Thursday, October 20, 2016

Artifacts of Loneliness and Connection

Students often ask me about what it takes to pursue an academic career. One specific question that comes regards research. "How do you find your subject matter?" For the students who seriously want to consider getting their Ph.D.s in a humanities-related field, my answer can sometimes sound foreboding: the process will take you apart and put you together again. It will force you to face issues that are deeply personal, and you'll find that your area of research is often entangled in psychologically loaded subjects. I believe that this is one of the reasons graduate students are prone to mental health issues as the process unfolds. I always advise students to inquire about the availability of counseling services when looking into graduate programs. The most productive research is often tangled with the personal.

These entanglements, however, can bring insights both academic and personal.

One of the first subjects in this blog was the Aokigahara forest (aka the "suicide forest") in Japan. By chance I stumbled upon a This American Life podcast, "One Last Thing Before I Go," presenting another story from Japan which brings to the forefront connections the living and the dead. But this time, the symbolic gesture emanates from the living to those who are lost, rather than the opposite as evidenced by the threads left by suicides in Aokigahara. I'm speaking here of the Japanese "wind phone," through which living relatives symbolically connect to the dead.

While depression may have specific, common symptoms, I think that the affective aspect of it -- how it feels, emotionally, is poignantly unique for each person. Listening to the wind phone podcast, especially the kind of rapid-fire examples of personal grief (and loneliness) it brought forward, made me think a great deal about my own episodes. It sometimes flares unexpectedly, and other times ebbs in slowly like the tide. Understanding it helps me recognize the signs of its arrival, and allows me to work through it and rise above it more quickly. Understanding it also keeps me functional while it's with me. My depression has always manifested itself as varying degrees of disconnection, and it made me think of certain images and subjects -- namely are relationships to artifacts -- that have defined my own research.

When a tsunami hit Japan in March 2011, the world's attention was focused on the Fukushima nuclear power plant. But as waters and time recede, like with any disaster that takes thousands of lives, the larger upheaval calms and retreats into the depths of private, individual grief. Replayed and reconstructed in memories, the ache of loss is normalized into the routine; it becomes a scar around which the body remains. Numb at its center; only announcing itself in the visual space it occupies, and at its discomfort at the edges. At best we forget about it temporarily. At worst, we examine it and remind ourselves of its presence. It speaks as silence; as numbness delineated by the tissue around its edges.

Over 19,000 people lost their lives, multitudes more were left to grieve -- especially those whose loved ones were lost. in Otsuchi, Japan, 421 people were never found. This creates a certain kind of grief. With no physical remains over which to grieve, no physical remainder to fasten ritual or resolution, grief scatters like ash, covering the lives of those left behind. It becomes a fine dust that is only moved around and never quite mitigated. Prior to the disaster, a man named Itaru Sasaki was having difficulty with his own grief. His cousin had died:

He went out and bought an old-fashioned phone booth and stuck it in his garden. It looks like an old English-style one. It's square and painted white, and has these glass window panes. Inside is a black rotary phone, resting on a wood shelf. This phone connected to nowhere. It didn't work at all. But that didn't matter to Itaru. He just needed a place where he felt like he could talk to his cousin, a place where he could air out his grief. And so putting an old phone booth in his garden, which sits on this little windy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it felt like a perfect solution.

For Sasaki, the phone's physical disconnection was not an issue, "because my thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind ... so I named it the wind telephone -- kaze no denwa [風の電話]"

After the tsunami, people sought out the phone as a means to connect to their loved ones, despite its presence on Sasaki's private property. Sasaki has welcomed the visitors and and estimates that over 5,000 people have visited.

As the story continues, we hear heartwrenching audio of people using the phone. Some are skeptical and say "I can't hear anything," others engage in conversation, and still others cathartically apologies and plea for their loved ones to return.  Grief is a particular, seemingly contradicting type of loss. It emphasizes the present (as the place where the loss exists) while also alienating us from it by forcing us to rely on the memories of the past. But really, I believe that the pain of loss is singularly housed in the present, because it is in the present that we reconstruct the memories of our past. The wind phone becomes an artifact which aides that reconstruction. The "connection" to the dead is open, with nothing to impede the reconstruction -- the re-writing -- of our memories of who they were. The solitary phone booth is a portal; the receiver is a conduit to something within -- which, in this case -- is projected outward, symbolically, through the phone. Dialing the number is a ritual to situate the living. As an artifact, the phone provides a focus that centers the living squarely in their loneliness.

Loneliness is an aspect of grief. When one is physically taken from us, there is both a physical and emotional space that dominates every aspect of our lives. It disorients us. The depression that often follows loss is part of a longer process of recalibrating the self to compensate for the loss.

Listening to the podcast reminded me of a concert I attended when I was in college. It was Peter Gabriel's Secret World Live tour. The opening song, "Come Talk To Me," apparently, was about the disconnection Gabriel felt after splitting with his first wife, Jill, and the struggle to connect with his daughter in the aftermath of the divorce. The song was haunting enough for me, but seeing it live affected me on a very deep level. Here's a current link, but I'm not sure how long it will remain there.

The stage is dark. Bagpipes drone. And the Gabriel's plaintive voice pleads "Ah please, talk to me / Won't you please, come talk to me / Just like it used to be / Come on, come talk to me / Come talk to me / Come talk to me." As he sings, an old-style British telephone booth appears to rise from beneath the stage. Gabriel is inside, singing into the receiver. He remains in the phone booth through the first stanza of the song as the band rises from the stage and disperses to their places. At the first chorus, Gabriel emerges from the phone booth and attempts to move toward a female singer (Paula Cole) who stands at the far end of the stage (in the studio version, Sinead O'Connor provided the other voice). His progress is impeded by the physical line connecting the receiver to the booth. He pulls and strains against it, making his way closer to Cole. They never connect, and by the latter part of the song, Gabriel is pulled backward toward the box as Cole reaches out to him.

The image has always struck me on a visceral level, just as the story about the wind phone did as I listened to the podcast. In my college days I couldn't understand why the image affected me so emotionally. During my most acute and prolonged bout with depression in grad school, the image would often come up in my counseling sessions.

We seek connection: the image of the solitary phone booth, connected to nothing, in a solitary garden; the image of a man, pulling against a cord that pulls him back into one. In the former, the phone booth is a conduit to the dead. In the latter, it symbolically stands between him and the real person from whom he feels disconnected. Gabriel advances toward Cole with great effort, only to be pulled back and closer to the box. It also brings out the point that the loneliness that often accompanies depression can act as a lense that distorts everything we experience. Chances for connection can be right in front of us, yet we can't or won't see them. People closest to us feel the furthest away, even though they may not have done anything to alienate us. If the people around us are pulling away it can spark an episode, or it can intensify one already occuring.

These seem to be two very different representations of connection, but what makes them the same is the absence that each is trying to overcome, and the means by which -- symbolically -- they are attempting to mitigate that absence.

The wind phone makes sense in a culture where -- according to Meek -- keeping up a relationship with dead loved ones is not necessarily strange. "The line between our world and their world is thin," she says. A conduit, regardless of the symbolism therein, is conceptually easier to establish. Furthermore, the dead are perpetually reconstructed in the memories of the living. Maintaining a shrine in the home, or "speaking" to them on a telephone connected to nothing becomes a mean to reinforce the reconstruction. Whether the conversations are "straightforward updates about life," or requests of the dead to look after others who have died, or the explicit desperation of loneliness, the dead receive their shape from the living.

The staging of Gabriel's "Come Talk To Me" speaks to a different -- and perhaps, more cruel -- loneliness. One in which the memory of those we lost (or, even more tragically, think we lost) must compete with the relentless intimacy of presence. I always interpreted the song as a plea to someone that was right in front of him, yet further away than anyone swept out to sea. "You lie there with your eyes half closed  like there's no one there at all / There's a tension pulling on your face / Come on, come talk to me." In that presence. the disconnection is not only emphasized, but stands in active opposition to the speaker's own memory of what the other had been to him. The Hegelian master/slave dualism comes to bear here, but the "other" withdraws itself, leaving only the phenomenal self like an outline of what was: a cold, solid shadow that deflects attempts to know it.

Both losses are predicated on the spaces between the living and the lost. Those spaces have been theorized by the likes of Hegel, Heidegger, Lacan, and several cultural theorists. Each attempts to sanitize space through theoretical and performative filters. They obfuscate loss the same way that Heidegger accuses humanity of setting-in-order loss through ritual or outsourcing it to the "them."  I've often wondered why certain philosophers take such precautions when addressing solitude, loneliness, and loss. What loss was Hegel, Heidegger, or any of the other continental philosophers or cultural theorists dealing with as they sat in their loneliness? What pushed them to let loose such waves of explanation to fill the void?  Biographers can speculate, but their loss will be as private as each of our own.

Loneliness is. We can sanitize the word into "solitude" but anyone who is swimming through the black water of loneliness knows the difference. "Solitude" is loneliness's noble cousin, bolstered and anointed by volition. A "choice" one makes to escape noise and to retreat temporarily into a private space.

Loneliness creeps forward, into one's pores. It wraps around us. Envelopes us. It slithers into our spaces quietly. It tempts. And once we engage it, it clings to us; gracefully at first. The dance is a beautiful one. Loneliness flows like a voluminous coat that catches the air and billows around us. It protects us and accompanies us into the same private spaces we occupy when in solitude. It pulls us back into ourselves as we remain distracted by its movements. And then, without any knowledge of the exact moment of its happening, it enters our senses: the space between the point of interface and the knowing of the sensation -- creating impossible, crushing paradoxes. The light that enters our eyes is too bright, yet too dim at the same time. The sound through our ears is too loud but always muffled and incomplete. Our skin, sensitive to its own presence, yet uncomfortably unfeeling to the touch of others. The subtle smells that help establish our sense of place are just out of range, but the rotten and acrid are always with us. Our taste wants what is never there, and eschews what is.

It sinks deeper. A slow leak from a seal that has deteriorated. Seeping in patterns that efface its source. Already confused by our senses, we struggle against ourselves; questioning every word, gesture, and absence. Speak up. I can't make that out. Why is it so bright? Why is it so dark? Where is the thing with the name I can't remember that maybe I brought with me to a place to which I might not have actually gone? Vertigo. What time is it? What day is it? How old am I? Why can't I ...? Why can't I ...?

Confusion turns to rage; a chemical burn just off center in the chest.  Points of origin grow unknowable. We know things before they happen, or are we remembering them?

Loneliness is a drug. It is an addiction that promises its own cure. It speaks to us and beckons us forward, calling:  Fling yourself toward me. Hurl yourself into me. Use me. Bend me. Fuck me. Deep, deep into me, into you. I promise you release.

The afterglow glistens like pitch. Drips. Then leaves us cold.

When the other is still present, the phone (interface) becomes the barrier between them which, for whatever reason, seems as if it can't be overcome. When the other is gone (dead), the phone has no barrier of presence.

The barrier of presence. In each instance, the function of the phone remains the same, yet in each, the result is different. When it comes to the dead -- especially in a culture where the line between the living and the memory of the dead is much more permeable -- there is no obstruction to the memory. Memories of the dead can be remade at will. Although, for those with debilitating grief, the memories come uninvited. Still, the connection made is not with an other as much as it with the self. The loss of the phenomenal other places the burden on the person who remains to re-create the other. The phone then becomes a reminder, a representational device, that helps those to re-form what they knew. It becomes an icon around which the memories, thoughts, prayers can coalesce for a moment of connection. Even for those who "don't hear anything" on the other end, the memory of the lost is still brought into being through desire.

The "Come Talk To Me" performance, however, represents the staggering wound of loss-in-presence. The person is there, phenomenally. He or she is relentlessly present. Yet, the memory of what they were, how they used to be, how we remember them, or how we think they are competes with what we believe to be the cold truth of the real. Regardless of whether or not they have actually changed, or if we are just perceiving and projecting that change, the dynamic plays out the same way. Although the other is always Other, the disconnection brings out the space between. Attempts to bridge that space only serve to reinforce our attention on it. The distance pleads to be overcome. The space beckons to be filled. We hurl our "selves" forward into it. Lines of connection. Performances. Words. Gestures. Anything that might have meaning. In the void, those objects and texts announce themselves in their stark phenomenality. As they fly toward the other, they are stripped of meaning. Dulled and made bright at the same time. Dull in meaning because what we know of them no longer matches what they are. Bright in ostension because that unknown has made them into someone different, more present, like a stranger in a familiar place.

This is what we used to be. And now, estranged. The real stands in the way of our reconstruction of the other. For those who converse on the wind phone, and imagine the responses of the lost, or imagine that the dead are listening, the phone becomes an artifact through which that reconstruction of the other is made manifest. It disappears in its use. Even for those who "can't hear anything," they continue to speak. In these instances, the phone-as-artifact disappears in its use.

But for those faced with the loss symbolized in the "Come Talk To Me" performance, any artifact of communication only exacerbates the loss. The medium stands as a surrogate for our own inability to articulate ourselves. The performance turns the dynamic inside-out. With the other in front of Gabriel, almost within reach, he remains tethered to the artifact. The phone booth starts as a cage, he emerges from it, reaching out, but must pull against the receiver, and becomes entangled in the cord itself. At the closest moment of contact, leaning against the weight, he is pulled back, struggling against it. He could let go of the phone. But, symbolically, he never thinks to do so. To speak to a disembodied voice, we search for cues to help us understand. Without them, we are caught between an ambiguous voice and our own reconstruction of the other. As the other recedes, the intensity of the medium becomes oppressively apparent. What should connect us has only made our separation even more real.

Artifacts extend us. I have stated repeatedly in my own work that artifacts extend our "efficacy." This is true. However, "efficacy" connotes the ability to produce a desired or intended result -- as a means to achieve an end. When that result is not brought about, we become focused in the attempt. And it's in those moments that we grasp the artifact more firmly, and feel its resistance.