5.20.2017

Yes, No, and Neither: On Preferences, Whitman, Nietzsche, and Getting on with It


I like my cocktails a certain way. While I am no longer averse to a hint of sweet — it gives the cocktail some legs, some viscosity — I find sugar repulsive (as in it literally repulses me, rejects me, makes me recoil). And I don't like my cocktails too sour, either. I want the booze to prevail. Oh, and I usually like my cocktails over rather than up for two reasons. One, the ice adds some much needed hydration to my flailing, failing body. And two,  a cocktail served over comes in a rocks glass which I find less emasculating than a martini glass. These are my quite particular preferences which, too often, I am not shy about explaining to the barkeep with a certain emphatic umph (read: a NY Jewish inflection). 

But what happens when such particularity is not met? When my preferences cannot be, or aren't, served?

Well, I have some options. I can get irritated which itself can take a variety of forms — from rudeness and/or anger towards my server or, as is the go-to for the kids these days, I can write a scathing Yelp review. That'll learn 'em!

I can leave the premises and go in search of a cocktail bar that'll cater to my very precise preferences. This, of course, defers my pleasure and, if with company, becomes a burden for all.

I can say nothing and have the barkeep concoct an inevitably too sweet, too sour cocktail served up and sit there and drink it.

Or sit there and not drink it. (It's a funny thing to me that people feel that, because they paid for something, they are obligated to consume said thing. I have the opposite belief: because I paid for it, I can do what I like with it. I can not finish my meal, not drink my drink, not watch the movie I paid to see. That, alas, is true luxury: the freedom to walk away.)

I can order something else, something that runs little to no risk of offending my delicate palate — a whiskey neat, for instance.

Each of these options is viable. What matters, it seems to me, is not which path I take but how I stand towards my decision. If my preferences keep me from enjoying my evening, enjoying my life, then something is wrong with those preferences. Nietzsche would call this sickness: the things I want make me sick (indirectly, of course).

Now extend this past a cocktail. See your preferences extend into the social. She's smart and cool but I prefer someone taller. He's smart and funny and makes me happy — but I prefer someone who has a real job. Or into the everyday: I don't like being in this traffic! I prefer the road to be clear! Goddamn fuck it all! (This is me, often, in today's suckhole of the city we call San Francisco.)

What, alas, is more insane than demanding life to be different than it is? What is more sick than cursing traffic while being in traffic? First of all, I am not in traffic; I am traffic. I am in and of every situation in which I participate. So hating that situation, expending energy hating that situation, is a kind of self-hatred. And, worse, it's an enormous drain of energy: it depletes without any return on investment.

What I always loved about riding a bike is coasting: I pedal once, twice, three times and then coast for a while. It feels like the most healthy energy exchange possible; I exert a little and get a lot! It's a great deal!  Getting pissed off about traffic while being traffic is a terrible deal, expenditure without return.


Walt Whitman is a, and perhaps the, great Yes sayer.  He says Yes! To everything. He is vor-a-cious! Leaves of Grass is a catalog of things he loves, which is everything he encounters. That is surely one way to go. I love this cloying, sour cocktail in its ridiculous martini glass! I love this traffic! I love this sinus infection! Whitman is beautiful, one of the great souls of this, or any, planet. He is a man without preferences and hence a man without disappointment.


Nietzsche, the great philosopher of affirmation, has a lot of preferences. Never drink coffee, he tells us, as coffee spreads darkness. He likes the air just so; his company just so; his meal just so. And, in the same breath, he says that the key to living well is the affirmation of everything. How can he reconcile this?

Well, for Nietzsche, saying no is not necessarily saying No. There is a no-saying that affirms this body, this health, this life. We have to know our own way of going. If coffee makes you sick, don't drink coffee. But, he tells us, we want to be in a situation in which we can say Yes as much as possible as no-saying expends energy, sapping life.

It seems to me that preferences are not only inevitable but good. It is what differentiates me from you. But when these preferences prevail in the moment and become demands, there is only madness. Sure, you might shape your life to fit your preferences — only go to certain bars, date certain women, talk to certain people. Or do what I often do and just stay the fuck home, alone. But this is a strange strategy as it's doomed from the get go. At some point, you will be in a situation you can't control, that doesn't conform to your preferences. It's not a matter of adapt or die as much as it's a matter of accept and get on with it.

I've always taken pride in my preferences, fancying myself a discerning man. But this discernment becomes an escape from the flux and flow of life, a moral code that dictates from on high, trying to make the inevitable unruliness of life obey. My preferences become my own private fascist, trying to force life's meandering cadence into a military march that conforms to me and me alone. This is when preference is no longer a matter of health and self-sustainability but a matter of sickness, denial, and living death.

A few weeks ago, I was in Golden Gate Park (in San Francisco) with a friend. It was a rare sunny, warm, Spring day and the field was filled with all sorts of 20-something sporty types throwing objects and drinking beer. We sat on the perimeter, as is my preference (I've always sat in the back of the bus, the classroom, the movie theater as crowds displease me). At some point, my friend wanted to refill our water bottles from the water fountain located over yonder and — ahhhh! — through the crowd. Without thinking, I started walking with her when, all of a sudden, I noticed myself in the middle of this swarm of bodies drinking, tossing, shouting, cavorting. I stopped short and immediately scanned for my escape: there, a path that winds outside of the throngs! My friend looked at me and, without skipping a beat, declared: Don't look for the exit. Just go with it. And, with that, I relaxed and together we strode through the sea of bodies, balls whizzing by our heads, sweaty frat bros hollering this and that. And all — all — was good.

5.12.2017

The Energetics of Being


Cuteness is a power, an exuding of energy. We can transact with that energy in different ways.

When I was younger and would see a cute thing — say, a kitten or bush baby— I'd grit my teeth as a certain seething would surge through my body. All I wanted to do was take the cat's face and squeeze it, hard. Maybe eat it. It was a painful experience, even if pleasurable. I'd be exhausted afterwards. When I finally owned a cat — o, I miss my Metapuss — my life was nearly destroyed, the cuteness an endless tax on my being. (The cat was no better for it, either.)

We all know this: a cute thing has the power to determine the behavior around it. To wit, poppa bear usually doesn't kill baby bear. That little useless sack of cuteness exudes a power, an energy, that can make a two-ton beast stand down.

Cuteness is a source of energy. It moves and controls bodies. And, the silly brute I was, I didn't know what to do with that stream of energy. I'd gnash my teeth. I'd begin to crawl out of my skin. That stream came to me and, rather than finding it a source of fuel and vitality, it became an exhaustion of my reserves. I could have stored that energy. But instead I expended my energy to fuel its power. Which is absurd! It has enough power.

From one perspective, life is an economy of energy, a constant series of transactions, expenditures, and transferals. Think of food, sex, money, conversations, plants, relationships. We eat and experience different amounts of energy distributed in different ways — sugar, caffeine, protein, fried foods, LSD, and so on. Every meal at once fuels us and demands fuel to digest it. The same goes for human relationships: each person and each exchange involves a different give and take of energy. Some people leave us drained; the best leave us infused. And of course we pander or defer in various ways that exhaust us, regardless of the other person. Now apply this to all things — taking care of plants, what they give and take; music; art; work (which demands so much and gives little in return); and so on.

For Georges Bataille, all of these things — and more — are intertwined into a more General Economy of energy exchange that includes the sun, thinking, cosmic winds, eroticism. Nietzsche played with this idea, too, of course. Life is all transaction of energy. The ethical question for Nietzsche becomes: How do you maximize your energy, your vitality, your life? It's not a matter of a moral right and wrong but a very practical matter of: What saps you? What fuels you — materially and metaphysically?

When I was a kid, I had a subscription to "World" magazine which came with a fold-out poster in each issue. One week it was a bush baby. Oh, man, I loved that thing. With it pinned to the wall, I'd just stare at it. Thinking of it now gives me a certain thrill, almost erotic in nature. Why? Because it was a source of power, a quiet but steady hum of energy that would permeate me, lift me, carry me. And what is life other than this? What more do we want? (I knew a guy, an "art collector," who had a series of Francis Bacon prints hanging in his bedroom. Ask yourself: What kind of being enjoys that exchange of energy upon sleeping and waking every day?)

This is the case of all images. Which is to say, it is the case of all things (pace Bergson who says matter and image are synonyms). Things exude and take in different proportions and with different intensities. This is what life is: an eco-system of energy exchange. On a day to day basis, we give and take. We negotiate energy exchanges. For instance, cuteness is so taxing we partially denude it — we hedge its power — via kitsch. Rather than gritting our teeth, we take a little cute kitten video to help us get through the drain of energy put on us by jobs, traffic, the bombardment of modern life.

Starbucks and kitten videos: this is what keeps us hanging on, just. Without them, capitalism would exhaust all human energy reserves and then there'd be no one to produce and, worse, no one to consume. We think the energy crisis is about fossil fuels. Nope: it's about a fundamental skew in the energy economy that has human energy being depleted at a dizzying pace. This is why we're obsessed with zombies: how can we make the dead productive?

We all know too well the correlations between sex and violence: Make love, we say, not war. What allows us to say this, to make this substitution? They are both modes of energy expenditure. Louis CK does a bit about bros at the club who, after not getting laid, you find afterwards at some pizza place beating up some nerdy passerby.

But off course not all energy expenditures are the same. The great thing about a certain mode of sex is the give and take. Yes, it's an expenditure but the other person gives you energy back creating a beautiful cycle, a transference of this energy for that energy. Violence, on the other hand, tends to be terribly inefficient, all expenditure without return.

Sometimes, this kind of expenditure is necessary. For instance, when I was younger, I'd have an excess of energy, as youths are wont to have, and so would put on some rockin' tunes and dance like crazy in my undies. I'd burn that energy, releasing that excess, allowing my body to relax, to flow more steadily, more evenly. An excess of energy can be quite disruptive (any manic knows this well).

Aging involves, and perhaps is, a decrease in energy production. At first, this is disconcerting, to say the least. What's wrong with me??? my head shrieks in panic. I see this in friends and acquaintances. Why am I so tired? they ask as they hit 44 and are working 50 hour weeks and then hiking on the weekends and worrying about rent and their future and their kids. It's astounding that they don't know what's happening to them. It's astounding, and humiliating, that I didn't know what was happening to me: I was getting older but still expending energy as if I were 27.

I spent much of my life as what Jung might call the clown and I call the jew clown. I'd do shtick relentlessly, pandering to the crowd (even a crowd of one). It nearly killed me.

A key part of the maturation process is adjusting one's energy store and spend. Rather than lean forward in the social, prattling on and doing the jew clown shtick, I now lean back more and more. I let the social unfold as a more collaborative effort, even if that collaboration is failing to produce, is falling quiet, is disintegrating. The benefit of maturity is knowing that this doesn't matter. That all of life is an ebb and flow of energy — and hence there's no need to expend energy to revive the dying fire of a social encounter. There will be more fires. (Or there won't.)

And so now when I see cute things or feel a flood of love from another, I don't go immediately towards expenditure. I don't grit my teeth, do a jig, try to eat the face of the kitten. Rather, I let the energy pervade me, let it flow through me, infusing my cells and soul with vitality. I store up so when it's time to give, I can.

5.03.2017

Holding Tightly, Holding Lightly: Thoughts on Love & Relationships


Romantic love is seductive. Like any good drug, it enraptures. It takes you up and carries you away. Your heart beats faster; your veins course with joy itself; you're giddy and smiley and all is right with the world.

Except when she doesn't return your call for a surprising amount of time. Or when he's acting a bit distant. Or when she not so subtly hides her phone after the telltale ding. Then, like most drugs, the trip takes a turn. You're distraught, anxious, distracted. Your veins course with toxins and nothing is right with the world.

Ah, such is love, we say. The ups and downs. So it goes with passion. It's in our movies and novels, in our songs, in our paintings and poems. It's the price we pay for the beautiful, magical thing we call love.

Only I'm not sure any of that is love. It's something, for sure. And it's something seductive and powerful. But is it love?

Love, it seems to me, is infinitely generous. Love doesn't forgive because it never judges in the first place. Love never says, "I love him but I just wish he liked to travel more." That's not love. That's an all-too-human romantic relationship  — which is rarely premised on love. It's premised on fear — "I'm not lovable" — which is premised on ego which, out of fear, seeks attachment.

Unfortunately, our romantic relationships are built on ego, fear, and attachment. This is what we're taught; this is our discourse on love. "He's mine." "She's my girl." And the problem with attachment is that everything of this world gives way. That's just the way it is. Wishing it any other way is, at best, neurotic; at worst, pathological. So the whole thing is doomed from the get go.

Now, we try to temper this fickle fade of flesh with both the formal and informal institutional prowess of the promise. "I will stay yours forever, even when my attentions turn; I will stay yours even in death." We call this marriage and it's not a bad way to go.

I was married for 14 years. What I loved about it is that all the mundane bullshit is inflected through the infinite. How can something as minor as a fight about a comment persist when seen in the light of the eternal? What are we going to do — fight over it forever?? Of course not. And so, just like that, all the little crap vanishes in the sublimity of the infinite.


I've also been divorced for seven years. But, for me, this is not a failure of love. Divorce is not a failure at all! It's what happens to things of this world — they give way. In fact, the thing I am most proud of in my life is my divorce. I still love my ex-wife. Of course I do. That's what love is! It's infinite! It doesn't stop and start. Lust stops and starts; romantic love stops and starts. But love? Nope. Love persists.

I realize that this kind of divorce is an anomaly. I hear horror stories of how once married couples treat each other. This is truly confusing to me. Because either you don't love each other — in which case, just be indifferent and enjoy your lives. Or you do love each other — in which case, be good to each other. This other option — fighting, undermining — can only come from one thing: ego, fear, and attachment. Someone feels scorned. Someone feels unloved. Someone feels unlovable. Someone feels abandoned. All of that crap is ego and is ridiculous and has nothing whatsoever to do with love.

Love is not attachment. On the contrary, love holds the things of this world ever so lightly so as to let them become as they are. Grab on tightly and everyone gets hurt. Like Lennie, you end up crushing the mouse.

But, damn, romantic love is seductive. I, for one, want to be enraptured. I want that delectable joy to pump through my veins. I want all those deep seated fears to go away just by the way she looks at me. What is sweeter than an embrace that erases that persistent thought that I'm not lovable? That makes me feel safe and desired? Man oh man! It's perfectly delicious. The only problem is that I, like most people, get hooked on the embrace — an embrace that will inevitably end.

Attachment is not love. It's fear. And fear comes from ego. But love is not ego bound. In fact, love erases ego. Love doesn't seek to own or control; love lets things be. Love lets the world happen as it happens. Love is not just acceptance of his not wanting to travel or her complaints about work. Love is a radical affirmation of all things. Including yourself! And the incredible thing which happens is that this love erases the fear of being unlovable which erases self- and other- judgement which erases the need for attachment. Voilà! 

Still, romantic love is delicious. And I'm not sure I'm quite willing to give it up entirely. Not yet. Perhaps never. After all, I am all-too-human. I have fears and doubts. I love to be loved. And so the trick, it seems to me, is to hold tightly and lightly at the same time. To gather her up in my arms and squeeze and squeeze and, in the same breath, to open my arms so she can do as she does, be as she is, go as she goes. Which, alas, may be with or without me.

4.26.2017

The Poses of Prose: On Writing, Yoga, and Embodiment


I recently had a realization about yoga thanks to the incredible genius of my teacher, Kia Meaux. I always thought yoga was about these very precise poses, more or less discrete, that could be strung together into a routine to stretch the body, its muscles and ligaments and the like. But, as Kia has taught me, yoga is a practice that's not about stretching per se: it's about becoming embodied. (She likes to say that she can show you all of yoga in one pose. I love that.)

That's an incredibly complex idea: to become an embodied body. At first, it sounds absurd. After all, aren't we already embodied? Isn't that what all this — this flesh, these fingers, these farts  — is? Isn't this my embodiment?

Sure, in some sense. But in another sense, we are actually rarely in and of and with our bodies. I, for one, certainly am not. I imagine myself as a nose on a stick that emits words while ideas flow and ricochet around me. So when I've tried to do yoga, I spend all this time listening to what the teacher says then trying to contort my body into some pose that looks like what she's doing. All my attention is on understanding while my body is only tangentially involved. The result is not pretty.

Kia made me stop all that. A pose, for her, is a set of possibilities. It is a way that discloses as many ways as there are bodies. I start contorting my body and ask: Is this right? She replies: How does it feel? Which is to say, there is no absolute pose. There is a way of sitting with one's body that draws more or less attention to this or that part — the hamstrings, the spine, the shoulders. It's about experiencing that part of the body, not necessarily stretching it. The pose — and its stretch — is a way, not an end: it's a way to being present with the world as oneself.

As I consider her question — How does it feel? — my mind folds into my flesh. My attention is on my body, in my body, and when it all feels as it feels (even if hurts a bit), my attention becomes my body. The pose-that's-not-a-pose is an exercise in being present with my body in the world — feeling gravity's embrace, feeling the muscle extend, feeling the pleasure and sometimes a little pain. The end result is not a limber body or hot ass; those are by-products. The end result is living well with the world.

After a few lessons, I tell Kia: I can't believe the way you move so fluidly in your body, your understanding, your teaching. To which she replies, more or less: That's how I feel about you and your writing.  

This was an incredible moment for me as I suddenly saw writing as a kind of yoga practice. We often imagine writing as disembodied, an abstraction from the world. But, for me, writing is leaning in with my whole self, my body and mind and senses. Writing is a practice of going with ideas, language, moods, and sensations. It's rarely if ever about expressing a pre-formed idea and having it fit perfectly with the words. Writing is not a pose. It's a way.

Now, I've often compared writing to surfing — another thing I have never done and, in this case, something I will never do as I don't even know how to swim. But what I love about surfing is that in order to move, you have to lean into the wave. And then, once there, you have to remain poised. Lean too far back or too far forward and you're gone. It's a constant negotiation of forces, adjustments being made on the fly with the tumult of the ocean. The figure that ties writing to surfing and yoga is the demand of embodiment. But I don't want to conflate all these things; so now I'm gonna stick to yoga.

When I write, I'm looking for a flow — a flow of words, of ideas, of revelations, of affect, and of myself with those elements. I'm not sitting back and composing; I am performing, practicing, on the screen, with the keyboard, with my fingers, with my thoughts, with the thoughts of others, with tangents and dreams, with wisps of notions and fleeting sensations, with all the vicissitudes of language and its grammar and sounds and shapes. As in a yoga routine, I am moving the energy from there to there to there, feeling my way through — for a word, for the stretch of an idea, for an energy, for a flow that, uh, flows. And noting it all. Heeding it all. Experiencing it all. (Well, maybe not always all. But a lot! Or much! Or, sometimes, some!) Writing is not a standing back but an immersion.

For me, writing is not about delivering an answer. As in yoga, there is no telos; there is only flow (of course, your writing teachers may disagree and fail you). The goal of writing — for me as well as for my readers, few and insane as they may be — is not to have a goal but to attain a certain enlivening, a certain waking up, a taking notice, a being present. One might say that the endpoint-which-is-not-an-endpoint of writing is a kind of embodiment: a moving with the world (rather than a taking leave of the world through abstraction, anxiety, fear, ego, and the like). Oh, when in that groove, the words stream, the ideas stretch, my mind and loins and gut all working as a little engine with language and the weight and contours of ideas and sensations to forge....this.

But doesn't writing inherently have an audience in a way yoga does not? Well, that depends on how you look at it. For me, writing is personal. I'd write with or without publishing it as writing is the act, is the making sense, is the stretch: is the embodiment. But, that aside, yoga has an audience, too. When you're moving your energy about, flexing your ass with your downward facing dog and such, you're writing on and with the body. Your flesh, as well as your spirit or whatever you want to call it, is your screen. You are the page, the words, the ideas, the affect, the flow: you are the essay.

Like yoga, writing has a grammar (nifty move there, eh?). Yoga has poses and movements between poses, a vocabulary and a grammar that turns around hips, breath, spine, neck, balance (not knowing much, I'll stop there). What are the poses in writing? As in yoga, there are thousands if not infinite: there are as many poses as there are writing bodies.

For instance, there is the circle: tying the beginning into the end. I use this pose often. In my last post, for instance, I begin with the pleasure of distinction and end with a call to more distinctions. That's a shape, like child's pose, in which there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of give (oy! "give" as a noun is downright fantastic!).

There's the related tangent which, if you think about it, is a sideways stretch. For example, above, I talked about surfing while talking about yoga. 

The non-sequitur — that is, talking about something completely unrelated — is under appreciated as schools systematically beat it out of us. What does this have to do with anything? they scribble madly in the margins (they was often I). But I've come to really like the understated cool of the band, Suicide. 


The failed attempt is a great performative pose. A friend of mine just sent me a great example of this. He was writing about his art, trying to explain it this way and that, but each effort came up short. So he shifts and addresses the nature of the coming up short. 

Alliteration and other forms of mouth filling are great go-tos (note the title of this meandering post. Oh! Meander! That's a great figure for the form of essays in general). While this is often what we imagine as being writerly, it is not something taught in composition classes: the way words fill the mouth, even when silently read. (When I taught comp, I had students read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" out loud in class. We'd go around the room, everyone taking a stanza — who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York/ who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night/ with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls....)I fear if I did that today, I'd be fired, sued, and molested on social media). The written word, after all, is never totally silent. Such is the nature of a phonetic alphabet — the words slither from the page across your tongue and down your throat. Nabokov loved to fill the mouth, almost suffocating you with confection: 

Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please! (From Ada). 

I could go on and on. The shift of address: suddenly address your reader directly. The reversal: take a claim everyone assumes and flip it — belief in god is...nihilism! There are so many prose poses. But none of that matters. The point is to move with. To  keep the flow flowing, feeling good and right or, perhaps, just flowing: if it gets too contrived, change positions. Start over. Shake it off. 

The point is not to think of writing as having a point. It's not about expressing an idea from my body to yours. Writing is a doing. It demands you being present.How does that feel? How about that? And that? It's all a stretch but the stretch is not the endpoint. The goal-which-is-not-a-goal is to feel with the world. It's to notice. To experience. To be embodied.

Oh, here's another amazing thing to realize about writing, a realization akin to what Kia taught me: there are no hard and fast rules. You can split infinitives, end in prepositions, not use sentences. Just ask yourself: How does it feel?

4.03.2017

On Kink and Perversion

I've always been a fan of the keen distinction. For instance, simple and easy. It's quite simple to stop smoking: you simply don't smoke. But that doesn't make it easy. I find such a sensual pleasure in feeling those words and ideas, which are so readily conflated, differentiated. A distinction makes many where there was once one. There's a great joy in such a will to distinguish, an affirmation of life in all its difference.

Here's another distinction that was introduced to me of late by a here-unnamed genius: kink and perversion. In public discourse, these words are bandied about — when they are in fact bandied about which, to be fair, may be more common in San Francisco than elsewhere —anyway, when casually referring to sexual proclivities, one may find oneself conflating kinky and pervy when, in fact, the two could not be more different.

Kink is territorial. It often has a space — a dungeon, a "doctor's office," a boudoir. Of course, this is not a requirement but it is of note that the world of kink often claims a territory, even if only temporarily. And once inside that space, there are all kinds of rules. Behavior is rigorously controlled. Of course, within those controls, there may be plenty of opportunity for exploration and expression. Still, the kink is defined by the fact that it has definition, both spatial and regulatory stipulation.

The non-kink world — let's call it the vanilla world — has space and rules, too. It has the bedroom and, sometimes, the couch. It has unstated rules of behavior: we'll kiss for a while, touch, lick, then do it. During the act, there may be flourishes of surprise — an ass spanked, a throat grabbed, a thigh bitten. But any serious deviation is not tolerated.

The difference between vanilla and kink, then, is not immediately obvious. But the way I see it, the distinction lies in the word kink itself: rather than a straight line, there is a coiled, spiraling, kinky line — more fusilli than spaghetti. Or what Lucretius refers to as clinamen, the curve in the flow of atoms. If vanilla finds the erotic within the blindness of established rules — there is nothing natural per se about vanilla or kink; they are both contrivances and both expressions of the erotic — kink finds the erotic in other places, in other ways, in other rules. (It is, without a doubt, more complex than this; I am less interested in the psychology of it than in the social and semantic distinctions.)

Perversion is something else entirely. Perversion operates without any territory. In the words of Michel de Certeau, perverts poach. They find their pleasure in the territory of others. The pervert is, in some sense, a rhetorician always seeking erotic kairos — or is it kairotic eros? — within the everyday.

Let's take a subway ride. It is a common space in which there are all kinds of  rules, legal and social. For example, we don't sit on someone else's lap (unless it's a parent and child or, sometimes, two lovers). In fact, we usually respect a certain distance between our fellow travelers. This space is not dictated by state law but it is surely dictated and different country to country, culture to culture. We all know these rules.

On this subway, on this common conveyance, we go about our way, dressed for work or galavanting or what have you. And there, on the subway, is our pervert. Let's make it a she just for the goof. Her eyes scan the car looking for that opportunity, a crack in the everyday edifice through which eros flows — a look in someone's eye, a smile, a sandaled foot, and then....an exposed knee. Gulp! Her eyes trace the knee, linger over the bend, drift over the calf, perhaps explore to see if there's a thigh.

There are, of course, such cracks all the time. The doctor's office, for instance: it's a strange place in which being naked in front of a near-stranger is not illegal or even frowned upon. It's even demanded! This is ripe territory for a pervert. Now take all the sandals and skirts, all the exposed shoulders, all the shorts and yoga pants, all the eyes and smiles and scents and suddenly the world brims with erotic possibility, cracks through which eros — a profound and relentless force — can flow.


What makes the pervert so reviled is she doesn't ask permission: she searches, she looks, she finds her pleasure in that social crack (as it were) all without asking. Kink is all about permission. Kink loves contracts and safe words: Chattanooga! and everything comes to a halt — the ball gag comes out, the whip relents, the electrodes stop flowing.

The pervert, however, never asks for permission. For some perverts, this not asking may very well be the source of erotic delight — a kind of rape, even if only with eyes. When we think of perversion, we think of the man in an overcoat, flashing unsuspecting people on the street or the subway. It's icky, for sure. But, ethical judgment aside, what defines perversion is an exploitation of a moment within the everyday without asking for permission.

But this doesn't mean all perverts are criminals or are even icky. After all, how else are we to meet each other, find pleasure in new people, if we didn't take advantage of those propitious moments of, and within, the erotic? We used to approach people in cafés and bars because we were attracted to them, because we felt the tug and pull of eros within the everyday. Is it perverse to note this then act on it? Of course not.

What distinguishes the pervert is that the tug and pull may very well be the limit of the play; she has no desire to ask out the knee. This, here and now, this gaze, the intersection of eye and knee, this play of energy, is itself the erotic moment. It's not foreplay; it's not an initiation. It is an act unto itself.

So let's imagine an ethical pervert, someone who finds the erotic within the everyday but doesn't want to be icky, doesn't want to be criminal, doesn't want to offend. She wants a kind of permission. But the very possibility of perversion is not having that permission. And so begins a complex negotiation of eyes and energies, a complex rhetorical reckoning within the delirious space of the erotic. Perhaps she lingers on that knee but when the person whose knee it is suddenly becomes uncomfortable, she turns her gaze — and her erotic energy — away. But maybe, just maybe, the knee enjoys that gaze. And maybe, just maybe, that knee begins to flirt back with those eyes and now there is an erotic transaction — silent, perhaps, but no less real, no less profound, no less erotic for it.

The ethical pervert has a hard time, for sure. The risks are enormous. There are legal risks — arrest and such — and then social risks: unspeakable humiliation. But perhaps the rewards are equally enormous. Perhaps riding eros flowing through the banal drift of everyday life is a delight worth the risk.

I, for one, have been known to be a social pervert (avec and sans eros). I like to disrupt the unspoken everyday order of things, usually out of boredom. For instance, when I step into an elevator, rather than turn my back and quietly regard the ascending or descending numbers, I face the crowd. It's so simple but it really throws people off. Which eases my own anxiety about being part of the herd. And maybe suggests, however slightly, that there are unspoken rules everywhere and we can break these rules.

For Marshall McLuhan, art is a kind of perversion that seeks to expose the terms of the environment — or what we might call the Matrix, all those invisible but insidious terms that define how we are to behave with each other and ourselves.

Perversion of a sort, then, is a revolutionary act precisely because it never asks for permission. Kink, meanwhile, tends towards the conservative in its will to rules. It may be way outside the everyday matrix but, to the pervert, it's just the new boss, same as the old boss. The pervert seeks to disrupt any terms, regardless of the rules. Of course, the flasher and frotteurist isn't a revolutionary. He's pretty icky. So maybe calling all of this perversion conflates too many unlike things. Perhaps we need more distinctions.