Category Archives: Philosophy

Delayed Memorial (for David Antin)

My mother, age 95, in her current residence, April, 2017

My mother, age 95, in her current residence, April, 2017

FRIDAY, MAY 5, 2017

David Antin (February 1, 1932 – October 11, 2017)

I not only had the pleasure of hearing some of David Antin’s talks during the last quarter century of his life, but I also had the honor of transcribing them. One summer, towards the end of working on my dissertation at UCSD, I spent a couple weeks listening to his tapes and typing up his talks, thereby providing him with the material he would shape into a finished text.

Antin’s ability to enter a self-generated labyrinth of spontaneous logic and keep his neo-Socratic inquiry one step ahead of the audience’s expectations was truly uncanny, though I did detect one fairly predictable move. I suppose a dependency on – well, why not call it a preference for – a certain pivot halfway through a game can be spotted even in the greatest of the chess grandmasters. In Antin’s case, it was the “Je me souviens” moment. Antin appeared to have had a huge number of intellectually ambidextrous aunts and uncles. After attending several of his talks, I began to notice how a reminiscence of some member of his extended family would glide into his musings and slowly but deftly enable him to come “full circle,” by which I mean not some “closure” as might be employed by a poet featured on Garrison Keillor’s radio program, but an extended consideration of the poetics of Happenings and Hans Reichenbach’s theory of probability.

I was fortunate enough to take two seminars with David when I was a student at UCSD, and enrolled in yet another with Eleanor Antin. David ended up being the outside reader for my Ph.D. dissertation, in fact, though he was rather disgruntled at my final draft. The last time I saw him was at the PAMLA conference in San Diego two years ago. He had grown frail, it seemed to Linda and me, and we had a hard time talking about it on the drive back to Long Beach. At UCSD, he had still seemed like a man who was in his late 50s, physically and intellectually ebullient.

Last week, when I was in Xalapa, Mexico, Rachel Levitsky mentioned that the impact that David’s death had on those who knew him, and I felt myself halt mid-step. “David died?” I asked her. I hadn’t known, and I immediately began to wonder why I hadn’t heard.

The photograph of my mother, Sylvia Mohr, age 95, at the start of today’s post is certainly part of the explanation for how I managed to not know about David Antin’s death. A year ago, my mother was living in an assisted care facility with no proximity to any relative other than a niece, who lived a three hour drive away. Her granddaughter, who had been living nearby, had moved to another state, and my mother’s situation at this residence was becoming untenable. The staff seemed incapable of making certain that her regular routine of prescribed drugs was administered to her. After I spent ten days with her in July, 2016, I began to make preparations for her move to a place near where I live, and in late August she arrived at LAX with my sister as a companion passenger.

Fortunately, my mother had not been disruptive on the flight, but after landing she became cantankerous. It required four hours to get her to move from the airplane seat to the back seat of a taxi. I finally delivered her into the care of a place in Stanton, run by the Quakers, but within less than a week they had sent her by ambulance to a psychiatric institution in Newport Beach. I was not consulted in advance about her institutionalization. I was called by the facility after the ambulance had already delivered her to the wards. It took me two weeks of constant effort to get her released, after which she spent a month in a hell-hole that refused to give her solid food, could not remember to put a pillow case on her pillow, and played loud rock music as she sat in a room with people who were mentally afflicted. Towards the end of that month, she came very close to succumbing to pneumonia, after which I moved her to a place about five miles south of me, where she has received much better care and has managed to stabilize.

In the meantime, beginning in early October, I had to begin the process of getting one of my brothers out of her house, which he had completely and totally trashed. I am not the only person who has had to endure the consequences of a sibling addicted to hoarding, but it took the next four months to get the place cleaned out and ready for sale. Without my brother Jim’s help, it would never have happened. I was, of course, teaching at CSU Long Beach the entire time. To say that I felt as if I had two full-time jobs is understating the case.

I am currently the only one of my mother’s six children who lives in her vicinity. One sister lives in Israel; another in Tennessee. Three brothers live in San Diego County. The picture in this blog post was taken when I visited her a few days ago, bringing along some clothes that Linda bought in a used clothes store. Linda herself is having to address the crisis of her own mother’s aging. Noreen is in her mid-80s, and is still capable of getting around with the aid of a walker, whereas my mother’s mobility is limited to getting in and out of a wheelchair.

At this point, coming to the end of the spring semester, I am completely and utterly exhausted. There was no break between semesters. I spent New Year’s Day at my mother’s former residence in Imperial Beach, for instance, filling bag after bag with disgusting, slimy trash. I didn’t have any good memories of living in that house 50 years ago. The whole experience of rescuing my mother from her own willful refusal to adjust to the circumstances of aging left me having my face rubbed ever more vigorously in my childhood humiliations. New Year’s Day was just the start of weeks and weeks of making round-trip drives and overnight stays in San Diego that broke me physically and financially.

I have not written of any of the above details in my blog during the past year because it would have distracted the blog from its main concerns. I bring it up now because it turned out that I missed David’s memorial service at the Getty. In early February, I was completely absorbed by the combination of teaching and trying to provide for my mother’s care. All I can say is that I hold David’s memory more tightly in my heart at this moment than I would have had I been there that day.

How Long Is the Present: RIP, David Antin (1932–2016)

The New Covenant of Public Mobility: Public Transportation as Beneficial Employment

Monday, August 8, 2016

If you use the above link, you will find a report in the LA Times to the effect that ridership on the Metro system has surpassed the capacity of rail cars available to carry passengers. While this is bad news for those who are making use of public transportation, it is also an encouraging sign of a shift away from automobile driving. Nevertheless, the fact remains that freeways are more jammed than ever, and it will take a radical solution to relieve this ecological catastrophe. Hence, today’s blog entry:

Public Transportation as Beneficial Employment

Southern California has almost seven percent of the nation’s population. This regional density cannot help but make transporting residents out of and back into their residential neighborhoods a daily, massive spasm of wasted energy. While freeway congestion in the Los Angeles metropolitan area was renown even a half century ago, those who lived here in the early 1970s can remember being on a major freeway at midnight and seeing relatively few cars. By the late 1980s, however, freeway traffic became a constantly whirling ferris wheel, and it has only intensified in the years since. As Los Angeles has become the first county in the United States to surpass the 10,000,000 mark in population, and the economy has rebounded from the Great Recession, traffic now imposes debilitating stress on every driver and passenger at every moment of the day and night.

The expansion of a rail system has done almost nothing to alleviate the cantankerous average speeds of driving on the 405, the 710, the 101, the 60, and the 10. The larger regional flow is nothing short of being even more exasperating: the drive from DTLA to downtown San Diego can take four to five hours. I am not certain that getting even a third of the people currently in cars to use some combination of rail and bus will alter and significantly reduce the congested circulation of public movement, but unless that target has a feasible plan to accompany it, the air quality, public health and the emotional well being of Southern California’s frustrated citizens are going to continue to decline.

The problem with getting people to use public transportation is that it costs people too much to use it. I do not at all mean the cost of the ticket. I am talking about time and the pressures each individual faces in maximizing the cost-income ratio of each unit of time. Let me be blunt: this article does not merely propose that public rail and bus transportation be free, but that individuals riding that transportation be paid for doing so. There is no other way that a significant number of people are going to start using non-automotive transportation unless it is in their best interests, and by that I mean their pocketbook.

In this renovation of the social covenant, each time a person who is a resident of Southern California boards a bus or a metro rail car or an Amtrack rail car in Southern California, she or he would swipe a card at the turnstile entrance, and this card registers the journey, for which the person receives a reduction in their state income tax. Given that California’s state income tax is already far below what it should be, the commitment by each person to use public transportation would quickly shift on each domestic ledger to being a rebate at the end of the year that would put the average federal tax return to shame.

In other words, time spent getting to and from work would be paid labor. One wouldn’t, of course, make as much on the bus or metro car as on the job, but it would not be idle time spent among desultory strangers.

Unless each person is recognized as someone whose time is valuable enough to be compensated for when they board a form of public transportation, then we will never reduce the insanity of automobile addiction. As for individuals who bicycle to work, such self-motivated movement would provide even greater percentages of payment.

I am perfectly aware of the effrontery of my proposal and how it will be met with scornful disbelief by those who regard public transportation as a necessary evil. Who rides buses? – Why, the poor and the disenfranchised! Why should they be paid to ride the bus? Well, yes, it’s true that they will now be paid to do something that they are already doing, and what’s the benefit in that? How would that increase ridership by those who may grouse about traffic, but all the while also enjoy showing their social status in the form of their expensive automobiles?

The benefit that the working poor receive, it should be made clear, would be only in proportion to their income. If someone is only taking home $25,000 a year, their rebate for riding public transportation is not going to be the same as someone who takes home $75,000 a year. If we want to get the well-off from behind their steering wheels, I propose an ever escalating rebate for those who make more money when they ride public transportation.

It may disappoint some friends for them to hear this, but I am not some socialist egalitarian. I believe in a performative meritocracy that is extremely imperfect, but nevertheless is the only feasible means to adjudicate any system of social rewards. I am not putting you, Ms. or Mister Executive, on the same footing as the janitor or the person who clears your dishes at the restaurant. If you board a bus, your rebate will be significantly higher. If you still choose to drive your BMW to work, fine. Those who work under you, however, have not had substantial cost of living raises for many years, and this is one of the ways to begin to redistribute the wealth of the one percent.

Now the obvious question becomes one of paying for this. Someone has to foot the bill, and it is high time for California to stop being the tax trough for the federal government, which makes daily stops to feed at our economy but provides proportionately little support for our infrastructure. If this nation wishes to run on individual cars operated by gasoline, then the cost of gasoline in the rest of the country must go up. Public health in Southern California is not a local issue. If we are to improve the health of seven percent of the nation’s population, it is going to take a national investment, and it begins with a radical and yes – hostile takeover – of ideological self-identity. Our sense of income entitlement must be transformed if the flow of public life is to become sustainable for the rest of this century in this crucial corridor of cultural production. We move; we are moved: the boundaries between public transportation and privatized income must be intermingled. It is time for the populace of Southern California to stop playing by house rules of consumer individuality, and to demand an equity stake in the very manner in which we engage in the commerce of public economics and cultural development.

This is an improvised manifesto, and it is meant to start a conversation, not to be some definitive solution. I would be more than happy to hear about other, even more radical proposals that might shift the balance of environmental and economic power.

The Perfume of the Soul

June 28, 2015

The Perfume of the Soul

I have been working on a talk I am scheduled to give in Dijon, France in November and reading with great pleasure and interest Michael Davidson’s On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics. In discussing George Oppen’s poetry, he mentions that “a number of recent books in critical theory have chronicled modernism’s ocularcentrism …. At the same time, social theorists have provided a critique of modernity’s ocularcentrism, pointing out how metaphors of seeing and sight dominate the work of philosophers and theorists from Marx’s theory of ideology as a camera obscura, Heidegger’s “Age of the World Picture,” and Bergson’s duree to Foucault’s emphasis on the panoptical gaze, to Sartre’s “regard” and Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze” (116-117). To limit ocularcentrism to moderism and modernity, however, is to underplay its role in Western philosophy and culture. Sight was the key sense cited by Plato in The Republic, for instance, so this privileging should hardly be limited to a contemporary rendition of “modernity.” Rather, sight’s dominance is the mark of modernity, whether we are thinking of remote modernity or the prosthetic forms that pass themselves off as the post-modern.1

It is my understanding that this emphasis upon sight has a pragmatic basis, for I read somewhere that well over two-thirds of the information our brain receives and works with is directly accessed through sight. That proportion of appetitive perception will probably not alter much in the centuries ahead, but we might be better off if we take the time to cultivate the other senses, too, in the same way that pianist must learn to play with the “weak” hand as well as the hand that ‘s inclined to take the lead. In fact, would both Plato and Heidegger have been better off emphasizing another sense, that of smell. The latter’s quarrel with the former might well have led him to a different understanding of Being if smell had been the sense to which he entrusted the fate of his soul.2

A recent prose poem of a blog entry that points to the possibilities of an epiphany based on smell can be found at: Her entry, “Textures of the Unknown,” is a profound meditation on how the aquifers of the olfactory nourish the perfume of the soul. After reading her entry, I trusted more than ever Heraclitus’s proposition that “if all things turned to smoke, the nose would know all things.”3


1 In particular, the discussion in Book VI of The Republic at one point becomes a eulogy for the interwoven nature of the sun, its light, the eye and the soul.

2 Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Review of Books examine the on-going destabilization of Heidegger’s impact on twentieth century philosophy due to his affiliation with the Nazi Party in Germany.  What to Make of Heidegger in 2015? by Santiago Zabala (June 24th, 2015)   “The King Is Dead: Heidegger’s Black Notebooks” by Gregory Fried.

3 Michael Kincaid. There Are Gods Here Too: Readings of Heraclitus. Dickinson, North Dakota: Buffalo Commons Press, 2008, 53.