11.27.2014

The Fascist Inside

In his exquisite introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Foucault suggests the book is an "Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life." This art of living counter to all forms of fascism, he writes, whether already present or impending, carries with it a certain number of essential principles. He goes on to list these principles:
  • Free yourself from totalizing paranoia
  • Act and think multiplicity, proliferation, juxtaposition (as distinct from pyramidal hierarchy) 
  • Disavow all forms of the Negative
  • Remember that you don't need to be sad to be militant
  • Don't become enamored of power
  • And some others (read the whole intro)
As far as the social and political is concerned, I feel I have done well living as a non-fascist. I've avoided so many of the trappings of the American obsession with work and career. While teaching in the university system, I was never an academic — no journals, no conferences. I was adjunct and proud of it. And as for my other work, I've remained a freelancer for 16 years as I don't want my time to be beholden to someone else, especially not someone I love. As a father, I resist the overbearing, indulgent bullshit that plagues today's parents.

When it comes to what Americans call "politics," I keep to myself. I don't know see red states and blue states (I know they represent political parties but I don't know which is which). I see life as infinitely complex, winding, forces that include gravity, anxiety, fear, love, desire, pleasure. When I think about the so-called issues that come prepackaged to me via Facebook and other news sources, I actually think about them, see the things I think nowhere, and walk away. Life's too short, or too long, to be mired in the collective nonsense.  Which is not to say there isn't systematic exploitation and violence. On the contrary, it's to say: of course there is as people tend to be weak and afraid and anxious and do horrible things to each other.

At the same time, I try not to judge others for the decisions they've made. Love academia? Awesome! Like going to work? Lucky you! Consider yourself a liberal or conservative? Power to you — just don't talk to me about any of it. Which is to say, I am not didactic about the decisions I've made in my life (at least I try not to be). I've done what I've done, I do what I do, and I assume the same of you. 

None of this is always easy. The world expects certain things from us and when we don't do them, things can get awkward. The fact that I had a job outside of the university, made my professorial peers so nervous and confused. Meanwhile, my untraditional approach to work makes my temporary colleagues on a project — not to mention potential lovers — nervous. What do you do all day? How can you not know when you'll be paid, or if you'll have work? How??? I run into the parental fascists every day in various ways and have to be careful not to inspire them to call social services (fortunately, my son is so awesome — so shiny and sweet and generous and mature — that my parenting is, for the most part, unquestioned by others. Mind you, I take no credit for this; it's all him. I just get to enjoy the halo effect of his excellence.)

All of this self-indulgent nonsense I'm prattling on about is only to say that I am aware of the forces that coerce us this way and that and, for the most part, I feel pretty good about how I've managed to parry, evade, avoid, counter punch the would-be fascists that I've encountered along the way.

But there's one fascist that persists, that's been with me my whole life, that nudges, pokes, prods, and beats me senseless: the fascist inside me. When I step back and survey the world, I can see the great teem of forces, human and non-human, that propel this planet, this solar system, this cosmos. But, privately, I relentlessly judge, assess, and criticize myself. I don't see the beautifully indifferent cosmos doing what it does. I see a shitbird doing shitty things. You talk too much, shmucknuts! You're a lazy, masturbating, pervert! You're a shitty ass father! You're absurdly skinny with a nose the size of Rhode Island! It's as if all the fear and anxiety and petty ego bullshit that others feel and inflict on the world by hating, killing, bullying, judging, I do to myself.

Of course, the reason I am the things I think I am — lazy, a shitty father, ugly — is precisely (or mostly) because I'm judging myself as these things. That is to say, I get down on myself and, lo and behold, I get short tempered with my son, girlfriend, mother. I feel shitty about myself so I don't get off my ass to do things. Which is to say, a lack of self-love leads to a lack of other love — which leads to judgment, hatred, violence, control, to fascism.

11.16.2014

Philosophy and Life





What is philosophy? Or really the question I'm interested in is: What do we want from philosophy? Do we read it to find answers to questions? How does it stand in relation to life, whatever that is?

Most people think about philosophy as asking, and attempting to answer, big questions: What is self? What is mind? What is ethics? But these questions make all kinds of assumptions — that there even is such a thing as a self, as a mind, as ethics. I want to say these so-called philosophical questions seem disingenuous, not to mention specious, in that they leave the most interesting things off the table — that is, themselves. They sound deep and probing when, in fact, they seek to regurgitate the known. 

Deleuze and Guattari offer another definition: philosophy is the creation of concepts. That is, rather than trying to answer preordained questions, philosophy invents questions along with their concepts. In their conception, each philosophy births a different way of making sense of this life. Each philosophy is a different world that might or might not have points of intersection, zones of overlap, with other philosophies. 

I've always had two related attractions to philosophy. I like the intellectual acrobatics, the mechanics of it all, the practice of thinking through these different worlds — Kant's, Hegel's, Nietzsche's, Derrida's. Each one has an internal logic, its distinct terms of operation that might or might not turn me on. But that is irrelevant: I just like tinkering with them, like someone who loves cars. I simply enjoy seeing how they run.

But there has always been another element to my love of philosophy: the way this or that philosophy resonates with my life, with how I feel every day in every way. Which is to say, I've always wanted something from philosophy to go with me in this life, to move me, orient me, ground or unground me. It's not that I want to philosophy to answer my questions; I want it to move me, to sweep me along in its questions, its concepts, its machinations, its way of going. 

So while I enjoyed reading Kant and Hegel — tinkering with their mechanics was a pleasurable task — I've always been more drawn to those who make philosophy resonate with life — Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari. For them, philosophy reckons day to day life — the living through of this life. It's not as much a matter of answering those big questions — What's the good life? — as it is: What are the ways of going that fuel and incite me? That orient me? That inflect my life in a healthy, invigorating, beautiful way? 

For these philosophers, what's at stake is not an idea or ideology but a life — their lives. In this sense, philosophy is almost moral, only without the morality. It's about leading the good life and each defines what counts as good and as life differently. 

Now, what's always irritated me about academic philosophy was that it could discuss interesting things but the stakes were always absurd — who could win or own an argument. The way of life was not only not present, it was prohibited from being part of the conversation. In fact, bringing a life lived into the equation marked you as a bad thinker, even a non-thinker. Philosophy as an academic process is woefully non self-reflexive. It doesn't like to ask of itself: Why am I doing this? It assumes the questions are self-evident. 

Osho, the Taoist Buddhist, says that philosophy is — more or less — bullshit. It talks about some interesting things but leaves itself, its life, its peace, off the table. Philosophy is so blind that it asks questions assuming there will be answers. But, for Osho, there are no questions as there are no answers. All this is is all this.  Which, for those academics out there, sounds an awful lot like Laruelle's non-philosophy, only without the pedantic crap. (Now, before you snap back in disagreement, ask yourself why. Who cares?)

Now, the minute I invoke Osho and Buddhism, the philosophers amongst you wince and turn away. What we call 'spirituality,' (I don't care for this word) has a bad rap amongst we so-called philosophers. Part of this, no doubt, is that much of it reeks of bullshit. So many people love to say and proffer profundities on the Facebook or bumber stickers when, in reality, saying it is usually a sign that you don't actually know it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; perhaps you're reminding yourself. But it still stinks like bullshit.

But this is the same issue with what we often think of as philosophy: there is an infinite gap between speaking the truth — whatever that is — and walking the truth (which is what I'd call knowing it — and pace Morpheus). The most conservative academic I ever met — the one who most ardently upheld the patriarchal structures of the institution — is perhaps the most revered 'radical' feminist of the past forty years. Go figure. 

From a certain angle, philosophy looks so absurd, so silly, so adolescent as it nobly wrestles the big questions of existence! Or that's how it imagines itself. Watching academics deliver 'papers' and then watching as other academics attack with pedantic drivel is one of the most repulsive things I've ever witnessed — unless it's all parody in which case it's hilarious. I mean, they can't be serious, right? In what world, in what life, can such things matter?

This, alas, is the question I ask more and more of everything, a question I learned from Nietzsche: What life does these things? And so I wonder: What if there are no questions because there are no answers? What if it's all a matter of going in the world, a matter of being congruent with circumstance, of experiencing peace, love, joy, delectation? What if having an answer not only is silly, what if it's the very thing that stands between you and said peace, love, joy, delectation?

No doubt, such an inclination can lead to a certain anti-intellectualism. Which, I have to say, is not necessarily a bad thing per se. Well, I take that back as being anti anything seems like a waste of energy (as Nietzsche would say). But there is certainly an a-intellectualism to those such as Osho who suggest there are no questions as there are no answers. 

And as so much of my identity is wrapped up in my understanding of myself as an intellectual. And so, sometimes, I want to punch Osho in the face. Or just tell him to bugger off. But perhaps that's because I don't want to put myself on the line. I want to be the smart guy, preach some psychedelic cool shit, and then go on home. 

But the philosophers I dig — Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Guattari, and, yes, Osho — refuse to let themselves off the hook. Their thinking and their lives may not always have been aligned but they sought that alignment, that harmonic resonance. To me, the best thinking is the best living. It demands all of me, not just my head, my mind, my ideas, and my words but also my belly, my ass, my peace, my life. 

I am not suggesting we not think, that we not question. I'm suggesting we question more ardently, that we question the role of the question to the point of exhaustion, until the question has thoroughly enfolded the asker, enfolded us all, until the only reply is: this. 

11.09.2014

Eating Books, Learning Food


[I wrote a version of this many years ago for a magazine called Satellite.]

Nietzsche tells us that the greatest question of philosophy is nutrition: What do you eat?  What makes you the healthiest, feeling the best?  What do you most desire in your mouth, in your belly? Are your desires and your health well aligned? Or does one undo the other, a malignant, all too human trait?  Nietzsche himself doesn't drink coffee: "Coffee spreads darkness."  "Tea," he continues, "is wholesome only in the morning.  A little, but strong: tea is very unwholesome and sicklies one o'er the whole day if it is too weak by a single degree."  Then again, he warns us, it all depends on the environment, on the weather. And on the size of your own stomach.  One's ideal diet—the only real concern of the philosopher—is a complex configuration of ever changing particularities. 
You are your metabolism.

And so I find myself standing in front of my bookshelves as if they were an enormous refrigerator. Hmn, what'll I have?  What am I in the mood for? What will sate me? Ew, Heidegger's Being and Time. Have you ever tried to read it? It's bereft of humor, joy, wit, elegance and eloquence. It's like eating sand. And so it remains on the shelf the same way that ancient bottle of mustard remains in the fridge —it's too big to just toss in the garbage and I'm too lazy to figure out what else to do with it.  And who knows? It might come in handy one day. (I can feel all the Heideggerians bristling, as they are wont to do.)

Look, there's Moby Dick. I've probably read the first 100 pages five or six times and each time I am absolutely mesmerized by the baroque prose, the wit and erudition, the unabashed joy. But I'm not going to finish it; it's too rich for my blood, a gustatory leviathan. Hmn, perhaps a sampling of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari's prolific buffet: a stimulant, it infuses my body with giddiness. Or a dram of ee cummings' delicate confections—nah, not filling enough. Maybe a fix of William Burroughs' complex body of work? 

Oh, Berryman's Dream Songs it'll be: light yet resonant, fast but lasting, tasty and easy to eat. Perfect.

If books nourish us, food teaches us. I've always considered Uni — raw sea urchin gonads — one of my great teachers.  With its oceanic pith, Uni questions the nature of knowledge itself. Murky yet vaguely coherent, skanky yet delectable, always subtly different, Uni is a way of knowing in and of itself. Uni teaches me, with the most intimate whispers, that something can be supremely confident without being the least bit rigid, that something can be at once self-possessed and flexible, that something can flirt with the fetid and retain its elegance.

Uni teaches me, through its steady insistence on itself as an experience—an experience that belies ready description, an experience that dissolves the ready distinction between solid and liquid, teeth and tongue, between ocean and food, between the delicious and the repulsive—that to know the world one must eat the world. And vice versa.

Not all food proffers knowledge worth knowing. The mindless reach for popcorn in a movie theater is not a learning experience—it's vacuous consumption. Habit impedes learning.  Often, it is not until one experiences something radically different, something unfamiliar, that one begins to experience experience, that one begins to know.

To eat is literally to become something other than oneself, to become delighted, joyous, healthy, grumpy, smart. The consumer often thinks that the only thing to change is the thing consumed. But that's silly. The thing consumed transforms the consumer words, sushi, tequila, the love of another: they're all consuming us as we consume them. Power is rarely straightforward.


11.05.2014

Making Sense of Images


 The beginning of an introduction I wrote some time ago on the phenomenology of viewing art. Some of this is repeated here.
Foucault's reading of this painting that opens The Order of Things baffled and exhilarated me.
The image, for Foucault, was not a sign; it was itself a site of knowledge.

I remember looking through an art magazine years many ago. It was 1998 and I’d just finished my doctorate in rhetoric. So I’m flipping through the magazine and thinking, This is terrible! I can’t read a word of this. And when I can, it’s drivel. My friend  — a well heeled filmmaker and image maker — leans over and says, No, no, you’re looking at it all wrong. Let me show you. He grabs the magazine and starts flipping wildly through it. Ah, man, look at that! Gorgeous! Then, turning pages with flippant determination: Nah, whatever, blech, blech, hmm, O, there! Nasty!

I looked first and foremost for words and the things words are especially good at — concepts and ideas.  But he looked first and foremost at the images and the experience he had with them. Yes! Ahhhhh! Eeesh! No way. Dull. Dull. Eh.

And that’s when I learned, in a flash, that I didn’t know how to read images. Sure, I’d seen plenty of art. And while my knowledge was by no means extensive, I had clearly delineated opinions about this and that (I was a recent doctoral student, after all; we have to have opinions). But the fact is I was blind. Images were everywhere and I had no real way to make sense of them.

When I looked back over my extensive years of upper education, I had never been offered a class in how to make sense of images. There were film classes in rhetoric but they were not about images at all. They were about pornography, power, gender, psychoanalysis. Images were always considered symptoms of something else, something nobler and more important: big ideas, ideology, patriarchy. The images themselves, while no doubt enjoyed, were not themselves an event, were not themselves sites of power, were not themselves ways of going in the world. They were examples of more important ways of going.

I took a modern art history class in college in which I learned the least about images, even if I did learn some good things. The class was a survey in which we were shown image after image and given name after name, movement after movement, coupled with some historical reduction of that movement’s philosophy. We were being taught a topology, a system of classification. We did not spend one moment actually reckoning images, learning to see, to feel, to process or articulate what was happening directly in front of us. Knowledge about the images was laid over the images, keeping us from ever seeing anything at all. 

There have been a few moments that stood out along the way. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a revelation. He taught me that seeing is not neutral, that an act we assume to be mechanical and neutral — the eyes just see — is in fact run through with ideology.

But I was taught the book in the context of Marxist-feminist critique. And while ideology critique is an important way to see the world, it has a tendency to look over the head of the image all together in order to see what’s behind it. The image once again becomes a symptom of a societal disease that’s out there.  You don’t really see the image; you see the system that produced the image.

Then there was the opening of Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things in which he performs this incredible, acrobatic reading of Velasquez’s “Las Meninas.” At the time, I found it baffling and exhilarating. He maps an elaborate scene of seeing and being seen, an entire economy of social seeing. And while he sees the image in terms of a vaster episteme, this was not ideology critique. This mode of seeing he finds in the image is the very mode of seeing that Foucault finds operating elsewhere. The painting is not a symptom but is part and parcel; the politics do not happen elsewhere. They happen in, with, and of the painting. The image itself was a site of knowledge.

For me, the most important writing I encountered about seeing was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and, in particular, his essay, “Cézanne’s Doubt.” While the essay seems to be biographical — there are lots of quotes from the painter and his friends as well as lots of facts about his life — the biography does not determine the work.  The last paragraph of the essay begins, “Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that — if we know how to interpret it — we can find everything in it, since it opens onto his work.” The painter doesn’t as much create the work as the work creates the painter. Or, rather, they are of the same engine, the same necessity. 

Merleau-Ponty has no desire to look over the head of the painting to find the meaning. He doesn’t need to understand the culture at large or the mind-set of Cézanne the man. He can find all those things in the paintings, not because the paintings are symptoms of something else but because they are worlds themselves — worlds we live in, worlds Cézanne lives in. Because, for Merleau-Ponty, image making is not mimetic but digestive: it's a way of processing the world, taking it in and shitting it out.

Looking at Cézanne’s paintings, Merleau-Ponty finds a way of seeing the world — as well as a way of knowing the world:

The composition of Cezanne's palette leads one to suppose that he had another aim. Instead of the seven colors of the spectrum, one finds eighteen colors—six reds, five yellows, three blues, three greens, and black. The use of warm colors and black shows that Cezanne wants to represent the object, to find it again behind the atmosphere. Likewise, he does not, break up the tone; rather, he replaces this technique with graduated colors, a progression of chromatic nuances across the object, a modulation of colors which stays close to the object's form and to the light it receives.

Look at where Merleau-Ponty is looking: at the image. At the colors, the composition, the play of light and form and hue. He begins with the image and sees where it takes him, what it has to teach him.

And it is here that he discovers more than just ideas, more than just biography: this is where he discovers an entire onto-cosmology, the very manner in which things are and come into the world. Not behind the painting, not in biography, but in the paintings. Just as there is no outline to predetermine the form of Cézanne’s pears, there is no outline to pre-determine Merleau-Ponty’s reading of Cézanne’s paintings. Things appear as they will. Their limits emerge and flourish in the middle of a thing!

Doing away with exact contours in certain cases, giving color priority over the outline— these obviously mean different things for Cézanne and for the impressionists. The object is no longer covered by reflections and lost in its relationships to the atmosphere and other objects: it seems subtly illuminated from within, light emanates from it, and the result is an impression of solidity and material substance.

Merleau-Ponty sees Cézanne seeing.  And this seeing is literally a perspective, a point of view, as rich and articulate as any philosophy, ethics, cosmology.

And so I began to understand that images offered a way of making sense of things. An image is a distribution of the world, a way of taking up things, ideas, affect, color, mood, history, desire, metabolizing it and spewing it out. Every image declares: Here! This! See my seeing!

10.31.2014

Artists Don't Need to Know How to Draw




Marc Lafia creates all kinds of images, usually with photographic technology (but he's not a photographer in that he doesn't seek to capture the world through photographs; more on that momentarily). He recently created a book of his images, along with some essays (including a foreword by me), that includes the re-imaging or re-photographing of other images — from nature books, from Tumblr, from many sources. (I wrote here about a show he had several months ago.)

A friend of mine was looking at the images and while she found many of them beautiful and intriguing, she kept looking for the original creator. Why doesn't he include the source of the image? she'd ask, repeatedly and with increasing urgency. She began almost to get angry. She needed to know who created the image in order to judge it. Just looking at it was not enough. 

When I pushed her, she insisted that art begins with drawing. The artist, she maintained, should be able to draw what's there. I didn't push her on where 'there' is. What if it's that mood there? Or happens to be a sensation way over there? Anyway, she maintained that then, and only then, can the artist move into concepts and abstraction. The implication was that whoever created the so-called original image was the true artist; Lafia's images were just reproductions. 

I once believed the same thing. I'm not sure where I got this idea from or where my friend got it from. It's some kind of strange Platonist ideal that must float through the ether and into our skin. Of course, many art schools used to believe this and, I suppose, many still do — hence the insistence of studio classes as the core curriculum. 

Why Platonist? Because this literally antiquated belief conceives of art as mimetic. First comes the world, then come images of the world. There is an implied hierarchy of the real: the real is real, duh, and images are references to the real, coming after the fact, paling in relative comparison. 

This prejudice is repeated in a different form in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. First comes bodily survival — food and shelter. And then comes a whole lot of other stuff — safety, family, self-esteem— before you get to creativity and art. While Maslow might feel art is an apogee of human existence, he still believes, like Plato, that it's fundamentally unnecessary. Art is ornament; it's secondary. There's first the so-called real world and then, and only then, can we move into representations of the world, into images, into art. 

Nietzsche gives us a very different view. Art, he argues, is primary. Man is first and foremost an artistic being. His first creation is himself as a continuous being, as a social being capable of making promises. This first artist used his body as a canvas, whipping it and marking it into something more interesting, at once a kind of body art, sculpture, and conceptual art. For Nietzsche, man doesn't emerge from the state of nature through reason. He leaves his beastly ways because he has an instinct to create. And that is the birth of man as a social creature — not his drive for safety, security, and survival, not his considerable cognitive reasoning, but his instinct for art. (For Nietzsche, the entire edifice of science and knowledge is an elaborate sculpture that's forgotten it's art.)

As Derrida would say: there is no raw food, no culture without writing, no pure humanity. Food is always already cooked, writing is always already happening, and humanity is always already enculturated.

Drawing, then, is not the basis of art. Creation is the basis of art. There is in fact no correlation between one's ability to draw the world as it is — to draw realistically — and art. In fact, I might go so far as to say they're opposed! It's a nifty skill, for sure, and not to be poo pooed at all. But the ability to draw a vase that looks like a vase is just not art. It's copying. And art, by definition, doesn't copy. It creates the new, even if always from within the life of the old. (Art repeats, it doesn't copy, and the definition of repetition is the introduction of difference, of living through what has been in a different way, pace Deleuze. But that's a longer discussion.)

We come to the world of images as images. As Henri Bergson says, all is image. We can use the word matter or the word image, it's the same. All there is is all this stuff we are always perceiving. Everything is experienced as an image — my face, these words, that painting, these photographs, that idea, my love, your needs and desires. They're all images.

This is why I don't call Lafia a photographer. Photography is haunted by Plato. After all, isn't a photograph just a copy? Photography has been cast as a way to capture the real — to find those key moments in life and monumentalize them. Think about the 'great' photographers — Ansel Adams, Weegee, Diane Arbus. They all are loved for how they capture what is. This is not to knock them at all; I love much of their work — not because they capture the real but because they take the real and create something new. I only point out that photography is still premised on the real, even as photography's very existence undoes the sanctity of the real. 

What's beautiful to me about photography is that it uses the real as samples, as fodder, to create a new real, another real.  This is precisely what Lafia does: he takes images from anywhere, from everywhere, all the images making their way through the ether, and uses them to create new images (he does more than this for sure). The original image doesn't matter; what matters is the new image. 

The artist is not the one who accurately depicts reality — whatever that is — but is the one who can spin, hedge, juxtapose, fold, maneuver in such a way as to create some kind of new perceptive and affective experience. That is, the artist creates new things to see, new ways to see, new ways to feel and experience the world. This has nothing to do with drawing. Yes, it sure helps if the artist has some technical skills — painting, coding, thinking, writing, drawing, exploding, filming, lighting, doodling. But these are all modes of something more elusive, something more mysterious: creating the new from within the old.