James Turrell in Berlin – Original Light is Darkness

Yesterday I went to the Jewish Museum in Berlin with my best friend Kai to experience the James Turrell light installation, Aural.

You walk into a large room, all white. The floor slopes gradually down and away, until it meets what seems like an opening into another space or another wall. The white room is illuminated from behind you with soft blue light. The wall in front subtly blends with the space, so that sometimes the edges dissolve entirely and you are no longer contained.

The space in front ethereally changes color. It is a subtle mixture of light. It is like the ethers are mixing, the chalky blue luminousness from behind and the colored light from the center. How is it is possible for the ethers to mix – ether is continuous, it has no boundaries. How can it mix with something else?

Here is a gradient of light in a space with no boundaries. The gradient cannot be broken down into a spectrum with discrete sections. The light gradient is infinite.

So Turrell has put infinity into a finite space.

(Digitization is the process of breaking reality into finite pieces. The digital is always dependent on the analogue. Reality is analogue.)

People are like moths drawn to the light. And we are behaving like chimpanzees. Because it is not apparent whether there is a wall in front of us or whether it drops off into an open space, we cannot resist the urge to move closer, to take hold of the wall and determine what it is. An alarm sounds whenever a visitor gets too close to the edge. The younger visitors, especially, seem unable to control their curiosity.

The alarm becomes distracting.

Wanting to know what is in front of me is disrupting the purity of experience. We quell the need to grab onto reality, and we can experience the light now.

The strange thing about this light, Kai remarks, is that it is like darkness. Being here feels like having your eyes closed. But it is filled with light. There are no distinctions in darkness, no edges, no objects. It is the same with this light here. There are no edges. It is like the original darkness. Light that is darkness.

From the beginnings of philosophy, in Greece, light – the sun – has been equated with reason, the faculty of thought. Light is truth. Light divides the darkness. But the source of light is darkness: pure light does not discriminate. It is empty. There is nothing.

In the plenitude of this pure light, I am in contact with something invisible.

Pure light is the invisible. It is nothing.

You begin to project into the nothingness, Kai thought. When there is nothing, you are confronted with your self. You recognize your self. You do that when you see your projections into nothingness. (In the traditions of the East there is the darkness retreat: you spend days in total darkness. This is supposed to teach you something.)

Sometimes you can see the edges in the room. Sometimes you cannot see the edges at all. People are moving towards the ether again, setting off the alarm. Is there a hole in front of us or is this a wall?

There is something irresistible about holes. It is like the mystery of sex, Kai said. You go into something and have a sensation, but you cannot see it and do not know what it is. This is so intense for us. We try to find the hole in reality.

But there can’t be any holes in reality. In the whole of reality there is no hole: What would define the hole from the outside? We poke a hole in reality – all of a sudden we have a finite framework again, the edges are there again. We feel lost in infinity. Yet it is our home.

It is the edgelessness that we cannot stand. The edgelessness of pure light.

Being in this space feels like having your eyes closed and it is flooded with light.

Kai said she felt sad about leaving. We were leaving this thing that had become a thing. We had somehow assigned qualities to it.

You reify this and become attached to experiencing the luminous.

You need to know, disrupting the experience of this light. The impulse to grab and hold onto the purity of experience, attachment.

There was some text in a brochure at the exhibition. In an interview, Turrell muses that he is most fascinated by the light in our dreams. Where does it come from?

I ask, What is a mind without edges?


Ohad Naharin: Grounded Power, Flowing Presence

I went to my first Gaga class this week. Wonderful.

In early 2018 I learned about Ohad Naharin’s existence through Tomer Heymann’s 2015 documentary Mr. Gaga.

For those who don’t know: Naharin is an Isreali choreographer. He was the Artistic Director of the Batsheva Dance Company from 1990 to 2018 and continues his choreographic work there. He is widely known for Gaga, a movement language he developed while working with dancers at Batsheva. Gaga became the daily training at the company and eventually opened to non-dancers. It is now popular among the general public. Practitioners describe it as an experience of pleasure and freedom.

When I saw Ohad Naharin on screen I was immediately inspired by his grounded power and flowing presence. I was stunned by the availability of his energies. He has that electrifying calm, where total restraint becomes absolute openness. On the Batsheva website Naharin is quoted: “Yielding is constant while we are ready to snap…” I felt struck by lightning when I learned about him. This first impression is recorded in my notebook from January 2018:


I don’t know very much about Gaga and I’ve been told that the practice varies greatly among teachers. However, this week I was struck by unmistakable similarities to exercises and concentration techniques in lesser-known Eastern traditions. It was in many ways like an hour of motley esoteric yoga practice.

In states of expansion, associated with joy and relaxation, the self becomes less contained, less shielded so experience becomes more direct. This phenomenological fact underlies the methods of advanced Buddhist and Hindu practices. It corresponds to what Ohad Naharrin means when he says regarding Gaga, “We become aware of the people in the room and we realize that we are not the center of it all.”

In class, we were instructed to keep our eyes open against the tendency to close them during the experience of pleasurable movement. During pleasurable experiences, we tend to disappear. Gaga cultivates awareness during intensity. One is encouraged to be present with both pleasure and pain. Don’t close your eyes while melting into the pleasure of the body. Focus on the burning in the muscles.

One learns in Gaga to enjoy the burning of the muscles, to connect pleasure with effort. It is an asceticism powered by bliss. A strong vessel is required for the flow of heightened energies. When cultivated, this strength expresses itself as delicateness. Energy cannot flow if there is no channel. A sloppy mind that disintegrates cannot contain this energy. In the present, mind is body. The imaginative exercises, the mental effort, the verbal instructions: this is mind practice intimately mated with the present through grounding in the body. In other words, it is meditation.

One can cultivate this strength in everyday life. When you jump into cold water, stay awake through the shock. When you kiss someone, don’t fall into a syrupy unconsciousness, as if sex were laudanum.

Throughout the centuries, teachers have stated that the original state of the self is bliss and that it is found in the body.

What is pleasure? Beyond the duality of comparison which the term evokes, we have no idea. Pure experience? The sensation of being?

Here’s what the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector wrote about coming into contact with “it”:

“And there’s a physical bliss to which nothing else compares. The body is transformed into a gift. And you feel that it’s a gift because you experience, right at the source, the suddenly indubitable present of existing miraculously and materially.” (Agua Viva, New Directions 2012, translated by Stefan Tobler)

Gaga is also about letting go of unnecessary tension. What is unnecessary tension? To move without effort means overcoming the dichotomy of activity and passivity. Work is no longer accomplished through willing. Through Gaga we become “available.” What does it mean to be available? For what?

Ohad Naharin talks about being calm and alert all at once. There is plenty of time in the present.


Billie Eilish: Clean Tears, Muddy Waters

If I were writing for a publication that people read, a sufficiently sensationalist yet formulaic title for this personal reflection would be “The Drama of Billie Eilish.”

I came across Eilish’s music while perusing a woman’s Tinder profile last year. You never know where encounter takes place. (A sign of self-importance is closing oneself off, in advance, to certain realms. However, supposing we can’t be everywhere at once, what does openness mean?)

Anyway, I started singing “Ocean Eyes,” accompanying myself on guitar. Eilish recorded the song when she was 14. It went viral, launching her career. I was fascinated and I’ve been following ‘”Eilish.”

Looking back, I’d say I was captivated by the simplicity of suffering, not to mention the lifestyles of Gen Z.

There is release in simplicity. The chorus interests me.

“No fair, you really know how to make me cry, when you give me those ocean eyes. I’m scared. I’ve never fallen from quite this high, looking into your ocean eyes.”

The child’s voice, still gentle on the precipice. “No fair!” – your abiding presence reveals me. “I’m scared” – there is no point of reference in the limitlessness of your gaze, which brings me to myself.

All this before the bodily and emotional armoring that is, for most people, adulthood. The confused and abused notions “purity and innocence” are not lurking behind my musings. I mean openness, which is always tender, but which even becomes fierce when maintained by true grown ups. (Where are they?)

Here, for me, “Eilish’s” tears are, so to speak, clean. Despite “burning cities and napalm skies” her eyes are open. There’s nothing dramatic about this. Suffering is simple.

The bratty ego that barely surfaces – “no fair” – is dissolved in the ocean. Clean, cleansing tears.


A few years later, the simplicity of suffering has become egomaniacal grief. “When the party’s over,” Eilish’s new single, struck me with its tears in a new context.


When we objectify each other as the source of our longing for safety, even love becomes war. And parting becomes violently dramatic – “breaking up.” Something goes wrong with basic dignity, something is muddied.

The “diamond mind” and “ocean eyes” serenely annihilate something that never existed. The lonely ego is quietly held and lovingly shattered, exposing to the peacefulness of one billion suns. (The statement is melodramatic, not simple.)

Recently I’ve been drawn back into Eilish’s orbit. It has become one place for me to notice what’s going on. Her representations in social media captivate me. The baggy clothes, reminiscent of a teenage eating disorder. It’s like she’s wearing a potato sack. You can’t get me.

The bitchy ego tug-of-war played out in many of her songs. In most of her social media photos there’s an adolescent, depressed, tongue-sticking-out defiance: I can’t believe you’re making me go through this shit. School sucks. Everything sucks.

But there’s strength, vitality in these songs, the syrupy drama of the ego’s differentiation!

Perhaps in a disembodied and emotionally dis-integrated culture, the stream of vitality is to be found where most people are still connected to the earth: adolescence. Culture is in the body. Where most adults are cut off from the life force, one must regress to adolescence to find energy. It’s dark. What’s going on?

I wonder whose gaze is steadfast, gentle enough to elicit the rivers of sadness just below the dysfunctional, narcissistic facades.

Clean tears into muddy waters.

From “you should see me in a crown”:

You say
Come over baby
I think you’re pretty
I’m okay
I’m not your baby
If you think I’m pretty
You should see me in a crown


Moments with Sara Shelton Mann, “Once in California…” August 2018

This weekend at Dock 11 in Berlin, Sara Shelton Mann and friends. The program entitled “Once in California…”

Once in California, almost a decade ago, a friend of mine introduced me to Contact Improvisation. Back then, my friend was in a workshop with Sara Shelton Mann. Following my friend into the dance scene, into body-mind practice, I became acquainted with something I must always have been in touch with: myself and therefore the world. Many years later, this is  becoming familiar. A striking confession, coming from a purported philosopher.

This weekend is thick with nostalgia, but I can’t grasp the home I long for. Around 2010, when I first began to observe dance from a self-imposed exile at its periphery, it was about the Zero Point. This was the title of Sara Shelton Mann’s alchemy then, for which I was present, in California.

What I feel when I’m in this space with Sara – it’s as big as a warehouse – is that I’m family. But there is neither inside nor outside this family. This is the perennial family.

Everyone calls Sara, Sara. There’s no artifice here. But now that I’m writing, far from the relieving certitude of presence, I vacillate between the familiar and the formal, second-guessing. In the neither inside space nor outside space opened by the performance, this partition was lifted. There was a resulting ease: just speaking a language that is not distance.

When someone is at rest in movement and in movement at rest, artificial boundaries dissolve. It is the openness of presence, the magic of reality. Openness is an inaccurate description, liable to cause confusion. For me, Sara is neither closed nor open. This duality is dissolved in the achievement of renewed integration. Her presence is momentous: it is simply of the Moment.

“Have you seen Kira?” Sara asks familiarly, brushing past me on the sidewalk. I’ve neither been introduced to Sara nor do I know Kira Kirsch. I am being treated as part of the world, this harmony that is free from imposition. I am here and the world is addressing me. For me, this is another pang of homecoming. I am deeply touched – by anybody. (“Sara” cannot know that I was briefly introduced to Kira many years ago, before she stepped onto a stage to dance a breathtaking duet inside an illuminated circle, at whose periphery I was, tiptoeing in the dark, creating ambient sounds with kitchen utensils and a flute, somewhere at the edge of the world).

To give in to what we already know. Strange that we should take pains to ignore what we know. This willful ignorance is pain itself.

Chatting with friends outside, I say that Kira moves with some grace. A friend corrects me: her movements are primal. She moves, then, with primal grace: that ease of movement, recovered, which is our birthright – but which is only her own. “Primal” means simply “one,” the beginning. Kira studies and teachers human movement, the Axis Syllabus. The exertion required to shed our accumulated encumbrances can’t be exertion, if we are born with primal grace. It is, in this regard, similar to the paradox of original enlightenment. I will shed these accumulations that are foreign to me, finally becoming nobody, only so that I can become myself.

It is also the paradox of yoga, that rigorous discipline which, in the end – which becomes a beginning – leads to complete spontaneity. If disciplined spontaneity or spontaneous discipline seems like a paradox, it is only because we do not see far enough. Does not yoga, too, originate? What, then, is the meaning of discipline, if this discipline itself was born of chaos?

The word “chaos” is Greek. It means, originally, abyss, emptiness, groundlessness. For a long time it has meant disorganization, confusion, something to be controlled.

In the middle of the performance Sara sits in a chair across from Jesse Zaritt. “Let’s talk about love.” “Does love have to do with control?” Sara asks.

“Maybe we can remove this line from the floor.” Jesse peels a long strip of masking tape from the stage. Mentioning the migration crisis, she says, “and then the people over there will start eating with and having sex with the people over here, and it will all just be… okay.”

The fear of being with each other as the fear of emptiness, of groundlessness. Things could get chaotic.

But it is time to know that we are harmony “just by living,” as Sara later says. I witness a new harmony that we are, historically, only now glimpsing. I’m deeply touched.

As humans, it is our task to connect today with yesterday and tomorrow, not to secure the future by fixating the past. For the work that is proper today, one must be humble and brave. It is brave to work at the edge of the unknown, which is how Sara’s teaching has been described. It is humble to allow the coming to presence of the new, which must exceed the domain of our will. 

In his lecture The Principle of Ground (1955) Heidegger traces Western thought to its root in the arch-axiom “nothing is without reason.” In German, the word “reason” is the word “ground.” The axiom in German reads, “Nichts is ohne Grund.” Reason or rationality is the giving of reasons or grounds. Ratio is that which underlies, the common denominator which allows the reckoning. According to Heidegger, Western Metaphysics culminates in calculation.

The fear of groundlessness. What is this madness, this violence of control? Gathering big data to make the world computable, grasping the past to control the future. Repressing the new. This cybernetic tendency – from the Greek word “steering” or “control” – is the legacy of the Occident. It will not yield to the Moment.

But I have glimpsed the Moment. It is the only place we can properly exist.

Sara Shelton Mann says that space-time is not just outside us, but also inside us. If space-time is outside us, we can control it. If it’s inside of us, we no longer have the distance of control. It moves with us. We are it. We become participators, not controllers, and are left with the possibility of being here properly. “Proper” means what is our own.

The esoteric teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism speak of macrocosmic and microcosmic identity. The universe, the macrocosm, is constituted in the body, the microcosm.

Why has the body been ignored by most Western religions and philosophies? Why does the East teach that enlightenment is in the body?

As far as I’m concerned, the true contemporary philosopher must be a dancer, broadly construed.

I’m finding my way home.

Jesse says, looking across to Sara in the audience, “Teach me how to get water from a stone.”


Tino Sehgal’s Seminar at Spike Berlin July, 2018

I was at Spike Art’s headquarters last night in Berlin-Mitte to listen to Tino Sehgal. He was invited to give a lecture in the context of the Saas-Fee Summer Institute of Art.

The space chosen for the lecture was packed. The audience overflowed into the adjoining rooms. Sehgal’s approach to the situation reflected his intellectual concern for the evening: questions about ritual, holism, art, experience, involvement. Given the crowd, he elected to leave the podium, preferring to stand at a corner where he was more directly involved with everyone. I found his easygoing interactions with the audience and his modest aim – to better understand cooperatively the text he’d brought with him – a refreshing corrective to the stylized performance of latinate art theory that’s typical of this cultural scene. As we know, Sehgal isn’t interest in performances, but rather situations.

Sehgal had selected a text, “Art and Reality,” by the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, in which she, in my opinion, reacts to the fragmentation of experience in modernity. She locates and criticizes this fragmentation in the context of art in present-day society: the museum, the artist as individual. (Reaction is to be distinguished from the practice of questioning and understanding.) She claims that to better understand the problems of the relation between art and society, we’d better consider indigenous religion, rather than studying indigenous culture according to our limited categories of music and design.

T.S. Eliot in his “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture” – which, interestingly enough, was also published in the early 1940s – remarks at the outset of his essay that it’s very difficult to separate religion and culture because we’re dealing here with the matrix of meaning. (My words.) Essentially, Mead is concerned with organic unity at an ontological level. (But I don’t think she’s aware of that.) If we want to understand the leaf, we cannot do so without considering the tree. The tree is religion, culture, the organic whole. The leaves are the different cultural products, such as “art.” For Mead, these considerations have to do with her question concerning “art and reality.” That which unifies “a phrase of Balinese music, the design of a Balinese frieze, or the pattern on the border of a cloth” is the common root.

According to Mead, art should cause an “increase in the whole individual’s relationship to the whole of life.” This is not what, according to her, modern art does. In fact, Mead’s characteristically modern intellectualism is a symptom of a larger movement which the unease underlying her tendentious critique puts her in touch with, but which she hasn’t understood. Nietzsche remarked from the beginning that thinking leads to dis-integration. What modern thought dispensed with when the efficient cause became the new God of explanation was holism. The problem of ontogenesis and teleology remain, by the way, inaccessible to contemporary physics. (See “Making Sense of Life” by Evelyn Fox Keller.)

Mead is reacting to what I’d call the “idiocy of individualism.” (The list of people who have merely reacted to modernity instead of thinking it through is endless.) The word “idiot” comes from the Greek word idios which means “private” or “one’s own.” We call people idiots when they can no longer communicate with the rest of us.

How can we be together but still experience ourselves as individuals? We are dealing with the relationship between the general and the particular. It has been remarked upon by various thinkers that an exaggeration of individualism leads to an increase in a certain rigidity and generality of social structures. We lose ourselves at both extremes: the idiot is cut off from the space of meaning in which it becomes first of all possible to be someone; the extremity of abstract generality destroys the particular content that makes being an individual possible.

The general and the particular meet in the present. There is a temporal-historical component here.

It seems to me that Tino Sehgal is questioning, experimenting with, understanding this.  Ritual isn’t something we ever got outside of. We’re so much inside ritual, that we don’t notice. Somehow ritual allows for one to be an individual in the whole. Rituals are repetitions, but they are never rote. They thus maintain the balance, in the temporality of the situation, between the general and the particular, the individual and the collective.

Another thinker who was nearly obsessed with holism from the beginning, is Martin Heidegger. The tension between the general and the particular runs through “Being and Time” like a fault line that threatens to simultaneously break apart and close forever. In my opinion, studying his works is the key to understanding all of this. But that would be some serious thinking.


Byung-Chul Han in the Garden

A year or two ago, Byung-Chul Han castigated me in a seminar at UDK in Berlin. At the zenith of a so-called breakdown that apparently precipitated his departure from the university, he was behaving ludicrously. I was stunned and disarmed. He seemed to be the only philosophy professor in the city who cared. I believe he suffered for it.

Byung-Chul Han literally makes scenes: he sets stages where the ridiculous state of academia and the heartbreaking thoughtlessness of public space are revealed in an appalling spectacle. In seminar that day, between his astute goading, he told us that we should be paying him 200 or 2,000 euros to attend. At his trial, Socrates impudently suggested that Athens should pay him for his services and warned against killing the gadfly, whose sting awakens people, lest they spend the rest of their lives asleep.

In our times, it shouldn’t be clear who in the room was saner: Byung-Chul Han with his impossible accusations or a man who took them so seriously that he stamped out of the room, violently slamming the door to punctuate his theatrical exit. Byung-Chul Han certainly can’t be held responsible for the cultural condition for the possibility of these scenes. People who criticize his behavior are missing the point, blinded by their quick judgment to the possibility of Byung-Chul Han the human being. In recent years his books have been brutally criticized in the press for their degeneration into repetitive truisms. But it doesn’t seem like anyone hears what he’s saying.

He must live in my neighborhood, because I’ve seen him riding his bicycle a couple times. First, a few months after the incident in the seminar, during his period of indefinite leave from the university. He looked nearly homeless, wearing jeans and a pair of worn-out Crocs. He peddled slowly, looking in front of him with his head down, as if he were afraid of being caught outside.

A few days ago, after I announced another “Han sighting” in the neighborhood, my friend sent an excerpt from a talk Byung-Chul Han gave in Barcelona a few months ago.

“I am different, I am surrounded by analogue objects. I have two 400kg pianos and for three years I have grown a secret garden that connects me to reality: colors, scents, feelings… I have allowed myself to notice the earth’s otherness: earth had weight, everything was done by hand, what’s digital has no weight, no resistance, you can move a finger and there it is … It is the abolition of reality. My next book will be called Eulogy to earth. The secret garden. Earth is more than digits and numbers.”


This fits what I observed. Byung-Chul Han looked restored, rejuvenated, nicht mehr so fertig.

I was walking near my apartment when a cyclist going the same direction passed by. Byung-Chul Han was keeping a relaxed pace. He turned towards me and I looked into his eyes before he moved on.

The impetus for this post was a message I sent in conversation with my friend:

They’re making him a laughingstock in the papers again. I have great respect for this guy who allows his person to become the theater for their meaningless gossip. Plus, his writing is financing some fine, weighty pianos. The peal of those soft, crystalline notes is priceless. I think he’s just expressing a sanity that everyone else is too embarrassed to talk about because it undermines the ego’s prized complexity in the digital age. I’d love to have a garden and a nice apartment, wearin’ my Crocs. But I’m sure he went through hell for this.



As inauguration, here are some thoughts I had recently.


We live in the order-lessness of a totalizing order, where nothing has its place because everything’s place is determined. There is a different order, where everything takes its place. This authority rests with neither man nor God.


People who begin to see are not becoming aware of the situation, they are becoming the situation.


Philosophy at the university means arguing and reasoning. It’s like fighting, going somewhere to prove yourself. That’s what we call it, defending your position.


When you hit up against given reality, the brute circumstances of your life, if you’ve dug deep enough to have finally struck the surface, you can no longer provide explanations. A person who manages to be the whole, she can only, as they taught us in elementary school, when we were learning to write — show… not tell.


Today the philosophy student discusses in seminar the destiny of humankind, and in the evenings must answer to, “So what are you going to do with that after you study?” Because the philosophy student has no self-respect, she develops an attitude of revenge toward the public.


People are dying for connection. In fact, intimacy happens so quickly, gets so deep, that people don’t know how to handle it. For the sake of this intimacy, we must learn to let each other be.