12.14.2014

Don't Try to Be Happy

I just met the greatest woman and she seemed to really like me! I gave this client presentation at work that went so well — afterwards, the CEO thanked me and told me, 'You're a smart guy." I put a bid on the coolest little house and they accepted it! Oh, I'm so happy!

Being happy is awesome. I mean, who doesn't want to be happy? On the other hand, to be happy is to be dependent on what's happening. Happiness is causedyou're happy because you met the guy or gal, got the job, the house, the fancy boots. This presumably means that when you don't experience any of those things, you're not happy. Which means that your emotional state of being is contingent on things you have no, or at best little, control over. So while I'm all for being happy, it seems to be that the goal to be happy necessitates that you will, in fact, not be happy.

A friend of mine has recently been feeling blue, lost, out of sorts — she quit her job of six years because of the awful office politics and finding a new gig is proving difficult, despite her impressive acumen. So she thought traveling might help clear her mind and took off on a whim that turned into a seven week tour of South East Asia. She was happy traveling — but then she came home. Traveling was fun, exciting, distracting, edifying in its way, perhaps. But, to state the obvious, wherever you go, there you are. If she's only happy traveling, she has to keep traveling — or else be unhappy.

Now that she's back and feels bad about herself because she doesn't have a job (how did capital ever achieve that — that we feel bad about ourselves for not working? It's genius!). So what does she do? She looks down, literally and metaphorically — at a screen but also down at the mundane, at the tangle of things that are causing her anxiety in the first place. If she's anxious that she's not 'good enough' for a job then mining LinkedIn and judging herself against other resumes is only going to accent her misery. I don't know Excel! I don't have good management principles! I need to emphasize my financial experience! All of these things may or may not be true but none of them will alleviate that anxiety. On the contrary, this scrutiny, this endless parsing of why why why of course only intensifies her anxiety.

You don't get out of shit by miring yourself deeper in it. You get out of shit by getting out of shit. And that begins by looking up, looking out of the mire, out of the entanglement of petty issues. This is what's wrong with most so-called therapists. You go to them and say, I'm sad and confused about my boyfriend or girlfriend. And how do they respond? They begin analyzing it with you. What did she say? How did you feel? Have you ever felt this way before? That is, the shrink is working to keep you mired in the nonsense, keep you anxious, keep you sweating the absurd minutia of life.

Now, of course there can be some value — or at least some pleasure — in understanding how or why or even that you keep doing the same things over and over. This is the dominant model of talk therapy: understand it and you'll stop doing it. 

But, for the most part, focusing on your problems intensifies your problem — precisely because your problem is that you focus on your problems. This same friend, knowing somewhere in her that LinkedIn will not be her existential savior, began saying daily affirmations that she found on the web.  And this is what I hear her saying, I shit you not: Amazing opportunities exist for me in every aspect of my life (See more nonsense here >).

OK, sure, that sounds good. But people already believe the world is filled with opportunities they've missed — I should have married him! I shouldn't have quit that job! I should have got my PhD in computer science, not rhetoric! This talk of opportunity once again focuses on the mundane — only with a rosy tint. It suggests there are these doors everywhere and it's our job to find them and then figure out how they open. So we're either filled with regret for missed opportunities or constantly anxious that we're missing the opportunities right in front of us. In both cases, we've missed life, looked right over its head, glanced sideways and backwards.

Fuck opportunity. This moment right now is beautiful and perfect. It's not an opportunity. It's already happening whether you like it or not — so you might as well like it. You don't need to search for anything out there, for opportunity, for doors, for love. Life is always already beautiful and perfect — necessarily. What is more depressing than someone saying she wants to be loved? To say that means she doesn't love herself, that she doesn't love life — and that's the only fucking thing in her control! She claims to want love but all she has to do is love herself and, voilà, she's found love.

This is the difference between joy and happiness. Joy is not contingent. Joy says, This world is perfect as it is precisely because there is no other world. This is all there is and I love it as it is! Happiness, meanwhile, says, There are good things and bad things. I only want to find those good things and shoo those bad things away. If I can do that, I'll be happy. How do I do that? What drugs do I take? What magic words do I say? Which girl or boy do I date?

But, once again, to judge and hierarchize your life events into good and bad is to hate life. It's nihilistic. It suggest that life is something that happens to you rather than happening with you, or better, as you: You are life! You are not an actor on a stage; you are part of the stage. There are rocks and bugs and gasses and dreams and ideas and fingers and whiskers and noses and blood and people in this world. It's all stuff going with stuff. This is not nihilism; this is joy. You are this piece of the world happening now! You're as special and irrelevant and essential as star dust, a gnat, that junkie puking there, a CEO, a fetching French poodle. 

This is not to say that everything in life is rosy and grand! Of course it's not. It's often a veritable shit storm, moreso for some than others. But shit is not bad; it is beautiful, too. So shit storm is not a bad thing per se. Anyway, it seems to me that the trick when feeling anxious, blue, distracted, depressed by the mayhem of it all is not to look down at the screen of life with all its all-too-mundane bullshit but to look up — at the sky, the clouds, the infinite horizon of which we are all a part.
Amazing opportunities exist for me in every aspect of my life. - See more at: http://businessheroinemagazine.com/27-daily-affirmations-to-boost-self-esteem-and-develop-self-confidence/#sthash.WIC6XGiY

12.07.2014

There is No Background. There is No Foreground. All is Flux.




Sometimes, when I'm out and about in nature — on that rare occasion I'm hiking or in some spectacular place — I'll take a picture of myself. I know that if I take a picture of that scene on its own, it'll be boring. So I put myself in the foreground, the mountain or cactus or what have you in the background. There is nothing interesting about this. It's what we do, how we think. There's what's in the foreground and what's in the background. Duh.

But metaphors are tricky things. When they're extreme, we call them insane or poetry ("Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands."). But most of the time, we use metaphors — along with a variety of other tropes such as metonymy, irony, litotes, hyperbole, and so on — without thinking (even though tropes are an expression of thought, the person using them is often not thinking). Tropes distribute the world — this here, that there, with these terms of relation.

This is Nietzsche's great argument in his essay, "On Truth and Lies in Their Extramoral Sense." All thinking is tropic. To speak is to distribute bodies — linguistic, conceptual, physical, ideological. This is what knowledge is, what knowledge does: it creates tropic configurations that we forget are tropic. This is the point — what a sharp metaphor! — of Nietzsche's essay: 'truth' is what we assign to tropes we don't want to change (for psycho-ideological reasons). The things we call true are metaphors that we've forgotten are metaphors. For Nietzsche, science is poetry that's forgotten it's poetry.

The background is a metaphor that we've forgotten is a metaphor. When we assume there's a background, we assume there's a foreground. Our cameras proudly offer auto-focus as they search for faces to foreground.

While seemingly innocuous, the figure of the background is dangerous. For instance, we tend to feel that the planet is the background, the backdrop, for human life. We repress the fact that we live with the earth, not on the earth. Human beings are continuous, not to mention contiguous, with the stuff of the universe — dirt, trees, sky, air, flies. They may not always be front and center but they are not the background. 

This is one of the brilliant aspects of Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean series. The characters don't just play out their dramas with the boat as the backdrop — the boat itself is a character! And the boat is not just a character floating on the ocean — the ocean becomes a character, too! Soon, everything is in play, everything in flux. There's no background or foreground. There's just an ever shifting calculus of bodies all interacting in different ways, at different speeds and intensities. 

Reading John Searle in college drove me apeshit. What is this background he relies so much on? There's what we intend and then there's this background of desires and abilities, these so-called passive components, which set the stage for action. Huh? That just skips over the very complexity of the issue, of the social, of ideology, of how we stand towards each other.  To just dismiss things like desire and dispositions as background is to dismiss the very stuff of power, politics, dynamics, history, discourse, of life itself.

No, there's no background, Professor Searle. Action and perception are always chiasmatic, an intertwining with the world (pace Merleau-Ponty). I don't just stand here and view the world. I am part of the world! When I look at a tree, that is the world seeing the world. I see the tree, sure, but that tree sees me — and has me seeing it.

There is no background. There is no foreground. In fact, there's no ground at all. It's funny how we turn to this figure of the ground over and over again. We must ground ourselves to be strong! We must ground our arguments! We must stand our ground! But, as Emerson says, Gladly would we anchor, but the anchorage is quicksand.

The trick, then, is to inaugurate new conceptions of space (Merleau-Ponty's chiasmus does this), to invent new figures, metaphors, tropes. Or else to keep shifting our tropes, to constantly invent new ones, to abandon the very effort to construct anything once and for all and, instead, take to the swirling sea and frolic away.

12.01.2014

Creating Yourself with Television, Art, and the World


What is it we want from television, not to mention art, philosophy, poetry, literature, film, the world in general?

Well, I suppose we want many things depending on circumstance. I have Hulu Plus, mostly for the Criterion Collection, but the fact is I don't want to watch Cassavetes or Fassbinder most nights of the week. I want to redirect my mind from the insistent demands of the day — work, kid, dating, car troubles, a doctor's appointment, the diverse mayhem of my life. And so I'll watch some show on Netflix I've already seen many times — 30 Rock, Weeds, The X Files. I'm not looking to form new pathways, new thoughts, to have piercing insights into the human condition. Nor do I want to see the medium of film or TV anew. I just want to stop thinking about the bullshit I've been thinking about all day.

In many ways, this is fantastic. It's a kind of meditation as I move away from anxiety into calm. It's relaxing, comforting, even therapeutic. Of course, it's also mind numbing — which is part of the point. While it is some kind of meditation, it's not meditation per se: it's still so much noise, distraction, which in the end is more ego reinforcement than ego dissolution. It seems to me that meditation is about letting go of ego, letting the cosmos run through you, dissolve you whereas watching familiar TV appeases my ego. Again, this doesn't make watching Bored to Death reruns bad. It's just different than seeking enlightenment. 

We usually think that watching TV is somehow worse than reading a book. This is an odd, old prejudice that imagines books to be challenging while TV hand delivers you all the images. But this is of course absurd. Reading some book that confirms yourself is not better or worse than watching TV that confirms yourself. (If you read critiques of books from centuries ago, they read exactly like critiques of television, almost verbatim — both critiques argue that the medium is just that, a medium, hence not real life.) Anyway, books are made of images, too, and some images challenge us, provoke us, enlighten us while others quiet us, affirm us, mute us. 

There is art that I have in my apartment, all of which is great. And there is art that I love but would never hang in my apartment. For instance, I've come to love Francis Bacon. But there's no way I'm hanging that crazy shit in my house. This may seem obvious but why not hang it over my bed? Isn't it just an image? And if I love the image, why not keep it close to me (forget about price for the moment)? 

Well, while I like reckoning Bacon's take on human flesh and its precarious tether to the bone, I don't want that way of going to pervade my body all day every day. For that is what art does (art here includes tv, film, and books): it proffers ways of going that our bodies take on (or don't).


Everything is a way of going, including you. You go like that, I go like this. This going changes in time (or that is what time is — the calculus of changing of bodies, visible and invisible). But we have our styles, our comportment, the way we metabolize the world. This includes what we like, what we want, what we believe we want, the ways we think and move and eat and shit and talk and sleep and love and fuck and flirt and dance and write and watch. 

But a way of going is not isolated from the world. It is fundamentally ecological, enmeshed in the trajectories of other ways of going. In some sense, a way of going exceeds a body. Or, rather, a body is an intersection of so many different ways of going. A comet, for instance, is made of dust, ice, methane, carbon dioxide and more as it at once flings itself and is flung through the cosmos, its path inflected in infinite ways by the push and pull of other bodies. 

You and I are no different in that sense: we are made of lots of different things — water, skin, toenail — and at once fling ourselves and are flung through the cosmos, our paths inflected in infinite ways by the push and pull of other bodies, visible and not — cultural and historical forces of sundry sort, love, appetite, pixels, dreams.

I went hiking in the Sierra's several months ago. As I walked, I had to navigate all these rocks embedded in a path that was created by federal employees whose decision to make this path was dictated as much by the slope of the earth as by budgetary constraints. Occasionally, I had to walk around a rock so big the federal employees chose not to demolish it. We call these boulders and, lord, they're as stubborn as they are stoic. There's something I could learn from these boulders, a way of going. 

Not all rocks go like that. Some are more timid and give way, their very constitution shedding beneath our feet. And, over time, they of course bend to the wind and rain and general wear of the world. But, in human terms, rocks offer a distinct way of going. 

I've always been a fan of saguaro cacti. They usually live longer than humans. And, like a rock, they move very slowly. But unlike a rock, the saguaro has distinctive flesh that stands before the punishing sun, unadorned, day in and day out. It basks in the relentlessness of the desert — bold and elegant and not afraid of occasional wit. Every time I go the Sonoran desert, I learn a little something from those cacti about how to go in the world. 


 Art in its many forms — tv, film, books, paintings, photographs, prints, dance — gives us ways of going. In the course of my life, I've taken on some loving, misanthropic absurdity from the Coen brothers, fuck you confrontation from Cassavetes, joyful complexity from Wes Anderson, nasty wit — with equal parts joy — from Jean-Luc Godard. I've learned to wind thoughts and figures with Pynchon, hyperbolize with TC Boyle, and tumble perversely with Philip Roth. I've taken on Nietzsche's way of reversing thought, Deleuze's instinct to proliferate, Derrida's pedantic distinctions. I could go on and on.

I remember the first time I saw The Wire. It was about eight years ago, an episode from what I now know was the fourth season. I remember so clearly watching Chris and Snoop drop another body in the vacants and my whole body recoiling. It was too much for me. My metabolism at the time couldn't stomach it. 

Many years later, prompted by god knows what, I tried watching it again from the beginning. And was immediately hooked. No, that's not fair as I wasn't just passive. I was taken, yes, but I in turn took it on. I loved its way of going, its sprawl of humanity that was at once so grandiose and lovingly small. It was — and remains — mythic. I've learned from its way of distributing humanity along with television itself (I wrote about that many years ago). I've learned about the mechanics of capitalism and learned as much about drinking, love, and passion from the characters within the show.

Now, often, when it's late and I'm tired and want to redirect my thinking, I'll pass over Tina Fey's indubitable charms and flip on The Wire for the umpteenth time. At this point, I'm not seeing new things, new angles, new moments. It's not carving new ways of going into my being. No, it's flowing down the grooves of my self that it has forged lo these many years.

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.