6.29.2015

The Pull of Bodies & the Sexual Economy Today


Image from Way in Way...The moment on Street
The social is overrun not just with bodies but with a transmission between, amongst, and with bodies. It is a dangerous mistake to believe we're all just discrete objects, bounds by skin and hair, moving through space indifferently. That would be to miss where so much of life actually happens — in the palpable but invisible space between us.

We exude, all of us, to greater or lesser extents. What it is to exist in the social is to transmit affect, sensation, desire, anxiety — much of which happens unbeknownst to you. You think you're all cool. But cool is still a sensation and you participate within a swirl of economies — social, political, semiotic, sexual — that you don't determine but by which you are nevertheless bound. To be is to broadcast to and with bodies and with intentions that exceed you, always and necessarily. This is not just the ideological hailing of Althusser in which you are always prefigured along gender, class, and racial lines. This is the mood you transmit continually as a living being.

Think about it like this. You walk down the street and you're just mulling over some nonsense from work. Your face is moving ever so slightly; your body is more or less hunched, tense, relaxed. Someone is passing on the street in a totally different state of mind. She's introverted, too, but thinking about something that happened last night, playing it over and over in her mind, and as she does her heart beats faster, she sweats and shakes a little. So there are the two of you, passing within inches of each other, two vastly different worlds, perhaps. And yet this proximity can't help but inflect both bodies, just as two comets zipping through space inflect each others trajectory. It's inevitable, even if slight.

So much is always happening between people in the public sphere. We're constantly reading each other, sizing each other up, inflecting each others trajectories in subtle and complex ways. One of the streams in this social in-between — a stream that is itself multiple — is sex and desire. I have to say, I kind of love this space. I love leaning into the invisible social stew to sense that burbling sexuality, to pique my own desires, to offer my own desires, to see what's there, if anything is cooking.

This is, of course, a highly charged space which is at once political and politicized. Men often move too aggressively in this space, adding a sense of menace, to women in particular. Men often leer — not just with their eyes but with their desire.

But this is also the space in which we find each other. This is the space in which the extraordinary event of attraction takes place. It is that invisible yet thoroughly real magnetic pull between bodies. This is how we decide to talk to this person and not that. This is how and where and why we make certain eye contact on our trains and streets: we're pushing and pulling each other like magnets. It's beautiful and confusing and complex, these swirls of desire, attraction, repulsion, indifference, intrigue. 

Online dating — and I suppose social media in general — has radically shifted the terms of this invisible sexual economy, these exchanges of desire. People feel each other out in pixels, in images and words, in the rhythm of emails and texts. Which is to say, there is an invisible sexual swirl in the virtual.

But, frankly, it's a little to anesthetized for me, a little too safe. Which I understand may empower those who are threatened in the public sexual sphere. But, for me, there is no delicious, teeming pool of affect to lean into. It's been replaced by looking at images and reading profiles (well, looking at images). You can try to imagine being with this or that person based on those pictures and, sure, there is some transmission of affect. But it's slight, at best, and always asynchronous: it's not happening live, right now, right here. I look at a picture of someone who could be anywhere, doing anything. There's not much for me to lean into or parry. Instead, I have to think of some witty missive to write.

But I'm writing all the time. I don't want to write when it comes to my sexual and romantic desires. I want to swim in the streams and eddies of living, pulsing desire, where the heat of flesh and the friction of affect is all around.

The virtual has, in some sense, amplified the sexuality of the social. We share naked pictures, readily. We're exposed to so many different kinds of porn that our collective sexual vocabulary has grown exponentially. We certainly live with, and as, more sexualized images.

But the flip side of this is that the living, breathing sexual economy is being neutered. No need to lean in to the social stew when I can look down on my phone and swipe left or right. What used to be a negotiation of a surging right here, right now, has become a solo reflection — do I swipe left or right?

I'm not saying Tinder and its like are necessarily bad. Obviously, in many ways, they're incredible. But not for me. I enjoy, and find myself missing, that incredible living experience of walking down the street and feeling invisibly for those flares of attraction. I love that sensation of having my body invisibly pulled towards another. It's exhilarating and, alas, all too rare — and even more so these pixel drenched daze.

6.24.2015

Why I Remember Deleuze, Some Quick Thoughts on Galloway's Remarks

So, in my admittedly small world of news and social media, Alexander Galloway's comments that "[w]e must forget Deleuze" made a bit of a splash (here's an abbreviated version). Terence Blake wrote a considered response which I recommend reading here. As Blake points out, Galloway "can’t decide whether he is against “Deleuzianism”, or against 1972 Deleuze in favour of 1990 Deleuze, or in favour of a paltry cluster of Deleuzian values that Laruelle rather than Deleuze gives us the means to think through."

I want to take a slightly different approach to Galloway's comments. Galloway finds four breeds of Deleuzians: Google Deleuzians, Carl Sagan Deleuzians, Wet Diaper Deleuzians, and then the Deleuze he likes, the Communist Deleuze. My problem is that, for the most part, I see all these versions of Deleuze as folds within the origami, if you will, that is Deleuzianism. And that while there I agree with Galloway that there are no doubt certain complicities between capitalism and a certain Deleuzianism, and while no doubt people make facile claims in Deleuze's name, this does not mean we have to amplify Deleuze's communism in order to find the radical potential. On the contrary, I believe we need to amplify the will to multiplicity of the Google Deleuzians and the wonder of the Carl Sagan Deleuzians. 

Ok, so I am indeed both a Google and Carl Sagan Deleuzian (although certainly not a Wet Diaper Deleuzian — eesh! And I loathe Google, for the most part). I see multiplicity everywhere, networks everywhere (including the capitalist network that stems from distributed but swollen points of corporate power; we know networks don't flow every which way equally!), systems everywhere. And I love the wonder of it all! The joy of it all! The billions and billions of stars of it all! This, to me, is radical. If everyone enjoyed such wonder, such a will to multiplicity, then manic ideology would lose its grip — including capitalist ideology. TED-style reductions of Deleuze's lines of flight do not nullify Deleuze. 

Like Galloway, I find the ready proffering of multiplicity in the name of profit-driven networks and the corporate state troubling, to say the least. It's disconcerting. But rather than turn away from Deleuze's systems thinking, I want to emphasize it, amplify it, make it more intense, more dramatic, more resonant, more resounding. I want to introduce all the non-human becoming that Deleuze finds in these systems until thought itself is so reorganized, and critique so different, that TED would simply vanish in one great woosh! of disorienting becoming.

And, yes, Deleuze's conception of the event is indeed banal. But it is precisely this banality that demands our relentless wonder. Galloway wants us to distinguish between the ubiquity of Deleuze's event and the grandeur of Badiou's. But the power of Deleuze is that he does not offer an external hierarchy; he does not suggest that the French Revolution, say, is a bigger or more essential event than my scanning the horizon and folding infinity into my becoming. 

This is the difference between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. While Astaire, in his tuxedo dances on stage in the spotlight, Kelly dances in the street, in the rain, in a tenement, anywhere and everywhere. Kelly makes the banal and everyday an opportunity, a vital moment: an event. This is joy which, to me, is always radical — not the expression of joy as TED might have it but the internal movement of infinite, continuous affirmation. This undoes all adamancy, all certainty, all those who would disregard others for a buck, for God, for whatever. Joy may be amoral but it is profoundly ethical. 

This doesn't mean there are different intensities amongst events. This doesn't mean events don't differentiate themselves in the course of a life. It means this differentiation is not essential or external but is immanent, is of the bodies involved, as circumstantial as it is multiple. I don't see how introducing a hierarchy of events makes for a more radical politics. It seems to me that's the same old ideological nonsense, whether it's coming from the so-called Left or Right. 

Is it disconcerting to see people engage Deleuze while avoiding this wonder, this proliferation, this will? Of course. Is it good to amplify Deleuze's edge now and again, his destructive will as well as his affirmative will? Of course. But not, for me, at the cost of forgetting Deleuze's joy and wonder. Deleuze may be working his way into the canon, if not already entrenched there, but that only demands that we who love the radicalness of Deleuze have to extend his thinking, amplify it — and remember it, not forget it. 

There is a certain delight in a punk rock, tear it down, I'm different, fuck off approach while joy can seem so easy, so happy. But that is not joy. We know from Nietzsche that joy means migraines and vomiting phlegm for days but still not being sick at bottom. Affirmation is not easy, not glib. On the contrary, it's relentlessly demanding and involves a surrender to a certain vertigo, a disorientation, a reorientation, a becoming non-human, a becoming with difference, sometimes tearing things down, often being indifferent, other times smiling a goofy smile. I see all this in Galloway's comments and it makes me smile: I hear him and, with him, I remember Deleuze. 

6.21.2015

Jurisdictions

Sand is so demanding. With every step, it gives way, refusing my foothold, my traction, my balance, my ability to propel myself as I will. As I make my way across the beach, I must walk according to its laws. This is the land of sand, its jurisdiction, alternately generous and dictatorial.

Of course, this is only from one perspective and an admittedly cranky one at that. When my boy was little, like most kids, he was downright nuts for sand. In its domain, he found this incredible freedom — to roll, play, shape, dig. His body had different laws than mine — not only less sure footing but less need for sure footing. The fact that sand refused his every step was, in its way, familiar. And the fact that should he fall the sand would buffer the blow, offered a peace of mind, a respite from the hard surfaces of adults.

The terms of jurisdiction are always circumstantial and multiple. I think of airports which mark a complex intersection of legislative jurisdictions. Medical marijuana might be legal in California but it's not in the United States — which is strange seeing as California is in the United States. Anyway, the airport is one place these jurisdictions collide in a less than hospitable way if you happen to be carrying your Blue Dream through TSA security on the wrong day with the wrong agent working.

The fact is the Feds can, and do, bust any pot sellers and growers in California —despite Obama's early claims that he'd let the states prevail. I know people, as many of us probably do, who've done hard time thanks to Federal jurisdiction over California. Bigger guns, deeper pockets, and probing eyes prevail.

But even in such a world, the laws of the land do not define the land once and for all. Or, rather, the laws that prevail are not always explicitly legislated. The most obvious way to think about this is the difference between de facto and de jure: pot was — and, in fact, remains — illegal not just in California but in most places and yet no one I know ever had any problems getting their hands on some. What's written and what happens rarely correspond.

Questions of jurisdiction are ubiquitous. There is no site, no place, that is not inflected, that does not have its laws, its rules, its modes of operation. Sand gives way while creeping into every crease and crevasse — except when it's wet. Sky and sand work it out; the rules change. Rocks tend to be stubborn, set in their ways, and yet will often allow you a resting ledge, a place to sit and enjoy.

Roads and sidewalks are an excellent example of jurisdictions colliding in ever shifting configurations. We pave using this then that to try and smother the life that swarms below. But grass, like sand, is insidious, creeping into even the smallest gaps and setting up camp. Trees have more gumption: they don't need to poach, as de Certeau would say, on concrete's tendency to drift. Trees steal, pushing their way through, claiming the territory as their own. At this level of jurisdiction, cars and pedestrians barely matter.

Everywhere is always already legislated, even if the laws — de facto and de jure — shift with time and circumstance. All jurisdictional questions are complex and multiple because every site is multiple. Zones have their their rules and ways but zones overlap, collide, collude. They bleed.

Museums are interesting jurisdictional sites. There are so many complex rules at work. There are, of course, the guards who try to ensure a certain movement and noise level. I'm often told to move away from the art as I like to get close — really close — to the canvas. And there's a prevailing propriety of how long you're supposed to look at a work, where you're supposed to stand, the noises you're supposed to make (or not make).

But, for me, these laws of propriety are determined by the art, not by the social. For me, each piece demands — or asks, it depends on the piece — that I stand here or there, that I linger or move on. Usually, there's one or two pieces that really draw me in and I'll stand there for a while. But most pieces have me move on, quickly. The social suggests we stand and examine each piece for, I don't know, 35 seconds. But I tend to know quickly, very quickly, if something is worth my time. I tend to breeze by most work, even averting my eyes at times (I'm still nauseated by things I saw at the Louvre 20 years ago).

All these jurisdictions, often at odds with each other: There's the institution with its  admittedly quiet threat of violence; there's the social propriety which would have us move predictably through the space; there's the art which often contradictions both the institution and the social. I was kicked out of the Calder exhibit at SF MoMA on repeated occasions for fanning my brochure to make the mobiles move. According to the institution, mobiles are not mobile. But those mobiles really, really want to move. I felt like their agent, doing their bidding.

Which brings me to yet another complex zone with its local laws: me, my body, my drives and needs and desires. Just because a work wants me to linger doesn't mean I have to. I have my ways of going, my rules. And these rules shift as my body shifts. If I drank a lot of coffee, I may be super jazzed up but also need to pee which, in turn, changes how I make my way through the exhibit, through the space.

This is always the case with engaging art whether it's books, movies, TV. We know this all too well when we sit down in front of our TVs and decide to watch this or that. We say things like, I'm not in the mood for a movie, I don't have the attention for it. Or, on the contrary, we sometimes say, I really want to watch a movie. In these instances, we are adjudicating jurisdiction — the demand of a film and the demands of my time, attention, and desires. TV shows, especially reruns of things we've seen a million times, have a much looser grip so we feel free to talk over it, surf the web, talk on the phone.

This is the main reason going to live theater scares me. It is so very demanding. In a movie, I can stand up and walk out at any time. I may annoy the people around me (if there were any; I only go to empty theaters) but that screen, however big and demanding, is finally passive. But in a theater, oy! There is so much pressure to stay put and keep quiet. What if I need to pee? What if I'm bored or antsy or annoyed? What can I do here? Can I just leave? Can I yell?

This is one reason I stick to books. But even with books, there are complex jurisdictions at work. Most people like to legislate the book from afar, with concepts such as patriarchy, capitalism, ego, what's realistic. They don't follow the rules of the book!  These rules are not the author's; authority leaves her the moment she puts words down. But nor is the reader the authority, despite the pomposity of academics. Reading books, like perceiving all things, is a complex negotiation and adjudication of jurisdictional rights and ways.

6.12.2015

Fuck Vacation, or Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head


Everyone loves vacations. Why wouldn't they? Vacations offer a respite from the hassles and mayhem of tending to our lives — work, first and foremost, but also the soul draining habit of bills, TV, bedtime, spousal tending, child rearing, street noise, neighbor noise, internal angst noise. Vacations break the routine of everyday life. So what's not to like?

Well, let's put aside that vacations bring with them their own hassles — packing, the humiliations of air travel, constantly being lost, figuring out where to eat only to find crappy food, the new weird noises of hotels and their denizens. Let's assume your vacation goes smoothly, is anxiety free, is nothing but a happy frolic.

There's still something creepy about the concept of vacations. I mean, shouldn't you love your life enough that you don't pine and whine for the 10 days a year your boss allows you to take a shit in peace? I've always found the culture of the weekend and the vacation so unsettling. Thank god it's Friday says every person working everywhere. It's a common refrain among store clerks and baristas. Aren't you glad it's Friday? What are your plans for the weekend? Or there's the flipside: Oh, well, it's Monday! 

My god, we lead our lives in misery! But what's so strange to me is that we embrace this misery collectively. We discuss it as if it were the norm and with a kind of offhanded lightness — What a drag that it's Monday! I mean, shouldn't you be screaming your head off to everyone and anyone? Shouldn't you be tearing your hair out, choking on the end of a shotgun? What kind of life is it that we live for the two days a week or the 10 days a year when we can, more or less, control our own time?

I think of the word vacation and I'm at once repulsed and kind of intrigued: to vacate. Yes, we should vacate, relentlessly: we should vacate our egos and our habits, our anxiety and our fears. But, at the same time, I don't want to vacate anything. I don't want to escape anything, leave anything. On the contrary, I want to enmesh myself in the flow of all things, in the cosmic churning, the cosmic surging (even if I'm just sitting there watching the surprisingly homophobic, offensive "Friends" for four straight hours. (Did I say four? I meant seven.)).

I realize that, practically speaking, weekends and vacations are much needed breaks from the tedium and pain of the everyday. It's nice to know that for the next 24 hours or next week, I don't have to do anything — I don't have to check my email, wake up for a meeting, pay a bill. I can sleep and eat and screw and stroll and drink gin all while enjoying some ridiculously exquisite views of the ocean or desert or Half Dome or forests. No doubt about it.

But there are really two inter-related things that madden me. One, shouldn't we feel so free all the time? Shouldn't we be parrying the misery and tedium of the everyday with our joy? Shouldn't we be demanding, assuming, a certain leisure in our stride as well as in our lives all day every day? To assume that we can only have such freedom for 10 days a year makes me want to weep in my bone of bones. The bosses dangle an extra week as an incentive to stay working there for another five years. What kind of trade off is that? It's completely insane!

And, two, the notion of vacation reinforces the concept of a home — of a stable, fixed place to which we return. Yes, this leisure and gin and these red rocks are incredible but I'm only borrowing them for a few days. Soon, I'll go back home. And, yes, that sounds nice — home — but it's this very concept of a stable, fixed point that is at once symptom and cause of our anxieties and fears. We work hard to reinforce this home — our physical homes as well as psychic homes. We feel we need some safe, familiar place that won't blow away with the torrent of life's chaos.

But there is no such place. Every home is run through with the flux of life, regardless of how tightly you seal the windows and doors, literally and metaphorically. And so we get anxious when we feel the winds blowing at the door, when our ego-homes rattle and shake — when we stumble, get sick, when our loved ones die, when we lose our jobs, our sanities, when shit simply happens.

We cling so fervently to our homes, we tremble and balk at life even before the winds blow. What if I get lost? What if I get sick? What if the plane crashes? What if my boss needs me? What if the rental car explodes? What if I die?? These are the thoughts that the logic of vacation perpetuates: we must protect the home — even when we already know that we're going to die! How odd is that??

The trick, it seems to me, is to make everywhere your home. Or, to quote Elvis Costello, Home is anywhere you hang your head. Now that's a permanent vacation and it's flipside — a perpetual coming into the flow of life. To be home always and never to be home: this is the way to joy. You won't need your 10 days from your boss. You'll be free all the time. Of course, you might be broke. But at least you won't be Mr. Misery dreaming of your two weeks.

6.07.2015

Camera Seeing, or Why Nature Photography is Impossible

I just saw this hilarious plant today. It was so articulate, so alive, gibbering brilliant aphorisms to me.
So, like an idiot, I took a picture of it. This picture is inevitably boring because you can't hear what it said to me.
Cameras don't see as we see; they see as they see.

So I'm hiking through the Sedona desert and everywhere I look, every moment, is ineffably incredible. Look at those rocks! That red! That green! And those rocks there! That blooming agave!  That lizard! Of course, I have my camera-phone thing with me and it is tempting to whip that damn thing out at every turn to capture the exquisite things I see. But what I see and what the camera sees is not the same thing. 

A camera is indeed a kind of seeing. But it's not human seeing. That would be absurd — cool, perhaps, but very strange. Think about it for a second. When I see something, that image is processed by the elaborate mechanics that I am — my history, my metabolism, my ideas, my moods, notions,  and inclinations, my desires, dreams, and drugs. I see those rocks — those ridiculously radiant rocks — and I think I am going to slip out of my skin, blow out of my skin, elevate and rise to dimensions I didn't know possible but always had an inkling were there.  That's how I, Daniel Coffeen, see those rocks.

But a camera? A camera doesn't see like that. Like me, it processes the light and data. But its processor has limited history and desires, limited drugs and dreams. It parses pixels, chooses which to eliminate and which to keep. Despite what we call its storage, that camera has no memory.

So to take a picture with a camera to capture what I see is, well, necessarily to fail. Sure, this is a function of a camera: to be an indifferent witness to my life. But it is this very indifference that renders a capture of what I see ridiculous.

And, in the same breath, it is this indifference that opens up a world of possibilities. To take a picture with a camera is to see as a camera sees. The camera, then, is not as much an extension of my visual capacity as it is the introduction of a new sense — one that borrows from vision but is certainly not just an extension of my eyes. The camera introduces a whole new sensory ability — camera-eyes, machine-eye, kino-eyes. 

Just as my vision has its strengths and limitations, camera-vision has its. For instance, I can't really share with you what I see when I look at those rocks. I can write poems, try to entwine my words with these sublime sensations; I can gesticulate, curse, jump up and down. Oh my freakin' god! Holy fucking shit! But, well, you still can't see what I see. If I take a picture of what I see and show it to you, it still doesn't suffice for reasons I just discussed — that's what the camera sees, not me. Two different softwares, two different processing technologies at work.

Cameras, however, share their vision readily. One click and, boom, it's shared with anyone and everyone who cares to glance at my Instagram account (which I don't have, alas).  Camera vision is plastic; it can be shaped, turned, tweaked, cropped. You can add hundreds of different filters, turn it black and white, overexpose it. That's not doctoring the picture. On the contrary, that's what makes a picture a picture — that it's plastic, malleable, transformable.

Cameras tend to have much smaller frames. Me, I see quite a bit at the same time. A camera can see a lot — it depends on the lens — but it has this very nifty feature of the ready frame. It slices up life so quickly and cleanly, without recourse to the categories of knowledge and cultural frames of reference. Cameras, after all, are stupid, ignorant; they just frame as they frame. And so can juxtapose radically discrepant elements. Or not know where a tree begins and ends. Or that a beach is a beach. With its lens and frame, a camera can transform a coastline into a Diebenkorn.

This is what makes so-called nature photography impossible. I see — I experience — those mountains and flowers and cliffs. I can't ask a camera that doesn't know about alternate dimensions to see that. But the camera is itself a way to see and experience alternate dimensions, a way to see the world anew — and distinctly not as yourself.

Here, Michael Chichi takes a picture with camera seeing (see more >). We see ocean, beach, houses.
The camera sees shapes, colors, forms, intensities of light and presents them to us as such.
Cameras literally transform our vision.