Tenuous Threads

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A couple of weeks ago I came across a school report card from when I was eight years old. It was interesting to see what I was interested in back then and somewhat to my surprise, the subjects that I apparently excelled in were subjects that interest me still; art, religion and music. I did pretty well across all subjects but those three were singled out as areas I did well in. Who knows why we lean towards certain things and not others? Or why we find interest or passion, vocation even, in a particular art form or field of study. But there it was on a folded piece of paper, written decades ago, inscribed as it were in a young life.

I was browsing in a book shop earlier this week and saw the Krishnamurti book in the image at the top of this post. In my early teens I decided to hitchhike to Greece one summer. A friend of mine was working as an au pair for a Greek family for the summer so I thought I would make my way down there and pay her a visit. It was really pretty easy, I got great rides and before I knew it I was in Brindisi in southern Italy catching a ferry to Corfu. I had no real idea where I was going and I had some time to kill before I had to be in Athens so I followed a few people to a place called Sidari and spent a few weeks sleeping in a tent on a nude beach.

On the boat from Corfu to the mainland I met an American, from Santa Barbara, and we spent a day walking around Athens and exploring the city. Before we parted company, he handed me a book and said that it was important to him, the only book he had bought on his trip, but he wanted me to have it. It was a Krishnamurti book. I had no interest, or at least was not nurturing any interest in religion at the time, but I took the book and read it a few times on that trip. I don’t know how much it impacted me, I know that among the garbled and blurred memories of that time, that moment and that book have always stood out, but I didn’t become a follower of Krishnamurti or anyone else at that time.

The writer Frederick Buechner wrote about his ‘conversion’ and described the strange turn of events that brought him to a moment where the axis of his life shifted. He had been attending a church famous for its preacher’s oratory and expository skills but found nothing in the sermons he heard exceot for an appreciation of the man’s giftedness and ability, but a throwaway comment about ‘great laughter’ brought him to a new place of self-understanding.

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all.

Foolish, tenuous and holy threads, that’s how our lives are pieced together I think. All too often we present life as some all-encompassing grand narrative, born of a divine plan or scheme, but personally I think life is made up of ‘episodic blips,’ as Simon Critchley the philosopher says, threaded through with moments, singular moments, but usually unremarkable at the time, that take us in particular directions and maybe, just maybe, hold together a fragile shape that is our lived life.

While I find it curious that my interests, or at least some of them, remain very similar to what they were when I was a kid, I don’t ascribe larger meaning to that. There are so many factors to take into consideration and I have added other things along the way. What is of interest to me, is that it was never one thing with me, my interests have always been wide, and that hasn’t changed. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it hasn’t killed me.

P.S. I will be offering a class on my Patreon page in the new year where I will be talking about curiosity and other technologies for survival in the 21st century and I will tell you why that proverb about cats and curiosity has been completely mistranslated-so stay tuned I will release some more info soon.

In Celebration of Clutter

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And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do the hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the milky way.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

I mentioned a painting called The Orgy by William Hogarth in a post I wrote a couple of weeks back. It is part of a series of eight paintings charting the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who squanders his fortune and winds up penniless in life. The original works are part of a larger collection of art works at the Sir John Soanes museum here in London. I went to look at the painting this week. Soanes (1753-1837) was Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy and created a personal museum out of three homes that he re-built in Holborn in central London. There are some 45000 objects on display, just as they were when Soanes lived there, everything from an alabaster Egyptian sarcophagus to Greco-roman statuary, medieval statues, paintings, etchings, it’s mind-boggling. The museum is one of London’s little gems.

The image at the top of the gives a little insight to just how much stuff is crammed into the space. As I wandered through the rooms, squeezing past Roman statues in small passageways and not knowing where to focus my eyes because every single surface had something worth seeing, I thought about the current trend in simplifying life and getting rid of clutter and particularly some talks I have heard in the past couple of years where creativity has been tied to making sure that your space is devoid of stuff, which apparently inhibits the creative process.

I lived for a long time in Los Angeles, bastion of mid-century modernism and all things zen, so perhaps it’s no wonder that the idea of clean surfaces is tied to creativity there, but as with most things, I think it is a bit more complex than that. I understand the extremes of collecting and hoarding, the disposophobia, that leads people to hoard and hold onto things that they not only don’t need, but which are actually inhibiting their well-being, but this prevailing cultural meme that wants us to minimize and essentially ‘go modern,’ because that is really the influence-space, functionality, utilitarianism etc., is a little disturbing to me.

Creativity, like many things, is an umbrella under which any number of diverse methodologies and practices have to live side by side. Ones relationship to stuff is quite subjective. But even a cursory exploration of an artist’s studio or a visit to Soanes museum tells you that what is going on is much more than simply a lack of discipline or a pathological behaviour.

There are things that we keep and grant significance to that seem agreed upon in the broader culture, family heirlooms, children’s crafts, holiday souvenirs etc. But I think that what we collect with intention is some kind of signifier, a revelation of sorts, about how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world around us.

You may have gathered that I am not a minimalist. I appreciate a nice clean space, I really do, but that is not a space I can exist in. I need to surround myself with things that stimulate, inspire, and in many ways reveal much about how I see myself. I am also very much an everything in its place person, a little bit of a neat-freak. I like stuff but I like it orderly. The apparent chaos of the Soanes museum, or an artist’s studio is not a challenge for me, it is an adventure of discovery. A visit to the Soanes Museum might just help you change your relationship to things, or you will immediately want to go to and sit in an empty room in an Eames chair looking at empty walla and breathing a sigh of relief.

Inspiration from everywhere, and anywhere.

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I’m a big fan of the designer Paul Smith. His slightly twisted take on traditional clothing has changed the face of British fashion. I like his approach to life in general and find him to be one of those people who bring ideas about inspiration and creativity down to earth and make them accessible to whomever is listening. A friend sent me a podcast interview with Smith that he stumbled upon. You can listen to it here.

Five Books

Someone recently asked me about the books I’ve been reading and for any recommendations. It’s always difficult to recommend a book, it’s much the same as with music. Your favourite album might just be a cipher in someone else’s collection or even fall on deaf ears. I have always been a voracious reader and have been reading prolifically of late, partly because since my move to London I have more time on my hands.

Every book I read is the best book I have ever read. I read mostly non-fiction, theology, philosophy, cultural theory, psychoanalytic writings, poetry, biography, I rarely read fiction. I judge books by their covers, they say you can’t, but that maxim emerged in the days when books were plainly bound and generally similar looking on the cover and spine, these days a cover can tell you an awful lot about the content inside.

Anyway, rather than recommend books, I’ll tell you about a few that have had major impact on my life, about some books that I have carried with me and returned to more than once. They are books that I have read and re-read and each time have found things that speak, inspire, provoke and challenge my thinking about life.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist by Robert Tressell

Having just said that I rarely read fiction my first selection is a novel. It was first given to me by a friend’s father. He was a union man and lifelong socialist and I spent many an afternoon arguing politics with my friends at his home. The book was published posthumously in 1914, three years after the death of its author. It is regarded as a classic piece of working-class literature. It tells the story of a house-painter who is trying to stave off poverty and the workhouse. The original cover carried the sub-title, "Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell." Tressell’s real name was Robert Noonan, he chose the pen name in reference to the trestle table which was essential to his trade as a painter and decorator. The book is basically a scathing examination of the working-class and their employers.

This is the book that politicized me. It expressed many of the frustrations I felt decades later, growing up working-class, admittedly with a lot more than those in the novel, but nonetheless still struggling to fight against classism and the like. This is a book that is more than the sum total of its parts for me, it was a catalyst, it gave me language and a desire to take action and not just sit in passivity. The book’s critique of selfish capitalism has never left me. Every few years I buy a new copy and read it again. The world we live in feels a long way from Tressell’s and yet there are elements of the book that transcend time and space, which is perhaps what makes for good fiction, it still speaks, to a world unlike the one it was published into.

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.

This book! I have used it for many years in classes on theology and culture. It’s a book about a cultural moment I lived through, but Marcus gave me eyes to see it in a much more expansive way. It’s about punk, but punk in its larger sense. Punk was never really about a musical genre, it was always about more than that, it was about everything that happened outside of the dominant culture. Marcus tells the story through the surrealists, the situationists, the dadaists, the punks, he tells of an event that happened in a pre-mediatized world. For Marcus music has no potency, no power, no meaning if it doesn’t scream with politics and philosophy and ideas that exist outside of the mainstream environments those things usually swim in.

It’s a book I think everyone should read, not for tidbits about the Sex Pistols or the other bands referenced, but t understand the even that happened, to think about how it happened and how much of that still echoes around the fringes of culture, just waiting.

In Man We Trust: The Neglected Side of Biblical Faith by Walter Brueggemann

There are moments in ones life when you know change is coming to you or for you and you need new words, new language to give voice to your transition. Not necessarily to explain yourself to others, but for self-understanding. This book came along at such a time for me. It’s not one of Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann’s most widely read works. It was published in 1972 and is a product of its time. There is a large section about race but the general focus is on the neglected notion that the Bible affirms human culture, capability, and responsibility as a part of the biblical narrative and gospel story. Brueggemann hones in on the book of Proverbs and the wisdom traditions it contains that affirm the world and celebrate culture. There is a great section on King David and his counter-intuitive practice of holiness that I found incredibly liberating at the time. As someone who had found themselves in a bit of a cul-de-sac, caught up in what Brueggemann calls ‘culture-despising,’ I was struggling with my own inclinations and interests and feeling the pressure to conform to a version of Christianity that I found unhelpful and confining, This book helped me to open the doors to my own theological thinking and gave me an alphabet with which to begin the process of creating a way of speaking about life and culture and theology.

After Christianity by Gianni Vattimo

I’m a big fan of most things Italian—the country, the food, the art, the artists, the architecture, the philosophers and thinkers. There is something about the way they live, and particularly the way they write and think that just resonates with me. I think it has something to do with its Catholicism, in the sense that Southern Europe had a different relationship to the Enlightenment and Protestantism. I like the neo-Baroque-ness of contemporary Italian philosophy. Vattimo is an interesting figure, a philosopher, former member of the European parliament, and a lapsed Catholic-homosexual who found his way back to faith though Nietzsche. He has written a lot about belief, religion and Christianity in particular, in very novel and challenging ways. After Christianity is his view Christianity after the death of God. He addresses the uncertainty of belief, secularization as a fulfillment of the Christian mission and argues that this sets up the potential and possibility for a new mode of Christianity. This is no gentle re-framing of the old, it is an invitation to a new way of thinking about faith and its role in society today.

Central to this book is Vattimo’s theory of pensiero debole, weak thought, an idea that Jack Caputo has utilized in his work on weak theology. For Vattimo philosophy in the postmetaphysical age can only acknowledge, after Nietzsche, that all is interpretation, and that the "real" is always relative and not the hard and fast truth we once thought it to be. Contemporary thought must acknowledge its claims as "weak" as opposed to the "strong" foundationalist claims of the metaphysical past. Vattimo that this is what makes it possible for religion and God to become a serious topic for philosophy again, and that philosophy should now formally engage religion. The relationship between religion and philosophy is remarkably different than when he wrote this book in 2002. This book was another link in the chain for my own thinking. His contribution to contemporary theological discourse is under-utilized I think.

Six Memos For The Next Millennium by Italo Calvino

The novelist Italo Calvino died suddenly in 1985. He was scheduled to give a series of lectures on literature at Harvard in the fall of the same year. Six Notes, was published after his death and are basically his unfinished notes for the lectures. Given that they were written in 1985, they have an air of the prophetic about them. The categories: Lightness; quickness; exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and the final unfinished note on consistency, resonate still.

The Cuban born, Italian based Calvino is known mostly for his novels and short stories. Regarded as one of the earliest postmodern writers, his works are hard to categorize, he himself said that "My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language" which tells a lot about how he wrote but also what to expect when reading him.

I have returned to these notes on occasion and find myself still interested in what he offers for those who are now fully embedded in the new era that he sadly did not get to see.

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All Sex is Pornographic

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I read recently that Christian speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber’s next book is about sex. The article noted the controversy around some comments that she made about the consumption of ethical porn, an inflammatory remark no doubt riling both conservatives and liberals for entirely different reasons. Then yesterday I saw a thing on Instagram that offered people a ‘certificate’ signed by the same author if they sent in their purity ring so that it could be melted down with all the others to make a sculpture of a vagina, in service of the author’s ‘shameless’ sex mission. Apparently those who turn in their rings will get a ‘shameless’ ring in return.

This book is part of what I see as an on-going attempt by a number of Christians of all stripes at reclaiming human sexuality from the clutches of a particular kind of moralism and biblical interpretation that has turned sex into a quagmire for many people. I cannot count the number of people I have spoken with over the years whose sex lives were a mess, who felt dis-empowered, shamed, confused and generally ‘fucked-up’ by their struggle to fit a particular understanding about sex into their world with little to no success, forced into games of pretense, and essentially to live double-lives when it came to their sexuality.

Sex in America, exists like many other things in a conflicted landscape where religious moralism meets hyper-sexualized commercialization and seldom is that equation addressed in the religious environs in which many try and live out their lives.

There is a notion that says that all sexuality is pornographic, meaning that if you were to strip away all the fantasies surrounding sex, from the romantic to the fetish, it would not be possible to reduce sex to mere biology, it would simply disappear. Human sexuality is dependent upon the supplemental if you will. You can detect hints of this idea played out in films like Vertigo, Crash and Eyes Wide Shut, where the main characters process their desire in various ways, be it through eroticized car crashes, or by chasing a vision of a woman ala Lacan’s petit object a, or by using other people’s sexual games to stimulate a stilted marriage.

The Moebius Strip of Sexual Contracts is an interesting essay by Slavoj Žižek that addresses what he sees as the dilemma in human sexual relations, essentially they resist regulation. His argument is that sexual pleasure and intimate relationships based on love and devotion cannot be effectively regulated, neither by individual contract (the consent model) nor by social regulation (cultural scripts for monogamy etc). The question for Žižek is not how should they be regulated, but rather how we deal with the fact that sexuality resists any attempt to regulate them. As Oscar Wilde noted, “Everything in life is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” My worry in all the re-thinking and re-invention around sex and sexuality is that the power component is inadequately reflected upon. Power is often the elusive and seductive snake in situations, the hidden issue.

I don’t think we don’t need a sexual revolution, we need a sexual insurrection. A revolution is a tired metaphor and one that I think is not up to the present task, an insurrection is a disentanglement from the dominant paradigms, the carving of a new and different space where things can find other ways to manifest and blossom.

After the Orgy

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In the early decades of the 18th century, artist William Hogarth created a series of paintings titled, A Rake’s Progress, charting the decline and fall of a fictional character named Tom Rakewell. The eight paintings he created were turned into engravings and then published in print in 1735. They have been called an early form of the storyboard and are currently displayed at Sir John Soame’s museum.

The third painting in the series, called The Orgy, shows Rakewell in the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden, surrounded by prostitutes.

I was thinking about this painting when I read something that the philosopher Jean Beaudrillard wrote in an article for Art Forum magazine in 1983,

In the middle of the revelries, a man whispers into a woman’s ear: “What are you doing after the orgy?””

Beaudrillard wasn’t referring to a literal orgy as Hogarth depicted, his was a symbolic one. The orgy was the wild world of the pre-millennial future. There was a time when it seemed that our lives were being shaped by the anticipation of the world to come, 2000 and all that. The promise of the bright future proclaimed everywhere in the latter half of the 20th century, the illusion that things were only going to get better, the belief that we had put the worst of ourselves aside in order to fashion a new world, a new way of being. Driven by consumer capitalism and emerging technologies what could possibly go wrong? And yet somehow it did. The imagined future was never realized and in its place the unimaginable, a world characterized by all the things we thought we had put to bed long ago: financial vulnerability and collapse, insecurity and anxiety, terrorism, fascism, a world with ‘no future,’ at least not any future we might have envisioned. The problems that contemporary societies of consumption face caught up in an endless cycle of frustration and gratification. Beaudrillard wonders whether human desire is being kidnapped and finds itself in a sort of hostage situation but without the possibility of exchange, without the possibility of freedom. He wonders what we are sacrificing of ourselves in our affluent society. And are we now passively looking at ourselves now, and losing our humanity? This is the orgy and the post-orgy situation that Beaudrillard turns his attention towards.

So the question is, “What will we do after the orgy?” What will we do in the wake of our failed futre? The temptation might be to plan another party, to plot another future if you will, to address the failed future of modernity with a new vision of success and prosperity, but perhaps that simply perpetuates a fruitless view of life that keeps us trapped in cycles of false hopes.

In 1976 the Sex Pistols rightly declared that there was No Future, and there still isn’t. But perhaps we don’t actually need one, at least not one of those futures.

I’m going to be putting together a series of talks on the theme of what we might do after the orgy, so stay tuned.

Nick Cave on Creativity

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Nick Cave publishes an occasional column on his website, called The Red Hand Files, where he addresses questions posed to him by fans. The latest one was about creativity and is well worth a read. Here’s the question and below it, Nick’s answer.

Are there times your creativity disappears and if so how do you coax it back / jump start it?

JO, TORONTO, CANADA

Dear Jo,

Creativity is not something that can disappear. The creative impulse is simply the strategy used to catch ideas. Ideas are everywhere and forever available, provided you are prepared to accept them. This takes a certain responsibility to the artistic process. There is discipline and rigour and preparation involved. You must prove yourself worthy of the idea.

*** 

I have rarely sat down at my desk with something to say, other than I am ready. The sitting comes first, turning up with a certain alertness to possibility. Only then does the idea feel free to settle. It settles small and very tentatively, then, through your active attention, it can grow into something much bigger. Sitting in a readied state can sometimes last a long and anxious time.  But you must not despair! I have never found a situation where the idea refuses to come to the prepared mind.

*** 

While you are in this prepared state, be the thing you want to be. If it is a writer, then write. Initially, stream of consciousness is fine. Write without judgement and self-condemnation. Write playfully and recklessly. Even if this initial writing appears of little value, keep going, for the beautiful idea has awakened and is moving toward you, as it responds to your display of intent.

*** 

The idea is especially designed for you in your uniqueness.  If you are not there to receive it, or indeed you are not yourself when it arrives or, heaven forbid, disguised as someone else, the idea may scare and vanish away and be lost forever. It is you that it is searching for and you alone. Be yourself. The idea is moving closer. 

*** 

Ideas are timid things, in my experience. They come as whispers and you need to hold them in honest regard in order to receive them. Perhaps the idea is as scared as you. Perhaps the idea is as invisible as you may sometimes feel. It may be that the idea is simply mirroring your internal self and is reluctant to settle in a mind that is heavy with uncertainty, and that is repeating ancient mantras of self-doubt. These voices can best be banished by a spirited disobedience, a playful defiance. Disobey the voices by continuing to write. They are a lot less robust than they appear. The idea is closing in.

*** 

So, Jo, here are some suggestions as to what to do:

Sit down. Be yourself. Be prepared. Be attentive. Defy the voices. Be the thing you want to be. Write. Be playful. Be reckless. Remember that you are uniquely designed for the idea that is moving toward you. You are good enough. The idea is about to arrive. 

Love, Nick

Data Church

Vito Boeckx, a graduate in multi-media design from Design Academy Eindhoven in Holland, has created a data church. Data Church is virtual reality experience that visualises the vast flow of data that surrounds us. Data from local wi-fi points become the building blocks for an urban landscape. Viewers, or perhaps I should say, devotees, put on the VR-glasses and enter a parallel world, the digital world that surrounds us. Screen recordings from nearby modems are turned into huge neon-lit skyscrapers, which emphasize the sheer scale of the digital environment when it is transformed into visuals. These digital buildings are not static but grow when online activity intensifies. Boeckx is interested in ‘making sense of something that we cannot see or grasp,’ and wants the data church to offer sanctuary for reflection about our digital behaviour. We all contribute to this invisible digital world, and the installation invites us to reflect upon that.

The idea of creating a church points perhaps to a certain moral dynamic at work here. The devotee kneels before a data altar and puts on the VR headset, a classic devotional motion, enacted throughout the ages by people of all religious and spiritual persuasions. The invitation to reflect on our contribution to this digital environment is an invitation to reflection but perhaps also toward repentance, which means that at least some portion of this installation contains a moral/ethical component. This makes me wonder about the recoding of morality in the 21st century.

As the influence of traditional religion declines, and notions of morality formed in different times lose their impact, we should make the mistake of thinking that questions of morality are a thing of the past. Religion tends to presume that the growing rejection of both religion and its ‘traditional values’ implies a wholesale rejection of values, when it is just as likely to be a problem of these institution holding onto to formulas and equations of morality that no longer fit the needs of our rapidly changing world. Data Church is an attempt to convey the world that we have made with our digital behaviour and an opportunity to take a reflective moment to consider what the implications of our actions might be.

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The Everything: fashion takes a leap

Kenzo, the fashion line now run by the people behind the hip-store chain, Opening Ceremony, take advertising and fashion to a new level with a 30-minute film to launch their latest collection. The film, directed by co-creative director, Humberto Leon, about teenagers with supernatural powers, offers a full narrative arc and features some well-known faces (Milla Jovovich for one) alongside a largely unknown cast. This is more than creative product placement and takes the company deeper into the cinematic territory that it has been inching toward. The line has a history of presenting its products in a surrealist way and The Everything takes this idea even further. Fashion shows are increasingly elaborate theatrical productions these days. It is no longer simply a case of sending models walking down runways, the larger companies produce mind-blowing stagings of their clothing. Kenzo is taking things in a more cinematic direction, it remains to be seen if anyone else will follow suit. The co-creators, Leon and Carol Lim are known for their iconoclastic approach to retail, marketing and design, and they may just have pulled off another shift in the direction fashion might take in the future.