Home and Homelessness in Punk Rock

“A place to live, a place to own, a place to sleep, a place called home.”

–Sacripolitical, Meaning of Life1

Introduction

Since its emergence during the 1970’s, punk rock has offered both a refuge and a platform of rebellion to an unusually wide and diverse group of people seeking a place to be with others while resisting the homogenizing forces of mainstream culture. More than simply a musical style, punk rock comprises a subculture with a distinctive approach to art, literature, film, fashion, and life in general. As with many subcultural movements, punk’s existence is defined by a relationship with the mainstream that is at once both hostile and dependent. Its boundaries have been shaped, and have grown, through the negation and rejection of many taken-for-granted norms and standards governing polite, mainstream life, and thus while it strains against convention, it also relies upon the existence of the mainstream to act as a springboard against which to push. In this way, punk rock is an essentially reactive movement, its vitality derived from its own combative, rebellious attitude and the volatile reactions that this attitude provokes in outsiders. To be punk – in music, art, film, fashion or literature – is to upset the applecart, defiantly to reject the expectations, traditions, standards and norms of mannerly culture in order to incite reaction among outsiders and to unveil the arbitrariness of their taken-for-granted values.

But while punk rock is in its essence reactive and rebellious, it also harbors an inner refuge of companionship and community. For those who are a part of this subculture, it is a place where they feel at home among others who share their antagonism toward superficial conventionality; and in being at home with one another, punks have cultivated an internal set of symbols, practices and forms of communication. These subcultural artifacts have evolved out of objects and customs found in mainstream culture, yet the conventional meanings and significance of these objects and customs have been sabotaged and appropriated for use as instruments of refusal. Like a shared language, these symbolic instruments serve to unite members of the punk rock subculture while also setting them apart from outsiders who fail to understand punk’s private vernacular.

In what follows, I shall explore the ways in which punk rock serves as a kind of “home” for those who feel “homeless” within conventional society. First, I shall examine the general problem of spiritual homelessness and then explore the ways that subcultures help to alleviate this sort of alienation by providing a place where members can be-with-others. I shall then scrutinize some of the subcultural artifacts within the punk rock home in order to illustrate how they operate as instruments of subversive negation against conventional culture while also promoting internal cohesion within the punk community itself.

Homelessness

Homelessness is bemoaned as one of the pernicious problems of our time. To be without a home is to find one’s self exposed to hazardous elements – wind, rain, snow and cold ­– as well as to other dangers of the street – violence, hunger, exploitation. These dangers threaten physical safety and health, and without a reliable place of refuge where they feel safe, secure and among friends, the homeless have very little chance of flourishing as happy, authentic and fulfilled human beings.

However, it is not the case that a physical home ensures happiness; nor that happiness is impossible without a physical home. The problem of homelessness is not a problem merely because there are those who lack literal shelters or roofs over their heads. The issue is more challenging than that. Shelters and roofs are themselves important because of a more general, and fundamental, human need for access to some sort of “place” where, at least temporarily, one may withdraw from the world’s dangers. Such a place need not be physical, but it does need to be reliable and dependable in its accessibility, such that when one is threatened by discomfort, this place can be counted upon to offer its sheltering protection. A physical house that is unreliable in its capacity to keep one dry and safe is no home at all. A spiritual “home,” on the other hand, offers refuge unfailingly. A true home, then, is never simply a physical arrangement of bricks, beams and planks. It also always is a place where one feels spiritually secure and sheltered. In this sense, there are many houses that are not homes, and likewise there are many people without houses who are not homeless.

When Martin Heidegger observed, “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world,”2 he was not referring to the shortage of housing that afflicts a large portion of the globe. Rather, he was making an observation about the spiritual malaise troubling humankind during these (post)modern times. Homelessness is the “destiny of the world” because, perhaps more than ever, people today experience life as alienated and groundless. The world we inhabit has come, increasingly, to feel like a threat rather than a refuge. It is a place we no longer understand, and which we struggle against, fearfully. We no longer trust or have fondness for our neighbors, leaders, legal, cultural or governmental institutions. We see them as dangerous: unpredictable, unreliable, inaccessible. In our preoccupation with these external dangers we have become fixated on the looming menace posed by others “out there,” entangling us in webs of distrust and enmity. In this distrust, like an unsheltered drifter in a hostile land, we feel exposed and vulnerable; “homeless” with no place to convalesce.

This sort of distrust alienates us from others, but it also does more than that. Since openness and engagement with others are mechanisms implicated in the development of self-understanding, distrust also potentially blocks us from knowing ourselves. To truly understand yourself, you must be part of a community where you feel safe, comfortable and welcomed; where you feel at home. “…home is not only the place where one is recognized,” writes Ralph Harper, “but also the place where one recognizes others.”3 Mutual recognition and meaningful dialogue among neighbors are necessary conditions for self-reflection, as it is through the dialectical process of conversing with others that we come to negotiate, construct and understand our place in the world. Socrates may have been the first philosopher fully to articulate this point at his trial in Athens thousands of years ago. A life worth living requires self-examination, but self-examination, Socrates told the court, also requires engagement with others in honest, open dialogue and discussion. In authentic Socratic dialogue, we cooperate with one another, jointly searching for Truth, challenging and questioning each other not out of hostility or competition, but out of love and concern. Trust is a necessary component of this sort of interchange. Without it things tend to devolve into mere bickering and antagonism. This is what Socrates found in his Athenian accusers, who were more concerned with eliminating him than with discovering the Truth. It was then Socrates realized that Athens was no longer his home, and so he willingly went to his death, stating, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”4

As it was with Socrates thousands of years ago, today we too often find ourselves in hostile territory, fearful and cut off, in the presence of people who refuse to listen to one another. Lacking the opportunity for genuine, Socratic dialogue, we also lose an intimate, relationship to our own true, inner nature. Our lives become drained of meaning, and thus the foundation upon which any real home is built begins to crumble.

Home-building

Self-understanding does not occur in a vacuum. It is developed, bit-by-bit, in a social context, Socratic style, through dialogue and being-with-others. In existentialist philosophy, this idea has been advocated by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, all of whom emphasize the “thrownness” of human existence. We are, these existentialists teach us, really nothing before we are thrown into a world with others, and it is only by being-with-others that we begin to construct our selves by struggling to come to terms with the realities of our environment and the people and things that inhabit it. This struggle can, at times, be distressing, hostile and dangerous, but it is how we carve out, negotiate and build a meaningful home for ourselves.

The world we find ourselves thrown into is not an empty space, but a place in which things already exist. Some of them are inanimate: things like rocks, tables, or pieces of paper. These sorts of things present themselves to us as raw material that can be manipulated and utilized for a variety of divergent purposes. We can, for instance, use rocks to build shelters, or we can throw them at our enemies. We can juggle those same rocks, or smash them into sand, and then use the sand for drainage in a garden. Inanimate objects have no wills of their own, but are governed by objective laws of cause and effect, and thus cannot be praised or blamed for the events in which they are implicated. Inanimate things like rocks mean nothing in-themselves, but only take on meaning and purpose depending upon the uses to which humans decide to put them. Rocks are neither good nor evil, but may be used for human projects having moral significance. The same rock may be used to build shelter or to commit murder.

Humans are different. Humans, according to the existentialists, do possess free will, and so their actions are not governed by objective laws of cause and effect. While the human body is itself a physical thing – like a rock, table, or piece of paper – it is a physical thing inhabited by consciousness. The human body in-itself means nothing, but when a human mind makes the choice to use that body for some purpose, the consciousness inhabiting that body becomes responsible for the course of action that follows. Whereas the rock that kills a man by striking him in the head is not morally or legally responsible for the death, the human being who wielded the rock, commanding his or her body to hurl it, is responsible. According to existentialists, it is only human consciousness that possesses this sort of responsibility, and this is what makes our lives unique and different from the other sorts of things that exist in the world. Whereas non-conscious, inanimate objects are “beings-in-themselves,” we are “beings-for-ourselves,” conscious, responsible, and active in the pursuit of freely chosen life projects.

The way that conscious, human beings build worlds around themselves is by choosing their manner of comportment toward all of the other things – both animate and inanimate – that exist. We choose the sorts of projects that we engage in by bestowing meaning and significance on some of the objects among which we are thrown while ignoring or avoiding many of the others. While I may be aware, for instance, that there are in fact rocks perched on top of the hill across the road from me, I might not attribute any significance to this fact, and thus ignore them, since they play no role in my current project of preparing for work. These rocks mean nothing to me; unless they happen to fall on the roadway and block my commute. Then they become a relevant part of my world by impeding and thwarting my chosen goal. They enter into my world and become a significant part of it by frustrating my project.

We consistently encounter other human beings as frustrating. However, unlike rocks, which are governed by objective forces of cause and effect, human consciousness is free and unpredictable. Because of this, unlike with rocks, it is in principle impossible to predict with any certainty what humans will do. While we are sometimes grateful, or at least don’t care too much, when their actions don’t interfere with our own chosen projects, it is a different story when our goals are thwarted by other human beings. It is then that hostility results, as we feel that those opposing us could act differently if they so chose, and so (unlike with a rock) we hold them responsible for blocking our goals and desires. When inanimate objects get in our way, we don’t feel as if they are plotting against us. When humans get in our way, on the other hand, we are made aware that our own minds are not alone in the world, but exist in conflict with other consciousnesses that are in pursuit of their own personal projects and goals.

Through dialogue, I may come to understand the projects of others and to calculate and negotiate the ways that I can synchronize my own projects with those around me, either by avoiding them, fighting against them, or cooperating with them. When people are successful at harmonizing their projects with the goals of others, a community emerges within which participants feel at home. The home thus created is a lived context within which one does not feel threatened or impeded in the pursuit of one’s most important goals and desires. Occupying this sort of place brings a sense of belonging and safety. And yet, this refuge only makes sense within a greater context, and in contrast to a place outside of the refuge; a place consisting of forces hostile to the freely chosen world of harmony. In order to establish a home, there must also be a place that is not home, a place filled with those who are not neighbors or friends, but hostile forces against which we define ourselves.

Subcultures and Home

When the mainstream world at large is experienced as hostile and dangerous, humans often find safe refuge in the formation of subcultural communities. Subcultures are associations that, on the one hand, disrupt “principles of unity and cohesion,”5 while on the other hand they enhance “social affiliation.”6 Thus, subcultures promote both revolt and conformity. These two seemingly contradictory aspects are integral parts of the home-making nature of subcultures. The first aspect – that which disrupts “unity and cohesion” – does so in rebellion against outsiders, while the second aspect – that which enhances “social affiliation” – does so by embracing conformity among insiders. Having both an “inside” and an “outside,” a subculture constructs an inner realm where members feel they belong by means of sheltering them from the outside world and its threats. In this way, subcultures carve sanctuaries out of the larger social context, negotiating territories where insiders might dwell while outsiders are kept out. As with any home, a subcultural home has boundaries within which members feel safe, shielded and protected while being-with-others.

Homes require furnishings, and likewise subcultural homes are furnished with things that members treat as significant and comforting. These things, as noted by existentialist philosophers, have no objective, pre-given meaning in-themselves, but only take on importance through negotiation and dialogue between members of the community, concomitant with their ongoing friction against the mainstream world. The sorts of things that subcultural communities come to embrace as meaningful are manifold: styles of music, clothing, food choices, literary styles and so forth. But regardless of what the particular artifact is, within a subculture these sorts of things acquire significance through the collective energies of members, who come to treat them as relevant touchstones by which to gain orientation within, and thus to navigate through, the world of friends and foes. For instance, when baseball hats of certain colors are used to symbolize gang membership, reactions to these hats will differ according to one’s own subcultural affiliations, cementing the boundaries between conflicting territories. While a fellow gang member will be comforted by the appearance of a hat of a certain color, a rival gang member will be threatened. A police officer will be put on alert, while a non-gang affiliated citizen might become apprehensive. When pieces of clothing or other sorts of artifacts are treated as symbolically significant by members of a group, those artifacts become markers acting to communicate social meaning, and thus to guide people in their interactions with one another. All of our worlds are filled with these sorts of significant objects that in-themselves mean nothing, but which become significant through their relationship to various human communities.

As they grow and historically evolve, networks of artifactual meaning emerge within and around subcultures. The objects and artifacts deemed significant by subcultural communities come to fill more and more cultural space, becoming connected to one another by a variety of linkages: spatial, temporal, and ideological. Comprising the cultural bric-a-brac of the subcultural home, these artifacts can, at times, create controversy and division between occupants of the home itself, just as friction often develops between family members over how to decorate and furnish a house. This is when internal debate erupts.

Dissent and negotiation play an important role within the development of subcultural communities. Sometimes disagreement leads to members breaking ties with their old affiliations, like rebellious children who leave home and set up their own, new domiciles. At other times it can lead to internal changes, with an extensive remodeling of the subcultural infrastructure. Sometimes, there is a reestablishment of the status quo, and members are brought back in line with tradition. Within any long-lived subculture, as with any home that is lived in for an extended period of time, there are bound to be changes in the arrangement of the décor. As these changes occur, the character of the home also changes, and indeed sometimes things might become so altered that older residents feel as if they have become homeless within their own home.

But while refuge and safety are certainly among the important characteristics of a home, change and novelty are also healthy. Residents too stuck in their ways become stagnant, complacent, and lazy. This was Socrates’ complaint about his fellow Athenians, who he likened to a sluggish horse that was in need of being roused and stirred up.7 As occurred in Athens, a home that becomes too static and unchanging starts to disintegrate. The oppression of individuals through hostility to internal dialogue and dispute undermines the original purpose of seeking a home in the first place: the need to be together in a context where people are comfortable interacting with one another as friends and neighbors, open to the free and open exploration of their authentic selves. Any place that discourages neighborly questioning, dissent or disagreement is not really a home, but a cage.

In order to concretize and illustrate the dynamics of home-building, in what follows I shall scrutinize various aspects of a subculture, first emerging in the 1970’s, that has proven especially enduring in its ability to provide a place of both refuge and dissent for its members. This subculture is punk rock, a movement in music, fashion, art and culture that has morphed over the decades in order to become a site both of safety and resistance for a staggeringly broad range of participants. I shall argue that this subculture has, over time, provided a home for nonconformists of otherwise vastly divergent natures by: (1) insistently resisting mainstream conventions, and (2) encouraging dissent and debate. I shall make this argument in the course of examining the meaning and significance of various artifacts central to the punk rock subculture.

Punk Rock

There have been countless claims made about the “real” origins of punk rock. Dick Hebdige writes that punk grew out of glam rock, and developed as a way to expose its “implicit contradictions.”8 Greil Marcus characterizes punk as a more generalized revolt against the “pop milieu.”9 Caroline Coon finds the “seeds” of punk in a reaction against disco and big music industry marketing of rock bands.10 Complicating the issue is the fact that from early on there were two distinct punk “scenes,” one emerging in the UK, around 1976, and the other centered on the nightclub CBGB’s in New York City at about the same time.11 Regardless of its specific historical origins, what is clear is that beginning in the 1970’s, something that became known as “punk” emerged as a distinctly new subculture, and it quickly spread beyond the US and the UK through music, fashion, literature and art.

This newly emerged punk subculture was characterized by a gleefully aggressive revolt against the manners, norms and values of mainstream society. In music, punk revolted against the idea that talent, training or major funding was necessary in order to play, perform or record songs. In fashion, punk revolted against the idea that clothing had to cater to conventional standards of beauty or to perpetuate traditional gender identities. In literature and art, it revolted against the idea that only the elite and the educated were legitimate creative voices. Punk consistently defined itself in terms of what it was against, utilizing symbolism, gestures and methods calculated to offend and repel defenders of traditional cultural standards while also unifying its members in a subversive web of meaning that was antithetical to polite tastes.

The Swastika

A dramatic example of punk’s subversive intent is found in its early appropriation of the swastika, which was worn on clothing, drawn onto or carved into skin, and displayed in artwork. Artists such as John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Sid Viscous, Siouxsie Sioux, Captain Sensible, The Angelic Upstarts and The Ramones all, at various times, displayed the symbol; not because they were Nazis, but “because they weren’t Nazis.”12 The swastika had a transformed meaning for these punks, one serving to emphasize an aggressive disdain for, and rejection of, orthodox, middle-class values. It was an artifact that, by tapping into negative mainstream cultural associations, served as an indicator that members of the subculture were not only unconcerned with catering to conventional sensibilities, but that they were in fact hostile toward them. Greil Marcus sums up the meaning of this early use of the punk swastika in this way:

It meant…My dad’s a square, I hate him, I hate you too, I’ll smash your face in…And it meant that negation is the act that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems – but only when the act is so implicitly complete it leaves open the possibility that the world may be nothing, that nihilism as well as creation may occupy the suddenly cleared ground.13

Although well aware of the mainstream social meaning that it had taken on after being used by the Nazis, the wearing of the swastika by punks was not motivated by racism or the advocacy of extreme right-wing politics. It was, rather, more like a gesture of rejection – a “fuck you” that helped solidify the boundaries between the punk and non-punk worlds. It was a device to “slow down” punk’s “assimilation into the wider culture.”14 By appropriating a symbol that itself had already been appropriated by the Nazis from earlier Hindu and Buddhist cultures, punks expressed disdain for conventional, mainstream sensitivities while also highlighting the fluid nature of cultural signs. As Thomas Mensworth (Mensi), the lead singer of the Angelic Upstarts said in a 1978 interview with Sounds Magazine, “it doesn’t mean anything, we only do it to annoy people.”15 The arrangement of lines into a twisted cross is a thing-in-itself and thus meaningless until interpreted and granted symbolic power by human consciousness; by beings-for-themselves. Punks gleefully played with this insight, and by aggressively displaying such a morally suspect and emotionally evocative image, punks, on the one hand, disrupted social unity and cohesion by provoking mainstream outrage while, on the other, they also (at least initially) established and promoted social affiliation between punks who shared an understanding of the symbol’s reconfigured significance.

In the 1980’s, the display of swastikas would become controversial within the punk rock subculture itself, as many punks objected that the symbol was starting to attract real racists into the fold. This internal counter reaction reached a crescendo when, in 1981, the Dead Kennedy’s recorded the song “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” whose lyrics explicitly criticize those who wear swastikas:

You still think swastikas look cool?

The real Nazis run your schools.

They’re coaches, businessmen and cops.

In the real Fourth Reich you’d be the first to go.16

Internal dispute among punks concerning the swastika continued to grow. The year following the release of Nazi Punks Fuck Off, the inaugural issue of Maximum RocknRoll appeared. It remains one of the longest continuously published punk fanzines, and a perusal of issue #1 illustrates the fact that in 1982, despite increasing criticism of those displaying swastikas from within the punk subculture, the matter was far from settled. Instead, spirited debate and dialogue continued. While the pages of MMR#1 are filled with editorials, interviews and news stories concerning complaints of racism, violence, bigotry, intolerance and drug abuse within the scene, images of swastikas also appear on at least six different pages. By contrast, anarchy symbols appear on only two pages.17 At this point in history it appears that robust, Socratic dialogue was still being nurtured within the punk community, with conflicting voices – and imagery – existing alongside one another, incongruously, like oddly matched, yet fascinating, furniture.

The anarchy symbol eventually came to displace the swastika as a less internally controversial, but still ubiquitous symbol of rejection, demonstrating that politics was never really the point. Though representing diametrically opposed philosophical ideologies in the popular mind, both the swastika and the anarchy sign nonetheless served to symbolize, for punks, an attitude of revolt against convention. It is interesting to note that in 2013 at an exhibit of punk fashion and history sponsored by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “Punk: Chaos to Couture,”18 while the anarchy sign was on prominent display, swastikas were nowhere to be seen. It seems that some of the more offensive and controversial aspects of punk rock have required complete effacement in order to make the aesthetic palatable to mainstream audiences.

Underground Clubs

The punk impulse toward revolt had the effect of carving out alternative cultural territories, setting boundaries between outsiders and insiders. In addition to symbols like the swastika and the anarchy sign, other aspects of the subculture also helped to cement these boundaries. Underground clubs replaced mainstream venues as locations for the performance of music and the exhibition of plastic arts. These venues discouraged attendance by mainstream audiences as – in a time before the internet – shows were promoted mostly by word of mouth and among existent members of the subculture through the distribution of Xeroxed flyers instead of through mass advertising. Many of these performance spaces didn’t have stable physical addresses, but wandered from place to place, being set up in basements, community halls, parks and vacant lots. In this sense, punk venues embodied a kind of homelessness in their lack of a stable location or residence, and yet in creating familiar and comfortable places where members of the subculture could be with others, they also created an ephemeral punk home where, for the duration of a show, underground music or art fans could retreat from the mainstream world of mass marketed capitalist consumerism to share a world among like-minded rebels.

The renegade nature of punk performance spaces was buttressed by their existence on the boundaries of legality. The artist Mark Pauline, for instance, whose group Survival Research Labs19 put on elaborate performances in which homemade machines would dangerously do battle against one another – wielding chainsaws, shooting projectiles and spewing fire – staged many of his performances illegally in vacant lots.20 Even when these shows were sanctioned by city officials, they would still sometimes end with his arrest or citation for violations of safety guidelines (as happened when they performed at the ground breaking ceremony for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1992)21.

Punk venues throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s were notorious for being raided by the police, with shows interrupted, and venues shut down. Existing on the fringes of legality contributed to an atmosphere of siege, as if punk culture was being persecuted and its members oppressed. “They hate us, we hate them. We can’t win. No way!” These sentiments from the song “Police Story,”22 by the band Black Flag, illustrate the feeling among punks that the state and the police were out to crush them; and while there is a palpable sense of outrage in such lyrics, there is also a sense in which these feelings were effective in promoting a sense of community among punks. An “us” against “them” attitude cemented the boundaries between the world of punk rock and the world of above ground, legal culture. When gathered together at shows, punks were reminded of their shared culture, and when these shows were interrupted by the police, they were also reminded of how at odds they were with mainstream society.

Fanzines

Being-with-others was also facilitated by the production and distribution of fanzines among punks. While most punk clubs were very short lived and temporary, fanzines provided a way for members of the subculture to remain in contact and to communicate with one another when not in physical proximity with one another before the advent of the internet. Self produced and Xeroxed in limited numbers, fanzines were personal magazines that chronicled the expanding infrastructure of the punk rock home. It was in these pages that relevant bands were interviewed and their existence documented. It was here that significant movies, art and events were highlighted, and that particular cultural controversies were debated and discussed. Anyone could make and distribute a fanzine. All that was needed was a typewriter or paper and pen, access to a copy machine, and friends to whom copies could be given or sold. Through fanzines, punks became further attuned to the detailed “furnishings” of the subcultural home that they occupied. It was in the pages of fanzines that many debates about the swastika played out. It was in fanzines that local bands were condemned, lauded or dismissed as part of the scene. Political protests were announced, books were reviewed, and personal opinions were unashamedly proclaimed about everything having to do with anything punk. Fanzines for punks served a purpose similar to academic journals for scholars, acting as a mechanism for the formation of a subcultural community based on the exchange of ideas.

The ideas shared by punks through fanzines, music and art, however, did not remain static. They evolved over time, and schisms within the subculture continued to develop. Earlier generations of punks aged, newer generations appeared, and as is common in all cultures, friction between them erupted. Jeff Bale, in an essay introducing the reissue of 1982’s music compilation Not So Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, complains that the new generation of San Francisco Bay Area punks had, by 1999, devolved into the same sort of “moral puritanism” that earlier punks revolted against; something “wholly antithetical to the individualistic, sardonic and freedom-loving spirit of punk.”23 Bale complains that the once relatively unitary punk movement had splintered into a variety of sub-subcultures, including “straight edge, humorless feminism, Krsna consciousness, and militant veganism.”24 These divisions, Bale suggests, had effectively undermined the purpose of punk, turning it into something dogmatic, moralistic and intolerant. Perhaps the most ironic illustration of this change is the fact that the very fanzine Bale helped to start in 1982, Maximum Rocknroll, by 1999 was run by an editorial staff that objected to his re-release of Not So Quiet on the Western Front.

Conclusion

Punk’s evolution illustrates the ways in which this long lived subculture provides a home for its members within which they may, on the one hand, define themselves in opposition to the mainstream while, on the other, engage in internal dialogue, dissent and realignment. The internal infrastructure of cultural artifacts – like the swastika, the anarchy sign, underground clubs, and fanzines – represent furnishings within the punk rock home, which over time have been rearranged, altered and replaced as successive generations have moved in to occupy the space set up by their predecessors. As with any home, this one also serves to make its residents welcome by keeping hostile onlookers out.

And yet it appears that punk has increasingly come to influence, and to be influenced by, mainstream culture itself. As more and more above ground cultural institutions sponsor punk art exhibits, musical performances and publishing projects, and as more and more companies seek to turn a profit by selling punk t-shirts, musical albums, and films, the walls of the punk home may be in danger of becoming completely breached, and the place that once offered refuge for rebellious outsiders may become overrun by the very sort of convention and conformity that punks mutinied against beginning in the 1970’s.

Notes

  1. Sacripolitical (1993). “Meaning of Life,” Peace: Under Our Supervision (audio recording). <https://sacripolitical.bandcamp.com/releases.> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Martin Heidegger (1993). “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, p. 243.

 

  1. Ralph Harper (1967). The Seventh Solitude: Metaphysical Homelessness in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Nietzsche. Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, p. 77.

 

  1. Plato (1997). “Apology,” in Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett, 38a.

 

  1. Dick Hebdige (1981). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen, p. 18.

 

  1. Ken Gelder (2007). Subcultures: Cultural histories and social practice. London and New York: Routledge, p. 4.

 

  1. Plato, 31.

 

  1. Hebdige, p. 63.

 

  1. Greil Marcus (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 3.

 

  1. Caroline Coon (1978). 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 3.

 

  1. Stacy Thompson (2004). Punk Productions: Unfinished Business. Albany: SUNY Press, pp. 10-32.

 

  1. Quoted in Thomspson, p. 28.

 

  1. Griel Marcus, p. 118.

 

  1. Malcolm Quinn (2005). The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. New York: Routledge, p. 11.

 

  1. Punk77. “Angelic Upstarts History Pt. 2.” <http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/angelicupstartshistory2.htm> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Dead Kennedys (1982). “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (audio recording). Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Maximumrocknroll (1982). Vol. 1, No. 1. San Francisco.

 

  1. Survival Research Laboratories. <http://www.srl.org/> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. Industrial Culture Handbook (1983). San Francisco: Re/Search Publications, pp. 20-41.

 

  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013). “Punk Fashion is Focus of Costume Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” <http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2012/punk-chaos-to-couture> (Last accessed July 12, 2017).

 

  1. “SF Museum Groundbreaking Show Survival Research Labs” (1992). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjwWaUs_OmM> (Last accessed July 21, 2017).

 

  1. Black Flag (1981). “Police Story,” Damaged (audio recording). SST Records.

 

  1. Jeff Bale (1999). Liner notes in Not So Quiet on the Western Front (audio recording). San Francisco: Alternative Tentacles.

 

  1. Ibid.
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Meditations on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Long ago, I identified a cyclical pattern in my moods. Feelings of sadness and despair, which are attached to no particular set of external facts or circumstances, regularly overtake me after periods of contentment and relative happiness. I feel fine – even optimistic – and then the darkness encroaches, occasioned by no apparent, objective changes in the environment. This is all part of an ongoing, internal dispositional rotation where light fades to dark and then dark brightens to light. And round and round it goes.

The thoughts that accompany my dark periods are always the same: Everything comes to an end; everyone I know and love will eventually die; I will eventually die; so what’s the point? When in the midst of this feeling, distraction is ineffective. The mood itself stains everything that comes to my attention. It acts like a lens that colors and taints all things. I try to watch TV, and I think how I’m wasting what little time I have. I go for a run, and I think how there will be a time when I will be too old and frail to go running. I busy myself with cleaning the house and I think about how eventually the house will decay into nothingness. Distraction doesn’t work. The cycle needs to be ridden out. Despair demands its say.

The despair has returned this winter season, but this time around I’ve found new comfort in Marcus Aurelius. With his Meditations I’ve encountered a man who articulates many of the feelings and thoughts that drift round and round in my mind during dark spells. And it is not so much his stoic suggestions for how to deal with despair that appeal to me. Rather I’m comforted by the simple fact that this Roman emperor living in the 2nd Century AD – a man so different from me in most ways – shares my feelings and is unashamed of confessing to them. Reading Meditations makes me feel like I’m in the presence of someone I understand and who, if he was around today, would understand me.

Meditations opens with a litany of those to whom Aurelius feels gratitude: everyone from his grandfather to the gods. This first chapter chronicles the qualities of character and the lessons he learned from those he has encountered in life. From his grandfather he has learned “good morals” (I:1), from Sextus “good humor” (I:9), from his father “mildness of temper” (I:16). He thanks the gods for giving him “good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good” (I:17). In sum, he is grateful for the life he has been born into. He considers his world to be good overall.

Reading this list, I’m left with the impression that Aurelius is consciously and systematically going through a ritual that I also go through when I’m feeling low. Any ritual is intended to help us avoid forgetting, to help us remember that which we are in danger of overlooking. This being the case, rituals are premised on the concern that something has been neglected in life and that one needs to set aside time to recall what is really important. In the case of Marcus Aurelius, the ritual of listing all of the people to whom he owes gratitude seems to be an indication of simmering discontent. I suspect his eagerness to remember all that is good in the world is spurred by a desire to combat frustration with all of the evil that he is consciously preoccupied by.

I find myself carrying out the same exercise when I hit my dark, low points. When I worry that I’m being overly negative about life, or that I am being self-indulgent with my despairing feelings, I self consciously reflect on all of the things that I should be happy about. I have a good job that is secure and that I enjoy. I have a wife, a sister, family members and friends that I love. I have a home. I have philosophy. But all of this self-reflection is only necessary at points when the meaningfulness of these very same things has already been called into question. When there is no question of life’s worth, I simply love my wife, sister, family and friends. I live with purpose and enthusiasm, without question. It is only when doubt creeps in that I’m driven to engage in the ritual of listing all of the things for which I should be grateful. Engagement in this ritual is a sign that something is amiss and needs to be corrected.

In Chapter II of Meditations, we get our first indication of what it is that is troubling Aurelius. He is experiencing discontent with the tedious and seemingly meaningless distractions that divert him from what is really important in his life. There are those around him that are busybodies, those that are ungrateful and arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial and violent (II: 1;6). These sorts of people threaten to derail him and to entangle him in pettiness, inflaming his emotions to the point that he wastes time, energy and, indeed, his life fighting meaningless battles. “Do things external which happen to you distract you? Give yourself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around” (II:7). Like Nietzsche, Aurelius is here warning himself to avoid the poisoning effects of psychological resentment. When we become distracted by the shortcomings of others, we ourselves run the risk of becoming bitter and angry; and when this happens everything in the world around us becomes colored by our own bitter and angry perspective. The world starts to seem awful, not good at all. In this way we distort reality and create our own hell.

But, Aurelius reminds himself, we only have one life to live. “Since it is possible that you may be quitting life this very moment, govern every act and thought accordingly” (II:11). We are finite beings who are destined to die, and we don’t know exactly when we will expire. Do you want to live your short life in hell, or do you want to experience happiness? If you desire happiness, then you need to grab hold of your situation and live as if each and every act that you perform is your last, imbuing everything you do with meaning and purpose. Don’t waste time on superficialities or on pettiness. Focus on and embrace that which you think is really important. Be unconcerned with the shortcomings of others and strive to make yourself into the image of what you truly wish to be. This requires periods of reflection, for “he who does not observe the movements of his own mind must of necessity be unhappy” (II:8), but it also requires self-discipline and resolute action in the world. A good, happy life is a socially engaged, philosophical life.

Don’t waste your life. This is something I find myself repeating like a mantra at those times when the darkness encroaches and motivation wanes. “Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives” (II:14). It is a mistake to think that more life would change anything. Whether you lived 50 years or 3 million years, you would still be a finite creature who must do something – anything – while you are alive. Your finite life is what you make it, and it really is within your power to mold it according to your own ideals.

Chapter III reinforces the point that no matter how long we live, we are all destined to die and so we should make the most of the time we have. This is especially important, according to Aurelius, because it is a sad fact about humans that the older we get, the more likely it becomes that we will lose the full use of our rational, mental capacities. As we age, our minds tend to deteriorate first, before the body, and so it is uncertain that the “mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation” (III:1). As we lose our rational capacities, we lose the power to make willful choices and so we begin to drift in the direction of dependence on others. If our bodies outlast our minds, then we become objects, buffeted about by the willful actions of those around us. We lose the ability to mold the remainder of our existence and thus we forfeit that duty to others.

This thought terrifies me. After having seen some of my own family members drift into the clutches of dementia, I know how quickly self-sufficiency can disappear. My mother needed constant care until her body gave out. My aunt still lingers in an elder care facility, unable to articulate a coherent thought or to communicate her wishes to anyone. When they possessed their full mental capacities, neither my mother nor my aunt would have chosen this sort of conclusion to their lives, but neither of them, when in control of their mental faculties, put in place mechanisms that would have avoided what eventually came to be. Now I lie awake at night worrying about what will happen to me when my own mind starts to slip away. If it turns out that I am the last in my family to survive, what will happen? I fear becoming dependent upon strangers who are rarely kind, but often cruel. Now is the time to make the rational decisions that will allow life to come to an end in a way that can be embraced rather than feared.

The remaining chapters of Meditations (IV – XII) place individual human existence into a cosmic context that Aurelius suggests should give us comfort when contemplating our ultimate fate. Starting from the premise that “nothing comes out of nothing, just as nothing returns to nonexistence” (IV:4), Aurelius reasons that there is an eternal process of transmutation governing the universe of which human beings are a part. All things that come to be must emerge from some preexistent substance, and all things that decay and decline must melt back into that same substance. This process, since it is a part of nature itself, is just and good. It is only our irrational resistance to this process that makes it appear as if evil exists in nature. If we rationally embrace and passively submit to the eternal cycles of cosmic transmutation, then we will come to understand that, first, “nothing will happen to me which is not in harmony with the nature of the universe,” and second, “it is in my power never to act contrary to my god and divinity” (V:10). When we use our rational faculties to understand nature, we then can act in accordance with nature, accepting and embracing it as divine and good.

The universe is an organism, and we are parts of that organism. Our fate is tied to the whole, and so it is our duty to abide by our nature and play our role; just as our own hearts, stomachs and livers do in our bodies. The difference between our bodies and the universe as a whole, however, is that the universe is eternal but we are not. So, while “all parts of the universe are interwoven with one another,” it is also the case that “everything material soon disappears into the sum of being; and everything is soon taken back into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is soon overwhelmed in time” (VII:10). “Soon you will have forgotten all things; and soon all things will have forgotten you” (VII:21). For Aurelius, a rational person will understand this not as an occasion for despair, but as a liberating insight. Neither our individual lives nor our deaths are meaningless. They are integral aspects of the cosmos. Our lives and our deaths have a purpose in the grand scheme of things.

While I find Aurelius’ reflections in this part of the book fascinating and absorbing, I nonetheless am also skeptical. First, while his description of the eternal cycles of the universe might be true, I’m not completely convinced that it is. Second, even if his description is correct, it does not necessarily eradicate my own fear of death, but rather threatens to heighten it. After all, while saying that we are all organs in a cosmic body certainly does suggest we have a role to play, it also suggests that our own, individual hopes, fears and aspirations are worthless (and even destructive) apart from the aggregate. We could just as well say that we are cogs in a machine, highlighting our hopeless entanglement in a mechanical universe. But this is precisely one of the thoughts that goes round and round in my head during periods of mental despair. I am nothing but a cog, an ephemeral speck in the cosmic process. Hardly a comforting thought. Additionally, Aurelius’ metaphysics seems constructed precisely to alleviate his more concrete and down-to-earth experiences with mental suffering. But this raises a question: should we accept a doctrine just because it makes us feel better? It could be that the doctrine giving you the most comfort is also false, and I personally don’t want to accept false doctrines. I need some other evidence, argument or proof besides my own feeling of contentment. After all, there are plenty of religious systems that contradict Aurelius’ metaphysics that I could also believe in that would offer comfort. The point of philosophy is not just to alleviate despair. It needs to be motivated by a desire to know the truth.

Despite my skepticism about his metaphysics, the suggestions for life that Aurelius goes on to offer in the closing chapters of his book do resonate with me and do seem sensible. His central point is that you should “never mind what others think of you, and be content to live the rest of your life as nature wills” (VIII:1). This brings us back to the issue that was of concern at the start of his Mediations. Those “busybodies,” those “ungrateful,” “arrogant,” “deceitful,” “envious,” “unsocial” and “violent” people that often distract us from what we feel is good and right are to be ignored in favor of what our inner nature tells us to think and do. “Nature brings nothing that you cannot bear” (VII:46), and so we need to listen to our own conscience when determining how to navigate the world. Aurelius reminds us (and himself) that it is only our judgements about the world that cause distress. The world is what it is. There is nothing inherently wrong with objective reality. It is only our desire for things to be different from the way that they are that causes us to feel as if the universe is evil and unjust. But our judgments are within our power to change, and so it follows that we are capable of finding contentment and happiness by changing the way we think and judge reality.

And there is ultimately nothing new under the sun, according to Aurelius. The same patterns play themselves out with differing details eternally. “Consider that the things of the present also existed in times past…all the same plays, only with different actors” (X:27). On the one hand, this is hopeful, since it opens up the chance for us actually to discover the patterns of nature and to bring our mental judgements into alignment with nature’s design. In fact, according to Aurelius, by the age of 40 we have already “seen everything” (XI:1), and so by that age one is able to formulate a basic template for happy living. On the other hand, the thought that our lives are just part of some cosmic repetition can also lead to a sense of despair. Nietzsche observed that the idea of the “eternal return of the same” is an example of nihilism, and as such it can lead us to feel as if everything is meaningless and worthless. During my own dark periods, this is precisely how I tend to feel. Life is a tedious recurrence of the same old boring patterns. If it all came to an end here, nothing would be lost. It reminds me of the Warner Brother’s cartoon in which one of the characters exclaims, “Now I’ve seen everything!” and then blows his brains out with a pistol. If there is nothing more to see or learn, what’s the point of moving on?

But I must admit that when I transpose Aurelius’ cosmic vision of eternal recurrence into a psychological framework, things become more positive for me. As mentioned earlier, I long ago identified a pattern in the ebb and flow of my moods that repeats over and over again. This eternally recurring psychological pattern does give me some comfort insofar as it helps to place my own despair into a larger context within which I can anticipate an escape from the darkness; albeit a temporary one. Since I have come to realize that despair is part of an ongoing rhythm in which my moods fluctuate from dark to light, when I am in the midst of despondency I become confident that the next cycle will bring cheerfulness. Ironically then, I am at my most optimistic when I am my most despairing, for it is then that I have something to which I look forward. When I am in my most cheerful of moods, on the other hand, I find myself slipping into the pessimistic anticipation of encroaching sadness. And round and round it goes.

Whether the patterns of recurrence are cosmic or psychological, I find the specific points of advice with which Marcus Aurelius concludes his Meditations to be wise, useful and sensible. There are ten things he suggests that we keep in mind when dealing with others and when we are striving to perfect our lives (XI:19):

  1. We are social creatures, “made for one another.”
  2. We should remember that all of those in our communities are under the same sorts of inner compulsions as we are.
  3. We should be pleased when those around us do good, but we should understand that when they do wrong it is out of ignorance.
  4. We should remember that we ourselves often do wrong.
  5. We should remember that sometimes we do not know whether the actions of others are right or wrong. In those cases we should suspend our moral judgments.
  6. We should remember that we are all finite and will die.
  7. We should remember that it is our own opinions about others that cause us distress, and we are in control of our opinions.
  8. We should consider how much distress is caused by being “angry and vexed.”
  9. We should recognize that a benevolent disposition is powerful and can bring inner peace.
  10. We should recognize that it is “madness” to expect bad men not to do evil; and that it is irrational to allow bad men to do wrong to one another while thinking that they will not do wrong to us as well.

I must admit that even in the midst of my darkest moods, this advice makes sense to me.

While I’m not prepared to convert to Stoicism after reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, I am soothed by the fact that another human being, living in another place and time, has had many of the same troubling feelings and thoughts as I have. Perhaps this is a verification of Aurelius’ point. There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps we are all playing our parts in an eternally recurring drama in which only the actors are different. Perhaps.

Cynics

Cynicism, like nihilism, has a bad name in the poplar mind. It is generally thought that cynics are negative, distrustful, and see only the worst in others. They have nothing positive to say or to contribute, but are full of complaints and criticisms. They assume everyone is motivated by foul intentions, and consequently believe no one can be relied on.

This contemporary deployment of the term “cynic,” however, deviates from its original use in the ancient world. In ancient times, Cynicism was the name of a philosophical movement that, contrary to popular opinion today, did indeed possess positive ideals and that provided not only a diagnosis of, but a solution to, the despairing unhappiness of the times. Ancient Cynics were more than just unhelpful social critics; they were optimistic philosophers who wanted to demonstrate that human contentment is achievable through a life of natural simplicity. William Desmond’s book Cynics offers a clear, systematic overview of this movement in ancient philosophy, while also describing its lasting impact on contemporary thought.

Desmond’s main thesis is that while Cynicism in the ancient world certainly was a diverse phenomenon with much variation, there was nonetheless a stable, core set of beliefs uniting the various individual Cynics. Figures like Antisthenes, Diogenes and Crates were more than just nonconformists. They were proponents of a consistent, cohesive philosophy. The core beliefs of this philosophy are that the renunciation of custom is liberating (Chapter 2), that one should live life according to nature (Chapter 3), that the self is a stable substance, independent of society (Chapter 4), and that the best form of social organization maximizes the freedom of the individual (Chapter 5).

The English word “cynic” comes from the Greek word kyōn, which means “dog” (p. 3). The ancient Cynics advocated a simple life that was based on fulfilling natural desires while resisting what they regarded as unnatural, decadent desires. Like dogs, Cynics went around naked or wearing very little. They owned hardly anything, wandering from place to place, scavenging food and shelter. They urinated, defecated and masturbated publicly. They rejected marriage, politics, and work. This dog-like existence was intended as an antidote to the perverting influence of civilization, which encourages people to hide behind a veil of artificiality.

The Cynics claimed that human unhappiness is the result of the repression of natural needs coupled with the cultivation of unnecessary desires that cannot be satiated. Civilization encourages us to disguise and stifle our natural functions while also encouraging us to seek money, prestige, power, and so forth. But in pursuing these sort of things, humans find themselves on a hamster wheel of unquenchable craving that only leads to anxiety and unhappiness. Better to live like a dog, then, in the moment, absent conventional aspirations. If we live simply and according to nature, we can be satisfied and content with what the world gives us. In this way, Desmond writes, the Cynics preached a positive message: “Far from being pessimistic or nihilistic, ancient Cynics were astonishingly optimistic regarding human nature. For them, ultimately, human beings are good: very good” (p. 3). This confidence in human nature – coupled with their rejection of artificiality – comprises the center of the Cynic philosophy.

Desmond suggests that in the ancient world, we can detect four stages in the evolution of Cynicism. First, there is the “pre-Cynic Greek period,” which includes what he classifies as “proto-Cynics” such as Socrates. While a philosopher like Socrates is rarely regarded as a true Cynic, his influence on later Cynics was powerful. Not only was he the teacher of Antisthenes (who is sometimes credited as being the founder of Cynicism), but his simple lifestyle and anti-establishment battles against the Athenian mainstream can be regarded as expressing what would become some of the main concerns of the later, classical Cynics (pp. 13 – 16).

The second stage in the evolution of ancient Cynicism consists of the “classical period” of thinkers, the most famous of which is Diogenes of Sinope; a man that Plato described as “Socrates gone mad.” Diogenes is said to have been exiled from his home state, ending up in Athens where he lived in a pithos; a large barrel or tub normally used to store wine or olive oil (p. 21). Though he reportedly wrote dialogues, letters and tragedies, all of them are lost, and so the only knowledge that we now have about Diogenes “the dog” comes from the accounts of others like Diogenes Laertius, a Roman author. The stories are legendary. Diogenes was purported to have been banished from Sinope for “defacing the coinage”; a phrase which took on great significance for later Cynics who regarded it as a “command to decommission the ‘coinage’ of social custom” (p. 20). Diogenes threw away his own drinking cup when he saw a slave boy sipping water with his hands, illustrating that even a cup is an unnecessary extravagance in a world where nature has provided us with hands, which themselves can be cupped. When he was confronted by outraged Athenians for masturbating in public, Diogenes scoffed at their prudery, lamenting “If only…one could relieve a hungry belly also just by rubbing it” (p. 89). He walked through the Athenian marketplace with a lantern in broad daylight “looking for an honest man” (p. 21), insinuating that honesty was invisible in highly civilized Athens. Differing accounts claim that he died by holding his breath, or from eating raw octopus, or from being bitten by a dog (p. 23). Upon his passing, he did not want to be buried, but to have his body left in the open to be consumed by animals.

Despite his unconventional life, Diogenes was reportedly admired by Alexander the Great, the leader of the Macedonian Empire. Upon arriving in Athens, Alexander found Diogenes asleep in his barrel. He prodded the Cynic, telling Diogenes that he was willing to grant him any wish he desired. Diogenes’ response was for Alexander to “stand out of my sun” (p. 21), suggesting that the only thing a king could do for him was to make way for what the world already provided naturally.

After Diogenes and the “classical period” of Cynicism, the third period of evolution occured with the literary influence of Cynic philosophy on Hellenistic thinkers – in particular the Stoics – and then continued into the Roman Empire, the fourth period of evolution.

The final chapter of Desmond’s book examines the legacy of Cynic thought, highlighting some of the philosophers, writers and religious figures who have been influenced by Cynicism. I was especially interested to see the ways in which Desmond characterizes one of my own favorite thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche, as a sort of neo-Cynic. Like Diogenes, who coined the term “cosmopolitan” or “citizen of the world,” Nietzsche spent the majority of his adulthood homeless, wandering Europe and declaring himself to be a “good European” rather than a citizen of Germany. He railed against the constraining forces of polite society, exhorting people to harness their natural “will to power” in service of an earthly sort of contentment in the here-and-now. His philosophy extolls the virtues of individualism, naturalism, and self-sufficiency; very much like the ancient Cynics. It’s no wonder (as Desmond notes on page 231) that Nietzsche, in The Wanderer and His Shadow (§ 18) writes:

The modern Diogenes. – Before one seeks a human being, one must have found the lantern. Will it have to be the lantern of the cynic?

More startling to some readers might be Desmond’s speculation that Jesus may, perhaps, have been a Cynic. Desmond reports that some of the major Cynic philosophers of Jesus’s time – Menippus, Meleager and Oenomaus – lived in Gadara, a city near Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps Jesus became familiar with their ideas and integrated them into his own teachings. His praise of poverty, his rejection of convention, his mixing with lowly people and his courage in speaking out against those in power all offer tempting suggestions that there was something “cynical” about Jesus. Indeed, Desmond writes that some scholars have gone so far as to conclude that we find “Cynicism in the heart of the Christian Gospels themselves” (p. 211).

I really enjoyed Desmond’s book. While I have long been a fan of Diogenes, I was not acquainted with all of the details in the development of Cynicism as a philosophy. Instead, most of the other, shorter accounts of the Cynics that I have read characterize them as proponents of something more like a lifestyle or an attitude rather than of a coherent system of thought. Desmond’s account of this movement convincingly puts the Cynics into a larger perspective, demonstrating the underlying method to their madness as well as the long-lasting influence that the “classical” Cynics have had on philosophy up to present times. Desmond has inspired me to explore the Cynics further, and perhaps even to integrate more of their cheekiness into my own life.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook

I’ve agreed to serve as associate editor for a new journal called the Philosophy of Humor Yearbook, the first issue or which is scheduled to be released in 2020 by de Gruyter. The journal will publish both scholarly articles as well as shorter, humorous pieces dealing with philosophical themes.

Those interested in contributing should send papers, ready for blind review, simultaneously to Lydia Amir at lydamir@mail.com and philhumor@degruyter.com by May 1st, 2019 along with a 100 word abstract and five key words. The call for papers can be viewed online at: http://lydamir.wixsite.com/humor/jour

The journal is part of the efforts of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor (IAPH), which has held meetings in connection with the American Philosophical Association, and the World Congress of Philosophy. Membership in IAPH is free. You can join by emailing Lydia or by filling out an online form: http://lydamir.wixsite.com/humor/membership-dues-and-donations


Call for PapersPhilosophy of Humor Yearbook

The Berlin-based publisher, de Gruyter, has offered to sponsor a new journal dedicated to the philosophy of humor. A board consisting of top philosophers in the field has been assembled, among them John Morreall, Simon Critchley, Stephen Halliwell, Noël Carroll, John Lippitt, Daniel Dennett, Kathleen Higgins, and more.

The journal was launched in 2018, and will publish its first issue in 2020.

The Philosophy of Humor Yearbook addresses contemporary interests in the philosophy of humor. It invites philosophers from various traditions to share their research into humor, laughter, and the comic, and their roles (e.g., epistemological, ethical, aesthetic) within the history and practice of philosophy. The sole publication of its kind in this new burgeoning field, it publishes not only scholarly articles of the highest quality, but also humorous or satirical pieces of philosophic interest, as well as articles on the pedagogy of philosophy involving humor, jokes and cartoons.

The yearbook aims to be the authoritative periodical in the field. A peer-reviewed journal open to submissions by all philosophers, its goal is to advance the study of the philosophy of humor, understood as an umbrella term, by encouraging top-level scholarship in the field. The editorial and advisory boards are deeply committed to creating a genuinely international forum for publication, which integrates the many different traditions of philosophy and brings them into a constructive and fruitful dialogue.

​Apart from the scholarly articles making up the main part of the journal, the journal will also include a shorter part including humorous, witty, or satiric articles in the service of philosophic ideas. As humor is used, and has been used in the past, by various philosophical schools as a pedagogical device, the last section of the journal also addresses the pedagogy of philosophy, including appropriate witticisms, jokes, and even cartoons.

Finally, books will be reviewed and events related to the association will be advertised.

The deadline for the first issue is May 1st 2019.

Please send your submission to: lydamir@mail.com and philhumor@degruyter.com with an abstract of 100 words, 5 key words. Erase all traces of personal identity in the text. Name, affiliation, and contact details should be sent separate from the main paper.

​All submissions will be blind refereed by established scholars in the field. Only high-quality papers, written in excellent (American) English, will be accepted for publication. Potential authors should be prepared to make changes to their texts based on the comments received by the referees.

Articles should not exceed 25 pages, double-spaced and in 12 point Times New Roman font. All references should be in the notes, sent first as endnotes and published later as footnotes.

The manuscript should be sent in a Word version that is unlocked.

The Sublimity of The Forbidden City and The Great Wall

 

As we disembarked the plane in Beijing, I got my first indication of how hot it was going to be during our three week stay in China. I was wearing a t-shirt and a zip-up hoodie on the flight, but as my wife, Juneko, and I stepped into the 100-plus degree heat, I immediately realized that no sweatshirts would be needed here. Going outside was like entering a misty sauna. On the cab ride to the hotel I asked our driver if the hazy dampness hanging in the air was indication of an impending storm. All he said was “Yeah,” which was not a real answer. He just didn’t understand what I was asking. In fact, the gray mist we were breathing was the infamous Beijing pollution, and the dampness was just normal summer humidity.

Prior to our trip, while still in San Francisco, we had waited 5 hours and 20 minutes at the Chinese consulate to file forms for our visas, so I was prepared for our arrival in Beijing to involve long waits mixed with doses of chaos. Happily, that was not so. Though the Beijing airport was crowded and bustling, things went very smoothly and we were out and into a cab within an hour. The ride took us on a busy, modern freeway, through a few traffic jams and past rows of high-rise buildings; some adorned with familiar names like IKEA, SONY and Mercedes Benz, while most others were marked with Chinese characters. Watching the signs buzz by, I started to understand what it is like to be illiterate. Even though I had a rough sense of the identities of the places passing by my window (office buildings, corporate headquarters, apartment buildings, gas stations and so forth) I was unable to understand the finer details of things. Street signs, billboards and the notices in shop windows were all in a language I could not understand. My first glimpses of Beijing, thus, were of a place at once familiar and mysteriously exotic. I was reminded of the cityscapes in the movie Blade Runner: bright signs written in Chinese characters, tall buildings and dark, oppressive, gray mist.

We stayed at the China National Convention Center Grand Hotel in the northern part of the city, right next to the Olympic Village where the summer games were held in 2008. Looming nearby is the 750 foot-tall Olympic Tower, which serves as a landmark and point of orientation when wandering the area. At The Grand Hotel – and the convention center to which is attached – the staff spoke English, and throughout our stay they were very helpful in arranging transportation, giving us directions, and exchanging cash. Our accommodations were clean and comfortable as well. The hotel has a serviceable gym and an indoor pool, as well as a couple of restaurants with food that is not as great as the folks who serve it. Our first night we ate at the hotel cafe, where I ordered spring rolls and a pot of good green tea while my wife ordered a BLT with fries. I ended up eating most of the BLT, which was weird, as it was made with pickles but no mayonaise. The “bacon” was something more like limp ham. Nevertheless, it was late by that time and we were hungry, so at least we didn’t starve.

The morning after our arrival, we took a stroll to an indoor shopping mall just down the street. Neither the haze nor the heat had dissipated, and so by the time we had walked three blocks, we were soaking wet with perspiration. Luckily the shopping mall was air conditioned and also served as a subway stop, so after a cold drink at Starbucks, we bought cards at the station and took a ride downtown to The Forbidden City, just the first of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites that we would visit over the course of our stay.

The Forbidden City lies just across a busy roadway north of Tiananmen Square. Exiting the subway we (again drenched in sweat) entered through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is adorned with an enormous portrait of Mao Zedong. We were crushed among the crowd of people surging forward as visitors were channeled between barricades and fences along the sidewalk. Entering the main grounds required that we go through a check-point and show our passports to guards who typed our information into a computer. Wherever you go in China, they know who you are, and they know where you’ve been!

 

The Forbidden City covers over 180 acres and contains 980 buildings with a total of 8,728 rooms. It was built in the 15th Century during the Ming Dynasty and served as home to the Emperor until 1912. Apparently, it was customary for the Emperor to sleep in a different room every night so that potential assassins would never know exactly where he was. That, of course, was in the days before high tech surveillance. In 1860, British and French forces controlled the Forbidden City during the second Opium War. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

 

Guidebooks say you should devote two to three hours to this site, but a full day is more realistic. The place is huge, and with the temperature soaring to 111 degrees (and a heat index of 136 degrees!) during our visit, we had to take frequent breaks to sit in the shade and drink water in order to avoid heat stroke. The City is laid out in a series of successive palaces. You pass through gates in the palaces, which open up onto enormous courtyards, one after another. It seems to go on and on, giving visitors the impression of infinitely expanding space. This was once considered to be the center of the world by the Chinese, and the Emperor lived and ruled within its heart. To control this much space, to corral it between walls, moats, gates and palaces was a dramatic symbol of power; something the British and French obviously understood during their occupation in 1860.

After wandering around the palaces, statues and stairways (and periodically seeking shade) for a few hours, we eventually made our way into the Museum of Clocks, which holds a collection of antique Chinese time pieces, some small, some the size of a small house. While the grounds of The Forbidden City demonstrate a mastery of space, the Museum of Clocks demonstrates that the control of time was also of great importance to Chinese rulers. Time and space comprise the backdrop against which all things in our world unfold, and by enclosing both of these dimensions within the walls of this royal location, Chinese Emperors conveyed the scope of their control and power; a power subsequently seized by the British and French, then by the nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and finally by the communist revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong.

It was mid-afternoon when we left the Forbidden City, exiting down a road lined with stores and street vendors. We boarded the subway – thankful to dry off in the air conditioning – and tried unsuccessfully to find a vegetarian restaurant that had good reviews in our guidebook. Instead, we ended up in another air conditioned shopping mall where we feasted on vegetarian Subway (brand) sandwiches before taking the other subway (public transportation) back to the hotel. At this point our first full day in China was coming to a close and I felt as if I had been beaten and tortured by a group of the Emperor’s guards. All I wanted to do was drink lots of cold water, take a shower and go to sleep.

I awoke the next morning, which was Friday, thinking it was Thursday. This was because in traveling from North America to Asia, we lost a day. I had a splitting headache – probably from dehydration – and generally felt like crap. I reflected on how glad I was that we were not scheduled to go anywhere until Friday. Then, the phone rang and the front desk clerk said: “Your driver has arrived to take you to The Great Wall.” I guess we were going somewhere after all!

Our driver spoke no English, so a smile and a handshake – and trust on our part that he knew where we wanted to go – had to suffice as an introduction. We boarded the van and set off on the hour and a half trip north to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. Our route took us on a superhighway and then onto a series of narow country roads. The tour busses and cars had to squeeze by one another while also endeavoring to avoid collision with unhelmeted riders on scooters and bicycles. The misses were mostly near misses. Our route took us through farmlands lined with orchards and fruit stands selling peaches, cherries and apricots.

We arrived at the gates of the park, and after purchasing tickets, walked down something resembling a main street; although it was not part of a real city, but an artificially constructed attraction. This is when it started to hit me how similar this place is to the US. Sure, there is not yet a Great Wall back home, but if Trump gets his way and there is one someday you can bet that it will be commercialized pretty much the same way as here. Just like in China, it will probably be accompanied by fast food restaurants and folks selling trinkets, souvenirs and t-shirts.

At the end of “main street” we boarded a bus, which thankfully was air-conditioned, and rode up a steep hill to the actual entrance to the attraction. This entrance, again, looked like an artificial village. From our vantage point below the ridges and the peaks we could see the turrets and the snaking lines of the wall above. Never mind the touristy nature of the place, this sight, I must admit, provoked a feeling of awe in me. It was a feeling similar to what I remember experiencing when I first saw Niagara Falls, Wat Arun in Thailand, or La Sagrada Familia in Spain. I had seen pictures of each of these wonders previous to encountering the real sights first-hand, so you might think that upon actually visiting them that they would be robbed of some of their visual novelty and power; that they might pale in comparison to their media representations. For me, that was never the case. Here, standing beneath The Great Wall, it was just the opposite. The images I had previously seen instead primed me to know what to look for. They gave me a frame of perspective that allowed my mind to start grasping the magnitude of what it was that we were now in the presence of.

The Great Wall is over 13,000 miles long; over four times as length of the US. Viewing the mountainous ridges along which this structure rests, my heart raced and my breathing halted. At first I saw the closest structures – the restored watchtowers and battlements directly above – but as my eyes traced the lines of the fortification, I was overwhelmed by its seeming endlessness. The Wall goes on and on. One watchtower is connected to another, each one looking smaller than the last until the Wall disappears into the hazy distance. The terrain here is steep and rugged, making me wonder about both the mechanics and the logic of constructing such an enormous structure in this particular location. It was, of course, not built all at once. It was begun around 200 BC, with construction continuing over hundreds of years, as various segments went up piece by piece until they were at last connected together. But why here? Why in a place where the mountains stand as a natural barrier? Mongol invaders during their 13th Century conquest of Beijing just went around the Wall anyway, so the barrier was not even effective. These thoughts only added to the uncanniness of the whole experience of looking at The Wall. Hundreds of years of persistent effort, expense and labor have resulted in an architectural artifact both absurd in its conception and awesome in its execution.

A gondola took us up the side of the mountain to The Wall itself. The view from the gondola was of the surrounding forested mountains and the valley below. A woman in the car behind us had a panic attack, crying in terror as we ascended upwards. When we disembarked, she was still weeping, but being comforted by her family. Fear of heights, I guess.

It was a short walk from the gondola to the first of the watchtowers, where we rested in the shade, drinking water and seeking relief from the sun. The place was busy with tourists – we heard Spanish, German, English, French as well as Chinese being spoken – but it wasn’t as crowded as we had seen in some pictures. Perhaps the heat was keeping people away. In any case, everyone was soaking wet and commenting on how hot it was. It was probably well over 100 degrees. I overheard a woman say to her partner that she’d like to walk to the top of the ridge, but was sure that she would pass out if she tried. I felt exactly the same. There was no way that I was going to be able to go very far.

From our starting point we could travel in two directions. One direction would take us up the ridge to what looked like an amazing vantage point overlooking the valley. However, I would only be able to make that trip if I got a piggy-back ride and if we had an overnight stay at the top. The other direction was more level, so that is direction in which we walked for a couple of hours. During that time I alternated between feeling awful and feeling exhilarated: we were actually on The Great Wall! I turned to Juneko a few times to declare, “We’re in China!” Amazing.

Soaked through and through we made our way back down to the exit, which involved a toboggan ride to the bottom. The toboggan ride was kind of silly, but better than suffering through further sweatiness while hiking down the mountainside. After reuniting with out driver we hit the road, arriving back in Beijing in time to get caught in their terrible afternoon traffic. That evening we had an $8 dinner of seafood rice and pork buns before turning in for the night.

According to Kant, the sublime experience occurs in two variations: the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical sublime has to do with the awe inspiring sense of infinity arising from an encounter with seemingly endless repetition. The dynamic sublime involves the sense of awe we feel when in the presence of seemingly infinite power. The Forbidden City and The Great Wall each provoked both of these sorts of experiences in me. The wide open courtyards and the palaces of The Forbidden City drew my mind toward thoughts of numerical infinity while also encouraging me to contemplate the enormous political power required to marshall the forces required to construct and control the grounds. The breathtaking scale of The Great Wall, with its battlements that stretch into an unseeable distance, likewise left me awestruck in contemplation of the enormous, seemingly infinite, amount of will, labor and administrative power required to complete such a monumental project. These Chinese monuments are truly sublime in both of the Kantian senses.

And there were more sublime sights yet to see. The next ones would be The Summer Palace, The Hanging Monastery and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong. I’ll write about those in a future posting.

Welcome to Beijing, China.

The word “monumental” sums up my impression of China. From the Great Wall to The Forbidden City; from The Summer Palace to The Temple of Heaven; from The Hanging Monastery to the Yungang Grottoes; the sites we visited during our summer trip to China were without exception monumental both in their mammoth scale and historic importance. This massive country, home to the world’s largest population of human beings, is also home to the world’s largest number of UNESCO World Heritage sights. They say everything is big in Texas, but the state of Texas would fit about 15 times over into the People’s Republic of China.

I’ll save my descriptions and impressions of China’s awe-inspiring cultural sights for a future blog posting. In this posting, I’d like to set the scene, sketching out some of the everyday details of what it was like to be in China, how it was different from home and explain both what endeared and annoyed me about the place. In short, what I’ll describe here is my own experience of culture shock.

My wife and I were in and around Beijing for three weeks this August, seeing the sights and attending the 24th World Congress of Philosophy. I was invited to participate in a session on the philosophy of humor at the Congress, giving us an opportunity not only to meet some interesting scholars but also to explore a city we had never been to before. Initially, I had some apprehension about the trip, as China is notoriously restrictive of free speech and expression; harsh in its treatment of those who the government deems subversive. How was this going to affect the free exchange of ideas that are a necessary part of a philosophy conference? I worried about what could happen to Westerners like ourselves who might say or do the wrong things in a totalitarian, communist country with unfamiliar rules and customs. Were we taking a chance with our freedom? Could we end up in a Chinese jail?

These worries started to get put to the side once we arrived in the country and we experienced the friendliness of the Chinese people. Beijing is a city of 22 million people – more than twice the size of New York City – yet the people we encountered had the good natured affability that you would expect to find in a small town. Often, when we were on the street, examining our maps and trying to figure out how to get to a location, strangers would approach us and offer directions. Despite the fact that few of the Chinese people we met had much English (and we had even less Chinese) through cell phone translation programs and hand gestures, we had little trouble communicating with the Beijingers who came to our assistance. My suspicious American nature initially made me wary of their intentions, but it turned out that they wanted nothing more than to be helpful and welcoming to us. If I had to single out one thing that I loved about China the most, the good-natured people would be at the top of the list.

We apparently were a novelty to the good people of Beijing. Strangers would often stop and ask to snap photos with us. Sometimes I would realize, while sitting on the subway or standing in a park, that I was being photographed by children who were watching me and giggling. Teenagers and adults alike would stare, laugh, and then approach us, snapping away with their cameras or cell phones before joining us to take a selfie. It was all very good-natured and prompted by the fact that they see so few non-Chinese faces, even in a city the size of Beijing. We felt like celebrities! I learned that by smiling and saying “Nee-how” (“Hello” in Mandarin) the ice was immediately broken with kids, adults and old-folks alike.

While the people of Beijing are friendly and curious, there are also always lots of them around, which often caused me to feel crowded and tense. On the street, the subway, the parks, in restaurants and at the stores, there were always hordes of bodies maneuvering around one another in a constant flow of movement and noise. One of the lessons I learned quite early on during our visit was that these hordes have an aggravating practice of ignoring the idea of queuing up for services. Whether it is waiting for the subway or waiting to pay for something at a store counter, I consistently found that I had to push my way insistently to the front in order to get anything done. And it’s not that there was any rudeness involved in this ritual. It just seems that standing in a line for anything is not a part of the Beijing custom. People seem to operate on the principle that if there is any open space somewhere ahead, one must move forward to fill it, even if someone else is standing ahead of you. In order to get anything done, you must take on the qualities of water, flowing ever forward and around the obstacles that appear in your vicinity. When you do so, there are no hard feelings, there is no anger, no accusations of impoliteness or impropriety from bystanders. It is as if the laws of physics have taken over.

This is also what happens with traffic on the streets. Despite the fact that Beijing has an excellent subway system, the roads are always congested with lots of cars, motorcycles and scooters. My understanding is that this is something that has been amplified in recent times with increasing economic prosperity, and as a result traffic jams have become a constant part of life. The cars, scooters and motorcycles on the roads – like the people in the shops – move ever forward to fill any spaces that appear in front of them, ignoring traffic rules, pedestrians, and safety concerns. I never saw any traffic police during our entire stay in Beijing. Drivers toot their horns regularly to warn those on foot to get out of the way as they blast through red lights, crosswalks and as they race down the shoulder of the street. Motorcycles and scooters zoom the wrong way down the road and weave around pedestrians on the sidewalk, abruptly stopping in front of you as riders park their vehicles wherever they can find space. Helmets appear to be optional. Aggravating things is the fact that most of the scooters are electric, so they don’t make any noise as they approach from behind. At night many of them don’t bother to switch on their headlights, zooming along like silent torpedoes seeking a human target. 700 people a day are killed in traffic accidents in China (260,000 a year), mostly pedestrians and motorcyclists, and I can see why. Being hit by a car was the most dangerous threat that we faced during our Chinese visit.

On the other hand, we never felt the threat of violent crime during our visit. None of the neighborhoods we visited felt dangerous and we never worried about our safety, even when wandering the dark alleys of the city’s hutongs (the old neighborhoods at the center of Beijing) at night. While I’m sure that there is crime in Beijing, the presence of so many police, guards and cameras on the streets goes a long way to deter bad behavior. Additionally, there are metal detectors and checkpoints at subway entrances and at the entrances to certain buildings, museums and attractions. We had the definite feeling of being safe, but we also had the feeling of being in a police state. The eyes of the authorities are everywhere; even at the philosophy conference, where in addition to cameras, metal detectors and guards there were also riot police stationed near the downstairs entrances to the convention center, looking bored as they leaned on their shields. I imagine there must be an official government rule that when a certain number of people gather in one place, a certain number of riot police must also be on duty. Given that the conference was a very large one – with around 8,000 attendees – it would figure that there would be worries about things getting out of hand. After all, you know how rowdy philosopher professors can get.

Two scarce sights were litter and homeless people. We saw one man sleeping in a tunnel near the shopping mall, but we were not sure that he was actually homeless. There were no tent cities or encampments anywhere we went in the city. Likewise, litter in the streets was almost non-existent. This probably was due to the fact that just about everywhere we went, workers were picking up rubbish, painting fences and emptying garbage cans. Maybe this also accounts for the invisibility of homeless people. Perhaps the government puts them to work sprucing up the streets. Apparently, Beijing’s unemployment rate is below 4%, so assigning citizens to cleaning duty may be something that kills three birds with one stone. In any case, I don’t think I have ever been in a city this size that was so spotless. Chalk another one up for communism!

Upon our arrival in Beijing, the city was in the midst of a heatwave, with temperatures soaring to 111 degrees. When you combine this with high humidity and the haze of the city’s smog, the conditions were not so good for walking around. Within a block, I would be soaked with perspiration, dripping wet and uncomfortable for the rest of the day. It was on this trip I really did discover my physical limits when it comes to heat exposure. After a sweltering visit to the Forbidden City on our first day (where the temperature soared to 111 degrees, and the ambient temperature was a blistering 136 degrees) and then, on the second day, to The Great Wall, I felt as if I had been beaten with a bag of hammers. My body ached, I was fatigued, and all I wanted to do was sit in an air conditioned hotel room sipping chilled bottled water. Luckily, the heat wave passed after the third day, the temperatures dipped to a more reasonable level, and the rest of our excursions took place under more comfortable conditions. The hazy smog even cleared on some days, revealing the blue skies above.

The food we sampled in Beijing ranged from mediocre to gross. Much of what we ate was bland (various noodle dishes and rice dishes), while a few things were outright awful (a squid dish cooked in some sort of tomato sauce; some kind of deep fried pasta with sugar sprinkled on top). There were some things that we were just not going to try at all (poached deer fetus; bull penis). Some meals were pretty good (baked tilapia; an eggplant dish; a vegetarian version of kung pao chicken), but overall the food was forgettable. Both my wife and I developed persistent diarrhea that to one degree or another haunted us for our entire three week visit. Whether this was due to the food or the local water, I’m not sure, but over the course of our stay we increasingly found ourselves visiting a Pizza Hut Bistro in the mall near our hotel, hoping to avoid strange foods that did weird things to our insides. The Pizza Hut Bistro was unlike any Pizza Hut in the US, as it served roasted broccoli, sandwiches, beer, wine and even escargot! While part of me felt ashamed for eating in an American fast food joint while in China, another part of me didn’t care. Give me dough, cheese and Coca-Cola!

It is well known that the Chinese government blocks and censors the country’s media, but it was a bit startling to actually experience this on a day-to-day basis. Sites like Facebook, Worldcat, and Google were inaccessible on my computer, although my wife did find that she could get to some of them on her cell phone. This caused a bit of annoyance and inconvenience when trying to communicate with family and friends back home. Strangely, WordPress was not blocked, which made me wonder about the consistency and logic of Chinese internet censorship. In a country that is inviting large numbers of foreign scholars to gather and mix with Chinese scholars in order to discuss controversial philosophical, social and cultural issues, does it make much sense to block social media? Apparently the Chinese people know how to circumvent much of the media censorship anyway, so it all seems like an absurd, losing battle. The silliness of it all was dramatized during our visit when government censors forbade the posting of pictures of Winnie the Pooh because the cartoon character seems to resemble the Chinese president, Xi Jinping! Who knew that Winnie the Pooh was so dangerously subversive?

While we did have access to international television programming in our hotel room, the TV screen would mysteriously go blank whenever stories that were unfavorable toward the Chinese government appeared. The first time it happened we were watching CNN, and I initially thought it was just a problem with the signal. But repeatedly, when any program that could be interpreted as critical of China appeared on TV, the screen would go black until the offending segment was over and some other segment had begun. Coincidence? Probably not.

Construction was constant while we were in China, continuing 24 hours a day, everywhere that we went. The night after we arrived at our hotel – which was attached to the China National Convention Center, right next to the Olympic Village – I noticed a strange sound emanating from the walls of our room. At sunrise, I realized that the sound was actually coming from a vacant lot across the street. It was the racket of three backhoes as they smashed up and excavated a full square city block of concrete foundation. This noise went on non-stop (for 3 weeks!) until shortly before we left Beijing. On the other side of the hotel, a new building was going up where workers swarmed like ants all day and all night long. When we visited Datong for an overnight stay, we were amazed to see an enormous portion of the old city being demolished on one side of the freeway while on the other side an entirely new section was being erected. Row after row of brand new apartment buildings and towers – bearing names like “London” and “Edinburgh” – rose, sparkling clean, new and uninhabited. Our guide told us that the city government was moving the entire population from one place to another in a drive toward modernization. Everywhere we went, things were being built up and torn down; an indication of the hectic nature of China’s current physical and cultural transformation.

In conjunction with all of this construction there were temporary barriers and fences that popped up overnight, making it hard to predict which walking routes would be accessible from day-to-day. One evening, when we were trying to get back to our hotel on foot, we got trapped in a newly erected fenced-off corridor that channeled us to a guard station where we were forbidden to pass. We had to turn around and back-track our way to where we had started in order to find a route out of the unfamiliar gauntlet. Sometimes these barriers had nothing to do with construction, but simply with crowd control, as we experienced when we tried to cross the street near Tiananmen Square by walking around an obstacle that was blocking a crosswalk. Immediately a chorus of shouts went up from the twenty or so police officers and guards loitering on the corner, directing us to fall back in line with the crowd being conducted along the sidewalk and through a check-point. It seems that in China, a lot of energy goes into channeling masses of people here and there, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

If one just highlighted the tall buildings, the chain stores, shopping malls, crowds, and luxury cars, Beijing would not seem much different from any modern, Western city in the US or Europe. It has bright lights, urban buzz, and lots of young people walking around with their faces buried in cell phones. There are Starbucks coffee shops, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Subways and McDonalds all over the place.  Underneath this surface, however, it is different. Everyday life is more monitored and controlled than it is in the West; for better and for worse. On the one hand, the Chinese censorship of free speech and the media seems silly and unnecessary to me. Couldn’t government personnel more effectively be put to use policing traffic in the streets rather than censoring internet traffic and appearances of Winnie the Pooh online? On the other hand, it may be the constant awareness of being monitored and watched that keeps the violent crime rate so low and the streets so clean in China. In fact, this is a trade-off that many people in my own country might be willing to make, although I’m not one of them.

China is currently in a state of transition, and my observations about the everyday rhythms of Beijing, I think, indicate something about the nature of the changes the country is undergoing. China is starting to open up to the outside world. It is inviting outside investment, encouraging private ownership of real estate, and it is attempting to become more involved in world-wide intellectual culture. But this process of opening up also drags behind it a long history of suspicion of the West (much of it well justified), and a fear of the potentially destructive consequences that go along with increasing individual freedom. I get the sense that China wants to engage more intimately with the rest of the world, but that it does not want at the same time to absorb all of the world’s evils. It is trying to open up, but it is trying to do so slowly so that it doesn’t sacrifice its own unique virtues.

And it certainly is the case that China has much to be proud of and much that it should preserve as it moves toward modernization. Even a Westerner like me – who dislikes the chaos of Chinese traffic, who detests their censorship, who is uncomfortable with their weather and who dislikes the food – can see that China is a culture that has much to teach the rest of the world even as it learns new lessons. It is a culture that draws upon thousands of years of accumulated wisdom, and we in the West should pay attention to what that wisdom has to offer.

In my next post I’ll reflect on some of the incredible, monumental cultural sites that we visited in and around Beijing.

13 Reasons Why

After watching the first season of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why I feel emotionally exhausted, with no sense of catharsis or resolution; just a sad heaviness in my chest. I’m now a 53 year-old man, but this series stirred up all sorts of painful memories of my own high school years: memories of bullies, teenage despair, awkward and failed attempts at friendship, and of the oblivious (sometimes hostile) adults who stood on the sidelines. One of the strengths of this show – and what makes it so unsettling – is that, as in real life, no one is depicted as completely free from blame for contributing to the world’s misery and hopelessness. There are no clear distinctions between “good guys” or “bad guys.” Everyone is implicated in the suffering of those around them. The most sympathetic characters in the show are neither pure nor blameless. They’re just the ones striving to be honest about their guilt while making the truth known.

The central conceit of 13 Reasons Why is a series of 13 tapes recorded by Hannah Baker before she commits suicide. Each of these tapes chronicles the abuses she underwent at the hands of fellow students and the adults in her life – from social humiliation, to callousness, to rape – that drove her to kill herself. The tapes have been circulated among the culprits, and finally wind up in the hands of Clay Jensen, her unrequited teenage love, who then struggles with feelings of guilt about his own blameworthiness while trying to figure out what he should do with the information he has learned.

I became interested in 13 Reasons Why because much of the show was filmed in my hometown of San Rafael. As my wife jokes (echoing a character from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), seeing your own neighborhood depicted on screen makes you feel “certified.” It makes it feel as if the place where you live has significance beyond your own personal experiences. As I observed the film crews at work on our street, a sense of excited anticipation was provoked in me, priming my desire to see how our familiar, everyday surroundings would ultimately appear on screen.

In 13 Reasons Why, San Rafael landmarks are on prominent display. Mt. Tamalpias appears throughout the series as a visual anchor. The downtown police station, library and Fourth Street are regular backdrops. Key characters occupy houses located in the Gerstle Park and Dominican neighborhoods. San Rafael Hill, with its views of the San Francisco Bay and of the city below, provides a detached, aloof panorama of the landscape in which the despairing drama of the show plays out. Like tourists in our own hometown, my wife and I have now taken to visiting these various addresses and locations, seeing them in a new light, as if they have been illuminated by reflections from the television screen. In the process, our city has taken on a strangely glamorous but melancholic luminosity that merges fabricated gloom with our own real-life recollections of teenage sadness.

Mt. Tamalpais looming over the city of San Rafael.

Crestmont is the name of the fictional town that serves as the setting for13 Reasons Why. Early in the first season, one of the parents in the show mentions that her family moved away from the suburbs to this town for a better life. It is a curious, but quite apt, piece of dialogue that perhaps explains the appropriateness of San Rafael as a filming location. Technically, San Rafael is a suburb of San Francisco; however San Rafael is also the seat of Marin County, a place that has a reputation for being a world unto itself; a bubble of wealth, liberality, creativity and idealism. “Mellow Marin” is home to the Grateful Dead, the mountain bike, and as depicted in The Serial, is a place where alternate lifestyles and new-age therapies proliferate. It is also one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. All of this has led many people to regard the county with disdain, as too exclusive, too sheltered, too white and too privileged. 13 Reasons Why capitalizes on this reputation, challenging smug assumptions by showing that economic prosperity and cultural liberality do not eradicate real human suffering.

Obviously, not everyone who lives in Marin is rich, but the aura that is cast by the county’s wealth does affect everyone, sometimes resulting in callousness to the challenges faced by many Marinites. Everyone suffers through their own forms of unhappiness, and the unhappiness experienced by those living in conditions of privilege can sometimes be just as bad, if not worse, than the unhappiness of those who live in more obviously abject conditions. Oftentimes, there is more widespread sympathy for the plight of the underprivileged than there is for the suffering of the well-off, leaving privileged people to feel guilty about their own despair. After all, what do they have to be sad about when there are others in the world who struggle with poverty, crime and hunger?

The effect of this kind of callousness is illustrated in one especially memorable scene from 13 Reasons Why, when Clay is belittled by his high school guidance counselor, Mr. Porter. After complaining about the atmosphere of hostility and despair at school, Mr. Porter makes a point of telling Clay that in his previous job at an urban high school he actually had to deal with students who had “real” problems. Clay’s look of betrayal is obvious enough that the counselor, and we the audience, know instantly the message that has been conveyed. Some suffering is more “real” than other suffering. The suffering of those who live in economically well-off areas is less legitimate than the suffering of poor people. Later in the season, it is this same attitude that is revealed to be one of the 13 reasons why the character Hannah Baker kills herself after Mr. Porter suggests that she just forget about being raped by the school’s star baseball player and get on with her life.

This all struck a personal chord, reminding me of my own high school years and how my teenage despair was compounded by feelings of guilt and shame for being in despair.  When I fell into states of depression, I was told by the adults around me that I should just be thankful that my life was as good as it was. I remember one of the school custodians, a middle-aged man, threatening me, a teenager, with violence when I was sitting alone and depressed, apparently because he thought I was being disrespectful to him. When I complained to the Vice Principal at San Rafael High School about being bullied, I was met with a disdainful, blank stare that I took to mean, “You have nothing legitimate to complain about.” When I eventually did fight back against one of my bullies, I was suspended. The message was clear: I was just a privileged whiner. My suffering was not genuine. After all, other kids have real problems.

It is a sad fact that those who are bullied often end up becoming bullies themselves. Such kids learn that one way to feel strong and to salvage self-dignity is to lash out at the world and the people in it, refusing to remain passive. This is a dynamic famously described by the German philosopher Hegel in his book The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel claims that humans desire to see themselves reflected in the eyes of others and to gain their recognition. But in doing so, people endeavor to control the image of how others see them. This control results in a kind of enslavement of those whose acknowledgement we crave, and in this enslavement we reduce others to the status of objects, useful for the fulfillment of our own egoistic desires. However, in being enslaved to us, others come to learn the power of mastery and objectification, incorporating that power into their own consciousnesses and thus learning to break free from their masters. This is what Hegel calls the “master/slave dialectic,” and he claims that it is at work in all human relationships. In a sense, all human relationships are bullying relationships!

In 13 Reasons Why, the master/slave dialectic is on full display. The jocks in the school represent the masters; those who demand that others glorify and adore them, submitting to their desires, whether they be social, sexual or educational. These demands for dominance are expressed in the intimidation, assault and rape of other students. But we learn, as the season unfolds, that these “masters” have themselves been enslaved outside of school by their own dysfunctional family dynamics. The jocks’ abusive inclinations did not come from nowhere but rather grew out of the abuses that they themselves have suffered at home. Their trauma has become internalized and then vented on others at school.

This, however, initiates a cycle, and the students who are abused by the jocks at school in turn learn to lash out, either by abusing others or by abusing themselves. So it is that a bullied photography student finds that he can reclaim a sense of his own power by secretly snapping, and then publicly distributing, photographs of other students in intimate situations. Clay Jensen, from whose perspective the show’s story unfolds, takes his own revenge on the photography student, secretly snapping a nude photo of him and sending it out on social media in order to humiliate him. Throughout the season, these little acts of revenge build up but produce no feelings of justice or relief. Instead, the atmosphere of despair, anger and hostility just grows and grows as more acts of violence, humiliation and unkindness are piled one on top of the other. Meanwhile, the adults in charge seem disconnected from the pain taking place underneath their noses.

Again, I am reminded of my own high school experiences. Sometime in my junior year I came to the conclusion that none of the adults in my life were going to offer any help in dealing with the humiliation, violence or despair that were daily aspects of life at San Rafael High. I recall dreading going to campus and finally deciding that I was going to fight back. I would be just as cruel to others as they were to me. That was when I started to smart mouth teachers, school administrators and school narcs. I got into fights and was suspended. I realized that I could use my intellect to make fun of the jocks who tormented me, confusing and belittling them in front of other students. And it all made me feel more powerful, more clever and more in control than I had ever felt before in my life. But I also became more callous to the feelings of others, more arrogant, and more disdainful of people than I had ever been. Just like in the show, I alleviated my own suffering by making others suffer. I made myself feel big by making those who threatened me feel small. This coping strategy followed me into my post-high school life, and it has taken decades for me to learn how to abandon it.

Graffito on a water tower that sits on San Rafael Hill.

The only thing that feels inauthentic about 13 Reasons Why is the depiction of how kids from various and differing subgroups socialize with one another. So, for instance, Clay and Hannah attend (and are welcomed at) a party thrown by jocks and cheerleaders. Some of the jocks and popular kids appear at the cafe hangout frequented by Clay and his friends. Alex Standall, a kid who listens to The Ramones and Joy Division, dates Jessica Davis, the school’s most popular cheerleader. Maybe things have changed, but when I was in high school jocks and alternative kids did not date one another or attend the same parties. Maybe things are different now, or maybe this is just a bit of artistic license on the part of the show’s writers.

I would recommend 13 Reasons Why to those who are looking for something more than light, easy entertainment. It is a show that encourages viewers to reflect on their own victimization at the hands of bullies while also considering their own culpability in contributing to the suffering of others. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is not a show that offers catharsis or resolution. However, it does push audiences to think about their own complicated connections to others with depth and a sensitivity rarely seen on TV.