The Drift of Prose: Notes on Writing with Reference to Deleuze and Guattari

Guattari's notes to Deleuze from Anti-Oedipus and Thousand Plateaus. So fantastic!

It's a funny thing, this sitting down to write. Sometimes, I have something to say and words express said something. Other times, I have no idea whatsoever what I want to say; I simply like sitting and writing to see what comes.  

There is something magical about typing, the pitter patter here becoming a mark there which can flower or die or neither as the marks on the screen assemble meaning and move bodies (or don't). Yes! says one reader happening upon these marks we call words (this reader may be me). Huh? grunts another reader. Duhhhh....groans a third.

Usually, though, I have more or less inchoate thoughts, nascent notions, and sitting down to write is sitting down to think. It is a practice of giving form and shape to the vague and nebulous. Of course, sometimes what I believed to be a clear idea becomes less coherent as I write; it loses shape as my my words and thinking meander and drift. Such is the risk of thinking; such is the risk of writing. And such, of course, is the joy. Yes, the joy is in the drift, whether it's a matter of taking or losing form.

As I get older  — or, perhaps, simply these days — excuse this aside — aside of what, exactly?: how am I to know if the changes I experience in my life are due to age  or are a product of local sundry factors such as diet, health, love life, and such? What leads me, what prompts me, to say something is due to age while another thing is due simply to mood? Here's an example: My kid was born in 2003, right after the dot com explosion which gave rise to rocketing rents. Are the changes I experienced — the conspicuous rise in stress — due to my suddenly having the kid? Or do I pin it on the change in the economy? Or can I say it's due to getting older? Obviously, it's all of the above. But what lets me extrapolate and ascribe cause — It's the economy! — to something when there are so many correlations? Of course, some things seem clearly age related — the hesitation of my urine stream; the vigor of my erections; my inability to eat tomato sauce. But when it comes to wisdom and the like, I am quick to dub it a matter of age. Now that I'm older, I no longer play those childish psycho-sexual games, I say as if I've earned insights from all my weathered years of living. But is that why? Or might I play those games again and just aren't now because, well, I'm into something else?

Anyway, as I get older — or, perhaps, simply these days —  I am less and less sure of what I'm thinking before assuming my seat before this flickering screen. Rarely is there any one point. The teem of correlations puts my writing, my thinking, my understanding adrift.

All of the above was one paragraph. I just broke it up into these punctuated breaks. Why? The sight of a long paragraph gives many readers pause, reluctance, and even anger: Do I want to get into all that? Can I just duck out now — and watch a 30 Rock episode? What is Coffeen thinking making all that one paragraph???!!! Who does he think he is? (Experience turns readily to ressentiment in my imagination of how people think. Nietzsche pervades me. Or else Nietzsche was right. Most likely, it's both: he pervades me and he was right. But he doesn't pervade me because he was — is — right. He pervades me because he resonates with me, like gin resonates with tonic. The fact — the fact! — that he was — is — right is a distinct if fortuitous coincidence.) (The m-dash and parentheses: drifts great friends.)

This is not easy to read. What's my point? Do I need one? Can I have many? Do these points need to connect? Whose need is it, anyway? Yours? Mine? Or is it the unspoken rules coercing expectations and hence the practice of both reading and writing?

So I thought I was going to write about philosophy — what it is, what it can do, ways to consider and engage with it. This was prompted by a conversation I had recently. My charming interlocutor told me about camping somewhere years ago and each night she'd hear the dripping of water. But when morning came and she looked for the water, none was to be found. Days later at base camp, she mentioned this to a ranger who explained that there is, in fact, no water. That sound — the sound of water dripping — is the sound of a bird song. Which made me think of Deleuze and Guattari's mutual becoming as the bird partakes of water-becoming, the animal reterritorializing the aquatic which necessarily implicates the water in the bird's becoming. That bird takes up water dripping and makes it its own, if only for the duration of its song. That song is water dripping, albeit sans H2O. A river or forest condensation and a bird singing: both partake of water drip-becoming. 

Which made me think of philosophy as a kind of poetry: it enjoys a moment and puts words to it, with it, not to explain necessarily but to make all the more vital. Mutual becoming, write Deleuze and Guattari. That's a beautiful phrase, a beautiful image: poetry.

Which made me think about how words themselves territorialize, reterritorialize, deterritorialize. They take up territory that already exists and realign it, recast it, make it new, make it different (or, more commonly, fortify what's already there; most reading seeks confirmation of what's known — Yep, yep, yep bobs the reader's head — and writers like to make readers happy). Punctuation, grammar, and genre — including the purely architectural elements such as spaces between words and paragraph breaks — give shape to the shapeless; they territorialize, make a territory of these ideas, these notions, these sensations, these words. But writing has the ability to deterritorialize, as well, to lead writing, reading, ideas, and sensations down uncharted and unexpected paths.

As I get older — or is it a matter not of age but of local propensity? — I am increasingly drawn to the fragment, the filament, the fray. Sometimes, the pleasure  — and the knowing — is in the drift.


All That: On Words, Wittgenstein, Cunnilingus, & Yoga

Matthew Ritchie paints what I see when I see signification. Words go every which way, a great ooze and flow of factors.

So I'm going down on my sweetie the other day. At one juncture, as things heat up, she begins declaring, Yes! That, that, that! But to what, precisely, does that refer? I mean, I'm doing all kinds of things with my tongue, lips, and fingers at different intensities, rhythms, and speeds. Which that is that that?

This of course made me think of the opening to Wittgenstein's Philosophic Investigations in which Wittgenstein critiques Augustine's account of primary language acquisition (needless to say, this made for a less than erotic, albeit edifying, interlude). In recounting his early learning, Augustine tells us he learned language by adults pointing at an object and declaring its name: "Pencil," says Dad pointing at a pencil. It seems simple enough. But, as Wittgenstein points out, this might work only for nouns. After all, how does one point to justice? Or doom? Or love?

But this ostensive mode of language learning fails when it comes to nouns, too. Let's return to our Dad pointing at a pencil as he says, "Pencil." What exactly does pencil designate? The act of pointing? Any writing utensil? A long, but not that long, skinny object? An off-shade of yellow?

For Wittgenstein, this suggests that words do not primarily designate or signify per se. Words are not just pointers to things or, for that matter, ideas. Rather, words are actions within the social; the use of a word is a rhetorical event before it is a linguistic event (this was the topic of my dissertation, although I never referred to Wittgenstein for a variety of reasons — mostly because after reading the Ray Monk biography, I found Wittgenstein an unpleasant shnook who was always boxing students' ears and certainly not a genius — another case of too much information!). Anyway, this is all to say, a word is always used. Even a dictionary definition is a use. A dictionarist is a lepidopterist pinning a live butterfly: the word doesn't sit still while being defined. (Ask Lohren Green of Poetical Dictionary; rather than try to pin words in place, he put himself in motion with each word he defines — a protean methodology which is a clever, if beguiling, tactic.) A word is necessarily a performance of an action that, in turn, suggests, triggers, causes, prompts other words and actions. In Wittgenstein's parlance, a word is a move within a language game, a game that includes more than the word — the affect, politics, and power that flows through and determines what can and can't be said in a given circumstance (more Foucault's territory than Wittgenstein's).

For Wittgenstein, this is really a matter of logic and certainty. If words don't signify, how do we mean anything? But in this critique of Augustine's view of ostensive language acquisition, I see something else, as well: I see the many in the one. I see webs and oozes. 

This is what I see: To point and say that is to conjure an assemblage. This is always many — a network, perhaps, or a rhizome but in any case a multiplicity. There is rarely, if ever, a direct and single line between here and there, between word and meaning, word and thing, gesture and referent. In the seemingly simple act of saying this or that, there is always so much stuff going on. Entire worlds are initiated, reconfigured, bodies aligned and realigned, opportunities spawned, possibilities hedged.

Years ago, I went to the yoga class of a friend who was visiting and guest teaching. She'd instruct the class to put our pelvises forward or lie with a natural spine or some such thing. I had no idea what she was saying and, much to her chagrin, kept raising my hand for clarification. What did any of those words mean? I couldn't correlate her words with my body. The signification kept going astray, getting lost in the shuffle of associations, memories, clich├ęs, our distinctive understandings of our bodies.

Which made me avoid yoga classes. Sure, I avoided yoga classes for other reasons, most notably the humiliation I tend to feel when being asked to use my body in public (I don't dance, either). But I also avoided yoga classes because I knew I could and would never understand how the teacher's words related to this beanpole body of mine. As the words traveled from her lips to my ears, they'd inevitably get lost in the miasma of sweat and self-loathing.

An image from the teacher training at Kaya Yoga in Davis, CA. Yoga brings to the fore the strange and nebulous path between words and meaning.

And then I did yoga one-on-one with a great teacher (the radiant Kia Meaux). When I'd ask her what her words meant, she'd deflect and instead ask: What are you feeling? What a deft move! With that simple rhetorical move, she taught me that there was never to be a direct line between words and body. Or, rather, there is always a direct line but that line is not straight; it's curved, folded, and has multiple tendrils and tangents.  (The role of words in the teaching of yoga is a rich topic for another time.) There is no single there, no singular that.  There is always an exchange of multiplicities — her words and gestures and affects co-mingling with mine and more. There is always all this and all that, all mixed up together.

I thought I knew this from Wittgenstein, from Derrida, from Nietzsche, from 30 years of reading philosophy. Yet I still expected these yoga words to refer to a very particular posture, a bend of my back or knee or neck. Silly me! Words are not arrows, even if they sometimes pierce our hearts and souls. Words are nebulae. Words are webs. They participate in flows and fluxes that are affective, historical, cultural, personal, idiosyncratic, cosmic.

How, then, do I know what to do as my face is nuzzled between my lover's thighs and she's yelling That! That! That!? Well, I always know and never know. The question remains, more or less: What am I feeling? What feels right? Which is to say, it's a rhetorical matter, not a linguistic one. It's matter of making a move within the fray of bodies and sensations, not a matter of understanding. It's a matter of leaning into the ooze and flux and feeling my way through.

And so I just keep doing what I'm doing, listening for the various utterances of her body, verbal and otherwise, feeling out the elaborate conversation that is all exchanges, physical and verbal. I keep doing all that in order to continue all that. And, sometimes, it all comes to a glorious juncture. Which, of course, just leads elsewhere. Every that is always another all that.


Reading the Way of Spaces (a podcast)

Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, offers a whiff of the wild which offers different modes of behavior than, say, Central Park in Manhattan.
Spaces distribute bodies and behavior. They make demands and set limits. Consider how you walk into and use a restaurant. You keep your clothes on; you don't walk around much; you don't lie down. There are behaviors that we all assume we will enact, following the invisible but all the more powerful laws of action. 

Now consider all sorts of spaces — parks, cities, "nature," classrooms. What is asked of us in those spaces? What kind of energy do we need to expend in order to find our ease, to go with the space in such a way that we maximize our vitality?

All of this was triggered by time I spent recently at clothing-optional spas in Northern California, spaces that ask square, urban me to behave differently. This implicates me and my social semiotics at a profound, resonant level. Who am I here? How do I go? What serves me best in this place?


Always Already Coming: On Fabric and Marc Lafia's "In What Language to Come"

A painting is a material whose materiality is repressed. It becomes forgotten, background, a no place, a blind spot. We look at the paint, not the canvas. We can say the same of photographs and film: the material — the paper, celluloid, code — are quieted by the play of significant and signifying content. What matters is the image freed from its materiality, an image that can somehow exist anywhere. Sure, we might focus on the paint or the exposure time, comment on the density of a painting's paint. But we rarely, if ever, see the canvas, paper, and plastic.

This has of course been amplified by the digital network. Images are no longer tethered to any material other than ones and zeros, interpretive algorithms that transform those numbers into an image that can be seen but not touched. It's as if the image has finally been freed from its body, pure soul manifesting here and there. The materiality of art has responded by becoming monumental, the stuff of stories — think Koons or, in film, Michael Bay — or conceptual, rarely taking root in thingness. Or else it's all petty bourgeois craft, people relishing the feel of wood, of rope, of clay — which is great. But it's not art. It's not creation as such; it's delicious commodity, a decadent relishing of stuff.

Marc Lafia's work often focuses on the terms of image making and distribution — on photography, on narrative, on algorithms of sense making, on the always-on network (which, as Lafia makes exquisitely clear, is a ubiquitous camera and screen). In his work, he has made semiotic content secondary to the production of semiotic content which, in turn, becomes the semiotic content. Which is to say, it's not that his work is absent signification; it's to say that what he signifies is the very terms of signification.

In this new work, he has shifted from the means to the stuff. If in earlier work, he presented the seeing of seeing, in this work he presents seeing as such — an absurd claim, perhaps, and one I am making, not Lafia.

This is not to say that fabric is free of significance. On the contrary, it is mired in it. But this mire creates a miasma that belies ready reference or any direct didacticism. The referential trajectory is blurred, veiled, drifting and draping this way and that, blowing with the wind, wrinkling and pleating, often a folded mess of a pile, multicolored and multi-textured. It is not quite babel but it is polyglottal, alternately and simultaneously euphonious and cacophonous.

Fabric is at once something and not something. It is usually a means, a vehicle, an ornament and not something in and of itself. For centuries, it was a currency, something of value, yes, but something to be exchanged. And, no doubt, today it retains a certain value, the stuff of consumerism.

All the while, it is saturated with association. It is the stuff of clothes and bed, of fresh from the shower and cuddling on the couch, the softened ground beneath our feet, the surface of our sitting. It surrounds us, encloses us, and while we might pay this or that version of it our concerted attention, the fabric as such tends to remain secondary.

And then there is the phenomenology of fabric. It is technically a solid but it shares an affinity with liquid, almost filling its container. It is fundamentally pliable, plastic, as if awaiting use, scissors, stitching, glue. In this sense, it is akin to the digital, a file always awaiting manipulation. But unlike the digital, fabric has an immediate tactility — it is seen and touched before and as it is manipulated. It is not just palpated; it is the stuff of palpation. 

In this work, Lafia does not use fabric as a backdrop. It is fabric and nothing but: fabric on fabric, fabric with fabric. And not to create an image as, say, Rosemary Trockel does. Nor to act as symbol or a means as Joseph Beuys did. And it's certainly not the fine craft of, say, Turkish kilim. Rather, Lafia engages fabric as fabric, using fabric perhaps as a painter would use paint — only, in this case, the painter paints painting.

There is, then, this sumptuous redundancy in Lafia's work. Rather than zoom out or zoom in on the means of image making — as he has so often done in the past — here he remains thoroughly and completely within the realm of the seen, within the realm of seeing. He creates an orgy of fabric, bodies mixing with bodies in all sorts of relations and juxtapositions and with no desire other than this — this frolic, this play, this drape and drift, these folds, this billowing. It doesn't add up to anything; it goes nowhere. It doesn't try to point to meaning or to an experience other than this — a tautology, an haecceity, a redundancy, the world touching itself everywhere, a polymorphously perverse onanism, a plenum of palpation.

This is surely a new language freed of signifiers and signifieds, free of Saussure's semiotics, Lacan's algebra, and Derrida's deferral. Untethered, this is a language free to roam (like all poetic languages). Unlike the language of stretched canvas and pinned art, these fabric works occupy their territory with grace and aplomb. They can live anywhere (I accidentally typed "love" anywhere, a fortuitous mistake).

There is a certain aggression, no doubt, an aggression implicit in any territorialization. These works not only take over a space; they want to take over a space, indoors or out, big or small. They do not stay nailed to the wall, discreetly out of the way, only to be looked at now and again. No, these works inundate, spread, drift, drape, get in your way.

But not all territorializations are created equally. This occupying tongue is passionately languorous, generous, joyous; it softly but insistently spreads the word — which is to say, it spreads itself. This is not only in what language to come. It's in what language is always already coming.


Good Enough

(This essay was fueled and helped by discussions, feedback, and insights from the inimitable Kia Meaux.)

Two weeks ago, I find myself at Orr Hot Springs — I love the passivity of "I find myself there," not I went there or I was there; French has that great reflexivity — I call myself, I seat myself, etc — in which the subject is also object; English does this all too rarely. I love it because it expresses that middle voice in which we actually find ourselves all the time, more or less, at once elevating and then refusing the ego as subject — anyway, two weeks ago I find myself at Orr Hot Springs, a naked resort tucked into the hills in Mendocino County in Northern California. It's hot out. I'm lying in the shade on a wooden deck next to a cool spring fed pool into which I occasionally plunge. I'm alongside a beautiful, brilliant woman who, like me, is naked. We are not entirely sober, as it were, and are feeling plain old good. There is no cell reception, no WiFi, no clients, no work, no kid, no hassles, and nothing to buy. I turn to my lovely cohort — my lover — and say something like, "Ah, this is so decadent. All I need now is a cocktail." To which she replies: "Isn't this good enough?"

I was, needless to say, humbled.

Like many people, if not most, I have a fiend in me. I find myself in a situation, which is to say I situate myself here or there, only to find myself wanting for something. And immediately I reach for a remedy — a cocktail, an edible, a book, a TV show, my phone, sex, something or someone or some experience that is not present.

Often, this is a fine and good reaction. I know how to steer my experience into my pleasure zone, that place where everything suits my constitution. If say, I'm at a boring event for my kid's school, I may sneak a swig from the flask tucked into my back pocket. This is not a lack of contentment; it's good planning and self-awareness. I know my needs; I know the world; I know how to play it — a rhetorician's coup.

Usually, I am able to avoid any such experiences as I've engineered my life so that I am able to say Yes often and No ever so rarely. No one invites me to dinner parties that I feel obliged to attend. No one invites me anywhere, in fact, that I feel obliged to attend — except, occasionally, an event for my son's school. I've developed a world built around my particular inclinations, around and with my way of going.

But this can of course lead to an ever tightening knot in which I fold in on myself until I'm this tightly wound bundle of self: me, all me! I submit to my habits because I can and because they feel good or, rather, because they are good. I have, for the most part engineered a life of me. Which is fantastic. But this me becomes a habit which can, and will, inevitably not be satisfied. My me will not have its way. This is the condition of life: it is a flux that exceeds me, takes me up. Which is all a fancy and long winded way of saying: sometimes, I'm somewhere where I really would like a cocktail — or quiet, my pillow, fresh bread, my friends — but it's not attainable. Despite my best laid plans, I am not, nor will ever be, totally in control. 

It is insane to wish things other than as they are — that there was always a cocktail, always quiet, no traffic, no assholes, no rent due, that she always loved me, that the train is on time. This doesn't mean one doesn't work to engineer that the same thing doesn't happen again. I am not suggesting that we can ever live in a pure now free of all social ills or that we'd even want to. Or that just because shit sucks, we have to only live in sucky shit. We are not just of time; we are time. Like the now, we are not immediate. We are folds of pasts, other presents, and futures. But to say, here and now: Damn, I wish that what is happening were something else is a kind of madness and certainly the basis of neurosis.

And is the very fuel of the American, or at least Western, liberal capitalist world. It is propelled by a constant desire for something else — new shoes, new house, new job, new phone, new boyfriend, new restaurant. Imagine, for a moment, if we were all content with our lives. Imagine, for a moment, that we wake up and say: This is good enough. Then we get out of bed and go on with our days, all along our mantra is, This is good enough. How would Amazon ever survive?? While I reach for my cocktail, most people reach for a new pair of shoes. Or a another date. This guy's pretty good but, well, is he all that? Our entire economy — financial, social, and sexual — is propelled by a pervasive lack. Something is missing. I need to fill that hole. (And it's not that capitalism made us this way; it's that we are capitalism. We are this will, this breed of life, this way of going, this will to power.)

We relentlessly yearn for, and in fact demand, something more. Something else. This is how we interpret that cryptic right to pursue happiness. Out of my way, loser, I see a better guy over there! I'm swiping left on your sorry ass! This — all this — is never enough.

Would you ever feel like you should settle for good enough? Don't you feel that you're entitled to more than that? You're entitled to the best, goddamnit! And the best sure as shit isn't this! Gimme another blouse! (Yes, I know no one says blouse; I do because it's funny.) Gimme another boyfriend! A better girlfriend! Sure, this one is good enough but how could I — why would I — ever settle for good enough???? We even have conversations about having it all! How to Get It All is a not uncommon headline.

Think about how insane that is! It's hilariously deranged. What will, what breed of life, would even ask such a question? How could such a line of inquiry even find itself expressed, not to mention seriously discussed? To me, the most deranged thing about this is that the question is asked by those who wouldn't know what to do with it all! They have plenty and are still lacking — and so they want more? In fact, they want it all???!! Really? How about first do something beautiful with what you have before asking for everything. Jeez louise. It's a will that, as Nietzsche would say, is ill constituted.

Wanna know how to have it all? Stop asking! Stop looking for something else! Stop swiping left or right! You already have it all, you deranged nincompoops!

And, please, know that I count myself among the deranged nincompoops. After all, there I am at Orr Hot Springs with an incredibly beautiful, lovely woman who loves me and whom I love; it's the perfect temperature and, if it's not, there are pools to warm and cool me; I have nothing whatsoever to worry about. And yet, without thinking, I want something else, something more. I want a cocktail.

But isn't this good enough?

What propels me to seek more, to seek something else, to reach for that cocktail? It seems to me that that dissatisfaction comes from a sense of lack, a fundamental belief that life is not enough — that I am not enough. Nietzsche calls this nihilism. It oozes from a being incapable of affirming this life, incapable of loving this life, incapable of loving itself. And we certainly live in a world premised on this lack of love for life. For Nietzsche, it began with the slave revolt of Judeo-Christianity who found perfection outside life, in God. I see it in liberal capitalist America where we are told, from day one, that something is wrong. Pregnancy, for fuck's sake, is seen as a medical condition. The very birth of the species is a disease! And then it continues — you shit wrong, you're too loud, you can't spell, you can't read, you can't do that, stop playing with your food, put your clothes on. You are wrong! All this, in fact, is wrong! So we keep grasping for the thing that will make it right.

And the only thing we believe capable of setting it all straight is something outside of life — the ego or god. Both, alas, create and propel relentless dissatisfaction as they create a split within life, a split between the world and me. I am here; the world is there; I can control the world. But this is a false dichotomy. After all, aren't I constitutive of the world, as much stuff as the sky, planets, widgets, and squirrels? I am not in traffic; I am traffic. To be groaning about traffic is to be groaning about myself.

So what if rather than looking elsewhere, we exhale and say: I am good enough. This is all good enough. Life is good enough. Such is amor fati. Such is love.

Should I find myself at the altar, the eyes of friends upon me, my sweetie before me, all I want to say, all I want to hear, is: You, my love, are good enough.  What expression of love could possibly be greater?