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What We Allow
April Letter: on narration, representation, and Birch rooting in the soul
A long time ago, at least a long time by internet standards, before social media became a really awful thing that destroyed thinking, blogs weren’t so much for essays but rather for public journaling. Platforms like “LiveJournal,” for instance, were really just about telling your friends, family, and anyone else who might care what you were up to, what you were thinking, who you were hanging out with, and how you felt.
It didn’t take long for this all to get messy. Very quickly, online journals became performative acts subject to competitive pressures. You had to write something better than others, more interesting, more funny, or more acerbic to get everyone’s attention, because suddenly getting everyone’s attention mattered. By the time Facebook and Twitter began to dominate, that competition for affirmation had thoroughly changed the way we wrote for others, meaning that we began to compose thoughts in our head not according to how we wanted to think them, but how we thought others might want them to be thought.
When, ten years ago, I headed off alone for several months to Europe on a pilgrimage to ancient pagan sacred sites, I’d decided to keep a public journal. Those entries, as well as a subsequent journal I kept for another such pilgrimage a few years later, still remains some of my favorite writing.
Already, though, I’d begun to understand the problem of experience and narration. Especially for writers, we can find our experiences mediated (or filtered) through the lens of narrative intent, what we might say about a thing to others rather than what the thing feels like to us alone. From one of the earliest entries:
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, particularly. Narrating one’s life is quite crucial and I think probably universal. However, I’ve noticed there’s plenty of times that I experience something and immediately wonder how to describe it to someone else. This–this is probably not good. Not everything is meaningful, not everything can be re-inscribed into the world of others (who really cares what you had for dinner?) or should be thus re-inscribed.
But obviously, some things can be and should be. Why tell story in the first place? Why write any of this at all, or read what others say?
And from an entry a few days later, when I lost a camera I’d been given to take photos for others:
…I found myself obsessing over this camera and where I could possibly have lost it. I needed it, you see.
Well, sort of. This made me think about several things (walking for miles is great for thinking), including why I’d been taking so many photos in the first place. It was, mostly, for you, dear reader, dear friends. I don’t resonate heavily with photos myself, unless they are extremely good, but I thought for certain this would be the best way to explain to you how fucking beautiful this place is, how strange and wondrous it is to come out from a copse of pine or oak to a small medieval village and then see the sea.
I walked extra, retracing my steps several times in order to find where I’d lost the fucking thing. It was getting quite close to sunset, I knew this was a lost hope, but I took another detour to check one last time.
I wonder, though. Did some higher part of myself leave it on the rocks on purpose? Or did I leave it at the chapel? Its loss has actually been a very good thing for me. Here’s why: I’d see something profound, beautiful, breathtaking, Otherworldly, and immediately fumble for my camera, snap a couple of photos, check to see if I’d caught the image right, and then put it away and walk on.
That is, I stopped seeing things, except to see them for others. I realised this just as the sun was setting, just as I knew I had no hope of getting back before dark. I sat on a rock, frustrated, tired (my feet are mangled, by the way), and found myself seeing something unimaginable in its beauty.
The sun set over the bay, brilliant and dark hues of purples, violets, blues mixing with crimson reflecting off the water of the bay (the tide had come in fully now). Greens of seaweed floated like islands upon the water, and silver danced in the waves where the last whites of the sun hit. The stones of the shore are black, but also dun, as was the sand, though giving off a yellowgold that seemed like trapped sunlight from the warm day.
I cried, but not from sadness. (source: Your Face Is A Forest)
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin both heavily explored this narrative-perception problem. Walter Benjamin argued that the industrial proliferation of the camera and especially of film was training us to see the world and ourselves in industrialized ways. In other words, machines were teaching us to think like machines, converting us into masses rather than individuals in community with each other.
By the time Jean Baudrillard wrote his work Simulation and Simulacra, the process Benjamin had described appeared to have been impossible to reverse. For Baudrillard, heavily influenced by Benjamin, we’d reached a point where we could no longer distinguish between the Real and the way capitalism had shaped our belief about what was Real. We had become so accustomed to seeing copies (simulations) of really-existing things that we began to judge the things they represented against them and found them lacking and even inauthentic.
To see this, consider how photos in particular leads us both to feel disappointed with our own lives, and also to shape our lives so that they look more like our photographic depictions of it. Take the following photo, for example. It’s a picture I took of my balcony after briefly cleaning it to prepare it for gardening:
That photo’s been filtered and modified. Here’s the original picture:
Neither of them are “actually” my balcony, by which I mean they are only digital representations of a machine’s view of it. Neither of these photos comes close to depicting my experience of it, nor what it “really” looks like. But of course if I had to choose one, I’d choose the filtered, altered version, because it’s a bit closer to how I’d like it to look.
What’s also crucial to Baudrillard’s point is what’s not in the image. You cannot see me taking the photo, nor can you derive any sense of why I took it, why I chose to stand there rather than elsewhere, or anything else really. Also, even though neither of those photos is the real thing itself, you already have a sense in your head of which of them is actually authentic.
In the opening chapter of my upcoming book, Here Be Monsters: How to Fight Capitalism Instead of Each Other, I write a bit more about this problem:
On social media, especially on image- or video- heavy platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, we are presented — and present others with — visions of a real that doesn’t really exist. When someone posts a selfie, for instance, they’ve often selected that image from dozens of other photos which they decided weren’t good enough to show. “Spontaneous” scenes of laughter with friends, stunning vistas, and even restaurant meals are never actually spontaneous. Getting the camera just right, making sure your friends are all looking the same direction, ensuring you’ve gotten the right angle on the landscape or the plate in front of you: these actions and many more are part of the creation of the “candid” glimpses of our lives we try to show the world.
We all know this because we all do this, yet even still, we often experience the images and videos of others as if they are actually not staged. We might then feel a bit depressed: that intimate photo of a man with ripped muscles — how does he just wake up with perfect hair in the morning like that? The tanned woman laughing with her friends at the club on a Friday night — why does her life look so exciting compared to our own?
We know it’s not actually “real,” yet we find ourselves nevertheless treating it all as if it were. Worse than this, we find ourselves unknowingly trying to emulate these false representations, posing our friends around a table at a club, arranging our hair and getting back into bed just to show that we, too, are happy and beautiful. And who are we trying to prove this all to? Others, or maybe also ourselves?
It’s easiest to see this problem in photography and film, but writing is shaped just as much by this problem of authenticity and simulation. What I narrate to you, how I narrate it, and even how I experience my life as narration is all mediated by this same problem.
What this often looks like is hard to explain, but I’ll try. Last weekend, I went with the same companion to the same sauna complex I mentioned in my recent essay, Naked. The experience was even more intense for me than the previous one, but rather for other reasons. The difficulty is that I cannot actually describe that intensity or those reasons without using narrative conclusions about my inner life and the movements of my heart which would restrict or enclose too much. To narrate that part of me would be, as with a camera shot, to excise out all the other important things while trapping others within too narrow of a frame.
Also, I’m trying not to narrate this to myself, either, and that’s the really hard part. It feels like to narrate these moments and these experiences would be to close them off, transforming them from raw life ever-unfolding into static and inert history.
A photo is a flat depiction of a moment in more than just its dimensions. It can never reproduce the actual texture of the things it depicts, nor the full experience of the person taking the photo. We do not only see things with our eyes. We are always feeling the world around us beyond our peripheral vision: breath of wind on our neck, the warmth or chill of the air, the connection to surface and ground, the taste and the smell and the sound of the place we are standing.
Our mood, our memories, our dreams, our desires, our fears: none of those get picked up by the camera’s dead eye. In writing we can give slightly better clues to how we “really” felt, but even still no words can ever carry the full weight of experience.
It occurs to me, just now, that what seems an intolerable problem of representation is really just a problem of thinking. I’ve started research already for my next manuscript, thanks to a generous donation from a reader. The first book I’ve started reading is a very lengthy (800+) page treatise on the way medieval and early-modern people thought about demons, magic, and witches. Broadly, the author’s point is that we cannot really understand what this all meant without first understanding the patterns of thought and thinking which shaped their way of seeing the world. We are limited now by certain habits of thought which we now prefer and others which we no longer use.
This is somewhat the same point Federici makes regarding the mechanistic worldview which arose during the transition to capitalism, especially regarding the war on magic and occult-thinking waged by the bourgeoisie. We now think the way they thought and see the world through their lenses, favoring certain modes of thinking and prioritizing certain kinds of experiences while rejecting all others.
This means we re-narrate the world according to their narrations. Just as from the monotheistic worldview all other gods but their preferred one-god suddenly became first “false gods,” and then later “demons,” and then eventually just Satan, our way of seeing what is “true” has narrowed to exclude (and re-narrate as false) everything outside their frame.
Of course, outside that terribly small frame is everything else in the world, all the rest of our experiences and all else that exists for itself. In such a situation, then, what sense can be made of, say, the moment in a Shinto shrine a decade ago when I became Cedar? Or, say, a moment this weekend when in dangerously extreme heat (95 Celsius/ 200 Fahrenheit) Birch rooted in my soul just at the point my companion mouthed silent words to me?
That, though, is where we escape this problem. “I became Cedar” and “Birch rooted in my soul” are true statements. No other way to narrate these moments could approach so closely the actual things that happened.
In fact, those are the only ways they can be truthfully described. Any other attempt risks destroying the experience through translation error, minimizing it, dissecting it, and reshaping it to be more palpable for those in whose frames Cedar and Birch are not allowed to do such things.
These questions now matter more than any others to me. What else, I wonder, can things do and be that we don’t let allow them? What else can we do and be? And why did we ever allow ourselves to be convinced that “being allowed” was something we have any say about? And especially, what have I not been allowing myself?
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