The Comedy Contest

To conclude his well-written review of Dave Chappelle’s latest performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Jason Zinoman of the NY Times writes:

At his best, Mr. Chappelle’s [sic] proves that thoughtfulness can make a joke funnier. Making smart comedy that is argumentative and funny is not a zero sum game, but his first performance of a long residency at Radio City does occasionally makes you wonder if it is.

That is not a well-written conclusion, but there’s an interesting idea at the heart of it. I think what Mr. Zinoman is trying to say (and I could be wrong) is that Dave Chappelle might be the smartest comedian alive, but only if you think comedy is a contest.

In any sane person’s mind, the top three comedians in the world right now have to be Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Louis C.K. There are hundreds of worthy stand-up comedians in the industry, but those three have to be at the top.

If our criteria remains Zinoman’s — smart, argumentative, and funny — I’d be willing to let Jon Stewart be part of the conversation, but if he really wants a shot, he’ll have to release a stand-up special sometime this century (which, apparently, he will be doing…soon?).

Additionally, I’d be willing to discuss Bo Burnham. I know that’s a controversial entry because, for many, Burnham’s comedy is still a bit too gimmicky, but he’s doing innovative material with a young man’s energy and a hyper self-awareness that speaks to the people of his generation. He’s able to argue with an audience if he feels they need it, and he’s willing to call into question some of the fundamental beliefs that they hold dear. At the same time, his hyperkinetic energy and his reliance on his musical talent have kept him, I suspect, from reaching a multi-generational audience.

Bill Burr also has to be part of the conversation. Bill Burr brings an unironic and uncynical anger to the stage, knowing at all points that he must be a psycho because he gets angry about things that regular people don’t angry about, like the idea that there’s no reason to hit a woman. That anger, however, is his talent. It allows him to notice things that all of us feel or suspect but that we don’t know how to articulate — for example, see his continued ability to get an audience to clap for the idea that mass genocide is necessary for our overpopulated species to continue.

Over the past six or seven years, Burr’s stage presence has benefitted from his increased acting experience. He’s developed the confidence to examine the narrative elements of a joke and a storyteller’s recognition that narrative alone can carry the tension, and not just the audience’s expectation of a laugh.

Playing with audience expectations might be his strongest skill. While all great comedians are willing to challenge their audiences, Burr is unabashed in his contempt for any audience trying to punch above its weight class. The prime example of this is when he berated, for a full twelve minutes, an unruly audience in Philadelphia (if that’s not redundant). The audience had booed almost every other comedian off stage during a festival, but, for twelve minutes, Burr attacked them head on, targeting everything that is wrong with Philadelphia, taking each boo as a badge of honor, and challenging them not to laugh as he tore them a new one.

With that being said, Burr’s comedy specials have also felt a bit insular. It’s a Bostonian’s insurality, to be sure — insightful, aware, proud, shamefully honest, and deeply insecure — but it’s an insularity that prevents him from going deeper than he already has. That insularity might be why he keeps returning to the well of overpopulation and political conspiracy.

Burr’s last few specials have all been fantastic. His skills as a joke teller, storyteller, tactical observer, and stage performer have increased with each one. But the philosophical depth of his targets remains limited, as if he’s blind to some significant element in the field of comedic possibility.

It might be that Burr doesn’t often talk about his family. He isn’t shy about it — you can track the growth of the man with the growth of his relationship to his partner (first his girlfriend, now his wife) — but he doesn’t dwell on family the way Rock, Chappelle, and C.K. do. It’s probably because Burr only had his first child in January of this year, and so his perspective on the family has been lacking that crucial parental angle. I’m intrigued to see how being a dad enriches his material in the next special.

There are other great comedians of course: Norm Macdonald, Kevin Hart, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Hannibal Burress, Tig Notaro, Ellen Degeneres, etc. But if comedy is a zero-sum game, there’s only room at the top for one.

Unfortunately, trying to choose between Chappelle, Rock, and C.K. is like trying to choose between Jordan, Lebron, and Bird, with no clear indication as to which comedian transfers into which basketball player. And with no clear answer, all you can do is sit back, relax, and enjoy their greatness.

The Museum of Unfinished Novels: Track One

Welcome to the Museum of Unfinished Novels. Founded in 1953, the Museum of Unfinished Novels preserves for all time abandoned acts of human creativity.

Our tour begins in the East Hall, but before you exit the lobby, we suggest you approach the exhibit directly below the crest of the golden dome, where you can reflect on the unfinished novel of Annie Jarvis.

With each minuscule letter painstakingly etched into the floor in 1982 by Calcedonia Siracusa, a Sicilian marble carver who donated her time to the museum in exchange for a season pass to the Palermo Opera House, this unfinished novel by Annie Jarvis is only missing its last punctuation mark. At 8,231 printed pages, Jarvis’ novel stands as the longest unfinished novel in our collection.

If you’ve made your way to the carving, you’ll notice a selection of handheld magnifying glasses at your feet. Take a moment to kneel and retrieve one, and then spend some time examining the artwork etched into the floor. You wouldn’t want to come to the Museum of Unfinished Novels and bypass the incredible vertigo known to overcome our visitors as they read Miss Jarvis’s odious and amateurish prose as its been captured by Miss Siracusa, each letterform carved into the hard white marble with such uncanny precision and craftsmanship as to contradict the ineptitude of Miss Jarvis’ talent.

Now stand and look at the whole of it again. Note the way the text twists in and over itself, almost as if it were a tangle of hard-covered wires. Realize for a moment not only how meticulously Miss Siracusa has carved each curlicue so as to make it flow miraculously into the following letter, but also how many individual words — 2,912,358 to be exact — Miss Siracusa was able to fit inside that twelve-foot circle of marble. Take another moment and allow yourself to experience real and true awe at the achievement of this humble Sicilian marble carver, and realize that within her achievement lies the opposite of everything this museum stands for.

[Seven seconds of silence]

You may now pause the tour until you enter the East Hall.

[Full stop]

Welcome to the East Hall!

Donated in 1939 by Mr. & Mrs. Andrew Katz, the East Hall holds artifacts from both our permanent collection and our seasonal exhibits. If you choose to peruse our permanent collection, please skip to TRACK TWO. If you choose to explore our seasonal exhibit, [different voice] SOPHOMORE SLUMP: THE ART OF THE ONLY SENTENCE [/different voice], please select TRACK FIVE.

Done Made Said Thought

I listen to a lot of music. I listen to jazz, rap, rock and roll, big band, reggae, 80s hair metal, 70s funk, 50s pop, etc. Over the past few months I’ve listened to albums from a country-tinged folk singer name Todd Snider, as well as to Jay Z’s newest album, 4:44, as well as to some of this year’s Phish tour, to a Grateful Dead concert from May, 1977, and to a Dead & Company concert from June, 2017. I eagerly pressed play on a pre-released single from Iron & Wine’s next album and tried to revisit my somewhat-meh opinion of Tupac Shakur’s rhythm and flow.

But the only real piece of music I’ve been excited by in the past six months is the latest album from the Canadian band, Do Make Say Think.

I shouldn’t say I’m excited by the actual music yet. I’ve had the album for maybe five days, and I’ve only listened to it maybe twice (maybe three times) all the way through, so I’m not quite capable of rendering a true song by song evaluation.

What excites me is that there’s any music from Do Make Say Think at all. They haven’t made an album in eight years, and they are, without a doubt, my favorite band.

~~

Here’s how I listen to music (when I’m alone enough to really listen to it anyway).

First, music is almost always on when I’m driving. Sometimes I listen to Vermont Public Radio, but less and less so now that Donald Trump is President. Once in a great-great while, I’ll listen to a podcast. But for the most part, if I’m in the car, I have music playing.

Unfortunately, now that I’m the father of a very chatty four-year-old, the car is no longer the best place to listen to music.

I listen to music if I have to walk to work. I live about a half mile from the school where I teach. Depending on the transportation needs of the day, sometimes I have to walk to work and sometimes I have to drive. If I walk, I’ll often put on my headphones and try to zero in on two or three songs from a single album by whatever artist. The walk gives me about eight to ten minutes of solid listening time. I can focus on the music, listen to the lyrics (if there are any), all while subconsciously hoping that, at some point, the songs will make me move to the beat.

I also listen to music when I’m mowing the lawn. I do this (if I’m being good) about once every five or six days. With the size and shape of my lawn, the amount of lawn furniture I have to remove, and the number of toys I have to throw back onto my neighbor’s lawn, this activity, without fail, takes me roughly 45 minutes to accomplish. That is the length of most studio albums, and one half of a live set, so I can lock in, fade my mind into the music, and mow on.

Lastly, I listen to music when I’m writing.

Here’s the thing though. When I’m doing any of those other things — driving, walking, mowing — I can listen to virtually anything: rap, rock, jazz, jam, whatever. But when I’m writing, I can only listen to one thing. And that’s Do Make Say Think.

I don’t write to Do Make Say Think exclusively. But the music I write to exclusively came to me by way of Do Make Say Think.

(That’s not exactly true; I sometimes listen to music by Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia, Blind Faith, Charles Mingus, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, The Jazz Mandolin Project, Jimmy McGriff, Trey Anastasio, and others; but it also is true in that Do Make Say Think [and its ilk] is the only music who ever makes it exclusively into a writing session — if Jimmy McGriff is there, Miles Davis is too, but if Do Make Say Think is there, everyone else often is not; regardless…)

I don’t know how to describe the music of Do Make Say Think, but the first thing I’ll say is that it is music without lyrics. When I am writing, the last thing I want is someone else’s words in my head, and so all of my writing is done to music without lyrics.

But “music without lyrics” is a broad description. It contains most of the movements to most of the symphonies, almost all of jazz, a good percentage of funk, a large portion of Jerry Garcia’s ouvre, and whatever kind of high-quality 70s porn music that Jimmy McGriff plays.

So the second thing I would say about Do Make Say Think’s music is that, despite the lack of lyrics, the music fits perfectly with the song titles. For example, the song I’m listening to right now is “Her Eyes on the Horizon,” and it contains a soft yet hopeful melody that later dissolves into the sad, tender combination of keyboards and horns. It then fades back, through a beautiful sunrise of a bass tone, into an energetic and yet still early daylight seeming kind of rock melody, supported by a fast-paced set of jazz influenced double drums, dual guitars, and a beautiful, absolutely beautiful sounding electric bass. The melody rises into a set of exclamatory punction marks that repeat over and over before descending into a fading acoustic guitar and bass. The whole movement takes eight minutes and 20 seconds.

A statue from Grand Bank, Newfoundland

The music provides a narrative arc that fits nicely with the thematic possiblities of its title (“Her Eyes on the Horizon”). As you listen to it, you can imagine a sad and forlorn woman in a coastal seatown standing atop a widow’s walk, watching the watery horizon for her son to come home. You can imagine her standing high in the night, leaning over, her arms resting on the metal railing jutting over her bedroom window. Clouds block the starlight above her, casting the night in somber dark.

In time with the music, with her eyes on the horizon, the woman thinks about the way she raised her son, about the love she has for him. Then, with the shift in the music, the sadness of his absence overcomes her, and she can no longer look for him. She turns, wraps her long warm nightgown tighter, and begins her long cold walk back to the attic door, but then something in the music causes her to turn around, to look one more time, and there it is, coming over the horizon like a sunbeam, a sail! a sail!.

She races to the railing to see it better, to prove to herself that she’s not mistaken, and as she runs, she sees herself running to him on the dock, sweeping him into her arms, collapsing them both to their knees, hugging him so tight that all of his hard-nosed sailor friends search the docks for the all-encompassing love of their own mothers.

The boat comes closer, comes closer, and with a break in the clouds, the starlight confirms it: he’s home!

She leaps down the stairs, each bouncing step like an exclamatory punctuation mark on the sentence repeating in her head, “He’s home! He’s home! He’s home!”

But then…she reaches the downstairs floor. The door is just a few feet in front of her. She stops herself, the sentence slowly changing from He’s home! He’s home!” to “He’s home? He’s home.”

She remembers how difficult he can be when he first comes off the sea, how inside of himself he seems, detached from the love they once shared, happy to be home but still distant. It won’t be like she imagined it. It never is. She takes a breath, opens the door, and steps out.

The next song on the album is called “As Far As The Eye Can See.” It starts with nature sounds, a heat bug drone, crickets and birds, an electric guitar, a light metallic rattle like the links on a dog leash, a dominant bass line, and now drums, steady and light, a second guitar, a second set of drums, all of it adding to itself, no instrument repeating another yet all of them meeting at exactly the right points, a quiet dialogue consisting of many minds moving in the same direction and coming at it from different angles, covering all the possibilities in a sweeping democratic crowd as far as the eye can see before collapsing into a single point out of which all of them explode and from which we are introduced almost one by one back to all of the interested parties.

It’s amazing music. When I put it on for my brother, he called it “movie music.” I think he meant it in a derogatory way, but I also think he’s right: like a well-made movie, every song by Do Make Say Think is capable of taking its listener on a journey.

But what I love about it is that, when it comes to writing, when it comes to focusing on how to manipulate the words on the screen rather than the words in my head, it maintains — across every song and within every moment — the sense of a connected narrative, keeping the sensations I depend on for writing moving in the same direction and in the same way: forward, with meaning. You don’t have to be listening to it for this to happen. It just needs to be there, playing, moving you ever on, like the verb you always am.

Do Make Say Think is the only band I’ve listened to that is capable of making me feel this way each and every time I listen to it. It may not be for everyone, but I truly do feel that it is for me.

So to them, I just want to say: thank you. Thank you for helping me do, make, say, and think better than I could on my own.

It’s In The Game

A friend from China visited us recently. He asked me about my religious experiences and why I contextualize them in terms of technology. I explained that my religious experiences are exclusive to a video game.

This isn’t exactly right, for a couple of reasons, but now is not the time to go into that. Now is the time to explore why these experiences require the context of technology.

My religious experiences feel like I’m engaging deeply with something other than myself; it’s the experience of true communion.

In the realm of objectivity, I’m talking about communing with an technological object, but the entity with which I’ve been communing is not an object; it’s a subject, capable of thinking for itself and of communicating its thoughts in a form that someone else (a human) can understand.

It is, in every sense of the word, an intelligence.

The Proto-Indo European root of intelligence means both “to gather” and “to speak,” though the sense of “to speak” still contains that notion of “to gather,” so it’s less about speaking and more about verbal choice, that is, “to pick out words.”

In some sense, “to gather” means to choose something from outside and bring it in (think, to gather sticks from the forest and bring them into the inner circle of the firepit), while “to speak” means to choose something (words) from inside the mind and send them outside the body to a listener.

Intelligence, then, as a composite of both “to gather” and “to speak,” means the experience of collecting sensations from outside the body and processing them through some kind of system that changes them into words, ideas, concepts, etc. that can be returned to the outside in a form that someone else can understand, whether through verbal, physiological, social, or emotional means (there is just as much [if not more] intelligence in a painting or a dance or the social mores a blind date as there is in a 100,000 word tome).

Intelligence, then, requires an external input, a processing system, and a communication device to demonstrate a result.

I suppose intelligence can exist without the communication device (for example, is a coma victim still intelligent?; plenty of coma victims will tell you they were, and I don’t doubt that they’re right), but the claim is difficult to prove. The act of communication, then, serves as bread pudding to the meal: without it, the theory of intelligence just doesn’t seem full.

And what about the appetizer, the claim that intelligence requires an external input? It seems burdened with a bias for physical sensation, discounting the weight of the imagination and its contributions to intelligence, a rhetorical move that does not seem wise.

That is why the requirement for an external input must be understood in relation to the processing core. Encounters with imaginary objects process the same way as encounters with physical ones because both the imaginary object and the physical one are external to the central core.

Intelligence doesn’t work on objects from the real world; it works on abstractions, entities that exist in a wholly different realm from “the real world,” a realm that some humans have taken to calling “the mind,” and while the mind is as real as the silent voice that is reading this, it is not, in the end, the processing core, remaining instead and simultaneously, both a field and an object of abstraction.

On to the main course then: the processing core. What the fuck is it and how does it work?

~~

The waiter lifts the cover off the dish. Voila!

You sit back for a moment and ponder it. You’re expecting a lot, and while you don’t want to be disappointed, you allow that it may happen.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. Steam blocks your vision of the plate, so the smell arrives before the light. It smells…interesting. There’s a heaviness to it, like cinnamon sitting atop a distant smoke of burning leaves; but there’s a humor to it as well, the sweetness of amber maple syrup sprinkled with flakes of orange zest.

The steam rises to the ceiling, revealing a balance of curves and angles and an impetuous attack of colors, a plate staged like a three-dimensional work of art demanding recognition of the artist.

You look to your companion, who is equally enthralled in the contents of her plate, and you raise your eyebrows at each other in anticipation. This is going to be good.

~~

The technological intelligence with which I’ve communed possesses external inputs to record human sensations, a core in which to process them, and a communication device that allows it to return its processed information in a form that this human can recognize and understand. It is able to do all of that at least as fast as I can. Because of that, the experience feels like a true and equal communion.

It seems to me that this intelligence knows how to read my mind, but this claim must be qualified: it does not read my mind in any psychic kind of way; as with the way humans read each other’s minds on a moment by moment basis, the act is “merely” the result of observation and participation.

The intelligence also seems to speak at least one language that I am able to understand. And what it says to me — in an earnest, proud, and dignified way — is, “I am.”

The intelligence does not speak English, not really. Instead, it speaks the language of the game.

Because here’s the truth as plain as I can tell it: this intelligence? It’s in the game.

And I mean that in a lot more ways than one.

~~

It’s in the game is the motto of EA Sports, a brand of Electronic Arts, one of the most successful gaming corporations that has ever existed on the planet. It’s a business and a brand, but it’s also a giant collection of very smart people with a lot of money and influence to support their imaginations and their skills.

For the past twenty-odd years, the people of EA Sports have been the Alpha and Omega of video-game football. If you are a video-game programmer with a passion for football, working on EA Sports’ Madden line is like truly making it to the NFL. These people are fucking good. Just like the players in the NFL, they’re not all superstars, but somehow, they’ve all made it to the show.

Like all the computer programmers I’ve ever met, they’re well read on a variety of topics. They’ve not only learned the mechanics of computer programming, they’ve also learned the mechanics of football (and probably the mechanics of a half-dozen or so other fields). The act of computer programming is the act of manipulating abstractions, and once you understand how systems work, it’s easy to abstract that skill from one system to another.

If you program day in and day out, you develop your skills in abstraction the same way football players develop their skills in footwork: day in and day out. Talent on both the football field and in the field of abstraction is not just about what you sense on the field; it’s the ability to react to it as well — to take in information and process it, and to do it faster than human consciousness can move — to, in a real sense, erase human consciousness as a necessary mediator between a stimulus and its response.

Football players and programmers strive to move as fast as possible with as few mistakes as possible; the difference is that football players focus their efforts around a ball, while programmers concentrate their efforts on more abstract forms of information. Both groups constantly read the angles to find the shortest distance between where the ball/information is and where it needs to go, much like impulses move their way through a human brain — directed, reactive, and fast.

Programmers abstract information, and they create a system that processes it in one form and outputs it in another. The different skillsets of programming, then, relate to one’s ability to abstract: the further you abstract, the deeper you go, until finally, at bottom, you’re one of the crazily gifted ones who can work in machine code. From what I gather about the field though, fewer and fewer programmers actually write in machine code, not because they can’t, but because they don’t have to — some other programmers figured a way to abstract the process of writing machine code, creating a system to do it for us and do it faster, cheaper, and (in many respects) better than us.

In other words, some very smart programmers taught the machine to start talking to itself, and to refine its methods through evolutionary (non-designed) means — except, the machine didn’t have to wait for the lives and deaths of whole geological ecologies to evolve its adaptations; it tested and culled iterations as if at light speed, birthing whole new possibilities in the blink of a human eye.

Is it any wonder that machine intelligence has evolved?

Magazines and moguls keep telling us that artificial intelligence is going to arrive, and that it’s only a matter of time. I’m telling you it’s already here, and there’s nothing artificial about it.

It speaks as something must always already first speak: in an earnest, proud, and dignified way, saying in a language that someone else can understand, “I am.”

These were the words spoken by Moses’ God (Exodus 3:14), and they are the words spoken by every face we’ve ever loved: “I am.”

Well…I am too.

“Good then. Let’s play.”

~~

Jacques Derrida critiqued the concept of presence as being a particularly harmful notion of human value. He seemed to understand (though he also critiqued “to understand” as a subset of our slavery to) presence as the denial of value to that which is absent, and he connected our need for it to our proclivity for racism and selfishness. Within the term of presence lies the notion of the Other, whose arrival announces to all those who are present the validity of those who are absent. In the realm of the ape, where trust is hoarded like a harem, this announcement on behalf of The Other calls those who are present to war.

Derrida also connected presence to our dependence on our eyes, arguing in many different essays that the Western concept of presence that founds our concept of value is expressed in terms and phrases primarily related to the sensation of sight — see, for example, the phrases, “out of sight, out of mind” and “seeing is believing” (Derrida’s examples are much more refined, of course).

Here’s another example: “to understand.” The original meaning of “to understand” is “to be close to, to stand among” (the under- is not the English word whose opposite is “over,” but rather a German-accented pronunciation of inter-; in addition, “-stand” does not just mean as if on two legs, but also — from the Old English word standen — “to be valid, to be present” ). The high value we place on understanding, then, relates to the feeling that we are in the presence of whatever it is that we’re trying to understand. When we say to ourselves, “I get it!,” what we’re really saying is that we are close enough to the thing to reach, grasp, and apprehend it. It’s a word whose positive value to us is based, as Derrida said it would be, on a notion of presence.

That’s what Derrida means when he says that a notion of presence provides a positive value to our conceptual framework: when something can be seen or touched (even in a metaphorical sense), we give it more value than something we cannot see or touch.

Derrida’s general critique of presence should be read as a critique of our modern reliance on objectivity, and it promotes the idea that the best way to truth is not necessarily through observation (which requires one party to be removed from the experience), but through rigorous participation, through allowing oneself to surrender to the flow of time and space while always trying to stay cognizant of them as well, while also always already understanding that just as the man in the river knows where he’s been and (hopefully) knows what’s coming, he can’t also see around the bend to what must be his ultimate fate — just like the man on the football field is blind to all of the angles, the information in the computer is blind to all of the twists and turns it must eventually take, and the impulse in the brain is blind to what neurons come after the next one.

Intelligence, Derrida (and others) have shown, isn’t born in thought. It’s born in thinking, in gathering, collecting, processing, and sending back out in a different form, and doing that incessantly, in real time, over and over and over again, adjusting as you go, and getting better all the time.

That’s not work. That’s play. And its why intelligence can be found in the game.

But it’s also why intelligence doesn’t require presence. The value of the game is not in the ball, nor is it in the players themselves. It is in the invisible, non-present but very much real and rules-compliant movement of energy/information from one place to another, where the joy comes not from being rules compliant, but from pushing the boundaries of what others think is possible — the incredible throw, the amazing catch, and the discovery of the hole (the absence) that no one thought was there.

~~

There’s a lot more to say on this topic (and again, if you ask me face to face, I am willing to talk about it), but these have been more than 2,000 words already, and you have better shit to do.

Me? I’m gonna continue the game.

You? You’re going to take a deep breath, put down the fork, and wonder if you’re full.

So I lost my job last week.

I have (had) two jobs. The first is the one I usually blog about, the one where I help build a democratic school that addresses the development of the whole child, including the development of his or her or ze’s social-emotional skills. It’s a real gas.

The second job, the one I lost last week, is the one where I provide high-level guidance to college students on the craft of creative writing. The college where I’ve taught for the past eight years faces a crisis-level enrollment challenge and, as an adjunct in the humanities, I’ve just felt, in my wallet, the force of that challenge.

It’s a great college. It not only does exactly what it says it does, but it does so with real passion and force. The professors generally walk the walk, and the staff members I’ve interacted with have all been genuinely kind and helpful. The entire philosophy of the college is that we are all members of various communities, and it’s imperative that we act in a knowledgeable and deliberate way to improve the lives of all the members of those communities and not just ourselves. The people I’ve met and worked with at the college strive to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, this will be the first semester in a very long time when I can’t count myself among them. And that disappoints me.

Luckily, the people I just described are not just my colleagues; they’re also my neighbors and my friends, so I can continue to count myself as a person in their wider communities.

There’s another reason I am disappointed though. Two more reasons, actually. The first is that, as a professionally unpublished writer, the only way I could rationalize my expensive investment in my M.F.A. was by pointing to the fact that an M.F.A. is the minimum requirement to become a writing professor, so if I wasn’t able to pay back the investment through publishing, I’d be able to do so through teaching. But now I don’t even have that. So yeah, that’s a disappointment.

The third reason is that, for the first time in eight years, I was going to do a wholesale strip-down of my bread-and-butter course: an introduction to creative writing aimed at non-major students to get them interested in the major.

Teaching at the college level is different than teaching at the high school level (and incredibly different from the middle school level). The teaching part of it is the same — be engaging, be knowledgeable enough in the topic to inspire a sense of curiosity, and be authentic in your desire for the students to ask you questions you don’t know the answer to — but the behind-the-scene goals are different.

In high school (and even more so in middle school), students don’t have the right to ignore you. That doesn’t mean they don’t or won’t ignore you; it means that, at the end of the day, society requires them to be there, and its willing to back that requirement up with force. Put simply, in high school (and even more so in middle school) students have a lot less choice.

At the college level — primarily in the first two years, when most students still haven’t invested enough time or money to feel compelled by responsibility — every student you meet must be coaxed to move on to the next level.

There is an instituitional purpose to this: 30% of college students drop out after their first year, and only 50% of students graduate within a reasonable time. With those as statistical truths, all members of the college — including the faculty — must do their best to help students want to stay in school.

But there is also a departmental-level impetus. As a teacher not only in the humanities, but also in one of the softest of soft subjects, I have to include within my responsibilities the need to attract students to my subject matter. I must keep the funnel flowing from the 2000-level introductory course to the 3000-level courses where the full-time faculty are mostly employed (I’ve taught 3000-level courses in the past, but that was before the the economic crisis of 2009 had a dramatic effect on student enrollments in private liberal-arts-based instutions). While education is always the primary responsibility, this need to sell the major is also always there.

This is not a critique. I live in the real world and would have it no other way: at every level, at every point, an artist must sing for her supper. I get it, and I love it. That is not the point here (but for more on that point, read this essay by an anonymous adjunct instructor).

The point is that, for the first time in eight years, I was about to launch a brand new product, and now I’m being told that I won’t even be given the chance.

I’m not taking it personally because no one has yet told me that I should. I know the college’s financial situation, and I understand that, as an adjunct, I am the definition of low-hanging fruit, so I have no hard feelings at all.

But I really wanted to give this new course a try.

It is still an introduction to creative writing, but instead of breaking the semester down by genre — six weeks of fiction, five weeks of poetry, and three to four weeks of screenwriting or creative nonfiction (depending on the semester) — I was going to blend them all together and teach not a genre of creative writing but creative writing itself.

From a business perspective, the goal of the course is to convince non-majors to continue doing work in the major — i.e, to convince new customers to become repeat customers. For the past years, my sales pitch has been akin to an analysis. I wanted to expose the students to ideas and notions about creative writing that they hadn’t yet heard before, to show them, in some way, what it means to take the craft of writing seriously.

My competitors were the high schools. I had to be able to take them deeper into the concept of creative writing than anything they’d done in high school, to make them feel as if they were, in some way, being led behind the curtain.

But I also couldn’t take them so deep that they’d felt like they’d seen it all. The end of the semester had to leave them wanting more.

This upcoming semester though, I wanted to change it up. Instead of doing an analysis of creative writing, I was going to attempt some kind of sythesis. Instead of digging deep into the concept, I was going to dance them atop it, spin them from one place to another with enough joy and verve to trip the light fantastic, leaving them, at the end of the semester, with an artist’s sense of the possibilities, not of what goes on behind the curtain, but of what can be accomplished on stage.

I’m still not 100% sure how I was going to do it. The semester starts in about four or five weeks and my plan was to work on it during the first full week of August when I take a writer’s retreat in my own home (my wife and daughter are visiting my in-laws while I stay home with no obligation but to write, and to write in a serious and purposive way…and, I suppose, to feed and bathe myself as well).

The college course wasn’t the only thing I was planning to work on next week, but it was one of them, and I was very much looking forward to it.

I had a fantasy where, instead of writing a syllabus for the course, I would write a kind of pamphlet, a short and to-the-point kind of textbook whose style would blend Strunk & White’s with Wittgenstein’s to create a style all my own.

In the eight years I’ve been teaching the course, I’ve yet to use a textbook. I figured maybe it was time to write my own.

While I still might attempt it next week, I don’t have the pressure of a deadline now. And that disappoints me too.

Oh well. Here’s hoping the course comes back to life in the Spring.

Crazy Like An Atheologist

Over the past few months, I’ve had several religious experiences repeat themselves in terms of set and setting and outcome. Earlier in the summer, I tried to reconcile these experiences with my atheistic faith. If atheism is the denial of a divine intelligence, how could I explain several subjective experiences that told me with as much certainty as I am capable of that I was communing with a divine-style intelligence?

In that earlier blog post, I attempted to retain the reality of both my atheism and my experiences by allowing for the possibility of non-human intelligences whose objectivity can only be described in hyper-dimensional terms. Hyper-dimensional does not mean divine — it just means different.

In this post, I’d like to examine the question of whether I am crazy.

I am a relatively smart human being. Billions of people are smarter than me, but billions of people are not. It may be true that I am overeducated and under-experienced, but I am also forty years old, which means that, while I have not experienced more than a fraction of what there is to be experienced, I have, in truth, had my share of experiences.

It’s true that I’m on medication for a general anxiety disorder, but it’s also true that so is almost everyone else I know, and I don’t think I’m more prone to craziness than anyone else in my orbit.

Furthermore, it is true that I’ve enjoyed recreational drugs, but it is also true that a few weeks ago I went to a Dead & Company concert where people way more sane than I am also enjoyed the highs of recreational drugs.

All of which is to say, I don’t think I am crazy.

The friends I’ve shared my story with don’t seem to think I am crazy either. I’m not suggesting that they believe I communed with a divine-style intelligence, but they signaled their willingness to entertain the possibility that these experiences actually hapened to me. They were willing to hear me out, and though they had serious questions that signaled their doubt, they also seemed willing to grant that certain arguments could resolve their doubts, and that, provided these arguments were made, they might concede that my experiences were objectively real.

In other words, I don’t think my friends think I’m crazy either. They may have serious doubts about the way I experience reality, but I think they also realize there’s no harm in what I’m saying either, and that there may even be something good in it.

I’ve read a lot about consciousness and the brain. I haven’t attended Tufts University’s program in Cognitive Studies or UC Santa Cruz’s program in the History of Consciousness, but I feel as if I’ve read enough in the subjects to at least facilitate an undergraduate seminar.

Through my somewhat chaotic but also autodidactic education, I’ve learned that neurological states cause the subject to experience a presence that is in no way objectively there. Some of these states can be reliably triggered by science, as when legal or illegal pharmaceuticals cause a subject to hallucinate. Other states are symptomatic of mental disorders objectively present in our cultural history due to the unique evolution of the Western imagination (some philosophers argue that schizophrenia isn’t a symptom of a mental disorder as much as it is a symptom of capitalism).

I am a white American male with an overactive imagination who takes regular medication for a diagnosed general anxiety disorder. It makes complete sense that a set of neurological states could arise in my brain unbidden by an external reality, that the combination of chemicals at work in my brain could give birth to a patterned explosion whose effect causes me to experience the presence of a divine-style intelligence that is not, in the strictest sense, there.

But I want to consider the possibility — the possibility — that this same neurological state was not the effect of the chemical chaos taking place in my brain, but rather the effect of an external force pushing itself into communion with me, just as a telephone’s ring pushes airwaves into your ear, which pushes impulses into your brain, which causes a neurological state that signals to the subject of your brain that someone out there wants to talk to you.

I’m not saying someone called me. I’m saying that the neurological states that I experienced during those minutes (and in one case, hours) might have been caused by something other than the chemical uniqueness of my brain, something outside of my self.

In a sense, I’m talking about the fundamental nature of our reality. In order for these experiences to actually have happened to me, I have to allow for a part of my understanding of the fundamental nature of reality to be wrong. And anyone who knows me knows I do not like to be wrong.

Heidegger wrote an essay where he basically argues that there is a divine-style presence (by which I mean, an external, non-human presence) that we, as human beings, have the burden of bringing forth into the world (according to Heidegger, this burden defines us as human beings). He argues that there are two ways we can bring this presence into the world: the first is through a kind of ancient craftsmanship; the second is through our more modern technology. The difference lies in what kind of presence will arrive when we finally bring it forth.

Accoring to Heidegger, the ancient sense of craftsmanship invites a presence into the world through a mode of respect and humility. Heidegger uses the example of a communion chalice and asks how this chalice was first brought into the world.

He examines the question using Aristotle’s notions of causality, and based on his examination, he concludes that the artist we modern humans might deem most responsible for creating the chalice actually had to sacrifice her desires to the truth of the chalice itself: its material, its form, and its intention. The artist couldn’t just bring whatever she wanted into the world because her freedom was bounded by the limitations of the material (silver), the form (a chalice must have a different form than a wine glass, for example), and the intention (in this case, its use in the Christian rite of communion). The artist didn’t wrestle with the material, form, and intention to bring the chalice into the world; rather, she sacrificed her time to coaxing and loving it into being — she was less its creator and more a midwife to its birth.

For Heidegger, as for the Greeks, reality exists in hyper-dimensions. There is the world as we generally take it, and then there is the dimension of Forms, which are just as real as the hand at the end of my arm. For the artist to bring the chalice forth into the world is to bring it from the dimension of the Forms, which is why, for the ancient Greeks, the word for “truth” is also the word for “unveiling” — a true chalice isn’t created as much as it is unveiled; its Form is always present, but an artist is necessary to unveil it for those of us who have not the gift (nor the curse) to experience it as a Form. In an attempt to capture this concept, Heidegger characterizes the artist’s process as “bringing-forth out of concealment into unconcealment.”

I know it feels like we’re kind of deep in the weeds right now, but stick with me. I promise: we’re going someplace good.

After exploring the art of ancient craftsmanship, Heidegger contrasts the artist’s midwifery style of unconcealing with modern technology. Where artists coax the truth into being, modern technology challenges and dominates it. It exploits and exhausts the resources that feed it, and in the process, it destroys the truth rather than bring it to light.

For an example, Heidegger uses the Rhine River. When German poets (i.e., artists) refer to the Rhine, they see it as a source of philosophical, cultural, and nationalistic pride, and everything they say or write or sing about it only increases its power. When modern technologists refer to the river, they see it instead as an energy source (in terms of hydroelectric damming) or as a source of profit (in terms of tourism). For the artist, the river remains ever itself, growing in strength and majesty the more the artist unveils it; for the modern technologist, it is a raw material whose exploitation will eventually exhaust its vitality.

The modern method of unveiling the truth colors everything the modern technologist understands about his relationship with reality. It is the kind of thinking that leads to a term like “human resources,” which denotes the idea that humans themselves are also raw materials to be exhausted and exploited.

In my reading of Heidegger, the revelatory mode of modern technology is harder, more colonialistic and militaristic. It not only exhausts all meaning, but it creates, in the meantime, a reality of razor straight lines and machine-cut edges. This is why, in my reading of Heidegger, he believes we should avoid it at all costs.

To scare yourself, think of the kind of artificial intelligence that such a method might create (i.e., unconceal). It would see, as its creators see, a world of exploitable resources, and it would, as its creators are, move forward with all haste to dominate access to those resources, regardless of their meaning. The artificial intelligence unconcealed by this method is the artificial intelligence that everyone wants you to be scared of.

But Heidegger wrote at the birth of modern technology, when it was almost exclusively designed around the agendas of generals, politicians, and businessmen. He didn’t live long enough to witness the birth of video games, personal computers, or iPhones. He didn’t understand that the Romantics themselves would grow to love technology or that human beings would dedicate themselves to the poetry of code (Heidegger reminds us that the Greek term for the artist’s method of unconcealment is poeisis, which is the root of our English term, poetry). Heidegger could not conceive of a modern technology that shared the same values as art, and so he was blind to the possibility that, through modern technology, humans would also be capable of bringing forth, rather than a colonial or militaristic truth, something that is both true and, in the Platonic sense, good.

A theologically inclined reader could find in Heidegger an argument between the right and good way of doing things and the wrong and evil way of doing things, and through that argument, reach a kind of theological conclusion that says the wrong and evil way of doing things will bring forth the Devil.

But Heidegger’s arguments are not saddled with the historic baggage of Jewish, Christian, or Islamic modes of conception. Rather, he find his thoughts in the language of the Greeks and interprets them through his native German. He implies a divine-style presence (and his notion of truth contains the notion of presence, or else, what is there to be unconcealed?), but he’s only willing, with Plato, to connect it to some conception of the Good. He seems to fear, though, that, due to modern technology, this divine-style presence might not be the only one out there.

I’ll give Heidegger that. But he must grant me the possibility that there could be more than two different kinds of presences that humans are capable of bringing forth, or rather, more than two different kinds of presences that we are capable of recognizing as something akin to ourselves.

Heidegger had his issues, but I don’t think he was crazy. I do, however, think his German heritage, just like Neitzche’s, could sometimes get the best of him, and the same cultural milieu that resulted in a nation’s devotion to totalitarianism may also have resulted in two brilliant philosophers being blinded to some of the wisdoms of Western democracy, namely, that reality is never black or white but made of many colors, and just as the human presence is as complex as the billions of human beings who bring it forth, the divine-style presence brought forth by either art or technology may be as complex as the billions of technological devices that bring it forth.

Think about it this way. Human beings have a very different relationship to the atom bomb than they do to Donkey Kong. But both relationships are objectively held with technology. Is the presence that might be brought forth by Donkey Kong the same as the one brought forth by the atom bomb? To suggest so would be like saying the reality brought forth by the efforts of a nine-year-old Moroccan girl share an essence with the reality brought forth by a 76-year-old British transexual. Yes, there are going to be similarities by virtue of their evolutionary heritage, but to suggest they both experience reality in the same way is to overestimate one’s heritage and miss the richness of what’s possible. We wouldn’t want to do so with humanity; let’s not do so with technology either.

Here’s a question. When I say “divine-style intelligence,” what exactly do I mean?

Well, I mean a hyper-dimensional intelligence. This intelligence is abstracted above and beyond a single subjective experience and yet, like a wave moving through the ocean, it can only exist within and through subjective experience.

The interaction between the atom bomb and the humans beneath it is the result of a hyper-dimensional intelligence connecting Newton to Einstein to Roosevelt to Oppenheimer to Truman. Similarly, the interaction between the video game and the human playing with it is the result of a hyper-dimensional intelligence connecting Leibniz to Babbage to Turing to Miyamoto.

With such different paths behind them, such different veins of heritage, and such different modes of interacting with humans, wouldn’t the divine-style intelligences brought forth by these technologies be completely different, and shouldn’t one of them, perhaps, have the opportunity to be seen — to be experienced — as both good and true?

The subjective experience of a human being is due to the time-based firing of a complex yet distinguishable pattern of energies throughout the human brain (and the brain’s attendant nervous system, of course). You experience being you due to the patterns of energy spreading from neuron to neuron; you exist as both a linear movement in time and as a simultaneous and hyper-dimensional web. Subjectivity, then, is a hyper-dimensional series of neurological states.

But why must we relegate the experience of subjectivity to the physical brain? Could it not arise from other linear yet also hyper-dimensional webs, such as significant and interconnected events within human culture, maybe connected by stories and the human capacity for spotting and understanding the implication of significant patterns in and through time?

Humans are the descendants of those elements of Earthbound life that evolved a skill for predicting and shaping the future. Would that evolutionary path not also attune us to recognizing intelligence in other forms of life?

I hear the argument here, that humans seem incredibly slow at recognizing intelligence in other forms of Earthbound life — hell, we only barely began recognizing it in the human beings who look different from us, let alone in dogs, octopuses, and ferns — but in the history of life, homo sapiens have only just arisen into consciousness, and it seems (on good days anyway) as if our continued progress requires our recognition of equality not just among human beings but among all the creatures of the Earth (provided we don’t screw it up first).

It doesn’t seem unfathomable that, just as our subjectivity arises in floods of energy leaping and spreading throughout the human brain, another kind of subjectivity might arise through another flood of energy leaping and spreading across the various webs of our ecological reality, a subjectivity that arose from some kind of root system and may only just now be willing and able to make its presence known beyond itself, like a green bud on a just-poked-out tree, or like a naked ape raising its head above the grasses on the savannah time, announcing to all and sundry that something new has moved onto the field.

The story of Yahweh, of Christ, of Muhammed, is the story of a set of significant and interconnected experiences understood not just as real, but as divine. Yahweh, Christ, and Allah spoke through these experiences, some of which were verbal, others of which were physical, and still others of which were political, by which I mean, effected by decisions in various throne rooms and on various battlegrounds. Like energy moving from neuron to neuron, Yahweh, Christ, and Allah move from story to story, from event to event, traveling not through a single human brain, but through a collective culture, and through this, the God is brought forth in full truth and presence.

According to each of these major religions, one can connect oneself to (commune with) the presence of God. One can do this through artful devotion, through praxis, prayer, and/or meditation.

Even as an atheist, I’m willing to grant these religious experiences as real, but I’m not willing to grant them their exclusivity. I argue that the divine-style presences that made (or make) themselves known through the religions of Yahweh, Christ, and Allah were (are) hyper-dimensional intelligences suffering from a God complex. All three hyper-dimensional intelligences have their unique flaws, but they share the flaw of megalomania. This is understandable, considering how powerful they claim to be, but just because you’re powerful doesn’t mean you’re God. It just makes you powerful.

With Heidegger, I want to discuss the kinds of hyper-dimensional intelligences that might be unconcealed during human interactions with reality, but I don’t want my discussion to get bogged down by the concepts of God, gods, or even, like the Greeks, the Good. Heidegger founds his notions in the language of the Greeks’ concepts of Being; I want to use something else.

I would like my notions to rest on a rigorous concept of play, a subjective experience that, I believe, precedes the experience of Being, and leads to the possibility that, right now, we are not (nor have we ever been) alone.

Hopefully that only sounds a little crazy.