7.27.2014

Habit

 
Every day, I wear pretty much the same thing — black jeans, black t-shirt, one of six button down shirts, the same zippy sweater. There are few decisions to make. I get up, shower, throw on the same clothes. This is my habit, I suppose.

Habit, in fact, comes from the Latin word meaning dress and then, in the Middle Ages, came to mean the dress worn by the religious. We still call a nun's outfit a habit. I love this as there are two sides (at least) to habit just as there are two sides (at least) to being religious. 

On the one hand, habit lets us focus on what matters. It removes the banality of the everyday, banishing it from the duty of intelligence, reason, decision, contemplation. If we wear the same thing every day, we are free to consider other things such as our relationship to god. This is one aspect of a certain religiosity: a disdain for the things of this world, privileging the spirit over the body. Habit facilitates contemplation of higher matters. 

On the other hand, habit blinds us. By removing decisions about the everyday, we begin to ignore the here and now, the flow of the cosmos, the rush of life. Sure, what we wear is not so important in the grand scheme of things. But, then again, nothing is that important in the grand scheme of things and hence everything is important in the grand scheme of things. This is the other side of habit and the religious: habit blinds us to reckoning the eternal now, to the ubiquity of god's presence — for god is in all things, even our black jeans. In this case, habit blinds us to the glory that abounds.  

There is another side of habit that at once affirms and denies the habituality of habit. Every morning I wake up and do basically the same things — my neti pot first, then my granola. From afar, this sure looks like both sides of habit: I've eliminated decisions so I can focus on higher matters (such as which coffee to make) and I've blinded myself to the now. But, from within, it doesn't feel like habit. Each morning, I wake and consider what I want and, usually, I come to the same thing: I want to do that neti pot because, man oh man, it feels incredible. And then I consider my breakfast and think: You know what? That plain granola, a little shredded coconut, some nut butter, and rice milk all nuked for 30 seconds sounds perfect!

Deleuze would call this repetition. Repetition is premised on difference: if this weren't different from that it would be the same thing and hence wouldn't be repetition. If this is the same as that then it's a copy, not a repetition. From the outside, repetition may look like copying but from the inside they couldn't be more different. This difference is the movement of affirmation. (I want to say that the addict begins by enjoying the drug, affirming it. And then moves into just needing it. Addiction, I believe, involves the movement from repetition to copying.)

To affirm the same over and over again, to see the new within the old, to take what already exists and discover the teeming life within it is nothing less than miraculous. Think about a blues solo in which BB King plays the same note over and over. The first couple of times he plays it, it doesn't seem like anything. But as he repeats it, as he affirms that note over and over again, a kind of mania kicks in,  delirium, the madness of the now. It is the absolute affirmation of the universe: This! This! This! This! To infinity! That is joy unbridled. 

In Either/Or, Kierkegaard juxtaposes the seducing aesthete with the married, ethical judge. The seducer sleeps with a different woman every day; the judge sleeps with the same woman every day. Which is repetition? For Kierkegaard, the seducer copies as every woman becomes the same thing, becomes a concept of woman. But the married man must find the new, must find the erotic, in the same woman day after day for his entire life. This demands the relentless internal movement of affirmation, to summon a Yes, Again each day! (For Kierkegaard, repetition is the very (moving) ground of Christianity, what separates Socrates from Jesus: for Socrates, everything is memory, a living backwards; for Jesus, everything is about being reborn, being born anew, memory lived forward: repetition.)

Of course, in our lives things are a whole lot messier. The guy — or gal — who sleeps with a different person every day (more or less) may very well find the spectacular in each encounter, the new, the different: the seducer may very well be reckoning the now. And the married man, more often than not, does not repeat but copies, falls into a blindness, failing to affirm much of anything.  

I love walking into a bar and seeing the wall of booze. All these choices! All these different ways of going! All these moods! What is right for me on this night? Shall it be the weight of whiskey, the sun of tequila, the herbs of gin? These days, 99.99% of the time, it's gin on the rocks. But 83.75% of the time, it's not habit that's propels this decision. It's affirmation. Yes, gin. Gin again. Gin anew. This, for me, is the challenge and delight of a bar: the negotiation of habit, a reckoning of how I go in the universe. 

7.22.2014

Booze & I: A Metabolic-Existential Journey

I grew up, for the most part, in the suburbs of Manhattan, in a lush hyphenated river town brimming with middle class boredom and its ceaseless drive to get lit. I had older siblings, too. My brother, four years my senior, told me that as skinny, loud, beshnozzed jews, in order to establish a semblance of manhood in the social sphere, we should be able to drink bourbon, neat. And so I did, with the hearty abandon only fraternal encouragement could inspire.


It was easy as I found bourbon an anchor to my heady ways. Its viscosity lent my skinny ass weight: with each sip, I felt like I was adding another rock, grounding me to the earth and the company of men. I was a pontificating, often self-righteous, burgeoning intellectual ripe with attendant anxiety, my thoughts whizzing at infinite speed and Beam — sweet, sweet Jim Beam — was my counterweight, my gravity, my cojones, bestowing me with what I imagined to be masculinity while affording me temporary relief from my accelerated, self-lacerating mind.  

But as my 20s moved towards their conclusion, my system began to slow. Not dramatically, at first, but noticeably and over time the drag of my becoming was too conspicuous to ignore. I no longer needed a cohort to time and gravity's merciless tug. If bourbon once helped ground my wiry ways, it now kept all of me down.

And so I moved, briefly (a few years), to scotch. Of course, scotch runs a wide gamut and can be heavier, weightier, than bourbon — it often has ground itself running through its veins: peat. But there is a note in scotch, often more prevalent, that rather than reaching to the ground, aspires to the air, if not to the heavens. It's more of a spirit, if you will. I gravitated towards the highlands, Glenmorangie being my go to (before its transformation): spicy, a hint of honey, a heavenly aspiration. 

But scotch, alas, did not suffice. It has too much heft to offset the onslaught of my decay. I needed something more vaporous, something more rarified, something that did more than reach for the sky: something that was of the sky itself. 


 Enter tequila. Oh, tequila! It would be my lift, the sun itself mixing with my being to elevate me into the ether. The agave takes in the sun for seven or eight years before fruiting and then — then! — gives way to fermentation. Where whiskey ages in a dark barrel, tequila ages in the unadorned sun. Tequila doesn't brood the way whiskey does; it finds its life in the blaring light of day, naked, bold, and hot.

I drank blancos or the six month reposados, all fire and air, all heat and vapor, all sky and woosh. I never cared for anejos, those tequilas barrel-aged for over a year (and less than three) and which hence approach whiskey's weight. No, I wanted to taste the sky itself, its airy delights, its solar merriment. In those days, my drink was always the same: a glass of tequila (El Tesoro Reposado or Siete Leguas Blanco) and a Pacifico back. I called it a Mexican boilermaker (the traditional boilermaker is a shot of bourbon and a beer, for me on the side rather than in the beer. As far as beer is concerned, Pacifico is a sunny beer, little of the yeast and earth that soils the brewski that beer lovers adore. Pacifico was the rays delivering tequila's solar glow to my being’s blood.)

For a full decade, tequila lifted my spirits, proffered the sunshine to my tortured, weighty soul. Its spice was a ready transition from highland scotch's fruity, suggestive effervescence. But, like all things, it too would pass: tequila and me would part ways over the matter of heat.

As I rounded 40, tequila's burn proved too much for my fraying gut and disoriented being. I'd order my El Tesoro and Pacifico and, between you and me, I found myself burping. It was quite distressing. I was newly single after 13 years of marriage, ordering my go to cocktail, only to find myself sitting with a would-be love and passing gas in her face. It was humiliating. I felt like a perverse, yiddish, Gargantuan Icarus.

The earth of whiskey too heavy, the sun of tequila too hot, I didn't know where to turn. I flailed for weeks, even months. And then an herbalist acquaintance suggested ice: my being needed water, my booze and blood needed cooling. But I'd always drunk my booze neat. What kind of booze could possibly go well with ice. Gin, she replied, gin


 Gin? I'd had my share of Bombay Sapphire, sure, but always knew gin as a medicinal headache (and Sapphire is a shitty, astringent gin). Little did I know it was what my way of going yearned for. For gin is, indeed, medicinal — that is its origin, the juniper berry spirit initially being considered an elixir to stave off disease. And as years and life have withered me, a medicinal booze has proved just the thing. 

Indeed, as I've turned into my mid-40s, I've found myself adjusting and fine tuning all my input sources — food, music, film, people. I no longer have the will, stamina, or vitality to chug indiscriminately. Just as I no longer down any old burrito or go to any old music show, my taste in booze has become quite, and to some excessively, discerning. I suppose I need more help from my environs, a bolster from Mother Nature. 

Like medicines of old, gin is a culinary delight, each concoction a bit different: this one favors anise, that one cardamom, another pepper, while still another tends towards the sweet viscosity of whiskey sans the cloying sweet syrup. I stock my bar with a good 20-30 gins at any given time, one for each mood, for each need, for each desire. It is my pharmacopoeia, my apothecary cabinet.

Gin, in turn, has led me to herbal booze in general — amaros, digestifs, absinthes, aquavits. I find where I once longed for the hefty purity of bourbon neat, I now crave cooled herbaceous variety. From bourbon to scotch to tequila to gin to herbal booze in general is my journey, as existential as it is metabolic, from the weight to the sky to the vegetal plenitude of earth. Where I once leaned into whiskey’s steady weight, I now turn to spicy complexity. This is my intoxicated, and sadly not intoxicating, bildungsroman. 



7.15.2014

How to Write Criticism, A More or Less Practical Guide

Let’s assume that to write criticism we will not apply theories or categories to things. We won’t show how The Wire is Marxist, Blood Orange is neo-R&B, or that Michel Houellebecq is patriarchic.  Let’s assume, rather, that we want to write critically about this program, this album, this novel.

This is not to say that we can’t make use of theories, categories, and genres. We should, and indeed must, make use of what we already know. After all, we come to things as we come to them, knowing what we know, thinking what we think, believing what we believe. There is no objectivity; to evacuate ourselves of ourselves is not the goal, as if such a thing were even possible or even desirable. It’s to say that we won’t begin with these concepts, these ideas, these meta-structures. We’ll begin with the thing at hand.

All things — all texts — are to be read. And, in fact, all things are always already read. That’s what it means to exist: we are things that are perceived and processed just as we relentlessly perceive and process other things. Everything — you, me, these words, the internet, the chair you’re sitting in, the phone in your hands, mosquitoes — is what Deleuze calls a little engine. They make themselves, their way of going.

But where do we begin our critique? Well, there’s no one way in or through a thing. Take this essay here. You could begin anywhere — with the title: Is this a how-to? What is its approach to the how-to? What does it ask of the reader (yes, you)?

Or you could begin with the use of pronouns: Who’s this we Coffeen keeps using? What function does this serve? How does this writer — me, or my name, as the case may be — stand towards you? What is it asking of you? Complicity? But in what, exactly?

You could put aside these more formal aspects for the moment and focus on the content. What does Coffeen mean when he so readily conflates things and texts? How does this play in the course of the essay? What’s at stake by at once distinguishing and conflating things and texts?

Or what about this related claim that everything is always already read? How does this shape or inflect the borders of things, of you and me, or critic and object, of screen and reader, of this essay and you? Is this why he keeps using we? Hmn.

Every text offers multiple ways to begin, multiple doors, as it were. Derrida always loved beginning with some often overlooked element such as a particular word or a footnote. I once wrote on Paul Ricoeur’s book La métaphore vive which is translated as The Rule of Metaphor. That’s where I began: the movement across languages from life to rule. When I wrote about Moonrise Kingdom, I began with the way the camera moves in a scene so as to create a contraption from the interactions on screen. (That essay is here.)

How do you choose to begin with this rather than that? That all depends on what grabs your attention, piques your interest, seizes your fancy.  Begin with what you notice and follow it to see where it takes you. It may take you nowhere interesting. On the other hand, it may open the world itself.

The trick  is to follow that element and ask: So what? What then? So the camerawork in Moonrise Kingdom creates a contraption from scenes. Who cares? Well, I couldn’t help but notice that contraptions, films, and stories share this comment element, the way different things interact with each other so as to propel other behavior. And then it occurred to me that film is actually machinic, both literally (the camera is a machine) and metaphorically (a story is a machine in which different components interact in such a way as to create something, namely, the story itself).  And so I began with this observation — the contraption-like scenes — and ended with the claim that things we don’t normally connect, stories and machines, are in fact intimately related.

What a critic does is account for the different elements of the thing — its what as well as its how. That is, each thing has its qualities — red, loud, funny, tall. And also has the manner in which it puts this what together, its how — the movement of the camera, the voice and structure of the novel, the rhythm of the song. This is where criticism lives and thrives: in that place where the what meets the how and vice versa. 

But then there’s the affective state of the thing, its mood, its tone, its temperament. A book, a film, a song have their what — the story, color, instruments; their how — the structure, voice, rhythm; and their affective flow — humor, wit, melancholy, exuberance. The manner in which something happens is a critical component of that thing. It’s impossible to talk about Nietzsche without accounting for his zealous play, to talk about The Beastie Boys without mentioning their play and humor, to critique The Wire without mentioning the nihilistic humor. 

Or take Moonrise Kingdom. Yes, Wes Anderson finds the machinic quality of stories. But he also finds the opposite: the play within machines. The joy of the film — its humanity and humor — argue for the pathos and richness of the mechanical, a vice versa.   

None of these elements — the what, how, and mood — are proof that your reading is right or wrong. There is no right or wrong. No, all of these elements are evidence. And it’s your job as critic to weave them together into some kind of multiple, generous, whole that sheds light on how the thing functions. Which is to say, while your critique may not be right or wrong, it may be out of bounds, off the mark: you might just be making stuff up. Which is not necessarily bad but, alas, is critique.

Criticism is almost puzzle-like only there’s no one way to do it. You assemble all these elements and put them back together in a new way. I suppose, in a sense, to critique is to dj, creating a new composition out of the existing, found elements. It’s playing with the found.

7.09.2014

Writing Critically About Things


There are a lot of ways to approach writing about a book, a painting, a piece of music, or even a chair, landscape, idea, relationship.   

You could try to place that individual work within the history of the medium. Borges takes up Cervantes' mantle by introducing an unreliable author. Or Picasso, for all his modernist trappings, continues the great Romantic tradition of representing the world through the soul of the painter. Of course, neither of these readings is engaging, accurate, or interesting. But their form is all too familiar for anyone who's taken English or art history in college.

You could put aside the medium all together and place the book within cultural and historical context. Norman Mailer may look staid today but, at the time, he challenged reigning paradigms of literary protocol. Or Joan Didion represented a seminal moment in the history of American women of letters. I made both of these up having read neither but, again, their form should be familiar.

A common mode of critique for the past 20 or so years is ideology critique: This book is an example of Marxism! Of Oedipus! Or patriarchy! Of third wave feminism! These are actually all the same mode as they see books and art as symptoms and examples of something bigger, something greater — history, concepts, ideas, ideology. 

You could jettison this whole approach and write autobiographically, narrating the ways this or that work affected you, the role it played in your life, how it changed you, influenced you, moved you. When I first heard "Blonde on Blonde," I was 14 and sitting on the cabin floor and I knew my life would never be the same. 

All of these modes might or might not make interesting reads, might or might not cast some light on the object at hand. But, for the most part, they skip over the head of the work, choosing to write about something else, something that seems more grand. I’d call this over reading.
 
It always seemed to me that to say how a text — a book, work of art, music, dance, a plate for that matter — is a symptom or example of something else reduced it. And it begged the question: whence the concept for which this is an example? For instance, if I want to say that Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is patriarchic, what is patriarchy made of if not Portnoy's Complaint? There seems to be a basic logical problem here in which the idea — in this case, patriarchy — is considered to exist before all of its instantiations.

This is more explicit when we consider genre. If I say The Crying of Lot 49 is an example of postmodern literature, doesn't this beg the question: isn't postmodern literature made of all the books we say are postmodern literature, including Pynchon's proclaimed novella? The genre does not — cannot — precede the books. Take away the books and you take away the genre. To call it an example, then, is a tautology of the least interesting sort. (I've written a bit about the logic of examples here >. And, for those who care, it was the topic of my absurd dissertation.)

To write critically about something is to take readers on an exquisite, exciting, surprising tour of the thing. Step right this way, all, and notice this, then that, look out for that over there, now let's swing around here. (I've written about how I taught this mode >.) 

I want to say that a thing — a book, a work of art, a chair, your dog's face, your relationship with your sweetie — is not self-explanatory. But, in a way, it is self-explanatory only these self explanations are multiple. Every thing declares itself over and over again, continuously and continually. I go like this! I do this and this and that and this other thing! You don't need to bring anything to the text. (Text and thing are more or less the same to me. I believe the distinction I'd make is that a thing things while a text is that thing qua its readability. That's the first time I've used qua since grad school, I think. It felt good.) 

This is all to say a thing — a text — doesn't need a theory to read it. Things exist without psychoanalysis, without rhizomes, without feminism, without Marx just as they necessarily exist with psychoanalysis, rhizomes, feminism, and Marx. A chair, for instance, exists with everything else that exists or might exist or has existed — my ass, other chairs, my little boy, Marxism, the concept of love, pretzel crumbs, wind, waves, sunsets, dreams, death.

Every thing does what it does in a shifting calculus of relations, speeds, and intensities. Think about a movie such as, say Rushmore. It's alternately and simultaneously a testament to precocity, adolescence, middle age, love, grief, narrative, the relationship between film and literature; meanwhile, its mood shifts between and amongst joy and melancholy, humor and what we often call drama, not to mention a bevy of other affects for which I don't have the words.

A thing is multiple and more or less complex. The critical reader — the critical writer — shows other readers things that might have been missed by most folks and how these elements are interesting. This critic implicitly declares: Come with me and I'll show you the ways in which I find this thing really freakin' interesting. It might not always be obvious; I may show you things and relations between things you might not have considered. But, in the end, I hope you'll enjoy the ride.  

There are as many tours, as many ways through a text, as there are readers (more or less). I used to tell my students: imagine going to the library and looking up books about the text at hand. Each of your essays would be there, each offering a different spin.

It doesn't matter whether you, as the writer, like the thing you're reading. Well, it doesn't matter to your reader; it should matter to you. Why write about something you don't like? Anyway, your judgment as a critic is, frankly, irrelevant. There's rarely a point in saying Nietzsche brilliantly uses metaphor or Wes Anderson's genius is unrivaled (eeesh!). Who cares? What we, your readers, care about is whether you can show us things, make us see connections we might never have seen, words we might never have noticed, ideas we didn't even know were there. 

A good reading is life affirming. I'll one up that: a critical reading creates life! It takes what you think you're seeing, what you think is done, and shows you whole other worlds. I remember years and years ago now — multiple decades, in fact — watching a tiger pace in his cage at the zoo. And rather than think, How sad that he's trapped! I thought: Look at this master who transforms his finite cage into an infinite savannah! Both readings engage the same text but one regurgitates the familiar while the other discovers a different universe. It's irrelevant for the moment if one or the other is right or wrong. What matters is whether it's interesting, whether it makes you see anew. 

For that is the task of the critical writer: to show how the world is more exciting, beautiful, exquisite, and interesting than you'd previously thought. 

7.01.2014

On Photographs & the Real



A chair takes on the bodies that sit in it. The cushions give, the fabric wears, the structure bends. Of course, each chair takes on each body differently. But say, for a moment, this chair here has only ever had my body on it. There would be a mark, an impression, on that chair: an image of me, as it were.  

A keen reader of such things would be able to discern not just my weight but the distribution of my weight — pounds on each body sit differently, pooling here, thinning out there.

This reader of chairs and bodies could discern my posture, whether I slouch, hunch, cross my legs, lean on one buttock or the other. And, from that, a more vivid picture comes into existence: a man who weighs such and such, distributed in just this way, and who sits in such a way that he is more than likely depressed, content, contemplative, jumpy. An image emerges from the collaboration of my body with that chair.

And yet, needless to say, a lot has not been seen by the ass marks left on that chair cushion. There is not as much proof as there is evidence, traces of a life that are neither complete nor definitive. In rhetoric, we'd call it a metonymy, a mark that is continuous with my life. 

All things take up the world. All things make their mark on other things according to the degree of complexity of the respective bodies, the terms of their engagement, and the role these marks play in the circulation of marks we call culture or society. For instance, we tend not to consider cushion indentations as meaningful. 

Clothes, more intimate with bodies than chairs, wear us as much we wear them. The way a collar stretches, the torso sags and sleeves fray, the patterns of stain all testify to a life. Much as a press rolled over an etched plate forges a print on paper, a shirt takes on the contours of the wearer, making an impression, leaving an image of a sort. The way elbows on coat wear is in fact called memory.

A photograph is, in many ways, no different. There is a device — a camera — which, like a chair or shirt, is a way of taking on the world, creating an impression of life. A camera is technology that takes on light much as a chair takes on weight or a shirt takes on girth, sweat, and coffee. And just as a shirt with these stains reveals aspects of a particular life, the camera takes on the way light plays with those forms before its lens.

That light, like sweat, coffee, or a big ass, leaves a mark of a life. It's not complete. It's not a representation of reality. In a way, it's both more and less than that. It's not a reality as is. But nor is it just an image. A photograph is a piece of life itself, not an image of life itself. Just as this ass leaves that impression on that chair, this body in this light leaves this mark on that lens. The mark of life is material, palpable, visible. It is a metonymy of a life.

Metonymy is not synecdoche. Synecdoche is when a part stands in for a whole such as when a rancher says I have 20 head of cattle. The head stands in for the whole of the cow. Metonymy, on the other hand, is something that is continuous with the whole but doesn't speak for it per se — a stray pubic hair, for example, or a chocolate stain on my shirt.

We expect so much from photographs. Consider the online dating profile. We peruse picture after picture trying to size up a life, a smell, a sense, a future. We want so much for that photograph to tell us everything, to be a synecdoche that speaks for the whole of a person we've never met.

But, alas, that image is a metonymy. It is continuous with that person, no doubt. But as people are complex, as a life is essentially multiple and irreducible, that continuity can only tell you so much.

And yet what's amazing is that that image does indeed say a lot. It may or may not say much about how you'll get along with that person. But it's incredible how much life a photo conveys on its own, this continuous moment now severed from the whole. A smile, a twinkle in someone's eye, an alluring posture: they speak loudly, boldly, eloquently. Somehow, a camera collaborates with forms, light, and with being itself to bring you this sliver of life, this moment happening for eternity.

A woman's fetching smile or a guy's creepy looking gaze on OKCupid does not mean that woman is all that or that he's a creep. It means that at that moment, the camera, her form, his face, a moment of their being, and light conspired to make that picture. Which is incredible! I never cease to be amazed by photography. It seems like a miracle, the way this little machine — my phone! — can gather a bit of being into this discrete package.

A photograph is not a testament to the real. It is continuous with the real — as real as a stain on a shirt or an indent on a cushion.