guest blogger michael lee on the merits of disorder
the tie-died hoof liners are obscured by the rock.
well, it's hard to introduce mike lee. hard to do justice to him in this format, but i'm glad to at least be able to give you an inkling of him here. we met mike when christian got a job teaching in the university of oklahoma music department. i was loathe to move to oklahoma, but quickly found that, with musicologist/composer/film scholar mike lee in town, there was always a little bit of mischevious fun and magic going on--a luscious dinner party, a screening of scooby-doo, a "dumb day", or a hi-jinx that actually turns you on your head, puts your roots in the air, and makes you see the world in a whole new way. i asked michael to blog for us because, for me, putting your roots in the air is the ultimate solution to loosening up a tight place. also, my kids are huge mike lee fans because he doesn't wear shoes, he wears hooves, and he doesn't wear socks, but rather hoof-liners. please enjoy mike's generous words today. An Exhortation on Disorder Introducing yourself by trying to say serious sounding things isn’t very attractive. The rhetorical stance of exhortation is even less attractive and also pretty silly looking in our contemporary context. Well, I’m all for looking silly and unattractive, so hears a serious sounding exhortation about disorder.
Since the 18th century and the so-called Enlightenment, a story running through many facets of so-called Western civilization has been the power of the human mind to order and organize. Measuring the quantity of effort both productive and ultimately unproductive in this massive, pan-disciplinary undertaking defies the imagination. Efficiency serves as an important corollary or even goal of this ordering impulse. Efficiency runs riot.
The fruits of this undertaking serve multifarious outcomes. I won’t say “good” and “bad” as that’s moral terminology, and much of this project has no obvious moral component. Some does, much of it “bad” in my opinion, but I’m in full declinist mode these days.
Many assumptions buried deep in the ways we think stem from this massive unfolding. You can see Democracy emboldened by this movement as the individual mind’s ordering capacity entitles it to determine its political leadership through the ballot box. You can see Romanticism with its absolute dependence on so-called genius posit that the human mind’s power to order privileges its orderings even in the service of the mind’s more perfect expression of subjectivity. Psychoanalysis was not Freud’s miracle discovery. The magic hand of chance didn’t pass over Europe and single out one Viennese physician for a surprise discovery. Much in the culture was already pointing toward the need of an ordering science to examine the thing that does so much ordering. Most of our technological advances of the last 150 years empower the individual subjectivity effectively allowing us to organize our communities without recourse to geography and order our experiences that they may all reinforce what we’ve made of ourselves. The economic developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Second Industrial Revolution, fuels an economy not based on need, but desire. The subjective, the mind itself, is now privileged to select for itself from a host of mass-produced objects that were once made on an intimate scale or not at all. What was once available in less variation to fewer, more affluent consumers, can now be chosen in vast array by huge numbers. There’s no end to the choices and therefore to the subtleties of our appetite to organize our lives around our desires. Democracy, Romanticism, Psychoanalysis and Consumer Capitalism are a few of the Enlightenment’s progeny.
This choosing leads to the great catastrophe of the twentieth century, not world wars, nor totalitarian nightmares, nor environmental degradation, nor threat of annihilation. Advertising. No German kid woke up in 1939 and decided to conquer Poland. Advertising, the thing that orders our ordering, persuaded them to conquer and them and others do a whole lot else to degrade our species during the last century. No one consumes to self-destruction without the assistance of advertising, the crown atop the head of The Economy of Desire.
A crucial counter-current to all this order sounded early in its history. I like Edgar Allan Poe and the Symbolist movement his “Fall of the House of Usher” inspired. His narrator, faced with the grim task of entering Roderick Usher’s decaying house, pauses to disorder the stones of the house itself in his imagination first by staring at its reflection in the tarn, then by closing his eyes and using his imagination. Perhaps by doing this, he might transform Usher’s house into a place he can enter. The mind is a powerful tool for ordering things, but it can disorder too. That’s Poe’s insight. He used this possibility primarily to alarm his readers, but in his narrator outside Usher’s house, he posited the mind’s true power to disorder that we might live in the world.
The Symbolists sought society’s disorder through paintings of impossible spaces, indeterminate times, and the timeless instructive power of Classical and Biblical allegories bent to the service of transient sensual pleasures often exaggerated to self-destructive extremes. The poets cultivated failure through obscurity and blanched at the outlandish drabness of emergent modern life. The musicians disordered harmony and let the infinite complexities of unregulated rhythm sound. Their politics were liberal to the verge of unfettered, yet absurdly monarchical and archaic in equal measures. The image of a rueful prince luxuriating in his impotence, paralyzed by elegant self-doubt became the political ideal to strive toward.
Why do we shun failure? Why do we avoid obscurity? Why do we seek structural and mechanical solutions to attitudinal and temperamental problems? Why do we celebrate the outward signs of maturation? Winning, clarity, solutions, acting your age are the stuff of order, but they need a counter-balance to realize anything like their best potentials. This springtime, summertime vision of the best way to live must make room for the chaos of fallen leaves, the rot of unharvested fruit, the second childhood of King Arkel, and the mystery of death.
For all our efforts at clarity, most of what we do is beautifully, perfectly, mysteriously opaque once examined on geologic or cosmic scales. Hell, even in the right now we find ourselves perpetually misunderstood. For all our efforts at clarity, has a thought ever been communicated in all its richness? The lecturer always withholds hidden reservoirs of meaning for fear of boring everyone, or for the knowledge that words finally fail.
The insight that something’s wrong with how we see the world is not new. Postwar America is flooded with people who had the same insight. What we do with this insight matters. I’m proposing nothing new. Just act like Poe’s narrator and look at things reflected in a brackish tarn when you need reassurance, or shut your eyes and move the building blocks around in your head. Relate to them as though they have moved. This might lead to failure or opacity or threats and accusations. Celebrate them. I’m not over proud of the placement of civilization’s building blocks right now and urge others to join in disordering them. If they are an illusion, and I think they might be, then they will yield.
GITP Interviews Michael Lee:
Tell us about yourself.
I spend too much time fantasizing to realize my potential and am not ashamed about this fact. I like old monster movies and identify strongly with both the monsters and the humans. I wish they could negotiate their differences, but no matter how many times I watch the same film, they never do. The monster’s inevitable defeat causes me regret, but I’m slightly recompensed by my ability to press “play” again on the DVD player or pop in the sequel. I’m interested in the objects of the Kuiper Belt and feel they have much to teach us. I have worked for the same employer for twenty-one years and wonder if this speaks badly of me. My dog died one week ago today and this has made me feel rather sad. I know that dog’s are finite and hold out hope that her energies will re-emerge in a fresh cosmic form, but that doesn’t change the fact that her loss is tough to bear right now.
Are you in a tight place right now? if so, what are you doing about it?
My problems are pretty trivial examined in global terms. While this runs contrary to your blog’s premise, I don’t think my place is tight right now. If it is, it has to do with a sense that friends are leaving my community or want to leave it and that has me doubting my decisions to stay and stay and stay. I started doing something about it by preparing an application for a job at Montana State University, then I remembered that I’m on sabbatical and am contractually bound to teach here next year. I am trapped in comfort and cannot get out of it despite the copious model of others who are getting out.
What do you hope to accomplish before the end of the year?
I’d like to finish a book proposal and an article about how this film producer I love was believed to be a Communist by the US Government. The idea of the article is to bracket the question of whether the government was correct or not and look at his films to see if they seem to have been made by a Communist. I’d like to have a lovely visit with my sister who is flying out on December 17th. We always have lots of fun together, so I’m hopeful that will work out. I also hope that the traditional Mongolian deels I ordered will arrive in time for me to mail them to my sister in Eugene for Christmas.
What inspires you?
This could go on too long, so I’ll limit myself to one thing: the moon.
What is your favorite legwear?
I prefer baggy short trousers and tie-dyed socks on me. On others I like fancy breaches and colorful knee socks in winter, bare legs in summer. Here’s a tip: Socks can be profitably thought of as shoe liners that you wear on your feet.