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The word “alternative” is a qualifier and a noun, a kind and the thing itself. The word has no meaning without a primary option, a mainstream tendency, a default mode. The Alternative is the less traveled—but available—path. The humanists in us insist on making use of an ethical perspective, to make judgments about what alternatives are most respectful of life, but in truth no value comes attached to the word. Every historical era is a stage in the unfolding of contingencies, as opposed to purely moral turnings. Within such an understanding, the Alternative is the other possibility, no more and no less.

Does that possibility exist now, in the age of pseudo-deviance? A great many seem to think so sincerely, despite the transparent racket that is the business of alternatives. Acknowledging that alternatives are not destinations but, rather, trips certainly serves to clarify the primacy of process, and almost incidentally cements the search for alternatives as a matter of the many, the diverse, and non-unitary. There is no single Alternative, only singular alternatives.

The belief in alternatives belies the truth of experiencing them, of, for periods short and long, living them out. But if living the alternative is the way to make a possibility actual, then it is also the first step towards rendering that possibility something other than alternative. The slippage is always there and cannot be avoided. Alternative paths once considered countercultural may widen in time, offering a massified experience, and then perhaps inevitably, a state-sanctioned lifeway option, alternative in pedigree but assimilated in practice. Legalized cannabis and state-recognized same-sex marriage are only the latest in profound examples of the Altered State.

It is useful to note that the once and former transgression of alternative terminal living, i.e. dying, in the extreme of suicide bombing or, its American equivalent of the mass-murder-suicide, falls victim nowadays to the banalization of a limited media narrative. The conclusion is inescapable. Like most every trip, changed though one may be, people tend to end up near to where they began. Let’s put it this way. Alternatives abound as states of mind, clusters of signs, embodied habits, and sometimes even arrangements of power. But change is glacial.


Dan S. Wang


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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