October, 30th, 2007.
Young South Philadelphians are ambushing innocents. Brian barely made it safe from the skatepark. Snyder is a warzone. It is neither safe nor advised to wander anywhere without a fully-loaded carton of eggs. Richie, Jennifer, and I furtively pick up a dozen from the pharmacy— in preparation. A ground war has spread over Philadelphia, and nothing is spared or sacred. Elsewhere, over the weekend, and the Monday before Halloween, there had been shows and parties, comprising cowboys, Pee-Wee Hermans, and nurses— all of whom wanted to stay as far as possible away from the ugly consequences of Mischief Night. Real, full-blooded American mischief that truly spooks the living.
Between these two activities— between these two meanings of Halloween— there is an unstated collision of logic. Or rather, a deep difference of forms. Forms of activity. Of modes. The festive, social aspect of Halloween has always had a weird, asocializing effect on me. Maybe once, twice, in my adolescent and adult life have I thrown together something that could be rightfully called a costume. The rest of the time, I just gather all the trash in my house and wrap it around my body with packaging tape, to traipse into the night in a Rauschenberg costume collage.
The contrarian side of my personality sulkily protests: “What is this? Holidays are supposed to be liberatory and liminal time, when we’re temporarily released from everyday rituals, released even from our own qualities. Now, I’ve got this mandate for liberation. Forget it.”— I don’t really believe this. Not fully. The fun of Halloween liberation is in the collectivity of the effort. Seeing a whole room full of monsters and dead movie-stars, drinking hottie-totties. Or better yet, when the Halloween festivities fade, and the roles are broken by the intrusion of everyday life, like when you see Vladimir Putin and a Pokemon character, on the street, bickering about locating a taxi, or Gandhi dancing to break-beats. Halloween bends the whole of things, and thereby works its magic.
A few years back, after a particularly lame Halloween, the South Philadelphia Athenaeum decided to hold Halloween in December, to break fully with the Holiday cycle itself. My torn and contrarian heart was satisfied enough with this twist, and I poured myself into it fully. We had a haunted house, a knife-throwing room with a Jesus-on-the-cross as a target, an unsuccessful tickle-torture chamber, and best of all, a giant Octopus piñata. To take a go at the thing, you were blindfolded, strapped into a harness, and swung across the warehouse, to bat wildly in the air. This may not have been the perfection of the form, but it was much better. Much more liminal. But what form are we talking about? — A social form, the party, the festivity. On occasions, they are necessary and nourishing, but we often cannot see beyond them, as a method.
Vandalism— the roaming pranks and petty crimes of Mischief Night— has always been more exciting, more liberated to me. A method very dear to my heart as a young boy. I always preferred clever, imp-and-joker acts of vandalism— committed, for example, under the homeowner’s nose or with a dash of black humor— but textbook acts of vandalism would do fine in a pinch. That is, the standard vocabulary of eggs, toilet paper, matches, random pointless destruction, lawn-ornament theft and rearrangement, Christmas decoration détournement, trespassing… the usual “displacement and compilation of signs.”
I wouldn’t necessarily defend these acts of my former self— definitely not the bratty, assholish, undeserved assaults on my fellow man and their Nativity scenes. Some I would— the cleverer and funnier ones— but most I would not. But the form, the form of vandalism has a Sublime that needs defending and expanding. A template of activity that, along with skateboarding and middle-school misbehavior, strongly influenced my later philosophies of action and transformation, as I’m sure it did for dériving, détourning Situationist thinkers like Asger Jorn. In the moments of truest self-synthesis, my 14 year-old Self was— underneath it all— trying to synthesize his earlier vandalism and classroom incorrigibility with skateboarding and philosophical history into one unified vision. And, as well, to encounter that Sublime elsewhere in the world.
Vandalism: leaving the house, with dear friends, often past curfew and out of bedroom windows, cloaked in dark garb, out to extract experience from the local geography. Street lights illuminating the path to total liberty. Pine trees and pine straw and dark, silent, safe, hideaway corners of the neighborhood. Coffee and candy from Seven-Eleven. We approached every job heuristically, as a problem to be solved. What is the best new place for these reflectors? What other words can these letters spell? A reconfiguration of the physis; a re-ordering of things. Sons of Genet, circling somehow outside of the common course of the world.
The cops come; we run. Lights turn on; we run. Cars vroom by; we hide, unaware of the occasional unseriousness of our crimes. Our stomachs and shoulders cramp from running and sucking in the night air. The smell of the neighborhood. The self expanding in total liberty. Rottweilers named Duchess, guarding palaces. Older sadistic kids. Enemies in cars. Joggers. Here we were, in the cozy suburban darkness. What a rejection of all things, and likewise, an affirmation of all things.
Leslie and I are sitting in Standard Tap, a bar in Northern Liberties with a warm, wooden, nautical interior. Peering around, a thirty-something couple starts arguing. “Yeah, well you’ve been opening up your little bistro forever now, and you know what… I’m just sick of it…sick of all your little friends, driving them around…” —a pretty miserable little spectacle. Nearby, a man scribbles on a yellow manuscript pad, waiting or stood-up, with three plates of food sitting before him, getting cold. As somber as a gravestone. The man refuses eye contact, and sits there steaming with focused resentment. We eventually ask him if he’s going to eat the fries. No sense in wasting. Further off across the room, a booth full of co-workers talk unexcitedly about— I can only assume— the workplace. I’m inclined to tell them the truth about co-workers. That coworkers are not real human beings. They are automata, placed here and there to lend the illusion of warmth in the workplace. But off the clock, co-workers will fail the Turing test. The illusion cannot hold. The responses and the rapport will be too generic to originate in the human psyche. But who among these diners at the Standard Tap is the humanoid? Maybe none of them.
Sitting in a bar too long, you begin to see human existence as Schopenhauer did, as “an expiation of the crime of being born”— either total vanity or purposes clumsily approached. I can’t understand the purpose of this place, especially in comparison to the ticklish night-time joys of vandalism. I can understand bars as a dwelling place of misery, where very few chat, but everyone takes solace in a communion of misery. Misery expressed wordlessly, or through grunts, Marlboros, and jukebox selection. Real ashtray dives, where all signs of cheerfulness are unwelcome and ill-advised. I like imagining that every last detail of dive bars— from the chits by the dartboard to the selection of dated Anheiser posters— is merely the anthropological outgrowth of misery and alcohol, that the magical floating beer tap is somehow just a function of these two variables.
Standard Tap, though, doesn’t seem to have this aim though, solace. It’s supposed to be celebratory, but what happens? What happens at most parties? What happens at most shows? What gains are made, what interesting new advances in the human experiment? Angie and Steve arguing about their co-owned sidewalk bistro. Why do vandalism, make-believe, and skateboarding seem to be so much more successful forms of action? Culture is, at its very core, freeplay. Bars and parties— including cocktail parties, gallery openings, dinner get-togethers, keggers, dance parties, shows, quirkily-themed parties— rarely produce any real surprises, any marvel. They rarely enter into any self-constructive stage of tangential, transformative freeplay. They are usually post-growth, cul-de-sacs of Being… a habit like any other… how people bump into each other once the self has cooled to form. Seen this way, again Schopenhauer is right: the world is best conceived of as a penal colony. Everyone is condemned to previous decisions, living their days by the light of an earlier, rosier freedom.
The essential wisdom of the childhood perspective is its belief in infinite possibility and the contingency of selfhood. Childhood strategies and activities— all either freeplay or Socratically unpresumptuous curiosity— reflect this. And so, they provide us the template, the seedbed, and the initial momentum for a rounder, better conception of Action. One day, when I uncrumple enough notes, or get stuck in a philosophical tic or stereotypy, I want to write about a bold, philosophically-novel-but-historically-ancient idea of Action. A hot little treatise that will suggest that Action should be our supreme cultural form, rather than performance, party, or thought alone. A brand-new formulation of Action— rounder, smarter, and evermore vigorous. Action is not necessarily physical action— even more rarely is it political action. Action is, according to my private philosophical glossary: a particularly intense and tight dialectic between the self and its circumstances. This rhetoric comes spinning out of Ortega y Gasset, for whom our prime reality— life— is neither in idealist self nor realist substance, but their relationship, inextricably intertwined in what Jasper’s calls a “loving struggle.”
“Our life, that of each individual, is the dynamic dialogue between the I and its circumstances.”
— Ortega y Gasset, El Tema de Nuestro Tiempo.
Thought— or maybe with gravitas, Thinking— traditionally constitutes merely one half of the whole equation: the impression of the circumstances onto the self, the interpretation of circumstances by the self, or maybe the self tending to its own shape and order. This brand of thinking is what John Dewey would call the “Spectator Theory of Knowledge,” and the Spectator Theory of Thought. But for me, as for any stalwart pragmatist, all thinking, all thought— all philosophy— is and should be strategic. Phronesis. Ready for agency, ready for the self to shape circumstances in return.
So my version of Action is, inherently, Thought-with-Action. If you wanted to say that Action is, itself, merely one half of the equation, this would be fine as well. I would just rephrase myself: Thought-with-Action should be our supreme cultural form. But I save this— and my treatise— for another day.
For now, for tonight, and for posterity, I have assembled a crew. Me, Dick Davis, and Chris Thomas. Driving Northwest with a trunk full of toilet paper and eggs, ready to cover a wealthy Philadelphia suburb— and one inviting country club golf course— with a thick layer of fresh suburban snowfall. There, in the purity of the night air.