On The Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell



We discuss vulnerability, parenting, the awful equation of parenting with worry, dyslexia, creating new narratives of the self, grief, Leibniz's concept of the plenum, Merleau-Ponty's concept of the flesh....hmmmm, what else? Well, that's plenty.

Although I think I talk too fast.

The Temptation of Untethering


I often find the tethers of life—jobs, friends, lovers—draining. And so seek to untether myself. But I've come to realize that that is an ascetic ideal, a desire to be perfectly clear of the social—which is, as Nietzsche notes, nihilistic and anti-life.

This is why I love writing. I sat down to write an essay about something that's been on my mind. (I don't care for that expression—on my mind—as it confirms our sense of thinking as an abstraction, as something not part of the daily physical world, something left to the admittedly privileged ghetto of the brain. I do not believe that's what thinking is; I do not believe the brain is the site of thought. Thinking is a whole body experience, a moving with ideas, feelings, people, things, memories, dreams, birds, and kisses.

(But that's not what I want to write about. At least not right now. Turns out coercing words and thoughts to follow a subject is often easier said than done. And why do it? Why brush what we imagine as tangents to the side? Must an essay have a center from which other words must align or diverge? Might writing be at once an alignment—albeit emergent—and a divergence? This is how I've always imagined Lucretius' clinamen—a divergence that is an alignment.

This is a long parenthetical. In fact, it might be my first one with paragraph breaks! This brings me a joy that, I fear, is quite private. So be it.)

So I sat down to write something I've been reckoning, thinking, feeling through. And it seemed so clear to me. I'd even emailed myself the nifty title a few days ago so that I'd remember: "Temptation of the Tether." (I'm a sucker for alliteration.) But as I sat down and began putting pixels to screen, that seemed, at best, not quite right; at worst, fatuous.

This, too, is what I love about writing: it is not a transcription of thought. Writing is thinking. The very act of organizing my ideas with words and grammar threw me back on myself while showing me other ways of going. At such a juncture, there is no separation of writing and thinking.

And this, too: there are so many ways to begin. I want to talk about that feeling of being connected—to friends, lovers, to desire, to the social in general—and the will to shed all that, to be gloriously unmoored, adrift in the cosmos without that tug of obligation, of caring, of longing. I keep beginning then beginning again. What's the way in—at least for now? Do I begin with an anecdote from the past? A detail from my private life? A quote from Emerson's "Experience" in which our anchorage is quicksand? Beginning an essay is impossible yet actual as it's always multiple while language demands one word after another.

So I begin here.

It's 1991. I'm lying on this shitty, green, old day bed in my room in the apartment I'm sharing with  my Gramps on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I'd graduated college earlier that year; fled to Paris, briefly, where I'd found myself broke, alone, and horny; sought refuge in Prague and Hungary, where I found it, but none that enticed me enough to stay. And so here I was back in New York, working at a used bookstore (Academy Books, now Academy Records), and reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.

Read this book. Please.
I won't saddle you with too much talk of Kierkegaard. That's not this essay. But I will tell you this: it's Kierkegaard's reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It's a poignant and, as I realized much later, a very funny book. It gives us two ways to read Abraham. If we read him through the social, then he's a would-be murderer. But if we read him through what Kierkegaard calls the religious, then Abraham is the father of faith precisely because he leaves the social behind as he walks his only son up Mt. Moriah with every intention of killing him. For Kierkegaard, this means Abraham bypasses the social, the ethical, to have a direct relationship with the infinite, with God.

And this spoke to me, profoundly. It spoke to my growing sense of alienation from public discourse—from the news, from politics, from movies and TV, from what we call society. Who needs the social and its petty ethical demands—its guilt and obligations—when I could have a direct relationship to the motherfucking infinite? As I read that Kierkegaard, my heart beat faster, my eyes grew wider, my self swelled up to meet God in all his absurdity (that's Kierkegaard's word for it: the absurd.)

This is a vision of life, of the ideal life, that I'd carry with me to this very juncture. I'd find it again in Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air so cold few can breathe it, his writing destined "for all and none."  It confirmed my experiences in college where I'd started as a social being, organizing for the social good, enmeshed with a group of friends only to find myself, by the end, alone.

And, for the most part, blissful. Nothing brought me more pleasure than the experience of having no one need me—nothing to do, nowhere to be. At these times, not only did I have no appointments, I had no obligations, no one needing to know where I was or what I was doing. This freedom, this untethering, was exhilarating. It still is.

Look around and see all the ways we tether ourselves—so that when the tether is yanked from the other end, we move. Jobs, careers, debts, friends, lovers, animals, family, plants, hobbies, ego: all these things situate us, nudge us, coerce us. And, for many, this affords a sense of belonging, of purpose, of connection. No need to ponder the universe or your place in it. This IS your place in it. So on we go, letting the world yank us. I, like many others, have stayed in relationships past their expiration date because I enjoyed the yank of that tether, even if it was unpleasant. Better to be miserable and tethered than terrified and untethered.

Smart phones amplify these tethers, their dings and buzzes pulling at our desires, our longings, our connections—for better and worse. All those notifications from would-be dates, clients, bosses, mothers, friends let us know we're entangled in this world, we are desired, needed, demanded. It may drive us ape shit now and again but take them away—take away those tell tale dings—and we panic. Oh no! I'm all alone in this cosmos, adrift, nothing to ground me, grasp me, keep me from floating away. The dings fall silent and we fear being untethered.

I've engineered my life to loosen, perhaps to shed, these tethers. I've never had a real job, somewhere I had to be every day. I don't have a group of friends; most of my friends live elsewhere. I'm divorced. But, as a single man, I do find myself seeking the company, the warmth, the intimacy, the desire of women. Which disappoints me. I find myself clinging to this vision of Kierkegaard's Abraham, this vision of freedom, this exhilaration of being adrift and so find my desire for affection embarrassing.

But there is something about this untethering that, while seductive, smacks of asceticism. It feels like a longing for a socio-existential cleanse: with no tethers, I'll finally be clear, be clean, be immaculate. The temptation of untethering is the temptation of the ascetic who believes life exists within the denial of the senses—only in this case it's a denial of the social.

We are, however, social animals just as we are sensuous animals. To deny the social and the senses is anti-life. Just because I find the demands of a daily job, a group of friends, or a dinner party soul draining, this doesn't mean I need to forsake the company of other human beings.  After all, much to Kierkegaard's great puzzlement, Abraham returns to his community—to his wife, to his neighbors, and to his son. Abraham never apologizes; presumably, it's never even mentioned again (I can only imagine what little Ike was feeling; that's a book, like the switch of perspective in Gardner's "Grendel," I'd like to read).  Abraham could have shed the social for good but chooses to live within a community while enjoying his direct relationship to the infinite.

This demands a dual horizon. One the one hand, we see the limits of the social, its demands, its needs, its tending. At the same time, we see the infinite horizon sprawl before us, all the pettiness of the social disappearing as our eyes zoom past the faces and streets, past the buildings and mountains, past the moons, planets, and stars. It's impossible to focus on both at the same time. And yet that is precisely what's asked of us: to be here and now and forever at one and the same time. To see the faces of those around us, to feel with them and for them, and at the same time, to see those faces disappear as we gaze into ever-receding space.

This dual horizon demands dual communication: to speak the demands of the social while speaking with the infinite at the same time. It is to be sincere and not simultaneously. Kierkegaard calls this irony. It's a nifty trope that, I fear, too often falls on deaf ears here in San Francisco circa 2019. People of all walks of life defer to the univocal and the sincere as my will to irony is read as snarky bullshit. This is one reason I find the social so draining. But that's on me, a man who thinks himself a rhetorician. I am still seeking the voice that entices others while maintaining my freedom.

Of course, this is all just a fancy, long winded way of saying something ridiculously, beautifully, and humiliatingly simple: I like having a lot of freedom to do what I want when I want without the endless yanking of tethers, both social and digital. But I also enjoy loving people, animals, and plants—and having them love me back.

(To write is to tether oneself to words, sense, grammar. In language, one's thoughts can't just roam inchoate and incoherent. The very act of writing—of communicating—is the coercion of thoughts, feelings, and moods. Which is perhaps a good way for me to think about my social tethers: like writing, these relationships need not solely limit and nudge. They can extend, massage, and inspire.)

Hollywood Biopics' Valorization of Banality, or How "Beach Bum" is the Antidote to "Rocket Man," "Bohemian Rhapsody," and "First Man"



Harmony Korine's "Beach Bum" is the most explicit embrace of excess I've ever seen. It's unabashed consumption without anything going wrong—no regret, no fear, no tragedy. It is Bataille's visions of excess. And a welcome antidote to the neutering of life we've seen in a recent run of biopics on Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong.

Hollywood biopics are the low of the low. They clearly perform the distinction between copying and repeating: the actors copy the mannerisms, don the clothes and costumes and accents but never inhabit the character from the inside out. They don't repeat; they don't forge something new.  They confirm our cliché understandings of history, never risking an alternative reading that might shift the terms of the character, history, or ourselves.

It's always the same shitck: times were repressive; the 60s were liberating; but there were dangerous excesses. Girls had abortions! People had too much sex! Did too many drugs! And so we're are given the dichotomy of repression and excess and told both are wrong. It's the safe, bourgeois center that is the right and good place: have fun, consume lots of goods, but stay working!

So for banal reasons (my friend was feeling sick and a movie theater seemed a refuge), I found myself at a matinée of "Rocket Man," the Elton John story. The very opening of the movie is hilarious and perfect; my hopes were high. Mr. John, dressed in a fantastically hilarious, over-the-top get up, comes storming down some institutional hallway. Briefly, I thought: Great! We'll see Elton John's beautiful excess as a de facto repudiation of institutional control.

But my hopes were quickly thwarted: he's storming off stage to attend an AA meeting. Ok, I thought, maybe he'll undo the sanctimony of AA and the myths of addiction (AA is always presented as the solution to our societal ills rather than a symptom; try bad mouthing AA and you'll see what I mean. It repeats the most dangerous models of "addiction" and "cure." AA may be the best branded corporation out there. And, yes, I understand some people do well with AA; power to them.). But no, that's not what this film is up to. It's quite the contrary.

The very structure of the film is him confessing his sins to the group. As the film progresses, as he tells his tale—his achingly boring tales—he sheds his costume.  The costume and all that it entails—his exuberant excess in attire, personality, sex, and drugs—is just that, a costume. The real man, it seems, lies underneath. The real man uses excess to hide his pain, his vulnerability. The truth, we are told, is this scared, regretful man in his underwear. Oy vey.

The thing that made Elton John so incredible, in addition to his crafty melodies, was precisely his excess. Why literally shed his excess, this greatness, just to leave us with this man and his devastatingly uninteresting life? His father was not very nice. Oh no! His mother was not very nice. Oh no!

The whole thing is so strange. The reason there even is a biopic of Elton John, the very reason we're excited to make and see such a film, is that he exuded an excess rarely seen in this life. But then it argues that this excess is all a mask, a facade, and that the truth is that this man had some terribly uninteresting pain in this life—and that is what we should care about. That is the hero: not this life force that took the world by storm but this achingly banal man and his suburban woes.

The frustrating thing in this case is that the film flirts with its own love of excess. It's filled with exquisite, surreal musical numbers. With a few key moves, the film could have been this great celebration of excess as a mode of becoming in this world, this exuberance, this overflowing, this abundance. All the ingredients are there. We could see his terribly uninteresting upbringing and how excess was a line of flight, a way to be that overcame all the nonsense of life. Rather than excess being the mask, it could have been the way of becoming beyond truth and lies. 

Please note that I'm not saying that excess can't be a mask or that pain and anxiety are not an important, even essential, aspect of both being-in-the-world and narrative film. They could have shown us his excess, his drugs and sex and costumes, as a complex way of going that includes depression, pain, and anxiety. Because of course it does! It's not a dichotomy of truth and lies, of real and mask, of man in underwear and man in costume. Excess does not efface pain; it supersedes it.

And then I watched "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "First Man" on my TV thanks to HBO. Oy. They were less explicitly egregious than "Rocket Man" but they both offer the same argument: these bigger than life people who've done extraordinary things are really just scared, anxious, sad men. Rather than banality being transformed into excess, excess becomes mask that covers pain.

How in the world did we get here?

Excess is anathema to both the financial and existential economies of life today. 

Capitalism clearly disdains it—at least excess of character, excess of drugs and sex, excess of joy. That kind of excess is not productive. (Eeesh! The will to "productivity" is the will to eradicate life and its attending delights.) But the extraordinary excess of Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong is a threat to our resignation to a life of labor and banality. So we take these great men, these great events, and eviscerate them, evacuate them, reduce them to being just like us underneath—scared, sad, anxious. Sure, you walked on the moon. But you're really just like me—sad about your life.

It's all a terrible inheritance from Freud. Freud was embraced in the 60s as a proponent of sexual liberation (something Freud does not talk about). Don't repress your sex! (Which Freud does not say; repression is neither good nor bad; it's an essential function of life). Now that we're done with all that, we've elevated the suffering, sad ego as the truth of life as we're all left feeling a little bit better about our own mediocre lives.

And then I finally watched Harmony Korine's latest film, "Beach Bum," with Matthew McConaughey doing what he does. It's a startlingly simple film: this poet is high and drunk and happy all the time. Playing with our expectations, the film makes it seem like something is going to go awry as some tragedy must befall our hero. After all, excess is a sin. But nope. Nothing bad happens per se. Yes, someone close to him dies in the throes of their excess. But there is no regret or doubt, no retribution. The death is not his fault. Death is, alas, a possible outcome of living excessively—just as death is always a possible outcome. And rather than excess being an obstacle to creative genius, it is precisely the source.

In this age of pain in which suffering, however banal, is valorized as truth, "Beach Bum" is a radical celebration, a bucking of clichés that would keep us in our cages, mewling in pain unto eternity because Elton John, Freddy Mercury, and Neil Armstrong suffered just like us. Korine's film is a call to arms—the arms of excess.

How "The Great Hack" Completely Missed the Point (a podcast)



I was not surprised to be so dismayed with this film. It thinks it's being important and uncovering big issues while it is, in fact, a symptom of the very problem it seeks to investigate.

Like most "investigative journalism," it focuses on an instance and a player rather than the institution — on the message rather than the medium. And it's this that's so dangerous. They think they've accomplished something; we think we're enlightened. And all that's happened is the system has perpetuated itself all the more.

The fallacies of the film:

- Middle American morons can't be left to make decisions on their own! They succumb to whatever is in front of them! The silly louts! We have to legislate so that they can't make their own decisions.

- Targeted ads and news is propaganda — unlike, say, every newspaper ever. Oy.


What the film missed:

- Data is not a privacy issue; it's a property issue. Facebook and Google extract our data, sell it, makes billions of dollars, and we get nothing. This is the structure of a certain form of corrupt capitalism today: a centralized few extract what they want at any cost — oil, data — and keep all the profits. (Shouldn't oil profits be shared with everyone in a country? Shouldn't the profits from my data go partially to me?).

- If each individual is a resource of data, each individual has the ability to enter the global economy and make some money. This is an opportunity to create a new economic order — not socialist, not capitalist — in which revenue is shared between the creator of the platform that can extract data (Facebook, Google) and the owners of that date (me and you).

- The present centralized technology infrastructure makes this near-impossible. The decentralized technology of things like blockchain and its smart contracts make this readily, easily, possible.

- So rather than en economy of unabashed wealth extraction, we have an economy of abundance, of collective prosperity — without the State!




Pleasure is Revolutionary



The other day, I'm in the great Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street in San Francisco. As I was browsing about, I was struck by a prominently displayed title—Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Wow, I thought to myself, perhaps I'm less out of touch with the world, with the so-called zeitgeist, than I thought! Perhaps, in the decades during my avoidance of general social discourse, things have changed! After all, I've been insisting for decades that pleasure—or, better, enjoyment—resists almost every demand of the world today, of capitalism's insistence on productivity and transaction. Perhaps, I briefly and naively imagined, people are coming around to my view of things. 

And then I picked up the book, read the back, and realized things were worse than I'd possibly imagined: How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience? it read. My whole constitution, from bald head to soul, crumpled as I exclaimed a plaintive and most emphatic Oy vey ist mir!

To be fair, I didn't read anymore of the book. I just couldn't. Rather than pleasure being activism, she seemed to reverse the whole equation, infusing what we call activism with pleasure. This wreaks of modern tech capitalism in which work, once thought of as a pain, is now supposed to be pleasurable. We have ping pong! And lunch! And our app is changing the world!

Of course, I'm not averse to activism being pleasurable—at least, I don't think I am as I'm not sure what activism is. But it's not because I believe activism needs to be pleasurable but because pleasure—or,  better, enjoyment—is revolutionary in and of itself (albeit once liberated from capitalism's co-option of the pleasure principle which is why I prefer the word enjoyment—but more on that soon).

We tend to believe that pleasure is selfish, all about ourselves rather than being about the world. Or it's ornament, something nice to have but certainly not essential. In either case, pleasure isn't revolutionary. We even casually talk about "guilty pleasures." How odd is that? Why should anyone ever feel guilt for experiencing pleasure? The very idea of a guilty pleasure comes from a world in which morality is an assumed good, in which being principled—that is, beholden to codes and ideas—is paramount. And so if we take pleasure in something outside our delineated field of principles—such as some seemingly silly rather than "serious" TV show—we feel guilty. Once again: Oy!

I want to suggest, however, that nothing is more revolutionary than privileging pleasure. Few people even know how to receive pleasure, how to enjoy their pleasure. It's a skill—one that is never taught and rarely discussed. Give a friend or even your lover a massage and you'll see what I mean. They will uncomfortably squirm as the guilt of relaxing into unreciprocated pleasure is simply too much to bear. And they'll probably keep trying to rub you back or do some other service for you. To lay there and unabashedly receive—experience—pleasure is difficult for most people.

Now, the consumer world we live in is no doubt seemingly ripe with pleasures of all sort—spas, manicures, Teslas, avocado toast brunches, fancy pants cocktails, Esalen, living walls, an absurd amount of entertainment media at our fingertips. It's true: our culture does not squelch on pleasure.

And yet what we've come to think of as pleasure is really just commodities and consumption. We privilege consumption of things, not the experience of pleasure, that internal movement of glowing with the affirmative vitality of the universe. This is why I prefer the word enjoyment; it turns the focus from the commodity to the experience. The pleasure I'm advocating is a thorough enjoyment, an internal flooding of good feeling—not a full body massage but the full body glow inside, permeating your very constitution, an experience that may or may not come from the sensations of that massage.

Pleasure, then, is not the massage. Pleasure is the experience, private and thorough, that may come with that massage—or a walk in the woods, cooking a tasty meal, writing an essay, or sitting on the couch doing nothing at all.

And this experience of pleasure, what I'm calling enjoyment, is revolutionary in that it resists the demands of any fascist, external or internal. If, as a culture, we cultivated pleasure; if we taught teens how to give and receive pleasure; if we understood this pleasure as the experience of an internal saturation of good feeling—a seething, a surging—then none of this nonsense that invades our everyday could survive. What person who believes pleasure is paramount would wake up five mornings a week, fight traffic only to sit in a cubicle or, worse, some desk out on an open floor writing PowerPoint presentations and attending meetings with vague agendas all in the service of someone else's accumulation of wealth?

That weird Puritan ethic still thrives today—as much today as it ever did. The youths of this world want to work more than ever. It's troubling. And they vie for righteousness more ardently than they vie for pleasure. Pleasure remains this extra thing we feel a little guilty about, as if we don't deserve it.

I truly believe that if we changed how we think about pleasure—saw it as an experience rather than a commodity, as a private event that is slow and thorough, beyond any measure of productivity, a qualitative, affective state of becoming, as something that needs no justification because it justifies itself—all of our priorities as a culture would change. We'd be fomenting revolution as the very edifice of capitalism—relentless labor—would come crumbling down.

Yes, of course some people experience pleasure from working. I'm neither dismissing nor belittling that. On the contrary, I want to celebrate it—those people are privileging pleasure as a thorough, private experience. It just happens to coincide with the profit motive (this makes me think of James Bond whose private pleasures and the interests of the State happen to coincide at every turn). Lucky for them! Long may they work—as long as they experience pleasure doing so.

And, yes, I understand that not everything in this life is pleasurable. There are worthwhile and necessary experiences other than pleasure. Of course there are. But we can still privilege pleasure and, more importantly, not relegate it to a source of guilt or as something extraneous to what really matters.

Workers of the world, experience pleasure! Thoroughly and deeply! Don't feel guilty about it. Revel in it! Seek it! Demand it! And soon the world will change at its most fundamental level. Now that's activism!

Pleasure is a private experience, an internal movement of vitality seething and surging throughout one's very way of going.

A Tentative Outline for a Course on William S. Burroughs



For a moment in grad school—back in 1996—I considered writing my dissertation about William Burroughs. But Burroughs is so close to my heart that it seemed somehow wrong to subject him, and my love for him, to the obscenity of academic scrutiny. I was all too aware that academia denudes life of its more, uh, rambunctious affect and I was damned if I'd do that to Uncle Bill. (I did, however, sneak him into the opening of my dissertation*.) (Somewhere, Burroughs writes that he can't imagine writing without parentheses—the insinuation of other times, other voices, into this seemingly linear transcription.)

But now, some 23 years later, I am no longer an academic and imagine that perhaps there is a way to wrangle Burroughs in a befitting manner. It was in fact suggested to me by Thaddeus Russell that I perhaps teach a course for Renegade University on ol' Uncle Bill. And so I spent a little time sketching an outline for what such a course, what a series of lectures, and perhaps a book, might look like. 

1. Breaking Word Control

For Burroughs, language will never have been a medium to convey meaning, facts, and feelings. The word is a virus, a means of control, that places subjects, objects, and actions in their proper place, in their proper order—subjects separate from actions separate from objects, all in a neat little line.

And so he comes to writing from a vastly different place than all those "New Yorker," Iowa writing program types. Writing, for Burroughs, is always a confrontation and negotiation with control—and so is always a potential event of destruction and liberation. 

Most famously, Burroughs worked with his friend, the writer and artist Brion Gysin, on what they call the cut-up method. They used scissors to cut up their writing, newspapers, Shakespeare and then reassembled the pieces this way and that to see what would come. 

This served multiple functions. It introduces spontaneity into the contrived writing process, a methodological manner of incorporating chance. But it also breaks the linearity of language which mimics the linearity of what Burroughs calls the Orgasm-Death Gimmick in which life begins with heterosexual sex, revolves around heterosexual rituals, and ends in death—a process Burroughs rejects at every turn. None of these are, for Burroughs, inevitable. 

Writing, then, is a highly charged, inherently political act for Burroughs. With every word you inscribe and utter, you are negotiating an elaborate power structure. Hopefully, this has you re-framing Burroughs' careening prose, his seeming indifference to what we call grammar, his relentless juxtaposition of images, times, moods. Breaking the word virus is an essential act for those who seek a certain freedom.


2. The Affective Cosmos (with a word on his presumed paranoia)

Throughout his writing, Burroughs gives us a distinctive, strange, often grotesque world view. It's not that he sees people in a certain light which he then satirizes and critiques: it's that he sees and operates in a universe with its own internal logic and rules, its own modes of behavior. This is a kind of science fiction.

Burroughs' world is infinitely dense. Pick a line from any book and it's inevitably overflowing with qualifications, adjectives and adverbs oozing every which way. Nothing is neutral; everything is inflected.  

"The final convulsions of a universe based on quantitative factors, like money, junk, and time, would seem to be at hand. The time approaches when no amount of money will buy anything and time itself will run out."

This relentless proffering of qualities is, in and of itself, a form of resistance. The virus of Western man is, as is the way of a virus, virulently quantitative: more more more to infinity. And as Burroughs repeatedly points out, any system premised on quantity is essentially dissatisfied as there is always more to be had — more money, more food, more jails, more laws, more, more more.... Such is the Algebra of Need: it's always in search of X to feed its monkey. 

And so Burroughs counters this will to quantity with a world saturated with affect, with inflection, with states of being that cannot be reduced to integers but that insist on this or that way of going.

Bodies colliding, dehiscing, distending, bloating, farting, coming, bleeding, leaking, dying, birthing: this is the cosmic plenum in which Burroughs operates. This world is a frenzy of viscous bodies going with each other in every conceivable manner and hence often excruciatingly violent. Such is the way of things here. It's not as much a matter of ceaseless war as it is a crowded place of incessant collision.

And so Burroughs is often portrayed as proffering paranoia which, alas, is not quite accurate. The world is fundamentally, though not exclusively, a place of conflict: it behooves one to mind one's surroundings and be ready for whatever comes (hence, he always carried a gun; as he said, "Sometimes paranoia's just having all the facts").



3. The Ethics of the Johnson, Cats, and the Argument for Cute

In a universe of relentless conflict, collision, and collusion, how is one to operate? 

For all his flagrant, even proud, disregard for the mores of society, Burroughs was always impeccably dressed—and, usually, thoroughly polite. In fact, politeness is an essential component of his ethics. 

Being polite is a way to navigate the social teem with minimal energy expenditure. To run head first into the restrictions of a world is to exhaust oneself—and to what end? Ah, but being polite allows a dense social universe to operate without the nosy shenanigans of the moral. 

Politeness respects the space between us and the individuality of all participants—we bump into each other but rather than fight or interrogate further, you simply offer an "excuse me" and continue about your business. It's not about respect for the other person per se; politeness is premised on indifference to who the other person is. It's about respect for individuality—and is an effective mechanism for operating as an individual within a dense space.

And this is the Burroughs ethic, what he refers to the Johnson code: mind your own fucking business—but don't be a dick about it. If someone's drowning and you're in a position to help, help. “A Johnson honours his obligations. His word is good and he is a good man to do business with. A Johnson minds his own business. He is not a snoopy self-righteous trouble-making person. A Johnson will give help when needed." 

For Burroughs, as for Nietzsche before him, the moralists are the worst: they come on to you in the name of caring about your well-being, invading your world, telling you what to do, passing judgement on your way of life as if they know better (American politics, both liberal and conservative, suffer from this egregious ill). This moral mode is, for Burroughs as for Nietzsche, a social sickness that leads to all kinds of ugliness that we see in the form of the war on drugs, on prostitution, on nosy motherfuckers trying to legislate your pleasure out of existence. Morality, for Burroughs, works with language as a mode of control.

But amid the relentless collisions of life, there are moments of respite, things that want nothing from you, that are generous. For Burroughs, such is what he calls cuteness—in cats, mostly, but in lemurs and raccoons, too. “Like most qualities, cuteness is delineated by what it isn't. Most people aren't cute at all, or if so they quickly outgrow their cuteness ... Elegance, grace, delicacy, beauty, and a lack of self-consciousness: a creature who knows he is cute soon isn't."

Dogs, he claims, know right from wrong: they're moral. Cats, however, are not defined by their function or loyalty but by their presence, their quality: "The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself. Of course he wants care and shelter. You don't buy love for nothing."


4. Possession and the Ahuman

Human beings are not, for Burroughs, sanctified beings amid the general flux. Human being, ego, identity: these are illusions, transient states, not without their pleasures but fundamentally sickly forces, expressions of what he calls the Ugly Spirit.

For all his belief in the individual as a civic entity, Burroughs does not believe in individuality per se. We are all agents of something, of forces that exceed us, that possess us. Possession is in fact a dominant concern of his—to wit, his persistent writing on his heroin addiction. While many glorify Burroughs' heroin use, he saw it as a sickness, his Algebra of Need, as he lived beholden to this other thing and its needs, its demands. For Burroughs, heroin is another mode of control—not as ugly as, say, Christianity but nonetheless debilitating.

We are always inhabited by a bevy of forces expressing their wills through us. Our agency is by no means absolute in any ontological or cosmological sense. On the contrary, we are agents of other forces.

"Our beloved ego, arising from the rotten weeds of lust and fear and anger, has no more continuity that a fever sweat.There is no ego; only a shifting process as unreal as the Cities of the Odor Eaters that dissolve in rain. A moment's introspection demonstrates that we are not the same as we were a year ago or a week ago."

The writer, for Burroughs, is not the center of the world weaving universes from the depths of his genius. Writers are transcribers of words and forces that abound, that exceed us, nudge us, coerce us. The life of the individual is not a life of self-determination but a life of alternately parrying, welcoming, and negotiating far vaster, more powerful forces—alien, cosmic, affective, viral, vegetal. 

The human, then, is not high on the hierarchy of forces operating in this world. We are all always already ahuman—reptilian, canine, feline, alien, insect. With pre-echoes of Deleuze and Guattari, Burroughs proffers a world of human becoming-other—becoming-cat, becoming-centipede, becoming-stone.

5. Immortality

In a world of forces and flux in which the human is but a transient figure, what is life and what, finally, is death? 

Burroughs was obsessed with immortality. Besides his essay of that name, all his writing towards the end of his life was about the subject. His greatest book, Western Lands, is a meditation and exploration on how to achieve immortality—and a scathing dismissal of Egyptian mummification as too bureaucratic and focused on the body. In "Immortality," the old rich suck the blood of the young in a desperate, alltoohuman attempt to cling to life.  

But, again, they are foiled. For life persists not in the human, not in the body, not even in persistence of this but in mutation. "Immortality is prolonged future, and the future of any artifact lies in the direction of increased flexibility capacity for change and ultimately mutation." 

Writing, alas, is the way to immortality. There you live on as force open to unthinkable and endless mutation, always already post-human, thoroughly cut up, and oozing with affect.







•••
This is the opening of my dissertation, Read This Text, from 1997.

*At one juncture in My Education: A Book of Dreams, William Burroughs asks, perhaps of himself, "Am I an alien?" (Burroughs 7).  No doubt, there are many with a ready answer, their heads nodding an immediate and unadulterated affirmation.  But Burroughs, as if anticipating such a response, continues his inquiry as he turns the interrogative light from himself to the reader: "Alien from what exactly?" (7).  That is to say, "alien" is a relative term, to be determined by something which is not Burroughs.  From what perspective, in what language, do you read this? 
           
 Burroughs tells us that Ted Morgan's biography, Literary Outlaw, makes an initial error of perspective vis-à-vis Burroughs and his work: "Ted Morgan's biography starts with a basic misconception: Literary Outlaw.  To be an outlaw you must first have a base in the law to reject and get out of.  I never had such a base.  I never had a place I could call home..." (7).  Morgan, it seems, reads Burroughs improperly, from the wrong place, in the wrong manner, according to the laws, as it were, of the outlaw.

Now, to be fair to Ted Morgan, I think it is possible to read his title differently:  Literary (always already) Out(side of the)Law.  From such a perspective, Burroughs does not operate from within an established order: he does not subvert the novel nor does he transgress this or that code, whether it be of language, literature, or morality.  His writing, as he claims, is not reactive, derivative, or deviational.  Indeed, Burroughs tells us that while "Genet is concerned with betrayal [,] I have nothing and nobody to betray, moi..." (8).  That is, Burroughs' work stems from itself, as itself, a particularity, an haecceity: moi.

This is in fact the very premise of Burroughs' book: dreams are not recognizable as instances of pre-established laws--of Oedipus, of desire, of waking in general.  Dreams do not refer to anything beyond themselves: "The conventional dream, approved by the psychoanalyst, clearly, or by obvious association, refers to the dreamer's waking life, the people and places he knows, his desires, wishes, and obsessions" (2).  The psychoanalyst's dream is a dream of recognition, of confirmation; it renders the unfamiliar familiar--and hence banal: "Such dreams radiate special disinterest.  They are as boring and commonplace as the average dreamer" (ibid). 

 The difference, the novelty, of Burroughs' dreams does not function to disrupt waking life--dreams are not illogical, or unreasonable, as if logic and reason were fixed laws.  What emerges from Burroughs' dreams, and from his work, is a different logic, a different reason, a different order.  Indeed, throughout My Education, patterns, shapes, a logic emerge.  For instance, there are flying dreams, themselves divided among three types: a dreamy falling/flying in which Burroughs soars off from a high place knowing he is dreaming, knowing he won't fall; a volitional flying in which Burroughs flaps his arms and soars away; "in a third type I am jet-propelled at great speed across the sky" (2).  There are also "packing dreams [which] can also be called time dreams....Too little time and too much to pack" (9).  But neither flying dreams nor packing dreams gain their value, their meaning, from waking life.  Rather, like Burroughs' work and like texts in general, these dreams distribute life in a novel manner.  And for Burroughs not only are dreams not reducible to waking life, they are the very source of his education--not because they reveal archaic truths (this is not Platonism), but because they are new configurations, because they reveal new orders.  To invoke Deleuze and Guattari invoking Leibniz, Burroughs' dreams, like his work and like all great texts, are educational because they are "possible worlds" (Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy? 17). 

There is, then, a certain propriety at work here: Burroughs is somewhere, doing something.  But he is not somewhere which we can recognize, doing something we can reduce to a familiar law.  What we are dealing with is a different propriety, or rather, a propriety of difference.   Burroughs does occupy a space--an odd space--but a space: "Perhaps," Burroughs tells us of "this position or lack of position," "my home is the dream city, more real than my so-called waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life" (7).  There is an order here, or better, an ordering which is peculiar to Burroughs-- not everything is Burroughsian.  Which is to say, there is a properly Burroughs behavior and hence a mode of engagement which is proper to Burroughs--not any will do. Ted Morgan, we know, improperly reads Burroughs in terms of the "outlaw."

What we are dealing with is the propriety of insistence. Burroughs' writings, like his dreams, insist:  they are neither derivations nor deviations; they are not reducible, even negatively, to a preceding law.  They are their own life form, self-generating, self-maintaining; they forge their own laws as they present themselves and whisper, mutter, cry: this.   This "this" does entertain sense, propriety; it may be unrecognizable but that does not mean it is destined to remain outside, beyond, mute.  As Benveniste tells us, "Language is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I" (Benveniste 226, original emphasis).  With the invocation of the indexical--I, here, now, there--the user of language insists on his own language, a language proper to him.  And it is this new language, with its own laws, logic, permutations, nuances, that serves as our education.

Living in the Affective World, or How Empathy Functions

Say I'm at a dinner party. And I see this guy across the table talking to some other guy and this other guy is holding loudly forth about his latest app and, man, does my guy look forlorn. I know just how he feels.

But if we assume an atomized view of life, that we are all discrete actors on the stage of the world, then empathy becomes a tricky thing. After all, if I'm over here all wrapped up in my history, experiences, constitution, and feelings while you're over there with your history, experiences, constitution, and feelings, how in the world are we suppose to feel each other's feelings? We'd have to dismiss empathy as so much malarkey. Or else construct a convoluted apparatus that involves imagination and projection and, most likely, some breed of neurons in a remote region of the brain.

As a culture, we love the brain. It's where we imagine everything happens. So some funded folks in white coats hook sensors up to our skulls and make us look at disturbing images while a computer captures the movements of color on a screen. At which point, all of this enables a journalist to say things like, "That told the scientists where the empathic error was playing out, but it didn’t tell them how it was working: Did activity in the rSMG cause the egocentric bias, or was it trying to suppress it? In other words, if the rSMG stayed quiet, would our empathic skills be better or even worse?" (from some article in Time entitled, "How Empathy Works," with a sub-head/lead line that reads: "Feeling what someone else feels isn't easy, but the brain is wired for it."Oy!).

In a world that assumes the atomization of identity, the brain has to do all kinds of peculiar, magical things to grasp the world. After all, what else could explain the wonder of me feeling what you feel? What else could overcome this chasm?? Well, the brain! It's at once magical and, somehow, nothing but a series of quantifiable mechanisms. Poor brain! It has to do such strange, elaborate things to answer questions that it should never have had to answer.

The philosopher, Henri Bergson, calls these false questions. And they account for so much of how philosophy, science, and cultural discourse goes off the rails trying to make sense of this life. After all, if you ask a question that everyone tries to answer with money and mechanisms but the question is fallacy-filled from the get go, things get odd. It seems to me that before answering any question, it behooves us to question the question and then, perhaps, ask a different one.

So let's ask a different question and begin from another place all together — and perhaps we'll have different answers. What if rather than assuming that I am here and you are there and between us yawns an inevitable chasm, we assume that we are all at once constituent and constitutive of the same stuff — namely, the world. That rather than there being a gap between us, space is infinitely dense, infinitely rich, with itself. So between me and you is not nothing but, on the contrary, there's all kinds of stuff — gasses, ideas, affects, desires, what the French philosopher calls "the flesh."



In this view, we are not atoms who function as discrete entities on the stage of the world. In fact, we are not even fundamentally different from the world. On the contrary, we are aspects of the world just as rocks, gasses, words, ideas, and space dust are. The world, in this case, is not a stage we act upon; it is the milieu in which we act.  We don't act on the world or in the world but with the world. Or, better yet, as the world — or at least this piece of it, this perspective, this vantage, this trajectory.

We will never have been discrete atoms. To be in this world is always already to participate with other things in this world — we come out of someone else, we breathe air, eat food, walk on ground, participate in language. Identity is porous and fundamentally, ontologically, networked.  I will never have been a me per se. That which is me is, in fact, a series of mechanisms — a metabolism — that is always already taking up other things in order to constitute myself.

Let's begin, then, like this: I am a series of mechanisms taking in, taking up, other things and mechanisms. And, with this world view, let's once again ask the question of empathy: How am I to feel what you feel?

Well, let's say that empathy is not a one-to-one experience of your feelings. That just seems silly. It doesn't demand an equation of your feelings and mine, a one-to-one mapping. That may be what quantitative scientists demand. But not us: we have different answers because we have different questions born of a different world.

So I'm over here, you're over there, and I feel I know what you're feeling. How is that possible? Well, it doesn't seem so farfetched now. We are both participating in the same fabric of experience. So just as a ripple on this side of the blanket throws my cat from the bed — a cat who's way over there! — I can get what's happening to you. The gap between us is not a gap at all; it's continuous.

And yet my feelings are not your feelings. The demand for that equivalence stems from a flawed understanding of how we go in this world. We are not, alas, atomized. We are all constitutive and constituents of the same plenum of a world. So of course I feel things you're feeling! Not only is empathy no longer an epistemological dilemma; it's an ontological inevitability.

Due to the prevailing atomized view of the world — a world view that reduces people to integers — I'm 1; you're 1; she's 1 — so that we can readily run algebraic equations — we neglect to teach or even discuss the affective flows that permeate our lives. We are never taught how to lean into situations to suss out the affective resonance of this or that — a book, room, film, job. No, we teach that everything should be reducible to an integer that can be plugged into an equation.

And yet we all live in affective fields. We even have a vocabulary, albeit limited, to make sense of such things. I hate that bar! It feels so, well, creepy! Or: That house is just plain weird! I always get anxious there! Which is to say, we're not foreigners to the world of affect. We just lack the discourse, the concepts, the honed faculties to process and discuss such affect.

We live in a world saturated with affect. In fact, there is no such thing as an unaffective space. Everything — rocks, trees, tchotchkes, words, smiles — is affective. And, if we abandon the atomized view of the world and assume a plenum, a place in which the world is full of itself, then of course I feel with you — not as you but with you. How could it be otherwise?

I want to suggest that if we assume we operate in an affective plenum, then we will teach differently, think differently, ask different questions. If rather than solely ask what a book or film means, we teach students how to lean into the affect of a text, then empathy is a necessary byproduct of life. It is to feel with the world in which we are all continuous.

On The Unregistered Podcast with Thaddeus Russell

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