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The Horror! (Comic)

23 May

My short graphic horror story, “Hex Change,” co-created with artist Amit Elan will be out later this year in the anthology Horror International.  I couldn’t be happier to be amongst the amazing contributors, including such luminaries as Diamanda Galas and Joe Lansdale!

I’ll be posting updates on the anthology as well as where you can get a copy as the publication date draws closer.  For now, here are a few sample panels and pages I co-created with Amit (some finished, some unfinished)

Looking forward!

CH

sketch no text p11

sketch with text p2sketch no text p7 (1)sketch no text p4

I Signed the PEN Dissent Letter (or: I Refuse the “Support Our Troops” Version of Free Speech)

3 May

LetterA recent controversy has erupted over 204 PEN members — including myself, Joyce Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Kamlia Shamsie Teju Cole, and more — disassociating themselves from PEN’s decision to award French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage AwardThe situation has been framed again and again by other writers, so I won’t restate it here.  For a good introduction — when there were six rather than 204 of us — click here. And for the full text of the letter, click the image to the left.

I wish to address, for those familiar with the situation, why I support the letter.  I would like, also, to express what sort of reassessment took place in light of the response to the dissenters.  I also wish to address how all of us, myself included, are responsible for deepening our understanding of freedom of speech and expression, rather than condoning a “support our troops” version of it.

*

I signed the letter with a sense of relief.

It came from an anonymous sender and echoed statements I’d thought but not voiced.  It was a challenge I may not have taken up on my own.    

Will you sign this?  Do you agree?  Will you disassociate yourself from the award?

Here was a small group of writers who felt compelled to say something about the Freedom of Expression Courage Award confusion.  These were writers I knew and respected.  Some of them are among my favorites.

I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list.  I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name.  I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.  I someone doing my best to sort through information to understand the truth.  Like most of us, I often fall short in this task.

One of the ways I look for truth is through the act of writing. 

That is to say: I write mostly because it helps me understand and feel more compassion for others.  Truth and compassion intertwine, are dependent on one another.

I replied to the email quickly: Yes. 

The list of supporters grew.  Though each signatory issued support for the same letter, we all, no doubt, have different takes on it, and inwardly emphasize different aspects.  And though we are all members of PEN, we all have different feelings about freedom of speech.  This controversy should, if nothing else, make clear that there is no monolithic view of what, exactly, PEN membership means, nor that there is a single version of freedom of speech among PEN members.

That said, below is how I read the letter, why I supported, and continue to support it.

First, it is important to state: the letter is a letter of disassociation. 

It is not a letter, as some critics have stated, to revoke the award or to end the ceremony.  I did not wish to be part of the honoring of Charlie Hebdo.  I would not have signed a letter that demanded shutting down the ceremony.  This may be how some interpret the letter.  That is not in the content of the letter.  There may be other PEN members who signed the letter because they wanted the award ceremony canceled.  That was not my feeling.  Instead, I simply wanted to say, I am not a part of this award.

The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo appeared racist to me.  They appeared Islamophobic.  They appeared anti-Arab. They appeared cruel.  I do not speak or read French.  I do not know much about French culture.  They appeared racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab, and cruel nevertheless. 

When the letter was made public, some bloggers and authors wanted the signatories to know: these cartoons are not racist.  They are not Islamophobic, they are not anti-Arab.  They are, instead, complex cartoons embedded in a French context I could not possibly understand.  I don’t know how these bloggers could claim to understand this counter-truth without themselves understanding French culture, but I paused.  Perhaps they were right.

Then there was an anti-racism organization in France – a “leading anti-racism” organization, I was told – stating Charlie Hebdo was itself anti-racist.  Short, translated blurbs from the organization circulated.  Again, these were mostly circulated by non-French-speaking people not embedded in French culture.  This was touted as proof that I and the other signatories were fools, or worse.  It didn’t matter that many of the circulators had not heard of the organization – SOS Racisme – until the PEN controversy.  The statements held the puzzling but irrefutable might of a magic bullet.

I was confused.  On the one hand, I was supposed to not trust what I saw of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, because I didn’t understand French culture.  On the other, I was expected to completely understand the complexities of this organization, SOS Racisme.  Many of the bloggers likely understood both no better or worse than I.  I looked up what I could.  I communicated with French-speaking people.  I discovered that SOS Racisme itself holds a contentious position and has been criticized by French leftists and French Muslims for some of its actions and policies.  I also was told that Charlie Hebdo is racist by French people. 

I was left, therefore, in a more complicated version of where I started.

So I tried to imagine analogues.  For SOS Racisme, I imagined the HRC, a gay and lesbian rights group in the US that has a rocky relationship with many marginalized people. They have neglected trans people, they have paired with conservatives, they have divided a progressive cause, and pushed a largely mainstreamed and too-cute version of “gay rights.”  I’ll bet many people in non-English-speaking countries think the HRC represents all queer people.  They do not.  They do not represent radical values.  Perhaps this is a false analogy.

For Charlie Hebdo, I wanted to recognize the limits of my knowledge and assume, for the time being, that they are not, in fact, a directly racist publication.  I tried to imagine their US counterpart: TV shows like Family Guy or South Park.  These shows are irreverent, offensive, silly, angry, harsh.  Sometimes they make me laugh. They use racism to make fun of racists.  I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade-off.  They attack religion, not just religious institutional hypocrisy. They are the subject of debate amongst American leftists.  Again, perhaps this is a false analogy.  I am trying my best to understand.

No matter what else is said about Charlie Hebdo, it is true that secularism is used as a weapon against deeply held religious identity.  Secularism is being used strategically – by Charlie Hebdo in total lockstep with many members of the French government – to “banalize” Islam. No one, whether disassociating from the award or defending the magazine, questions this.   No one at Charlie Hebdo can deny this: “banalize” is a quote from one of its murdered staff.  That should be kept in mind. 

I do not mean to ban dissections or critiques of religion.  I and my many communities – queer, sex worker, Arab – are frequently attacked by certain religious institutions and people.

Charlie Hebdo does not just attack power, but identity.  Whether or not this is “racism” is murky.  But we can see clearly: demanding what many find sacred be turned into profane, be “banalized,” is not an attack on power, it is an attack on identity.  In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it is – as the letter indicates – an attack on the identities of marginalized people.  Perhaps because I am not French, I fail to understand? 

The struggle for a more secular world does not need to be imperialist.  But if you replace “kill the marginalized person” with “kill the marginalized identity” then it surely is.

Perhaps, then, it is not a surprise that the PEN member who most supported Charlie Hebdo for the award also supports liberation wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, a combination of kill the person and kill the identity.

When the criticisms of signatories came, we were attacked, Charlie Hebdo-style. 

We were called “pussies” and “stupid” and “pro-terrorist.”

“The struggle between the two worlds can permit no compromises,” said Mussolini.

“Either you are with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” said George W. Bush.

Now we are being told the same thing by “leftist” writers who care about “freedom.”

There is no room for human beings or disagreement in a clash of mystified, archetypal ideologies.  There is no room, either, to dissent, even in plain language.

“Us” in the case of this letter means the “free” world, filled with “free” speech.  “Terrorists” were, well, everyone else.  We the signatories were with the terrorists, apparently.  How dare we not share a total (totalitarian?) unified vision — defined by people other than ourselves — of free speech?

I am not used to being told I am with terrorists or that I don’t embrace free speech. 

If I am with the terrorists, if I don’t embrace and support free speech I can’t imagine how.  I have been verbally and physically attacked and threatened by many forms of extremism: anti-gay extremism, anti-Arab extremism, and most often these days, anti-sex work extremism.

As a porn performer for nearly eight years, I have, like most porn performers, risked discrimination, stigma, ridicule, travel restrictions, and threats for doing what I do.  These are risks taken on by all porn performers either intentionally in the name of free speech or as an unexpected consequence of bearing the burden of free speech. 

I portray a sort of expression that many refuse to even acknowledge as expression. 

There is no PEN award for sex workers.  Even “enlightened” and “literary” people, even staunch leftists condemn porn performers. They say we are brainwashed.  They say we are stupid.  They say we are making the world a worse place.  I don’t have space to discredit the arguments here, but it should be obvious that the sex worker community carries quite a heavy burden of free speech, especially free speech about sex and sexuality.  Perhaps, in shouldering that burden, we even help lighten it for others.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, whether blatantly or ironically racist, are sex-negative.  They use sex as the punchline to attack power.  This demeans sex in a way that pornography, which actually portrays the sexual act, never can or will.  Porn, particularly bad porn, might make sex simplistic, but it does not sacrifice sex to destroy people.

There is a long tradition of jokingly using sexual imagery to attack people in power. Have I ever laughed at it?  Yes.  Does Charlie Hebdo occasionally contain sex-positive cartoons? Sure.

Do I think it balances the its sex negativity out with sex positivity, or that its expressions of sex as a punchline deserves a PEN award for courage?  No.

This was not in the letter.  I did not feel it necessary to add it, but it played into my decision to sign the statement.

I do not think, as has been suggested, that Charlie Hebdo should be banned.  Thankfully, that idea is not in the letter I signed.  There is a call in the letter for responsibility in the way we treat each other and interact with one another.  There is a call to notice all human suffering and all violence.

In one critique of anti-dissenters, a writer boldly declared that leftists should aspire to be blasphemous.  It is unclear to me whether or not anyone who is not religious can actually blaspheme.  For if to blaspheme is to rail against a God that does not exist or to vulgarize things that have no sacred value, then it is to accomplish nothing.  Either we are atheists with nothing the blaspheme, or we are religious and wish to be kind in the eyes of God.  In any case, I don’t think we should aspire to be blasphemous.

The people who walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot the staff members were, certainly, blasphemous to the faith of Islam.  Blasphemous by murdering, blasphemous by demanding non-Muslims follow the tenants of (an extremist version of) Islam, and blasphemous in saying there was no room to critique Islam.

Crying for blasphemy when you do not believe in the God you’re insulting is a child’s game.  It is merely a cry for defiance.  Defiance has its values, but I do not think it is courage. I would not try to find allies amongst those who aspire to be blasphemous. Instead I seek to find them amongst the people who aspire to be compassionate.

If we are going to dismantle power, I do not think that we do a good job by aspiring to blasphemy and drawing holy figures with their asses up in the air. That does not strike me as effective.  It strikes me as imagination-less and lazy.

I also don’t think we do a good job dismantling power by creating cartoons so exaggerated in caricature that those who don’t understand every intricacy of context will think the cartoons are racist.

There is an insistence that these cartoons are not racist.  And yet many experience them that way.  Shall we demand they discard their fear, their anxiety?  Maybe we should demand they authenticate their pain to us before we take them seriously?  Shall we call them stupid pussies as the bombs rain on them and the guns are turned on them?  Perhaps they are terrorists for misunderstanding foreign caricatures that portray them with big noses and wild eyes.

Perhaps when someone I don’t know calls me a sand nigger, I should give them the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe they were critiquing the people that call me a sand nigger.  I will do my best to assess the situation. 

Have I ever slipped into angry critiques that might have been misconstrued, taken out of context, or had unintended effects?  Yes.  Do I think that should be celebrated or honored?  No.

I feel a great sadness for the loss of life at Charlie Hebdo.  I can only attempt — and I will fail in my attempt — to imagine the fear, the terror they felt as they were attacked.  I appreciated the outpouring of grief and support that followed the shootings.

I noticed, also, how it was used by people in power to make whatever point they wanted, to demean whomever they pleased.  And I noticed that the outpouring of grief turned into attacks on Muslims and Arabs afterward. 

That does not mean we should not grieve.

I do not want to be associated with the rewarding of Charlie Hebdo.  That does not mean in any way that I wish to be associated with the censoring of it.  It does not mean I cannot appreciate satire.  It does not mean I celebrate violence, either. 

I understand my perspective is limited by my circumstance and who I am.  It is, perhaps, because of these limits that I want to disassociate myself from the conflict. I am unable to fully understand.  So I must go forward with what I know. 

I know I am not interested in the trap of a “Support Our Troops” version of free speech, one that cannot be discussed. It’s one that reduces human beings and suffering — whether experienced by the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Muslims and Arabs in the context the letter describes — to an unquestionable ideology.

I know that I prefer to walk away from that version of free speech and help support, or, if need be, create a better one, one that is truly free.  In the meantime, many are losing site of people, preferring the ideologies instead. 

This is happening on all sides. 

To achieve that one must first destroy love and compassion. This is why the attacks on dissenters become controlling and intimidating, insulting.  The attacks become compulsive.  They become “for us or against us.”  In other words, they become battle cries.  A shouting monologue that leaves no room for real people may be absolute speech, but there’s not much that is “free” about it.

*

Thank you to the writers who signed the letter, and also to those who voiced disagreement with the dissenters in a caring and thoughtful way.  Thanks, also, to PEN, whose work cannot be summarized by this one event, work that I, as a member, will continue to support and try my best to improve.

Further reading:

On the complexities of anti-Muslim sentiments and Charlie Hebdo in France.

Suzanne Nossel, who advanced Charlie Hebdo’s for the award, and military intervention.

Noam Chomsky on the hypocrisy of Je Suis Charlie outrage.

*

Update: the final number of signatories when the letter was turned over to PEN on May 5 was 242.

EVENT: University of Wisconsin, Thursday April 23. Porn Your Way through Life!

21 Apr

If you’re in the middle of the country and want to hang out with me and see me in my underwear (with pants on over my underwear!) then come to my talk about porn, sexuality, and culture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  The event is Thursday, April 23 at 7PM in 204 Ed Sci (that means something if you go to school there).  It’s hosted by the campus’s sex positive group, Sex out Loud, and I’m the Sexual Health Fest Keynote.

Anyway, show up.  Ask me questions.  See if you like my belly more than you liked my abs.  Give me a hug.  Find me idling away the time in my hotel room on Scruff.  You know, the standard stuff.

Madison

How To Be an Ex-Porn Star: 10 Tips on Taking a Break

7 Apr
There's  is no "after porn ends" anymore.

There’s is no “after porn ends” anymore.

One of the most common – and offensive – questions that porn performers get from viewers is, “what are you going to do after this?”  It’s as if porn star can’t exist, be looked at and wished upon, without viewers imagining that same star collapsing.  Or perhaps better said, some fans have trouble meeting porn stars without expressing their anxieties of having watched.  Another way of saying, “What will you do after this” is “I’ll stop watching you some day!” or “One day you won’t be desirable anymore!”

It’s just rude for fans to ask that question.  But it is important for performers to be able to have an answer.  Maybe not a complete one, but some gesture toward an answer somewhere.

Even if porn performers don’t ever retire (some just keep going and going and look great doing it), most will eventually take a hiatus.  Maybe you need to tend to the sensitivities of a new relationship.  Maybe you’ve got a new job you’re focusing most your time on.  Maybe your asshole just needs a break.

In any case, you’ve got that feeling: it’s time to stop making porn.

Having taken over a year off myself (I started shooting again in 2015 with a much lighter and more leisurely approach) and having also watched friends successfully and not-so-successfully disengage from the industry, I’ve compiled ten essentials.

1. Don’t hide the fact that you’ve made porn.

This is the number one on my list for a reason: it’s what gets people in the most trouble after they decide to leave.  Stories about someone’s “porn past” surfacing are always on the tip of the media’s tongue.  Porn pasts “surface” because people tried to bury them.  But there is no such thing as “after porn ends” anymore.  Porn is like that old tattoo you have: whether or not it still suits you, you’re going to (at least!) have to learn to love it as representing a specific mindset and time in your life.  Your porn career will always be available for viewers to enjoy and for potential lovers and employers to discover.  (You should consider this before you get in porn, as well.)

That doesn’t mean you have to raise your hand at the PTA meeting and tell people you were the Queen of Anal, it just means if it is relevant to conversation, a job, or a relationship, be open about it.  Sex worker advocate and all-around amazing person Amber Hollibaugh once said, “Wherever you have a secret, that is where you are vulnerable.”  If you allow your life and history to be open, you will be strong.

2.  Understand that porn has given you skills rather than fearing it as something that will hinder future successes.

For every door porn has closed in your life, it’s opened another, even if you can’t always see it.

Being in porn cultivates many skills (I’ve written about some of these skills before), some of which are marketable, some of which are personal.  These can include knowledge about sexual health, how to work out and eat to maintain a certain kind of body, basic entertainment production knowledge, media skills, and more.  Whether you choose to use any of these skills or not is up to you.  But it’s good to create what new age-y life coaches call an “asset inventory” of them.  What have you learned from porn?  What have you gained from it?  What connections have you made?  What are all the things that you have going for you having had those experiences?  Make a list and you might find yourself writing for quite awhile.

3.  Think about how you’re going to transition out while your career is going well and you have no intention of leaving.

camera

This photo is meant to represent film editing skills or something. (credit: Lavender Lounge)

This is basic preparation for the future.  When you’re in the cummy peak of your porn career, when your twitter followers are jumping by double digits, when you’re getting more dick pics in your inbox than ever, ask yourself, “What next?”  Asking yourself this in a moment when you feel secure will always give you a better answer than scrambling around.  It will also save you from continuing to make porn — because you’re unsure what your options could be — when you’re ready to move on to something else.  It might also lead you to leveraging your position in the industry to learn more skills.  Porn performers often teach themselves camera, editing, directing, and producing skills while they’re spending the majority of their time in front of the camera.  While you’re close to producers, directors, set designers and more, don’t hesitate to ask to learn more skills if you’re interested.

4.  You may have sexual and personal needs that porn fulfilled.  They’ll need to be met in different ways.

Whatever your motivations for being in porn are, you will probably, while you’re making it, alter your sex life, push the boundaries of your sexuality, and receive adoration for your body and sex appeal.  When you’re done, whether you were in it for the pleasure or the money or both, you may have a hard time transitioning back to a life without all that.  You might find yourself missing access to sex with other porn performers, or the role play, or the praise from strangers on your computer screen.  You may also miss the exhibitionism and the pleasure of enduring long sexual sessions.  Your fans will stick with you, but the praise might change or decrease in frequency.  It’ll be harder to dress up like a doctor and give fuckable patients anal exams.  You’ll have to work out new ways to satisfy any sexual and personal needs porn fulfilled for you.

That might mean continuing to be exhibitionistic online in some way.  It might mean staying in the public eye in a different way and finding understanding sexual partners.

Whatever your feelings might be, stay aware of this possible shift, and don’t despair that you don’t have porn anymore to fulfill the need.  Instead, think about what it is that gratified you and see if anything else can give you the similar (if not exact) feeling.

5.  You can continue to make money from your scenes while you’re not shooting.

If anyone has ever been excited to watch you have sex, someone will always be excited and will always be discovering you for the first time.  Make sure you acquaint yourself with your studios’ affiliate programs.  If you don’t want to maintain a porn site when you’re done, you can always start a blog anonymously with affiliate links to make all-but passive income.  You can also continue to sell clips you own, clothes you wore on set, signed photos, merchandise, and more.

6.  Don’t say you’re “retiring” and don’t delete your social media accounts.

Too many performers grandly announce their retirement one day, then, for whatever reason, shoot scenes a few months later.  Don’t announcement retirement. Often, performers announce retirement for themselves.  It’s like someone with a hangover saying, “I am never drinking again!”  If you’re really retiring, you probably won’t have to state anything so dramatically.

It’s better and more realistic to say you’re “taking a break.”  If you have an extremely compelling reason to retire, go ahead and say you’re retiring.  But realize you can only really say that once.  After that, no one is going to believe you.  Studios sometimes hire in a flurry when announcements like this are made, so it can be a good financial move; but again: only once.  It will affect your reputation if you do it again and again.

To make matters worse, in a dramatic I-cut-all-my-hair-off-to-prove-a-point move, some performers announce retirement and then delete all their social media accounts.  Your fans are and will always be an asset to you.  They’ve supported you, they’ve created tumblrs exclusively focused on your penis or vagina, they’ve said sweet things to you in your vaguest single-word status updates of sadness.  Don’t abandon them.  That doesn’t mean you have to interact with them.  But deleting an a whole linked community of people that you might want to interact with, share content with, announce upcoming projects to, and just in general be nice to isn’t a great exit strategy.

7.  Seek relationships with partners who are understanding. 

IMG_3707

Yes, those are my boyfriend’s feet and okay, I am cheesy.

If someone only likes you because you stopped making porn, they’ll probably have some difficulty with your pornographic personality.  That doesn’t mean you can’t date anyone who doesn’t throw confetti every time one of your bukkake scenes shows up in his spam email.  But be reasonable.  If someone gives you indications that he/she can’t deal with the fact that your naked and sexualized body is available to his.her friends, family, co-workers, that will cause some discussions and confrontations.  Ask yourself and answer as honestly as possible what your threshold is for these confrontations, how patient you are willing to be with your partner, and how likely he/she is to reach understanding with you.

8.  Remember that you have allies and remember to be an ally.

The community of people that will be most able to understand and help you once you exit porn is made up of performers and other sex workers.  They will be the people most able to understand avenues to new work, support you, stand with you against stigmas and challenges.  Performers – and other sex workers – are all in this together.  To that end, join and stay in touch with the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), look into sex worker health and support services like St. James Infirmary, and keep in touch with colleagues you respect.  If you think your perspective can help currently working performers or performers who are leaving the industry, offer yourself as a resource.  Remember to do this without declaring your experience as the definitive one; experiences in and upon leaving porn will vary from individual to individual.

9.  If and when you want to get back in, don’t assume it will be smooth.

The good news is, you will never be starting from zero again.  You can show producers, whether you know them or not, “I know how to show up and perform.”  That puts you ahead of the vast majority of people looking for work.  But it’s not always easy to get back into porn and that’s not usually personal.  Turnover for new performers and staff at studios can be fast-paced, so you might not be remembered.  Maybe the staff at a studio has changed and no one there has heard of you.  Regulations and protocols might have changed for a producer (or on a legal level). Your body might be different now, but you may not be totally aware of it since it’s been a gradual change for you.

Don’t be worried by all this; it might not be difficult at all.  If it is, you’ll get cast again if you are professional and persistent.  And worse-case scenario, you can always produce your own porn, utilizing your knowledge of the industry, employing performers you know, and distributing to fans you’ve made.

10.  Remember you are brave.

Okay, I lied up there in the first item.  This is actually the number one thing to remember. 

Listen, you’ve done something that you wanted to do in spite of the cultural discouragement, potential stigma, and discrimination.  You chose to do the thing that was forbidden because you knew it was for you.

So think about it: how hard can a job interview be after you’ve been fucked on a motorcycle?  How tough can it be to tell a partner about your history after you’ve had oral sex in front of a crowd of people?  You’ve learned how to control your breathing while taking an arm-sized penis up your butt.  You know how to get your body to be aroused and performative with someone you have no sexual attraction to.

The rest of life?  You’ve got this.  You’re awesome.

(This post also appears on the APAC website.)

TWO EVENTS – March 19 in LA and March 21 in Lethbridge (Canada)

14 Mar

 

 

Two events in one week!  

Thursday, March 19, in West Hollywood/Los Angeles:  I’ll be talking with the amazing artist and trans rights activist, Calpernia Addams about creativity and the human body!  Click on the image below for more info!

TheArtofHavingABody

 

Saturday, March 21 at The University of Lethbridge in Lethbridge, Alberta, I’ll be talking about queer sexuality and pornography!  The lecture is open to the public!  Click on the image below for more info!

UL

Please come! And if you can’t, spread the word on your facebook, twitter, tumblr, myspace, friendster, tamagotchi, kooch ball, and 8 track player!  Smooch.

When Proof Is Heaven: Why Near-Death Experiencers and Their Critics Keep Getting Science Wrong

3 Feb
EA

Eben Alexander

Two years ago, I published an essay on the problems with both near-death experiences (NDE) and the criticisms of it.  I used the book Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander (who recently penned a new book with all the same pitfalls, The Map of Heaven) as emblematic of these problems.  The problems with NDE and its critics are themselves emblematic – of problems with science and proof in general.  As I move into writing more and more about science and culture, I thought I’d republish the essay (in slightly modified/update form) here as a good touchstone for some of my thoughts.  For another exploration of this topic, see my conversation with Skeptiko host and science skeptic, Alex Tsakiris, posted late last year.

***

Is Proof Heaven?

The story is one you’ve heard before: a man slips into a coma and nearly dies.  While his body fails, he somehow experiences lights, colors, and landscapes, all while disconnected from his body.  Messages are imparted, deep feelings are felt, and then the man is sucked back into the material world.  His whole perspective has changed, and he’s ready to talk about it. 

The difference in the bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, is that the author and experiencer, Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon.  Alexander’s near-death experience (NDE) was triggered by a rare form of E. Coli infection/meningitis — but the real weight of the book rests on his education and experiences as a doctor, which are meant to give him a more informed perspective on the whole ordeal, which featured women floating on butterfly wings, clouds, psychic intervention, and more.  His credentials are meant to serve as a bridge between these fantastic features and their facticity. After all, Alexander and his supporters ask, who could be better qualified to talk about an NDE than a practicing neurosurgeon?  To this end, Alexander counters many of the standard arguments against the reality of NDE content, using his understanding of the brain to skewer them one by one.

Neither his credentials nor his account prove Heaven, however.  Instead, the book and its subsequent critical fall-out point to deep cultural concerns, less about Heaven and more about proof.

A cursory look at online and print reviews of the book reveal what you might expect: depending on whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, Alexander’s credentials mean that he does know better than most about brain states and can trust his experiences, or that he should know better and distrust them.  I share some of his critics’ concerns, if not their vitriolic and dismissive feelings.

The ad hominem attacks constitute the lowest form of critique regarding Alexander.  That doesn’t mean they’re not worth a look, and anyone interested in Alexander’s case specifically, rather than NDEs in general should take them into account.  As the recent revelation by The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven co-author Alex Malarkey shows, some people just flat-out lie about having an NDE to make money.  But even if Alexander is a hoaxster (he’s probably not), the NDE experience is so widespread that unless you’re interested in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to the phenomenon, it’s not going to take you very far.

As for more scientific concerns, Alexander includes an appendix in the book which addresses common scientific questions when it comes to NDEs.  But questions remain.  Unanswered questions for me, which I have not yet seen raised by others, include ones about possible psychotropic substances in the E. Coli bacteria themselves, as well as the possible involvement of Acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme whose activity is studied in schizophrenic patients, and whose function is amplified by other types of meningitis.  Another question — and it’s a big one — comes from more than one of Alexander’s critics (though most vocally from famed atheist Sam Harris), who wonder if Alexander’s cerebral cortex was actually shut down.  Alexander asserts again and again that it was; his critics say it wasn’t.

If it was shut down, then Alexander believes he has the right to claim the D of NDE, because according to mainstream medical models, human beings must have brain function to live.  This won’t ever work for skeptics, because they’ve created an un-winnable and nearly tautological argument that goes like this: a shut-down cerebral cortex equals death.  How do we know Alexander’s cerebral cortex wasn’t shut down?  Because he didn’t die.  Finality serves as the marker of death for many skeptics, so there was no “after” in Alexander’s afterlife: he merely entered into a weird sort of hypnogagia.

Such questions of science and definition, however tedious answering them may seem, are demanded by Alexander’s title, which claims “proof.”  His entire account of his NDE is aimed at communicating to others that the afterlife is real, that it is composed of beings who love and care about us.  It’s a vividly written account to match the lucidity of Alexander’s NDE state, and through it, he reasons that since when he nearly died he saw a beautiful woman on a floating butterfly wing who said he could do no wrong in life, that everyone will encounter a similar experience when they die.  In other words, he tries to create a general scientific principle out of his observation.

We’re bound to bang our heads against the wall if we follow the path that Alexander or his critics have laid out for us.  The lines are drawn and no one is going to switch sides, not only because Alexander hasn’t proved anything, but because the whole enterprise of foregrounding “proof” is misguided.  Not only when exploring NDEs, but also in use of certain kinds of medicine, parapsychological phenomenon, and more.  When it comes to non-materialistic and/or individualized phenomena, seeking proof above all else blinds us to the extraordinary and profound nature of subjectivity.

There may be overlapping (though not universal) themes — in NDEs, for example, “walk toward the light” and “everything is love” —  in all non-materialistic phenomena, but they always intersect with and are informed by the unique matrix of the individual’s personality and social circumstances.  One person may see a ghost, whereas another person in the same room may see nothing.  Acupuncture may heal one person’s back pain and leave another’s unhealed.  For the latter example, skeptics might be happy to cart out placebo, but they don’t have any real understanding of how placebo works, and it, too, affects different individuals differently. 

Not only are the experiences individualized, but many of them exist within mind states (i.e., the content and contours of our thinking and feeling world, as opposed to physical brain states).  Alexander can tell us all about the clouds and colors of the afterlife, but he can’t make us see them, because they intersected with his mind alone.

In other words, for certain experiences, reproducibility (and by extension, falsifiability), a bedrock of materialistic science, seems to go out the window.

The subjective, the individual, the irreproducible, are anathema to the skeptic’s (though not all scientists’) version of science.  Subjectivity and anecdotes generally cloud our judgement of the truth, skeptics say.  In his rebuke of the book, Amitai Shenhav advocates the values of distance and objectivity.  We must, he explains, remove ourselves from our experiences to really understand them, which would be impossible for Alexander, who experienced an intense euphoria during his NDE.  Setting aside the good feelings that researchers like Shenhav feel when they believe they’ve sufficiently distanced themselves from feeling, there’s another weird paradox here.

In the materialistic demand to somehow untangle ourselves from the world completely in order to understand it, we’re asked to borrow a popular theological narrative.  

First, researchers are meant to believe there’s a way to create an experiment and not intervene or interact with it, and that they’re meant to do everything they can to preserve this principle. 

Second, they should believe that thoughts, feelings, and impressions have nothing to do with the reality they’ve set up inside the experiment and that there are laws (controls, etc.) that they’ve also created that actually prohibit them from interfering with whatever takes place inside the experiment world.  This is remarkably similar to the deist or TV-addicted version of God — an old man on a distant cloud with a billion billion TVs.  He set the show in motion so he could watch, pretending things happen independent of him.

For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God.  It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.

Of course, it’s impossible to be objective.  First, there’s a long and rich history of  the very concept of objectivity and its evolution.  This is constantly ignored by skeptics like Harris in favor of pretending objectivity has a fixed definition without history or context.  Second, in the course of its conceptual development, we were warned against the dangers of our current form of objectivity (one that was supposed to be divorced from experience).

goethe

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe 1749-1832

Philosophers and scientists like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as well as Leonardo da Vinci, Rudolf Steiner, David Bohm, and many others reminded us: because all our scientific knowledge comes from thinking and feeling, there’s no way to truly filter it out.  Objectivity is a subjectively chosen gesture in someone’s thinking.  More to the point, we shouldn’t seek (at least not always) to filter it out.  Rather, if we seek to include it in our scientific understanding, we amplify the dialogue the “outer” sense world has with our “inner” thought world.  We learn more deeply about the world this way, we don’t swap out one TV-watching God with another.

We don’t and shouldn’t fall for the lazy new age trap of explaining such pitfalls of science in much-babbled about but rarely understood terms of quantum entanglement, changing photons, waves vs particles, and so forth.  Using specialized and complex physics to explain away critiques we don’t like or to wistfully fill in the gaps in our understanding is a fool’s game. What we need instead is to consider the inclusion of the subjective thought world in our scientific perspective; it’s a task taken up by some prominent and respected scientists, but not the majority. For now, the inner world, mind states, and subjective experience are generally dismissed as valueless (or worse) in experiments.  Increasingly, they’re dismissed even as objects of study; we have cognitive science and neuroscience, but not thought science or imagination science.

We see just how mapless mind state territories are when Alexander struggles with descriptions of his NDE, constantly expressing how difficult it is to convey them.  While some critics are cynical about this aspect of the book, I’m sympathetic.  Alexander is trying to explain, using sense-bound detail, things he experienced without the aid of his senses.  When someone says he/she “saw” something while unconscious, with what eyes?  And heard with what ears?  These experiences are not conjured up by sense organs and so elude the entire enterprise of empiricism, which is based on sensory input.  And it isn’t just empiricism but most of our descriptive language that’s based on sense metaphors.  So trying to describe non-sensual experiences with that language must be extremely frustrating.  This is also why Alexander resorts to the truth of what he experienced.  Truth is an inner quality, not determined by empirical fact (facticity, even according to materialists, often changes under scientific scrutiny), and so employing words like truth feels, well, more truthful. 

A science more like Goethe’s or Bohm’s (and less like Alexander’s or Harris’s), i.e., a science that asks us to think about our thinking while we observe, would help create better language for moments like this.  There’s always a tension between individual  experience (subjectivity) and being able to convey things in shared language (via objectivity and proof), but we need to balance the scales better.  If we include subjectivity in our scientific processes, we do just that.  Then the kind of approach popular skepticism supports becomes an option or an aspect of our scientific approach, not the only approach that thou shalt not have any other approaches before.  That way, we can (rightfully) criticize Alexander on his deceptive claim to proof with questions like the ones I and Harris pose above, but we can also marvel at the account.

We can ask: Why did Alexander encounter these particular images?  What do they mean to us as well as to him?  What is this feeling of truth he keeps referring to?  How is it different than what is “real”?  What makes his experiences distinct from other NDEs in content?  What does it mean that human beings encounter these strange mind states when they have NDEs?

Questions like these allow us to meet Alexander as well as ourselves as human beings, and as deeply mysterious.  They allow us to encounter NDEs and other non-materialistic phenomena as having meaningful content, because they relate to subjective concerns without dismissing subjectivity.  Even if Alexander’s experience were caused by brain trauma (and I’m not convinced one way or the other), these questions would still be important because it wouldn’t be the material/external “proof” alone that mattered, because we would recognize content and form of experience as equal in value to proof. There are contours to our inner world, but if we dismiss their value, we will never understand them.      

Alexander invites dismissal by claiming “proof” the way that he does.  If I’ve been a little hard on Alexander, I understand, also, that he’s not entirely to blame in his need to display his proof.  We live in a culture awash with proof, constantly telling us that to understand truth, we must ignore or exile the existence of free will, thought, and human-ness.  But for all the good feelings of Alexander’s NDE, for all the wisdom and love it imparted, he still seeks to abandon the truth of his inner experience for the dramatic outline of proof, and so makes them oppositional.  They don’t have to be opposed, merely balanced.  It’s not that we can’t approach mind states with science, it’s just that our current version of science has not yet made itself worthy of the task.

The Question of Light: Tilda Swinton’s speech at the Rothko Chapel

27 Jan

tildaBelow is the only place to read Tilda Swinton’s moving and radiant speech at the Rothko Chapel in Texas.  

Why do I have it?  A brief explanation.

Last year, actress Tilda Swinton was presented with the Rothko Chapel Visionary Award at the The Rothko Chapel, which is home to fourteen of Mark Rothko’s paintings.  It’s also a spiritual and human rights center whose mission is “to inspire people to action through art and contemplation, to nurture reverence for the highest aspirations of humanity, and to provide a forum for global concerns.”

One of her friends (writer William Middleton, mentioned in the unabridged version of the speech) sent the speech along to me and my boyfriend.  We read it aloud to each other, we paused, we marveled at the wisdom: art and light and compassion.  Then we read it again, inspired by its unfolding grace.  

When I tried to locate a link to the speech online, it was nowhere to be found.  I found photos of the event, the celebrities there, the gowns and the expressions.  But Swinton’s words, like many of the most beautiful words, were spoken, alive in the world, and then invisible again.

Below is Tilda Swinton’s speech.  The original version begins with words of gratitude,

“I had a dream last night that my brother told my father why I am here tonight and my father misheard the name of your most generous prize and declared those who honour me highly perceptive to be recognising me with a Contrary Award. I am sincerely humbled by any honour you do me.”

For the purposes of offering it to an audience not in the Chapel that evening, I’ve edited it slightly, removing parts that are directly referential to the event. The integrity of the speech remains, and it is an illumination.

***

“Discovering the landscape of a world inhabited by artists has been one of the miracles of my life.

I was brought up in a world where art was something owned and insured – usually inherited: but seldom if ever made by anyone I knew.

I had an early inkling that there was fun to be had over the hill, like the feeling when faced with a sunset that someone’s throwing a mega awesome party just beyond the nearest cloud, and I set off to join the caravan. Let’s just say I was in search of company, headed towards the glow, and I found it.

I believe that all great art holds the power to dissolve things: time, distance, difference, injustice, alienation, despair. I believe that all great art holds the power to mend things: join, comfort, inspire hope in fellowship, reconcile us to our selves.

Art is good for my soul precisely because it reminds me that we have souls in the first place.

We stand before a work of art and our spirit is lifted by it: amazing that someone is like us! We stand before a work of art and our spirit resists: amazing that someone is different!

It occurs to me on a regular basis that the cinema carries the potential to be perhaps the most humane of all gestures in art: the invitation to place ourselves, under the intimate cover of darkness, into another person’s shoes, behind another set of eyes, into another’s consciousness.  The ultimate compassion machine, the empathy engine.

Here is the darkness.

Here comes the light.

No8

– Rothko, Mark. No. 8. 1952. Private Collection.

When my children were ten, they came back from school elated one day to tell us they had started the supremely grown-up business of learning science.

When we asked them about their first lesson, they proudly announced they were addressing the study of light.

When we pressed them to describe how their teacher had approached the topic, with the bemusement of those genuinely unaware that there could ever be any other way, they told us that she had closed all the shutters and that they had sat in the dark for an hour.

Where I live in the far north of Scotland, the question of light is an axis central to every season, to every day.  In the topmost branches of June, the skies turn navy blue just before midnight and hover there until about 3:00 when the sun comes blooming up again.

At the turn of the year, on the other hand, a long lunch folds itself into the evening before you know it, and then into night-night blackness until way after the school bell in the morning.

A fisherman I know from a nearby village told me one day that he and his brothers had long ago pulled up a massive turtle, far from its tropical home, onto the deck of their boat in the North Sea off the east coast of Scotland.  He described how it lay there, unfathomably exotic and helpless amongst the mackerel, and that he would never forget their discussion about its fate.

‘What is it? No idea. Let’s kill it.’ Which they did. He said he had never regretted anything so much in his life, that he knew something failed in them at that moment.

We know what threatens our humanity the most; we shouldn’t need reminding.

The capacity to project our own shadow onto others, to edit our understanding of our own frailty, to hold it at bay, to play tag with our vulnerabilities.  You’re It, don’t touch me.  Our attachment to an idea of malevolent foreignness, of malign darkness: this is our Kryptonite… we know this well.

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Swinton in Rothko Chapel (from W Magazine)

Over the weeks that my mother was dying, the year before last, I went out into the nights and trained my eyes to see in the dark.
It provided a particular kind of comfort undiscovered anywhere else at that time.  By then I had sat in the Chapel and the serene witness of Rothko’s velvet abyss accompanied me on those nightwalks. The truth is, it’s never been very far away, ever since.

The last feature film my friend Derek Jarman made before died of AIDS in 1994 was Blue.  For many, his masterpiece – an Yves Klein- blue screen and a soundtrack.. a work made just as his sight was leaving him as he became blind.

Maybe most of all great art encourages us, as does this film, as does Rothko, not to stop at opening our eyes, but to go on to close them, as well.  To go to what we know deepest, earliest and most clearly: that we humans are, in essence, humane, fair, kind.  Gracious. Light-filled. Wise.  And that our darkness is just what it is: an intrinsic and balancing ballast to all that loveliness.

…Perhaps the most radical suggestion we can make about ourselves is not that we are not different. Or even that we are. But that we are both.

I remember a very specific moment in my children’s development, around the age of seven, when the power of reason became the happening thing, as in, ‘ No I can’t climb up a tree with you now because this dinner needs cooking…etc?’’

Along with this magical property came the anthem that still rules in our household to this day, the mantra of it can be both.

‘Would I like the chocolate eclair or the fairy cake? Do I want to play with my Lego all night or, as it happens, go to sleep because I’m super tired?… Do I like my twin brother /sister or – could it be – that I really really hate him/her?”

…Light and Dark both at once.

Welcome to the age of reason, welcome to life.

…Wherever you are alone with yourself most will show in that magic mirror.  And bear your heart witness, and keep you company whenever you need to draw on it.

We come. We take it home with us. We never really leave.

The Rothko Chapel is a sacred space because of precisely this capacity it has to re-bind, to re-balance, to re-store, to re-inspire the spirit in its simple and essential gesture of darkness held in light. Of art held in spirit. Of spirit held in life and the living of life. It is a truly humane space for humans to find themselves in.

Glamour is a word derived from the Scots, meaning ‘dangerous magic.’

The Rothko Chapel is glamorous beyond any glamour known to any Highland witch. It is a light that never goes out.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindness of your invitation.

And for the inspiration of your fellowship.”

– Tilda Swinton, 2014.

136942658_c421b0515e_b

photograph by Lucy Gray

(UPDATE 2/12/15 – Rothko Chapel got word of the enormous response to this post and has put the speech up on their website.  There’s also a beautiful photo of Swinton speaking.  I’m so happy the speech has found its way back to its original home!)

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