friday, june 17, 2022

Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. The conflict between value-less use and valuable uselessness, a dangerous contradiction tossed into Chinese history. Zhuangzi’s parable of the tree returns:

A tree which enjoys being useless. This tree has grown vast, its branches “too twisted and gnarled to be used for beams or pillars,” and its trunk “too splotched and split to be used for a coffin” (tr. Brook Ziporyn, Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings). For those initiated the tree is revered. One day a carpenter encounters the tree, perceives it as “worthless lumber.” The tree then responds to this denigration by entering the carpenter’s dream to ask:

“What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs – when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult… Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That’s why they die young… They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world.”

To be useless is a compliment.

And how to remain useless under global racial capitalism. How to remain with the One under atomizing pressure. Traditions of Taoist wisdom thus wither under a forced an unnatural system of governance. For in a surveillance society (e.g. Beijing’s mise-en-abyme of cameras) rather than observational community, a confusion of values splinters the root. Is this Hu Bo’s concern too or merely my projection?

An elephant wails before credits roll. A sole streetlamp gives shelter as capitalist refugees kick a soccer ball around. The elephant, too, useless in captivity, is spirit, but to be useless under these conditions is not a compliment but a curse. Our duty, if not to free the wise elephant, is to cultivate awareness of this shared condition. As soon as we release ourselves back into the way, elephantine gates swing open.

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