Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Will the best allegory for postmodern subjectivity please stand up? My angle on the Cyborg Manifesto

Believe it or not, I only just read "The Cyborg Manifesto" a few months ago. I was born the year it was published (1985), so my generation grew up in a post-Cyborg-Manifesto-World, and I'm realizing that many of the ideas central to this blog are spiritually descended from the kind of work Haraway was doing in that essay. It was awesome to have the opportunity to read her essay closely for my Feminist and Queer theory class this spring.

    In Donna Haraway's seminal and iconoclastic essay she introduces the cyborg as the central figure in an "ironic political myth" that she offers as an instructive and potentially liberating allegory—a myth deployed to combat more destructive myths in the thunderdome of cultural representations. In particular this methodological myth might serve, she suggests, as a tactic for women to re-imagine agency, embodiment and subjectivity, particularly with respect to updating outmoded identity politics and liberatory rhetorics in socialist and feminist thought.

    Echoing the concerns of other postmodern and post-structuralist feminists, Haraway takes issue with essentialist concepts wielded in some dominant feminist movements. Examples would be the concept of "women's experience" (that there is anything universal about it) or early ecofeminist rhetoric that idealizes Edenic matriarchal human legacies, or symbolically associates women/female with earth and holism. Although these imaginings have been part of the necessary dialectical landscape of feminist thought and the strategic complexities of opposing the subordination of women, they have perhaps erroneously pitted the technological and the fragmented in opposition to women, in simplest terms applying a morality of "technology = bad, earth = good". There is a sense in which mechanization, science and technology have been associated with patriarchy by feminists, but also by patriarchal systems of thought themselves (for example, the idea that women are not naturally proficient at math and science). Therefore, the association of technology with male and of earth with female in feminist thought, although it might have served as a way for women to re-appropriate being named as "other" and excluded from participation in high "culture", no longer represents a viable strategy for understanding the cybernetic ecology of personhood in a globalized and increasingly computerized world. Haraway points out that these narratives have been the creations of white first-world women, and indicates that any productivity such narratives might have is to the extreme detriment and exclusion of women of color, women in third world countries or women who face any constellation of multiple oppressions not experienced by white women in America. Although she doesn't use the terminology of "queer" or "trans", this essay was a harbinger for the project of problematizing essentialism in feminist thought from trans and queer perspectives as well. Haraway is criticizing approaches in 2nd wave feminism and certain idealistic strands of ecofeminism as participating—however unintentionally—in the same sort of essentializing discourse as their "oppressors" and not deviating in any radical way from the very philosophies and ideologies that have been so oppressive. Folded into Haraway's manifesto is the perpetual question of what it means to be embodied, to be a subject, and to be "female" (or any gender) in the late 20th century. She wants to encourage speaking and thinking from a lived place (with)in a cybernetic ecology—where we exist embedded within cybernetic systems (both semiotic systems as well as physical, technological systems) that transgress and complicate borders and boundaries of flesh and not-flesh, human and machine, and animal and human. Implicit in here is also the deep critique of Cartesian dualism (thinking of the mind and body as separate things), which Haraway feels is still an ideological pillar in feminist thought.

    She makes the important point that the cyborg (as a trope) can be seen as either emblematizing patriarchal totalitarian control and the hubristic quest for perfection/deification, or it can from another angle be seen as a new ontology with liberationist—not fascist—potential. Better yet, the ultimate challenge is to be able to envision both things simultaneously—in other words, to envision that the cyborg does actually refer to both liberation and control—which evokes the ability of "doublethink" in George Orwell's 1984. "Doublethinking" is holding and accepting two antithetical beliefs in one's mind simultaneously without generating cognitive dissonance. In fact such 'doublethinking' is actually necessary, not in service of top-down control, but in service of producing the best possible map for contemporary reality (that is to say, we, the people, have to "take back" this power from corrupt hegemonic systems). "Cyborg" could be a totalitarian creation, but also a bastard child, an "illegitimate offspring" giving rise to an ironic identity that Haraway compares to Cherri Moraga's envisioning of Malinche (the quasi-mythical mother of mestiz@ culture) as a "violation…that allows survival". Haraway easily justifies the tactic of doublethink, stating that "single vision produces worse illusions than double-vision or many-headed monsters."

    Haraway articulates a sort of iconography of the cyborg, an image that she describes is "at the center of her ironic faith, [her] blasphemy". This figure is neither hero nor villain; it bears neither a causal connection to any origin myth nor represents an eschatological reaper of human atonement, but rather works toward a useful re-appropriation of the demonized "evil" cyborg — or the related trope of the insurgent "android", an imagined humanoid manifestation of Artificial Intelligence - that has been represented as a sort of collective nightmare of technoculture (e.g. the "Borg" in Star Trek). Instead, the cyborg is seen as the definitive contemporary iteration of the trickster figure in late-capitalist, nascently post-industrial society. As a trickster, the cyborg performs a sort of campy ambiguity and effortlessly collapses multiple dichotomies, including animal and human, god and man, male and female, gay and straight, true and false, serious and frivolous, deliberate and whimsical, etc. They call into question what counts as technology, nature, identity, gender, and perhaps most interestingly, what counts as "right" and "wrong". A central attitude of Haraway's cyborg (as with the perennial trickster) is not cynical, but playful—and intrinsically morally relativist.

    Published in 1985, Haraway's essay came during the the dawn of cyberpunk science fiction, which manifested in both literature and film and was close on the heels of the popularization of personal computing (the Apple II in 1977 and the Commodore 64 in 1982). Additionally there were advances in electronic communications technology that had significant cultural impact—in particular, precursors to the internet and world-wide-web such as dial-up BBS, Usenet and the prototypes of commercial online services like Compuserve and AOL. Both Blade Runner and Tron came out in 1982 and the novel Neuromancer by Willam Gibson, considered paradigmatic of the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic, was published in 1984. In classical cyberpunk stories, the setting is often a dystopian near-future society, almost exclusively urban and characterized by extreme political and economic corruption. The tone of cyberpunk fiction is often dark, nihilistic and cynical, and as with Haraway's cyborg, there is no loss of innocence; the subjects of the stories were born knowing nothing outside of post-industrial, technophilic police states, and the plots often revolve around the protagonist as a computer hacker, subverting the technology of his oppressors for his own gains and goals, which are sometimes but certainly not always altruistic. Most often they are simply in accord with a survivalist ethic. Of this very ethic Haraway writes "Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other". (111) This is redolent of the famous line from one of William Gibson's short stories, "the street finds its own uses for things", describing the relationships between users, technology and underground or black market economies. Haraway's cyborg too is guided by adaptationist ethics and strategies, but it moves beyond simply a hermeneutic of revenge or revolt, and exists somewhere in a productive dis-identificatory space between assimilation and rejection.

    This period - the 1980's - also coincides with the "second Gilded Age" discussed in family historian Stephanie Coontz's work, marked by a rise in conservative politics and the coupling of capitalist ideals and consumerist ethics with conservative moral ethics. This era, the era of personal computing and precursors to the internet  because of its political and social backdrops was threatening to feminists as well as gays, lesbians and other minorities compared to the political progressiveness achieved in the 60's and early 70's. It is understandable that a need for a liberatory cyberpunk narrative was dire for the feminist subject in the mid 80's. Haraway even mentions the replicant Rachel in Blade Runner as a symbol of confused desire in a half-awakened or un-self-aware cyborg culture. Haraway's essay indeed was a prophecy whose time had come, although a cyberpunk consciousness was already emerging in hacker culture and was I would argue actually typified in Blade Runner through the veiled allusions to the male protagonist/hero figure actually being a replicant himself. However texts like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, while hinting at the possibility that the cyborg has a soul and might even be able to be "good" despite the totalitarian conditions of its creation, still featured male protagonists and played to the masculinist Western hero narrative quite strongly. Haraway wanted to extend this consciousness to a feminist, post-gender and socialist framework. The critical ingredient for her is the adaptationist ethic embodied in the figure of the cyborg, which you can see hints of in early cyberpunk works like Blade Runner and Neuromancer, but are much more overt in texts that surfaced a decade after the publication of A Cyborg Manifesto, like the Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, where the complication of traditional moral frameworks that is incurred by cyborg subjectivity is explored even more deeply. In post-cyberpunk works like the latter, the question of who is "the bad guy" and who is "the good guy" have become even more muddled, through not only revelations that humans are oblivious to their own cyborgian or machine-based origins, but that even their struggles for liberation might to some extend be helped or masterminded by the very entities they thought of as enemies. In a post-cyberpunk world, the concepts of "enemy" and "ally" can becoming meaningless. (I hope to explore this tangent more in a future post.)

    Being partially engendered by the invention of the first computers in the 50's, early cognitive science and concomitant theories and metaphors for cognition (including those present in the cyberpunk science fiction of the 80's) are predicated on a computational understanding of mind that has become more and more discredited. In such a framework the mind is conceived of as a type of Turing Machine, which I've written about/critiqued previously in a post on dynamicist models of cognition. Haraway's essay hints at the pervasive epistemological effects of computationalism when she notes that "modern medicine is…full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices" (emphasis mine). However, it is unclear to what extent the Cyborg Manifesto is complicit in the myth of computationalism, since Haraway is so wary of mind-body dualism and given her disclaimer in the beginning about the ironic and mythopoeic nature of the manifesto. Thus her work could be seen as an incredibly prescient anticipation of more dynamic, ecological and situated models of cognition and sociality (particularly in light of the fact that she has since then turned a similar focus to the topic of companion species). It is also worth noting that the mid to late 80's saw a rising interest in Derridean deconstruction and poststructuralist linguistics in the Anglo-American academy, in which language is seen as pre-figuring all human knowledge and comprehension of reality. This has serious methodological ramifications for the analysis of literature and historical texts, which is primarily how it became relevant in the humanities and social sciences. Such a view of the world as "made of" language has also been a central part of the mystical philosophies of visionaries like Philip K. Dick and Terence McKenna, who's ideas, though in many ways analogous to those of Derrida and Saussure, don't receive nearly enough attention in the academy (I suspect because they are so politically radical and generally iconoclastic). Poststructuralist theories challenged objectivism on both a phenomenological and methodological levels, and questioned the tenability of “materialist theories of experience and the ideas of causality and agency inherent in them” (from The Past as Text by Gabrielle Spiegel, p. 4) This, no doubt, has been woven into cyberpunk narratives that envision the world as "code" that can be manipulated and programmed. Indeed, there is still much life in this storyform... but only the future will tell how exactly it will evolve, since our definitions of what constitutes "code" have changed since the 80's and continue to change.

Queering it

     "Cyborg" and "Queer" are both linguistic strategies for navigating postmodern subjectivity. I see Haraway's cyborg as (among other things!) anticipating queer theory, which was to develop a few years later in the early 90's through the writings of like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick. Haraway calls for the quest for liberation to be refocused from a search for "identity" to a search for "affinity" or affinities, which is to say, an active construction of relationships, among humans but also among ideas and across multiple frameworks of meaning (her essay serves as a living example of a cyborg text, operating in both the realms of fiction and non-fiction, poem and prose). Identity is too individualistic, too essentialist; affinity on the other hand is coalitional, it is the very currency of the biotic world, which evolves and adapts by means of ecological relationship. Haraway's cyborg represents a rejection of identity and with it of traditional notions of redemption and salvation. Cyborg describes an ontological queerness, the paradox of natural unnaturalism, or unnatural naturalism, whichever you prefer. Similarly, "queer" is a sort of non-identity or anti-identity that does not require any sort of unitarianism or essential quality and questions notions of behavioral continuity and ideological integrity. According to Sedgewick queer refers to an "open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances" which echoes the ways in which Haraway discusses the cyborg. Queer is not an objective category like "gay" or "lesbian", and although it is adjectival it does not necessarily describe a noun. Rather it is a first-person signifier of some sort of oppositional position, which may encompass particular experiences, intentions, pasts or futures. It pertains particularly to "performative acts of experimental self-perception and filiation" (Sedgewick). Similar to "cyborg", queer is a strategy with which to reconcile potentially dissonant ramifications of the postmodern condition. A key political task for Haraway is to "dissolv[e] Western selves in the interests of survival". So it is also with "queer"… queer is imbued with the postmodern and post-colonialist understanding that all creation is hybridization or bastardization, and the nostalgia for a primordial wholeness or perfect morality is an illusion.

    Queer has been extended to even describe ecology and the very ontology of the biosphere, of evolution itself. Cyborg denotes a reliance on or incorporation into the self of technologically-enabled processes of semiosis, but when and where do these processes "begin"? Where, indeed, did technology begin? Long, long ago perhaps with the advent of the first sign, but can that even be named? If queer and cyborg could be associated with any identification, it is perhaps a productive identification with fragmentation. Reconciling fragmented lives and selves is something that is still very relevant today, and perhaps even more relevant. Yet the above discussion does not exhaust the mythic possibilities for mapping personhood, identity/affinity, and desire in 2012. "Cyborg" and "queer" came on to the scene 20 years ago now. Lots has changed, more than we can even comprehend, and as is one of the defining missions of this project, new stories need to be told.

(To be continued)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

In a Gym Mirror, Darkly: (Queer) Asceticism, (Queer) Nature and (Queer) Identity

The gym has always been a place of worship for me. 

However, although the temple has stayed the same, the object of my devotion has not. When I first was initiated into the cult of “body building”, I was worshiping a false idol.

Around the age of 15, I declared a kind of war on my body. I wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what it was. I played soccer my freshman and sophomore years in high school, and it coincided with the time when puberty was in full bloom for me, so not only had my body changed drastically in the three years or so leading up to that time, but my mind had only just begun to play catch up. (And it was repeating something along the lines of “What just happened?”)

The social experience of being on a girl’s soccer team was awkward and embarrassing at times, a stark contrast to the new joy of physical fitness emerging in an adolescent body. Unfortunately that social discomfort almost completely eclipsed soccer’s positive aspects, and ended up being the main reason I abandoned team sports for the more solitary ones like rock climbing and ski racing, where I was free to be a wolf-pack of one. Yet when I think back to 9th grade soccer, I recover a nanosecond-long memory in which, after a couple of months of the most structured and rigorous physical training I’d yet experienced, I looked down at my stomach and arms one night while I was half-naked, getting ready for bed. I was lean and surprisingly muscular from soccer practice, and it was very curious because it was as if I’d never looked at my body before. I could see my abdominal muscles swelling and the veins in my hands and arms, and the shadowy reflection in my dark bedroom window conjured up an image—me—that was simultaneously new and old; unfamiliar yet oddly arcane, mythic. This memory is iconic because I think it was the beginning of my awareness of my body as a body that was differently-gendered, and also of a growing body that was becoming something (but what?). When I turn down the dial on the mental noise surrounding that memory and try to identify a single feeling, I realize that in that moment I saw something I liked about myself. Or I saw an image… an icon, perhaps, to which my “self” had maybe only a spectral relation. I thought that maybe, if I could keep “becoming” like that, I could grow up to be just like my older brother. You see, identity isn’t that complex. It’s painfully simple, although the consuming desire to “be(come) something” feels anything but simple at that age.

Some time after this revelation, I cut my hair short, signifying to the world and myself a modicum of awareness about this creature I’d seen in the mirror. Shearing my long, thick and rather unwieldy mane of chestnut locks that had up to that point made me resemble a teenaged metal-head was a sort of flag planting act, or a passage through a magic gate, after which I was definitely Not in Kansas Anymore. I was in between (not in between genders, because I still identify as non-binary and I’m now 26)… but in between understandings. And I would struggle there for some time.

I started going to a local gym and my enthusiasm for working out developed rather quickly into an addiction, supplemented by the worst possible companion: anorexia. I worked out nearly every day after school and sometimes ate next to nothing. Thankfully the eating disorder never progressed to the point where I had to receive medical treatment—I was very lucky. I had always had a lean, compact figure—weight was never “the problem”. Very simply, I wanted my body to be a different body. Isn’t that always what anorexia is about? For me, the “ideal” wasn’t even that different from how my body really was (a relative reality which was unknowable to me at the time)… but it was different enough to create an obsession with a future mirage that I was always only a few steps away from—an eschatological body that, once I stepped into it, would never change. It would stop time—along with my female puberty. To this “false idol” I sacrificed far, far too much, and my “real” flesh-and-blood body paid for it dearly. It was the summer after my 16th birthday that started the long, non-linear path toward healing from this, which is to say, I still suffered from iterations of eating disorders, exercise addictions, and body/gender dysphoria over the several years that followed, but the severity of the anorexia at least subsided.

That summer was 2001 and I backpacked for seven weeks in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California with a small group of other teenagers who I’d previously gone to summer camp with. That summer I began to learn the simple but yet complex lesson that food was fuel for my body (and all bodies) and that it was what kept me alive. Beyond that, food was what could allow me to perform well above and beyond the baseline of simply “surviving”. It could actually help me thrive. (Rocket science, I know!) That summer we hiked Mount Whitney on an 11 day trek—the highest mountain in the continental U.S. at 14,505 feet. The summit was a jumble of sun-warmed boulders, with little rivulets of old snow packed into the shadows, and there was an outhouse with no doors or walls—just a gleaming white toilet behind a small pile of red rocks. This ironic throne glibly symbolized the circular nature of all of life, and the endless sequences of consumption that form its often tenuous foundations. It was definitely a wake up call… but I still had a long way to go. Recovering from an eating disorder is a long process, and the recovery happens in stages. That same year I also joined a climbing team and started a regular training regimen for competition. If long-distance backpacking inaugurated the process of repairing my relationship with food, climbing did that with respect to my relationship with my body. In rock climbing I truly found a moving meditation, a place of flow that collapsed all surrounding time and space into the corporeal trinity of my muscles, my breath, and my center of gravity, which was also the earth.

Fast forward this tape about ten years, to today, and I’m in the best relationship with my body yet. Since the stories I’ve shared with you, I’ve been compelled to explore beyond the monolithically human end-user world of physical fitness, into the world where food comes from, the rhythmic realm of seeds, soil, pastures, udders and milk. As the tattoo on my chest “earthling” alludes to (which means in Old English “one who dwells on (or cultivates) the land”), this realm is not a faraway, bucolic utopia where food comes from—it is, in a primordial sense, where we come from. Working with non-human food animals in biodynamic and organic settings and experiencing the ways they enrich our relationship with the earth, and also with time and space (opening up the possibilities and elasticities of those very concepts), was another step on the path toward my own practice of ‘fitness’. Those years of work in the small scale agriculture “business” (although I can hardly call it that since everywhere I’ve worked has always been intrinsically and in all ways opposed to industrial agriculture) deeply reconfigured the way I related to my body and also my gender (see the related post gender identity and participatory ecology for an elaboration).

Additionally I’ve written here and elsewhere about how beginning to learn naturalist skills in my native geography has furthered those understandings, in particular in revealing the paradoxical—and painful—truth that in the forest there is no gender, at least not in human terms, and in That Place the earth sees “me” for who I am because when I’m there, she is me (seeing her, seeing me, in an infinite regression of reflections). It’s been devastating in its own way for me to realize the ways in which gender is so very social and yes, so very constructed…and nature does not end at the gates of the city, either. It is here, we are it, and so I must learn to live with multiple realities, multiple truths—to hold in my mind, without any damaging dissonance, that gender both exists and doesn’t. It is worth mentioning though that I’ve also discovered that to say that something is “constructed” is indeed a high order compliment—for we are creatures that construct “by nature”, and that is beautiful. As Buckminster Fuller said, being myth-making and storytelling animals is perhaps one of our unique purposes as indicated by our silly brain-on-a-stick-with-opposable-thumbs anatomy. ;)

Connecting with the biotic world—the dark, boreal forests and the sun-drenched pastures—has taught me… far from the traditional (and problematic) romantic notion of nature being a harmonious, ordered system—that nature is a wild, lawless place; an ongoing science experiment; a relentless, unforgiving tug-of-war between mutation and replication, chaos and order, and dynamicism and stasis. So I’m in good company.

Asceticism comes from the Greek word “askesis” which means “training”. It doesn’t mean deprivation, repression or hurting the body. Its true meaning is more along the lines of the sort of training an Olympic athlete undertakes… and its purpose is to transform the body (and mind, and soul) into the cleanest vessels for the divine, for grace, chi or prana, whatever one chooses to call it. It’s a methodology of mastery which acknowledges that in order to gain competence in anything, one has to engage in choosing what not to do so that one can be chosen by one’s environment (an environment which one’s ascetic practice has helped to create!) It’s not about exercising your rational or free will—forget that. It’s about setting up the conditions under which you won’t need to choose—or rather, where your agency will be elevated to a level where your choices will have maximum positive meaning and impact for you. I’ll never forget the day I first learned what that word meant, I was in a Christian History class at the University of Vermont. I felt, with alluring certainty, that asceticism wasn’t some exotic thing that happened in an ancient time or in some oriental locale. Perhaps it had “gone underground”, but it was, somehow, at the essence of culture, and what it means to be human.

I got asceticism wrong when I was 16 years old. I tried to achieve freedom by hurting the body, and it was unsustainable. But I didn’t know any better at the time. No one does, especially at that age, more so because we don’t live in a world, or at least in a society, where the ecstatic potential of the human body (and the synergy it is capable of with the heart and will) is nurtured. So ever since then I’ve been on a path to get asceticism right, to wonder what it looks like here, now, in the modern world, in urban Los Angeles or rural Vermont. What I’ve learned is that on the other side of that battle with the body, is a different battle, one where I don’t fight against my body, but I inhabit my body fully, with the greatest love and respect, in order to fight a greater fight. That is, the fight to move through the world with curiosity and compassion, and to be present on the earth, and in love. And the body is not a barrier to this, like I perhaps once thought, but rather, it is our only hope.
Over the last couple of years I’ve come to a place where the next step seemed to be to see what hormone therapy could do for me. I’m currently on biweekly testosterone injections, and at the moment it feels like this has been the last nail in the coffin of my struggles with food, my body, gender, and the troubled relationship between those things. I’m on a lower dose than many trans men so my levels aren’t as high as “average” male levels, but all the same, the psychological shift has been remarkable. It’s hard to say to what extent my psychological welfare is connected to the subtle—yet vitally important to me—physical changes I’ve gone through. But I no longer feel the need to “fight” my body, and no, it’s not because I’m stronger, faster OR in better shape than I was “pre-testosterone”. I don’t want to perpetuate false gender stereotypes that relate to exercise and fitness… and in fact, I know I’ve been in far better shape in the past, at least if we’re talking purely physically. But at what cost did that come? Simply put, I reached a point where I wanted to have the opportunity to have a healthy relationship with fitness, instead of use it as a crutch. That meant admitting that I badly needed to express a masculine identity, in the social world as well as within my own self (and I’m not so convinced that the two are so separate—I don’t know how much I believe in a pre-existent self at all… although don’t tell that to my doctors because they might take my T prescription away!) :P

Healing the wounds of body dysphoria had been a long time coming, and affirming this thing people call “gender identity” had something to do with it. Gender reassignment is not something that’s done to you… it’s something that you do to yourself, and it’s always first linguistic and symbolic, before it’s anything else (and it may not ever be “anything else”). I wonder what it’s like to be a cis gender woman and also be an athlete whose practice is self-affirming… unfortunately I’ll never know because I’ve never felt like a girl. But the fact that I know several amazing women who are quite exemplary practitioners of mindful and compassionate “asceticism”, whether it’s yoga, martial arts, climbing or some other bodily practice, reminds me that in the end, it’s all about transcending self-limiting attitudes we have about ourselves, whether we’re men or women, cis or trans.

The balance I feel physically has brought with it an odd kind of freedom whose effects aren’t quite what I thought they would be. When you are unchained from something that—however unhealthily—defined and structured a great deal of your life, you can find yourself in a place where you need to re-calibrate your “ascetic” practice, as it were. And it’s not all triumphal and celebratory… in fact it’s downright scary, because it means you’ve let go of something to which you were very attached, and that creates a space, which can easily become a void. I’ve dealt with quite an odd brand of depression lately because, as a creative and poetic creature, I’ve always thrived on a certain kinds of absence. Many artists, mystics and scholars experience this, and I’m no exception. The absence cannot be too great—or it will swallow you whole—but it can also not be too little—or else you might be lulled into a sort of creative amnesia, where you forget how to desire what is beyond. Right now I am needing to get to know my inner mystic in a whole new way, and see what his healthy discontent… his longing for the great mystery… looks like. Lately I’ve secretly feared that I’m experiencing a crisis of disenchantment in the death of a muse… my guilty mind frames it as a terrible (but maybe necessary?) consequence of my privileged ability to “cure” gender dysphoria with modern medicine. In this scenario my “power” or mystical inspiration (being characterized by discontent or lack) is taken away. But alas, this quaint story is merely another way for me to beat myself up, and it’s an unworthy notion, far from the truth.

I forget where, but I once heard the quote “discontent is the beginning of freedom.” It rings true for me, with a caveat; freedom is a tricky concept, and what many of us imagine (or are conditioned to imagine) “freedom” to be would actually, if it were to truly come to pass, be a sort of slavery to unmediated chaos. Too many folks casually imagine freedom to mean lack of constraint, theoretically enabling a vast multitude of unrestricted choices and courses of action. To many a free-market-loving liberal subject, “freedom” is an actual material state of existence, defined by what one is able to do with or concerning material resources. But this notion is a red herring; a carrot-on-a-stick; bait for a well-hidden trap. Why? Because there can be no agency in a void. Meaningful action can only arise from constraint. So too, real “individuality”—empowered subjectivity—can only arise from the collective, to paraphrase a quote from the EZLN.

Thus, I would modify that initial quote about discontent being the beginning of freedom; Discontent can inspire work that produces feelings of empowerment and autonomy… those holy moments of union between the will, the heart and the body, so powerful because they are one part ephemeral and one part eternal, seeming to open up a crack in the surface of things that allows you to peer into the universe’s dark, glittering center. These feelings are transient and they emerge like bright and crackling sparks out of a process… a flow that will not ever slow down, stop, or wait for you. The feeling of “freedom” is epiphenomenal… it rises and falls, like a waveform, in tandem with the process of your life and work. It’s not a destination, it’s not a currency, and it’s certainly not an essential state of being. Like your mana pool (if you’re a role-playing gamer), it’s a mercurial feeling that is coupled with your actions in the world. It’s very important for me to remember this. That freedom is a state of mind… and well, “freedom ain’t free”. Now it is here; now it is gone… but there’s no holding onto it, because it only works through that binary oscillation.

Discontent is an important spiritual process, indeed, it is imperative to the spiritual journey. It dictates where the path will go, where the line will point. It is holy suffering, it is being in love, it is that which orients all earth creatures, great and small. As such it is, indeed, at the root of mysticism. Sometimes I am afraid that this muse disappears… I lose sight of her and stand, idle in the woods, without any trace of a trail to follow. So then I stop trying to search for her, not knowing that she’s behind me the whole time. When I take a step back, I realize that the crisis of lost inspiration or lost creativity or lost hope is merely the muse giving chase, in her wrathful Kali-form. And the only way out is to chase back.


For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then we will see face to face.
 1 Corinthians 13:12

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