Posture, Or the Calculus of Standing With the World

My ridiculous posture reveals — betrays — my stance towards the world. For such is posture: it is an ethics, a world view.

A certain man, when younger, is uncomfortable in his skin. He's angry — at his parents for what he considers their cruelty, his teachers for their demanding incompetence, at the whole freakin' world for everything from the drinking age to the insane distribution of federal tax monies (it's rare to be able to use the plural of money; I seize every opportunity). It's as if there's a conspiracy that runs from his DNA, which gave him this absurd nose and even more absurd body, all the way through the federal government which forces him to register for the draft so he can pay for his education, a state sanctioned extortion. So when he walks around, he walks with a furrowed brow, a craning neck, slumped shoulders, and a will to whine — a posture of cowering poised to lash out.

Decades later, he sees the world a bit differently. There's incompetence, sure, and plenty of violence in and out of households. The government's distribution of monies hasn't changed one iota from Nixon to Trump. It may be a conspiracy, he now believes, but it's a conspiracy of dunces. And so rather than a furrowed brow and slumped shoulders, he now walks with greater ease. Sure, his shoulders are not a dancer's. But they are not slumped in rejection; they're slouched with world weary sloth.

A world view is a posture and a posture, a world view.  To exist in the world is to stand towards other things — people, cars and phones, traffic, towards work and romance, men and women and kids, towards trees, bees, birds, and dogs, towards death. I flinch when a mosquito buzzes my ear; I lean in when talking to this person in this mood, lean back when talking to this other person in this other mood. At a Pixies show, I stand like this; at a Lil Uzi Vert show, I might stand like that. And in all circumstances, I am navigating and negotiating this body of mine — this skinny, perpetually hunched, and decaying bag of blood and organs.

Which is to say, posture marks this complex intersection of the material and conceptual worlds, a juncture of our body, the bodies of those around us, the ideas we have in our head, and what we believe it means to be a person in the world. Posture is not fixed in place. Nor is it totally fluid. We are always shifting how we stand based on any number of factors — perhaps an infinite number of factors — from the crick in a knee to the fact that in 1945 we completely destroyed a city with one bomb. (Look at art, read books, listen to music pre- and post-bomb; there is a conspicuous difference, a new limit term to reckon which creates different ways of standing in the world. Would Burroughs' cut ups be possible before the bomb?).

There is such an obvious correlation between mood and physical stance. When I feel shitty, I feel shit upon. And so I duck my head, scowl, respond with a too-ready nay. You can see it by the way I walk or enter a room — a little reticent, a little tense, ready to strike. Other times, when feeling content and calm, I walk with sense of the magnanimous, enter the social with a hearty openness. I literally and metaphorically hold myself differently.

Posture is a stance that comes from that impossible calculus of body, breeding, one's conception of the world, and one's place in said world. Surely, a 19 year old African-American man and I have different postures in different neighborhoods as our bodies mean different things depending on the context. The gazes and economies in which we participate shape how we hold ourselves. Women know this well: a certain posture at a certain time can be the difference between life and death (and any number of other exchanges from the awkward and uncomfortable to the romantic and erotic).

Our very way of holding ourselves, of comporting ourselves, is inflected by those around us — say, a big dog or a hunky guy — as well as by our perception of what's around us but not visible. We believe the world is such-and-such a place based on information that's not present, namely, the "news" and things you've been taught in school and at home. Posture is an ethical stance, a way of standing towards others. 

Sometimes, the correlation between posture and circumstance is obvious: it's raining so I bend my neck and duck my head. Most of the time, the correlation is nebulous: I think this neighborhood is "unsafe" because I heard a story about it once when I was a kid — so when I walk there, I am heads down but alert (because that's my conception of being "safe"). Or I think the world is vicious and cruel due to reading a certain paper-qua-snuff film every morning and so I carry myself with knowing anger everywhere I g (see the Facebook feeds of all-too-familiar piety and angst).

Bands are a great way to think about posture. Every band performs — puts on, lives in, and enacts — a world view. Take the Sex Pistols and the Grateful Dead. These two postures, like all postures, exceed physicality. To stand towards the world in such a manner is to assume the world is such a place which demands that they stand this way.

I saw Poi Dog Pondering at the TLA in Philly in 1990. This is not irrelevant. 

What's so complex about all this is that there are so many ways of standing towards the world. Some people really go all in one way or another. Think of punks and Deadheads. They really double down on one posture! Me, I get the Sex Pistols' anger. I also dig the Dead's noodling, Poi Dog Pondering's fruity fun, My Bloody Valentine's morose ambience. I get The Smiths dramatic plaintive; Die Antwoord's playful obscenity; Jethro Tull's agricultural Renaissance prog rock. I get early Dylan; I get rock Dylan; I get Christian Dylan which makes many I know recoil. A posture, then, of postures.

Comedians, too. In fact, comedians might be better in that it's just one body with a distinct physical posture we get to focus on. Think of Chris Rock, his pacing, his delivery, the way he stops to smile that mischievous smile. Now think of Louis CK's slumped shtick. Then Steven Wrights surreal deadpan absurdity. Then Larry David's broad gesturing self-deprecation, George Carlin's slumped curmudgeon, Dave Chappelle's hunched laughing with you.

O, the ways we come to consider the world so as to hold ourselves this way or that! It's staggering! The very way I stand in the world, stand towards myself and others, is informed and inflected by how I imagine a world I don't see but have to believe exists.

For me, maturity means recognizing the factors that have informed, and continue to inform, my posture — and then adjusting accordingly. I thought the world was like this. But it's not! I thought this is what I was in the world. But it's not! I'm this other thing entirely! Which shifts how I stand. Wisdom means reckoning the way I hold myself in the world in every sense, physically and metaphysically. One might say that it's matter of aligning one's bodily stance with one's world view. Alignment, in this sense, is not as much a matter of spine, hips, and head but of ethics, gait, and world view.

What, then, of yoga? Yoga, we might believe, is all about posture, the asanas. In yoga, you mindfully — which is a funny word to use as many yogis I know speak of being free of the mind, but that's for another time — so, in yoga, you consciously try on different postures, even absurd postures, postures you'd never, ever find yourself in. Many no doubt do this because it helps their body, a kind of physical therapy — this pose for a bad hip, this other for a funky back.

But what interests me about yoga is that it doesn't address a body out of context. On the contrary, it is always a question of the body in the world — albeit a world with an infinite horizon. That is to say, whereas my understanding of Pilates is that it addresses the posture of the body free of any conception of the world, a body qua body — whatever that is — yoga is distinctly about one's posture as a living, breathing cosmic being. If Pilates imagines alignment beginning at the feet and ending at the head, yoga imagines alignment beginning at the earth and ending at the infinite cosmic horizon — and the body is just an inflection of that flowing line. Which is to say, yoga addresses one's posture towards the universe. Which, one believes, inflects posture towards other people. (Although this is not yoga's explicit concern and a point in which it seems more or less indifferent: for all the people practicing yoga in the world, there are still so many assholes. This is not the fault of yoga. I'm just pointing out that yoga is not interested in a social body but in a cosmic body.)

And so it has you try on all these different postures. Ok, so now pretend you're a corpse. Now, a baby. Now stand on your head. Then slowly go backwards until you're in some kind of bridge. All of this, mind you, not just to stretch the back, hips, or hamstrings but to see how you feel. Because how you stand in the world is how you stand in the world. How do you go when your foot is behind your head? How do you go, how does the world go, when you're supine?

Yoga, it seems to me, recontextualizes physical posture by having you address a different horizon. Rather than assuming your same old posture of you watching TV, working at the computer, talking to your lover, boss, mother, yoga has you assume all kinds of poses as you address the cosmos. Its primacy focus is not how you go in the social. Rather, it teaches you different postures of standing towards the universe which might have you stand in and towards the social differently.

This is all to say that we don't just stand in the world. We comport ourselves. Our posture is always already a movement, a mode of address, an ethics, a self-relation, a way to engage the world.


We Are Nothing at Bottom Because We Have No Bottom

Vertical Being and Flowing Being
How we architect, how we figure, being has profound implications for how we relate to others, to ourselves,
and to the therapeutic.

There are times I think: At bottom, I am an angry person. I may not always feel angry; I may laugh and kid and play. I may cry, bemoan, become anxious, bored, annoyed. But all those states mask and are informed by what I am at my base: angry.

And I'm not gonna change until I excavate this anger! And that means penetrating my veneer, breaking through the scaffolding, tearing down the edifice I've built on top of this bedrock of anger.

But all this assumes that I have a bottom. Which assumes that human beings are vertical creatures with, well, a bottom. And that this bottom is foundational, all pervasive, running through what I think, say, feel, and do.

In the first volume of his hilarious, achingly smart History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault discovers the invention of the pervert, an invention that coincides with the invention of the self. Sure, in some sense, there have always been some kinds of selves (in another sense, there have not always been selves). But, for Foucault, the self as we know it is a modern invention that posits we have a depth, a true being inside us. To quote myself talking about "Perverts and You": "...[There] is something, deep down, that defines us. There is a real you. And, thanks to the rise of a certain fear of sexuality, this reality is often thought to exist in one's sexual proclivities, in one's perversions."

A pervert, we imagine, is a pervert. Probably, we assume this because she has done some perverted acts. How many such acts does it take before one becomes a pervert? Is there a formula? In any case, this notion has profound impact. It's how we size people up. To quote myself again: "I'm sitting there with some more or less random woman, trying to size her up and she tries to size me up. Usually, I'll say something no doubt inappropriate — or considered as such — and I'll watch as she withdraws. Suddenly, what was charming and safe about me has become suspect, refracted through the lens of being that kind of guy — a pervert, a player, a motherfucker of some sort. And, once so categorized, there's very little chance of escaping the box — "you are a pervert all the way down, you horny hebe" — and even my most generous, kind gestures become construed as perverse."

We see it in our legal system where the price paid is much more severe than not having a second date with a criminally uninteresting woman. Someone convicted of certain crimes remains a convict, even after doing her time, as she must register as a sex offender even after her release. (How this is constitutional befuddles me. If you're a legal scholar of some sort, please chime in.) Do those convicted of stealing remain thieves even when they're not thieving? It seems not. But flashers remain perverts — even after their death!

But I don't want to talk about sexuality, selfhood, and the juridical. Just read Foucault's book (it's short, pithy, and a blast to read). What interests me here is how the figure of "the bottom" creates an architecture of social relations, relations to one's self, and the therapeutic that has resonating implications.

As in my example from my old dating life — which, mercifully, is over thanks to happening upon mutual love with an exquisite genius — the figure of the bottom makes us read people through a filter. We see their tender actions but read them as perverted. We see their jokes but regard them as repressed anger. Which is to say, this bottom has a way of blinding us to the event, to the performance of the actual thing happening.

On the other hand, a person is clearly more than a series of actions. We each have a way of going (just as a rock, goat, cloud, gas, song, idea, myth does). When we meet people, we get a sense of that person. Which makes me hesitant to say a person is only the things she does as I readily dispense with all notions of self. Life is more complex than that.

But whence this sense? Well, it clearly comes from her way of going — her posture and smell, her speed, the things she says and does, and all of these things at once in conjunction and over time. If I only looked at events in isolation, I'd never come to know her — or anyone, for that matter. Life is essentially temporal, always already in motion. This means that a person is a trajectory, a differential equation: there is a limit, yes, but this limit term is never reached and the mode of never reaching it is unpredictable — within limits!

When I picture getting a sense of someone, I picture a marksman assassin leading his target. Or a quarterback leading her receiver. To get a sense of someone means feeling and looking for the trails of her actions and modes, for the shadows and projected trajectories. After all, it's rare that someone totally surprises us, especially on a day-to-day basis. Much as a shortstop gets the feel for how a baseball might bounce even though the hitter has yet to hit, we get a sense for someone's next action before it happens.

I am suggesting, then, that this sense of self is different than a vertical self with a bottom. This sense has no bottom. It is made of water, of honey, not of cement or ideas. Sense makes space for flow. To proffer a bottom is to tether a person to that weight, regardless of what happens next. The bottom is a life sentence. And this just seems, well, unfair. Life is a process; life happens. Which means chance, the new, is always possible.

In the bottomed self, generosity comes in the form of tolerance and pity, those pillars of liberalism. I'll let you pervert into my house because I am such a tolerant human being! What lets me be so tolerant? Because I feel sorry for you! You didn't choose to be a pervert. You just are.

Yuck! This sanctimonious condescension makes my skin crawl. It's a bee in my bonnet, baby! (That's me channeling George Costanza and my great teacher, and love, Kia Meaux. This is them flowing together through me at this moment. Because what we are at bottom is ever in flux.)

A sense of self begins with an architecture of flow where temporality is constitutive rather than a static architecture of vertical edifice in which time is exiled.  In this flow, there is no bottom. There is something else: there are flows, all these affective lines, these streams running through us becoming the things we think, say, feel, do. Rather than being angry at bottom, sometimes I am angry. And sometimes that anger flows with nostalgia; other times, with spite; at still other times, with joy. And sometimes there's no anger at all.

And so a sense of self demands generosity, an openness to what comes, a receptiveness to the complexity of what it is to exist in this world. A sense is known and not-known beforehand. We anticipate and we await what we expect while expecting nothing and everything.

I'd imagine that shifting architectures of self would shift, recast, psycho-therapeutic tactics. If I'm angry at bottom then my therapy involves addressing this anger as the source. Why are you so angry? What happened when you were child? It must be the source. The source! Ha! As if a life could have one source! As if life were not always already continuously processing, digesting, expression a great multiplicity of feelings and ideas, of notions and desires, all at once! I can't even imagine what life would look like if people were any one thing at bottom once and for all.

Rather than excavating the source of my anger, perhaps I'd take on ways of leaning into different streams of my way of going, other possible ways to perform myself. I believe the great psycho-philosopher, FĂ©lix Guattari, created such therapeutic models. Rather than trying to return you to your ego or cleaning out your bottom, ahem, he'd have activities. How about gardening? Or wood working? Or writing?

In this model, life is expressive rather than introspective: it streams outwards. The self becomes itself with the world. In the bottom model, the self is defined by one thing — which in turn, is defined by one or two people — and can be isolated in order to explore one's sickness. What is the source of your anger?!? We're not leaving until we discover it! Therapy becomes an interrogation room (pace Foucault).

But in the sense of self, there's no need to interrogate any one mode. Instead, learn a posture of leaning into a different mode of going. Therapy becomes a practice of postures — yoga, if you will. And sizing up other people, as well as oneself, becomes less dictatorial: it becomes generous and fecund, always proffering something new. There's no need, then, to look for the bottom because there is no bottom. There is just this great teem we call a life.


Notes on the Anxiety and Liberation of Writing

These days, people write all the time. I know that might not sound quite right but, as we know, we don't talk much to each other. We text. Text has become a verb! And not one made up by 90s post-structural academics! When I used text back in the day, it always smacked of pretentious academia (I don't like such accusations of pretension; it seems based in a deep rooted anti-intellectualism that disturbingly lurks in Americans but that's for another time).

Yet despite this rampant writing, there persists a certain anxiety around writing. It seems that while many are more or less comfortable with this texting and its Morse code-like shorthand and hieroglyphs, once they need to write an email or an essay — what's an essay? who writes essays these days? — they stammer. (In full disclosure, I text in full sentences with paragraphs, parentheticals, citations. I keep looking for the italics option. Mind you, this is not because I believe in proper writing; I don't. It's because I enjoy such writing and, well, I don't know how to do the texting as the kids do.)

Having taught comp and humanities courses for over 15 years — at UC Berkeley, mostly — and then having participated in the online dating world which, oddly, is comprised mostly of textual missives; the only thing more anxiety producing than the written word, it seems, is meeting in person —  I am well acquainted with the anxiety and discomfort (and inability) people experience when confronted with the demand to put words on page. These same people don't usually panic when they speak. So it's not a matter of language per se triggering them. No, it's writing, the act of inscribing words visually. I see this anxiety in all walks of life, in people of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and settings, personal and professional.

I don't blame them. Writing is disconcerting. You sit there in front of your screen thinking this or that; you tap your fingers across the keyboard and, boom, there are these words over there on the screen which, despite marketing that suggests otherwise, is not smart. And yet it's suddenly saying things, making sense (or not), assuming a voice and tone. Is it my sense? Is it my voice? If so, what's it doing over there? What is my responsibility for it? To it? In the Phaedrus, Socrates calls writing an orphan that rolls about without anyone to defend it: And when [speeches] have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not; and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

In this sense, writing is akin to cutting your nails or hair. This stuff which was you, or seemed like you, is no longer you. I distinctly remember that uncanny sensation of seeing my hair lying on the bathroom floor after my mother had snipped away. Ever see human hair in the garbage? It's creepy. Seeing words I thought were mine on the page in front of me is uncanny in the same way: me and not-me are over there, to be disposed of any old way.

But perhaps a better analogy is shit. Words and ideas are food and writing is their digestion: we take them in, process them, play them back. Shit is considered grotesque, of course, but then again that's how many people feel about their writing: it's all so much ick. We are taught at a young age to shit in a toilet and then flush it away — woosh and it's gone. I see the fear in toddlers' eyes. Isn't that part of me? Where is it going? Why doesn't anyone talk about it? Ahhhhhhhhhh!

And so some young 'uns cling to their making, preferring to defecate in their diapers. They don't want to relinquish control, give up their creation to the great violent plumbing infrastructure. So they hold on to it. After Freud, we call this anal retention.

I've seen this same hanging on in the faces — feces? — of my students. They just can't seem to write the paper and, even if they do, they resist handing it in. It's scary shit! These words and ideas come out of them but then there they are, on a wrinkled set of pages, being tossed in my dirty backpack. Ahhhhhhhhh!

There's something hilarious about this. On the one hand, it's an attempt to tether identity to a process we call writing that, by nature, unmoors identity. On the other hand, the use of that "as" suggests that I can post as anyone but just happen to be posting as Daniel Coffeen, that writing doesn't secure identity but proliferate it.

Writing undoes us. It's us but not us. In fact, it's emphatically not us. I am this — this ridiculous nose, this ridiculous body, this excuse for a beard, these thoughts and feelings. The words I write are other things over there that are shared all willy nilly by anyone and everyone,  passed around, coming in and out of the mouths and fingers of any ol' person with desire. There are a lot of Daniels. To write, then, is to move out of oneself. It's to have one's sense making, one's most private thoughts, meld with this mysterious common body we call the written word.

If only the page were as clear cut as a toilet! (I do love italics; note the name of my blog — the emphatic figures prominently.) A toilet's flush may have a resounding finality to it that's scary but when I write, there's no toilet. On the contrary, now my words are out there, floating around the universe for anyone to see. Usually, I want — or need — someone to see it. For many people, I believe, writing is akin to shitting at a party and the toilet just won't flush.

And not only is writing an orphaning of one's words, it has so many complex rules. To express yourself, you can't just spew words any old way. There is an order — nouns, verbs, prepositions, tenses, pronouns, sequence. And, to make it worse, these rules aren't absolute. It's not like I have an idea and then choose my written expression from a list of options. Oh, I'll go with Option A and, boom, your writing is done Nope. In writing, there are so many different ways to express an idea, so many ways to begin a sentence, so many options at every turn — from word choice to voice to which rules to adhere to (I, for one, love ending in prepositions and splitting infinitives; much of school room grammar is arbitrary and silly.) And then, once I make a decision, all kinds of new choices emerge.

I'm going to the store.
To the store I go!
The store is being gone to by me (eesh!).
I am going to the store.
I'm going to the corner store.
I'm going shopping.
I'm headed to the shop.

All these word choices! All these constructions! Writing is rich with internal logics, limits, ways of going that determine sense as well as mood, little of which you get to determine. Once you enter the written page, you are no longer the master.

And we haven't even discussed the audience which, oddly, isn't ever here. That's the whole thing about writing: it's asynchronous communication. When I speak to you, you respond. The words are not as important as other things, as our being together and what feels like. But when the same words are written, isolated on a screen, the words take on a different role. When speaking, mood and social etiquette comes to the fore — so much so that people often don't even notice what you've said. In writing, words take center stage.

To wit, I used to do this obnoxious thing (I used to do, and probably continue to do, all sorts of obnoxious things). I'd ask someone — a barrista, a casual acquaintance on the street — a conspicuously personal question. You get any lately? Almost every time, the person would reply. Uh, huh? Uh, yes... Why would they reply when my question was so clearly out of place? Because a question is a social contract and people in America are loathe to confront face to face yet love to when enjoying the absence writing affords. See: Yelp reviews, Thought Catalog comments, Twitter trolling. Were I to ask the same question in an email, they'd ignore it or tell me to fuck myself.

The time and context of the writing — the rhetorical milieu, if you will — is so different from the time and context of speaking. There is a spatial and temporal gap between when I write and when you read. I don't know what mood you'll be in. Maybe you're grumpy after a hard day's work. Or you just met another fella who's caught your eye and my missive feeds your doubts about me. When I'm writing, I don't know how you'll take a particular word, if you'll know I'm joking, if you'll know my references.

And this is all assuming you're the one reading what I wrote. As we know, once set to page, writing is set loose in the world. I may have only emailed you — which you remains to be determined — but the fact is the writing is out there for all to see. The now-act of writing is hence inflected by a future audience that is unknown in size and mood. When we write, in some way, we are always writing for all people across all time. In this, writing is a photograph: when we pose for a picture, we get uncomfortable because we're being looked at by unknown eyes at an unknown time. With writing and photography, the now is never quite the now.

And, damn, the things I wrote in that now are still now! I may have changed my mind about this or that but that piece of writing keeps saying the same things over and over. To infinity! The written word never changes. It's a now that's never quite a now and yet remains stubbornly now. Writing can't all of a sudden change its mind.

Yep, writing is scary. You have to give up control to this strange body with all kinds of rules and modes of operation. It's an inherently public act so you are on display — and you don't even know to whom you're on display. It's not surprising that writing causes anxiety.

And yet the very thing that makes writing scary is the very thing that makes writing liberatory. It demands we leave our egos behind, that we lean into this morass of forces and rules that is written language in order to recreate ourselves in the world. That we face the often inchoate stream of moods and ideas bouncing and streaming through our bodies and try to inflect them with this incredible thing, these written words and their grammar, in order to make some kind of sense, to at least express a desire to others if not to introduce new ways of going in the world.

A great hindrance for would-be writers is that they think they need to express themselves. That somehow, somewhere, there is a version of themselves in writing that they've yet to discover. But finding your voice in writing doesn't mean discovering something that's already there. It means happening upon a rhythm and mode of going with language that makes you feel great. If writing unmoors identity, the response is not to try to moor. There is no mooring to be had. The trick is to play in the waves and love it.

The surf analogy is apropos. Just as the ocean has tendencies but is always changing, written language has propensities but it's not a fixed thing. It is a way, not a house. There's no hidden room where your voice lives. When we enter writing, we let go of ourselves. That's the whole point!

As in surfing (he says not only never having surfed but not even knowing how to swim), the writer has to lean into the fray, into the surge, the tug, the swell of the ocean of language and mood and ideas. When you write, you are no longer in the realm of the true and sure. You enter the world of becoming, a place that is never a place once and for all, where nonsense becomes a new kind of sense only to teeter into nonsense once again. Writing is not a matter of moving thoughts from point A to point B, even if it often feels like that. No, writing is a matter of playing at the border of chaos and order, at the ever emergent junctures of sense where the self gives way to the world.


Horizons, Anxiety, and Being

Where do we look, spatially and existentially, when we make sense of the world? Do we focus on our thoughts? On the space around us? On the sky, the atmosphere, the cosmos? What happens when we shift our horizons, as we shift the limit terms of our thinking what is possible?


The Delirium of Empiricism

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture is an empirical project, delirious and brimming with information of every sort. While she is categorized as a poet, she seems to hail from an empirical tradition that is part of a science and philosophy of old.

Hear the word empiricism and you probably conjure images of scientific rigor, of rationality. I don't believe in god or qi or mysticism. I believe in what I see, in what I experience. That is a parody, perhaps, a straw man. But I'm not convinced it's as parodic as I'd wish.

In any case, it seems to me that empiricism creates a delirious experience. After all, by definition, empiricism awaits the perceptive experience, not judging by theory or concept but by letting the experience dictate. And, in my experience, experience is rarely orderly or rational. In fact, the more I analyze an experience, the more complex it becomes until I am no longer sure of anything — including myself.

Perception takes us out of ourselves, introduces us to the swirl of things and sensations that teem all about. That is how perception takes place. Think about it for a moment: When you walk down the street and see this and that — faces, fog, trees, detritus, sky, squirrel, cars — are you seeing them? Or are they filling your eyes, your head, your mind? Is seeing active — you as the subject, the world as an object? Or is seeing passive — you sitting there while the world fills you to the brim?

Or does seeing happen in some entirely other way, at once active and passive, neither active nor passive? Can we say that seeing happens in the middle voice in which neither you nor the things you see are subject and object but in which the two swap places at infinite speed — seer become seen becomes seer becomes seen — so fast in fact that the two begin to blur, to marble, to intertwine at the most fundamental, ontological level? I am not just seer; I am seen. To say one is to say the other. (See Merleau-Ponty's incredible essay, "The Chiasm," in The Visible and the Invisible.)

We can say the same about all perception — tasting, smelling, touching, hearing. We don't sense the world as active subjects, even though we are in many ways active. And we don't sense the world solely as passive objects, the world thrust upon us — although it often feels like that. We are inflection points pushing back as we receive (we hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest).

Picture a pebble dropped in a lake. Picture those Doppler ripples. Now picture that same pebble dropped in a river, in an ocean, in a bowl of pudding, in milk, in honey, against the pavement, in a wine glass, against your hand, your back, your tongue, your eye. All these different effects, all these ways of going with that pebble. This is perception: an exchange of vibratory intensities, mine and the many, many things of this world as I move about.

To experience the world empirically — that is, through my sense experience — I am necessarily taken out of myself, taken astray of myself. I am now made of the world as much as I am made of me.

This is rarely a uniform, rational, orderly experience. There is so much happening at once at different speeds and intensities — the shrieks of birds, babies, brakes, sirens; the smells of shit, sweat, sewer, soil; the textures of fog, wind, and humidity; the sights of bums, beauty, and bathos. Experience is ambivalent, multifarious, multivalent. It's nutty and complex, like a good single origin chocolate. And it's morphing, always morphing — albeit with patterns of some sort, patterns that are more calculaic than geometric, patterns that repeat but always with difference, patterns that are part of other patterns and part of no pattern at all, patterns that never cohere once and for all, that remain unpredictable, emergent yet somehow a pattern nonetheless and are all the more beguiling for it.

And we haven't even discussed all the invisible effects we experience at every moment, the teem of affect, the myriad moods that fill the air with impossible density. Yes, there's the persistent tug of gravity — as we age, we feel it more, our knees and feet less confident in their ability to rise — but there's also the tug of sentiment, of the ominous, glorious, seething feeling of everything everywhere. The air is thick with mood. There is no place, no moment, no particle that is not mooded.

It is impossible to strip experience of its mood. To say I see these two animals behaving this way but not to take into consideration the mood — your mood, the mood, mood in general — is not to experience those two animals behaving. It is to turn a blind eye to the very thing you, as an empiricist, are claiming to be be open to: the fullness of experience. 

All this sensual information taking me out of myself, twisting and turning me as I lean into it all, parry, duck, and embrace it all, all this swirling and morphing, all these feelings and sensations all happening at once at different speeds, temperatures, intensities, all in different timbres and rhythms, different terms of chaos and coherence: Empiricism is delirious.

There are any number of ways to operate as an empiricist. A scientist finds formulas, patterns of repetition that become strange kinds of laws, terms for how this and this and that and this usually or often or under certain conditions go together. This empirical scientist, it seems to me, would consider mood as much as weight, quality as much as quantity.

An artist might focus elsewhere, at the perceptive patterns, at pushing back at this multipronged experience or capturing it or hedging it to let this part in and not that. Think of Jackson Pollock writhing over his canvas watching his drips of paint fall: he is an empirical painter who hedges the forces at play, just a bit, with the flick of his wrist. Or Julie Mehretu who maps the flows of the cosmos, visible and invisible alike. Or Matthew Ritchie who illustrates it.

Julie Mehretu maps the empirical swirl of the visible and invisible cosmic experience.

It's funny that we imagine that information is in experience when, in fact, experience is information — and vice versa: information is experience, is experiential, is of and with experience. Somehow, empiricism went from surrendering to experience to the extraction of hard data from experience, letting all the soft data fall by the wayside — the moods and intensities, the histories, the ghosts, the trace presence of forces and bodies from afar, all the delicious complexity of experience.

Lisa Robertson's soft architecture, which I've written about here, is an empirical reckoning of this world. She is as much scientist as poet: Under the pavement, pavement. Hoaxes, failures, porches, archaeological strata spread out on a continuous thin plane; softness and speed, echoes, spores, tropes, fonts; not identity but incident and the accumulation of air miles; unmarked solitude absorbing time, bloating to become an environment, indexical euphorias, the unraveling of laughter; a brief history of escalators; memory manifest, brindled, loosening; a crumpling of automotive glass; the pornographic, the wrapped; Helvetica's black dust: All doctrine is foreign to us. (Buy her incredible book.)

I like to imagine, then, a different world of science and information, a world in which knowledge is indeed empirical, in which poetry and science blur as experience is given full voice in all its dissonant, messy, multihued splendor.