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Yesterday, the Department of Visual Studies hosted a conference on failure in the arts and failure as a part of artistic practice. While I think there are a number of crucial, interesting topics to be discussed under this general rubric, I don’t think the presenters succeeded (ahem?) in bringing them to light, or turning a critical eye to the way they regard success and failure. By this I mean — all the presenters are situated in a certain relation to others in the academy or professionally; and all the presenters are positioned in other privileged positions. Interestingly, their bios did not outline in detail the ways in which they have failed in the past, but rather their successes — why we should listen to them as voices of authority, but perhaps not voices of authority on the topic of failure.

I think one of the things most confusing to the folks I was sitting with during the conference was the complete absence of any discussion about failures that are ultimate, that you cannot get up from and dust yourself off from, or that deal you the sort of blow that makes things impossibly difficult for you. As graduate students working on MFAs, trying to figure out what to do with them going forward, it’s actually kind of offensive to suggest that all failures are things we can get up from. There is a certain threat of failure from which we are acutely aware that either we cannot recover from, or a recovery might require more effort and resources than would be a change of course entirely. While I am sure the latter kind of failure would teach me something, I can’t say that the former kind of failure offers too many opportunities for learning.

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Post-protest at the Bella Center, Copenhagen (Matthew McDermott/Treehugger)

I’ve been following the proceedings at COP15 with some degree of suspicion, especially since the leak of the Danish Text last week. I have to say, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Voz has been saying on Twitter about how climate change is a convenient target, and ignores a lot of the more fundamental problems with our environment that continue to screw over both the Global South and poor people in this country, too.

Living in Buffalo, it’s hard to avoid some of these facts. My friend Katy is the environmental justice coordinator for the Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper — when it’s warm enough to fish, she often goes out and talks to local anglers, warning them about the risks of eating the fish they catch. Unfortunately, and tragically, many of them tell her that they need the fish to feed their families. It’s a destructive cycle of environmental and human rights abuse. It’s happening in our backyards, to our neighbors, and it’s a direct result of our completely flippant attitude toward the environment.

It’s not just about carbon emissions, people. It’s about dumping heavy metals into our waterways. It’s about the island of plastic in the ocean. It’s about being able to live in and with our environment, and climate change is the last thing on my mind when I think about environmental justice. By correcting a lot of these other problems, the whole climate change issue might even be resolved.

So when I saw the above photo on Treehugger’s Bella Center protest slideshow, I just about blew a capillary in my brain. It really doesn’t look like this particular site was near where protesters were beaten by police, and the slideshow suggests the rest of the demonstration was largely quite peaceful, including intentional de-escalation on the part of the Copenhagen police. Why in god’s name would environmental activists leave so much shit lying around on the streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world? How do they expect to be taken seriously if they leave trash in their wake? THIS is an aftermath of COP15 that we have every right and leverage to avoid. I’m just saying, and I am seriously disappointed.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about late capitalism as a form of political control, especially in unconventional environments. We talked on Sunday at brunch about how the sale of the experience and the sale of “individual identity” is a form of control peculiar to our day and age. There are a couple of disparate things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to this.

I.

I remember being in China two summers ago, a couple months before the Beijing Olympics, and wandering through the botanical gardens with my dad. We saw a young couple running through the gardens with their toddler-aged child. It was cute. The dad was laughing, taking pictures of the mom and the kid, wobbling around next to some flowers.

“People here look so happy,” he said. “They can buy clothes, food, cars, in the colors and styles they want. They can express themselves through the consumer goods they buy. Five, ten years ago this was not true.”

I remember talking to some other students at Peking University, who told me that people were content so long as they could have the material goods they thought of as part and parcel to the material wealth of the West. The right to assembly was not as important culturally as the right to a Chrysler 300.

II.

What constantly weirds me out about the “green” movement is how consumption-oriented it is. I don’t mean that in the sense that it is concerned with our consumption, because obviously anybody concerned with the state of the environment should be worried about our consumption. What I am constantly struck by, and grossed out by, is the co-opting of the rhetoric of the “green” movement to sell products. New products. Products that are manufactured using traditional methods. Products that may or may not have any positive impact on our “carbon footprint” at all.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that “green” marketing is anything but marketing. And the weird thing is that we’re willing to buy the experience of feeling like we’re making a difference in the world. We might each have our own reason for doing so, but we’re buying it. The selling of an experience, as opposed to an item, is something peculiar to late capitalism. I have been thinking about this since Zizek lectured here at the beginning of the semester.

III.

Yesterday in my class we talked about the development of society and economy in Second Life, and what that means for our society and economy in our first lives. I think one of the things that always strikes me is how mad excited everyone gets about the economic opportunities and innovation that come along with Second Life growing as a kind of “3D internet,” as one of my students called it. Nobody is really discussing the way in which Second Life is actually run. (Which is the way the vast majority of virtual worlds are run, through an administrator oligarchy.)

Now I understand that some people will say, “Wait a minute, Cayden, Second Life isn’t about forming a government. After all, it’s run by a company that is interested in using its software to make money — and to enable people to connect, to create things, and to play.”

At the same time, in Second Life you can be anybody and do pretty much anything you want. Except liberate yourself. What’s easy to forget about it is that you’re being sold an experience in an ultimate way — people spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars on ethereal piles of pixels in order to have an experience in the game. You’re being sold a deeply consumeristic experience, no less. The main tabs on the Second Life website are “What Is Second Life?” “World Map” “Shopping” “Buy Land” “Community” “Help” and finally the join button, which emphasizes that joining is free. Which is funny. Considering two of the six main tabs are about spending money.

IV.

So what does all this mean? I think these three things are symptoms of a bigger issue. Something about how too much wealth begets complacency. Or that our priorities aren’t quite what they used to be, or rather that our priorities were never what we were made to think they were. And also something about capitalism as culture, not just as economic system.

The symptoms speak to an environment where economic freedom is mistaken for individual and political freedom. Think about it.

It’s funny that this year has been secretly about versions. a.Version, of course, but also versions of self, past scholarship, re-version, con-version, transgression. Saving the game in a different save slot so you can go back to it later. It’s funny, of course, how things that seemed to be abstract objects from your past life come bubbling up into your actual, present life, isn’t it? That we hear echoes constantly of the things that we once did?

I have been considering for a while how the person I used to be became the person I am now, how more than most people I think Ibarong experience a lack of continuity in personal identity, how surprising it is that sometimes old me seeps into the things I say and do now.

I was struggling for a while to come up with a paper topic for this class, and the vagaries of digital life had me digging through the archives of my writing for class (and isn’t this why a.Version is a great idea?) and I stumbled upon the paper I wrote for Judith Becker‘s class (about music, ritual, and trance in a variety of cultures) almost three years ago about music and psychedelia and secular ecstatic experiences — their causes and relationship to mental stability. It occurred to me that I had a paper here that could be expanded, added to, that maybe making an archive of my writing about psychedelic religious and aesthetic experience might yield a passable book or dissertation, or something — well, you get the idea.

And also, I hadn’t thought of this paper very much at all. I had thought of the books I read for it in passing at the beginning of the semester because of something someone had said in my present class about psychedelia. I have been working through Julian Jaynes’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and it seems really self-evident that Dr. Becker’s research fits into this picture, and that there’s a really great connection here that Jaynes couldn’t have explored.

How odd, I think, that versions and these sorts of past histories should be so important now. (Also, upon further reflection, I think that Dr. Becker was the first person who had me thinking about Orientalism in the academy — she said something to me, in passing, about how she is annoyed at her discipline being called ethnomusicology. Also something about how it’s very hard for musicologists to study Balinese gamelan ritual and dance because of the overwhelming number of Aussie tourists who inundate the islands? — and how that has become a great important thing in my life too.) I think ultimately this has something to do with why I like folk music.

Today I think I am feeling a little less insecure. I went to brunch at Josephine and Dave’s and helped their four year old daughter Lucy carve a pirate jack-o-lantern. Everyone was impressed with my pumpkin-carving skills. It turns out I am a multifaceted person. I realized while we were eating that nobody knew about my busted wrist. It has been covered in an Ace bandage for a few days now because of some mysterious flare-up that requires me to give it more support. Biking hurts, typing hurts, and I’ve lost a little grip strength. This is more than unfortunate. I don’t want to take it to a doctor again but if this keeps up what choice do I really have? (Your input is appreciated.)

Sometimes you forget that you used to do other stuff. Like ride horses, and then fall off them. Or have a budding career as a professional musician (until that fateful day). Or that you have more than one good reason to hate doctors (besides having to out yourself to an unsympathetic resident in the E.R.).

Today I was riding my bike home from Josephine and Dave’s and enjoying fall in Delaware Park and how I smelled like pumpkin guts and thinking about how peculiar it is that the things I have done so far in my life have led me here. That I am now friends with the people I am friends with. That we are colleagues or something. Or that I have a “career,” or whatever. That the old stuff drops off into some fuzzy past thing as new stuff is added to the sharper edges of the current part. I have a hard time thinking things happen for a reason but also I’m here to do a job, but that job isn’t necessarily all in my job description.

Josephine told me I made her nervous, too, and would like to talk about it more. She thinks maybe it has something to do with second-wave feminism and have I really got male privilege after all? But she says she doesn’t think it’s all that. I find it hard to believe it’d be all that.

Othello is trying to chew on the corner of The Importance of Being Iceland.

I’ve been following the UC occupation at least a little bit, because I think that it’s only a matter of time before these issues crop up here, too. I think that the public university system is one of the best things that there is — it’s served me well so far, and I am skeptical about the restrictions that an institution’s leadership can place on the institution if it isn’t run by the public. It makes me sad that people we elect to take care of our public resources feel that it’s their prerogative to essentially privatize them. I can see why they might think it’s the right thing to do, but I think the problems that many people point to about our public universities won’t be ameliorated through privatization. While government-run institutions are often bloated, costly and ungainly, privately-held institutions frequently ignore the public good for private profit and quell dissent against their leadership. That’s not to say that the main problems of the one don’t occur in the other. And I also think that a lively public education system is part of what makes a democracy work.

I have a lot of things to say about this matter that really need more time and energy on my part; and I need to think more about them in order to write coherently about them at this point. I think the public university system is ripe for reform, not privatization. I think that it’s obvious the current structures are not working — many students feel alienated by the very structures that should liberate them. I worry that this conversation will fall into the same traps and pitfalls as the so-called health care debate (so-called in the sense that it scarcely resembles a debate). And, I worry that in large part the model of occupation ➝ escalation as received is so old as to be ineffectual. (But I also worry that the alternatives are too ephemeral to make a difference.)

Really, though, it’s hard not to get behind some people who really like J.U.S.T.I.C.E.

One of the weirdest things about having moved somewhere completely brand-new at this point in my life is that I am nearly universally read as male. It’s funny because everywhere I went before I’d be unintentionally outed — whether because I already knew people there (I knew about 5 people in Buffalo when I moved here), I was asked upfront because I seemed more androgynous, or I had to correct someone’s pronoun usage. This move has been different because I have been on testosterone for over a year. My voice is low, I can grow a little facial hair, I’ve bulked up. There’s a lot less ambiguity.

So I’ve had to come out to people. At first it was just the handful of people in my cohort who I drove home on Thursday nights, but now I’ve kind of thrown caution to the wind and begun outing myself to people everywhere. It’s funny because the reaction that I’ve been getting most often is, “Oh my goodness, I never would have guessed!” Occasionally somebody just looks at me in confusion until I tell them that I’m FTM, because they assume that it’s the other way around. So far it really hasn’t changed the relationships I have with people here, at least not in a negative way. Last night at the Essex I had a friend tell me that he respected me more because of it.

I’ve always thought a lot about the dynamics of being able to be “stealth,” because when I was younger I fantasized about being able to be so universally read as male that I didn’t have to worry about it. But now that I think of my gender as something more fluid and difficult to pin down, and now that I realize that my gender is much more complex than “I wish I were a man,” it seems like a betrayal of a lot of progress in the area of trans rights to just take it in stride and let people speculate if they are suspicious that something is different about the new games TA. I think it’s better to be open about the situation because there are so few out trans folk floating around UB. It’s also better because there are no surprises for anybody — either for my new friends or for me, when they find out.

Nevertheless, it’s strange having to out myself. For so long I’ve been universally read as queer, and assumptions have been made about me. For the first time in my life I am assumed to be a straight man, and that’s probably the weirdest thing in the world. It’s much weirder than I expected it to be, at least.

Tonight, I went to an art opening at Artspace Buffalo with some department folks, and then I headed over to Sugar City to check out Malcolm Rollick‘s show. Malcolm hit me up on Couchsurfing looking for a place to crash for the night, and I decided that would work out just fine. Turns out Malcolm and Chris are super awesome and we had a great time tonight. Of course, the three of us and Danielle spent the late evening sitting in our living room, eating food, listening to some records, and talking.

As is the norm for our neighborhood, the kids in the apartments and houses around us were being pretty loud, getting drunk and playing bad music. Some of this activity was clearly on our porch — I’m not sure whether or not it was specifically connected to the people who live downstairs from us or not, but I guess at some point the police got called. When Danielle went outside to let Toby pee before going to bed, she found a $75 noise violation ticket on our door. What gives?

We were not outside — we were sitting inside. We were not even drunk. We were listening to a record quietly in our living room, unwinding after a long day. Malcolm and Chris told us to call the police non-emergency number and see if we could get it straightened out right away. I called, and the woman on the other end told me that she would put a notice out on the wire for the officers in the area to come and talk to me. I guess that works? But that was over an hour ago, and I’m still waiting on an officer. I am pretty sure they won’t show up tonight. It’s getting late and I’m getting tired, anyway. Everyone else went to bed, I told them I’d handle it and they should go to sleep.

Here’s the thing. Clearly some people were being rowdy on our property. In that sense, someone who lives here is responsible. However, we were actually about to call the police about the noise and disruption when the people suddenly cleared out, so we figured it wasn’t going to be an issue. Our neighbors continue to be drunk and noisy on their porches. However, we’re the ones with the ticket.

The police made no attempt to contact us other than stick the ticket on our door. Nobody spoke with either Danielle or myself. Something about this just doesn’t seem right — how can you issue a ticket to someone who wasn’t even present when an incident took place? How can you be held responsible for people you don’t even know (and haven’t even seen — I didn’t even look out the window to see who was down there)? How can you be held responsible for people who were disturbing your peace?

I’m wondering: since the police clearly aren’t coming back tonight, what kinds of legal recourses do I have to fight this? This is clearly and obviously bullshit. I have three other witnesses who can corroborate my story. We have had no problems with noise violations in the past. (I’m sure our neighbors have.) Why do I have the $75 ticket sitting on my living room coffee table? Who should I talk to about this? (And, though it isn’t a legal difficulty, here’s another tough question: why does it seem that whenever things are turning around something stupid happens?)

I don’t think I’ve had a lot to say recently because I just don’t want to be involved in any of the so-called debating that’s going on in this country.

I remember in 2004 when some of my friends said, “If George Bush wins again, I’m moving to Canada.” I used to counter them by saying that, if nobody stayed here and tried to foster reasonable discussion, then everyone would lose. Well, I’m afraid that everyone’s losing now.

In a political climate where a vast majority of self-identified Democrats approve of the President and a vast majority of self-identified Republicans disapprove of him, where members of Congress behave as if they are a part of a “town-hall discussion” on health care reform, where it’s become mainstream to call the President a Nazi, I’m teetering on the precipice of throwing in the towel. I’m sick of the jingoism. I’m sick of the partisanship. I’m sick of the hate.

I have nothing to say about any of this, except that the enormous sense of loss I’ve been coming to grips with in the past couple of weeks is exceptional. For me, this is bigger than the 2000 election, this is bigger than the 2004 election. This is bigger than 9/11. This is bigger than the day we invaded Iraq. In my eyes, this is the bubbling-up of something awful from deep within the fault lines of this country. And, like springtime in Michigan, the artifice is starting to melt away and we’re beginning to see what the freeze-thaw cycles of the past season have done to our infrastructure.

Nobody seems to care about anything except feeding their own raging case of political rabies. I don’t understand what happened to my country. (Maybe this is the ultimate goal?)

In the meantime, I’ll be here, making plans for one of the most subversive acts of all — having fun. With other people. Regardless of political opinion or social identity. Do you think we can do it? (Better yet, will you join me?)

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