Friday, September 19, 2008
Choice, Chance, Change
I profoundly do not understand the current elevation of the word "choice" in conservative and fundamentalist US social and political discourse. I don't understand Sarah Palin's use of the word with regard to a pregnancy, although it is clearly an appropriation and detournement of a term from the reproductive rights movement, and likewise I don't understand those who speak of sexuality in terms of a "choice" of lifestyles. But I do have the sense that it is has become such a powerfully coded word in a particular segment of the polity that we ignore its use at our peril. (There was a similar coding, after 9/11, when Richard "Dick" Cheney, used the term "imagination" in a snarl to describe the attacks; the implication was clearly that nothing was more dangerous than use of the imagination*.)
In Southern Californian dialect, or at least in the slang of my youth, the word "choice" was an adjective, probably borrowed from USDA meat labels, indicating high quality and desirability. Sometimes this words was harmless. Surfers waiting for waves would rate the tides: "gnarly," "choice," "excellent". But sometimes, its use more directly reflected its origins in the butcher's counter and was grotesquely applied to women. (And, in a trope that e. e. cummings would have recognized, it was applied to cars as well, for a time replacing the equally misogynist and violent term "cherry').
I suspect that this, simultaneously cool and vulgar, adjectival form has somewhat infected the noun. The very act of a making a choice, a decision (The Decider), has acquired weight and significance independent of the actual gravity and particular circumstances involved.
Lou Harrison used to quip, in a bittersweet response to the later works of his old friend John Cage, that he'd "rather chance a choice that choose a chance." There was a lot of personal and professional history between the two; Harrison indicated that he had first introduced Cage to a translation of the I Ching and that he had also shown Cage a method of composing with chance operations, and couldn't understand how Cage was "satisfied with using only one method of composing. This distancing by Harrison from Cage's chance operations a showed, I believe, a lack of engagement by Harrison with the actual methods used by Cage, in which the assignment of an answer to chance operations always followed deep deliberation and, indeed, rather specific choices about the composition at hand.
One of the most delightful and enlightening moments with Cage came for me after a public reading of his wonderful mesostic theatre of memory James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet: an audience member was angrily questioning him about his methods, and was silenced when Cage noted that, as highly structured the text was, and as important as the chance component was in its composition, a great deal of the text came simply "by taste", from his "imagination." Yes, Cage accepted the risks of a decision process, involving chance elements, which would lead to situations unforeseen in one or more dimensions, but he was never reckless, and he was always balancing chance and choice.
Throughout the current US presidential campaign, the central riff used by opponents against Barack Obama is that voting for him would be a risky proposition, taking chances, due variously to his age, relative inexperience, and personal background. But if there is one impression of Obama that I have been able to gather, it is that he is a profoundly deliberative and introspective man, and one for whom all of the experiences of his relative youth and all of the complexities of his background have been worked through with a seriousness we have rarely, if ever, seen in American political life, becoming assets rather than liabilities. From all evidence, Obama is, personally, one of the most steady and conservative men in American public life. To be sure, should he get elected, he will at times err and disappoint those who anticipate more from him, but his combination of seriousness, a willingness to entertain diverse opinion and a readiness to be flexible in the face of changing facts or environments without sacrificing principles is reassuring in a moment with little certainty.
John McCain, on the other hand, strikes me as profoundly impulsive in his decision-making, as typified by the decision for Palin, but also in dangerously off-the-cuff statements about Iran, the economy, and Spain (all in one week!). Moreover, he shows a determination to stick to decisions, no matter if the wiser path would be to change ones mind. Palin appears to share this approach, giving notice that her approach to foreign affairs would be characterized as not blinking. Worst of all has been his transfiguration, on the road to this nomination, from a political maverick to complete identification with the decisions of a disastrous administration. Not blinking, not choosing, not changing.
In response to an audience member who was uncomfortable with a piece his music, Cage would remind the listener that she or he always had the option to leave, being in no obligation whatsoever to anyone to listen. He advised that if one was able to recognize that one is suffering, then one had the opportunity to change. Cage practiced the discipline of assuaging his own discomfort with environmental noises by no longer treating them as noise, but rather by listening more closely to them. Cage identified change with modernity, in fact with the necessary modernity, without which (said the inventor's son) "nothing would be invented." This embrace of change (Music of Changes) is always going to be uncomfortable for those who take greatest comfort in the routine, even when that routine has become, in fact, no longer comfortable.
We are in an interesting moment. For any number of pressing issues — from the economy, to global conflicts, to climate change — the greater risk may well be to stand still while the more prudential act may be to accept fundamental change. Do we really have any choice?
* Let's be clear: there is only one thing more dangerous than the use of the imagination, and that's failure to use the imagination.