Alan Watts: Rascal guru or inspirational poster boy?

As readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of the late English philosopher Alan Watts. He has been one of, if not the, most formative influences on my way of thinking. As such, I am keen for more people to read him; I think he has a lot to offer humanity, especially at this present time.

Since his hay-day in the 1960s, Watts has had some what of a resurgence thanks mainly to the web. A sub culture has grown around taking speeches and lectures and making multimedia video presentations out of them. This is an activity which is encouraged by his estate, which is managed by his son Mark. Probably the most famous of these is still the seminal series done by the creators of South Park, of which ‘Life and Music’ is still best known. For many this is the first they hear of Watts and is a great example of how his work has been remixed for the modern age; his words enhanced by the visuals.

Since this there has been a cottage industry formed around taking Watts lectures and setting them to music and video. Many of these are done quite well. One of my favourites sets a discussion on death to the sounds of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

It’s not just Watts either, there is a whole culture of taking ‘inspiring’ lectures and treating them such. There was KickStarter recently to help fund some guy to make more of them, many of them Watts based.

I do fear, however, that this is becoming its own clichéd genre. Take a short section of Watts, lay it over some overly emotive music, and then make a montage of various ‘random life’ footage clips. The problem is that this becomes a production-line thoughtless process. The reason the good Watts videos work is that there is a link between his words, the music and the visuals. If this becomes an unthinking process I am concerned that it will transform the meaning and context of Watts work.

Alan Watts’ primary drive in life was to introduce you to a viewpoint that he enjoyed and held. This viewpoint, to paraphrase extremely briefly, was chiefly the viewpoint of Asian religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism and seeks to make you see how inseparable you are from your environment, you and the universe are one process, and that not seeing this interdependence was the cause of human suffering. He was not a ‘self-help’ guru, nor did he seek to inspire hope as it were; he sought to help you see as he saw, and from that suffering would be alleviated.

My worry is that Watts becomes relegated to the status of pithy comment source, for the multi-font on a picture of a sunset inspirational quote crowd who seem to fuel Facebook timelines. This fate has befell the Dalai Lama and the Buddha for instance, often with words they never actually said. This would be a misinterpretation of what Alan was about. That said, I am in favour of bite-sized Watts, as he has such a great way with words that I think he can drop tiny ‘aha’ moments into your day. Some Twitter accounts are great at picking out such parts. But the real power and joy of Watts work are where he can expand on his ideas over time. Certainly some of the 3 to 5 minute videos can get some key ideas in, but I think he works best over his hour long lectures, or his essays and his books where he can unveil and build these powerful concepts. My other fear, is that some of these videos are using an aesthetic which is unsuitable. Watts was serious about helping people change their outlook, but he was a playful, mischievous man, never sombre. Some of the music choices, for instance, in these videos set a tone at odds with his actual spirit.

But, if these videos lead people to discovering his work, then I’m all for them. Just as long as they don’t reinvent him as a Facebook wall update quote source.

(I’ve written loads on Alan Watts, all archived here)

Alan Watts on the 1970 Brazil World Cup team

If you happened to witness, in 1970, the World Cup championship of soccer, you would have seen that the winning team from Brazil played soccer in the most extraordinary way. They played it like basketball. They played it dancing. They way we learned soccer when I was at school as a boy was very, very formal and ordinary and we didn’t really enjoy it. But these fellows were bouncing balls off their shoulders, off every muscle, and they had astonishing team play, while at the same time were dancing the game

Alan Watts – Work As Play

Calvary (2014)

I was instantly interested in seeing John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary” the moment I saw the trailer some months ago. This was despite having viscerally disliked the writer/director’s previous collaboration with Brendan Gleeson “The Guard”. I remember watching “The Guard” and being genuinely disturbed by how much acclaim it got. For me it was a tone-deaf mess, not sure of what it was supposed to be and shot through with a streak of nastiness wherein (like McDonagh’s brother Martin’s “In Bruges”) much of the comedic value seems to rest on having gombeenish cartoon Irish men say bigoted offensive slurs. But despite this, “Calvary” seemed to offer something; a compelling story (a priest is threatened with murder and has one week to put his house in order), beautifully shot, with a powerful Brendan Gleeson performance at its centre.

Having now seen the film, I can report that it retains all of those things (trailers can be deceptive) but despite these, the film is an unholy (pun intended) mess. Like “In Bruges” it is tone-deaf, shifting from solemness one moment to slap stick panto acting the next. Gleeson appears to be occupying a different universe than everyone else, like a character from one film has stumbled into a sketch show, or like Bob Hoskin’s grizzled detective wandering into cartoon land in “Who Frames Roger Rabbit?”. Black comedy can be a beautiful thing, but must be handled deftly. Here there is no subtly and it comes apart at the seems.

It is also as subtle as a brick. Clearly a film about a priest in modern Ireland is going to carry a message, and there is something needed to be discussed, but “Calvary” wants to say too much. Almost every scene features a caricature of modern Ireland, many played by skilled actors who have turned their performances to 11, some 20. In Father James Lavelle’s final week he does a greatest hits tour of troubled souls, ticking off many boxes as he goes, including a serial killer, secluded novelist, Celtic Tiger hyper capitalist, and a village idiot type that appears to have been created in a costume shop. One character even remarks about how themselves are cliché, but a knowing self referential wink at the camera does not forgive such laziness. At it’s core it does have something to say about forgiveness, but this is almost drowned in everything else. Only Gleeson’s masterful performance and the films stunning cinematography keep the film in any way ticking along.

I remarked to someone who liked the movie that the characters did not feel real and they retorted that it wasn’t supposed to be reality. That may be so, and I love movies that distort, extend and play with reality. The films of Wes Anderson, for instance, occur in a parallel universe, with people portrayed in an exaggerated way, but they still are relatable. “Calvary” exaggerates, but does it in the most ham fisted way. These characters seem so unreal to the point where I cannot recognise them, or worse still, I cannot sympathise with them. Only Gleeson’s Father James, his daughter Fiona (played by Kelly Reilly ) and David McSavage’s Bishop Montgomery really worked for me.

It has moments of fleeting beauty, mainly between Father James and Fiona, and of the stunning Sligo landscape, and some genuinely funny moments but they are few and fair between in this over cooked movie, which culminates in a montage sequence so prescriptive that it could have come out of an episode of Hollyoaks.

Banksy Wuz Here

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Once again a piece of stencil graffiti has been spotted that has led to speculation that it might be a “Banksy”. It’s interesting how the story these days is less so about the art itself, what it says or what it depicts, but whether or not it is confirmed to be by Banksy. After such a piece is spotted, the subsequent tension over whether or not it is a “Banksy” betrays the real interest here: people don’t really care about the art. They care if its a “Banksy”. His celebrity status was confirmed years ago, and is now such that it doesn’t matter what he does, it just matters that we know its him that does it. Of course, being an internationally recognised superstar artist it is natural that news outlets would report on his latest work. But what’s more interesting is our relationship to the work. What if one of these pieces turned out not to be by him? Obviously its material worth lessens (as is the want of the international art market), but does it become less interesting? Less thought provoking?

In his debut film “Exit Through The Gift Shop” Banksy blurred the lines between reality and fiction by exploring the rise of a fellow graffiti artist (Mr. Brainwash) from his beginnings as a documentary film maker following Banksy to his emergences as an artist in his own right, through to a major L.A. show which attracts a lot of attention. Although the artist and his work are presented as being real, there is the overwhelming impression that his work (at the very least the L.A. show) is a hoax by Banksy which aims to expose the shallowness of the art world. All those people fell for a ‘fake artist’.

Banksy should take the entire project one step further and announce that half the work attributed to himself are not his. What would happen? What would be our impression of them then? If we sit and wait to see if a piece is indeed by Banksy, what happens if we retroactively remove attribution? What if one of those new pieces were posted in a few places online as being by some unknown name…would they get any traction?

I have an odd relationship with Banky’s work. As a graffiti obsessed teen who began to develop a (naive, admittedly) political world view as I entered college I became a huge fan of his stuff, which appeared to me to be edgy and unique. But as time has gone by I’ve become increasingly wary of his stock-in-trade. Many of his juxtaposed images have become so obvious and cliched, that they have sprung up various parodies, from Nathan Barley to a Twitter account. Whilst he continues to occasionally do interesting things (his altered paintings etc.) that show a growth, the standard “give a machine gun to an unlikely person”* street stencils illicit eye-rolls mainly these days.

And being a curmudgeonly contrarian, my aversion to him increases as more and more people lap up everything he does without question. The obsession with him in particular baffles me, as he didn’t even invent this style of art.

This has, however, inspired in me an idea: A Google Glass app that alerts users if they are looking at a CONFIRMED BANKSY, so that they can then choose to Instagram it or ignore it. I mean, what’s the point if it’s not a BANKSY?

Interdependence for Non-Hippies

Disaster Communism

Environmentalism: the question is posed incorrectly from the beginning. There is no external object called “the environment” to which another object called “society” must relate. The question of the environmental crisis cannot be posed separately from that of society, as if it were some alien entity attacking us from the outside. At every point in history, human society is that which we have forged from the transformation of nature, and nature is that on which we depend for our continued existence; nature is part of human society and human society is part of nature.

We exist in a state of profound interdependence with all forms of life – a condition we are unable to transcend, but merely develop in one direction or another. Our relations to one-another are predicated on particular relations to nature. The waged labour relation that is fundamental to capitalism required our estrangement from nature: the violent dispossession and expulsion of peasants from the land, and the enclosure of nature, its constitution as an object to be dominated and exploited was the founding event of capitalist society, a process intimately linked with the suppression and enclosure of women.x

Traditionally, environmentalists have tended to pose the question of how to prevent catastrophe as separate from questions of how humans are to relate to each other. This has tended to mean that environmentalism has confronted us as a rather bleak, desperate and negative discourse:

“’We must act today to save tomorrow’ is the cry of the global greens. Great sacrifices must be made immediately for a reward launched far into the distant future. But such a reward it is! Yes, it may be far away now, but one day, dear friend, you may not be flooded! You may not starve! You might not even suffer more than you do already! Such is the dismal promise of environmentalism.”xi

Indeed, this framing, due to its artificial restriction of the problem to be considered, has often tended to produce a push towards economism and away from the consideration of the intersecting forms of exploitation and domination that produce our social reality, towards compromise with authoritarian forms of organisation, and towards a joyless and debilitating seriousness in the name of urgency. Viewed this way, it seems obvious that all sorts of compromises must be made with systems of domination in order that decisive action be taken to “save the planet”.

The problem is, the question is posed entirely backwards. We cannot think of taking decisive action against the destruction of nature separately from the transformation of the social relations that both arise from and reproduce the domination of nature by humans. The question rather is: what form of society is consistent with the desire to live not merely from nature, but in and with nature? What kinds of subjectivities and forms of social organisation allow us to live not as exploiters of the natural world, nor under the exploitation of others?

What desires and potentials exist in our current world that could form the beginnings of such a world? Clearly, we must have done with the negative environmentalisms that operate on guilt and fear, and that offer nothing but the postponement of death. We must have done also with all the false consolations of magical thinking that keep us invested in a political system that can only fail us.

Clearly, what we need is an anti-capitalism, but it cannot be one that simply takes over production and runs it more democratically. (In any case what system could outmatch modern capitalism in the production of endless junk?)

It’s great to see the interdependence of man and nature (and indeed, the realisation that there is no difference between them) expressed so well in the sphere of radical politics/economics, and not just as Buddhist-influenced, Watts-like ‘hippy’ (ugh) talk. It’s also nothing new, Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist Anarchism” has been with us for some time, but a welcome continuation of the debate.

I’ve written before about how I imagine the practical implementation of a realisation of non-duality/interdependence and I surmised it would be a ‘communist’ system and I think this piece reinforces that thought.

“Your real action right here and now creates the Universe.”

I’m thinking a lot again about the effects of my conduct online. I use Twitter and often find myself firing off jokes at the expense of a politician or public figure for cheap laughs. I don’t think about it too much. But it’s occurring to me that this thoughtlessness can cause harm. My propensity for mischief is in a daily battle with my attempt to develop compassion for all sentient beings.

Brad Warner has published a blog post about the Bodhisattva Vow which drives right to the heart of this matter:

When we, ourselves, become calmer, more rational, more centered, everything we do naturally becomes a fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. When we make efforts to center ourselves, the rest of the world participates in that effort. It sounds weird, I know. But it happens to be true. The real fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow rarely manifests itself in big, sweeping acts of heroic service to all mankind. It’s usually something very small.

Smiling at your boss even though he is a smug, self-serving royal pain in the ass is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. Shutting up when you spontaneously think of the perfect sarcastic come-back to a rude clerk at the DMV is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. Putting the toilet seat down after you’re done so your sister won’t fall in is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. Staying behind and watcing some of the set by the band who lent you their stuff is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow.

Your real day-to-day, minute-to-minute activity right here and right now has immeasurable impact upon the entire Universe. Your real action right here and now creates the Universe.

One of the most helpful statements here is:

Shutting up when you spontaneously think of the perfect sarcastic come-back to a rude clerk at the DMV is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow.

As Brad says, the real fulfillment of the Vow is in the thousands of tiny acts that can be performed daily. An many of these actions can be non-actions. Instead of saying that thing, don’t say it. How important is it to be said? And if it has to be said are you saying it in the most skilful way? As Mike Monteiro put it, Have I improved the silence?

Your real day-to-day, minute-to-minute activity right here and right now has immeasurable impact upon the entire Universe. Your real action right here and now creates the Universe.

The Internet Is Not Some Giant Living In The Hillside Coming Down To Visit The Townspeople


I’ve seen a bit of end-of-year commentary recently saying things along the line of “let’s take the internet back” “the internet in 2013 was awful” “in 2014 we fix the internet” etc. and it kind of baffles me because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is, and exacerbates the very problems people want to address.

The internet is not the problem. Twitter is not the problem. They possibly don’t help the problems, as medium they are not passive etc. and they shape and form the messages transmitted, but in the end we’re the problem.

In the opening to his classic album “Black On Both Sides” Mos Def says the following:

People be askin me all the time
“Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?”
(Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?)
I tell em, “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us”
If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
Comin down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop

I think you can use the exact same argument about “the internet”. “If we doin’ alright, the internet is gonna be doin’ alright”. If “the internet” seems like a shitty, broken place, it’s because the world is a shitty broken place. But the place to start fixing it, isn’t the network, it’s the nodes that make up the network. It’s us. Racism, misogyny, violence, hatred, are problems we have as people. They are not problems of the internet.

The network has problems itself; but again these problems are caused by the people on the network. It’s controlled by massive corporations and all watched over by state security agencies because we’re controlled by massive corporations and all watched over by state security agencies.

To say “let’s fix the internet in 2014” is to say “let’s fix human society in 2014”. That’s fine, that’s worthy, but it’s not easy and you have to remind yourself what the real problem is. And, like the network, I believe you can’t fix it until you start fixing the individual nodes. And that means ourselves.

“What’s gonna happen with hip-hop?
Whatever’s happening with us?”

Selfie-Hatred

In response to it being named as the Oxford Word of the Year, the Irish Times ran a piece today on the phenomenon of ‘selfies’ that in its vague emptiness sums up the silly furore over the word. The article argues that the ‘selfie’ is the most appropriate – or “depressing” – “symbol of the kind of society we have become” that “sums up our age of narcissism”. But Jennifer O’Connell never really explains how this act (of taking a picture of yourself) points to this grave social illness, or how the ‘selfie’ is in any way a new activity.

People, with the means, have been commissioning self-portraits of some manner for centuries. All that has changed is that the means to do so (and broadcast) have become readily available to the masses. If ‘selfies’ tell us anything, its that the means of production of self-portraiture have been acquired by all, not just the elite. That in itself might be interesting, but it shows us that the ‘narcissism’ (if it’s true) has always been there.

One of the ‘selfies’ described in the IT piece is of a family out at a meal who take a picture of themselves. That is a family picture at a meal. I assume it was a ‘selfie’ because one of the members of the family physically took the picture themselves? Had they handed the camera to a waiter to take they would be doing something that has never prompted a columnist to write about it before. But it seems the act of being in a picture, whether alone or with others, whilst also taking the picture, magically transforms it into the narcissistic ‘selfie’ – the act that ‘sums up our age’. This family portrait was “the perfect nuclear family for the age of ego.” When me and my family posed awkwardly with our nan in 1986 it was a cherished memory we were only talking about the other day. But this family in a pizza restaurant took a ‘selfie’, and we should sneer it as such.

The 1985 Philadelphia MOVE bombing

I heard about the Philadelphia MOVE bombing for the first time earlier this year when I saw the trailer for “Let The Fire Burn”, a new documentary about the incident. I couldn’t believe what the film was about, mainly because I couldn’t believe I had never heard of the event.

In 1985, following years of tension between the City of Philadelphia and a radical revolutionary “back to nature” group called MOVE, a stand off on a suburban street turned to mayhem when police dropped a bomb on the roof of MOVE’s house which that had refused to vacate, ultimately burning the house and the surrounding neighbourhood to the ground. In the end 11 MOVE members, including 6 children, were dead, and over 60 family homes in the neighbourhood were completely destroyed. Only 2 members (an adult woman and a child) survived.

MOVE are a fascinating group, essentially a cult based around a mysterious man, John Africa, who the members supported loyally. Whereas many people pay lip service to the environment and animal rights, MOVE walked the walk, to an extreme fashion, eating only raw veg, eschewing most technology (except, for instance, guns) and electricity. On paper, however, their way of life seemed quite positive. I have always been fascinated by cults, radical groups and communes, from Aum Shinrikyo, to the Weather Underground. (This weekend I also saw “The Source Family” about a 70s hippy commune, again orbiting around a central father figure)

It baffles me that MOVE isn’t more widely known. Maybe it is in the States, but given we live in such a US-centric, connected globe that this never took on the international infamy as say Waco is strange. But, then again, when you consider that the vast majority of MOVE’s members, and all who died, were African-American, sadly, maybe it isn’t that strange. To think that police forces dropped a bomb on civilians in order to end a siege seems unthinkable, but it happened.

While I wait for the film to get released here, I’ve started reading the book “Let It Burn” which the film is more or less based on. It’s been great so far, a matter-of-fact documenting of what led up to the inferno. I’ve also been soaking up everything I can find online about the MOVE standoff, including this 25th anniversary retrospective, and some interesting videos of a 1978 standoff that had resulted in the death of a police officer.