Moral Panic and The New Didacticism

New rules of conduct are popping up everywhere, and in many cases, that’s a good thing, e.g. reduction of the harrassment of women in the workplace, expansion of civil rights for minorities, and so on.

This zeitgeist for updated ethics has spread into the arts, and that can also be a good thing, if it results in changes that reduce predatory behavior within institutions, as when two male dancers were recently fired from the New York City Ballet for alleged sexual misconduct.

On the other hand, now everyone is empowered to leave a comment on everything, and any asshole with a smartphone can take down somebody else with a bad review. People nit-pick anything and everything, leading to an infinite regress into social atomization.

Reorganization of codes of conduct is periodically necessary for societies to move forward, but at this point there is so much social media-fueled uncertainty, division, and vitriol in the air that it is bleeding over into the work itself, often with less-than-satisfactory results.

Of course artists can’t disconnect themselves from current events, and a political work can sometimes have the power to transcend its time and place. If all art and poetry are fresh responses to experience, then that must include the social and the political.

The problem for me with didactic poetry and artwork is more form than content. It’s tonal. We can and must respond to the world around us through our work, but the preachy tone and the black and white, all or none, baby with the bathwater attitudes will go away in time.

I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

My Own Rules

As contributing members of society, there are certain rules we all follow to keep the grand experiment in operation: laws, social customs and traditions and so on. These rules are unnatural, but with good reason, as they are designed to protect us from the innumerable dangers of nature, not the least of which are the more violent aspects of our own.

But as an artist, I believe it’s better to play by one’s own rules. Of course, that is hardly a formula for success, if one defines success in terms of gross wealth and fame. Some of us, however, not only function in a manner that is outside that spectrum, but openly oppose it.

As one who wishes to join the exclusive club of those who make up and follow their own sets of rules, I have drafted the following and put it through one round of revision.

  1. Question all assumptions that limit you or otherwise reduce your quality of life.

  2. Refuse to submit to the will of others.

  3. Work around your weaknesses and develop strengths.

  4. You are not a product or brand. Your life is not for consumption.

  5. Develop a vision of what your life is, what your days and nights are to be like, and how to use your time and live accordingly.

  6. Trust your creative instincts, especially when that instinct demands you explore risky work.

  7. In your life, you are the captain; you are the king. The ship is yours to command; the castle is yours to protect.

  8. Work in more than one language.

  9. Do not allow your rough edges to be sanded.

  10. Do not water yourself down in a false attempt at “relatability.”

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Unity Paradigm

The Unity Paradigm (UP) is a framework in which all my work - past, present, future - may be placed so that it may exist within a common context. It is a function of Harmonic Theory, and attempts to reconcile various structures, some of which are apparently at odds, through juxtaposition and hybridization.

UP is an attempt to define, demonstrate boundaries, and on occasion dissolve them. It is essentially Buddhist and poetic because it seeks to identify analogous forces, parallels, parities, comparisons, metaphors, and so on, and show the relative oneness or sameness of disparate, often seemingly contradictory, contrasting, or paradoxical things. It is also a Daoist thought structure, or even Manicheanist, as it is sometimes a bringing together of opposites, and shows essentiality of all things, and the impossibility of polarities to eliminate each other or achieve some final victory over one another.

To approach work through the UP is to have a skeleton on which to hang all the organs, the muscles, and the skin of said work so that it forms an organic whole in terms of form and content in poetry, fiction, music, photography, philosophy, video, assemblage, sound art, graphic design, and so on.

It should be noted that successful unity between forms is neither universally sought or desired. At times, the unity displayed may be the contrast itself, or often a deliberately incoherent, dissonant effect.

In a fundamental way, the UP is an application of the musical Drone Principle, meaning that a single things is presented for a duration. In music, that means a recurring or sustained tone, as in the music of the Indian sitar, or Western Drone music, which begins with LaMonte Young. The monotone is also applied to ostinato figures and vamps.

The Drone has within it the implication of the mathematical and spiritual infinite. Under UP, I permit myself sustained monomanias. In this way it is also a framework for creative behavior patterns - indulgences and deprivations, and the attempt at balance between them.

I have sustained a monomania for poetry for half a year, leading to rapid development and learning. I believe I have reached a true breakthrough via this method of sustained attention, having increased my comprehension, close-reading technique, and facility with a few technical methodologies. I have read more poetry as well as criticism, which has deepened my hermeneutic practice. I feel as though I am now on the cusp of producing actual poetry.

All that being said, the most natural course to pursue at this, the beginning of a new year, is to leave the intensive and extensive practice of poetry momentarily.

To clarify, I won’t quit writing poems, but I will pause my study of poetry. Instead I will produce poems to the best of my current ability and focus my learning elsewhere, specifically on image-making, treating it as an aspect of the core pursuit of writing poetry.

Now the real poetic practice may begin. I will study again in the future, but for now I must apply all that I have learned and direct my curiosity to vision, a fundamental aspect of poetic experience.

Political Discourse

You know what they say about opinions.

Let me get something straight: I don’t care about your opinion about anything, and nobody does, with the exception of yourself. That unwritten rule of thumb is subconsciously applied to any subject on which you may choose to opine, be it government, economics, literature, art, science, whatever.

When it comes to true discourse, there are certain minimal requirements that make it useful. Especially when it comes to political argument, without a few ground rules, a vast sea of personal thoughts and opinions drown us in uselessness.

Why is that, you might ask?

I’m glad you ask. The reason most of the opinions put out there by your fellow earth dwellers are not useful and oftentimes detrimental to the conversation at large is that there is no rigor in the thinking behind them.

In the realm of political argument, I have found three useful components which I find essential, if the argument is worth paying attention to. Anything less is simply not good enough, and ignorable.

  1. The Emperor Has No Clothes - a childlike insight into some discrepancy in the status quo.

  2. Research - honest and bonafide information to back up all arguments. Not youtube videos, not dubious conspiracy websites or other nonmeritorius sources, but instead scientific papers, books, and other high quality source material.

  3. Logic - carefully structured arguments.

In every argument may be found the inherent biases of the speaker, but discourse that is presented logically, with verifiable research, which questions or offers alternatives to unsatisfactory systems, laws, and practices, arguments which are rigidly consistent and above all coherent, are infinitely more useful, no matter the value system represented.

The demand for such coherence and consistency must be much higher now, in an age of abundant false information and atomized social structures.

The Man in White

The afternoon was mild and warm and the breeze was soothing. Florence had been downgraded to a tropical storm and the light rain that sprinkled our corner of the state had yet to begin and the children and I were downtown for no reason other than it was more interesting than being at home.

I’d decided that given the chance of rain, rather than a wilderness day (admittedly more nourishing for the soul) it would be a city day, with some pizza and pavement pounding. After some slices we sauntered over to the Plaza where the wind blew water all over the place from the horizontal concrete fountains and the kids quickly found a playmate in a little girl called Amelia.

It was a medium gray kind of day, neutral, not taking anyone’s side, nothing outstanding in the way of good or bad occurrences. As a day it was a blank slate upon which one could carve a picture of whatever one might choose. The kids enjoyed themselves and I enjoyed watching them as they played with little behavioral correction, exuberant and energetic but not boisterous. It was the kind of day you might say was routine, if you didn’t know better.

Joan of Arc engraving by Albert Lynch (1903)

Joan of Arc engraving by Albert Lynch (1903)

Observing passersby and observing myself observing them, two songs came to mind, one compassionate, the other condemnatory, both from Leonard Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate: “Joan of Arc” and “Diamonds in the Mine.”

“Joan of Arc” moves me. The thing about Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and delivery that resonates with me is a deep empathy he creates between character and listener. It’s a singular power in a songwriter, a man who seems to have possessed a rare ability to create harmony between souls. Perhaps Mr. Cohen was a more highly evolved soul than most of the rest of us.

My own dearth of compassion is a pernicious habit of mind that begs correction. Too often I see individuals through the eyes of someone like the narrator of “Diamonds in the Mine.”

The truth about oneself is often painful. But isn’t admitting that you have a problem the first step in solving it?

Diamonds in the Mine

The woman in blue, she's asking for revenge, 
the man in white -- that's you -- says he has no friends. 
The river is swollen up with rusty cans 
and the trees are burning in your promised land. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in the mine. 

Well, you tell me that your lover has a broken limb, 
you say you're kind of restless now and it's on account of him. 
Well, I saw the man in question, it was just the other night, 
he was eating up a lady where the lions and Christians fight. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in the mine. 

Ah, there is no comfort in the covens of the witch, 
some very clever doctor went and sterilized the bitch, 
and the only man of energy, yes the revolution's pride, 
he trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
oh no, there are no, no grapes upon your vine, 
and there are, there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in your mine. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in your mine.

By Leonard Cohen