Listicle

Here’s a distillation of he hypothetical thesis I am proposing in my PhD applications, arguments which also inform the work I’m doing in my MFA thesis.

  1. Our conception of the body is always a historically contingent conception. When we talk about material things that affect our thoughts and emotions, part of what we negotiate with is the doubling effect of capitalist logic. Logic like–metaphysical transcendence being carried through physical substances. Feeling is a product of inputs–even circulating hormones and neurotransmitters are seen as static building blocks of emotions/thoughts. The sense that we should have an endless capacity for feeling better, and that the experience of pleasure is the ultimate indicator of accomplishment. 
  1. Part of what’s interesting about writing about health subcultures is their narrative approach to the body-mind connection and their often oblique negotiation with racial, ecological, geographic, architectural, and economic influences on embodied happiness.
  1. The literary and aesthetic genres which form around these health subcultures are capable of resisting this quantifiable logic and the colonial conquest which is its foundation, but also are often active perpetuate it.
  1. Sianne Ngai theorizes “minor aesthetic categories” as capitulating lived experiences in late capitalism; similarly, health genres capitulate something fundamental–though often unnamed–about the world we inhabit.
  1. Siegfried Kracauer: “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.” (The Mass Ornament, transl. Thomas Levin, 1995; page 75)
  1. In addition to a sense–real or imagined–of participating in tradition, herbalist subculture and similar health practices permit a hermeneutic approach to the body in the here and now: a reading-into the body which doesn’t reduce its functioning to biochemical (or even social) factors.
  1. This hermeneutic form isn’t just pseudo-scientific, it’s incompatible with the constraints of scientific objectivity. But the cultures which surround scientific medicine tends to weaponize objectivity such that narrative healing modalities can be seen as nothing except pseudo-scientific.
  1. And yet, even popular culture circulates domestic practice, daily habits, and even objects as remedies. These remedies tend to be couched in some small shred of scientific evidence–look at Women’s Health magazine–or are so fully aestheticized as to become a doubly-sanctified commodity: handcraft-as-remedy.
  1. It is also possible that the hermeneutic meaning-making of an ailment enabled by herbalism’s energetic diagnostic system reflects medical under-determination of how a human body can be acted upon by material substances. That the impact of substances on physical functioning–and the impact of physical functioning of thoughts–necessarily requires a framework more nuanced (and literary) than the one enabled by biochemistry or pharmacology.
  1. Further contextualization of health subcultures with psychiatry could potentially open rich, nuanced explorations of the drug war and the devastating, cross-sectional epidemics of addiction. The criminalization of certain botanical substances also puts into relief the oblique ways in which health genres negotiate with indigeneity, colonization, and the historical vilification of traditional medicine.
  1. More than particular remedies which might bring psychological solvency, I think some of the most compelling connections between health subcultures and the mental healthcare crisis are obscured by the minutiae scrutinized in the former: they both reflect contextually-specific physical and psychological needs disavowed by institutional medicine and care-taking. 
  1. These are questions which acknowledge that care-taking and medicine are at times distinct from each other.
  1. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure that thinking about that also requires a negotiation with the forms that spirituality takes in this disenchanted, neoliberal context

Grad Student Housing + Pandemic Lifestyle

There have been a lot of low-flying airplanes overhead around here in grad student housing which is really not at all unusual. Living in San Diego is pretty sci-fi, especially in this “neighborhood,” adjacent as we are to the hospital and various very tall buildings in suburban labyrinths with reflective fly-eye glass. But I’ve been interpreting every military plane or every ambulance siren I hear in relation to the virus. There are all of the usual emergencies from beforehand, and while the virus doesn’t change everything it does change the way I see what used to seem ordinary, which now seems remarkable in its continuity. Or the ways that it’s the same, but different. The HDH maintenance carts still rip through the maze-sidewalks, but now the workers wear masks. A man in scrubs biking towards the hospital at 6:30am. A flank of morning power-walkers peppily propelling themselves forward, squeezing other pedestrians to the sidelines, dangerously close to them. Chatting with the cashier at the grocery store, her face hidden behind a mask which slipped down her nose. The person bagging said she almost took the class I’m TA’ing for. “I would’ve been your TA!” I said. We drove back home in Ethan’s van, with the grocery bags sliding around in the back. There was the usual assortment of wrappers at the passenger-side footwell. Stroopwaffles and Honey-Stingers, mostly. And last night a child played pretend with their mother at the edge of the brand-new student housing complex, the one being repurposed to house students sick with COVID-19. “How much strawberry ice cream?” Pantomiming work at an ice cream parlor, hovering hands in the shape of invisible creams.

Ethan has been baking cakes: lightening cake, apple cake, lemon cake. He eats all the cake and the cake make him fart. He farts while we walk across the rainbow bridge and through Mesa Nueva, where electric signs display strangely buoyant PSA’s: “Difficult Journeys Lead to Beautiful Destinations” or hipster clip art about sneezing into your sleeve. There is caution tape stretched around gathering places, like around the ping-pong table and the playgrounds. But people still gather around picnic tables, or cluster in the grass. One evening there were people working out at the very edge of the caution tape stretched around the Mesa Nueva gym: a couple, doing core exercises where they held each others’ feet on that 2-foot perimeter. It seemed comical. On the walks things seem mostly normal. Yesterday when we walked across the rainbow bridge Ethan and I joked about ways he could continue working for REI, but remotely, taking customer service calls from his bedroom with his very fancy microphones, or posting promotional videos about REI products to YouTube. He has to attend a 1pm conference call today to find out the future of his employment there, after a month of receiving emergency pay. He expects to learn he’s being officially furloughed.

The economy is ridiculous though. It’s ridiculous all the things people do for money. It’s not exactly that the economy seems fragile per se to me, but that it is misguided. Real-life emergencies turn its misguidedness into its own emergency. So maybe that means the economy is fragile? Two winters ago, before I found out that I’d gotten into grad school, I got laid off from my job and spent a few weeks furiously applying to jobs and then trying to do everything else less furiously. I felt like a freight train I was reigning in, not because of unemployment per se but because of being constantly restless in general. But there was nothing I could do to make things go faster. The collapse of structure in my daily life tightened the pre-existing tautness but instead of heeding it I rented videos from Rainy Day records and watched them while I sewed a pastel button-up shirt in my tiny white apartment that looked over downtown Olympia. I wanted life to feel pastel. I watched the Tanya Harding movie and the documentary about Hedy Lamarr. So I know my own version of the panic feeling about not being able to make money, how it skews everything you see and collapses one’s patience for the efforts you can or should undertake to improve your situation. It’s hard when the only thing you can do is wait. But I do not know that feeling when so many other people are experiencing it too, so I imagine the impatience is exponential. Or maybe there is a comfort in the togetherness?

Last night I listened to the George Saunders interview with Cheryl Strayed, the one that’s making the rounds. I found it comforting and felt there was truth in this idea that we don’t even really know what this whole thing is yet, and we probably won’t know til later. How trying it is (especially on writers) to cede to that not-knowingness. There are the unknowns of what is happening in places I don’t have any access to: how bad is it inside of prisons, inside of hospitals, or to be homeless right now? What is that experience like? And then even to understand those places which I’m continuing to inhabit, though they are cinched by a partial tourniquet. What the loss of blood flow shows. That’s what people are saying, Rebecca Solnit too, about how crises are opportunities for seeing what’s already been happening. What Eirik was talking about in the Crisis Times about the molecular structure of the corona, the microscope, the eclipse: things that only become visible under specific circumstances. And I think it will take a long time to absorb and understand that, and there will be a question about how—even without understanding it all—something might change, or we might hold ourselves open to its possibility even under the duress of urgency.

Aesthetics Bibliography — Spring 2015

A long list of media, read and unread, which pertain to aesthetics. Philosophical aesthetics, art, popular culture, and the impact of reproduction upon poetry and image. Included here for archival purposes, mainly because they provide useful terminology for the study of pop culture and/or literature in the present. Do they matter to read? Maybe. (Asterik = yes.)

Continue reading “Aesthetics Bibliography — Spring 2015”

Medium

“[M]edium proceeds from an older philosophical usage (at the latest since Hegel and Herder) referring to an in-between substance or agency — such as language, writing, thinking, memory — that mediates and constitutes meaning; it resonates no less with esoteric and spiritualist connotations pivoting on an embodied medium’s capacity of communicating with the dead.”

Miriam Hansen, Cinema and Experience (Berkeley: University of California, 2011), 108.

Image taken from University of Chicago website — https://cms.uchicago.edu/news-events/miriam-hansen-memorial-lecture

Attempting to Translate “The Mass Ornament” (TBC)

Siegfried Kracauer. “The Mass Ornament.” In Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Translated by Thomas Y. Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, 74-86.

An excavation which proceeds sectionally, as does Kracauer:

1.

In the first paragraph of this essay, Kracauer sets his readers up for the analysis of popular culture that is to follow, kneading us into a receptive mode through which we might grasp the significance of studying synchronized dancers:

The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. Since these judgments are expressions of the tendencies of a particular era, they do not offer conclusive testimony about its overall constitution. The surface-level expressions, however, by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things. Conversely, knowledge of this state of things depends on the interpretation of these surface-level expressions. The fundamental substance of an epoch and its unheeded impulses illuminate each other reciprocally. (75)

Earlier in the spring I stopped after this mysterious first paragraph, wondering how I might apply Kracauer’s explanation of “reading the surface” to my own continuing curiosities about a domain of popular culture which, by its own declaration, pertains more to health and fitness than it does to passive entertainment. Already a few questions emerge here: what does it mean for an expression to be inconspicuous — is it by definition what we are so accustomed to that we overlook its meaning? How useful is the translation of marginalia to decipher the moment when it seems possible that only retrospectively can we decipher its era, when inevitably our own judgments interfere with our ability to discern such relevancy in fringe or frivolous expressions of culture? Continue reading “Attempting to Translate “The Mass Ornament” (TBC)”

Boredom, the Supernatural, and the Pursuit of Redemption

~~THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE, ETC~~

March 2015

Cover #4

From January til March 2015, I metabolized research on supernatural beliefs in relation to mental illness, malaise, health food fads, subculture, colonization, herbalism, and also art history into weekly crystallizations of questions, poetry, and drawings. What follows are the results of that experimentation. Some are more closed than others. Make it a treasure hunt for signs of herb school, Thierry de Duve, Walter Benjamin, Sianne Ngai, Marx, and the Paleo diet. In other words, how closely does the fetishization of commodities mirror the sacralization of “magical cures” and what healing power do aesthetic objects hold over us? These are some questions that pop up. Most of what I have to show here is from a not-yet-fully-digested stage (which I guess is the step before shit); there might be something important about these articulations in which the inter-related nature of disorganized material has not yet been stripped of its complexity via a concise synthesis, or at least that’s the wager. Here they are found in ascending order.

Ghost in the Machine #1

Ghost in the Machine #2

Ghost in the Machine #3

Ghost in the Machine #4

Ghost in the Machine #5

Ghost in the Machine #6

Extirpation

Chris Kresser

Who is Chris Kresser? According to the preface of his 2013 book Your Personal Paleo Code (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), he is someone who has been deeply moved by his own experience with “serious, disabling health problems that modern medicine seemed to have no solution for.” (x) This personal tribulation led him to seek out “science, wisdom, and trial and error to health himself, and due to that experience, he decided to pursue integrative medicine.” (x) His articulations are to be found on his highly successful website,  and he has a “thriving” private practice. One cannot visit his website without passing through several layers of pop-up invitations to join his list-serv (and receive in one’s email inbox paleo recipes tailored to you).

Your Personal Paleo Code is dedicated to “all who struggle with chronic illness: may this book be a catalyst for healing and self-discovery.”

Its sub-title is “The 3-Step Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Stay Fit and Healthy for Life.”

Who are the clients who fill the rosters at Chris’ private practice? Based upon his in-text anecdotes, often they seem to be people who are at the brink of frustration with the lack of total results they see from their already dialed-in habits.

One example, from Your Personal Paleo Code (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013):

“Jen, twenty-eight, came to see me complaining of difficulty reaching her target weight. She had started a Paleo diet nine months prior to our visit, and she lost twenty-five pounds — almost all of the thirty pounds she wanted to lose — over the first five months. But no matter what dietary modifications she made, Jen couldn’t lose those final five pounds. ‘It’s so frustrating,’ Jen told me. ‘I’m eating perfectly and exercising every day, but nothing changes. I’m completely stuck.”

I reviewed Jen’s case history, and I noticed she had a habit of staying up until midnight or later. She often used her laptop or iPad at night to check e-mail or chat with her friends on Facebook. She woke up frequently through the night and sometimes had trouble falling back asleep. And though she was often in bed for eight hours, she woke up feeling unrefreshed. I suggested to Jen that inadequate sleep and too much exposure to artificial light at night might be disrupting her metabolism and preventing her from losing those last five pounds. I suggested she try:

  • Getting to bed by ten or ten thirty each night
  • Stopping electronic media use at least two (and preferably three) hours before bedtime
  • Wearing orange glasses that filter out melatonin-suppressing blue light after dark (see below for more on this)
  • Making her sleep environment pitch-dark, cool, quiet, and free of electronic devices (Jen had a habit of leaving her phone on the nightstand)
  • Getting exposure to natural light first thing in the morning by taking a fifteen- to twenty-minute walk outside

After making these simple changes, Jen found the quality of her sleep improved dramatically, and she was finally able to lose those last five pounds. ‘I have so much more energy when I wake up,’ she reported, ‘and I feel much calmer throughout the day. But the best part is that I don’t feel hungry all the time anymore, and I’ve lost the extra weight without even trying.'” (231)

Connections between healthy habits (often with a veneer of “naturalism”) and the ability to maintain as low a weight as possible are frequently made in this book, and often are the first clause of a list which trails ailments which fit more readily into the category of “chronic disease”: how sleep disruption is a metabolic stressor (230, 231), how stress leads to weight gain (244-245))

Despite an emphasis on simulating the healthful conditions of our paleolithic ancestors, Kresser’s advice is well-suited for those whose lifestyle modifications are likely to be accompanied by purchases of various kinds, be it a change in grocery shopping habits or neat little tools for amping up one’s office strength training routine: “The idea is for you to integrate short bursts of physical activity throughout your day. You might, for example, do three sets of push-ups, three sets of pull-ups, and three sets of lunges interspersed with periods of sitting or standing at your desk (or walking at it, if you have a treadmill desk).” Toys suggested: push-up handles, pull-up bar, PowerBlocks, Abdominal wheel, weight bench. (218) That these health suggestions are accompanied by the suggestions of objects are financially inaccessible to many seems to only reflect that Kresser’s genre of advice is tailored to a crowd whose lives follow the rhythms of capitalism yet who expect that this should not interfere with their health, and whose participation in the marketplace is one that affords them the ability to purchase such tokens of health. Part of Kresser’s success undoubtably has to do with how organized his website is. It is something of a clearing-house of alternative health information, in the Paleo vein. Without much scouring, one can easily access articles on hot topics of health; the ambiguity of scientific studies cited is compensated for with the authoritative (and aestheticized) arrangement of the data. Does this adaptation of integrative health advice, formerly fringe, belie more profit-driven intentions on the part of Kresser? In what ways does this tailoring of advice to a more affluent (or health-fixated) crowd — those who unabashedly embrace the imposition of work upon their lives — define this way of addressing the body?

I’m thinking about the ways in which readers whose class backgrounds might differ from the clients whose success stories Kresser cites get caught in the net of performative paranoia, as they seek out remedies to the chronic diseases which are nested in with all the other bodily ills he speaks of. It seems as though the ways in which his health advice center so thoroughly on weight loss that they are not, in fact, suited to those readers who seek out remedies to the chronic diseases. Perhaps this is to say that Kresser, as a phenomena, is less of a health revolution so much as a progression of the market that stokes fearfulness of bodily uncertainty and malaise in exchange for profit, albeit with more successful results. Is this intrinsic to the pursuit of health which revolves around the mediation of information and data?

Kresser capitalizes on more and less legitimate health concerns related to lifestyle, speaking to fringe health fanatics while still presenting as authoritative and trust-worthy to those less inclined to such fanaticism. Often positions himself to re-mediate health-obsession and paranoia, publishing articles on the dangers of over-exercising and excessive carbohydrate restriction, while still very much appealing to a cultural urge to deduce the benefit or risk of habit down to the microscopic level with an eye towards optimizing the body’s performativity. He writes in a colloquial, personable manner while citing scientific studies, and leaves plenty of room for scientific ambiguity.

One perfect example of the ways in which paranoia about product composition (environmental contamination in the lining of the can, or nameable diagnoses with compact acronyms which restrict one from certain types of products — “fructose malabsorption,” or FM for short) gets routed towards purchase of safer products:

Coconut Milk Article

(“Recent research has also tied fructose malabsorption to depression.”)

One more note on the topic of Kresser — but one reflection of the “branding” of a certain way of eating. With this trend more broadly, a diet that is simple, and perhaps the epitome of agrarianism (rather than of the Paleolithic) becomes a token of cosmopolitian identity; opting out of certain kinds of foods, rather than a removal of aspects of self, become ways to put on an alternate identity.