Tag Archives: philosophy

Baudelaire, Benjamin, Gramsci

Who among us has not dreamt, in his ambitious days, of the miracle of a poetic prose? It would have to be musical enough to adapt itself to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the wave motions of dreaming, the shocks of consciousness. This ideal, which can turn into an idee fixe, will grip especially those who are at home in the giant cities and the web of their numberless interconneting relationships.
–Baudelaire, quoted in Walter Benjamin “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”

I’ve been thinking about dreams, prose, cities…

Benjamin collected quotations, in the sense of the ‘true’ collector, which is just one of the reasons I love him.

He was also haunted by “The Little Hunchback”

When I come into my room,
My little bed to make,
A little hunchback is in there,
With laughter does he shake.

And I wonder at the coincidence of myself reading Gramsci at the same time, himself a little hunchback, a man of action not reflection (though prison changed that), a man who would never have yearned for a kept life where he could wander aimlessly, collect books he valued more for never wanting to read, but who instead starved and sacrificed himself remorselessly to finish his studies and change Italy…both variations of Marxist, and both dearly loved by me. I was originally struck by how they were opposite, but as I think about it, they approach one another…

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The politics of my street

I walked down my street today, past the thick smoke of Bernie’s, fragrant with teriyaki chicken, past the house slowly collapsing on itself (its porch the latest casualty of neglect, and boasting a new chain link fence compliments of the city, a stopgap measure to deal with a 10 foot retaining wall straining to comply with gravity). The owner of the Korean store was outside, smoking on the corner.

Diamond Street has tagged up many of the walls, con safos, I live within territorial boundaries and contested terrain. Physically I am here, they are here, but our worlds don’t overlap except in the pounding of their subwoofers at random times of day and night. Their peeling out of tires. You take these things for granted. But today I wondered at these small wars, fought entirely by youth of a certain age. For corners. For drug sales. For machismo. For friendship and family. And it builds fear in everyone, but if you are not young and from the hood, it is simply of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I live in the zone, yet it has nothing to do with me unless I make it my business. Modern warfare, an attempt to hustle money and respect from these streets. To be big here and fuck everywhere else. Everywhere else doesn’t exist, it is nothing more than an ill-defined fog of a world that hates, rejects, exploits, locks up.

I think about the shooting that just happened on my street, violence seems impossible on a day like today. The birds are singing for fuck’s sake. And the flowers fill well kept gardens with gorgeous color, in front of well-loved houses full of kids. And here are generations defined by race and geography who simultaneously believe that they are invincible, and that they will be dead by 25. They make me angry for the absence of critical thought, but nothing compares to the rage against the system.

I sat at the bus stop and watched one of them (pelon, huge white T-shirt, baggy jean shorts, white tube socks pulled up to his knees) crossing and re-crossing Temple just below the ridge of the hill on an electric scooter. High. Or just feeling the need to defy death. Or waiting for someone and bored. I don’t know. Families walked past me, pushing strollers. A father and his beautiful daughter eating cheetos, flaming hot for him, regular for her. Some old pilipinos were playing tennis across the street. The sun shone through the marine layer, I wondered what the haze was until I suddenly remembered that LA is actually on the ocean. It is so easy to forget, because without a car? You almost can’t get there from here, it is a trip of hours. The paletero walked past ringing his bells and I wanted an ice cream, but then the bus came.

This is my world. I love it and hate it, some days it is enough. Some days though, some days this is just the reflection. Some days hadas laugh around the edges of my vision, and the world of my imagination takes the fore. My street takes on a spanglish personality and rhythm in her fall down the hill; the collapsing house hides an interior full of strange creeping life eating dust and tendriling up walls with lazy sentience. Some days history walks, ghosts whisper from the shadows and lurk in old doorways or peer from dirty windows. Some days words turn upon themselves and writhe and wriggle into new configurations, channeling  along the lines of the cracked walls in spraypaint and reflected heat. But always con safos. Some days the dogs forget to bark at me, and I wonder why. Some days I think thoughts I have never thought before and I see things I have never imagined. The street is my inspiration.

And the world of my imagination is part of my neighborhood, part of its richness.  I ride the bus away into other L.A. places farther removed from this street than my imagination could ever be. And they are removed on purpose. By plan. They are walled and made safe by cops, not terrorized by them. My imagination could never come up with that. The way we treat each other. Some days just going from street to street is a struggle.

El Salvador and such…

It’s early but feels late…a great dinner with old friends from Carecen days, veggie sausages and Belgian beer and amazing fries and good conversation, everything you could ask for from a Wednesday evening really.

Dan was down in El Salvador for the elections, and I was rather jealous…I was invited and considered it for a hot minute and then just didn’t bother to put it together…I did have a lot of deadlines, and vanquished them all to be fair. Had everything not been crumbling I would have felt on top of the world. El Salvador puts South Central into perspective though, and I know millions before me have loved and lost, tried and failed. Somewhere we are winning, and that’s what matters.

God damn, but it was 10 years ago now I was down there. With Don White, who just died. And I fucking miss him. The crazy thing about the elections this year…Dan was saying that TPS was almost a defining issue…Temporary Protected Status, it’s a temporary work permit that allows Salvadorans to stay in the US legally and work. Americans have no idea what it is of course, but it is everything to the immigrant community. I remember those applications, and the charlas for a hundred people at a time, and the lines of folks waiting at Carecen’s doors. And apparently the night Dan went down a couple of the hard right-wing people in the congress and the house stated that the FMLN were known terrorist collaborators and that if they won, it would put TPS at risk. And something that wasn’t even news here, well, it was front page headlines down there. And Arena milked it for all it was worth, saying that if Funes won, then everyone in the US would lose their status, the remittances would stop. And it closed up the difference and instead of winning in a landslide Funes won by a couple of percent. Arena owns the media of course. And the tragedy that losing TPS would cause…well, it gave a lot of people pause. And many voted against their consciences.

And Arena still didn’t win. I was there in ’99 for the presidential elections, and monitoring the elections in La Libertad. And there was this one guy in Arena colors, I still remember him sitting at a table, staring at me, hating me. I took his picture, my way of refusing fear. It wasn’t very brave of course, I knew he couldn’t touch me.

The thing is, I carry people’s stories inside of me. When people tell me things it lives in me, I know it has none of the crippling strength as it does for those who lived it. But I am still afraid of helicopters. I am still afraid of anyone in a uniform. I hold memories of rape and torture, and they are dear to me now, as were the people I knew who had suffered these things, who survived these things, who taught me what strength really is.  I remembered Raul, who only a few years before had been forced to flee for his life. From Arena. They burned down his house, assassinated someone they believed to be him, threatened his family and anyone who spoke to him. And this was years after the peace accords. I knew fear while he watched me, I can still feel it wriggling in my stomach though as a white American I knew damn well that in that time and place I was perfectly safe.

Arena won that election. We were staying in the local school, and that night we were kept awake by Arena’s supporters who ran in a large crowd around and around the town, setting anything that said FMLN on fire and waving it in the darkness, clapping and yelling.

And I knew fear then too, peering between the crack in the large wooden doors that separated the school’s courtyard from the street.

I remembered Arcatao in Chalatenango, a center for the FMLN and one of the places hardest hit by right wing forces during the war. The beauty of the church there, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, both for the scenery and the people who lived there, though everyone and everything carried the mark of war.

and they honored those who were murdered thus, a church lined with crosses

There the stations of the cross are represented by the stations of a people in struggle, few things have moved me like that place.

And there is also the memorial of Monsenor Oscar Romero in San Salvador, with drawings on the wall of torture and death, a memorial of all who fought for something better, and whose lives were taken.

I have not believed in organized religion for a very long time, but I could pray in a church like this. And I did. Romero once said that a priest’s place was with his people. And if the people were living in poverty, were fighting for justice, were being killed, then the priests should also be facing death by their sides. And so they killed him. He is one of the people I have been thinking about in my own little crisis of faith. It is tiny. It is a tempest in a tea cup. I am getting over it.

So I cried when Funes won, for someone who doesn’t really believe in elections, I have been doing a lot of crying I must say! But after years of civil war and torture and disappearances and an intense war of the people against the oligarchs, well. For everyone I know who had been raped, tortured, had family murdered…I cried when the FMLN took power. And I am thankful that a few nut jobs in the senate and a media that made them seem far more important than they were weren’t enough to change that. And now I sit with the same feelings I have about Obama, thinking things will get better. But probably not much. But it was a symbolic change and that carries its importance. And god knows we need to celebrate any victory that comes along, we just can’t think that’s anything but the start of a new struggle.

So…I dunno. I dunno where I’m at as I sit crouched in the echoing space that used to be filled with things I believed in. I’m getting used to that. I biked home rather tipsy, my favourite sweater streamed behind me in the darkness and my shadow rode before me in the street lights like a crow, a harbinger of things to come. I looked cloaked and daggered, something from times long past or times to come, I’ve been feeling like that. I’ve been living in the moment and living well and loving every minute of it until I am alone, and then I am outside of time somehow, poised on the edge of something. I’ll find out what it is I suppose.

And my packet arrived today from LSE so it all feels truly official and done and dusted and I’m in and I’m moving to London, and life really feels pretty good. It doesn’t really matter that everything else has crumbled into dust, because where else do amazing beginnings start from? A big packet in the mail gives such happiness.

Good Omens

I’ve always really liked lying on the floor when I need to think things through. It helps me…think things through. I see everything from an entirely new perspective. I’m comfortable, but not too comfortable. And when I’m wearing blue, I’m camouflaged nicely to blend in with the carpet in case of possible attack. Zombies, horseshoe crabs…you never know who or what is out there. Apart from the truth, but the truth is pretty damn slap-happy, so I’m content to curl up and blend.

You also can’t get any lower than the floor, and so I have spent a lot of time there this year through this long and constant process of great humbling, the loss of one happiness after the other, the reduction of my ideals and years of love and work to specks in time and space that could not and did not last. I know history, why did I think it would turn out differently? And people? I utterly misjudged them. And myself. I’d like to think it stops now and I’ve figured people (and myself) out, but in my new humility I doubt it, though I won’t say I haven’t learned a thing or two! I haven’t many illusions about LSE, though I am still happy about that! And moving to London makes me want to sing (and I do). I definitely feel finished and done with LA.

I read Good Omens last night and this morning, and it restored my ability to laugh and love the world and even the people in it, and the only downside was the sadness that arose from the knowledge that I will never have a job interview like this one:

“Mr. Shadwell’s  accent was unplaceable. It careered around Britain like a milk race….” (This is just to set the stage. Here are the interview questions for the ancient, yet current, position of witchfinder.)

“Have ye all your own teeth?”
Check.

“Are ye fit?”
Check.

“How many nipples?”
Two (check).

“Have ye got your ane scissors?”
Yes!

And I’m hired! It would be almost as good as ornamental hermit…I’d read papers all day looking for

1. Witches.
2. Unexplainable Phenomenons. Phenomenatrices. Phenomenice. Things, ye ken what I mean.

I think even if I hadn’t just hit a rock bottom of sorts last night, that this would have brought me extreme joy!

The gaps

I discovered a small truth today. Or a big Truth. You could write reams about the meaning of truth and that’s not at all what I want to do. To me, there are simply those moments when you realize something and it’s like a glorious golden tone, a sense of rightness where everything moves slightly, settles into comfortable place.

It has been inspired vaguely by the last two books I’ve read. China Mieville’s The City & The City…soon available to those less lucky than I, this is a book I truly love. And Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, which I really liked, and is a good read. The City is all about interstices, visibility and invisibility, cities lying both beside and inside of each other. And it gave me chills because these are things I mull over all the time in many different ways. And yet this book created a world that I have never yet come even close to imagining and that is an incredible gift. This is my first reading of course, it is the kind of book that will yield up additional meanings as I reread it I know. It inspired a sideline of my own thought, and Chabon cemented it though the cementing was a tiny sideline of his work as well.

There are no margins. When I get these golden moments and write them down, they always appear absurdly simple, hardly worthy of mention. And they are so often things I have been thinking for a long time, and never found words for, so they remained fuzzy and ill-defined. Margins, the marginalized … these are words used all the time, especially in social theory, the world of urban planning. I have used them myself. And I am sure my little truth is not new, so I apologize to others ignored in the flush of my discovery… a discovery for myself, not for the world. And I’m still exploring it, savouring it like a bar of dark chocolate, so forgive that to.

Margins only exist from the perspective of one seated firmly and comfortably in the center of their own world. These people look out and see from great distance others behaving in ways they don’t understand, and usually do not condone. In the worst case scenario they see their margins as something to be fixed or eradicated. And they always look at it with varying shades of wonder, jealousy, disdain, voyeuristic interest, judgment. And the rest of us buy into it almost without thinking. I’ve been imagining that instead of a dominant world, the earth is peopled with many such worlds, like spheres, they pile up and jostle one another, their thin membranes can overlap others sometimes, they exist in permutations of inside and outside and crosshatched shades (crosshatch comes from China, it has made me extraordinarily happy).

Some people, many people, are lucky enough to navigate worlds from early ages, but these worlds are afforded different values. Marginalization is entirely in the mind, and entirely political. For most the margins mean the underworld, the underbelly, the world of the poor, the criminal. In the States it is the spaces inhabited by people of color, the poor, immigrants, strange languages, smells, foods. The reality is that these are their own worlds of equal value if not economic or political strength. The reality I think, is that to those inside of them, their codes and beliefs and comfort levels are just as much defined for them by their surroundings as for anyone else, and their own margins just as real within them. South Central, like South Tucson, is actually a vibrant and beautiful place of incredible culture and history, though with codes and violence shaped by years of poverty, racism and eploitation. The worlds of my UCLA professors who theorized on improving the inner city, and the women I worked with who spent hours on a bus to go and clean their houses…to move back and forth between them was like a jolt, an existential disconnection. Neither understood the other, both saw completely different sides. To stand outside both but with a foot in each yielded entirely new facets again.

There are even worlds that people choose to belong to, that become as bounded as anything else. To me much of the Bay Area, for example, has always been too uniform for comfort in its own comfortable counterculture-ness, and unspoken standards of politics, behaviour, shopping, and intellectualized relationships. They seem as much wrapped inside their own place as the girls I used to know who would never have dreamed of moving more than a few miles from their mothers, being unmarried beyond 25, living a life untethered to church, hometown, family.

None of this thinking about margins is new really, the whole point of nationalistic and identity movements, the best of postmodernism, have all had the aim of rejecting the term marginal, establishing an identity and a value that is separate and different from that which dominates, yet equal to it. Ha! Never thought I’d ever use separate but equal in a positive light. In a sense it is, but in many ways it is not. The feeling of belonging, however much I long for an idealized version of it on days when I am lonely and sad, always implies the existence of those who do not belong. At its best it coexists happily and does not judge, but even then it seems to carry within it the seeds of judgment, of believing everyone else incapable of knowing, understanding, partaking. And intellectuals always seem to push it, hone it, create walls that cannot be bridged. Regular folks I know who never stay up nights thinking about these things seem much more able to cross boundaries, build friendships, find humor in misunderstandings and cultural miscommunication. It’s what I loved most about Tucson’s southwest side, and gives me faith.

There are no margins, but there are people between worlds. One of my favourite books is called La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea Jr., I read it many years ago and have reread it many times. It is what first started me thinking about these things. It is the story of a boy living in Buckeye, a tiny world of squatters and outcasts outside of Phoenix. He is being raised by his Grandparents, an old Yaqui indian and a curandera from Spain, in uneasy and strained relationship with her Catholic beliefs. The grandfather takes his grandson into the mountains with some of his friends for a peyote ceremony, and he explains to him that all of the best people, the ones most worth knowing, are found within the gaps. They belong nowhere and that gives them immense freedom to create, to love, to understand, to be. And they are of every race, nation, culture, belief … anyone is capable of stepping into the gaps.

And I have always found it to be true, much as I love so many I know who are comfortable within the confines of their own worlds. It is a lonely place many times, true. But I think it allows the space to grow into the full measure of your own humanity, to explore worlds on their own terms, to dream of a world that doesn’t yet exist. Many are born into it, but spend their lives trying to belong to one place or another, to define themselves by geography or race or class or sexuality or intellect. And that is complicated by the fact that the dominant culture has for centuries defined people as it wishes, and used that as a whip to tear down, enslave, destroy. The dominant world in this country of a white middle America is very much a myth I think, but I don’t forget for an instant that the power of media, government and corporations are propping it up with brutal force and great power.

But there is such strength in stepping into the gap, embracing it, exploring it as something not simply thrust upon you. So I reject margins and believe in these gaps, crosshatchings, borderlands, wild spaces. And exult in them.

Sonoran Desert in the Springtime

This year there are no carpets of golden poppies or sunflowers, there are no giant swaths of color splashed across the Tucson desert, and part of me is disappointed of course. I love glorious abandon.

This is one of the years that requires a closer eye, a delight in the subtle, the ground-hugging, the tiny. I love that too. The desert is still full of flowers, they riot across the stones in perfect blooms the size of a fingernail.

Eriastrim Diffusum or Miniature Woolystar

Monoptilon bellioides, also known as Mojave Desert Star. I think. There’s something about seeing what is usually unseen. there were a couple of phacelias, though I remember years when they have filled the grasses alongside the washes in deep gorgeous blues unfurling.

The flowers have definitely seen better years, and the same goes for the prickly pear. While you’re looking for what is always missed, seeking out the small beauties and the things that are hidden, you also find these guys

The only thing that seemed to be blooming as normal were the mallows.

And when you look up the desert is still wide open, beautiful

You can’t even tell that tiny flowers blanket the hills, and that lizards crouch frozen in the mottled shade of bushes.

Dad and I found this off the beaten trail, beneath a mesquite tree where a small arroyo split into two

It could be a shrine, a joke, a memory. Plastic flowers in the desert almost always commemorate death, marking graves or the sites of accidents where flesh failed and souls left bodies. In the desert death is as present as life, they twine around each other, you see it and traces of it everywhere. Scattered bones, skin, remnants of bodies.

I love life even more beside death. Beauty hidden in an arid landscape and draped around cacti skeletons, or exploding after a good winter of rain in a riotous celebration of color. High arching skies and heat. The smell of creosote and dust. This I understand. I love. I leave it for the world of people and there is so much I don’t understand, though I love there too. I walk through the desert in sandals fearlessly, it is my place. It is a beautiful dangerous place, but I know where the danger lies. The human world? I walk through that in sandals too, but never fearlessly. It hurts much more.

Late night meanderings far too early…

I ran into someone last night I’ve known for years, since he was a kid and he’s practically family. Now, luckily, the distant kind. He’s still the same. He was drunk, and showed me how he’d just been stabbed several times, and told me three different gangs would have my back if anyone messed with me. He was still hustling and still saying he was sorry. He was sorry all the time, and I believed it for a long time until I realized it was just to ease people into doing things for him. Because he always needed something from you. That hasn’t changed seems like.

I still remember once he was really drunk and who knows what else, and crying his eyes out and confessed to doing all of these truly horrible things that had truly fucked people over. And I sat there horrified, realizing for the first time that in reality he was just sorry for himself, and for the fact that none of these people (including me) liked him anymore. The real damage and impact of his actions on others hadn’t entered his mind at all, nor any conception of making up for what he had done, or doing things differently. Such a strange mixture of utter self absorption and the need to be liked by others, while using them for all he could get. And lies, all the time. Last night he told me I used to annoy him when he was coked out and he was sorry about that too because he really did love me. Made me want to cry really.

It’s funny timing I suppose, I’ve been realizing that someone else I know is almost entirely the same. Apart from being much more clever, well educated, and able to quote feminist theorists to prove his sensitivity. And also apart from the coke and gang affiliations, though funnily enough both share similar stories about the glory days of past violence. He also says he’s sorry all the time to get you to do things, and is better at backing it up with reasoned arguments and assurances. Though not by much, being a smooth talker comes with the hustle. Both of them are generous with what they have, the problem is that they always need so much more. The second doesn’t drink so there was no chance of such brutal honesty, it’s a bit more devastating, though, to fall for it all a second time. I suppose if you come from the ghetto this hustling without conscience will generally get you killed, and if you’re from a good family it means you excel at your profession.

The thing is, you never know what the word sorry means to someone else until you actually know them well. And giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing the best of them can make you a victim. And I don’t know quite what to do with that. I don’t mind being cynical about the world and how it works, but I’ll be damned if two sociopaths can make me cynical about all the people in it. Maybe just because that would be too easy. You so often see what you want to see, good or bad. But I would like to see what is actually there. And believe in spite of everything that there is much of both.

And me? I’ve been bending my own rules to protect myself. I don’t hold with lies, but turns out not telling the whole truth is almost as bad and hurtful. In a world like this, with people like this, trust and all it is built on is so fragile. When my own trust has been betrayed it has been utterly devastating, and to be in turn someone who breaks trust is equally so. So it’s been a rough few weeks, and the past two days especially.

Ah well, I suppose this is one of the great human questions…the nature of humanity itself really. I have far too much love for people (and kittens and flowers and old buildings and wine and good writing and etc) to be properly cynical, but every day less trust than before. And I wish there were a political framework that could deal with this microlevel and give me a vision of life after capitalism I could believe in. You can see what’s so pursuasive about religion, sometimes I wish I could belive in that stuff. I read Camus instead. And try to be moral. And try again when I fail. And make fun of myself and everything else that’s fucked up while doing so, because honestly, what else can you do?