*I’d just got back to my parents’ house in Athens and was circling around like a lost homing pigeon wondering what to do with myself, so I started writing this and only got round to finishing it now, about 3 weeks later…this is part one, kind of…
Back in Athens for just-missed-Easter after a hazy, hungover, sleep-deprived flight. I was in my usual fragile traveling state that Ryanair- who are now flying to Greece, which means I am probably doomed to their shitty flights forever more- weren’t helping out with. Apart from nasty, overpriced coffee, lowlights included continuous tannoy harassment about their ‘deserving children’ charity scratch card…how Victorian!
What is it with Ryanair and their charity campaigns anyway? Last one was a borderline porn calendar of the cabin crews ‘girls’ raising money, without a shred of irony, for a young women’s (girls’?) charity; I got into an argument with the air stewardess after being told to delete the photo I’d taken of her parading it down the aisle (why? if it’s so great why not snap it for posterity?) Apparently they’d also been doing deals for local lap-dancing clubs in some Eastern European cities around the same time. Ryainair: for cut-price women’s rights!
Anyway, while pretending to read a theory book (as you do) I spent most of the journey spacing out at the clouds, vaguely trying to remember what this dude (boy? man? couldn’t work out his age apart from ‘younger than me’) I’d recently met looked like, without the aid of a Facebook stalk- one good reason to not have inflight internet connection I spose. I could half-recall the sexy, possibly troubled eyes, but couldn’t work out on the strength of one conversation whether they’re dreamy-interesting troubled or immature-lostboy troubled.
Or neither; it’s easy to completely misread people if you’ve been side-tracked by their hotness or your horniness. Call me a cynic- actually I’m not- but I believe a lot of what we call romantic love (apart from the intoxicating feeling that everything is possible and the genuinely amazing sense of being connected in some meaningful way to another human and therefore to the universe…yes, I vaguely recall that) is projection: falling in love with a figment of your own imagination, often with very little correspondence to reality.
Relationship guru Natalie Lue calls this mismatch a ‘fantasy relationship’ since you’re mainly living it in your head: in between sexual fantasies, imaginary conversations, and extensive dissection of apparently innocuous comments/ behaviors, it may feel like they’re a big part of your life, when actually you’ve met them twice, or only see them once every 2 weeks (or 2 years if it’s long-distance/ Skype arrangement…she says those ‘relationshits’ are especially susceptible to the fantasy genre, which, having once accidentally fallen into a Facebook chat-based infatuation, I can confirm). You might as well write a story and fall in love with the lead character- at least your creations are unlikely to suddenly transform into whining mummys boys, preening narcissists or just, you know, normal flawed human beings.
Reading people is one thing, reading ‘reality’ is another. My dad has this theory that living well (he thinks, and I agree, that happiness is a red herring) is about how successfully you simulate reality, as in, whether you can accurately read a situation/ the world/ your boyf and act accordingly; he attempted to explain this through some convoluted diagram of a holographic universe, but I think that was the main gist of it.
The Dalai Lama has also written a book called ‘How To See Yourself as You Really Are’, suggesting this question of (in)accurate perception extends to the self; alot of Buddhist writing is exactly about our inability to ‘see’ ourselves as we are, instead of as god’s gift to mankind or hopeless lost-cases. Meanwhile, that thankfully short-lived ‘What I Think I Do/ What Bla Thinks I Do’ meme makes a weak gag out of the difference in personal, social and familial perceptions of our assumed role in life… though I did chuckle a hollow laugh of recognition at the ‘reality’ of the artist’s life as a Sisyphean task of endless proposal-churn.
These days, Facebook personality quizzes determining what sort of frog, 70s TV detective or smoothie you are, channel the desire for self-knowledge into an interactive, time-wasting game (which nevertheless probably helps flesh out FB’s profile of you, so, not entirely a waste of time- for them at least)
Anyway, while it’s true we are often deluded about what’s going on around us, and that this usually leads to suffering of one sort or another, I’m not convinced about what this model implies: that an independent, verifiable ‘reality’ exists independently of us which we must correctly simulate in order to live happily ever after. Analogous to a scientific belief that the physical world is ‘written’ in the eternal laws of mathematics and it’s our job to uncover them, this model twangs of representationalism, which according to Karen Barad is “the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent”. This assumes, in tripartite fashion, that there are “two distinct and independent kinds of entities—representations and entities to be represented” with the third of the holy trinity being the “existence of a knower” (or, someone who does the representing).
So if you take something like life drawing, everyone’s looking at the same tableaux (the entity to be represented) but in the ‘bad simulation’ model, some people (knowers/ observers) are hopeless, so their pictures (representations) come out all wrong and distended. And then they get pissed off and despair at how useless they are and what right they have to call themselves an artist…or maybe that’s just me.
Anyway in the same vein, Barad asks “does scientific knowledge accurately represent an independently existing reality? Does language accurately represent its referent?” And if not, then the argument could be that ‘faulty simulations’ (or, inaccurate representations) are, or lead to, unhappiness, since they mean you’re not looking properly or gleaning the right bits of information from the current life situation (you think it’s lurve 4eva, he thinks it’s a booty call; you think you’re hilarious and witty, your twitter following thinks you’re a bore).
Barad argues similarly for the enmeshment of measuring apparatus in acts of measurement and representation (or, the drawing tools, or the describing instruments, e.g. language), since apparatuses are ‘neither neutral probes of the natural world nor structures that deterministically impose some particular outcome”. By extension, reality emerges or is created through an entanglement between the actions we take and the pictures or measurements we make.
To hark back to J L Austin’s speech acts, I think what’s she ‘s saying is that our relationship to reality is performative rather than descriptive, where, very bluntly put, performative utterances change reality, while descriptive utterances merely describe it (though of course, the act of describing something also changes it so…everything’s performative?). So, and excuse the horrible fridge magnet aphorism, we create the world we live in, and our actions directly shape it; it’s not something separate, ‘out there’ to be discovered, as if observing, mediating and representing it didn’t affect the picture we see. Self-help soothsayers similarly advise that no matter how shitty you feel, you are not intrinsically any less of a loser than anyone else; it’s down to your perception and the way this makes you behave. So, amazingly, if you act like you’re already smart, popular and sexy, people actually believe it.
As for the self, as Judith Butler puts it in Bodies That Matter, “in the sense that the ‘I’ has no interior secure ego or core identity, ‘I’ must always enunciate itself: there is only performance of a self, not an external representation of an interior truth.” Or, there isn’t some coherent interior that we must faithfully ‘represent’ through our ways of being and speaking/ lifestyle/ jobs/ consumer choices/ haircuts etc, though this is largely what the ‘authenticity’ promise of consumer capitalism traditionally traded on. (altho personally, I do always aim to fully express my true self through my hair).
As Rob Horning says, “consuming authentically could seem to prove fidelity to our “real self”’, a self that was built on the foundations of what Katherine Hayles has called “possessive individualism, the idea that subjects are individuals first and foremost because they own themselves”. Instead, it’s through these choices and actions that the self- and gender, as Butler famously argues- is enunciated and created, that is, through its performance, which gains coherency and legitimacy through its reiteration, rather than fidelity to any intrinsic, essential quality.
As for the physical world (not that the two are actually separate, but y’know) the performative model questions the idea that coherent, unchangeable ‘laws’ exist anterior to their representation through formulae, equations and diagrams but rather that these create a particular, and partial, understanding of the world. Going back to Barad on apparatuses and other mediating functions, they are not just neutral ‘measurements’ or ‘simulations’ describing nature, but are themselves active agents that help shape (though not determine a la Mcluhan) a particular worldview.
Anyway I’ve gone off on a complete tangent but part 2 of this will be a walk-down memory lane in Athens (well except not because everything’s changed…) via more half-remembered cosmological theories which I’ve remade as lifestyle instruction guidance.