De-Identity Theft: “What’s Left?” January 2017, MRR #404

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When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. When tired, sleep.

― Attributed variously to Baizhang (720-814), Tanxia Tianran (736-824), Huihai (788), Linji (867), or Bankei (1622-1693)

I am against imperialism, be it French, British, US or Chinese. I am not an ‘anti-imperialist’, since that is a political position supporting national liberation movements opposed to imperialist powers.

I am (and so is the proletariat) against fascism, be it in the form of Hitler or Le Pen. I am not an ‘anti-fascist’, since this is a political position regarding the fascist state or threat as a first and foremost enemy to be destroyed at all costs, i.e. siding with bourgeois democrats as a lesser evil, and postponing revolution until fascism is disposed of.

—Gilles Dauvé

I’m going to start a new philosophical movement while I wait to learn whether this country elected the corporatist-globalist-multiculturalist or the nativist-isolationist-populist to be president. It’s like waiting to hear whether the terminal diagnosis is heart failure or cancer. Or the COD is death by firing squad or death by lethal injection. Either way, it’s not good. As for my philosophical movement, I think I’ll call it de-identity.

The germ for my de-identity philosophy started when I took a writing workshop from Cary Tennis who used the Amherst Writers & Artists method developed by Pat Schneider. The AWA appropriated writer William Stafford’s aphorism—“A writer is someone who writes”—and built it into a writing methodology that emphasizes spontaneous writing techniques employed in a group process unencumbered by criticism or deadlines. The whole experience was a little too hippie-dippy-new-agey for my tastes and not at all conducive to honing the craft of writing. So I was glad when Cary developed the idea of the Finishing School, which helped me finish rewriting my second novel.

The phrase “a writer is someone who writes” remains troublesome for me however, not the least because it’s a tautology that means little and tells us less. A dancer is someone who dances. A policeman is someone who polices. A bricklayer is someone who lays bricks. These statements are not just self-evident, they are redundant. Am I a writer if all I do is write a grocery list every morning? If I write the orders for the execution of prisoners on death row? If I write nonsensical word salad screeds because I’m schizophrenic? And how long do I remain a writer once I stop writing? Five minutes? Twenty-four hours? Or once I earn the appellation, is it good for life? This all sounds rather hazy even as the phrase seems vaguely self-congratulatory.

Yes I can be harsh on the AWA’s inspiration and methodology even as I acknowledge that it works for some people to encourage them to write. I have similar reservations for the process and declarations of AA, including their signature “I’m so-and-so and I’m an alcoholic” statement, even while I grant that AA does work for some people to keep them sober. If nothing else, the placebo effect is quite real even though any “cure” remains elusive. My concern is with the identitarian claims that such statements foster and whether they hinder or help the efforts of those who make them. I think that the attempt to fix one’s identity—“I am a writer” or “I am an alcoholic”—in order to fix one’s problems—“I can’t write” or “I drink too much”—ultimately does more harm than good. Rather than face their declining writing abilities, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Certainly, creative individuals like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams were tired and depressed from constantly dealing with their self-admitted addictions and may have committed suicide as a consequence. Issues of declining health and mental problems combined with issues of addiction and creative obsession complicated matters for all four of these individuals, but this but doesn’t negate the point I’m hoping to make.

In line with Gilles Dauvé’s above distinction between opposing imperialism and being an anti-imperialist, or opposing fascism and being an anti-fascist, I rarely call myself an anarchist, a left communist, or even an anti-authoritarian these days. I support most, if not all the positions associated with these political identities at the same time that I reject the inclusive wingnuttery of anarchism, the vulgar dogmatism of left communism, and the kneejerk sectarianism of both. A similar attitude informs my comments in a previous column that sometimes a vote is just a vote. I’ve voted in the Peace and Freedom Party primaries much of my adult life, which doesn’t make me a leftover 60s Leftist. I voted for Barack Obama for president both times around, which doesn’t make me a Democrat. And I voted for Bernie Sanders, which doesn’t make me a democratic-socialist.

Defining a political identity based on voting, or even electoral politics, is ludicrous because that’s not all I do. To expand on a bumper sticker type of mentality, I vote but I also sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate, protest, commit civil disobedience, and riot. Pointing out the broad range of my political involvements is one way of de-indentifying with any one particular political activity, but it doesn’t actually decontextualize me and my politics. Quite the opposite. If I sum up all my individual political tactics into a personal political whole, I arrive at an overall political strategy, that being of an independent-minded, left-of-liberal kind of person. What I’m after instead is what I alluded to above in discussing writing. I’m trying to be overly literal with the phrase “a writer is someone who writes.”

I am a writer only when I write. I am a reader only when I read. I am a critic only when I criticize. I am a voter only when I vote. You get the idea.

It’s one of the flip sides of the Zen saying at the top of this column. And it has some interesting implications. A tongue-in-cheek Zen aphorisms I like is “don’t just do something, sit there” which flips a common saying. When I sit zazen, my intent is to be mindful, to be here now, to be in the moment. So if I’m doing nothing, I’m being nothing. At the moment I sit, my intention is to have no ego. My intention is to have no identity.

And I bet you thought I was going to rail against identity politics.

MY PREDICTIONS

I’m one for four on my electoral predictions, the same odds according to Nate Silver that the Cubs had of winning the World Series or that Trump had of winning the election. Or, more precisely, one for three, with one that doesn’t count. I predicted that Trump and Clinton would win their respective primaries, but I was wrong about everything else. There were no riots at the RNC, indeed there was much more action outside on the streets and inside on the convention floor at the DNC. I certainly was wrong when I thought Clinton would squeak by Trump to win the presidency. And it really doesn’t matter how Gary Johnson did as he was incidental to November 8th’s outcome.

The big news is that Clinton might have won the popular vote, which is still to be determined, but lost to Trump in the electoral vote. I’ll wait until next column to do a more thorough analysis, but for now, a couple of points. Michael Moore early on predicted that the anger and alienation felt by America’s white working class, especially in the midwestern Rust Belt, was so intense that Trump was likely to win if the Democrats didn’t take them into account and do something dramatic. And Nate Silver, whose prediction metrics based on crunching poll numbers, had Clinton leading Trump at around three points just before the elections, with the caveat that three points is well within the margin of error. So while Silver said: “In an extremely narrow sense, I’m not that surprised by the outcome,” he also said: “But in a broader sense? It’s the most shocking political development of my lifetime.” I echo his sentiments.

Now I need to practice some of that detachment I try to cultivate sitting zazen.

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Themes: “What’s Left?” May 2014, MRR #372

I don’t know why humans like stories that involve death and misfortune; these are the stories that we’re drawn to again and again. […] In terms of the episode itself, for the writers, we had dug in from the beginning in terms of going for maximum impact, giving the characters a real sense of victory and triumph but also coupling it to an inevitable sense that triumph never comes without loss.

Jonathan Nolan, executive producer
“Person of Interest,” Hollywood Reporter interview (11-20-13)

Literary types, and I count myself among them, try to ascertain how many basic plots can be found in literature. There are those few who contend that life has no plot, and therefore literature shouldn’t either. But plotless novels are generally not worth the effort to slog through. Try reading a Kathy Acker novel for kicks sometime. Then there are the monotheists, who argue that there is only one real plot: conflict. Life, and story, are based on conflict. Or more specifically, plot must be structured around one central conflict. There are those who believe that there are only three basic plots: man vs the environment, man vs man, or man vs self. Another triad would divide basic plots into happy endings, unhappy endings, or literary plots in which things are complex and a tad fated whether the ending is happy or unhappy. Matters quickly proliferate from there; 7 plots, 20 plots, 36 plots, etc.

I bring this up because I’ve been writing this more or less monthly column for over twenty years now. I’m bound to repeat myself, mostly here and there, but occasionally in whole. I have my themes, my pet subjects or my axes to grind. I do know that I’ve changed over the past two decades. When I started writing for MRR, I was a newly-minted left communist, having just transitioned from anarchism. I believed that revolution, no matter how unlikely, would eventually succeed; that the working class, no matter how beleaguered, would eventually triumph; and that communism, no matter how fanciful, would eventually come into being. Now, I’m convinced that it’s all fucked and that we’re all doomed. I’m an ex-anarchist, ex-communist, ex-everything who still wishes things might be different but who knows things will only get worse.

When I started writing my columns, I tried changing things up at first; switching from expository essays to three dot news and commentary, rants, satire, reviews of my favorite newspapers and magazines, micro fiction, multi-part in-depth research replete with footnotes, extended discussions of this or that personality, book, film or event, etc. Now, I’m happy to stick to the short essay format, with the occasional foray into other forms. And I’m content to restate and recapitulate, in whole or in part, what I’ve said before. I’m not the most original writer, nor the cleverest. I continue to critique common enemies—state and capital in all their iterations—as well as friends—those to the left of the Left. But without the certainties of my younger years, indeed with a profound despondency over our present and future, my analysis has been fragmented, my scorn has been blunted, and my anger has been rendered aimless.

Without the rubric provided by the early “Lefty” Hooligan, the potential to see the uniqueness in everything is possible. In lieu of my bygone pissed-off politics that had me seeing red—so to speak—most of the time, I now try to cultivate a less judgmental mindfulness. A Theravadan Buddhist forest monk, Achaan Chah Subato, commented: “One day some people came to the master and asked ‘How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you can­not protect your loved ones from harm, ill­ness and death?’ The mas­ter held up a glass and said ‘Some­one gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sun­light. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already bro­ken, so I enjoy it incredibly.’” Yet, far from realizing that every experience is singular and every moment precious, the loss of a unifying context often makes me deplore everything as shit. Without meaning. Not worth the effort. I no longer subscribe to my old ultraleftism, which allows me to more easily determine what’s bullshit from what’s not. I’m far from being an iconoclast however, having been troubled at times with a forlorn isolation.

Still, I’m drawn to the tragedies, the disasters, the train wrecks. The psychology of why we can’t look away, indeed, why we want to look, is well documented. I was a fan of “Slow Motion Apocalypse” by Grotus, mostly the music but also the album title. It doesn’t take a radical to realize that we live in a slow motion apocalypse when the planet is being gradually gutted, humanity is being marched (or perhaps sauntered) to the edge of a cliff, and each of us faces a rather grim future. Everyone knows by now that lemmings jumping to their deaths is a myth, perpetuated by Disney whose film crew engineered the whole spectacle. What’s harder to swallow is that so-called revolutionaries seem hell-bent on self-destruction and suicide. Different cliff, same leap, and in our own language, “self-organized.” No triumph despite loss, no heroic self sacrifice that wins out in the end, no nothing.

Nothing is as nothing does.

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