Whatever happened to fair dealing?
And pure ethics and nice manners?
Why is it everyone now is a pain in the ass?
Whatever happened to class?
— Velma from Chicago
Last month on my way to the Bloomberg SPACE gallery, I walked directly into a glass wall that was unfortunately situated extremely close to a revolving door on the building’s southwest corner. Thus from the corner of Finsbury Square where my face impacted upon a transparent piece of building, I suddenly felt a cold liquid emit from under my left eyebrow. I was aided by a pregnant woman who took one look at me and said to her mobile interlocutor, “I have to go…I will call you back.” Her face spoke of horror and concern while I was simply curious as to why there was a glass wall in the middle of a public walkway. The woman pulled out moist towels and I used them to remove the blood streaming down my face as she asked if I felt faint. After cleaning myself up a bit I went to the Finsbury Square entrance of what I thought to be Bloomberg SPACE. Instead I had entered into Bloomberg WORLD — Michael Bloomberg’s media operational cerebrum in the UK of which the gallery was but one tiny corner. Everyone who greeted me displayed horror upon their faces noting the blood and the one centimetre gash on my brow as I walked up to the front desk. I said to the person behind the entrance desk: “I would like to propose that you make a warning sign on the pane of glass you have on your corner entrance.” Coincidentally the site nurse was entering the building to pick up her pre-Christmas mail at the very moment I arrived; hence, she patched me up, another woman gave me a print-out of a map to the nearest A&E and all who greeted me were extremely kind and concerned. One woman wanted to ensure that I felt fine before standing up from the divan upon which they had seated me while another took my name and mobile number. Moreover the care and help I received that day from about a dozen people to include taxi drivers, nurses and doctors was remarkable and in this experience I found myself laughing hysterically whilst my wound was being glued up as if I were a boxer. Just as everyone was worried for the scar that was to come, I was excited that I would finally have a scar on my face.
“All is well that ends well” or so the saying goes yet all are not so generous in interpretation of this day’s events. Some people that day told me cynically, “They were just nice to you because they were afraid of a law suit.” Others suggested I sue Michael Bloomberg to which I scoffed. I choose to see this situation quite differently for this day taught me much more about the human capacity for understanding and kindness from a great number of people. It also taught me how in the most unfortunate (or fortuitous) of circumstances humans can be supportive and present. Or, according to one taxi driver, “You can’t just tell the story as it happened, you need to include a black diamond run and a twenty foot drop…and a snowboard.” I take note of all suggestions and continue my story of love and death in the 21st century.
The next morning, I awoke, took my bath being careful not to wet the injury as instructed by the nurse at the hospital. I later noticed when putting on my sunglasses before leaving my home, that the scar under my left eyebrow was in the exact shape as my Tom Ford sunglasses. It was then that I realised that what had befallen me was not only a perverse coincidence of political discord between my views of corporate media and capital and those of Michael Bloomberg’s, but there was a deeper reading of this event: a fashion statement made in the most unexpected of manners. Call it an economic fashion anomaly if you will. This uncertainty as to whether or not my glasses had protected my injury from the Bloomberg building, if they had rendered it more severe or less linear, or if they were incidental in this episode of life made me think about the implications of a fashion scar being formed through a combination of an architectural structure such as the Bloomberg SPACE and a designer-fashioned pair of sunglasses. For to whom do I owe a thank you for my new scar? Tom Ford, Michael Bloomberg, or both? Where standers-by and friends saw reason for panic and concern, I saw an opportunity to experience my body differently and to embrace the scar. While images of Cronenberg’s Crash did briefly come to mind, nothing was as evocative or sexy in reality. However real life did add this to the equation: respect and love.
From the moment I received this scar I realised that I see the world very differently than many people in this particular culture. Where most around me were concerned about the aesthetically negative valences this scar could perpetuate, I was interested in experiencing this mark as a positive measure, for why do we only embrace tatoos or piercings as positive and creative? Cannot life also reveal the coincidence of beauty in “accident” or in the “uncanny”? Must all experience be categorised formulaically for I have rarely experienced life in such as way. For example, most times people have given me gifts in my life, I have not liked them. I do not like “gifts”, certainly not material ones. Yet the image we are given in society is to “be happy” whereupon a gift is given (or to feign happiness so as not to upset anyone) and to cry upon certain types of “sad” news. I do not react robotically to all events of this world and I am not unashamed to say that I was indeed happy to learn when Pope John Paul II died. Upon the announcement of his death, I could only think of all the people his ignorance affected—namely the millions upon this planet who have died and who are suffering as a result of AIDS. John Paul II’s death made me feel like the earth was free one evil soul and that was enough to counter the posturing of headlines across the world who attempt to infect the masses with a posthumous “sadnesss”. Life I do not believe should be interpreted in one facile, rote manner and so logically the event of a chance encounter with a glass wall is by all measures of human tragedy simply not a tragedy, nor is it the same celestial sphere as one.
In response to my collision with the Michael Bloomberg and Tom Ford architectonic constructions of glass and polymer I came to see how much concern and love in the world there is. I realise that I had been blind to much of the positive energy around me in recent monthsdue to my involvement with a person whose idea of support while I was in the hospital was to send a breakup SMS (Sex and the City‘s Carrie should consider her post-it dumping a literary manifesto compared to the monosyllabic grunts I received) and whose ability to love was non-existent. It is interesting to observe that when you remove toxic people from your life, the world actually does open up and you realise that this toxic presence impeded—even repelled—positive experiences. I have learned in the past year and a half that negative, controlling people will simply carry on their neurotic mission to control and perpetuate their unhappiness. The only thing one can do in reaction to these individuals is to run very fast and far away. By comparison having my forehead cut open by Michael Bloomberg’s building was a far more positive experience than anything my recent lovers offered me. This was the funk from which I was exiting and the plasticity of my wounds marked the exit from this tunnel of self-reflection. I had long ago learned that love need not come in the form of paper-wrapped flowers or cliché-filled chemist-bought greeting cards, for there is no pre-defined recipe for love. But love definitely does not come in the form of a hate-filled person who uses any sort of aggression to expound her power upon the other. I will take being hit by a building any day of the week (thank you very much). Metaphor or magic—or a little of both—I was hit by a building and this experience served as both the path out of my personal tornado of clouds and confusion. I knew I would never be able to return to Kansas. In short, I am thrilled that I was hit by an immobile building and that Tom Ford’s creation has marked my brow—I could not wish for a more positive turn of events. This collision with a “flying house” forced me to meditate upon the reasons for human wickedness and to reflect upon the paucity of love amongst certain humans. And my companion through this endeavor was not a tiny mutt but rather some rather gifted and stunning actors and dancers.
In recent weeks I have been attending theatre almost every night—sometimes twice a day—and I have been deeply infected by it all, especially musical theatre. The beautiful ironies of Chicago and Wickedwere welcome companions in my struggle to make sense of why people can be so deeply unkind and unhappy. According to one of the protagonists in The Charity that began at Home, “People are unkind because they don’t know how to be anything other”, a logical if not humanist sentiment of the early 20th century in a period where humans were trying to make sense of the horrors of the First World War. Of course when someone does us “wrong”, we humans generally wish to have more than a tidy conclusion in the form of “understanding” which involves us pitying the former colleague or ex-lover who behaved quite atrociously. But more often than not, “moving on” does often involve us having to pity that person who was incapable of honesty or kindness and the lessons of several musicals rendered evident this struggle between compassion and revenge. Chicago served up much of the balm that soothed my nerves as Roxie Hart’s cellmate describes the murder of her husband: “I guess you could say we broke up because of artistic differences–he saw himself as alive and I saw him as dead.” The theatrical framing of truth and justice in Chicago would drive most to be either an incredible cynic or a sappy romantic (which begs the question as to whether these two valences are not more closely related than previously thought). This play lends the viewer a sense of relative justice—imperfectly distributed such that the evil and dishonest can prosper yet ubiquitously comic and redemptive in that those who commit human errorshave the possibility for a “come back”, a two-woman vaudeville show that will of course be a “success”. The lesson to be learned from these two plays is rooted in the forgiveness of the self and/or of the other. Where Wicked historicises the humanity behind the Wicked Witch of the West lending a back story to The Wizard of Oz, Chicago reveals a world of 1920′s Prohibition-era Chicago where a woman’s power is derived from deceit, revenge, theatre and glamour and where logically show business is the redemption from her sins. We learn to love the flaws of these protagonists as they attempt to redeem themselves while the central lesson here is not to mourn the wicked ways of others, but instead to embrace the change which they have effected in us.
Despite these plays’ attempts to recalculate justice, I am still distraught by the moral relativism that pervades much of Western society today where nothing seems to be “right” or “wrong”, whereby we have lost or are in the process of losing our moral compass in our treatment of others. While I cannot disavow the importance of forgiveness, we can only forgive if there is a party to accept responsibility for her actions. While people are capable of atrocious actions, a surprising number are able to treat their fellow humans badly only to turn around and justify their abuse and to deny all responsibility. Abusive behaviour is excused because the abuser can state “I just felt like it” or “That is just your interpretation” and there seems to be no shame in ill-action towards others. To the contrary one can now capitalise on such behaviour and have live-strem web channel or even a cable television program that transforms shame into spectacle. Roxie Hart is only the tip of today’s iceberg of ”criminality”, but at least Roxie realises the moral implications of her actions and there are subtle moments of recognition from this character. Today it is axiomatic that one can justify most behaviour by claiming another’s injury as perception, never real. Toxic humans have now only to gaslight the other and all is dismissed. Thus, it is not so surprising that an emotionally abused Matilda goes to the school librarian and asks for the “revenge section” of books and in the RSC’s production of this play that she is able to converse in fluent Russian with the mafia boss who is about to disembowel her father, saving him from a well-deserved end. People treat others badly because that is all they know, or so the musicals tell us, but such ill-treatment flows over from the anonymous social relations of street vendors and customer, doctor and patient, and various others to include abuser and abusee. We are are quickly losing our ability to assume responsibility for our actions or to have any sort of critical distance from our actions and this is reflected in our inability to communicate respectfully—be it with the Russian mafia, our friends or members of our community and there are precise reasons for this decline in social skills and human empathy.
Over the past fifteen years, I have noticed more humans with increasing difficulty in consolidating healthy bonds with others often because one (or both) parties refuses to compromise on issues of communication. Our current form of hyper-communication has moved us from the personal to the more impersonal, from the intimate to the invasive, and all the while we pat ourselves on our backs commenting on our increased ability to communicate. How many times do we witness and participate in these activities: engaging in live conversations with friends while simultaneously using our mobile phones or computers, twitting, twatting and poking, not really paying attention to any of these “conversations” we are undertaking? How many times have you turned your phone off or at the very least the ringer, in order to show respect for the person who has taken time to meet you? Or the number of times you have had conversations with friends or significant others literally having to sit there to wait for you to finish your secondary conversation? The fact is that technological etiquette is one area where our abuse of others is most obvious and yet we are slow to critique our individual and collective patterns of socialisation which alienate others and push all forms of human intimacy far away. Distant are the days when the home telephone would ring and a parent would exclaim, “If it is important, they will call back!” or later years when the answering machine would respond and the family dining together would hear the message being left (thereafter, someone would inevitably run off after the meal to return the call of said person).
Once upon a time there used to be sacred moments of being together that are now prolapsed into the masturbatory thought of being together whereby it is now commonplace that people put you on hold to take the “call waiting” as if your time were less important then theirs, whereby one puts the mobile on the table next to the dessert fork ready to be drawn as if an instrument of duel, and whereby meeting another human in person is reduced to 140 characters all with the pretence than succinct is better. The dispersal of technology has left many without respect for others and paradoxically without anything to say. What is apparent in the social panorama of today is that few people are capable of writing 140 characters in any reasonably correct grammatical or syntactical fashion, most are incapable of expressing an idea that moves beyond anything that a monosyllabic grunt could not concur and even more do not care to truly interact and share ideas because they are too busy writing the above trivialities on Twitter to have people say, “Right, dude.” In essence, our experiment with human communication is undone by our need to announce the most trivial of thoughts in favour of the human, real time dialogues over tea or dinner. Why not be honest and write: “Dear all five dozen followers most of whom I do not know, let me twit to you and tell you that I am thinking of buying X gadget because this is all my brain could conjure up at 16h34 yesterday afternoon…and I just farted”? Today we live in an era where many Western subjects are incapable of expressing anything more than the entirely trivial or superficial and where thoughts of purchases are somehow deemed “important”. Our notion of good communication comes down to grunting back at the trivialities of the virtual machinery which we have accommodated and while we claim to want intimacy, our behaviour speaks to a desire to want anything but. That we are direly in need of a reformation of ethics in the 21st century is self-evident.
Here are two stories that are immediately relevant. In June 2009, while attending Michael Jackson’s funeral in Los Angeles in there was a woman to my right texting the details of the funeral every twenty seconds. After about fifteen minutes I turned to her and said, “Can you show a little respect? This is a person’s funeral.” She stared at me in disbelief and queried, “Are you like serious?” I responded sarcastically, “I am like totally for sure serious.” She then turned off her mobile and we continued to observe the funeral. And recently, a friend of mine who is a psychiatrist in New York recently told me, “In recent months when a patient is describing a boyfriend or girlfriend I regularly have to stop them and ask, ‘Have you ever met this person?’” Both of these stories point to a contemporary, self-imposed loss of subjectivity wherein virtuality has become a form of madness wherein the subject lives within her own world of needs, perception, desires and fact and all the rest is fiction. More troublingly is that the greater problem is not the madness itself, it is that many wish to continue to live within this socially disconnected reality. The anti-social behaviour that has been created by the many addicts of social media has led to this recent inability of certain subjects to live in the world and tautologically each creates the other. The real is not only a concept of lived experimentation, it is a valence that is heavily bound by our ability to think, feel and reflect. Without this real world of experiences everything lacks consequence and anything that goes against our unidimensional notions of the real (ie. other viewpoints and experiences) becomes subsumed by the individual’s inability to accept other expressions that are merely different from her own.
Last month a building hit me on the head (or me it) and I was struck by a real, tactile residue of materiality and never before have I been so pleased to received this reminder of material reality. For in the striking of my head came the concomitant tasks that would fill much of that day as I had to depend upon complete strangers for help: bureaucrats, a staff nurse, hospital administration, a hospital nurse and doctor, two taxi drivers, and many others who seeing my wound would query as to my physical well-being. These interactions cannot be measured by virtuality for they contain the ethos of reality that no matter what life-saving tweet might exist on this planet (and indeed as I found in Haiti it was a useful tool for medical supplies), Twitter will never replace human love and our ability to dialogue, to agree and to disagree in all transparence and freedom without blocking or banning others from the realm of the real. The virtual dialogue today takes place in under the auspices of communication but in reality it is a theatre of consensus whereby it is not uncommon that to disagree with one’s virtual interlocutor is to uncover the tantrum-wielding child who plugs his ears humming, “I am right” over and over and the dissenter is blocked from all future disagreements. In real life these individuals are far worse at tolerating disagreement as we are unlearning how to interact with others as the plethora of social media, I fear, renders us idiots in the face of a social mechanism that we abuse to further ripen our anti-social behaviours. For the sake of technology and sophistication we are all at the dinner table pretending to have a real time conversation whilst we hide our portable devices under the table carrying on a conversation with yet another human—often someone we know not. We call this living, technological advancement and forward thinking. Many humans in the developing economies of the world would call this dying as we invest ourselves in projections of fictions that have no basis in a shared reality or sincere exchange.
Recently I made a friend who told me she and her partner had been together ten years and she seemed genuinely happy in her own skin, happy in her couple. My response was to announce that I wanted to photograph them both since I know of only one other happy and healthy lesbian couple on the planet. She then described the origins of their love story in these terms: “I was a butterfly and she was s bird…and we just fell in love and flew off together.” This story made me realise the need that humans have to believe, to trust and and to create a world of imagined possibilities that sidesteps any conventional notion of progress or technological advancement. In a world where amidst all that categorical guessing, hoping and social melding, it will always be necessary in order for love to flourish that we are capable of taking that leap of faith—of suspending the absurd present of technology for the shared presence of experiential sharing and dialogue. I look around me and I notice an awful lot of damaged humans whose lips claim to want love yet their actions bespeak nothing other than an adolescent child pushing against all others in rebellion against any form of communion, community and who seek out an other in order to enforce their sadistic notions of subjectivity. The one common denominator of love is that it is a shared experiencewhere all embrace its unknown, uncertain trajectory. In any construction of love there reside imperfections, dialogues, discord and harmony but all these modalities are brought together under the auspices of attempting to create something out of nothing. This creation demands presence, being, and sometimes it does demand becoming that butterfly.
Of late our society is entering into a self-obsessed phase of falsity whereby commodity and communications via smart phones are rendering us quite stupid. I notice more and more frequently adults who behave as small children having tantrums when others disagree about a point of aesthetics or politics in real-life conversations as these subjects have been spoiled by the virtual world which can lock these individuals into virtual chambers of accord, consensus and other fictions of idle agreement. Have we arrived at a cognitive block wherein the live flesh subject can no longer interact or react because there is no button reading “block user”? It would seem so as I have noticed an increase in volatile live interactions whereby disagreement on any subject—trivial or political, social or commercial—becomes the grounds for verbal warfare. Have we become so emotionally constipated in our dealings with others that our only hope for interaction is based on these false twitter dialogues of “Maybe it is time for me to buy a x?” or “I drank too much last night”, all unidirectional statements that are not at all in the spirit of interaction but instead are cul-de-sac for the deadening of human interaction. These emissions are rapportage of the inconsequential and trivial that speak loudly to our own shallowness of spirit and inability to think or feel. It is as if we were beset with the need to describe our scatological needs in a less obviously vulgar sense all the while mimicrying the language of scatology. We are simply shitting discourses of excess and our inability to truly feel comes out of the contemporary subject who cannot be with his lover for the evening without checking email and voicemail constantly, who must look every few minutes to see who poked him or what concert tickets are available for sale at that particular moment. We are looking so far foreword that we cannot see or live in the present—we now rescind living life in favour of planning it. Our notions of reality are transposed from the empirical and lived to the hypothetical and bureaucratically annotated trivia of what a smartphone offers as we reduce life to a forum of pure agreement based on banal assumptions about the self and others. For if we do not agree, then we can actually “unfriend” another human. Just the word “unfriend” denotes a linguistic violence which undoes the true notion of the word, friend, with a simple prefix meant as an opposition to all that post-cedes it, rendering banal any such formation of friendship or unfriendship. It is a sad paradox that the only real act of friendship in this virtual world of hyper-communication is that of “unfriending”.
In 1658 Samuel Pepys underwent a surgery from which a gallstone was said to have been removed and later gold-plated. Today the Museum of London holds this paperweight in its collection. In the 17th century it was quite normal that the sick somatic tissue be transformed into a useful object, even into a trophy to highlight the un-anesthetised subject’s battler over death. I would have thought such an object revolting, even abject not so many years back; however now I appreciate such objects for they speak to the lived experience of humans which are in and of themselves becoming rarified moments of unhaunting the house of near-death experiences, of living our mortality to the edge and then coming back to life. Today the most typically relevant statement a Western subject can make in its virtuality is to point to an event or object with the utmost of superficial terms while commenting on the purely banal. It is this current mania of hyper-communication where cogent thought is increasingly marginalised and human interaction is reduced to people writing “yeah”, “cool”, or posting a “thumbs up” on Facebook. All that can be reduced to simplistic agreement of any utterance nowadays is acceptable and even encouraged while conversely anything polysyllabic or thought-inducing is rejected, usually in the vein of being “off-subject” for a specific thread/discussion, often labelled as “negative”. Thought is reduced to consensus and death is quickly upon those subjects for whom disagreement is tantamount to a “turf war”. I must confess that Samulel Pepys’ gallstone is looking more interesting as an experiment of human life than anything I have tasted in recent virtual conversations since the early 1990s when I was an online dominatrix for New York’s “Male Stop”.
We need to embrace the transformative imagery of butterflies, flying buildings and any other magically real experiences in order to fully grasp this world in its fullness and polyvalent authenticity. Still, many choose to abdicate reality for a masturbatory world of “what ifs”, pokes and our 574 “friends” (who are anything but friends) rather than live in the “here and now” many favour a diet of a pre-programmed, controlled future, a tour guided bus of life. Virtual reality will never replace reality and the mistakes many are making in today’s world is to lean on the Internet as an elixir to loneliness. Indeed the Internet can seem to create real social spaces amidst its virtuality yet the paradox of virtual reality is this: it recreates the very site and circumstances for loneliness. Sometimes the only way to survive the present cruel realities of this earth is to face the real world and to dream as does Matilda who teaches us to look beyond the murky negativity of others and to create our own happiness: “I was flying past the stars on silver wings [and] it was wonderful.” I cannot name my magical condition or transformative powers and I may never truly know the reason for this scar over my left eye, but I am finding my wings and testing the airs as I emerge from the cocoon of hurt into a world which is full of possibilities and love.