30 December 2012

When wegos collide - 13 November 2007

Buddhist priests of the Big Asakusa Temple prepare for the Second Sino-Japanese War as they wear gas masks during training against future aerial attacks in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30, 1936. (AP Photo)

            Every war is a civil war.  We construct an illusory distance between ourselves and whomever we deem to be the enemy of the moment, polarizing them on the side of evil and us on the side of good.  President George W. Bush’s familiar rhetoric of the “axis of evil” used to incite and maintain the current state of war is an overt example of this distancing technique.  In truth, however, when we engage in any war, there are no clear-cut lines of good and evil; when we battle our “enemies,” we battle our friends and neighbors, our sisters and brothers.  Political, social, and economic allegiances are in a constant state of flux; we have all been allies at some point and will be reborn again as allies as our needs and attitudes shift over time.  In the meantime, we rend the very fabric of people’s lives in search of a victory that can never come.  No matter who wins the battle, we all lose when we fight in service of the monumental deception of selfhood.
The geopolitical borders of the nation-state are not physical walls built to keep our enemies out, but are manufactured conventions, no less fortified, which keep our fragile selves within.  The nation is not a physical reality but instead a conceptual construct we use to maintain the fallacy that we are separate from and superior to the other communities around us.  This convention is a projection of our collective egos, or our wego, as referred to by David R. Loy in his book, The Great Awakening.  Loy posits that just as we individually create and preserve a notion of self, we collectively create and maintain similar group “selves.”  This self-identification is inextricably bound up in the dualistic thinking we utilize in an attempt to stabilize an unstable existence.  Ironically, the very tool with which we are attempting to steady our world is one of the main causes of instability and conflict.  Dualistic thinking is one of the delusions that propagates war.
Peter Harvey, in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, cites delusion such as this along with anger and greed as the root causes of war.  These three seeds of unwholesome individual action are writ large on an international scale when our collective wegos engage in them.  Just as the individual can overcome these poisons by cultivating their opposites (wisdom, compassion, and generosity), so too can nations.  This is the Buddhist solution to war.  In practical terms, though, what does this mean and how can we apply it to contemporary global conflict?
Increasingly, I believe that justice may be, ironically, a hindrance to peace.  That is to say that our conception of “justice,” more akin to retribution, is a source of conflict.  In our democratic society, if an individual is wronged, that individual or the individual’s loved ones seek justice.  If property damages are involved, people seek to recoup at least the monetary amount of the damages and the costs of legal proceedings.  Many murder victims’ families seek the death penalty for those charged with the slaying of their loved ones.  We have an “eye for an eye” notion of justice.  On an international scale, we think in similar terms.  If we as a nation are attacked, our sense of justice will not be satiated until we strike back.  Justice, for us, is reactive, vengeful, and delusive. 
Although Buddhism generally does not discuss justice, we can apply Buddhist thinking to the concept to shift it from this harmful notion focused on consequences to a proactive, beneficial one focused on motivations.  What are the causes of our current conflicts?  What ill-will, greed, and delusion are we engaging in that may have led to conflict?  How are we responsible, even when we don’t want to admit any responsibility?  Instead of striking out, we may be able to avert conflict by looking inward.
If, instead, we do take aggressive action, we are submitting to another delusion—that we can alleviate our own suffering by causing others to suffer.  This idea is one which surfaces time and again in Harvey’s discussion of topics like euthanasia and abortion.  This fundamental delusion seems to inform much of our decision-making concerning ethical issues.  In our often-impassioned attempts to serve justice, we instead create a sustained cycle of suffering.  When we act to satisfy our need for justice, there is always the possibility that another group will view those actions as threatening to their wego and act, in turn, to satisfy their own need for justice.  This sounds very much like the perpetual revolution of the wheel of samsara
How are we to break such a cycle?  As individuals, in order to escape from the wheel of suffering, we must awaken.  With clear vision, we can see through the delusion and we can elect not to participate in our unjust system of justice.  That is not the same as “turning the other cheek” when we are wronged.  Instead, we should seek resolution over retribution, eliminate the causes of others’ suffering and we eliminate the causes of our own.  This is true justice, though it may sound like the converse of our current skewed concept of justice.  It may be bittersweet as we are forced to recognize our own responsibility, or at least our own complicity, in the processes that create conflict.  If we can make this kind of change on a personal level, we can then effect change on the institutional, national, and global levels.
At the most basic level, this is just another call to give up our illusory sense of self and to stop acting in ways to protect that delusion at the expense of others.  This sounds more difficult than it really should be because our society has been built around the glorification of the individual; we are taught from an early age just how to maintain the sense of self.  Even our most conformist of institutions, the military, recruits with slogans like “be all that you can be” and “army of one,” again glorifying the individual while simultaneously conditioning soldiers to sacrifice that individuality for the larger wego.  We must indeed sacrifice our selves, but not to be replaced by larger, institutional bodies which would lead to a totalitarian state.  We must sacrifice our selves for one another, regardless of nationality or other superficial differences like gender, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, or political beliefs.  Sacrificing our selves need not mean sacrificing our lives or the lives of others, just sacrificing our misperceptions.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s description of our fundamental relationship with all things is “interbeing.”  This is more than a series of cause and effect relationships or links in a chain of being, but an inextricable interpermeation of all beings, each dependent upon all others.  In order to successfully coexist with one another, we must awaken to the understanding of this concept.  Just as our individual egos collectively form ever-radiating circles of wego based on our self-identification with various groups like families, states, and nations, we have to recognize the multiple layers of the web of interbeing affecting those groups.  Our beliefs and actions cannot be separated from those of other individuals, families, states, and nations, again each dependent upon all others.  When we strike others, we strike ourselves.  When we save others, we save ourselves.  We will never alleviate suffering by causing more suffering, we will never achieve justice through retribution, and we will never achieve peace through violence.

28 December 2012

Toppling the Tower of Self-Gratifying Economics

Like Rapunzel, I am kept alienated from others in the topmost chamber of a lofty tower, so high above the ground that I can see neither the tower’s foundations nor its exit.  Just like the heroine of that tale, I let down my proverbial hair to admit my heart’s desires, whatever those might be at the moment, in hopes that one will finally free me. My hair is always down, netting more and more pleasures and hoisting them up for my own greedy, isolated consumption in my misdirected search for liberation. Unlike the princess of the classic fable, I have erected this tower myself and I am both prisoner and warden within it.  An even more apt description would be to say that I am the tower itself: an edifice of ego built to protect an ever-craving fragile sense of self.  The tower and the system of acquisition and consumption I have constructed allow me to enjoy virtually limitless pleasures without being bothered by the “hows” and “whoms” of those pleasures’ manufacture.  My sense of identity is inextricably bound up with the consumer capitalist system in which I am complicit; my tower is built upon the backs of working women and men.

* * *
It may seem quite a reach to begin a theory of Buddhist economics with a Western fairy tale; however, as Western Buddhism emerges and develops in contemporary consumer capitalist economies, it becomes apparent that this ancient way can flourish today by appropriating familiar elements of those cultures.  Just as historically Buddhism has been able to adapt and spread through some degree of syncretism with already-inculcated belief systems across Asia, its chances for survival today in the West may depend on its ability to infiltrate existing religious, social, political, and economic institutions.  For many people in this predominately Christian society, Buddhism appears to be a mystical and exotic religion, foreign and esoteric without any relevance to the contemporary West.  If the majority was to start taking it seriously as a viable alternative, not just to Christian thought but also to capitalist thought, it suddenly becomes a foreign threat, a seemingly open attack on our values and the foundations of our society.
Buddhism, however, is not just a religion or philosophy, but a practical path for living, and it is this facet of Buddhism that may be most appealing to the pragmatic West.  A Buddhism that does not openly conflict with Christianity, a “safe Buddhism” with the aura of psychology or self-help that might augment our current systems is one that could easily be accepted in the West and incorporated into our existing traditions. The danger, I fear, in this subtle approach is that the bottomless pit of our consumer capitalist economy will swallow up such a “safe Buddhism.”  Is a watered-down application of popularized Buddhist precepts really going to be effective in changing the direction of a society that is so essentially off-course?  As the old axiom goes, “desperate times call for drastic measures.”  Buddhism has the power to be a drastic measure—it can be a vehicle for tearing down the buttresses of what we think we know to be true.
Key to the success of the penetration by “drastic Buddhism” of our economic system is a shift away from our often rigidly dualistic way of thinking.  We habitually construct fragmented and exclusive vantages from which to perceive our world.  One example is the conventional conceit that economics is some unified object of examination, separate from us and from other elements of our culture.  We distance the object from ourselves, giving us an illusory sense of mastery over it.  In reality, economics is just another facet of our constructed identities of self and community, one which, in deluding ourselves that we have control over it, we have let master us.  It is a self-constructed tower that traps us, all the while maintaining the delusion that it protects and serves us.  We must awaken to the fact that our economic system is a reflection of the way we view the world and others, and that viewpoint is fundamentally flawed.  It is dukkha.
Our economic viewpoint is largely a consequence of our attitude toward the natural world as “resource,” and therefore tied to ecology in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.  David Loy, in the chapter “Loving the World as Our Own Body” from his book The Great Awakening, discusses our present exploitative and delusional relationship with the natural world and the alternatives Buddhism, Taoism, and Deep Ecology present. As Dr. Loy notes, religion and social theory are tangled into our knotted relationship with nature.  Whether one subscribes to Christian creationism or understands Darwin’s Origin of Species to place humanity at the apex of evolution, the role of the natural world has been perceived as being to serve humans.  Politics, too, is bound up in this complex interrelationship, with geo-political borders demarcating what is “ours” from what is “theirs.”  Central to all of these attitudes is the objectification of the natural world and a sense of self that is separate from it.
Other people, too, become merely resources in our present economic system—rather than humans, they are “labor,” serving to produce the goods with which we attempt to quench our never-ending thirst for sense-pleasures.  Humanity has become objectified in our contemporary view of the world, not just because of an impersonal system that uses people as dispensable resources, but also because of other humans who, as both consumers and profit-makers, do not value the humanity of those who serve them.  The basic flaw of our economic system is rooted in our blindness to our shared kinship with “resources” and “labor.”  Such language codifies the dualistic thinking that allows us to maintain the illusion of distance from the natural world and from other people.  These notions are the bricks of our individual tower-prisons.
Extending this fairy-tale analogy, it is easy to see corporations as collective prison-towers.  In this case, like distancing consumers from the realities of production, the corporation shields shareholders from responsibility towards resources and labor.  It enables people to collectively maintain the illusion that they are not individually exploiting the natural world and their fellow humans for their own profit, their own consumption.  In “Can Corporations Become Enlightened?” also in The Great Awakening, Dr. Loy notes that the corporation does not share accountability in the way it superficially shares profit amongst its members.  Instead, the corporation is a fictive body that serves as scapegoat for the “sins” of the individuals who act in their own interests to maximize return.  Our whole economic apparatus is designed to perpetuate these fictions and maintain our illusionary identities as bodies and as individuals.
The non-dualistic approach to thinking that Buddhism brings to the West is a major tool with which the dismantling of this apparatus can begin.  When management understands that they are not separate from employees, consumers realize that they are no different from the workers who serve and produce for them, and we all recognize that by exploiting our non-renewable natural “resources” we are using up ourselves, our prison-towers will begin to crumble.  The structural and social verticality we have each erected to distance ourselves from one another becomes level ground;  hierarchy becomes an equality in which we all share and true democracy has a fertile ground in which to sprout among the ruins.  Ironically, it seems that a path that some Westerners view as a foreign threat may just be the tool we need to return to our original ideas of democracy.  Even a measure as drastic as Buddhist re-thinking is not in conflict with our society’s foundational institutions.  Infiltrating them and working from within, Buddhist concepts might become effective tools in reshaping the parameters of thought and action currently inscribed by those institutions.  In a Western sense, our traditional institutions, such as economics, may become more just and in a Buddhist sense, they may become less ego-centric when dualistic misperception gives way to the recognition of the interpermeability of all things.
In conclusion, let’s revisit our fairy-tale…
* * *
            One morning, Rapunzel awakens to find her tower chamber empty.  She realizes that no Prince Charming will ever scale the tower to rescue her and so cuts off her hair.  The witch-warden who has been keeping her fades from view, a hallucination she has created for herself in order to cope with her own limitations.  Even the walls of the tower begin to fade to reveal the same phenomenon happening to similar towers all around her, each with their own erstwhile inhabitants rejoicing in freedom together, no longer self-imprisoned captives.  For this princess, and millions of other people like her, liberation begins with awakening.

23 December 2012

Fake Picassos

A real Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932.
In an interview with Reinhold Schiller in 1974, Jewish, American, Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff retells a story published in the New Yorker some years before:

A man was trying to sell a painting by Picasso, and the Man whom he was trying to sell it to looked at it and after a while said, "It's a fake." The man said, "A fake?" The seller said, "Look, I'm a friend of Picasso's. Let's go up there and ask him." So they took the painting, and went up to Picasso who looked at it, and said, "It's a fake." So the man who was trying to sell the painting said, "Why, I saw you paint it myself! I was in the studio when you were painting it!" Picasso says, "Well, so what? I've painted lots of fake Picassos!"

Reznikoff laughed and said:

And I can see that's true of writing, in a sense. People write, they write their best, they think they've done something very well, but it isn't as good as some of the other things they've done.

You should watch this

It's been receiving attention for months now, yet there are still those who haven't seen it. And need to. This can happen to couples of any genders and sexual orientations without legal protections. Marriage is one way, in the eyes of the law, to protect the rights of those who love one another.

22 December 2012

Roles of the Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic

Plato. Looking rather superior.

Though Plato’s true intentions in ending his Republic with the Myth of Er will likely forever remain hidden, evidence in the text itself leads scholars to several suppositions about its purpose. Two major roles that the myth is thought to portray are:
  1. To provide a kind of balance and unity to the work, by reflecting back to Socrates’ conversation with Cephalus near the beginning of the work and/or as the last recurrence of his use of myths and allegories throughout.
  2. To illustrate that the rewards of the pursuit of justice in life carry with us to the afterlife (and future lives).
In examining these two possible meanings of the conclusion, one might also be directed towards the meaning, or point, of the Republic as a whole.

… the one who came up first chose the greatest tyranny.  In his folly and greed he chose it without adequate examination and didn’t notice that, among other evils, he was fated to eat his own children as a part of it…. He was one of those who had come down from heaven, having lived his previous life under an orderly constitution, where he had participated in virtue through habit and without philosophy (Rep.  619b-c).

Given Socrates’ focus in earlier books of the Republic on balance, harmony and order in the soul, city and all things, for Plato to use the Myth of Er as a tool of symmetry in concluding the book makes perfect sense.  The style and content of the conclusion, though thought to be sloppy and out of place by some (like Julia Annas in her An Introduction to Plato’s Republic), is recognized by others as ending a rhythm created by earlier passages in the work and as reflecting back to its beginning.
In Book I, upon arriving at Cephalus’ house, Socrates and the old gentleman converse on the nature of old age and the approach of death.  At the beginning of the conversation, while Socrates’ inquiries are pleasant small-talk, Cephalus is happy to engage.  However, when Socrates pushes into more philosophic discourse, Cephalus breaks away, citing that he must make sacrifice to the gods.  It is clear that Cephalus has no interest in philosophy, but instead deems important the habitual/ritual act of sacrifice to appease the gods.
Several scholars have espoused that Socrates’ description of the first person to choose in the “Lottery of Lives” is in line with the depiction of Cephalus at the beginning of the work.  In his article, “Plato’s Myths and the Mystery Tradition,” W.T.S. Thackara states, “It is surely with deliberate intent that Plato opens the Republic with a brief conversation between Socrates and his elderly friend Cephalus on the subject of death...  In counterpoint to Cephalus’ story, Plato ends the Republic with the Vision of Er” (6).
The future tyrant described in the myth is said to have participated in the common idea of justice through habit, while Cephalus’ idea of justice (and indeed Thrasymachus’ later in the work) includes the ritual sacrifice to the gods to atone for one’s sins.  Socrates believes that only the pursuit of philosophy in this life will assist one in choosing the next, and Cephalus has demonstrated that he has no interest in pursuing philosophy.  His soul, rather than being well-ordered and ruled by the rational part, has been ruled by the appetitive part and a love of wealth.  Therefore, it is very likely that although he is thought to be a good and just man, he will not choose his next life wisely (Steinberger 194).
Another way in which the telling of the myth could be viewed as a tool of creating a structural symmetry is in its resemblance of other earlier passages appearing throughout the work.  Because Er descends into the underworld, the myth is a tale of “going down” (Greek word kateban).  The opening line of the work, too is a kateban in that Socrates “went down to the Piraeus.”  Another kateban appears in the middle of the work in Socrates’ telling of the Allegory of the Cave.  John Evan Seery declares these “scenes of descent” to be important punctuation of the Republic, creating a harmonious rhythm in the work.
Other themes presented earlier in the work recur in the conclusion, as well--- the Ring of Gyges and the criticism of imitative poetry, for example.  “There is evidence for the myth’s continuity with the rest of the book if only by virtue of its recollecting certain themes that are carried over from the main text” (Seery 241).  And so, unlike Annas, Seery is able to reconcile the Myth of Er with the rest of the work.
In his article, “A New Interpretation of Plato’s Republic,” Robert S. Brumbaugh makes reference to the “intrusive description” of the universe as a series of whorls with Sirens and the Fates singing harmoniously together.  He argues that, even here, Plato was using the ordered and balanced mechanics of his universe to stress the balance that pervades his argument in the Republic.  This conscious aesthetic choice helps to reiterate the order of the city, the soul and the argument (Brumbaugh 665-666).
These features indicate a fairly clear skeletal balance to the work and a conclusion that neatly ties up themes appearing in the very beginning.  While these views fit the conclusion into the structure of the work, they do not stress its relevance to the main argument of the work.

But if we are persuaded by me, we’ll believe that the soul is immortal and able to endure every evil and every good, and we’ll always hold to the upward path, practicing justice with reason in every way.  That way we’ll be friends both to ourselves and to the gods while we remain here on earth and afterwards--- like victors in the games who go around collecting their prizes--- we’ll receive our rewards (Rep. 621c-d)

Early on in the Republic, Glaucon and Adeimantus ask Socrates to strip the rewards of justice from his argument and to argue simply for the good of justice, in and of itself.  Having spent most of the work doing just that, it is in the recounting of the Myth of Er that Socrates returns the idea of consequences to the practice of justice or injustice.   These consequences, though obviously having importance in the present life, also carry with us beyond death (Philippakis 37-38).
In order for Socrates to argue strongly for the importance of the consequences of being just or unjust, he must first argue for the immortality of the soul.  Were the soul to end at death, there would be only punishment or reward in this life as consequence. However, to show that the punishments or rewards garnered by one’s constitution and actions in life carry with them not only into the afterlife, but also into a series of future lives is to intensify the argument severely.
He must also add to the argument an element of personal responsibility for one’s own fate.  The common Greek religion, as noted early in the Republic by Glaucon and Adeimantus, had, basically, an ethical loophole through which the unjust could be absolved of their transgressions.   One could simply make sacrifice to the proper god or goddess and clear his or her conscience.  By restoring the reputation, consequences and personal responsibility to the just or unjust person, Socrates is then able to further strengthen his argument for justice as good for its rewards.
The description Er gives of the soul of the tyrant, Ardiaeus, is one good example of this facet of his argument.  Ardiaeus no doubt has a despicable reputation, and thus Er and the other souls recognize him.  However, it his not his reputation which is judged, but his soul.  Socrates has already commented on the soul of a tyrant being ruled by desire rather than being well-ordered, so we know that Ardiaeus is unable to escape the consequences of the actions taken during his lifetime.
The Lottery of Lives, too, reiterates this aspect of personal responsibility, in that even though the order in which souls are allowed to choose their lives is determined by chance, there are more than enough just lives for everyone to choose.  The last to choose, then, could not blame the Fates for leaving him with nothing but an unjust life.  In fact, Odysseus, in the case of Socrates’ tale, is the last to choose and because of the trials encountered during his lifetime, chooses a simple, private life, saying that he would have made the same choice had he been first to choose.  “The possibility that chance, rather than understanding, might determine one’s condition of life is tacitly undercut by the myth” (Moors 170).
The Myth of Er serves to present a view of the world beyond this one as not only one of heavenly reward and punishment, but also a cycle of rebirths into new lives chosen based on knowledge they have sought in the previous life.  This was not a view commonly held by the Greeks at the time, and Julia Annas and John Evan Seery have both noted that it should be seen as a tip-off to search for deeper levels of meaning in the myth (Annas 353; Seery 243).
Both Annas and Kent Moors (in his “Parabaseis and Symbolic Instruction in Plato’s Myth of Er”) argue in different ways that, if not the meaning, the importance of the myth is actually explained by Socrates himself when he breaks away from the narration and speaks directly to Glaucon.  Annas adopts the view that in these moments, Plato speaks to us, the readers, through Socrates’ words, “stressing the need of wisdom to choose what leads to a just life, avoiding false values and making the most of what life provides.  He is talking about the choices that we make” (351).
Moors sees the three moments of parabasis, in which Socrates steps away from his story to speak directly to Glaucon, as revealing the point of the work as a whole:
On three separate occasions during its presentation, Socrates steps aside from the narration and speaks directly to his interlocutor (Glaucon).  These parabaseis, or digressions, constitute a specific theme in the myth, and are basically connected to the concluding passage of the dialogue.  Through these parabaseis, Socrates will relate the significance of the tale to the overall purpose of the Republic, indicating thereby why the myth should be considered more than merely an appendix to the discussion (Moors 155).

In the first parabasis, Socrates reveals that the myth is but a summary of Er’s story upon waking from death on his funeral pyre.  In the second, Socrates states that belief in the myth has the power to save one’s soul and purify it.  The third and final parabasis reiterates that if one pursues philosophy in his present life, he will escape the tortures of the underworld in the afterlife (Moors 158-169).  This reading seems in accord with Socrates’ earlier depiction of the philosopher as the best form of ruler of a city and rationality as the best ruler of one’s soul.
It is interesting to note that this teaching has its counterpart in the Eastern religion of Buddhism, in which a person attempts to escape from the cycle of rebirth through discipline and study.  The Buddha taught that one should strive to avoid the excesses of life and follow a “Middle Way.” Kent Moors finds this teaching in the Republic, as well, as espoused by Socrates, “An existence lived between excesses is the preferable mode of life, one which produces the best condition of the soul” (166).

It is strange that Plato should end the Republic with a dramatic tale, when he has so clearly railed against such work at the beginning of Book 10 and earlier in Book 4.  In fact, to use Odysseus (perhaps, the most well-know Homeric character) in his Myth of Er seems to be using the exact material he opposes.  It is possible that he is attempting to show (what he believes to be) the proper use of myth as a tool in the pursuit of philosophy, rousing the intellect and rationality, rather than the passions.
Added to the mystery of why Plato uses this form of writing is the mystery of its purpose.  The two possibilities covered here, that it provides the work with a structural balance and that it provides a means of arguing for the importance of the rewards of justice, are but two of many possibilities.  To search for the meaning of the Myth of Er is to search for the meaning of the Republic.
As John Evan Seery writes, “This is the comedy and tragedy and wonder of the Republic, when we realize that it is we who are those souls now, at every moment, choosing their lives” (245).

Works Cited
Annas, Julia.  An Introduction to Plato’s Republic.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
Brumbaugh, Robert S.  “A New Interpretation of Plato’s Republic.”  The Journal of Philosophy 64 (1967): 661-670.
Griswold, Charles.  “The Ideas and the Criticism of Poetry in Plato’s Republic, Book 10.”  Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981): 135-150.
Moors, Kent.  “Parabaseis and Symbolic Instruction in Plato’s Myth of Er.”  Politikos: Volume I.  Selected Papers of the North American Chapter of the Society for Greek Political Thought.  Ed. Kent Moors.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1989.  154-172.
Philippakis, Katherine.  “See No Evil: The Story of Gyges in Herodotus and Plato.” Justice v. Law in Greek Political Thought.  Ed. Leslie G. Rubin.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.  27-40.
Plato.  Republic.  Trans. G.M.A. Grube. Rev. C.D.C. Reeve.  2nd ed.  Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
Seery, John Evan.  “Politics as Ironic Community: On the Themes of Descent and Return in Plato’s Republic.”  Political Theory 16 (1988): 229-256.
Steinberger, Peter J.  “Who is Cephalus?”  Political Theory 24 (1996): 172-199.
Thackara, W.T.S.  “Plato’s Myths and the Mystery Tradition.”  Sunrise Dec. 1988-Jan. 1989.  <http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/world/med/my-wtst2.htm>.

Missed Connections

Advice given anonymously in Cragslist personals? Advice you can trust.

20 December 2012

Nothing is Consistent in Buddhist Social Ethics

            One of Buddhism’s greatest strengths, and perhaps the quality that will ensure its survival in the contemporary West, is also one of its greatest weaknesses—adaptability.  As the Dharma spread from India throughout Asia and the rest of the world, Buddhism not only informed the cultures it encountered but became informed by them, resulting in a plurality of “Buddhisms” rather than one monolithic, consistent tradition.  Therefore, the forms of the Dharma as practiced in Japan are very different from those practiced in Tibet and, indeed, quite different from one another even within the same country.  The various sects of Buddhism and the diverse societies in which Buddhism has been adopted provide differing perspectives on social issues, many conflicting with one another.  Nowhere more visible are these inconsistent perspectives than in relationship to ethical issues, which inform Buddhism in practice, not just theory.  As there is no single Buddhism, there can be no single code of Buddhist ethics.  For many in the West, this is problematic; conditioned by dualistic thinking, we expect consistency, even if it is simply to determine what Buddhists “do not believe.” 
            For example, if one were to posit the question, “Do Buddhists support abortion?”  no single consistent answer would emerge.  First, the phrasing of the question provides room for inconsistency in that Buddhists, or practitioners of Buddhism, are a group of individuals and their personal beliefs may be inconsistent with the teachings as recorded in the texts.  Even were we to rephrase the question as, “Does Buddhism support abortion?” we would be narrowing the possibilities only slightly, given the proliferation of forms of the tradition.  As investigated by Peter Harvey, in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Buddhist attitudes toward abortion are not entirely consistent, even given the first precept of not intentionally harming any sentient life.  The crux comes, as in Christian and secular Western attitudes toward abortion, with the defining moment of life.  One predominant Buddhist attitude defines life at the moment of conception, and thus abortion would be considered as a breach of the first precept.  What if, however, the pregnancy causes the mother suffering, harming her life?  Thus begins an unreasonable exercise in weighing one person’s dukkha against that of another.  Abortion, for some Buddhists, becomes a permissible option if it relieves more suffering or prevents more harm.
            Another example of Buddhist inconsistency in social ethics is the tradition’s multiplicitous attitudes toward gender relations.  The Buddha seems to have been influenced by the culture of his time in initially not allowing women to enter the sangha.  As discussed by Dr. David Loy in his essay, “What’s Wrong with Sex?” there were practical reasons that can be attributed for the Buddha’s reluctance, such as the concern that allowing both sexes to intermingle in the sangha would make sexual activity more likely, which would be a hindrance to enlightenment.  However, even after having been persuaded to allow women to join, the iniquities in the monastic codes for men versus women show how the cultural patriarchy of India at the time was reinscribed in the Dharma.  Because of the complex interrelationship between issues of biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation, that patriarchy and male privilege present in Buddhism from the beginning continue to inform Buddhist attitudes toward a number of related social issues such as prostitution and the ordination of homosexuals.
Depiction of a hell in Sri Lankan Buddhist temple.

            Possibly the most distressing inconsistency exhibited by the Dharma is that, even though widely understood as a religion that abhors violence and promotes peace, there have been those people throughout history who have exploited Buddhism’s flexibility in order to promote violence and to justify participation in warfare.  This seems profoundly oppositional to the core teachings of Buddhism, and yet adaptability can be considered to be one of those core teachings.  This example shows the hazard of adaptability taken to the extreme.  Buddhism can be what we want it to be as much as what historically it has been shown to be; its malleability in the hands of those with unwholesome motivations could prove dangerous.  Therefore, it is very important that we seek to establish some guiding discipline in shaping Buddhism today.
As the Dharma continues to take form in the contemporary West, one is tempted to survey the vast historical depth and geographical breadth of the tradition and cobble together a new practice from the best parts of everything that has come before, discarding those which do not agree with our current socially-conditioned attitudes.  For example, if we are troubled by something written in later Mahayana commentaries, we might look back to the “original” Pali texts for a “definitive” word on the issue or even limit our investigation to what has been recorded as the words of the Buddha, himself.  This is often the approach currently taken in Christianity, by fundamentalists and liberals alike, in the attempt to “get back to” what Jesus “really” taught.
This methodology is inherently fallacious; we can never know what the Buddha or Jesus really said and so we are left with the texts written around them--artifacts that must be recognized as the fallible word of humankind.  Doing so provides even greater impetus for a “shopping-cart” Buddhism, which dismisses any teaching that does not agree with our own prescriptive understanding of the Dharma.  If we consciously choose to distill Buddhism, however, we risk homogenizing the teachings into a consistent, exclusive, and inflexible religion, like so many others being practiced today.  For many in the United States, Buddhism is attractive precisely because they perceive it as not being the rigid, hellfire-and-brimstone Christianity of our Puritan foreparents.  If Buddhism were to lose its inconsistency, it may very well lose its viability.
On the other hand, we cannot just accept everything written about Buddhism without question.  Such an approach contradicts core teachings of the Buddha that almost everything about the practice is provisional.  He viewed the Dharma as a raft used only to take us from one shore to the other.  Another helpful analogy might be to think of Buddhism as a toolset, not a goal in and of itself.  From that set of tools, an individual must choose those she or he recognizes as appropriate to the job.  If the tools do not fit the task, then they can be discarded or modified.  Thus, Buddhism should take on an individualized form necessary for the practitioner to reach enlightenment, perhaps the root of the Dharma’s inherent inconsistency.  The Buddha himself is said to have adjusted his teachings or withheld certain teachings based on his particular audiences and their needs, presenting the Dharma in various forms as necessary.  The Buddha’s teachings, therefore, appear fluid and viable, qualities that paradoxically have the possibility of changing Buddhism into something rigid and dead.
What is to keep contemporary Buddhism in the West from befalling such a fate?  Cultivating the wholesome qualities of wisdom, compassion, and generosity, beneficial in and of themselves, will also develop our faculty for upaya, or “skillful means” in applying the Dharma.  Upaya ensures a critical response to the teachings, giving one an informed context from which to choose the right tools for awakening.  This is different from a “shopping-cart” approach to Buddhism, in which one’s constructed ego, subject to selective perception, is allowed to determine which teachings should be retained and which dismissed.  Instead, with ego extinguished, upaya permits such decisions to arise naturally and situationally as a consequence of one’s Buddha-nature. 
Through upaya and the nurturing of wisdom, compassion, and generosity, one might begin to see inconsistency as one of the Dharma’s most consistent qualities—it is consistently inconsistent.  By accepting ambiguity as a norm, one can revel in Buddhism’s inconsistent texts, attitudes, and practices, which allow paradox, sustain reversals of belief and opinion, and permit the inclusion of the greatest number of people in the path to enlightenment through whatever means necessary.  I would argue that practice will take us a step further than recognizing the Dharma’s inconsistencies as consistent, to the point where we truly understand nothing to be consistent.  This is not simply an act of creating semantic nonsense to excuse Buddhism’s shortcomings, but instead a shift away from dualistic thinking.  The language of “consistent” and “inconsistent” reinforces a faulty binary of thought privileging an ego-constructed delusion of permanence.  Any judgments about consistency are made from a self-imposed distance between the thing being evaluated and that doing the evaluation.  Awakening means overcoming this divide, recognizing the complex interpermeation of all things, and exposing the insufficiency of language to describe our existence, thus ultimately discharging the need for terms like “consistent” and “social ethics.”

19 December 2012

Leni Riefenstahl and the Intercutting of Truth

Leni and Adolph. Quite a pair. 
          As described in Ray Müller’s documentary, The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Riefenstahl was “the last great image maker of the Nazis” and “the most famous female filmmaker in the world.”  In her memoirs, however, she would have us believe that she was much more than that.  Drawing upon her screenwriting and visual storytelling skills, she constructs an elaborate scenario in which she is the misunderstood heroine, a single-minded artist naïvely plying her craft amidst a storm of political and professional intrigues. 
Her story makes for compelling drama, however, it seems far more likely that Riefenstahl was simply an ambitious person, caught up in the fervor of the Reich’s zeitgeist and taking advantage of the opportunities provided her by her high-ranking connections.  When the end of the Second World War found her on the losing side, the same instincts and skills that guided her artistic survival were then needed to negotiate her physical survival.  As someone whose profession was manufacturing fiction, she had the capability to say or do or create anything necessary to ensure that survival.  This drive for self-survival is in direct opposition to the self-sacrifice shown by true heroes and thus negates the underlying premise of Riefenstahl’s explication of her life.
As a screenwriter, Leni understood the first major principle of effective storytelling, the suspension of disbelief in the audience.  The artist must produce a world and characters of such great verisimilitude that the audience forgets they are experiencing a work of fiction and becomes engrossed in the action as though it were really happening.  Using very visual language, many historical events and several vignettes from the lives of real people, Leni creates an expectation in the common reader of her memoirs that what he or she is reading is as close to objective truth as is accessible so long after the fact.  She quotes letters, newspaper articles and reviews, names contemporary artists and provides firsthand accounts of the making of her films.  All of this lends authority to the work.
While she purports to have argued with Hitler that she only wanted to be an actress, Leni seems to have derived her greatest professional pleasure from directing.  Filmmaking, in general, is the product of a team effort, but it is the position of director that tends to have the greatest control over the final product, and Leni needed to feel in control.  The director’s main responsibility to the film is to get the shots necessary to the story.  Just as Riefenstahl had no ethical problems with restaging Olympic events when she found footage of them to be “unusable” for her documentary, Olympia (pp. 196-97), she could just as easily have changed or staged events in her memoirs as she deemed necessary. 
Being also an editor, however, she understood the need to select, cut and alter material in order to make it more entertaining and effective.  To establish a structure and rhythm in a film, events can be reordered, outcomes can be changed and motivations can be hidden. An editor selects the best takes of a scene for the final film.  However, what is left on the cutting room floor is often as important as what makes it into the work.  What scenes did Riefenstahl omit from her memoirs?
The art of film editing provides, perhaps, the most important technique she could have adopted in constructing her memoirs:  intercutting or cross-cutting.  To intercut scenes is to cut between them so as to establish in the viewer’s mind some sort of unity between them.  Often this simply implies that they are occurring simultaneously, but when used effectively, as done by the early Russian filmmakers so admired by Leni (like Eisenstein), other associations are conjured.  In the case of her memoirs, by intercutting scenes of historical events with her own fabrications, she seeks to establish an indiscriminate unity of truth.  It becomes impossible to disentangle the fact from the fiction.
Just as she understood the power of this technique and utilized it in her defense, so, too, did her detractors in their accusations.  Leni wrote of one of the many critical television programs produced during her lifetime: “Anyone watching that footage was bound to believe that I had witnessed an execution of Jews.  Such cross-cutting adulterates truth into its very opposite” (p. 653).  Even Müller’s film relies on the technique from the very outset, as it opens with underwater scenes from Riefenstahl’s later life intercut with scenes from Triumph of the Will, then Olympia and shots of the Nuba.  Like Susan Sontag’s article mentioned in the memoirs, this technique ties together the various images into a nearly unified aesthetic.  Whereas Sontag openly referred to that aesthetic as “facist,” Müller lets the images speak for themselves.
Leni may have disliked Sontag’s take on her unified aesthetic, but, to some degree, it was necessary for her to create the impression that she had a singular vision in order to help establish herself as heroic.  A Carlylian definition of “hero” requires that the person have a vision of an underlying truth in reality and to direct all her actions toward establishing that truth.  From Triumph of the Will, Leni seems to believe that the machinations of National Socialism would realize that truth.  For her then to deny knowledge of the political ideologies of the Party and disassociate herself from it effectively counteracts any sort of heroic stature that may have been bestowed upon her by the Nazis.
With Olympia and her work with the Nuba, her vision of truth seems to shift toward the fit body as beautiful.  Again, Riefenstahl denied this association as an overarching theme for her work, and thus again denied a singular vision and any sort of heroic status that might impart.  Her body of work and her subsequent vehement denials of the various readings of that body of work paint her as inconstant and untruthful about her intentions.
The cover of her greatest work of fiction.
            Just how much of Riefenstahl’s memoir is truth may never be known. However, at least one confession that she makes in the book is almost certainly true, and its implications cannot be taken lightly:  “Ever since my childhood, freedom had always been the most important thing in life for me” (p. 641).  Her sense of freedom was inextricably tied up with a need to be in complete control of the situation around her, a position that led her to the profession of directing films.  After the war, to ensure that freedom, the same skills she utilized to great achievement in filmmaking were then needed to distance herself from the Nazi regime for which she had worked (however willingly). 
While she did serve some time in prison, her talent for constructing believable fiction was so great that she could not remain there for long.  She had only to recast herself as a politically naïve woman, blind to the injustices perpetrated around her due to her intense focus on her craft.  Since the avenue of filmmaking had been closed to her, she brought this new, heroic character to life in a book, her memoirs.  Ultimately, however, Leni Riefenstahl is an unreliable narrator in her own life story and the character she creates is not her true self (and not a true hero).
            Even were the premise of this essay completely off base and every word in her memoirs true, her character still suffers from too long an association with facism and complicity with the Reich government.  If she was truly politically naïve, then she ignored a fundamental responsibility of the artist to find out how her or his art is to be used.  If she did not seek out a full understanding of the policies of the government, she should not have become so intimately involved with its leaders, especially as patrons.  The verdict remains the same: Leni Riefenstahl was a talented artist, but no hero.

Honeymoon Map

View Honeymoon in a larger map

I've begun mapping places suggested by the anonymous parcels I have been receiving.

18 December 2012

In search of lost time

"At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go up to bed, and to lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred. Some one had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: in the manner of the master-builders and glass-painters of gothic days it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased, because this change of lighting destroyed, as nothing else could have done, the customary impression I had formed of my room, thanks to which the room itself, but for the torture of having to go to bed in it, had become quite endurable. For now I no longer recognised it, and I became uneasy, as though I were in a room in some hotel or furnished lodging, in a place where I had just arrived, by train, for the first time."

For me, this wasn't a ritual before dinner, but one before bed, to help me sleep. I don't remember my age, but it was after several bouts of being unable to sleep for night terrors. My parents gave me a lamp with a spinning shade with cutouts and colored gels to project galloping images around my room. At an early age, I learned to rely on images to mediate between myself and the real world, to protect myself.

The ego is a clock

Charles Naughton and Ray Milland in a promotional still for one of my favorite films noirs,
The Big Clock (1948,  dir. John Farrow)

In the PBS series, The Power of Myth, in talking about the Buddhist tradition with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell succinctly states the first Noble Truth as: "All life is sorrow."

He elaborates by placing this assertion in the context of temporal culture: "All life is sorrow because life is temporal. Life is loss." We live in the passing moment, the present always just slightly out of reach because in the time it takes to point to it, to assert that we have found it, the present has passed already.

We live not in the present, but in the past perfect tense-- "has passed," as above. Time is the measure of loss associated with a life lived in the past perfect tense.

Perhaps we can counteract time and stay this loss, help alleviate suffering, by giving up our position in the past perfect and living in the ever-present moment. We might try to stop grasping toward the present, since it has already slipped behind us in the time taken to reach out, and instead just live the present tense. "Live" instead of "have lived." Do that which should be done right now.

The ego is a clock. It is the device which discerns time, points to its passing. Destroy the clock, destroy the measure of time, leaving only the awareness of now.

16 December 2012

Musical Détournement II

Please support The Black Ghosts and Switch by purchasing this track through iTunes:

This is my second musical détournement involving gender and the media. This one is a critique of irrational phallic fear, a field of responses developed in reaction to images of transgressive gender positions.

The images and sounds in this video are the properties of the copyright holders. I mean in no way to infringe upon them. The content is used solely for the purposes of criticism.

12 December 2012

Former Miss Teen Indiana

Monday, April 24, 1995 2:35 a.m.

I arrive at the club late Saturday night with the intentions of scoring a couple of hits of ecstasy for F_____ and myself, only to find that river all dried up. No one has any, knows where any is, or when it will be back in town. Everyone seems to be having a good time without it, though, so I get a CC and 7 and sit at the front bar for a while listening to some deep London house filtering in from the back dance floor. Around 1, V_____ comes up behind me, puts an arm around me, and slides a plastic baggy into my shirt pocket, "Last hit's for you."

Not ecstasy. Acid. Tempting. But it's 1 a.m. A little late to start that. But then I realize it is why everyone I know is having a good time at the club tonight. What the hell. Drop.

Wouldn't you know, I peak at about 4, just as the bar is closing. With nothing better to do and trying to avoid going home with B_____, I stay and help clean the bar with a few friends. I've got energy for days, even though I have no idea what I'm doing. Hell, I may not even actually be cleaning. But it feels like I am, so I go with it. Around 5, things are apparently spic and span, and I find myself walking to my car.

"Aren't you riding with us?" C_____ yells from her car as four or five other people are climbing in.

Assuming she is DD and going to have to make more stops than public transit, I decline, thinking I won't get home until the late afternoon if I have to wait for everyone else to get dropped off, "Thanks! I'm fine."

She seems a little puzzled, "Well, okay. Be careful."

At home, J_____ is passed out with Kelly or Kerry, or Carrie or something, new girlfriend of the week. Maybe that's his sister's name. Well, he has the same old girlfriend, really, so I should call this one his side dish for the week.  It disappoints me greatly that they aren't awake to keep me entertained, because it is going to be a few more hours before I get to sleep. What am I going to do with myself? I shower, a favorite activity while tripping, and try getting into bed, but that doesn't work. I'm just getting back out when the phone rings. 5:30. I think of letting it ring because, at this hour, it has to be one of J_____'s ladies. But, I'm bored, so I pick up.

It isn't a side dish. It's Peanut, "Why did you go home? We're all over at V_____'s for the after-party."

"What's happening?"

"Nothing. We're just sitting around. You should join us. D_____'s brought some Special K."

Never done that, and I'm bored, so, again, what the hell. V_____ gets on the phone and gives me directions to his place.

They're a little vague, or maybe I write them down wrong, or maybe don't write them down at all. I have no idea-- I'm still out of my gourd. I get to what I think is his neighborhood in the Highlands, park the car, and start walking around. Eventually I find it. Right where I parked.

Besides V_____ and Peanut, C_____, S_____, and D_____ are there, all very animated and chatty. D_____'s wearing a mitt and checking the oven every couple of minutes. I hope it's cookies. I could really go for some right now.

"You know, C_____ is a former Miss Teen Indiana," states Peanut, matter-of-factly.

"Really?" I'm not sure what to do with this information. Or why it is being delivered at just this time.

C_____, née Miss Teen Indiana, is shaking her pretty head in acknowledgement when D____ pulls a baking sheet from the oven.

It's not cookies. It's a white crystalline mess stuck to the pan. "You should have used parchment paper and Pam," I think I'm fucking hilarious, but no one laughs. Everyone is silently transfixed on these baked goods.

Special K. Ketamine. A tranquilizer for small animals that, when baked down to solids, crushed up, and inhaled, puts one into a state commonly referred to by those in the know as a "K-hole."

I, being the only virgin in the group, am offered the first couple of bumps. I'm handed a Fiestaware dinner plate piled with the powder and a bendy straw that's been downsized to nothing but a nub. I've never done anything like this before, so Peanut warns me, "Exhale away from the plate, or we'll be doing bumps off the floor."

It doesn't take long for me to become motionless, speechless, and thoroughly amused. There is a total loss of control throughout the apartment. The plate is passed around, more K is cut and bumped, and I sink into what I can only describe as dumb euphoria. Eventually, the plate comes back around to me and I stutter, "I c-can't have anymore." Everyone finds this statement funny. Frighteningly funny. No one laughs at my baking joke, but I just say no and it's belly-laughs and guffaws.

"Sure you can," smiles Miss Teen Indiana, "I'll hold the plate for you." I decline, again, stating that I have to work at 4:30. I have no idea what time it is. I never know what time it is.

"I work a double... have to be in at ten-thirty in the a.m." declares Teen Indiana, before doing another bump and passing the plate on. The sun is up, fighting its way through the heavy curtains V_____ uses to keep it out. I find a comfortable spot on his futon to sit and watch the Fiestaware passed around faster than an offering plate at church. No one seems to care that I'm not participating anymore. They don't seem to care about anything; this is complete disregard for responsibility. We're somewhere outside of time.

By 8, though, time is back for revenge and we've all moved to V_____'s bed to ease the coming down.

Indiana is the first to leave the pile, at 9:30. One hour until work for her. Hope she makes it. I soon follow, but once I am outside I wish I hadn't. The sunshine is unbearably bright. Even in my car, it's bright, so much so that I feel like I have an open sunroof overhead, but there is none. I'm not swerving, but the road is, determined to keep me from finding my way home.

Once back, I still can't sleep. My mind is racing. I truly don't believe that I am going to come down. My throat is dry-- the kind of dry that no amount of water will quench. Right up to the moment of unconsciousness, I think that if I ever do get to sleep, I am probably not going to wake up. If I do wake up, I am probably not going to want to work. If I do work, I am probably not going to remember it.

2 p.m. alarm. Snooze. snooze. snooze. snooze. snoo unplug

3:30 J_____ wakes me, a phone call from F_____. Unintelligible and unremembered conversation.

3:45 I have to be at work in 45 minutes. Groggy, I shower. Again. I pour myself into the all-black dress clothes that serve as my work uniform. I look like a member of Kraftwerk, I muse as I finish the knot in my tie in the bathroom mirror. Time to sling drinks.

11 December 2012

Possibility of legal polygamy thanks to same-sex marriage opponents

My clever and creative roommate, Freddy, in the course of discussing my project has determined that, due to same-sex marriages not being recognized in every state, in certain circumstances polygamy can technically be legal. That requires a bit of a qualifier, however, in that there are conditions under which bigamy is technically legal and illegal simultaneously. This is really an exercise in logic, or more precisely, the illogicality of not universally recognizing marriage between same-sex partners across every state of our fine union. His argument goes like this:

A same-sex couple marries one another in a state in which their union is legally recognized. They then travel to another state, possibly their home state, in which same-sex marriage, even that performed elsewhere, is not recognized. Their union, from a legal perspective, is null—it never even took place in the eyes of the state. Now that their union is void, one or both are free to marry, in this state that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, an opposite-sex partner.

While illegal in the states that recognize same-sex marriage, this second, opposite-sex union would be the only legal marriage in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex unions. The relationship, then, is both legal (in some states) while simultaneously illegal (in others).

In order for this paradox to occur, the marriages have to take place in this order. Because opposite-sex marriages are recognized throughout the U.S., if already in one first, you can’t marry someone else of either sex. The same-sex marriage must be first.

Of course, this argument hinges on a state’s legal wording for conditions under which opposite-sex marriage can occur. It also hinges on the interaction of federal law with these state laws. However, if it is the federal government’s policy to allow states to determine the legal definitions of marriage for that state, then it should not interfere in state matters of opposite-sex marriage, either.

Anyway, I am no legal expert, so if anyone reads this and has a reason why it would not work, please respond. I would like to know the viability of this argument.

If this dude's for real, good luck to him

While trolling Craigslist for ideas for my next Husbrand ad, I came across this loving message from a very loving 28-year-old who wants to raise loving children. Of course, given my own proclivity toward marriage, I love it.

10 December 2012

The Work of Felix Gonzales-Torres (1957-1996) as Discursive Critique

Untitled (Perfect Lovers) 1991

           In his revisionist history of homosexuality in America in the 1970s, Beyond Shame:  Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, Patrick Moore deals with the legacy of that period’s greater visibility for homosexuality as it ripples through the social, artistic, and political institutions of the 1980s, 1990s, and today.  In the book, Moore details what he sees as a systematic posthumous erasure of the sexuality of gay artists in the ever-developing art-historical and art-critical discourse.  Citing Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) as one example of a deceased gay artist whose oeuvre is currently undergoing such erasure, Moore blames the artist for not being vocal enough about his sexuality during his life and thus creating a market-oriented legacy that increasingly hides the artist’s sexual identity.  He implies that Gonzalez-Torres was not open in interviews about having AIDS or having a partner who died of AIDS because of shame and fear.[1]  This criticism of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his work is very short-sighted in that it does not fully take into account the nature of the work and the aims of Gonzalez-Torres’ project of discursive and institutional critique.
Gonzalez-Torres engaged in a kind of subterfuge, creating visually-pleasing works that appropriated form and technique from several traditions, including Duchampian readymade, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art, to express subjects and sentiments firmly rooted in the artist’s sexual identity.  Whereas artists like Robert Mapplethorpe created confrontational images that explicitly pushed gay sexuality out from behind closed bedroom doors into the public eye, Gonzalez-Torres wanted to “trick” the art world into accepting such sexuality unbeknownst to most.  A larger art-going public will more readily accept “beautiful,” non-controversial objects into the museum or gallery institution setting based solely on their superficial aesthetic level; meanwhile, the gay artist “sneaks in” his accompanying social and political agenda, like a Trojan horse, embodied in often-idyllic, even saccharine forms.  Some critics, like Moore, might argue that this is just making excuses for the artist and his at-times closeted public persona, trying to inject sexual identity where it was not intended by the artist but should have been.  However, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ own words reveal his agenda:
I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution.  All the ideological apparatuses are… replicating themselves, because that’s the way culture works.  So if I function as a virus, an imposter, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions.
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres[2]

Patrick Moore need only have looked closely at the artist’s own words, such as those excerpted above, and a small but significant body of literature dealing with his project of discursive critique to understand Gonzalez-Torres’ approach to dealing with sexual identity in his art-making.

Untitled 1991

            For example, while still an M.A. candidate in Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, Elliott Zooey Martin published an essay on Gonzalez-Torres’ investigation of the public and private spheres in his work.  In “Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Interrogation of the Public Sphere,” Martin restates the artist’s questioning of a clear division, as has been often institutionally imposed, between public” and “private” and details his utilization of Minimalist techniques to expose the inconsistencies within that discourse.[3]   Gonzalez-Torres appropriated forms of public address, such as advertising billboards or even the public art museum, in order to “broadcast” images of an intimate nature, showing the arbitrary line between the two.  His billboards depicting a bed and two pillows with near-identical indentations where heads once rested reiterate the very public nature (through legislation discriminating against homosexual activities or same-sex marriages, for example) of a once-assumed private realm:  the bedroom.
            Similarly, Suzanne Perling Hudson tackles Gonzalez-Torres’ critique of the complex interrelationship between art and criticism in her essay, “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism,” which was published in October while she was still a doctoral student at Princeton UniversityHudson identifies a certain tendency in artistic production of the past couple of decades, along with its attendant counterpart in criticism—a “return of the aesthetic,” as she phrases it:
Beauty, that most conciliatory of philosophical rubrics and justifications, is back with a vengeance, while beautiful writing about beautiful objects and their beautiful makers additionally denotes the triumph of academic philosophy as well as the democratization of the no-longer autonomous and privileged realm of the aesthetic.[4]

Hudson argues that Gonzalez-Torres was able to subvert a critical and moral backlash against his AIDS-activist art by cloaking his work in beauty during a period of art discourse when work was being valued for its aesthetic merits, rather than its meaning.  Continually making reference in the essay to the inextricable relationship between the artist’s sexual consciousness and his art regardless of the surface appearance of that art, Hudson disproves Moore’s claim of erasure of Gonzalez-Torres’ sexual identity from art-historical discourse.
            It is clear in the article that Hudson recognizes Felix Gonzalez-Torres as strategically working within systems of institutionalized power, such as the museum, commercial printing, or mainstream advertising billboards, in order to appropriate them for his own purposes.  This process reflects the artist’s knowledge of the writings of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), one of the originators of contemporary discursive critique.  For Foucault, power is not something exerted from an external source in order to oppress, but a complex interrelated web of relationships that require manipulation from within.  Many of Foucault’s writings chronicle the development of social and political institutions such as medical clinics and prisons, reveal how those institutions dominate the flow of discourse, and uncover the relationships of power inherent in each.  Gonzalez-Torres read Foucault, a fellow homosexual intellectual who died from an AIDS-related illness, passionately and the French philosopher’s theories can be found at the heart of the later, Cuban-born artist’s project.

Untitled (America) 1994

            In general, though, writings of a more art-critical nature eschew discussion of the theoretical underpinnings of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work in favor of surveys of formal consideration and technique, with only casual mention of the artist’s sexuality, if at all.  For example, Robert Storr’s article “Setting Traps for the Mind and Heart,” published in Art in America around the time of the artist’s death, never refers to “institutional analysis” or “discursive analysis.”  It is not clear in his writing if Storr even recognizes the artist as having engaged in such an approach with his work.  Rather, Storr attempts to anchor the artist within established artistic traditions, most notably Minimalism, in order to authenticate and legitimize the work.[5] 
Jan Avgikos’ article “This is My Body,” published in Artforum in 1991 relies on a similar survey strategy tying Gonzalez-Torres to the Minimalist lineage, and yet is very forthright about the artist’s sexual orientation.  She, in fact, sees the artist and others of his generation working in the legacy of Minimalism as veering significantly from “first-generation” Minimalists of the late 1960s and 1970s such as Donald Judd and Richard Serra by “fetishizing the ‘body’ of the Minimalist object as gendered and erotic.”[6]  Avgikos, like Hudson, disproves Moore’s claims of erasure of sexual orientation in the discourse surrounding Gonzalez-Torres by viewing his art as inseparable from his sexual consciousness.  Thus even less academic writing, published through more popular channels like Art in America and Artforum, deals directly with homosexual identity as central to the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
            To attack the artist for allegedly hiding his gay sexual identity, such as Patrick Moore does, is not only futile but possibly ethically questionable, as the artist is no longer alive to defend himself.  An ever-growing monument to the artist, the sexual component of his work, and his project of discursive critique, the art-historical and art-critical writings published concerning Gonzalez-Torres stand alone as defense against such misperceptions.  From survey pieces focused on the form and technique of the work, like those of Jan Avgikos and Robert Storr, to more theoretically-charged works like those of Elliott Zooey Martin and Suzanne Perling Hudson, all writing about the artist ultimately serves his own purposes of enmeshing himself and his work deep within the institution of art discourse, where he can posthumously dismantle and rework it from within.

[1] Patrick Moore, Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2004), 168.
[2] Felix Gonzalez-Torres in Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth, and Feliz Gonzalez-Torres. Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility (London, United Kingdom: Camden Arts Centre, 1994), 76.
[3] Elliott Zooey Martin, “Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Interrogation of the Public Sphere,” Chicago Art Journal 15, (2005): 18.
[4] Suzanne Perling Hudson, “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism,” October no. 104 (Spring, 2003): 117.
[5] Robert Storr, “Setting Traps for the Mind and Heart,” Art in America 84, no. 1 (Jan., 1996): 76.
[6] Jan Avgikos, “This is My Body,” Artforum 29, no. 6 (Feb., 1991): 81.

Selected Bibliography

Ault, Julie, ed.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  GöttingenGermany:  Steidl, 2006.

Avgikos, Jan.  “This is My Body.”  Artforum 29, no. 6 (Feb., 1991):  79-83.

Clearwater, Bonnie.  Defining the Nineties:  Consensus-making in New YorkMiami, and Los   Angeles.  MiamiFlorida:  Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996.

Elger, Dietmar.  Catalogue Raisonné.  OstfildernGermany:  Cantz, 1997. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres:  America.  New YorkNew York:  Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2007.

Ho, Christopher.  “Within and Beyond:  Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s ‘Crowd.’”  Performing Arts Journal 23, no. 1 (Jan., 2001):  1-17.

Horn, Roni, ed.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  MunichGermany:  Sammlung Goetz, 1995.

Hudson, Suzanne Perling.  “Beauty and the Status of Contemporary Criticism.”  October no. 104 (Spring, 2003):  115-130.

Martin, Elliott Zooey.  “Felix Gonzalez-Torres and the Interrogation of the Public Sphere.”  Chicago Art Journal 15, (2005):  16-29.

Moore, Patrick.  Beyond Shame:  Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality.  BostonMassachusetts:  Beacon Press, 2004.

Reinhardt, Ad, Joseph Kosuth, and Feliz Gonzalez-Torres.  Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility.  LondonUnited Kingdom:  Camden Arts Centre, 1994.

Robinson, Deborah.  “in memoriam.”  In in memoriam:  22 November 2000 – 21 January 2001.  WalsallUnited Kingdom:  The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2000.

Spector, Nancy.  Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  New YorkNew York:  Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1995.

Storr, Robert.  “Setting Traps for the Mind and Heart.”  Art in America 84, no. 1 (Jan., 1996):  70-77.

Woo, Janice.  “Indexing:  At Play in the Fields of Postmodernism.”  Visual Resources 10, no. 3 (1994):  283-293.