Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

The wind has been in the willows for a long, long time—activism notwithstanding.  §

About five years ago, one summer, we suddenly had earwigs everywhere. These are ugly bugs, though they’re entirely harmless. They speak to something ugly in the human soul. They have horns and spikes and crawl close to the ground, and they’re hard to kill.

They were everywhere, for a few weeks, and then they were just gone. And I hadn’t thought about them since; they had passed into forgotten history.

Until this month. Suddenly, five years later, without explanation, they’re back. They turn up in the dogs’ food dishes. Or crawling across the floor. Or on the wall next to the air conditioner.

I’d never expected to see them again.

— § —

Fifteen years ago, I drove home alone on Interstate 15 having left, for the very last time, my job at eBay. I felt wistful and uncertain. The future was unknown. I left behind friends and the only serious job I could clearly remember by that time.


© Aron Hsiao / 2004

Fifteen years. Between then and now, I moved to Chicago. Earned a masters degree. Wrote books. Moved to Portland. Then to Los Angeles. Won awards as an encyclopedia editor. Wrote more books. Moved back to Salt Lake City. Then to New York. Got married. Had children. Earned a Ph.D. Taught at New York University, CUNY, The New School, and a bunch of other universities. Moved across the country again to Provo. Became the public voice of a technology startup. Over half a decade, did countless interviews with Time and Forbes and Business Week and Inc. Magazine and Slashdot. Appeared on television and radio in and amongst moments of divorce paperwork and transcendental life changes.

My time at eBay all the way back in 2003? That, too, had long ago passed into forgotten history.

Until this year. At the end of 2017, my company was acquired by eBay. Once again I was an eBay employee, based at the same campus I’d worked at in 2003. Once again I interacted with faces I’d known all the way back in my twenties. Once again I’ve become habituated, over the course of 2018, to life at eBay.

And now, after all of those intervening years, I once again find myself facing the end of my time at eBay. Once again this end corresponds, intuitively, to the end of an entire phase in my life. Once again this Friday I will sign off for the very last time at eBay and say goodbye, just as I did all the way back in the late spring of 2003.

Once again I feel wistful and uncertain. Once again, the future is unknown. Once again, I leave behind friends and the only serious job I can remember by now.

— § —

They say that deja vu—the false sense that you are repeating an experience that you have had once before—is eerie and disorienting.

I think that it’s reality and history that are far more eerie and disorienting—in particular, the actuality that you are repeating experiences that you have absolutely, and not merely intuitively, had before. This is far more common than we like to admit, and it affects us far more deeply than we’re prepared to believe.

Our entire metaphysics, and our understandings our natures within it—as Benjamin points out—are predicated on a particular understanding of of time.

Who needs deja vu, the pale imitation, when it’s clear that we quite literally live out the same scenes over and over again, entirely beyond our ability to avoid or control them?

We either laugh about it or we avoid talking about it because if we were to seriously confront the question, we’d probably fail entirely to cope.

— § —

One of the strangest side effects of social media—and another that I didn’t anticipate as a young scholar—is the way in which it has created a deep suspicion of information and knowledge, along with a resulting paradox: the belief that enlightenment is positively and linearly correlated with:

  • Ignorance

  • Closed-mindedness

  • Dogmatism

That is to say that the presumption is now that apart from a handful of received truths, all texts and all information are false propaganda motivated by power interests, and thus, the less one reads, listens, and knows, and the more one holds tightly and uncritically to a few shockingly simple axioms, the more elite and educated one is.


Public domain

In fact, it is assumed to be the truly naive and ignorant who—say—read books and enter into reflection. Such poor, credulous folk actually think that there is something to learn, rather than realizing that they are being manipulated by Nazis, Communists, and Inquisitors. Only the truly stupid, the easy victims that suffer from mental weakness and have been fooled into service by malevolence, believe in the actuality of nuance, the pursuit of truth, or the value of thought.

The good and the wise know that what we must all do is cover our ears, cover our eyes, and cover our mouths—to hear none of these lies, to refuse to gaze at lies lest we be seduced, and of course to refuse to recite anything anything beyond received canon, lest we allow ourselves to speak for Satan. We are living a new medievalism.

This is the state of things on the left and on the right. And of course, virtually every dimension of life now lives either on the left or on the right. One innovation of late modernity vs. the medieval universe is that the territory of the apolitical is the smallest bordered territory in the history of the globe, and it shrinks every day.

As a rule, we are given as a society to the suspicion that this is where Satan lives. At length, we will finally eradicate this territory, from which it is presumed that all heresies, including the heresies of nuance, truth, and thought, ultimately flow.

— § —

I spent the better part of the afternoon cleaning out (and up) my office.

At some point, while carrying a bag of trash out to the large can on the driveway, the breeze came up and stopped me in my tracks.

The sky was a bit gray—maybe the sun was behind the clouds—and the leaves on the many trees in the strip of land beside the driveway rustled as the branches swayed back and forth, a few inches at a time.

I froze. I froze because I was caught out of time. Which is another way of saying that it was a timeless moment. Which is another way of saying I’d lived that moment before—not just once, but many, many times, in almost exactly the same way.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

Of course, we do this all the time without noticing it. We do the same things over and over and over again. We are so habituated to this daily or weekly repetition that we don’t notice how very strange it is for beings of limited lifespans to repeat themselves ad infinitum—we don’t notice that, in fact, our lives are far shorter than we think they are because at the end of them we’ll have lived, after all, only a tiny handful of unique days or experiences.

But when there’s a larger gap to break up the monotony, to shake us out of our blindness, we see: these moments are not fresh. Every day is not a new day. A person’s life does not consist of “homogenous, empty time” that is filled, as if by an auteur, with as yet unwritten scenes.

A person’s life consists of just a few scenes, by and large, the vast majority of which have already been revealed by the time one reaches adulthood, or certainly by the time one reaches middle age.

This is where the transition to gratitude in later life comes from—it is applause at a play that has already been staged and has completed the better part of its run. There is little left but to savor it, to appreciate it for what it is, because it has been written and performed already; each day is an instance of what already has been on previous days; it will likely not be otherwise, despite any attempts to innovate.

Time and human agency don’t work in the ways that we think they do, and we don’t respond to them in the ways that we think we do.

And when we capture a glimpse of the depth and entirely avoided beauty of these natures, it stops us in our tracks. But only for a moment. The show must go on, because the run has already been slated and tickets for the remaining performances sold, and as sci-fi often hints to us, we are strangely powerless, despite our best efforts, to alter what time—the universe?—God?—in fierce autonomy has already fully pronounced.

Ours is a role already conceived and staged. If we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that we are not the playwright. We are not even the director.

— § —

Activism leads to ignorance and totalitarianism precisely because of a very human desire to avoid this fact—a desire that leads to its repression, which in turn requires the repression of a great deal—perhaps even an all-encompassing amount—of evidence.

We refuse to accept that the metaphysics with which we operate and are comfortable is incorrect, a wish rather than an actuality. In the pursuit of the homogenous, empty time that we are sure is our birthright, we begin to see conspiracies everywhere around us.

We erect elaborate imaginaries ordered around dark forces that are presumed to be working, always, to cause human suffering and to erase human freedom and flourishing from time. The promising emptiness of the future seems to have been filled by an elusive vandal or saboteur and our job is to ensure that this ne’er-do-well doesn’t foreclose on our infinite potential and infinite freedom.


© Aron Hsiao / 2003

Even the rustling of the trees becomes offensive, and anyone who dares to talk about it—or the earwigs—or the eBay jobs—or the ways in which every life is far shorter and far more determined already than we admit it to be—is a co-conspirator.

We ironically assert that philosophy and religion—who proclaim this vandal, this saboteur, to be the ghost of our own smallness—are wishful thinking. In fact, they are the antidotes to wishful thinking that we increasingly refuse to consume—that we can’t bear to consume.

And so in our particular time we use social media, the best tool ever devised to try to empty out time once again, to restore what we subconsciously believe has been stolen from us. The activists activize. The dogmatists dogmatize.

Everyone works hard to ensure that nobody reads a book or an article or gives voice to a thought suggesting anything other than that the possible grounds for utopia have been stolen from us, and that with indignation and a particular crusaders’ ethos, we can again restore the possibility of utopia to its rightful place in our wide-open futures.

— § —

Meanwhile, the same jobs come and go. We take out the trash, mow the lawn, clean the toilets, then do it all again. We drink and sing for the new year, barbecue for Independence Day, cook a turkey for Thanksgiving Day, and erect a tree for Christmas. We take the same photos again and again and again.

The earwigs come back. The wind rustles in the trees. We pretend to be blind through all of it.

And we meticulously avoid the obvious for the space of exactly one human life, reflecting now and then throughout that deja vu is so very weird and circular. We do this while we repeat ourselves. While time, which owns us, repeats ourselves. This is the secret underbelly of all of politics, including our own.

— § —

I know. Somehow with me it’s always about life, death, and time. Naturally, we’ve seen this movie before, too. I am what I am. As are you.

— § —

It’s not that time is coming for you. Come on—wake up for just a moment. Stop in your tracks.

It’s not that time is coming for you.

Time already came, long ago. You’re just waiting for the show’s run to come to an end. You know all of the scenes already and the ending, too. You’ve been performing them for years.

None of this, I realize, can actually be said. It’s all a conspiracy. And to say this out loud, or even think it, is to be “complicit.”

Which is why so many of us feel that it is absolutely imperative, in our era, to put the lie to this lie on Facebook. Freedom demands nothing less than that we formally indict—and do our utmost to convict—the wind.