails, lost. Send someone out for a drill, which were always lacking, lost. Send someone out for extra muscle, lost.

I am told that each Burning Man build takes on the aura of the idea that bore it. Each person who has worked on the temple reports it to be a transcendent experience. An overwhelming challenge of deliberation and connectivity. The Man Crew reports cohesion and pride. They build the symbol of the city, the structure that due to its size and positioning will help orient the 60,000 participants round the Playa . Burn Wall Street became a collision of disorganization, ego, and faithlessness. Even those who despite the stumbling blocks continued to trudge forward could not inspire the rest of us to follow. The rest of us chose self preservation instead. The concept did not hold together. The ones in charge became the embodiment of what the project was meant to mock.

Ultimately, what was needed was built. The rest, the corners never to be hoisted up, were salvaged as wind blocks for various camps. Carpenters from the Department of Public Works (DPW) showed up as a favor to Exact Lee, and did what we were failing to do -- work together. They are specialists in this, sort of like the special ops of Black Rock City.

It was a Saturday. I had been there for eleven days and the event itself was to begin on Sunday. My girlfriend was due to arrive that day and the last thing I intended to do was enter the event, the celebration phase in that special state of disaster that BWS had brought out in me. People all over were setting up camps. The night before I had moved away from the project and entered my camp. I was determined to get ready for the next phase of this experience, having in part been counseled by some Burning Man veterans from my camp to step away from BWS before it ruins my first BM experience. After all, I was here to report on all of it, not just the anarchy at ten o’clock.

Yet, that day I continued to make runs from the camp area to BWS. In an art car, a converted F-350 that looked like a wooden tank with the turret missing, I ran breakfast and lunch out to the build (the bus with the stove having already been driven into the camp area previous night). I had also been charged by Joe to offer up rides to anyone needing to leave the site and build their camp. I like to think I was evacuating people, providing a route of transition.

The final vision of the construction was a monstrosity. Burn Wall Street was the ugliest installation on the project; in this it was a success. It was not meant to be beautiful. So askew was it from the other carefully crafted designs of the Playa -- the magic, white polished wood, curved, ornate, awe and wonder inspiring, carefully thought out and nurtured pieces all over the clock of the city -- that Burn Wall Street called attention to itself by its “outofplaceness.” It was a game of “what does not belong?” Yet, an odd trick of perspective made it so that many people did not immediately notice the two-block structure disturbing the sky. As they arrived, their eyes, yet to adjust to this carefully intentioned landscape, overlooked the ugly and unintentioned. And this calls into question the perspective of everyday. How is it that we have allowed ourselves to become so accustomed to the monstrosities in our vision? Why, have we so easily accepted the most dysfunctional structures of our everyday life? Could it be that we participate not only by building, but also by accepting what we see?

Burn Wall Street was due to burn on Friday. The smaller projects would burn on Thursday. The Man would Burn on Saturday and the Temple on Sunday. All of Friday a skeleton crew of volunteers held the demolition perimeter around the site. A number of the original volunteers were still there, to the end. The highlight of the project was to be the controlled burn and the fireworks/demolition/TNT of Burn Wall Street. Yet, the winds, and concern from the safety authorities of Black Rock City dictated a postponement of the Burn. Burn Wall Street would Burn on Saturday, after the Man.

Irony, it ended up upstaging The Man. Irony, it became what it rebelled against, it swallowed all kind intentions. It became a war zone; maybe we create what we know. Is that a lesson? Too cliche; too tired.

Friday a new perimeter was created. To the disappointment of the artist the explosives would have to be canceled. He would have to be satisfied with simply burning something.

I am told that on Saturday, as volunteers took their places again around the perimeter, Otto Von Danger, and his chief lieutenant, showed up on site with a meal they had prepared with their own hands. Do we identify “this” as irony, submission, redemption, at last an invitation of all parties to the table?

At 1 a.m., on Saturday morning, I watched Wall Street burn. Following the euphoria of the Man burn -- a celebration of something, a cumulative acknowledgement to the culture created and its transiency -- Burn Wall Street felt like the death of something. There was no gratitude, no closure, no more dialogue.

Someone asked me, “why not have built the buildings upside down?” Why not? That would have made it art. That would have made the burn more about statement then destruction. That would have been a conversation. No. I saw buildings burn. I saw horror. Before the fire started, the buildings, with their windows lacking glass or any other sign of life and care, still seemed a bit abstract to me, like toys. But filled with fire, like rows and rows of odd teeth missing, their crevices aflame, I thought of life. I thought of New York. I saw people in those windows. To me, this became a vision of anarchy and a metaphor for terrorism. And for that I am grateful because it crystalized something that my humanist roots have been suggesting all along.

Ultimately, if we are to have a conversation about change, there must be room at the table for everyone -- a chance for every story.

Our society is failing. The theory of our being has broken down. We are approaching the state of chaos, an opportunity for building something. Not entirely doing away with, but regrouping on what we have, and setting about with a new intention. Mocking, belittling, only affirms fear -- it creates the enemy, and it silences.

What Burning Man, what the Playa, the beach, this small social experiment, this slice of life teaches me is that the dust of everyday living, a harsh rock, a desert, an opportunity -- not to be escaped from, but built upon.

-Nikita Nelin

P.S. I now know how to build a square house. Father would be happy.

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Aug/124

To the Place of Definitions

A few weeks ago I ran into Nikita Nelin, a former student who has had success as a fiction writer and recently as a professor. He told me he was off on an adventure to attend the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. His intention was to write about the experience and see what he thought of it. We decided he would send back reports of his immediate reflections upon the experience that we would publish here on the Hannah Arendt Center blog. Below is his first report. His effort is to report on what is happening in a thoughtful way rather than to offer judgments about the events he is describing. This may disappoint those who would seek to find praise or disdain, but spectatorial distance offers an opportunity for thinking outside the confines of liberal and conservative political discourse.

-RB

Ten hours after arriving I woke up in the middle of the night completely disoriented, in a lightless box, trying to tear my way out. I brought down a curtain rod and my fingers tore at a thin wooden wall. Everything was rocking in my movements.         

There was a slight strip of illumination, not from anything natural but from one of the forty feet tall construction lights outside, which seeped into my trailer as I began, slowly, to orient myself.

That’s how I arrive. Whether it is a New York apartment, a Bayou shotgun house, a tent in upstate New York, or a dusty trailer in the Nevada desert, I first, half unconscious, have to try to tear my way out before I can understand the new geography of home. You may find this odd but in a sense we all do this. We grapple, be it by will, intellect, or some approximation with the divine, to define the dimensions of here, of home.

Right now I live in the Nevada desert, a little over three hours drive east of Reno. The land is a dry sponge, unyielding. I am sunburned -- five applications of sunscreen a day is not enough when there is no cover -- and everything I own is caked in “playa dust.” It’s like bathing in a milk substance but without any moisture to it. It gets into everything. Even my insides feel compromised by it. There is construction outside. Someone is barking out orders.

Why am I here? Why would someone put themselves through this? I’ve been now asking this for five days.

I came out here to learn about Burning Man, an annual event/festival/artistic orgy/creative epicenter (call it what you will, though believe me when I say that there is no way to define it except through immersion into it). It began in 1986 on Baker Beach in California. The first year 20 people attended and a stick figure of a man was burned at its finale. Today it takes place in the desert and by August 27th, over 60,000 people will descend on this previously empty desert city.

It is a city. For one week it becomes the 6th largest city in Nevada. I am here for the building of it. It grows out of the sponge, from nothing, and then is burned, its remains scrubbed. There will be no sign of its presence. Just the over 60,000 stories.

Like any community it functions under a set of principles: “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” Before you judge this as naive, I ask that you try one exercise. Consider each of those principles individually. Weighed for the multiplicity of their meanings. For a moment lets leave the pressures of immediacy and criticisms behind and deal strictly with definitions. What is the potential of each of these words? Of each of these principles? In definition alone, not yet masked by dissolution and skepticism, how wide can each word, each principle, resonate?

Thank you.

In part due to the commitment of its designers, and participants, and in part arising from the challenge of the inhospitable environment of the desert, these principles are followed as if commandments by almost everyone here.         

It is truly a community, entirely dependent on the effort and strength of one another for its construction, survival, and burn.

This is a creative center. First come the walls, the gate, the streets, the gigantic arts projects (a forty foot man with his sixty foot base, a temple, and this year a mock replica of Wall Street—then the smaller projects, more people, performers, fire breathers, Mad Max cars, cast-iron unicorns and dragons, and twisted designs from the mind of Dante). If it can be invented, someone will find a way to make it here. Fire is the central element of creativity; it mends, fuses, inspires and destroys. “Every act of creation is preceded by an act of destruction” is the famous statement by Picasso; it is a cycle that, depending on your perspective, can go from destruction to creation.           

This a place of metaphor, of community, of story, of extreme physical effort. It is a place of definition.

When I first told people what I wanted to do the response was supportive, but tempered. Many consider Burning Man to be a hedonistic party, a drug-fest, an indulgence, a carnival of freaks. And, this too is here. But that is only a small part of what one finds and it is the act of “Participation” that can allow one to find what they need here. Granted, there is such a thing as seeking without a purpose, a way to become lost in the act of fantasy, a dark abyss. There is a quote by Francisco de Goya that I keep turning around in my mind: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” But, the act of creation begins with fantasy. Purpose (reason) drives it. It manifests an idea into the tangible. Gives form to the elusive. That’s what writing does. That’s what society does -- we manifest -- be it true though, that so often, today, we no longer know the reason. 

Reason, can be seen in two aspects. It is the reason for, and the reasoning of. It can be the answer to why, and to the how. To understand where we are, we have to understand both definitions of reason. Otherwise we lose track of our path, our history (personal, cultural, political, economic, spiritual). To be divorced from reason is a type of vertigo. It is waking up in the dark, trying to dig your way out, not knowing where you are, how you got here, why you came -- it is an endless digging, a struggle without reason -- just an endless, exhausting, flailing effort, seemingly without end. A nightmare without light. Lucid, but without consciousness. Dehumanizing.

Our society has moved further and further away from the ability to converse, to exchange stories, to trust, to know where we have come from; from what principles, out of what needs were we constructed: why and how did we come together, and why are we so apart? How do we define community today? How do we define its dimensions? Its values and principles? Its needs?           

I have come here to experience the entirety of this event, from its building, to the celebration, to the breakdown—and to report on it. I believe that our society is at a crucial point where we find ourselves divorced from the reasons. Not sure of how we got here -- broke, isolated, struggling to keep pace but uncertain with what, and why.          

Hannah Arendt foresaw, perhaps sooner and with greater clarity than any other, the break with tradition that the 20th century brought. This need to live without traditions, without the pillars of the past, she called “living without banisters.” And she knew that the only answer to such an abandoned condition was action and the stories that action generates. It is in stories, Arendt tells us, that we create the common world in which we live together.

Community, story telling, creativity, intellectual rigor, these are all present here if one seeks them. Though many consider this to be a ‘hippy event,’ Burning Man attracts a wide cut of society. Intellectuals, Silicon Valley executives, accomplished artists and performers. All are represented here, and all seek to participate, to give without asking in return. All want to be part of a community—each a single piece of the definition.           

This is my first time here. And, this is my first blog post on the event. Here is simply an introduction to two conversations, between Burning Man and myself, and you and I.      

   

I am a writer and teacher. The few skills I bring to this are the ability to observe, and report—and thus participate. In the Gonzo tradition of reporting I do not believe in an entirely ‘objective’ format. And so, I am here. I have given you my reasons.

I go outside and here is what I see: desert and dust, and yet each day new clusters of camps and lights and zones appear. The two mile wide city is designed like a clock. At it’s center is the figure of the Man—the idea. At twelve o’clock is the Temple—it’s spiritual center. And I am at ten o’clock, with the Burn Wall Street Project. It is one of the most ambitious Burning Man projects to date. In the span of ten days, seventy volunteers will build five buildings that represent some of the key players from Wall Street, a replica of a bull included and all. During the event the pieces will be open to everyone. Climb on it, hit it, staple your foreclosure notice onto the walls. Scream at it! And then it will all burn. Otto Von Danger (his Burning Man name), a gulf war veteran and a veteran of "Burning Man Builds," is the artist behind this project. He believes our community has been slowly tearing apart, and this tearing has been helped along by a Machiavellian, dividing, create-the-enemy-among-the-disenfranchised style of politics and economics. He believes people are angry, and has created a small yet ambitious outlet for this anger.

I do not yet know what I feel about this project. There are moments when I feel it oversimplifies the issues of political division and our financial woes. And yet I strongly agree with the fact that the various outraged communities in our society can in fact share a dialogue. Everyone, be it the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, is reacting to the sense of being compressed in the dark. Ultimately they all care about one simple principle—community. And this is the principle that today we find most ill defined. So fractured, its reigns so stolen away from us, that we are almost, almost ready to protest—only waiting for a common reason. I do not yet know how I feel about Burn Wall Street. It has the potential of imposing a reason simply through the forceful creation of a common enemy. The real issue, the fracturing of our society, is far more complicated. And yet this project, as does so much else that goes on this two-mile strip of the Nevada desert, has the potential to create dialogue. And, ultimately, is this not a central tenet of art? To give us new entry points, new perspectives to discuss, understand, engage, and receive our world.           

I am looking for a definition to my world, as we all are. Right now I am looking here. I’ll tell what I find.          

Oh yeah, before I forget. That quote, the one about reason, or fantasy, or monsters -- whatever be your current inclination—here is the rest of it; “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters. United with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

-Nikita Nelin

Originally born in the Soviet Union, Nikita Nelin immigrated into the U.S in 1990. He holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and has been published in Tabled Magazine, Southword Journal, Electric Literature blog, and Defunct Magazine. Along with having been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition and the Sozopol fiction contest, he is the winner of the 2010 Sean O’Faolain prize for short fiction, and the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars prize for non-fiction. Currently he is in the Nevada desert writing about Burning Man.

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