I can haz intellect.
The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe spoke at a graduate seminar I was in at Columbia University in 2001, not long after 9/11. It was a small class and though we were parsing the imagined “Japan” of post-war Japanese media, Mbembe joined us to discuss the media of genocide. I was blown away by his lecture, on “the phenomenology of necropolitics” which eventually became his book, Necropolitics. I am grossly summarizing the part of the lecture that grabbed me, but at one point he spoke of the philological problem of reporting deaths. A person consuming a history on the obliteration of humanity cannot comprehend the difference between numbers like 100 thousand and 1 million. Therefore, the way that we describe human death with numerologies of scale, is in a sense, a political act. This is the phenomenology of numbers. We stop empathizing with victims of war and murder when the numbers are too high. I was starting to understand that it may be the force of numbers that creates greater allowance for war.
But like I said, I am grossly paraphrasing, and however appropriate this thinking framework may be to understand the world today, this anecdote is actually not about Mbembe’s thesis.
Six or seven years later, I was sharing this simplification of Mbembe’s thesis with a jazz musician, to both flex my intellectual strength (let’s be honest), and offer a theory on why we tolerate chaos. I have no idea what I was actually trying to say, but more strange was the jazz musician’s response. He said this was impressive theorizing, and helped him to understand his music scene. The phenomenology of numbers applies more than anything to the misplaced desire to stuff as many notes into a solo as possible.
At the time I looked at this line of text (we were communicating via email), quizzically. I was appalled that he compared jazz solos to genocidal warcraft. This moment has nagged at me ever since. I didn’t tell him I was appalled, and I didn’t stop him from using this language to talk about musical athleticism in other conversations. I regret not objecting to his interpretation of philosophy, though I ultimately agreed with his observation that some musicians definitely “try too hard.” I think about this because of a very similar conversation I had much more recently, about stuffing notes into a performance. I heard the misappropriated phrase in my head in response. The phenomenology of numbers. This is incorrect usage of a tenet of Necropolitics and I am stating it as a matter of public record that when you say that music does not benefit from an over-performed solo, I definitely agree. But when this musician in 2006 drew his language to describe this very phenomenon, from an observation on the decimation of peoples in central Africa, I cringed.
Love Letter Day 2
I am writing this love letter to honor you as a public intellectual. I am un-cringing. This is a gratitude. Today, I want to tell you how much I value intellectualism, and your unique propositions on knowledge and discovery and especially the parts of your work that resemble science fiction. It can be so simple, the act of understanding new and complex information. It can be so profound. I fucking love it. It can also quickly devolve into cheap parlor licks. Like a terrible jazz solo. And we know it, don’t we.
Thank god we know it. Information is peace.