Light, Time, and Gravity (XI)
No matter how radical you pretend to be.
One of the most astounding things about the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness is its plasticity.
Why do I no longer recognize Dylan?
Because so much that was implicit for him has become explicit to me. I can Now represent those things he could only repeat.
Doesn’t this signify some kind of triumph, some movement of self-overcoming?
In the centuries long scramble to ground knowledge, the long search for some imperial fact that escapes the plebeian nets of context, some Archimedean Point, we have ignored the one thing we know for certain makes knowledge possible: ignorance.
Is ignorance a function of context, or is it absolute? Was the ignorance of the ancient Sumerians something radically different than our own?
Here’s the thing: ignorance is not a thing. Once ignorance explicitly enters into our language games (or whatever the fuck you want to call them), it ceases to be ignorance and becomes a kind of knowledge.
Ignorance, true ignorance, is invisible.
It’s not as though you could make two columns, one containing all the known facts, the other containing all the unknown facts. If we assume as much, it’s because the only way we can get a grip on ignorance is by comparing what we know Now as opposed to what we once knew or anticipate knowing.
Ignorance is invisible because ignorance possesses no content. Only through comparative differences in knowledge can we see its shadow. Only because we can know more.
Here’s one of many things Dylan could never get past when it came to contextualism: despite all its emphasis on the performative dimensions of language and knowledge–despite being temporal–it never seemed capable of digesting time. If facts are functions of normative contexts, it stands to reason that the facts of one normative context are not necessarily the facts of another. This is why, as a good contextualist, you might say that, sure, ancient Sumerian claims don’t fare well in our normative contexts, but that doesn’t mean their world was any less factual.
This doesn’t seem to difficult to swallow–after all, it’s a long way to ancient Sumer. But consider what happens when you begin shrinking the distance: would a good contextualist also want to say that, sure, Dylan’s claims don’t fare well in my normative contexts, but that doesn’t mean his world is any less factual? I would certainly disagree with this: Dylan lived in a dream world–comparatively speaking.
And so did the ancient Sumerians, for that matter.
This is the curious thing with contextualism: if facts are functions of normative contexts at a certain point in time, then, in the absence of any way to assess the continuity of contexts, each instant becomes a kind of cognitive solitude, and every passing moment drops in the bag with ancient Sumer. Any attempt to assess the continuity of contexts becomes the function of yet another, subsequent context–another this… Comparative claims become impossible, not simply across cultures and ages, but across individuals and heartbeats as well.
When you read contextualists, however, you notice they’re careful to fudge and smear, to rely on the readers’ implicit assumptions of contextual continuity–which is to say, context independent facts. This is one respect, at least, where Derrida’s brand of contextualism, which arose out of considerations of time and temporality, was more honest to the extremities buried in the contextualist implicature. You might say his radical deferral was nothing less than a demolition of contextualism pitched as its apotheosis.
Since nothing makes sense without the possibility of comparative claims, we might as well recycle Rorty into rolling papers. Our ignorance is our line to the Unconditioned, the reason why we can always say we know more, despite the swamp of circumstances. Here’s the thing: we were born. Consciousness arises out of nothing. Our birth marks the point where the Absolute breaches the relative.
All knowledge is anchored in the womb. Absence is the Mother of all.
I was an idiot when I was a kid. A tragic one. Is this is my cogito?
But of course, this isn’t ‘my’ cogito at all. This is the cogito we all rely on all the time. It is the pragmatic foundation of all knowledge. Memory and story.
The Archimedean Haze.
Thanks to his ignorance, Dylan is the impervious foundation of all my knowledge. He is my lever, my world tipping fulcrum. Even though I can’t say this or that has to be true, I can say I know more than he did, and not just differently.
Now if only it were enough.
It started first thing in the morning, at the tying machine. Jerry began calm, explaining how the curing process works, how so many leaves per stick are required for a quality product, and how a quality product is required to turn a profit. But with Missy firing her questions and observations, it quickly turned into a mild shouting match.
“Don’t worry about them!” Jerry finally cried in a huff. “Let me look after those assholes! That’s my job, not yours…”
Not more than an hour afterward, Gilles arrived with Kyle for another surprise inspection. Dylan saw him march around the tying machine the same stomping air, the same eyes-forward angry face that people use to warn off others. After flopping one of the (considerably heavier) sticks on the ground, he began shouting at the girls. Apparently the infraction was so obvious that actually counting leaves was an unnecessary formality. All Dylan could hear was Missy screech in the tone of crows: “Fuck off! Jerry said! When you sign my fucking checks! When you. Sign. My fucking checks!”
Dylan was about a minute or so climbing down out of the kiln. He silently thanked Christ he had passed on the acid. “Hey-hey-hey-hey…” he said as he waded into the battle.
Gilles was irate, alternately grinning and sneering. He held his cigarette out in a wide-armed gesture, his head ducked in a suspended what-the-fuck shrug every time he resumed his fulminations. “This is boollshit, man!” he shouted at Dylan as he approached. “What you doing to us, eh? Fucking boollshit, man!”
“Gilles!” Dylan said. “Gilles… It’s a fucking job, man. A shit job. What did you expect?”
“You fuck us, we fuck you! Fair is fair, eh? Eh? Fair is fair, man.”
“Why don’t you dump more oil in your hair?” Missy cried. “Fucking frog faggot!”
Gilles laughed, utterly unfazed. “I buy your ass, eh, baby?” he snapped back. “In Quebec we love cheese!”
This was when Missy began snapping butts from the leaves and whipping them at the man. The first one missed and Gilles cackled, only to yelp when the next one nailed him on the cheek. Missy was a lifelong ballplayer, and her arm showed it. The butts fairly buzzed through air, and Gilles danced back, swearing, dropping his smoke. He retreated to the pick-up truck–Kyle had avoided the commotion by concentrating on swapping out the loads. Gilles hung his head out the window, shouting and cackling, as the pickup grumbled out toward the fields. “I ate chilleee for dinnair last night! I ate chilleeeee!”
“Fucking frog faggot!” Missy shrieked after him.
Ghetto began crying, refused to work. She kept blubbering something that Dylan couldn’t make out until Missy explained that she still had nightmares about the last time “they” shit in the baggies. It turned out she was weeping in the language of modern philosophy, German.
“Fucking animals!” Missy spat with a scathing certainty that only teenage girls could muster. “Freaks! I’ll quit too! Seriously!”
“Could we just fill the fucking kill, please? Jeezus!”
This was about when Jerry rolled up with his pickup truck.
“What the fuck!” he bellowed from his passenger window. “Let’s! Go!”
Missy’s face went apoplectic with indignation. “Fuck this!” she burst out, exploring new dimensions of shrill. “I!” she shouted over her shoulder as she started marching across the kilnyard, “Fucking! Quit!”
This hit Jerry like a heart attack–he looked at Dylan for a panicked moment before flinching at the weakness he had revealed. The terror of fucking up–and so becoming one. (We all know we’re fuck ups, people like us.) The terror of little boys pretending to be men.
The big man stomped on the accelerator, cut two tracks into the turf chasing after Missy. He pulled parallel to her marching figure and the two shared inaudible words. Dylan found himself stranded with an inconsolable Ghetto and a stupefied Frankenhead. He looked to the two of them and the two of them looked to him–seeking leadership, Dylan assumed.
“I’m sure…” he began, only to run out of words. The radio crooned to the tin crunch of “Don’t Stop Believing.”
“Madness!” he said on an explosive breath. He shook his head, wagged his eyes to heaven.
Her eyes round with unheimlichkeit, Ghetto cried something that sounded like, “Unterbooger snottin untershitten boogershit.” That’s what it sounded like, anyway.
“She says you are strange,” Frankenhead said with a meek dip of her chin.
“Does she know I’m hung like Jesus?”
That triggered a gutteral blast of German, crazed enough to make Hitler sound effeminate. Language of philosophy, my ass.
Dylan nodded, too bewildered to be wounded. Fuck Ghetto anyway, the weepy bitch. He glanced nervously at Jerry’s truck which continued to pace Missy’s march to the driveway. He sighed in relief when the brake lights flared on.
“See,” he said to the two Mennonite women, nodding toward the sight of Missy coming around to get into the passenger seat of the red shining Dodge. The big man wheeled the truck around with a roar, then braked to let her out. She paused half-turned in the passenger seat as Jerry spoke to her, and Dylan found himself staring at her crotch, at the convergence of tendons, and the white panty bulging past the high-cut denim. He imagined kissing the hot-skin there, imagine the smell of feminine musk. She glanced up, caught him blinking and shaking his head.
She jumped out of the truck, flashed him a big-tooth grin as Jerry tore two more strips in the grass, gunning for the fields. Her eyes sparkled with unvoiced laughter.
“That’ll fix his wagon,” she said, her voice drenched in triumph.
“Fucking French frog.”
“Jerry decked Gilles.”
This is all Kyle would say in explanation. Jerry drove out to the field to sort things out, and Kyle returned some forty minutes later with the whole priming crew reclined across their last, half-hearted baggies. Dylan and the girls continued working, unsure as to what was expected of them, while the primers hooted and hollered their way to the bunkroom. In the cracks between hamming it up, they all seemed to have the same, dopey oh-oh face that humans get when they find themselves caught in the eddies of someone else’s conflict–the look of people keen to remain extras on the set. Dylan saw the girls make eyes at each other. Jerry finally showed up as they were finishing the last of the tobacco, his truck gleaming like a jewel in the high sun.
To the girls he said, “Go home. I’ll have all of this sorted by tomorrow.”
To Dylan, who was hoping to collar Cutter and find out what had happened, he asked, “Feel like a crop tour?”
It was a crazy moment, clambering into the passenger side, a sense of physical ease cutting against the psychic impossibility–like all infidelities between word and action. The seat seemed improbably soft–bouncy. His social circumstances clotted his throat, the gum of competing loyalties, the haze of potentially disastrous consequences. Had Cutter seen him? What would the others think? What should he tell Jerr? They whisked down the dirt lanes in silence. Dylan wondered what it would be like riding shotgun in multiple vehicles simultaneously, to be a single passenger flying in multiple directions.
He finally screwed up the courage to ask what happened as they turned toward the irrigation pond.
“Got ugly,” was all that Jerry would say.
Once at the pond, the big man turned down the tunes. It looked like he was about to reach for his one-grammer, then seemed to think better of it.
“I just need–” Jerry began saying. Something choked his voice to a rusty hinge. He started blinking uncontrollably, then turned away, shouldered open the driver’s side door. Without explanation he simply walked into the fields, his back turned to Dylan in the truck. He paused about four or five plants in.
Dylan watched him weep.
The tobacco hung motionless around the crying man, utterly indifferent, insensate. And the world hung about that, the great hollow. It was all too much. The door ajar. The smell of tobacco and upholstery that had soaked up too much old life. The great shoulders heaving. The head hung into ministering hands. The sound of lungs forcing their way past a barricaded throat. It was as if some motherly palm simply pressed Dylan’s cheek toward the stagnant pond–some numb instinct of embarrassment. He even hung his head out the window, as if studying the ground just below his door. Where not covered with thatched grasses, the dust of the lane was covered with overlapping tire tracks. He saw an area of scuffing and the stamping of familiar footprints. In a rush he realized that was where he had stepped out of the truck the last time–to better pull up his pants.
Jerry snuffled somewhere beyond his periphery, murmured curses to rally himself. “Fuck!” he whined. “Fuck!”
There’s a peculiar after-image of tenderness belonging to people who knew you as a small child, a sense having stood in their benign shadow. Dylan thought about Harley moaning into his mouth, pressing her smile against the shaft of his cock. You knew that you were special to them, that they would protect you for the sake of an innocence you had lost long ago. He thought of her panties, how they had been soaked before he had even touched her. You could see it in the way they smiled at you, a kind of marvelling in their eyes, as if they could never quite believe how quickly or how fiercely you had grown. He remembered fearing the roughness of his hands the instant he plumbed her, wondering if he could contract an STD through the cracks in his skin. And you understood what it entailed, having been a child in the shadow of another. He could see her, a second head rising from the root of his cock, that image of pornographic nursing. You understood community in its most profound, atavistic sense, the transitive logic of generational burdens. He could feel the tracks it had laid through the meat of him, coming into her mouth, the memory of some primal expenditure. You realized that time, despite all appearances, was symmetrical, that we died in the shadows of those we had once overshadowed.
A bolt of terror cracked through him: Jerry climbing back into the cab. Dylan turned his profile to him, rigid with pathos and turmoil.
“It’s just that… I try so hard you know?” the big man said, staring into the aether. He wiped his nose on the back of his shirt sleeve. “You know what I’m talking about? I try… I really fucking try…”
With each repetition of ‘try’ his voice seemed to regress to that of an wavering eight-year-old. Dylan sat carefully staring at the dash. Jerry remained motionless for a moment, fraught with unseen isometric burdens. He cleared his throat with a melodramatic har-haroom. Something seemed to seize the man after that, a realization of some kind, or a sudden turn of the heart toward the masculine, perhaps.
He remembered himself.
He cranked the tunes to a decent background volume, struggled to work his one-grammer clear of his too-tight pocket. Time to get high. Something of the old, boyish smile climbed back into his face.
Everyone knows that other people are the problem.
Ah, these poor people.
Scarred by history, by capital, by corporate conditioning, by modernity, by this or that cultural toxicity.
All those poor… deluded… people…
She grabs the trunk of him, where skin pulled thin rises from goose-blond hair–she grabs him. She raises the hollow of her mouth, lips pulled into a sponge circle about a kneeling tongue. The heat of another heart mounts the burning tip of him, and all is wet delirium. Now. He cannot breath, so he gasps and convulses. Her mouth pops free and she smiles and groans, “Yesssss…” not in affirmation, nor even in approval, but in prediction, and he knows she has imagined this, that she has imagined him like this, heaving in her mouth, pulsing across her tongue.
She too has fantasized.
Nuclear explosions. To think, chalk symbols on a blackboard delivered that baby…
Think Hiroshima. Now there’s a Big Burning Bush.
Face it. We just have no stomach for the message. So we pray-pray-pray for cloud cover to scrub the human mission.
We pray for Kokura. “Please God…” we murmur.
Let others burn for our sins.
She bobs and licks, heat snaking across wet, and he shudders to the electric glide, to the vestigial whisk of teeth, drawn in and outward, her mouth peeling back petals with every stroke, baring him to the point… to the point… to the spit whistling between clenched teeth, to the grunt, to the spasm, to the jetting heat, and he slumps, his fingers slack against her hair, her mouth Now soothing cool–cold even–and she leaves him hanging, inside-out-hard, swallowing, saying, “Men are so easy,”  with a kind of husky, why-am-I-surprised affection…
His pelvis tightens and he shifts uncomfortably. There is a cord loose within him, beneath the muscles and around the bone, and it pulls tight and slackens with the rhythm of a retarded child.
She makes a yuk face. Picks a hair from her tongue.
 It is encircled by the conviction of sufficiency.
It’s impossible to live as we have lived, professing, judging with our every breath, and to not become judgmental. We look at people, decide who’s serious and who’s not, who’s wasting our oh-so valuable time, and who’s onto something–which is to say, who agrees. We’re careful with our eyes, lest we let embarrassment gull us into wasting our breath on philistines. We hold others responsible for the fact that our arguments are toothless. We make our inability to convince evidence of a fallen world.
Down the rows we walk, shaking our eyes at heaven.
Humans make due–whether they want to or not.
The absence of history is continuity. Ignorance is our existential glue. We only feel fragmentation when it cuts against our assumptions, or even worse, our nature. For carnival souls raised in carnival cultures, ‘post-modern fragmentation’ can only be a kind of affectation, a specialized form of posturing.
Words. Symbols. No matter how much history we heap upon them, they come to us Now–always Now. A tremendous amount of training is required to cringe, like Adorno, at the sound of Latin crashing into ancient Greek.
So the question came to me: When I talk fragmentation, am I revealing some unaccountably obscure semantic fact or am I manufacturing one?
Everyone fears, especially when they are young. Everyone worries, especially when they find themselves stranded in an enormous and alien institution. And there I was, providing them a totalizing diagnosis, talking about the most complicated system in the universe–the social coordination of human brains–as if it could be known, summarized and dismissed.
Trying to show them how the fat and torpid were actually starved and beaten.
Small wonder only a handful of them ever believed. The eager ones. The sensitive ones. The ones ever so keen to be taken seriously. And I felt vindicated in the intelligence of my transient disciples, redeemed in their false redemption. My harvest.
Others simply accessorized. They would adopt this or that taste, this or that yardstick. They were too busy constructing identities for themselves to take anything I said all that seriously. I would hear them po-pooing commercial television, lampooning backward family members. I would hear them talk about all the cultural artifacts they used to love–
“Brittny Spears? Can you believe it?”
Some ‘guilty pleasures’ were so camp they could only be cool. But all of them had become baubles, totems and fetishes of the lesser castes. Things you wear, not to express solidarity, but to broadcast how thoroughly you have overcome your benighted origins.
“I just can’t read that shite anymore.”
Only those who despised me truly saw me for the murderer I was. But they overgeneralized, as all humans are prone. For the rest of their lives, whenever they caught wind of ‘critique,’ or ‘intellectual,’ or any of the Latinate bangles that festoon us, they smelled me…
And voted accordingly.
Why is culture broken? Why is the human animal so confused?
Set aside your semiotic confusion, your mangled intellectual and economic histories–set aside your addiction to the same–and consider a different answer:
Counter to our adaptation, we find ourselves stranded with a thousand strangers. Counter to our adaptation, we find ourselves emotionally dependent upon people who are materially irrelevant, and materially dependent on people who are emotionally irrelevant. Counter to our adaptation, we find ourselves global, when we are local through and through. Counter to our adaptation, we find ourselves confronted by continuous, technologically mediated change.
And so it goes. Our ability to manufacture our environment has outstripped our ability to cope with our manufactured environment. We batter our hearts with depictions of sex and violence because of our hardwired attention preferences. We swaddle our egos with flattery and certainty because of our hardwired cognitive shortcomings. We endlessly cry, Me! Me! Me! because we are adapted to scarcity, and in times of hunger, it is the jealous soul  that wins.
We raise false cultures of self-aggrandizement because we can afford to fool ourselves as never before–you’re living proof!
Horseshit, you say. Speculative, scientistic horseshit.
Sure… But compared to what?
To your interpretative acumen? Your semantic sensitivities? Your hermeneutic training and years of armchair erudition?
Your grandiose theoretical ambitions?
At least the fundamentalists have the Holy Ghost.
 It has been mistaken for a ‘soul.’
Wholeness is the shape of the fragmentation that afflicts us. Encapsulation. This is why humans both always make mistakes and make due.
Pretend it never happened. Act as if, and it will be so. This far-and-away was Dylan’s favourite form of conflict resolution. And why not? Wilful amnesia is probably the greatest peacemaker known to the human race.
Everyone showed up as per normal the morning following the fight between Jerry and Gilles in the fields. They even shot-the-shit as per normal, though eye contact was either too incidental or too direct. Even Gilles, whose left eye was nearly swelled shut, seemed to conduct himself in a business-as-usual way. Because they had finished over a third of the kiln the previous day, they even managed to finish shortly after noon. This was when Cutter cornered Dylan: as everyone shuffled back to the bunkroom for more cards and drinking. He wore the wetback uniform like everyone else, a filthy button-up over a filthy T. His face seemed improbably clean beneath his ratty old crappy tire cap, like Burt Lancaster playing a refugee from the Great Depression. That should have been my first clue: the fact that Cutter had shaved.
“So what the hell happened there yesterday?” Dylan asked, assuming the man wanted to talk about the previous day’s hysterics.
Cutter sucked on his smoke, flicked it as he exhaled. “Just more bullshit…”
Chiclet grin. Then the conversation took a turn for the cliff’s edge.
“Gilles says that Thierry saw you drive into the fields with Harley.”
Fucking Thierry. In his mind’s eye, Dylan could see him nestled on his top bunk reading French novels in the bunkroom’s cobweb light. Positioned on the far wall, a glance would be all it would take: there, through the small window that opened onto the driveway and the farmhouse beyond, Dylan and Harley standing–a little too close?–in a puddle of high-sun shadows. Or an image of faces, blank and blue behind the shining windshield.
Fucking crazee, dose guys.
Dylan snorted as though at something amazing in a boring way. “Yeah. She’s real worried about Jerry.”
“Because of you guys.”
Accusation as a form of misdirection. That this was the kind of trick that Cutter himself would use never occurred to Dylan until years afterward, when he began cataloguing his short history with the guy.
When he turned to theory as an analgesic.
“What? You think Jerry isn’t stressed out about all this madness? Trust me, this is hands down the most fucked up farm I’ve worked on.”
The man grinned.
“You fucked her, didn’t you?”
No. No. No.
He was always such a horrible liar. Unlike me.
Secrets are the yardstick of trust. Lacking the benefit of my wisdom, Dylan was naive enough to think trust was something you extended to people. The more you trusted someone, the more they were your friend.
He was also desperate to be liked–it was one of the things that made him so unlikeable.
As a result, he was often inclined to use trust as a kind of tool. If friendship  made for trust, then perhaps trust could make friendships as well. And so he suffered the disagreeable habit of wearing his heart on his sleeve.
He did not realize, the way you and I do, that trust is as much a matter of circumstances as is it people–if not more so. Secrets are gold in the everyday economy of social life. And as any economist will tell you, whether people hoard or spend generally depends on the prevailing economic climate. Maybe your friend has a hard time convincing people to listen to him. Maybe your friend finds himself in the company of people he trusts. Maybe your friend is inclined to make the very same mistake you did when you told him.
It all depends on the circumstances.
Trust is simply the skin we bare to the future. Our most honest face, and therefore our most foolish one.
 It understands that it must resort to norms when dealing with others, because that is how it happens.
Dylan could only be relentless with imaginative things. It could sit for hours detailing his invasion of the South Pacific, or outlining yet another fantasy novel he would never write.
Cutter, on the other hand, was relentless in the manner of hungry wolves and self-made millionaires. He only pursued things with taste.
“I can see it in you, you know.”
“Give it a rest.”
“She has a big bush, doesn’t she?”
“The biggest. I found that cigarette lighter you accused me of steal–”
“Ah! Ah! I fucking knew it!”
“What? C’mon, man. I was just jo–”
“You fucked Harley!” the grinning man cried, a palm raised to his forehead. “Jeeesuz!” He laughed, held Dylan frozen in his marvelling gaze.
“You dirty motherfucker!”
It seems clear to me Now that Dylan understood, that he knew full well that this doofus tell-me-what-it-was-like teenager routine wasn’t Cutter. But the simple fact was that Dylan had ached to tell his story, not simply to his buddies in St. Thomas, but to someone who shared this world, to someone who could really or potentially witness what he described.
And Cutter especially… To have accomplished something the man openly envied. To have banged a woman he had dreamed of banging. Cutter. Harley…
We all strive to make ourselves real through the fact of other people. To make the interpersonal the ground of the metaphysical. To spin strength out of admiration.
“How big was her bush?”