14 reflect

11 common is community

10 nonactive is something

9 cultivate silence

h2so4 14 (Winter/Spring 2001)

The unreflected life is not worth living. So it has been said, and repeated, many times since Socrates. Yet sometimes, and trying not to be too“precious” about this, I think the definition of “unreflected” has been modified, changed over time by our united lack of attention to detail, that is, lack of attention to what matters about that statement.Instead of reading it as a call to think about our lives individually and as community (that is, as individuals who cannot help but be surrounded by other individuals), or to think about “what it all means,” we think the reflected life is something that has to be “reflected” somewhere, as in the mirror of fame or celebrity, to make our lives worth living. We think preoccupation with “what it all means” is either existential crisis—to be “grown out of” or otherwise supplanted by “more realistic” concerns—or isunneeded worry that should be made less anxious by therapy, or discarded by the workaday person as the province of artists and intellectuals who have the needed “leisure” time to waste on such things. Meanwhile we seek reflection of the glittery sort. Hence the prevalent fantasy of being captured in pictures or words—magazines, talk shows, news programs, the like—anything with a large audience.

Anyone who has ever been thus “captured,” in however small or large a format, knows just how disappointing such attention tends to be. How can a life, or a life’s work, or a momentary effort, be captured and portrayed? What is the “truth” to be conveyed of such a thing? That is not to say that it is not a worthy task to write about something, nor a thrill to be read and reviewed, but that the review is never the point of the enterprise, if the enterprise is meaningful.

Popular magazines, the printed and the televised versions, with their shots of the who’s-who at parties, their interviews with anyone who has ever breathed in front of a lens, and their suggestions (implicit or explicit) for how to improve the necessarily less shiny lives of the everyday person, seem to be, and are, silly and distorted versions of the “real” world and its concerns. We dismiss them or enjoy them as brain candy precisely because they do not require serious thought. But what does not exist cannot be reflected. By which I mean: the silly tabloids are the funhouse mirror version of something real; they are the carnival sideshow offspring of more “upscale” forms of social patterning, media that play on thesecret hopes of those-who-would-be-famous, targeting desires and promising answers to “how to make my life more glamorous by proxy”: fashion magazines, lifestyle magazines (even when they call themselves Real Simple—don’t get me started on the rise of grammatically incorrect sloganeering), talk shows, vehicles that aim to raise every human act to a level of interest deserving a national audience, or requiring a major purchase.

Of course, not all magazines and talk shows peddle only what I aim to criticize herein. My point is that what inspires us usually cannot be widelydistributed without thereby being debased. It is not elitist to say so; even if 90% of humans found inspiration in the same thing (love, maybe?), that thing would be very difficult to represent faithfully. Inspiration is something breathed in, like air:impossible to live without, but difficult to locate in any one space. So I say that it is dangerous to think, or to encourage others to think, or to jump on the bandwagon of the trend that tends in the direction of thinking, that only a large and appreciative audience makes a project, a life, or a thought worth having. The “mission statements” (again, implicit or explicit) of many magazines and TV shows “reflect” the belief that a life that can’t be seen and immediately grasped as meaningful by a large audience has somehow failed to make the grade. And yet we must know somehow/somewhere the “truth” of the matter—that a life simply can’t be seen by a large circulation audience. At all. Not yours, and not Gwyneth Paltrow’s. With all due respect (however much that is) to Gwyneth and anyone else whom everyone loves or hates depending on the hour of the day or theprognostications of critics, something is rotten in Denmark.

Speaking of which, my favorite Dane (perhaps only because I have known so few of them), Soren Kierkegaard, would have something to say of this—I’ll put that on hold for now.

There has to be a space for ideas and ways of life that don’t fit readily into a wide audience template, and if we want to make the world a world that values such things, we have to place value on things that aren’t and cannot be widely known or appreciated. For instance, the zine community was never successfully “covered” or represented by the media—even though the media did try—because zines and their creators are the most disparate and impossible-to-define “community” there could be. Also—and this is not the case with every small project—some things are destroyed by too much bright light and thus should be left to their small audiences. Or perhaps even to their large audiences, but without a publicity machine that needs to convert something precious into its lowest common denominator. In other words, love what you love,without needing that love to be justified by fame’s refractory tendencies.

There is nothing wrong with being famous, nor with having money. Indeed fame and money offer opportunities to do things, and open up a field of choices, and then it isimportant to know who you are so you can choose well. Fame will never teach you any of the things you need to know in order to be famous. By famous I mean not “known” but “deserving renown.” —JS

h2so4 11 (Summer/Autumn 1999)

To want to be markedly different—"a real standout," one of a kind—and also easily understandable is self-defeating. To demand this kind of understanding from the world is to misunderstand the nature of the world. Hence the perpetual disaffection of rebellious teenagers.

In order to be easily understood you must say something common—to an audience who holds some common assumptions, a common language, and who will readily understand the import of your communication. Beyond this there is risk and danger—of misunderstanding, odd interpretation, unforeseen consequences of words and actions.

Perhaps you want instead to be the educator, who makes the world understand your wisdom, uncommon as it is. But in making this so, increasing your audience, you make your words common, either by spreading them so far that they become status quo, or by spreading them so thin that you become status quo. Either way, you may find that you no longer want to own these words, that they are no longer your own, they have become common.

"Common" still has a pejorative ring despite all of our democratic conditioning. Why, when we hear the word "common," we think "vulgar" rather than "community" may be a question well worth reflecting on. What do we wish to accomplish with speech and writing? Communication is what we hold in common. The art of rhetoric helps master your audience. But whether your truth is ready for this audience, whether they are ready for it, or you for them, is another matter, one well worth considering before adding more words to the world.

And yes, I publish a magazine, one often accused of being "too wordy." It follows then that I am either a naive fool or an arrogant one, for adding these words to the world: as Nietzsche wrote, "we are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge—and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves—how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?" Seeking knowledge is not a seeking of self. Thinkers do not have sufficient earnestness, or time, for the experiences of life, says Nietzsche; seekers of knowledge must be strangers to themselves. An easy interpretation of this might conclude that therefore, since knowledge is good, there is no reason to seek oneself if such seeking is incompatible with knowledge. But a deeper look might insist that here "knowledge" is misleadingly defined, that there are depths that are known differently. As Nietzsche cautions, our wisdom may be found in knowing how to remain silent for a long enough time.... to allow for what? Perhaps a knowledge defined otherwise.

Why, when we hear the word "common," do we think "vulgar" rather than "community"? Could this be why we are strangers to ourselves? Is what we have in common embarrassing, unimportant, unremarkable? If so the great paradox is that the only things we are capable of remarking on (those things which can be communicated) are unremarkable (as common). Such a set-up insures that we don't believe in anything other than what we have made, but also that we devalue anything that we have made common. It's a no-win game that thinks it has loaded the dice. It could be that the error is in thinking in terms of the game, and that it won't be words—many or few—that change this. I still think that words, knowledge, patience and silence are of utmost importance, and that what we lack may be reflection on the weight properly given to each. —JS 

h2so4 10 (Summer/Autumn 1998)

h2so4 #1 began thus: "This magazine hopes to locate itself in the space between writing that is entertainment without ideas and writing that is idea without entertainment. Its intent is to present different kinds of writing, varying worldviews, serious, humorous, life-as-it-is. One might say I like to laugh as I weep, or scrape my knees on the sky, demand enough space, leave room for others." #2 continued: "My intention is to offer humor, intellect, seriousness and silliness; with none of them making excuses for the other, or being exclusive of each other. The unifying theme, if you must have one, is Cohabitation."

Though h2so4 has definitely changed over the past five years, I think it has remained true to its original intentions, even as it continuously reinvents the meaning of these. Writers may not always agree with each other, or even with themselves from issue to issue, but the shifting of positions does not always indicate lack of commitment to a cause; it often may point to something far more important than such blind commitment—a refusal to make up one's mind and leave it that way, a willingness to examine and reexamine how we live and move in th and change matched by an appreciation for what is worth preserving in any tradition. These are and have always been my goals, though the way these goals materialize into action (or nonaction) may have shifted over time.

And here we encounter an important point begun in last issue's editorial. Nonaction is not nothing happening. Saying nothing is not thinking nothing, not even not doing nothing. Whenever I am figured as a tyrant determining the course of the 'zine (rather than as the only person willing to keep it going by making selections and nagging and doing), I remind myself that it is easy to hear only what I've disagreed on and to take my silence on other matters to mean approval or nonthought, or nothing. But silence speaks to those willing to listen; I often don't debate what I don't agree with in the course of the contents of h2so4, even if I have explicit opinions on the matter (part of this lesson I've learned in h2so4's very pages, some of you may well know). That, by the way, is Cohabitation. I trust you all have the capacity to weigh the words you consume, and come to where they lead (for you, for others) on your own. 

So, though I am most often heard calling people out of their laziness, lethargy or torpor and into action, I am well aware that there are some things that action cannot touch, and that there are times when silence, and allowing things to be as they are, are the most in need of our attendance. —JS

h2so4 9 (Winter Spring 1998) 

It is important to cultivate listening to silence.It may be difficult to find it, let alone listen to it. But pause. Listen.

Do not fill every moment with noise, distraction, chatter, forced meaning.

The most uncanny appearance of unbidden thought—a revolution. Is waiting. Will keep waiting for you to exhibit patience sufficient to its arrival. I am beginning to think that this is the horizon of change.

There is no true silence in a city. But you can find pockets of it, variations on a theme, a new way to 'envision' it. Don't let an apparent lack wrest from you a resource you need, nor should you allow yourself to be persuaded that what is difficult to attain is less necessary to life than what presents itself at every opportunity.

What is found with most ease does speak to what we as a culture or era or geographic location value right now. But it is possible to listen (and think) beyond this.

Many believe that we are living in an age of inescapable nihilism. That everyone believes in nothing, no one in anything. Some believe that if we were by great force of will to rise up and act, thus would the world be saved. 

But if we are to rise up, whence and whither? What are our beginnings, what the end in mind? To rise up and then proceed to act in the same manner as action now stands only reinstates what the rising seeks to subvert. Nihilism arises in part out of human belief in the absolute rule of human power, the arrogant assumption that we can and do control everything. That this is what power is. Surely we will not overcome such belief by assuming that we have the power to do so.

Which is not to say that no act or "cause" is worth committing oneself to, only that perhaps we should stop to pause to listen and reflect. What is embodied in the word "cause"? How might we proceed? It is the listening that starts to point the way differently.

Language binds us to our time, constrains what we can say and how we think it. (But yes, it allows us to communicate.) There are many languages. In English we say, "I make the horse run" or "I must go now." In Navajo: "The horse is running for me" or "It is only good that I will go now." What does this say about our relation to the world? 

"These are the fiery signs—not the tidings." —Stephan George


[previous][cover page] [back to top][next]