A Soft Tyranny in Mind

Some things you just have to do without thinking. Not a natural approach for a friend who calls from Boston. She’s successfully completed a round of cancer treatment. No more daily treks to the hospital for a dose of radiation. It’s over. She had a routine, and she stuck to it. She couldn’t think much about it. She just did it.

Now she’s thinking about it. How the person she was before is not the person she is after. How some things can’t be lived without also being thought. How her sense of self has somehow been restructured. How some division of labor between the unthinkable and possible has shifted. Some recognition that events out there can be dismissed yet persist in here. How the unseen is not necessarily unfelt.

We gnawed on politics for awhile, the queasiness of Trumpworld. I stepped on and off my soapbox, and when she tried to change the subject and I just couldn’t let it go, she asked a real question: so why do you care? It’s a good, multilayered question, especially as I look around at friends who still seem to be living in a sense of normalcy, able to try on political statements then lay them aside and get on with business as usual. Be honest — does this opinion make me look divisive?

Many of us care for many reasons, but the Trumpist mantra post-election sit down and shut up” hurts in my gut. We are now obligated to get in line, and why not? No one needs to speak (let alone think) anymore. The Dear Leader now embodies the will of us all, all voices folded into one voice. This is what Trump promised in his dark speech at the Republican National Convention. Total. Authoritarian. All we have to do is sit down and shut up.

And here’s my dirty secret: In harping at my friend I was harping at myself — shouting down a lurking fear that I would be all too happy to sit down and shut up. That being let off the hook would be a relief from all this unnerving activity. And I know better but hear my fear between the lines. I have no obvious reason to be afraid. I must be poking at a structure of mind.

~   ~   ~

A few weeks ago a drone followed me through a parking lot. It looked to my untrained eye to be armed with a camera but not, like the drones the U.S. deploys elsewhere in the world, with weapons. But what if it was weaponized? And in that paranoid moment, my brain lit up the way it does for a shock-jock news story, like the ones on Fox News that portray all protest as violent, illegal, inexcusable agitation. What if I am at risk? Better safe than sorry.

I thought about this on February 18 when I walked with thousands of people through the streets of downtown LA in a peaceful demonstration for immigrants’ rights. No arrests were made.This wasn’t even civil disobedience; the march was permitted, the police friendly and cooperative. We were simply exercising our constitutional right. And then a drone approached, hovering over an intersection as the crowd moved through. It dropped lower and lower, then moved slowly toward us, passing overhead, trailing the crowd. Who was watching? Was this citizen journalism, like Digital Smoke Signals documenting Standing Rock? Or was this the FBI capturing faces for a facial recognition program? Have I been indexed? Am I at risk? Maybe I should have stayed home…

Even when we are physically safe, threat can operate in the mind, where it works hard on the imagination. And it’s imagination that most powerfully prepares people to turn against each other. It grinds ruts in the mind that seek the paranoid certainty, freezing the ability to think. The more frightened I am, the less able I am to respond. The more overwhelmed I feel for my own safety, the less I care about yours.

Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Muslims — all are marked as enemies in Trumpworld, making my white skin a sack of unearned privilege. What do I do with this legacy of immigrant forebears who came to workable circumstances and had some luck? What do I do with their hand-me-down patriotism, a mental military operation aimed at guarding the taboos that conserve a preferable—though lost—past (the loss itself what I learned to revel in most)? What do I do with this mind structured for loyalty to this imagined America? What do I do with this mind trained to distrust people who wield power in the distant places we see on TV? New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC—places that for many Americans exist more in distorted imagination than in any lived reality.

Growing up in this distant place marked by a Midwestern mindset, I learned to be quiet, though clutched by unruly thoughts that kept me busy disciplining myself. Every word, every impulse was checked and triple-checked in a tyranny of self-doubt. The operation was always framed by a vague notion of what it means to be correct—to be in the right. I dropped tiny thoughts that felt like teaspoons of explosive.

This is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind.

That craving for righteousness kills expression. To clear a space for my own thoughts and words, I cast it away on a daily basis (every morning it returns). Catch and release. Perpetually on a threshold—neither in nor out. Poised. This was and is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind. It carefully curates what degree of thought is possible without upsetting the way things are. It sustains the belief that I’m a good person (which sometimes means being good at being bad). Above all, obedience. Above all, the discipline of being nice (this, especially, for the girls). Family first. Fairness, yes. Justice if it’s convenient (but don’t count on it). Keep yourself to yourself. Seek to do no harm, but don’t worry if you do no good.

~ ~ ~

What keeps this in place is the hovering threat of loss. Loss of love. Loss of position. Loss of support. Loss of privilege. Loss of the self I imagine myself to be. So many ways to lose, and they are all at risk where loyalty-without-question structures mind and binds thought. And while I tell myself I can’t, it continues to call—it’s got my number—the ringing in my head, the false front nodding, the chalk outline of empathy, the palpable ghost of my banished self. A grave curiosity pulls me away from my rootstock. (Something I called “trust” turns out to be blind loyalty. Something I called “love” turns out to be brittle dependence.)

Strangely, when I am able to tolerate the threat of loss, I feel lighter but never for long. Next comes the exhaustion and longing for a boa-tight embrace, a single answer, a total voice to replace my stutters, hesitations and half-formed words.

I suspect the silent majority has its fair share of people staring enthusiastically into the future, ready to take up whatever task is offered. Not because they believe in it but because, well, why not? It’s easy to choose what’s given and cash the check. When the order comes, why not seize the land? Arrest the mother? Handcuff the child in airport detention or on the playground? Interrogate a citizen because of his religion? Grab the girl ones? Rough up the brown ones? Shoot the black ones? Why not craft the press release, prepare the paychecks, run the numbers, bind the copies, proofread the report? From the violence that lays its hand on the citizen, immigrant and refugee, a web of small and large actions stretches back into and through the bureaucracy. At some point, I know it reaches me. Even at a distance, I know the metallic taste that comes right before—

In this accelerating stream of events, I struggle to live it and think it at the same time—imperfectly, overwhelmingly. I wake up each morning with complicity on my mind, with the first act of resistance being simply to open my eyes and not look away. There are no lines in the sand, just broad beaches that recede and continue under the surf. Any number of futures are possible, but a soft tyranny in mind, one that suffocates service and care under calls to authority and discipline, can only build rough castles. Cruelty is calling itself patriotism, and we’re all invited to join that party.

I hear the call. I feel its pull. Today, I choose not to go.

Trash Thought and the Work of Nick Cave

In Spring 2016 I presented this at the UC Irvine Visual Arts Conference, illustrated by a rolling set of images of Nick Cave’s stunning soundsuits (see NickCaveArt.com or search online). Cave’s work has always given me courage. Today, I was reminded of it on my way to the #NoBanNoWall protests at Los Angeles Intl. Airport. From inexpressible collisions of injustice and anger—with vulnerability and courage—can come combinations of loving intention, beauty and unfailing surprise.  

* * *

Soundsuits have been at the center of Nick Cave’s artistic practice for more than 20 years. Some are purely sculptural. Others are meant to be worn and performed. Both familiar and alien, exuberant and arresting, these creaturely amalgamations begin from cast-off materials—old sweaters, rugs, mechanical toys, ceramic tchatchkes, reams of buttons—even voodoo dolls and sock monkeys. We could say that Cave is upcycling discarded materials, turning trash into something of quality—and he is. But where does that transformative potential come from, and how far does it extend? I’d like to propose that moment of transformation as trash thought. 

The type of trash I’m talking about is something that has been disconnected from its original context of use and thus lost its originally intended value. The buttons from a moth-eaten coat. The doily crocheted by a great-great-aunt whose memory today leaves no trace. Trash is a leftover, a remainder from a time, place or situation no longer relevant.

Trash is never completely without value, but that value isn’t durable or apparent, and this contingency opens it up to refusal. Usually, we just try to get rid of it. We refuse the refuse.

This means that trash doesn’t command much of a price. To be clear, “value” is not the same as “price,” though in our market-driven culture, the two are easily conflated. Value is qualitative, while price is quantitative. I’m speaking broadly, not only about artworks but also about coffee and cigarettes and rent. In practice, we constantly translate the quantitative into the qualitative. Is $20 a good price or a bad price? The number alone doesn’t tell us. But in a given context, we translate that fixed object into something that begins to sound like judgment or even belief—good, bad, wonderful, horrible. An objective number becomes laden with subjective emotion and meaning. That process of translation from quant to qual bleeds beyond economics into other realms.

Anthropologist David Graeber argues that it’s no coincidence that we use the same word—value—across economic, sociological and linguistic registers.(1) The notion of economic value conveyed by price slides into the sociological sense of value (what’s good or desirable in human life) and the sense of linguistic value (essentially the construction of meaningful difference). Value is not simply economic. And so the idea of “trash” cannot be simply material.

What do you value? How much do you value it? The answers will direct energy and attention to distinguish what’s trash from what’s not. We’re all doing this, from moment to moment, consciously and unconsciously. No one apprehends everything. We reject or let some things slip away while we grasp on to others. A thing that you decide has no value has no claim on your energy and has no hold on your attention. A thing with no value is a thing with no audience.

By responding to context, value judgments in turn create context. Where do our evaluations of trash out there begin if not from our evaluations in here? Freud dubbed the stuff of dreams “day residue,” dreams being a process of sorting the meaningful from the meaningless—working out what we need in order to construct a tolerable sense of reality and letting go of the rest. Forgetting can be a form of putting out the trash thought. How we work out meaning internally, of course, shapes our sense of our own value as human beings. Which brings me back to Nick Cave.

The Messenger

In 1992, Cave had just finished his MA at Cranbrook and moved to Chicago to teach. That was the year that four white police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, setting off the L.A. Riots. Cave was profoundly unsettled. Sitting one day in  Millennium Park, he noticed a twig. He recalls that he saw it as something discarded, dismissed, like litter—viewed, as he put it, as less than, which connected to how he was feeling about himself as a black male in U.S. society. Was he valued? Was he more than a racial profile?

He picked up the twig, then gathered more, went into the studio and three weeks later had a sculpture. At first, he thought of that sculpture as a sort of armor. Only after completing it did he think about putting it on, and once he did, it made sound. It struck him as being something about protest—to be heard, to make a noise; to be seen while obscuring what’s most obvious about identity.

The soundsuit became a way to disrupt the audience’s evaluation. Who is it? What is it? Where does it come from? What is it trying to say? With face obscured and obvious markers of identity overwhelmed by the unexpected, a body in a soundsuit becomes a body beyond easy social evaluation.

For Cave, that was the start of an artistic ambition that touched “multiple fields of power,” weaving personal and communal identity with a broader politics. He began to think of himself differently, as an artist with a humanitarian sensibility—a “messenger.” Today, Cave often works collaboratively in community art residencies, where he says he aims “to make everyone feel relevant.”

Relevance is another word for value. Relevance is another way of saying that you are heard, seen and not forgotten. Upcycling materials isn’t simply a reclamation of stuff. Embedded in his art practice, Cave models reconstitution of value that extends beyond materials to participants and audiences. He demonstrates that finding value in what has been discarded is a skill not simply about making things but necessary to making ourselves.

I suggest that our consideration of trash begins with what we have rejected about ourselves and—by extension—others and the horizon of our possible worlds. Dreams hold clues, as do those themes that recur. The object that captivates. The idea that won’t let you go. Trash thought may lead to idioms that upcycle literal trash into art objects, but—more fundamentally—it traces how we reassess perceptions of possibility, transforming abject shadows through the investment of our own fascinations and desires.

That investment also begins to move materials and their associated ideas that had been prematurely silenced or stilled. Cave’s art moves objects relegated to a dusty secondary market of thrift shops and antique malls back into circulation in the market of ideas and experiences. Doilies become ritual medallions. Little Black Sambo dolls push us to think again about how racism is insuated in the everyday. An abacus becomes a face that speaks beyond calculation. These revalued materials bring previous lives with them—haunted with humane presence. We see that alien is not alienated.

The vector that transforms trash into something of value—something that might be associated with “quality”—is not in the material but rather in its shadow: something rejected, perhaps uncomfortable, finds representation. Trash thought upsets the very value assumptions that deemed something forgettable in the first place. Trash thought can spur new art objects and, as Graeber puts it, create new universes of value.

Trash thought is that moment when we recognize that we are missing something. It stops us to reconsider what we or others have dismissed, not simply in the material but by extension within ourselves—alone and in community, in solitude and in solidarity.


Bolton, Andrew, et al. Nick Cave: Epitome. New York: Prestel USA. 2014. Print.

Cave, Nick and Marilyn Sylla. “Exotic Muses: Dancers by Robert Henri and Nick Cave.” Video. Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA. 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 June 2013.

Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. 2001. Print.

Juxtapoz. “Nick Cave: A Blanket Statement.” April 2016. Print.

Roffe, Jon. Abstract Market Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015. Print.

Begin By Degree

This is a shorter, revised version of my piece from in|DECISIVE|form, a collection by some of my CalArts Aesthetics & Politics colleagues. Watch the recorded presentation below (about 14 min.) or head over to Medium to read the text version (which Medium says should take you 7 min. — the mouth is half as fast as the eyes).

With particular gratitude to Martín Plot, founder of the CalArts Aesthetics & Politics program and wise guide through the thesis process.