Zero Project International Conference

Video trailer advertising the upcoming online conference of the Zero Project. I will participate on December 12th when I present my paper “The Fear of Nothingness.”

Abstract: The Fear of Nothingness, by John Marmysz

The fear of nothingness has deep roots in the West. Whereas Eastern “emptiness” is commonly associated with spiritual peace and creative potential, in the West, nothingness is more commonly associated with complete nonexistence, oblivion and the extinction of all value and meaning. In this regard, Westerners have traditionally conceived of nothingness as a dreadful and terrifying lack; something to be overcome and defeated rather than something to be embraced.

The roots of the Western fear of nothingness can be traced at least as far back as the Presocratics and their philosophical efforts to conceptualize an eternal, immutable, uncreated and stable substance out of which all things emerge. Despite the varied and ephemeral nature of the world’s appearances, the Presocratics suggested that there remains something stable, permanent and dependable underneath it all. Whether it be Thales’ claim that “all is water,” Anaximander’s claim that the universe arises from “Apeiron,” or Anaximenes’ assertion that everything comes from air, the strategy pursued by these ancient Greek thinkers served to offer the comfortable assurance that our cosmos has a steady and knowable foundation. The universe ultimately rests on one “thing” rather than on nothing at all.

In setting this precedent, the Presocratics influenced later Western philosophers, whose concerns concentrated on establishing fixed and substantial foundations for the world, while also repudiating systems of thought emphasizing the primacy of nothingness. Such systems came to be criticized as “nihilistic”; a moniker intended to highlight negativity and meaninglessness. It is only in recent times that Western thinkers have started to reassess this appraisal, coming to find something life-affirming in nihilism and in the experience of nothingness itself.

This paper examines the origins of the fear of nothingness in Presocratic philosophy.

Nietzsche Apostle

Nietzsche Apostle, by Peter Sloterdijk

Translated by Steven Corcoran

Semiotext(e) Intervention Series, 2013.

Peter Sloterdijk delivered this speech in Weimar, on August 25, 2000: the 100-year anniversary of Nietzsche’s death. In it, he refers to the “Nietzsche-event” as a “catastrophe in the history of language” (p. 8). The “catastrophe” he describes consists of a cultural shift, initiated by Nietzsche, in which language ceased to be used as a tool for group jubilation and began to be used as a tool for the adoration of the self. With Nietzsche, the narcissism of the herd became subverted by the narcissism of the individual.

The title of the speech evokes the apostles of Christianity; individuals who spread the “good news” of Jesus, bringing about a profound change in our moral world order. The title Nietzsche Apostle is, however, ambiguous, on the one hand suggesting Nietzsche himself was an apostle who spread a new set of beliefs, while on the other indicating that others – the Nietzsche apostles – were the ones who spread his message, the way that St, Paul spread the word of Jesus. In either case, Sloterdijk’s allusion to Christianity is clearly central. The Nietzsche-event unfolds in relation to Christianity. It was provoked by previous Christian thought and functioned to detach our use of language from the authority of the Bible and the Church. Nietzsche’s message is the new “good news” for an era of history in which God has died.

The development of this “catastrophe” was well on its way by the time that Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the Bible – The Jefferson Bible – by cutting and pasting together passages from various editions of the New Testament in order to reflect his own humanistic take on Christian morality. Jesus’ message, Jefferson believed, could only be made rationally intelligible by excising all references to things apocalyptic and miraculous, leaving just the “sensible” material in place. He strove to “swap all sacred agents for terrestrial heroes” (p. 26), stripping his Christian heritage of the embarrassing supernaturalism that no longer had a place in the Modern, scientific era. But this project, according to Sloterdijk, is indicative of an American hypocrisy that, while drawing on the authority of Ancient tradition, selectively reads that tradition for the purpose of salvaging a familiar and comforting morality from the wreck of primitive superstition.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, was much more honest. With his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he turned completely against the obsolete tradition of Christianity, its supernaturalism, and its resentment against the natural world. During a time when science has displaced religion, Thus Spoke Zarathustra offered the world a new Gospel full of “good news” for the Modern era. It is, according to Sloterdijk, “a Gospel for those no-longer-needing-to-lie” (p. 38).

The language used by Nietzsche in order to articulate these ideas is narcissistic. He refers to himself as “a psychologist without equal” (p. 48), and he refers to Zarathustra as “the greatest gift” humanity has ever received (p. 49). Sloterdijk observes that among contemporary scholars, these sorts of self-praising, narcissistic sentiments are met with the same sort of embarrassment that Jefferson felt concerning the supernatural material in the New Testament. Today’s scholars thus similarly strive to excise such passages from their readings of Nietzsche’s work in order to formulate a philosophy that retains the virtues of modestly and humility demanded by traditional Christian morality. But this is dishonest and hypocritical. Whereas the Ancients and Medievals used language to celebrate group identity (whether that be religious, nationalistic, racial, political, or otherwise), Nietzsche uses language for self-praise, and this use is consistent with his history changing “good news.” Nietzsche introduces us to a way of thought that does not recognize artificial, anti-natural authorities, moralities, or “virtues.” Sloterdijk likens Nietzsche to a new “cynic” in the classical sense of Diogenes (pp. 54 – 55) who “defaced the coinage” of civilization and instead advocated a way of life in accord with nature and the health of the individual human being. Nietzsche thus ushers in an era of the individual against the herd. The only appropriate use of language in this era is one of self-praise rather than group-praise.

Sloterdijk concludes that Nietzsche’s project succeeded in a two-fold manner. First, he successfully established himself as an artist whose individual name is well-known in the history of philosophy. But second, and more importantly, he also successfully established a “brand” that went on to influence our culture by selling individualism. “The theme of the 20th Century is self-referentiality,” Sloterdijk writes, and it is Nietzsche who “imposed his name as a brand name for…a literary-lifestyle-drug” (p. 68). We are all Nietzscheans insofar as we wish to be “free spirits” who seek our own individual forms of happiness, prosperity, economic independence, etc. But this massified version of Nietzscheanism is a distortion of Nietzsche’s message, constructed by cherry-picking his insights through the same kind of selective reading that Jefferson engaged in with the Bible. Today’s Nietzscheanism is herd-individualism. It is a drug-like tranquilizer offering comfort rather than the dangerous creativity that goes along with real free-thought.

Nietzsche’s real message, according to Sloterdijk, cannot be separated from his ceaseless encounter with, and appropriation of, otherness. Comfort and conformity are antithetical to Nietzsche’s individualism. While the Nietzsche-brand sells complacency through a “lifestyle,” Nietzsche’s own goal was to find joy in perpetual curiosity and openness to change through the encounter with all that is foreign, different, and difficult. Nietzsche was a “hetero-narcissist”:

…what he ultimately affirms in himself are the othernesses which gather in him and make him up like a composition, which penetrate him, delight him, torture him and surprise him.

(p. 81)

Thus, according to Sloterdijk, there is a profound distinction to be made between Nietzsche as an apostle and the Nietzsche apostles. Nietzsche’s own goal was to pursue unending struggle with, and incorporation of, the “other.” His narcissistic use of language reflects the affirmation of otherness within himself. For the sellers of the Nietzsche-brand, however, the goal is to find comfort and complacency in isolation from those who would challenge and question their choices and way of life. Their narcissistic use of language reflects a rejection of otherness and the celebration of the sheltering herd that offers protection from outside provocation and challenge.

What puzzled me on my first reading of Sloterdijk’s speech was his use of the term “catastrophe” to describe the “Nietzsche-event.” Does Sloterdijk merely mean that the Nietzschean turn was catastrophic for Christianity? Or does he mean it was a catastrophe insofar as it ushered in a disruptive change for western thought as a whole? Upon further reflection, I think perhaps the real catastrophe that Sloterdijk has in mind is the emergence of the Nietzsche-brand. This is what has distorted the promise of true individuality through openness to others into a group-oriented kind of pseudo-individuality that rejects otherness as a threat. All you need to do today is turn on the news to see this catastrophe unfolding all around us.

One last observation. The Nietzsche-brand that Sloterdijk refers to seems to have permeated our culture so deeply that even people who have never read Nietzsche have absorbed something of his influence. I had the experience recently of meeting with a contractor who delivered some unwelcome news about expensive repairs that need to be done at my house. Gritting my teeth, I smiled and said to him, “Well, what does not kill me only makes me stronger.” He smiled, pointed at me and exclaimed, “Kelly Clarkson! I love that song!”

Now that is a true catastrophe.

8 Up Records Interview with Jason and Sam

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8 Up Records is an underground punk label run by Jason and Sam; a couple of good-natured, idealistic guys who embody the best of punk’s DIY spirit. They’re not concerned with money. They’re not concerned with fame. In fact, the 8 Up Records slogan is, “If you take the money and ego out of music, you will still have music.”

Jason and Sam are passionate about networking with punks from around the world, getting underground music heard, and promoting obscure bands. They do this by producing compilation CDs, vinyl EPs, and cassettes that raise funds for the hungry, the poor, and the mentally ill. They also work with bands who want to record full albums, who need merchandise to sell at shows, or who just have a shared enthusiasm for good, heartfelt music.

8 Up Records has releases featuring legendary bands like the Sex Pistols (!), MDC, Vice Squad, and Subhumans. But what is really exciting is the exposure they give to some really amazing punk talent that you probably would never have heard of otherwise; bands like Try Subversion (now Tri Subversion), L.O.A.D, The Dead Pawns, The Unpatriotics, Destructafux, The Wasted. Motherfucker Teresa, Die Panzerknakker, and many others.

Jason and Sam invited my band, Sacripolitical, to contribute tracks to a few of their charity compilations and I was so impressed by their attitude, enthusiasm, and energy that I asked them for an interview, which they kindly granted.

You can find 8 Up Records on Bandcamp, Instragram, and Facebook.

You can also find Jason’s tattoo shop, 8 Up Rolla, on Facebook.

Who are you guys and how did you get into punk?

Jason: I own tattoo shops in Missouri. I used to be a special education art teacher in a group home setting. Mostly kids that got in trouble from bad environments. Did that for 7 years. Loved the kids, hated the corruption of the school system.

I got into punk as an alternative to the glam rock, rap, and MC Hammer/Vanilla Ice stuff that was popular at the time. My sister bought me a guitar and I started writing songs while I was teaching myself to play it. I noticed a lot of corruption, violence, and hypocrisy around me and I was angry and wanted to express that. So I wrote songs accordingly. I did not have a lot of access to punk as it was pre-internet days. But my last year in high school, a few friends turned me on to the Misfits, Ramones, Sex Pistols, and DKs. When I heard it I was hooked. Something of substance and loved the sounds and energy.

Sam: I am just someone who likes what they like and doesn’t really care if others agree or not. Always been that way. However, I’m a kind-hearted soul who treats people the way that I would like to be treated and I always do what I say. I’m a very loyal individual, sometimes even to a fault. I got into punk rock back in sixth-grade when an eighth-grade friend let me hear the Misfits for the first time. I heard the Ramones on the radio when I was young, and never knew what it was. I started searching for any music with that sound that I could get my hands on. It was an “A-HA” moment as soon as my friend turned on the Misfits cassette back in the day! Never turned back and continued forward on the punk rock journey after that!

Who are the bands, authors, or artists that have most influenced you and do you have any favorites?

Jason: Sammy is the music guy. He is obsessed with music. I was heavily influenced by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Danzig, the Misfits, The Doors, and Tchaikovsky growing up. Schopenhauer, Plato, Herodotus, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, for literature. But Sun Tzu’s and Frederick Douglass’ books probably are the ones that have changed my life. With visual art, I’m really into Classical and Neo-Classical as of late.

Sam: I would say Dick Lucas of Subhumans (UK) and Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys always were some of my favorites. What they were saying made sense, and when I looked into it further, it also seemed to be true. It taught me to appreciate sarcasm used in a constructive, thinking kind of way. There were many more, and it may just bore readers to continue rambling on about it all. HAHAHA!!

What does punk mean to you? Is it just music, or is it more than that? Is there a specific set of beliefs or an attitude that you think goes along with being punk?

Jason: Punk music is an odd genre. I always saw music analogous to fishing. Some people see fishing as sitting alone in nature. Enjoying it with a rod. To others it is a family bonding event. Then there are the people who make big money off fishing and utilize giant commercial boats, nets, canning factories, etc. And everything in between. That’s how music is. All genres are the same in that aspect, just different species of fish they are going after.

I can only speak of what punk means to me. I never liked arena rock or ticket sales, or VIP sections, or any of that nonsense. Nor have I been a fan of uniforms, drunkenness, drugs, or pop music, or gimmicks. I like genuine, regular people who are pissed about the world but are frustrated and can’t do anything about it, but know it isn’t right. That is punk rock to me. That’s the shit I get into. And if a band does that correctly, they’ll NEVER be mainstream popular or on a big national label. Never. No sold-out stadiums or limousines. Not from music anyway. To me, that is being successful in punk rock. Keeping true to your cause and ethics and ideological beliefs no matter what the temptation is.

Sam: To me, it is a lifestyle. It is where all the misfits, different, creative, or artistic people could go and lead a life where they would not be subject to the onslaught of criticism from average society. Average is boring. Average is cookie cutter. Punk is a culture where people who think a different way can come together and create something awesome. So, to me, it’s a way of life and not just a music style. I think the specific attitude is to be yourself and do what makes you happy. Don’t follow society’s bullshit standards. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are lesser because of how you live or think. Live your life the way you want. Punk can bring true happiness if you actually live it without allowing society’s stupid-ass expectations or other bullshit to get in your head. Be you, do you, and just live. The rest of the world can bugger off if they don’t agree. Who cares!

What was the inspiration behind starting your record label and why did you decide on the name 8 Up Records? Is there a philosophy behind the label?

Jason: The label started in the early 2000s. Remember mixtapes and burning CDs for your friends because you found some really cool song from a band and wanted to share it? That’s it. That’s all we were doing. We just printed out and glued our own sleeves and burned them by the 100s is all. Did that for like 10 years and gave them all away for free. Think one year I logged it in 2010 and it was 4,300 or some shit. Lol. All by hand. All free.

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8 Up is a term meaning fucked up. Whenever I would do dumb shit when I was younger the kids would say, “Dude, you’re 8 Up.” So it seemed fitting. Named my tattoo shops after the label as well. The philosophy is the motto. “If you take the money and ego out of music, you will still have music.” It is printed on all our shit. I think a lot of people don’t understand that. We don’t want to feed other people’s egos and especially not our own; that isn’t our intent. We don’t want to be personally well know. Hell, my own wife didn’t think Sammy was a real person at first as he is very private and never posts personal stuff. Lol. I had to show her old pics and shit. We give freebies to the bands. Any sales are put back into projects or they go to benefit a cause. We are transparent with receipts with everyone. They know where everything is going. We aren’t in it to turn a buck. It is those things that so many people do not understand. I think mostly because they had pre-conceived notions of getting something out of us that would feed one of those things without having to work for it.

We put together compilations. If the bands promote them and they sell, we take the money and get them free CDs. All the bands introduce others to the other bands’ followers. Networking. But if you feed your ego and only put your solo band or your friend’s band on a split…. well, you won’t get spread much doing that. It is a simple concept. But that ego, greed, distrust shit. People have a hard time getting over that.

You deal in more than just punk music. You also have rap and country acts that you’ve released. How you choose the bands that you promote?

Jason: Sammy is obsessed with music. We both get excited about new music and he always sends me CDs in the mail. We like to share the music we find and the music we create. So, this is just a natural extension of that. We’ll basically work with anyone as long as they are not hateful. They all have different motivations. Some need merch to keep on hand for shows. For others it is an introduction to vinyl or to network with other bands and labels. And some just need a couple extra hundred dollars, so I pay them to write a song or license one. I do that stuff out of my own pocket so it doesn’t screw over Sammy and the other bands. Usually they are just in it for a project or two, then they go to other labels or projects or whatever. If they are cool and easy to work with and they do good music, we are usually down to give anyone a try.

Sam: When people come to us and are good hearted souls, we will work with them regardless of genre. Shit, just look at Body Count, Public Enemy, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, etc. for example. They were more punk to me than some bands who title themselves as such! Also…. Assholes can go away. “Punk” or not. We have a slogan for a reason: “If you take the money and ego out of music, you will still have music!” We like to keep assholes away from us! AHAHA!!

You put together a lot of really great charity CD compilations that raise money for everything from feeding the hungry and helping poor Jamaican families to fighting depression. How is it that you choose which charities to support?

Jason: I think we just kinda fall into it. Usually we know someone who is affected by something and we want to help. Feed the Children was Dick Lucas’ suggestion, I believe. For Punk Rockers For Jamaica, I know the Jamaican family personally. When I had exhausted my resources and all my friends had helped, I figured the label would be a good platform. You can actually SEE what it went to and how it is improving lives. With bigger charities, you can never really visualize it. Brian Burx auctioned off a painting and a week later… a water pump. You can actually see it and know where it went to and what it is doing.

8Up Releases

10341964_772517566176687_4076258528487409356_nBut we are humans. We see shit that is fucked up and beyond the control of the people it is happening to. Whether cancer, child trafficking, etc., we do our best to ask others or do research or someone asks if we can donate to a place.

Sam: Whatever comes to mind or is presented to us by others. We are open-minded people; if you have an idea, speak up! We may not agree or do it, but, we will at least listen and possibly consider it.

You’ve also pressed some very cool vinyl records and you have music for digital download on Bandcamp. What role do these various music formats play in the 8 Up vision? Ever thought of putting out cassettes?

Jason: I’m a vinyl lover. Been having releases pressed over a decade, but they can get expensive. Mostly the digital releases have to do with licensing. The more popular bands that contribute have stipulations of digital only, no physical copies. We have been getting into that with the Sex Pistols, Dead Milkmen, DJ London, Boosie, etc. Just because you talk to them personally doesn’t mean that they won’t send you to their agent or licensing agency; and the licensing always has specifications that need to be followed contractually. Need a permit and fishing license sometime when you go fishing.

Right now, I think we are going to do The Wasted, The Lousketeers vinyl thing… which I’m stoked about. Oh, yeah we’ve done cassettes. Last one was with 8 Up and Powerbomb records and we have some with The Wasted, The Ratz, etc. coming out. At the pressers still.

Sam: We have put out a few cassettes. Some still on their way. As far as vision: spread good music, love, fun, excitement, joy, and have fun while doing it!

It feels to a lot of people these days as if the world is falling apart. When I was young, the punk slogan was “No Future!” Do you feel that there is a future for us, and if so what role does punk play in it?

Jason: Yeah, lol. The world has always been falling apart. Same throughout history. I’m sure the Bronze Age Collapse hit some people hard. Or the Carthaginians with the Romans, Aztecs, American Civil War, World War 2…. every point in history has people who felt the world is falling apart. Things change. They evolve. Just different than what they are used to. I think there is a future. I mean, we are talking about and indulging in punk now. So that slogan may have been just wishful thinking. Lol. But we are the future to the speakers of that slogan in the past. By that logic, it would probably be safe to assume that punk rock has a future. I would hope that it is used as a catalyst for change for the better. I think the rebellious nature and skepticism of punk keeps it from ever becoming too commercial or corrupt or too politically correct. Punk thrives best when it goes against the grain. Makes people think, hopefully.

Sam: I have no idea really. It depends on how things change over the course of many decades. It will either progress or the latter will occur. My hope though is that punk morals and individualism become more accepted by all, including those who claim to be “punk.” I have seen many who dress the part, sing the part, act the part but not actually live it. Once you begin to get out of your comfort zone and tell others that interfere with your goals to get lost, that’s when your life really begins. Free yourself of society’s standards!! Not really doing anything different or destructive if you’re just following what the herd does! Oh, one other thing: give a shit about others. On social media and in society I am starting to see that people tend to act like who they are talking to is not a real person, almost like holier-than-thou-type-shit. Listen …life isn’t easy, just be considerate, be kind, and don’t be a dick!

Jason: I would like to thank you for taking the time to do this and would like to add another thing. Whomever reads this, hopefully it inspires you to do something. Start a band, write a song, start a label, do a painting, get people motivated to help others. I think that’s why we are here and such social creatures. Leave the world a better place than you found it and pull efforts towards positive goals. There’s enough negativity in the world. Inspire and motivate others to help people.

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Update From the Void

In this neck of the woods, there are troubling signs that we are entering another dangerous surge of COVID infections and hospitalizations, threatening to send us all back home to hunker down and go stir-crazy. A friend whose girlfriend works at a local hospital tells me that they are admitting an increasing number of both vaccinated and unvaccinated people for COVID infections. Another sign that things are still not going well is the fact that at least two Bay Area music clubs have experienced outbreaks recently, forcing them to cancel upcoming shows. We still seem very much to be in the midst of a pandemic.

Besides troubles with COVID and its variants, California is once again experiencing massive wildfires. Each summer, a friend and I go backpacking, and this year we’ve had to alter our plans in order to avoid wandering into the midst of the various growing infernos up north. The smoke from these fires has drifted into the Bay Area, making it unsafe to engage in vigorous exercise outdoors. Mt. Tamalpais, which stands as a familiar landmark in Marin County, has disappeared beneath a miasma of wildfire smoke, serving as a visual reminder of the severity of this year’s conflagrations. According to news reports, this year’s fires are the worst ever.

Plague and fires. Feels like Babylon’s burning.

On the other hand, I just got word from our department chairperson at the College of Marin, that during the upcoming fall semester instructors will be allowed to work on campus and hold face-to-face office hours as long as we are fully vaccinated and wear masks. This news gives me something to look forward to. Although all of my classes will remain online, at least I won’t be cooped up at home for the rest of the year and will be able to distract myself with a regular schedule of getting up, getting dressed, and going to work. This simple routine is the sort of thing that has always helped temporarily to distract me from the absurdity of life. And while it solves nothing, at least it gives some respite from the dark thoughts that set in when I lack regular structure and routine. I know it’s a thin and pathetic line of defense, but it nevertheless is one of the tactics that I’ve always used in order to battle despair and meaninglessness.

While it does sometimes feel like the end of times, I have to remind myself that in the grand scheme of things, nothing has really changed. Things are not really getting worse, just as they are not getting any better. We always have some crisis to face while the world churns on and on, moving toward no particular goal.

As Sartre observed, in nature there are no catastrophes or disasters; only the rearrangement of matter.

Teach Philosophy With a Sense of Humor

Now out on Kindle and soon to be released in paperback from Curious Academic Publishing, Teach Philosophy With a Sense of Humor, edited by Kishor Vaidya, is a collection of essays addressing the role of humor in philosophy education.

I contributed Chapter 4: “Teaching Philosophy With a Love of Wisdom and a Sense of Humor.” Here is an excerpt:

Laughing at Our Disagreements

Excellent students do not need to approve of the subjects they study, and in order to teach well an instructor must give students room to think for themselves, encouraging them to formulate their own assessments concerning the worth of what is taught. To be a good leader in the classroom, a teacher must certainly encourage mastery of the material. But a teacher must also encourage students freely to evaluate that material according to their own criteria, standards, and principles. And while those of us who love our subjects may find it disappointing when we encounter individuals who do not share our enthusiasm, a good teacher must also keep a sense of perspective about this, avoiding resentment, hostility or other poisonous feelings that can result in undermining productive educational relationships. A good teacher, I have learned, must possess a sense of good humor while also inspiring a sense of humor in students.

Humor is an attitude that allows us to face the absurd and unfamiliar from a mental posture of well-disposed amusement. Often triggered by an encounter with incongruity, the humorous attitude is a state of mind unthreatened by conflict and contradiction. With a humorous attitude, one finds enjoyment rather than threat in the mere contemplation of incongruous phenomena (Moreall, 1983; Marmysz, 2003). In a philosophy classroom, where argumentation, diversity of opinion, speculation, and the challenging of assumptions are required, I have found this attitude to be an indispensable aid in fostering positive relationships with students while delivering class lessons. Instead of dictating to students what they should think, nurturing an atmosphere of good humor in the classroom helps us all – both students and the instructor – to dive into the process of friendly debate, discussion, and disagreement.

And we get a lot of laughs along the way.

On Cussing

My first encounter with Katherine Dunn’s writing was through Geek Love, a perverse story of carnival freaks, their loves, lives, and relationships. In its shadow, her other books – Truck and Attic – just didn’t measure up. They lacked the gripping grossness of her sick and twisted masterpiece. I’m glad that I didn’t read those works first or I might never have given Geek Love a try.

That was decades ago. Now, Tin House Books has posthumously published one of Dunn’s short lectures in book form. More of a pamphlet, really, at 73 pages (with graphs and inserts), On Cussing is a brief history/philosophy/instructional guide on swear-words. And It’s fucking great! In this brief space, Dunn succeeds in offering an account of profanity that explains not just what was once found offensive, but that also sheds light on what pushes people’s buttons today. We are no less sensitive and prudish than our ancestors; we are just sensitive and prudish about different things.

Dunn begins by reminding us that cuss words are nothing new, appearing as graffiti on walls in Babylon and Rome. Cuss words have always been primarily intended as ways to offend and shock, and she classifies the offensive and shocking nature of these words into three categories. First there are religious cuss words. This usage is the original source of our terms “swear word” and “profanity.” Using God’s name in vain was, at least through Medieval Times, considered the most offensive form of cussing. Many of today’s less offensive swear words – like “darn” and “heck” – were coined as ways of softening the impact of this kind of profanity. I was surprised to learn that the exclamation “zounds!” is in fact a contraction of “by Christ’s bloody wounds!”: one of the most traditionally offensive of religious profanities.

The second category of cuss words includes those of a sexual and bodily nature. These are the words that today are considered rude, but that flow out of many people’s mouths (both on the street and in the media) with great regularity: “fuck,” “shit,” “piss,” “cock,” “cunt,” etc. Dunn posits an intriguing theory (first proposed by Melissa Mohr) that these particular words gained their offensive power only with the growth of the private realm. When European families and communities gathered during the winter months in large, centrally heated buildings, sexual and bodily acts were in full view, and thus treated as a visible part of everyday life. But with the increasing use of fireplaces (sometime in the 1500s in England) individual rooms could be heated separately, and so the acts that occurred in those rooms gradually came to be treated as private and indecent to speak of in public. Thus, words like “fuck” and “shit” became naughty. Such words continued frequently to appear in print up until the 1800’s when suddenly their usage ceased due to prudish censorship, before once again appearing regularly in works printed after the great World Wars.

The third category of cuss words are the ones that today are considered the most offensive. These are racial and ethnic epithets. Comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin challenged the popular standards of polite, mainstream society in the 1960s by freely using these sorts of cuss words in their routines, with the result that they spurred both controversy and legal action. Today, such comedic efforts to drain this category of cuss words of their emotional power appear to have failed, and we are now, in the 2000s, still powerfully shocked and offended by their use. The contemporary power that these words retain is illustrated in Dunn’s own book by the fact that she gives not one example of this kind of profanity. We all know what these words are, but as in Victorian times, there are certain terms considered too offensive to put into print.

I read On Cussing in about an hour. Nevertheless, it kept me thinking for days afterwards. It is a timely piece that provoked me to reflect on the power of words and how the things that offend us change over time and across culture.

Freud: A Life for Our Time

I first read Peter Gays’s 810 page biography, Freud: A Life for Our Time, upon its release in 1988 when I was 23 years old. Many things have changed since then, but having just re-read Gay’s book, I’ve found that Freud’s is still a life for our time.

A detail that stuck with me from my first reading had to do with the fact that Freud lived the last 16 years of his life battling cancer of the palate (while he continued to smoke cigars, which presumably were the cause of his disease). Vividly stamped in my memory was how, toward the end of his life, Freud’s cancer became so ulcerated that it emitted an overwhelming stench, repellent even to his beloved dog. Living his last days in London as a refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria, the smell of death was literally in the air. I recall thinking how Freud’s decaying body was symbolic of a world in decay.

Since that first reading, I have had the opportunity to visit Freud’s house – now a museum – in the Hampstead neighborhood of London. This is where Freud lived during his exile from Vienna, where he completed writing his controversial Moses and Monotheism, and where, ultimately, Max Schur, his doctor, administered the lethal dose of morphine requested by Freud to end his physical suffering. Seeing this house, the famous couch upon which his analysands lay, his collection of antiquities, and his books served to make Freud very concrete to me. Visiting the place where Freud’s body literally rotted away with cancer cemented the image in my mind of the legendary Freud as a flesh-and-blood human being.

The Freud Museum in London

What really strikes me now about Gay’s account of Freud is precisely the humanness of the father of psychoanalysis. Here was a man who underwent the same sorts of struggles, suffering, despondency, self-doubt, and continuing intellectual development that all of us experience as we try to navigate our way through, and make sense of, the world. With 33 more years of life under my own belt, my second reading of Freud’s biography has made me feel closer to the iconoclastic psychologist/philosopher than I ever have.

The biography does an excellent job of detailing Freud’s intellectual development, beginning with key insights into his childhood, and taking us through his study of medicine, on to his eventual interest in psychology and culture. Gay himself is a trained psychoanalyst, and so he emphasizes how Freud’s own traumas and experiences contributed to the formulation of Freudian psychology. Harnessing the power of psychoanalysis to provide depth and insight, Gay never uses it to discount what Freud accomplished, but rather to understand, sympathetically, the nature of the personal struggles he faced as he built his system over the course of a lifetime. Thus, we learn of details in Freud’s history like his childhood humiliation when he urinated in his parent’s bedroom; his shame regarding his father’s passivity in the face of anti-Semitism; his grief at the death of his daughter; his ambivalent relationships with Breuer and Fliess, and his hostile breaks with Jung, Adler, and Rank. All of these experiences reveal, in various ways, how Freud, as he matured, was in the grips of the very processes that he was seeking to describe scientifically. He himself experienced the Oedipus Complex, was neurotic, grappled with homosexual feelings and with fears about death. While some critics have used this as an indication that Freud’s insights are more personal than they are objective, Gay gives us another perspective. These personal experiences are among the evidence that Freud marshalled as a complement to his clinical observations of patients. Both observation and introspection were utilized by Freud in the development of his theories. Additionally, he drew on cultural evidence, taking seriously the importance of myth, literature, religion, and world events as clues to how the human mind functions. Rather than weakening the validity of psychoanalysis, this wide range of insight helped to reveal recurrent patterns in the mental and social life of humans. I think because of all this, Freud was more than just a scientist. He was also a philosopher.

Freud’s theories evolved over time according to his assessment of the various types of evidence he encountered. After abandoning hypnosis, he stumbled upon talk therapy as a way to engage with the underlying causes of patients’ neuroses. His discoveries with his analysands (like Dora, Little Hans, and the Wolf Man) opened up new insights into the role of sexuality in human psychology and the functioning of unconscious mental forces. Freud’s tripartite division of the mind (which resembles Plato’s division of the soul) – including the id, ego, and superego – was developed bit by bit as he sought explanations for observed, neurotic behavior. And while Freud did resist many innovations to psychoanalysis from individuals like Jung and Rank, he did so on the grounds that such innovations did not have a preponderance of evidence behind them, appearing arbitrary and lacking in observational support. At other times, with innovators like Melanie Klein, Freud remained open to changes in psychoanalytic theory. Contrary to what some have claimed about him, then, Freud was willing to entertain alterations to his system. He was not the founder of a new, psychoanalytic “religion,” but an explorer, resistant to arbitrary or unfounded speculations, but always open to new evidence that called old assumptions into question.

Freud was not dogmatically rigid on matters of theory, and neither was he an complete sexist, as some have charged. Gay admits that while Freud did hold a number of personal, sexist views associated with his conservative, bourgeois social position, in terms of his intellectual and professional comportment, Freud fully embraced the equality of women, taking the ideas of people like Melanie Klein, Karen Horney, Lou Salome, and Anna Freud as seriously as he took the ideas of any man. In fact, Gay points out that as the psychoanalytic community grew, women regularly rose to leadership positions. And while psychoanalysis may have an unfortunate history, in practice, of being used to oppress women, for Freud himself, the goal of analysis was always to lessen the oppression of individuals. Culturally, he hoped that gender norms would become more flexible and that society would become more open to the intellectual contributions of women.

The rigidity of cultural rules, as Freud increasingly discussed in his later writings, is the source of human unhappiness. But culture is also what allows us to band together and to overcome the hardships of a purely animal life. This is the dilemma that civilized humans embody: on the one hand, we must form communities in order to cooperate and to secure a comfortable, safe existence; yet on the other hand, the formation of communities requires us to repress our individual, base drives, channeling them into the service of the group. In civilized society, we must live according to rules, and these prohibitions and taboos create blockages to the free expression of human instincts. The life and death drives motivate all that we do, lying beneath the surface, and though they remain consciously repressed, they still seek satisfaction through the circuitous route of mental sublimation and neurotic behavior. Many people have criticized this Freudian perspective as pathologizing the human experience, and it is true that Freud did hold the position that all forms of civilized human behavior are types of sickness. Some of these types of sickness are tolerated by the group wile others are not. Freud’s own hope was that through the understanding of human psychology, we could become more aware of what drives us and thus come to be more and more tolerant of those who are different from us. He was no utopian, however. There is no hope for absolute happiness as long as individuals live in society and are required to relinquish their own desires for the good of the group. As social creatures, we are doomed to discontent. The best we can do is to endeavor to make our human suffering a little less severe.

Despite criticisms that his is a pessimistic worldview, as Gay documents in his biography, Freud was ultimately more of a stoic than a pessimist. He did not despair of reality, but sought to understand and live in accordance with it, just as the ancient Hellenistic Stoics taught. Freud’s entire philosophy is based on the principle that we should overcome our illusions about the world and strive to live full, productive, and meaningful lives while facing the truth of our condition with clear-eyed resolve and courage. His last years must have made this very difficult. Being exiled from home, battling painful cancer operations, and losing family members to the Nazis would be more than enough to break the will of most people. But for Freud, Nazi terror, disease, and death were the realities he had to recognize and cope with. And right up to the end of his life he remained productive, controversial, and defiant towards those who wanted him to retreat from his investigations.

He was a courageous man who profoundly changed the world in which we now live.

George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park

In 1973, an organization called the Lutheran Society commissioned George A. Romero to make a 16mm educational film addressing the hardships and the prejudices faced by elderly Americans. The result was The Amusement Park, an allegorical horror story about a 70 year-old man who is abused, attacked, and humiliated while wandering through an amusement park. The officials at the Lutheran Society decided the film was too strange, and it was pulled from public exhibition. But now, almost 50 years later, it has been restored and re-released by The George A. Romero Foundation.

The Amusement Park is only 54 minutes long, a bit disjointed, and most of the performers in it are non-professionals. These factors, however, only contribute to its surreal and unsettling impact. Romero’s compassion for the downtrodden was to become characteristic of all of his later movies, and it is interesting to witness this sensibility exhibited so early on in his career. While watching The Amusement Park, I felt as if I had entered a bad dream; a bad dream that obviously means something and that contains an important, social message.

The central character (played by Lincoln Maazel, who also later appears in Romero’s Martin) begins the film with a short monologue explaining the purpose of what is to follow. This tale, we are told, is intended to make the audience actually feel what it is like to be an elderly person in America, not simply to reiterate all of the objective facts about being old and underprivileged. It is an attempt to illustrate and dramatize the loneliness, poverty, and isolation that result from ageism.

As the story begins Massel sits in a white room, bloody, disheveled and distressed. Another neat, tidy, and dignified version of himself then enters and asks if he would like to go outside. His distressed self tells his chipper self that “There’s nothing outside,” and that if he goes outside “You won’t like it.” Here we get a foreshadowing of the horrors to come, and we also gat a taste of Romero’s message: those who have not yet experienced the humiliations of the world are not prepared to understand why it is that many elderly people withdraw and isolate themselves away from others.

Leaving the quiet, white room, the dignified version of Maazel encounters the hub-bud of an amusement park. A long line of elderly people wait at the gate, each carrying jewelry and – most symbolically important – clocks and watches that the gatekeeper takes from them in exchange for admission. On the soundtrack, obscured by carnivalesque sounds, we hear the ticking of a clock, indicating the forward movement of time and the advance toward death. As Heidegger wrote, we are all beings-toward-death, here for a finite amount of time before we pass away. Some of us repress this awareness, but the older one gets, the more urgent our consciousness of mortality becomes.

Maazel enters the park and accidentally bumps into a woman who, though she is unharmed, scolds the older man for being clumsy. His white suit is now stained by a drink that the younger woman has spilled on him. Unnerved, he next encounters a sign reading that in order to get on the rollercoaster, one “must have individual income over $3500.00,” not suffer from a variety of physical disabilities, and “must not fear the unknown.” Many old people are turned away, but our hero successfully boards the ride. When he disembarks, he assists a distressed, elderly woman to her wheelchair. It seems that the thrill of life’s rollercoaster is just too much for some.

Next we witness a train ride, after which young people disembark and are met by friends and family members who assist them with their small pieces of luggage. Two priests help one another carry a Bible, which appears as if it could be carried by only one of them. Meanwhile, an elderly woman sits atop a huge crate that no one will help her carry. Another elderly couple are given an eye test before being allowed to board the bumper cars, and when the wife collides with another car, she is berated for her age and told that she shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Our hero tries to intervene as a witness to the accident, but since he was not wearing his glasses his testimony is not counted as credible.

Now hungry, our hero – along with a large group of other old people – is belittled and ignored while a rich, cigar smoking man is lavished with attention while being served lobster and champagne. The old folks are forced to share an awful looking plate of what appears to be pasta, white bread, and chili. Disgusted, Mazzel goes to buy groceries at one of the park stands, but he is unable to carry all of the bags by himself and is ignored by others when he pleads for help. He ends up taking just a box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter, eating them while sitting on a park bench, where he is then accused of being a “degenerate” when he tries to talk with some little girls.

The one place where senior citizens are welcomed turns out to be a retirement home, populated by disabled old people who are cloistered away from the rest of the park, indoors. Fleeing, Mazzel loses his glasses and returns to the amusement park where he sees old people riding horses round and round in circles by a sign that reads “Inexpensive Public Transportation.”

Next, we see a young man and woman at a fortune teller, who reveals to them what their future holds. The young man ends up as an old invalid, taken care of by his old wife. They live in a slum and are unable to get medical care. Meanwhile, their slum lord tells a reporter that the elderly residents are at fault for the place falling into disrepair. Back at the fortune teller’s booth, the young man flees in horror upon hearing his destiny. When he sees Mazzel sitting on a bench, he angrily assaults him. Mazzel is then again beaten and robbed by a biker gang. Seeking medical attention, he is only offered band aids by doctors working in an assembly line medical clinic. Then, he is robbed again by a predatory huckster working with people who trick senior citizens into signing over the deeds to their homes.

A freak show displays old people who are mocked and ridiculed. When Massel leaves in disgust, he is pursued by a mob. Evading them, he seeks sanctuary at a church, but the priests put up a “Closed” sign that says they will be back at 9:30. Massel wanders to the “Lost and Found” area of the park, and while all of the children there are eventually reunited with their parents, the old people are left abandoned. A little girl motions for him to join her on the lawn, but in the middle of reading her a story the little girl’s mother gathers up their things and drags her daughter away. Massel now breaks down in tears and finally re-enters the white room from the beginning of the film where he is soon greeted by the chipper version of himself once again. The film has come full circle.

In a postscript, Massel warns the audience that we all grow old, and that while we are young enough “to take positive action” we should make sure that after our life in the amusement park we do not end up in a sterile, white room.

The existential themes in Romero’s The Amusement Park are obvious; so obvious that some critics complain that the film is unartful, beating audiences over the head with too much heavy-handed symbolism. But for me, that is precisely what is so effective about this little gem. Ostensibly conceived as an educational film, The Amusement Park adopts no pretense of being a piece of entertainment. It does not try to soothe us with subtlety or restraint. It is meant – as Massel tells us in the prologue – as a tool to force us into an experience of disorientation and distress, getting us to empathize with what it is like to be old and vulnerable in a world that neither values old age nor has any compassion for human vulnerability. In doing this, the film is more like an immersive shock event than it is a conventional motion picture. Its disjoined, episodic form evokes a bad dream, and as in all bad dreams, its imagery is symbolic, overdetermined, and distressing. Upon watching it, we are encouraged to turn inward, to reflect on our own vulnerabilities, to contemplate our own inevitable mortality, and to use the entire experience as a spur toward developing greater compassion for others.

The world we live in is the Amusement Park. It is the most awful horror story of all.

End of the Semester

The end of the spring semester at the College of Marin is now here, and as always, it is an occasion filling me with a melancholy sense of impermanence and the passing of things. This year my dark feelings have been intensified by the pandemic, which has hovered over academia like an anvil cloud.

Struggling through the frustrations of online instruction this semester, I continued to hope things would get better in the coming academic year, and that classes could resume on-campus, face-to-face in the fall. It turns out that hope is cruel. It generates anxious anticipation that is dashed by an unpredictable reality. And the reality is that all of my philosophy classes will remain online through the end of the year 2021.

Instructors at the College of Marin were offered the choice to schedule fall classes as hybrid courses, which would have opened the possibility of actually conducting meetings face-to-face. But then word came down from the administration about what steps we would have to take in order to make this happen. Each class would have to be divided into 10 person sections that would meet separately in order order to facilitate social distancing in the classroom. Additionally, we would have to schedule hour-long breaks between classes so that the rooms could be cleaned and sanitized.

A quick calculation of what all of this would entail made me realize the absurdity of such arrangements. I normally teach 6 courses per semester with 30 students in each class. Each class meets twice a week for 1.5 hours per meeting. That means that 12 weekly on-campus class meetings would turn into 36 weekly class meetings totaling 54 hours. Even if I taught half of my load online, meeting with only 3 classes on-campus would require 18 meetings totaling 27 hours a week. And don’t forget, there would have to be a 1 hour pause between each meeting so that the rooms could be sanitized. That would mean that I would spend virtually all day, every day, Monday through Thursday, on campus. Work with the remaining 3 online classes, as well as the preparation and grading for all classes, would have to be conducted during the remaining hours of the day, and over the weekends.

Someone made the suggestion we could conduct classes outside, or just meet with students once at the beginning of the semester in order to make personal contact. Meeting with students once may seem like a nice gesture, but pedagogically it seems to me that it has little, real purpose. And while I like the general idea of outdoor classes – walking in the sunshine while philosophizing as Aristotle did at his Lyceum – how many other classes would be meeting in the college quad and what sorts of distractions would this entail? We all would be required to wear masks, there would be no boards to write on, and when the weather became unpleasant, class meetings would have to be abruptly cancelled. None of this lends itself to a predicable schedule of effective instruction. I don’t see how the required curriculum could be addressed systematically or with rigor under such conditions.

And so I’ll continue to conduct classes on Zoom at least until 2022 arrives. This is a reality that has done nothing to brighten my mood, but at least I can look forward to having some some good philosophical conversations while I remain cooped up in my home office.