Writing is Beautifully Weird

Writing evacuates the real, introducing a play of identity. The myth of the authentic voice stymies creativity. Forget expressing yourself. Become other and write away.

Habit blinds us. The things we do of course — in the literal sense — are the things we don't notice. Sure, we may appreciate them. But we don't reckon them. For once we do, things get disorienting. To wit, if you think too much about sleep, sleep becomes truly strange — and then it becomes difficult to sleep.

This is what's happening right now with my writing. I have reckoned my own practice of writing now and again. In fact, I started this blog over 10 years ago as a way to experiment with tone, style, form, content. And I wrote a novel as a way to eject me from the precious pedantry of academese. But, through all that, I haven't really reckoned writing per se. The act remained the act, even if my style and practice changed.

But the fact is writing is odd. There's the awe-inspiring magic of it all: I inscribe these marks and thereby conjure mood and meaning, humor and belief, desire. This fact alone is enough to humble me, to make me tremble before I inscribe every word lest I summon some ill-begotten beast.

Which happens anyway, inevitably, as words refuse domestication. Every word, to a greater or lesser degree, bucks and sprawls. Words don't want to do what they're told; they're always headed somewhere else. Such is their way; words are always multiple.

I just spent several minutes moving between a semi-colon, colon, and period to separate the two clauses of the previous sentence. Each choice makes a slightly different argument about the relationship between the two clauses, the two claims. And each inaugurates a different rhythm and tone. Why one and not another?

And every inscription is itself a reading. And, as we all know so well, that's something the writer cannot control. My humor is a reader's offense. To write is to make a mess, always. This is enough to stop a writer in her tracks. (Why do I use "her"? You tell me.)

And then there is the staggering complexity of communicating in absentia. How do I convey the nuance of my thought — all the irony, doubt, humor, passion— in these common words available to any and all sans inflection? How do I inject all this into the written word that is so stubborn and dry? (To the teachers out there, this is where rhythm and word choice come into play.)

What ethos do I assume? I, for one, am often perturbed by the casual wisdom of the day, the way bloggers and Facebook posters assume a royal we and proffer their knowing takes on life, love, politics, and tidying up. I'm sure that despite my best efforts, I am no different. Just look at the opening sentence of this essay: who is that us? I wrestled that pronoun for too long before settling on it so I could simply keep writing.

To write is always to play dress up. This is true in speaking, too. We choose our clothes, our hair style, our whole shtick so as to play this or that person in the world. So it goes with writing. Only, because I am not present, I have so much more freedom to choose whatever character I want. I usually cop some vague sense of a fancy boy ripe with outdated turns of phrase. Why? Because I can. And it's fun. There is no way my words will ever be me. A writer may find her voice but that voice is not that of the writer. No, that voice is another, one that works for that writer. Writing will never have been a practice of perfect self-expression as there is no perfect, no self, and writing is essentially detached from the writer. There are so many possible voices a writer can assume, adopt, deploy. As the great performer, Fauxnique, might say: it's all drag. Writing is necessarily a put on. To write is to drape, to become, to take on, to steal, to borrow, to cop, to infuse, to inflect, to inhabit.

Who am I when I write? Who is this I that is not there? This I that means all kinds of things despite its best intentions? We leak our symptoms; we are our symptoms. We communicate ourselves despite ourselves, in spite of ourselves. From the Freudian slip to the mechanics of ideological false consciousness (in which we articulate beliefs that we think are our own but are the workings of power) what we say and what we mean will never cohere at the site of our intention. And, when we write, it's out there for all to see, a hoisting of our hidden selves — and we're not there to defend it. (Which is why Socrates calls writing a bastard.)

Writing is enmeshed in cultural expectations. I like to curse; a good fuck adds texture, passion, tone. But there are many readers who read said fuck and recoil. They don't hear my casual humor, my injection of the profane into heady matters, or my ethos as cool thinker (or so I like to imagine). They hear fuck and can't continue. I receive queries all the time asking me why I curse. I'm not sure why it's something I have to defend while a lack of profanity is never questioned. Never trust those who don't curse.

Writing is not just a matter of conveyance. It is an event, something I do with my body and thoughts, an event of cultural manipulation. It is at once personally sensuous and culturally resonant.

I really love the sensation of sitting down to right. It's a ritual of reckoning. We often think of writing as an expressive act — which of course it is. But it's not just outward facing. It demands a certain openness to the world. To write is to have the world flow through you, to have images, thoughts, affects, beliefs, places enter you before being secreted as words. The writer will never have been the master of much. No, to write is closer to surfing (I say never having surfed. Who cares? Can I not invoke surfing just because I haven't surfed? Who am I? What matters who's speaking?). To write is to lean into the waves of the world, poised, and then to move with those waves, to cut across them or nestle into their crest (I'm guessing surfers don't talk of nestling but I hope they do). To sit down to write is to situate oneself just so to let the world enter then inflect before shitting it out.

Writing is in fact much like shitting, the end product of a metabolism and production at once me and not-me. Many young writers have trouble actually sitting down to write and then distributing their prose much as a toddler resists sitting on the toilet only to have this once-piece of her flushed into oblivion. It's terrifying. Whooosh! Writing, like shitting, undoes the visual limits of ourselves. Which makes the flush terrifying. To publish is to flush.

I haven't touched on structure at all — on connecting words and ideas to each other. For now, I just want to introduce a sense of alienation about the very act of inscribing words on the page. I want writing to become alien so I, so we, can (re)discover it. (Parentheses are a great way to make words speak their multiplicity.) This, to me, is the first step in any writing pedagogy.


Writing, Chaos, Remembering, Forgetting

A writer's will is the winds of dead calm in the Western Lands. Point way out he can start stirring of the sail. Writer, where are you going? To write. Here we are in texts already written on the sky. Where he doesn't need to write anymore. A slight seismic with the cat book. Always remember, the work is the mainsail to reach the Western Lands. The texts sing. Everything is grass and bushes, a desert or a maze of texts. Here you are ... never use the same door twice. Sky in all directions ... on the word for word. The word for word is word. The western sail stirs candles on 1920 country club table. Each page is a door to everything is permitted. The fragile lifeboat between this and that. Your words are the sails. - 
WS Burroughs

I just sat down to write about how my thinking these days has been less, well, ardent. Pointed. Didactic. I think things only to have said things open up their own radical doubt, their own dispersion and eventual effacement — thoughts in quicksand, as Emerson might say. It's as if the great tumult of it all erases the discretion of my thoughts and I find myself in the Big Soup, the sublime, where thoughts' borders are short lived and explosively multiple or folded in such impossibly complex configurations that I lack the stamina to keep up: origami to infinity, that place where chaos and the complexity of order blur. My thinking of late doesn't want to come to a point; my writing doesn't want to hammer or drill. 

For that is how I often took to the keyboard: to drive my point home (where- or whatever that home is. What does a writer hope when he assumes such drive? What does he want to do to and with the reader?). I have something to say. Listen to this! That mode of thinking and writing demands a certain kind certainty, even if said certainty is of uncertainty. (In fact, people who claim to know nothing tend to be so sure they don't know things, becoming a negative expert; I'm looking at you, Socrates; and, well, myself). (Phrases and structure often announce our age; the way I use a certain x signals that I came of intellectual age in the 90s, my prose ripe with telling traces of Derrida. (Trace, too, is a word — a figure — we of a certain age inherit from Derrida. Trace is a beautiful, fecund figure, surprisingly visceral — despite its meaning. Traces and ghosts: Derrida's greatest contribution, I believe, and where Derrida is closest to Deleuze and Guattari.)) (How many parentheses can we put in a row? Or embed like Russian dolls? Which becomes an aside to what? Burroughs says he can't imagine writing without parentheses. The fact is there are always parentheses, even when there aren't; writing is asides all the way down, even if silent, even if invisible)(Punctuation enacts a certain synesthesia, sight inflecting sound. Punctuation, of course, does more than that: it articulates a rhythm that moves the text's ideas along with the bodies of readers, an invisible conductor, a way for ghosts to shape experience — a trace of the writer perhaps.)) When I write these days, I hear all the echoes, see and sense a wild wealth of traces — historical, social, rhetorical, conceptual. This has me temper my certainty, shift directions in my writing: writing which was once moving towards a point, a mathematical equation all adding up to something suddenly sees its own lack of ground as well as how it's cross-crossed with so many other trajectories, how it forks and splays and fractures and frays all opening up other ways thinking, and writing, could go — and then I am Wile E. Coyote amid his resounding existential reckoning, realizing there's no ground beneath my feet.

I love when sentences get so long. How do you remember where you are — grammatically, conceptually, and rhetorically? Writing long sentences is what I imagine driving NASCAR is like: it demands such concerted continuous attention, trying to steer this barrelling sense-machine which has its own mad momentum you're at once creating and responding to. It's so easy to get distracted, scratch an itch, forget where you were, and have the whole thing crash and collapse into gibberish by the side of the road.

I usually sit down to write because I like the sensation of writing, not necessarily because I have something to say. I like the feeling of opening up. Writing is always an opening up or an opening onto, a reaching towards. I see the writer more and more as Burroughs imagined her: a medium, a cog. I am not the source of this just as a river is not the source of its water. I lean back into what's there as much as forward into the screen, my body and mind a conduit. Or: the writer is an athlete, a shortstop, poised for a ball that could bounce any which way, at this or that speed with these or those hops and is ready to snatch it to make the next move to complete the play. A great turn of phrase is a well turned out.

The proliferation of figures — rivers, bridges, shortstops — reveals the morphology of an idea and the fundamental plasticity of prose. Words are not a sure and firm passage from here to there. The transmission of writing will never have been a straight line (this strange temporal construction — "will never have been" — is another beautiful figure I inherit from Derrida. But is inheritance the right figure? Is it Derrida's trace? His ghost? Is it my possession of Derrida? Or my possession by Derrida? You suddenly see the ideology of grammar, the way language leads us into conceptual constructions. As Nietzsche says, when we say lighting strikes we double the action, positing a doer behind the deed. Such is what our language demands, a subject and a verb. When there is perhaps only a verb: lightning).

What happens when the writer doesn't try to keep ideas in their lanes? After all, writing is not a NASCAR race. What happens when the writer writes and, in so doing, summons all possible paths — and follows them? At some point, it seems to me, all thinking runs into or against this schizo condition. Usually, it plows ahead, blinders on the horse so she stays on the track. But, from time to time, the writing gives in and goes every which way — Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, Clarice Lispector's Agua Viva, Burroughs' cut-ups. All writing negotiates its own dissipation.

Thinking and writing are acts of what Deleuze and Guattari call deterritorialization and reterritorialization — they colonize some areas, leave others, all while forging their own space. When we write, as when we live, we're always carving out a space, removing something that was there, add phrases and ideas from somewhere else, digging paths between disparate territories, moving through this or that thinker, concept, book — and then planting a flag: This! All writing is an assembling of various and diverse figures and forces into a localized territory. All writing says yes to some things, no to others. Writing is metabolic, an algorithm of not just inclusion and exclusion but of combination — an algorithm of laughter and forgetting alongside a chemistry of thought, body, and affect.

Of course, the way of standing towards this, towards this flag planting, differs. Some want to forge a large continent of rock, construct an immovable edifice; others, a forest; a botanical garden; a labyrinth; or maybe just some grass across fields and into pavement's cracks. So many ways of standing towards the word! Towards the world! So many different postures of the writer! For me, it's interesting, if at times disconcerting, to feel the adamance of my linguistic stance falter before the sublimity of it all. I've seen people, usually on LSD, become rendered mute before the world's sudden sublime illumination. It all becomes too much. Writing, like life, demands forgetting in order to write anything. (I am haunted by Borges' Funes the Memorious who remembers everything:""[H]e seems to me as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, older than the prophecies and the pyramids....Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.")

Writing, like living, demands an ever-shifting algorithm of forgetting and remembering, a play of Yes and No. The adamant Yes of didactic writing leans into the No-saying of life, actively forgetting the play of forces that would unmoor it. The less my writing affirms, the more my writing says Yes to the forces of the chaosmos, of life, body, desire, history, yes to the forces of ghosts and traces of ideas, yes to the meandering of wills and the play of meanings: yes to the great drifts of becoming.


The Peculiar & Conspicuous Lack of Writing Pedagogy

This book is an easy, fun, and engaging way to introduce high school students to some of the ways of language. Add this to the state syllabus and I can't help but feel that the world would be a better place. Or at least more interesting.

It suddenly occurs to me that, as a country and culture, we spend shockingly little time teaching — or learning — about language. We teach 14 year olds how to do algebra; we make them memorize Newton's First Law; we sometimes give them a basketball to play with. But we don't teach them about the performative nature of language, the role of rhythm in communication, the manifold ways a piece of writing can be structured. Nor do we teach them how to reckon such things, how to be critical readers of their environment or themselves. These kids might learn some arbitrary grammatical rules and some ludicrous technique for doing a "report." But they are never exposed in any concerted way to the joy, complexity, and mechanics of language — which they use all day every day! But they'll know how to "do" negative exponents (without understanding why)? Really?

My son, a freshman in public high school in San Francisco — a rich and "enlightened" city, we think — does not have one class called, "How the Fuck to Write." He has an "English" class in which they discuss race and citizenship — good topics, no doubt. But this English class never discusses the ways of language and how students can relate it to it in this thing what we call writing — which said students have to do all the time (in texts and emails, if nowhere else).

We seem to consider critical thinking  when we talk about race. But how can we talk critically and richly about anything, not to mention race, when we don't teach any way to make sense of communication — of the books, tweets, movies, news programs, art we're teaching in the first place? My son's class read a book called The Hate U Give and then discussed how the heroine became a good citizen. But the class never discussed anything about the book itself — its structure, the play of perspectives, its rhythms. And this was the closest he came to being taught how to work with words. Certainly, his algebra and physics classes never discussed language. So I don't want to blame the English class. It's a failing of the entire state mandated syllabus. It's a conspicuous, glaring, painful failing of our entire pedagogy which is itself a failure of our presumed civilization. None of his classes offer any critical framework, any tool or concepts or tactics to make different kinds of sense. And none of them, certainly not his English class, offer any pedagogy of language, of writing or interpretation.

How is this madness possible? There is surely some screwy ideology at work. If you want a docile crowd that perpetuates the prevailing machine, don't teach its constituents to be critical. Don't teach them how to think across disciplines, to understand that the medium is the message, to disrupt the means of communication and information dissemination, to undo or scramble the very structures of sense-making. Make them parse grammar and take all information at its word. Get them to debate on the terms of content, not the mechanics of structure. Then the structures — of experience and social relations — will remain untouched, free to continue their insidious forms of enslavement. 

But we can't just blame ideology or "the System" as that gets us nowhere. The fact is any pedagogic system perpetuates itself as it teaches its way of doing things as the right way of doing things. This insight — that a system teaches its own ways — comes from my understanding of what I'm calling the performative. That is, our school system doesn't come out and say: "This is our structure; repeat it." Rather, it never puts its own way of going to analysis, to critique. It's simply the way things are done: Read this book. Write your "report" in this way. And so that's what students believe is the way things are done. So the next generation of teachers teach the same way. Hurt people hurt people.

For sixth through eight grades, my son attended a private school — an experimental, makers' school of a sort. No academic subjects per se: these kids would learn through doing, through projects they'd concoct on their own and enact throughout the year. But even here, even this school that fancies itself hands-on and experimental, there is a conspicuous lack of writing pedagogy. Yes, they participate in NanoWriMo and so, for most of them, they write concertedly for a month. But there is little to zero discussion of how language works; different kinds of structure; the role of style, tone and rhythm; the way performativity inflects all writing. They don't even read different kinds of texts to explore different modes of writing. How hard is it to have them read some Walt Whitman, Marshall McLuhan, Clarice Lispector, Junot Diaz, or any number of writers who play with language in interesting ways? Like public schools, they read books for the content, never for the structure. At this school of all schools, there are still no tools of critique, of conceptual play, or critical writing. They believe tinkering and making must involve drills and objects, not words and ideas. It's as maddening as it is baffling.

(After the school shooting in Florida, this school decided to join the ranks of schools nationwide and walkout at the same time. My kid asked: Why? They had no answer. So he didn't walk out; he stayed behind and goofed with his friends. I couldn't have been prouder! Not because I didn't support the walkout. But because he questions everything and his school had no answer; it just toed the party line. Which both he and I found so very disappointing.)

I now understand why people can't write. They can't even really write emails or texts with any grace or nuance. And they surely can't write college papers or business presentations. We are a nation of functioning illiterates. Those who think themselves literate call themselves, with peculiar pride, "grammar nazis." Eeesh! And oy! Grammar is not a set of arbitrary rules — don't end sentences in prepositions; don't begin sentences with and or but; don't use fragments. All of that is nonsense. Grammar is not about following rules! Grammar is anything you can get away with! I think of Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Those who defend writing defend the death of writing by adhering to 19th century grammar and its enforced rules rather than expressive, poetic play. This drives me ape shit.

But I'm starting to think that if there was a syllabus for teaching critical writing (as distinct from, say, fiction) to high school students, perhaps the mere availability of material and the introduction of tools and concepts could shift the way this is all done. A matter of praxis, not theory. Keep it simple. Hand teachers a curriculum.

No doubt, our entire approach to education needs to change. We still have 7 year olds, 12 year olds, 16 year olds sitting in chairs memorizing formulas and facts. It's so 19th century industrial age, training us for the assembly line. And, of course, it's aggressively repressive of youth's will to play, to scramble categories, to be poetic. What gets me is that the so-called alternative schools that talk of play don't understand youth and how to work with it beautiful unwieldiness.

But, in the meantime, it seems we can teach basic literacy to our state-enslaved students without overhauling the entire system (which would entail overhauling more than our curricula). And that means teaching them not just to decipher letters and symbols but to grapple and frolic with language, with communication, to try to read and write in a way that is expressive, engaged, playful. 


What's the Point of Writing?

I sit down to write less and less these days. It's not for lack of things to say; nor is it for lack of discipline. I have plenty of time and plenty of thoughts — although I'm not sure said thoughts want to come to points only to be poked, prodded, extended, forced into metaphors and examples and the same old turns of phrase, all those thises and thats and that is to says of which I am so fond.

Writing often limits the play of an idea or observation. Of course, such constraint is not inherent to writing; it's just how writing is taught. Writing can explode a thought or observation, fold it into surprising  configurations, give ideas or observations tendrils, make them sprawl, multiply, peter out. It can make ideas less coherent, messier, more visceral, and more beautiful for it. If only that's how writing were taught! Or, perhaps, if only that were one way of writing that was taught. I'm dumbfounded by the absurdities that my son, as a freshman in a San Francisco public school, is taught. Watching him has me considering the things I've been taught in classrooms, the things I've taught in classrooms, and the what, where, and how people are taught about language and writing as they go about their lives. I suddenly see that there is shockingly little concerted attention paid to the pedagogy of language. That's probably best kept for another post where I can wax on, delve, come to points and such about these matters, where I can make a concerted argument. (Writing is always a matter of propriety, one way or another). Where I can make a point! Try to change things! Is that why we write? Why I write? Who am I going to change? Why would I want to do such a thing? Who am I to change anyone? Come to think of it, all of my pedagogy has been focused on creating people I might enjoy talking to. Because I don't enjoy talking to most people. It's not their fault; it's nothing they're doing wrong. It's me, not you. Truly. I just prefer people with my sense of humor, my ironic tendencies, my intellectual perversions. In the meantime, it suddenly seems so downright bizarre to me that there is much more attention paid to algebraic equations than there is to the mechanics and mysteries of writing. I mean, why the fuck are they teaching my kid how to decipher equations and not discussing the rhythm of punctuation;  the pyrotechnics of prose; the way words operate affectively, sensually, and conceptually at once and always in a different calculus; how a word can inflect an idea and vice-versa; how a piece of writing tours an invisible space, a choreography of thought and feeling, a play of seduction, of expectations and revelations; how language entails a certain violence as it coerces thoughts, eyes, mouths, culture (as you read, your eyes and mind are in the hands of the text); the role of tone and character as the very act of writing effaces you (your writing is not you; its relationship to you is nebulous at best; this means you, as writer, can assume any character, use any turns of phrase, borrow the lingoes and jargon of any class, race, time period, gender (I, for one, enjoy slipping between erudite fruitcake, made up olden day formality, and out of date slang all tempered with a taste for alliteration — but only in writing, not speaking (did I lose track of my parentheses?))); how odd it is that writing can both describe and perform the same action, in this case, the words I'm writing right now are the very act of me thinking how inane it is that we're never really taught writing and is a description of me doing that very thing (writing doesn't always or only come later, after the event, as a report; the act of writing is an event, too). 

Anyway, sometimes my thoughts do reach for the structure prose proffers. I use the word proffer more than most. Funny how we become attracted to a word, a phrase, a gesture; and then, after a bit, it's gone. You can see why Burroughs calls language a virus: you catch it, it takes you over, then runs its course and dies out. Or kills you. Or mutates. Or finds a kind of symbiosis with its host (you). So, yes, sometimes I lie on my couch and think and my thoughts may come together here and there to form something that could become an essay or article.

But these days, more often than not, an idea comes, sits for a bit, maybe even longer, but neither the idea nor I feel any need, compulsion, or desire to follow, structure, or compose. Its duration is enough. It's plenty. Flashes, smiles, notions, images, flickers of thought, all an avant-garde movie or a diary or the place at which a diary becomes a surreal montage as identity kaliedoscopes and drifts into these threads and fractures of thought.

Paragraphs frame an idea and pace a paper. This is something I used to teach in my classes. A paragraph should be able to stand alone; it is a discrete insight even if qualified by what precedes or follows it. But it's not just a conceptual break; it's a physical break for the reader or speaker. When readers see no paragraph indentations, they know they need to be in shape as there's nowhere to stop. That indentation gives the reader a ledge to sit on and catch her breath. I've always been jealous of those writers who don't use paragraph breaks like that, who feel no need to give their readers a respite, who demand you plod along, keep up — or forge your own resting point in the middle of the river. Forge is another word I use a lot. Proffer and forge: my linguistic viruses. And, usually, lots of paragraph breaks. I'm a pleaser like that. But I want to explore less discretion in my paragraphs (see above).  

These days, I'm working on a lecture I'll be giving on Nietzsche for an independent online university. When it's done, I'll give the details should you be interested. But, for now, I'm thinking about how to corral Nietzsche into a two hour lecture that my son will film in my house and around San Francisco — I imagine there will be buffalo as seeing them alongside hawks and squirrels always makes me think of the vicissitudes of the will to power, the taut attention of the vulture and the equanimity of the buffalo — which all has me thinking about the slippery ways of the performative which, in turn, brings me back to my earlier point (did I have a point?): How can we educate our children for at least 10 years — by law! — and not teach them about the performative? This may be the most critical absence in our culture; if we all learned to reckon the performative, we'd read life so differently. We'd stop taking people at their words; we'd include action as information and, at the very least, make more interesting sense of things. Is that a reason to write and teach? Hmm.

So while I've taught essays and books by Nietzsche dozens of times the fact is, these days, I live with Nietzsche. I don't explicate him. Mind you (what a phrase!), I enjoy explicating Nietzsche because it becomes a kind of possession as I lean into his rich shtick and let it permeate my vibratory flesh before oozing out my mouth in a breadth of extreme manual gestures. But I don't explicate much of anything these days except when my brilliant female cohort inquires. And then it is gloriously fun to wax on about ressentiment. Nietzsche's shtick reverberates in my being, an echo I can always hear, feel, enact. But that is quite different than lecturing on Nietzsche as now I need to think about someone on the interweb coming to me, watching me gesticulate for two hours, then walking away with a sense of Nietzsche. From living with to explicating to explicating as living with. Or some such thing.

Why write anything? Well, I like writing as a process, as an event in which ideas, words, the social, and I meet and negotiate each other. It's sensual, often erotic, at times deliriously so. I think of writing less and less as composition and more and more as channeling, letting my thoughts and words be nudged by forces that far exceed my little if inflated ego.

Yes, more and more, this is what I want from writing: to succumb rather than to compose — succumb to the ebbs and flows of words and ideas rather than composing some symphony. I'm less inclined to be the one reigning rogue ideas in, grooming the frayed edges, making ideas fit into paragraphs. I want to be the medium, leaning back as the ideas leak out my fingers to meet language and become this. I want to be as surprised as the next guy by what comes. I feel less compulsion these days to deliver the nuggets I so enjoyed when I was younger. I strove for intellectual, linguistic dim sum — discrete pockets of deliciosity. Now, I say: Let it come down.

In writing, as in life I suppose, I have nothing to prove. Nothing I want to accomplish. I don't care if anyone reads what I write; I don't care if my words are never read. I don't write for posterity; I don't write to perpetuate myself.  Of course, I have written to perpetuate, extend, amplify myself; that may very well have been my dominant driver. I think I wrote to prove to people that I was smart. But now, honestly, who cares? Surely not me. These days, I'm not interested in being heard, being recognized as this or that. And I'm certainly not interested in making an impact on the world (whatever that is). I don't want to write as an audition for my right (write?) to exist! I just want to go well for and as me, as this, with whatever words may or may not dribble out. 

I've been thinking about Nietzsche and his view of the world as revelatory — his view is not revelatory; the world is revelatory. Language is tricky like that: it asks for distinctions between actors and actions, between subject and object, when experience more often than not belies such distinctions. Which is part of Nietzsche's argument in On the Genealogy of Morals: we say lightning strikes when lightning is itself always a striking. To say lightning strikes is to posit a subject behind the action, a doer behind the deed, when all there is is the deed. What is lightning that doesn't strike? It's not lightning. I suppose, in some perverse way, I don't want to write. I want to be writing.



My first, and for now only, tattoo, inked on my arm last month on my 49th birthday. This is one of only two things I know will persist with me over time (the other is my love for my son).

This is not a beautiful word. It lacks the lusciousness of luscious, the mellifluousness of euphony, not to mention the euphony of mellifluous. It doesn't enjoy the crisp rigidity of a good fuck; nor does it skip down the tongue as dolorous does. In fact, it's a rather awkward word, lisp-like in its utterance while being conspicuously inconspicuous on the page. Few notice and not one lingers over this.

But what this lacks in sumptuous and emotive texture, it makes up for with subtle conceptual complexity — or, rather, its resistance to concept all together. For this will not be generalized and it refuses to travel. In fact, it is that which can never be generalized, insisting on itself to infinity. This is always this.

And yet it is so supremely generous. For while this is always this, this is always different. At one moment this is that and, in the next, it is something else entirely — all while remaining this.

The linguists Emile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson refer to words like this as indexicals. Charles Peirce does, too, but I came to it through Benveniste and Jakobson and feel like I owe them something, to thank them. Mind you, it's not a moral obligation. Despite no longer being an academic and hence having no need to cite my sources, I still drop names in my writing — not to prove my erudition or substantiate my claims but as a conjuring of cohorts and their concepts, a territorialization, forging a conceptual-affective space — even if only temporarily, an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture that's there then gone. Anyway, an indexical doesn't have a fixed referent such as, say, dog or love. It is a function: the act of designating within a given event.

I is another indexical. I obviously doesn't mean Daniel Coffeen; I is a function that designates a speaker or writer who is doing something. When I say I, I designates me; when you say I, it designates you. This makes for a constant slippage when reading someone else's I. In some unavoidable sense, when you read I, you become I. And so when I'm reading the I of, say, Kathy Acker, I become Kathy Acker; I repeat Kathy Acker just as Kathy Acker's own I will never have been her own. 

When I was reading Acker some 26 years ago, I was struck by her relentlessly unreliable pronouns: he would become we, she, I. The experience was exhilarating, delirious, liberating as my very identity became scrambled in the act of reading. This is the case with all writing to a greater or less degree. When we read someone else's writing, we inhabit and are in turn inhabited by the metabolism of another — or others. Reading and writing take us astray of ourselves. Of course, most books work hard to confirm themselves and their readers. And most readers seek such confirmation, nodding their heads in agreement as they make their way. But this demands an active repressive mechanism as you have to work not to become the I of another, forgetting that when you read I, you become I.

Despite the best efforts of most teachers and dictionaries, language is a living creature that undoes all it inhabits. For there, always in its midst and letting it operate, letting it be used in everyday life, is the indexical. And there, among the indexicals, is I: a blank spot of no, and every, identity. That which anchored Descartes — that I that thinks — and which we imagine as being the home of our ego is, in fact, an opening occupied by whomever. I is not the site of identity's confirmation; on the contrary, I is where and how identities bleed, mingle, overlap, become undone only to be remade again as something different.

Language is filled to the brim with words that have referents — pixel, purple, fecund, absurdity, nomenclature, fetid. But indexicals punctuate our dictionaries with these gaps, these revolving doors. I, this, here, now: these words only come to fruition in their use, coming out of someone's mouth or scrawled across a page. They are essentially temporal (what structuralists call diachronic rather than synchronic). They refuse to be generalized; they don't have traditional definitions. They are functions that designate radical particularity, that articulate thisness, the haecceity of life.

For Benveniste, indexicals are what allow us to occupy language. The I, he argues, is a portal that allows speakers and writers to enter the linguistic code and wrap it around themelvses, to inhabit language from the inside. "Language is so organized," hew write,  "that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I." Without the I, language would be a closed system, all the words already defined, all communication existing at level of generality, all words already defined — and we'd be looking at it from the outside. But I lend(s) language temporality, opening it up to the flux of the world, to the event of life as we crawl inside its code and (re)create from within.

One reason I never got a tattoo is I couldn't imagine anything persisting with me over time. All is flux, I figured, and as my skin relentlessly shifts and sheds, it articulates the flux of life perfectly. There was a moment when I first came to San Francisco, in 1991, and considered getting a tattoo of an old fashioned typewriter. It seemed romantic and cool. But I knew then that that romance might fade; that, in fact, I'm not one for the typewriter; I'm a word processor guy who enjoys cutting and pasting. And I couldn't think of anything that I believed would persist for me through time. (Mind you, that was my criterion for a tattoo; people get tattoos for all sorts of reasons.)

But then last month, on my 49th birthday, I got my first tattoo. It is one of only two things that will inevitably persist for me, with me, as I age. The tattoo, on my left bicep, is one word written in my own handwriting: This. 

This is always and necessarily this. It persists and yet, generously, is always different. It is at once stubborn and absolutely open minded. It is the articulation of life's relentless internal differentiation, an articulation of the one principle-that's-not-a-principle that will always drive me: difference. It is in my own handwriting as every this is different; I didn't want the generalized formality of a pre-formed font. That would belie the thisness, the haecceity, of this. It is this as written by this hand in this moment. And yet, while particular to that moment of inscription, this remains ever changing, ever adapting to the here and now. 

This remains this, an event of repetition, ever re-creating itself in the moment without relying on an idea, concept, or thing. This forges itself with itself, as itself. While the word dog relies on something else — namely, a dog that is not present — this relies on nothing else, needs nothing else, to give it meaning. It forges its own meaning from within its environment, as part of its environment, an autopoietic act of self actualization creating meaning from within the event, as the event of designation. It's astounding!  A miracle! This is the call of radical affirmation, the great Yes-sayer that is always content with itself, with its place in the world. It never looks elsewhere to confirm it, define it, to give it meaning. This is always this — and that is enough. As Alan Watts might say, this is it.

I would never have a word on my body that was declarative, constative, referential — that needed something else to give it meaning. I didn't want my favorite Nietzsche quote or my favorite Nietzsche concept, amor fati, inscribed on my body (not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not for me). While amor fati says love fate, this performs the love of fate.

People sometimes ask me why I got this tattoo. Which is hilarious to me as it is its own best explanation that, in the end, refuses any why. Of course, I could tell them about Emile Benveniste and indexicals or about my history with the word (it's the key to the title of my dissertation, Read This Text). But all that backstory is just the placard next to the painting, avoiding what's before us, avoiding the insistence of life happening here and now, turning a deaf ear to the perfect eloquence of the event emerging in the very act of reading what's scrawled across my admittedly skinny bicep. All there is is this.