I’m dressed badly today. (Worse than usual, I mean.) Everyone in my family except (mysteriously) me has the Swine Flu, so my schedule is off and I was running around this morning and just grabbed whatever in my closet came readily to hand. This is the result:
At one point I had to talk to Peter Burkholder about some department matter and apologized for dressing in a manner unbecoming to a musicologist. He told me that an old professor of his dressed in the coat-and-tie professorial style, but sometimes changed it up with Western wear. Students puzzled over this incongruity and had managed to assimilate it to their collective perceptual framework when the professor changed it up on them again and wore a suit and tie with cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat.
I like that. It seems like the seed of another exercise:
1. Dress in the style you deem most “professional” for your work environment every day for a long enough period of time (days, weeks, months) for that style to become commonly associated with you. Believe that “clothes make the (wo)man” and style your persona accordingly. Become the person whose image you project. Be sincere.
2. Come to work dressed in a way you only ever do in front of your friends and family. Style your persona accordingly. Be sincere.
3. Come to work dressed in a way that combines aspects of no. 1 and no. 2. (Coat and tie with birkenstocks, for example.) Be sincere. What kind of person are you now?
I suppose the point of such an exercise is (as it is with all these exercises) to mess around with the neural pathways, to break habits and thereby to experiment with being a different sort of person.* What’s interesting about this exercise is that it involves self-conscious manipulation of belief. As I’ve written in “Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica,” the very idea of manipulating our own beliefs runs counter to a certain taken-for-granted notion we have about how our minds work. Something is either true or it isn’t; we either believe something or we don’t, right? Max Black, author of the classic philosophical essay “The Prevalence of Humbug,” puts it this way:
How can one hide one’s own disbelief in an intended act of private deception? Is it not absurd to say to oneself, ‘I don’t believe such-and-such and yet I am going to believe it?’ One cannot be an authority for oneself, and nothing that I know that I disbelieve can be a reason for me to believe it. And how can I fail to know my own disbelief?
But as Black goes on to note, we do become our own authorities and hide our disbelief from ourselves.
As you can probably tell, I’ve gotten really into these game-piece/event-score/ritual exercise whatchamathings lately. (I sense the possibility of writing something on the subject that covers this ground from a different angle than Liz Kotz, but it’s still a bit vague in my mind. More later.) I’ve started trying to collect as many examples as I can. Daniel Wolf suggested that I check out a book from 1979 called Water in the Lake: Real Events for the Imagination, which is a whole anthology of such things. I ILL’d it and it’s pretty neat. That book pointed me in the direction of an anthology of scores called Scores: An Anthology of New Music, edited by Roger Johnson. I suspect there are other such collections out there; any recommendations you might have would be welcome.
Moving away from the specifically aesthetic kind of exercise, I’m finding that there’s a number of writers in a vaguely occult/psychological realm who write such things as well. I haven’t read anything by Gurdjieff, but apparently he developed a whole repertory of exercises that his followers use. (In researching all this I’ve discovered that Robert Fripp is the follower of a Gurdjieff disciple named J. G. Bennett. Did Gurdjieff’s exercises had any influence on Fripp’s guitar craft workshops? I wonder whether Brian Eno’s exercise-like “Oblique Strategies” fit into this in any way.) Robert Anton Wilson, known previously to me as a science fiction author, also wrote a number of impossible-to-classify books that fall somewhere in between neuroscience, psychology, occultism, memoir, and fiction, one of which I bought from our friendly local anarchist bookstore today. It’s called Prometheus Rising and I’ve only just peeked at the contents, but it’s jammed with exercises aimed specifically at working on our capacity to shift our beliefs at will (moving into different “reality tunnels,” as Wilson puts it). Some of them are pretty extreme; I suspect you might go a little nuts if you really went all out on them. I’ll leave you with one of the more modest** ones:
Become a Nazi for thirty three minutes. Believe that all politics is a matter of strength, stealth, and treachery: that all liberalism is hypocrisy or folly. Plan a campaign to take over the world by force and fraud.
*Or to test the limits of your employer’s patience. This one works best for academia, where people expect you to act weird.
**Modest in the sense of time and energy commitment: some of them are crazy instructions like “take a course on kung-fu or karate for at least three months, then re-read this whole chapter. You will be surprised at how much more every sentence will mean.” Actually, that’s pretty cool, but I’m still not going to do it.