The Speed and Flow of Matthew Ritchie

[I offer this essay as an example of non-exemplary reading or what I call immanent reading. This is the topic of my soon to be available book, Reading the Way of Things: Towards a New Technology of Making Sense.]

Arrows are informational. They inform us about things we can't see, telling us where to go when we can't see the road ahead or what direction unseen forces  — such as wind — are moving. They presumably sit outside the action, telling us about the action but not part of the action per se. I suppose we can say that arrows are meta, that much loved word of our day.

Look at Matthew Ritchie's arrows. What are they telling us? What is it that's flowing this way and that? At least in part, it seems to be the movement of the forms, the colored shapes that are sprawling in different directions simultaneously. In this case, the arrows inform and warn us: Here come the forms!

These arrows seem to inform about other things, too. Is it the trajectory of an explosion? Of percepts flying? Or might they suggest the movement of other forces, as well, such as affect? In that case, the arrows aren't showing the future state of the forms but the present state of the invisible forms or forces that are flowing with the forms.

But these arrows are not only informational. They are themselves constitutive of the painting, of the very material of this world. Which is to say, the arrows here are not outside the fray — are not meta — but are of the fray, in the slosh of form and percept and affect. They may mark the direction of flow but they themselves flow, as well.

And so it is with the meta. There is no outside. The map is part of the territory, another perspective. Take away these arrows and the painting is still moving, although more slowly, less frenetically. The arrows not only give information; they accelerate the painting.

What of those forms? They are clearly in motion, at once dissolving and forming themselves. This is a portrait of life creating itself. I read it in line with Cézanne's still lifes. Which is a funny word for them. As Burroughs writes: Cézanne shows a pear seen close up, at a distance, from various angles and in different light...the pear at dawn, midday, twilight...all compacted into one pear...time and space in a pear, an apple, a fish. Still life? No such thing. As he paints, the pear is ripening, rotting, shrinking, swelling. 

Ritchie here gives us an extreme close up of Cézanne's apples coming in and out of being. Or else he gives us a cosmically wide lens view, the apple as one speck within the teem of existence. But, like Cézanne, Ritchie gives us the very formation of form, its multiple trajectories, its lack of an outside concept, of anything determining the form other than the form's movement. As with Cézanne, Ritchie doesn't use outlines. A thing's center and outline run through the whole of the form; one might say, with Deleuze, that the outline is in the middle.

Ritchie gives us the very flow and formation of the world, form drifting into being, into becoming, into dissolution only to become form again and anew. This is time and space either sped up or slowed way down.


Transgressive Art, Or How Linklater's "Everyone Wants Some!!" is Radical

On the urging of a friend, I watched YouTube videos of Chuck Palahniuk reading excerpts from a work in progress. It focused on the process of his father's dying and these jokes they'd tell each other— exceedingly crass, sometimes hilarious, and inevitably "offensive". I enjoyed it but finally found it trying to shock and offend and never quite succeeding. My friend felt the same but wanted it to be nasty, edgy, somehow transgressive. He yearned for the shtick of Georges Bataille, William Burroughs, the Sex Pistols, something smart but punky, sexy, and with a whiff of nihilism.

I like Palahniuk well enough. But the reality is, today, there is no such thing as transgression, as transgressive art. Palahniuk was trying to shock but there's no way to shock any more, not really, not with violence or sex or nihilism. I actually believe Palahniuk's piece is about exactly that: the impossibility of transgression. Hence, Fight Club: Nothing left to do but beat the shit out of each other.

I remember in college there was always a lit class entitled, "Literature of Transgression," filled with all the familiar names. But none of that makes any sense anymore. Once capitalism — or, better, capital — realized that there was money in transgression, in punk, in sexy nihilism, transgression became impossible. Now it's just another commodity. There are no lines to cross, no way to shock and disgust and disrupt. It's easy, of course, to piss off or offend this or that crowd. But that's the dismay of a "special interest" group; it's not cosmic dismay. There is no thrill in it.

And yet it is still possible to transgress. Trust me, I do it all the time. I have felt the ire, the ressentiment, of various powers that be for as long as I can remember — anxious, fear-riddled academics, secretly self-loathing CEOs, self-proclaimed radical would-be girlfriends.

But transgression doesn't happen, indeed can't happen, where we expect to find it — in attitude. Transgression, today, can only happen at the level of structure or what McLuhan calls the environment. This has always been true. Just think of Burroughs. Sure, he made sex really, really weird but that's not what makes his work pop. What makes Burroughs so outrageous in a way that, say, Henry Miller can never be, is Burroughs' utter disregard for, and recasting of, the the basic rules of the form (to the dismay of most, no doubt). No character identification, no plot, grammar stretched to its limit: this is where Burroughs' transgression lies, not in his gay alien sex.

Which brings me to Richard Linklater's latest film, Everyone Wants Some!! It's at once a slight and utterly profound film. Nothing much happens. The film follows a gaggle of boys on a college baseball team, three days before classes start. They talk, tease, dance, get in arguments, get drunk, get laid meet various people. Each time there's a different episode — they go dancing at a country bar then a punk club then a disco bar — I thought: this will be the scene where something big happens and the relationships — and the film itself — will shift.

But nope. All the various conflicts that arise are part and parcel of the film; they flow with all the conviviality. The movie is almost completely bereft of plot. I actually read article on Linklater in which he said he made the movie as a follow up to Dazed and Confused which he felt was too narrative driven. Everyone Wants Some!! would be even less narrative driven.

And so it is. And in this there is something truly transgressive and, finally, quite radical. On the one hand, it defies our basic assumptions and expectations of film, of character, of storytelling. There are no character arcs (pace Christopher Moltisanti). There is no change. No one learns anything. Nothing terrible happens. Even when there is a moment of surprise about a character that seems negative, they briefly discuss that what happened is actually kinda cool — and then move on. (Spoiler alert: The guy is kicked off the team for not being enrolled; he's in his 30s but just wants to keep on playing ball and hanging around with the kids getting high and meeting girls. And this is the most momentous event in the film! A guy wants to keep having fun but he can't!).

Unlike certain modernist writing in which nothing works out, in this film everything works out. Only there's no working out neceessary. It's all good. This film doesn't need conflict to drive it forward. It just needs people living their lives. As the title emphatically declares, everyone wants some!! With a double exclamation!!

And that, alas, is radical. It asks something different of our attention, our assumptions, our expectations. It is punk rock in that it refuses to give us the normal way of things — characters discovering themselves or obstacles being overcome. But it's transgressive in another way entirely: by offering a radical affirmation of life in an age of relentless judgment and consumption. Look at all this, the film says. Enjoy all this. Ain't it grand? Doesn't everyone want some?!?

The film gives us a joy that defies and belies the narrative structures that hinder joy and affirmation. This is a film of jouissance. Or, better, this film is jouissance. It offers a fundamentally different way of creating, enjoying, and living. And what's more radical than that?


On the Everyday, Energy, and Transcendence

The day has a way of exhausting me. Traffic and asshole drivers, miscommunication and miscues with co-workers and lovers alike, noise — so much noise! —, dyspepsia, the humiliations of public bathrooms, Tinder notifications: the day is run through with no's and parries and hesitations, all this ducking, weaving, and kvetching. It sucks the life from us. I'd say it sucks the life from me but I see it on the streets and trains, in the drawn faces of everyone around me: life sucks the life from all of us.

We can think about life as a matter, as it were, of energy— which is how I read Nietzsche and why I finally understand Bataille. We are engines that demand consumption and production. All these words! All these outfits! All these shoes and meals and TV shows and dating profiles! These all demand energy without returning much, if any, energy.  Sure, a new purchase provides a temporary thrill of accumulation. But this passes, the consumerist energy exchange finally disadvantageous for the living, breathing, desiring human body — all expenditure without return. Eventually, the energy ceases and we die, often at an excruciatingly slow pace.

There are different ways to respond to this environmental disaster, this relentless expenditure of energy. I find I often turn off, deflecting the harangues of the day with distraction. The day takes on a muted hue as I enter some kind of fog — which is a funny way to put it as the fog of San Francisco often knocks me out of my daze, bringing me to attention with its weight, its melancholia, its visual beauty — to suddenly see the sky drape the land, drifting according to an internal logic that is clearly modulated by the earth!— anyway, I often find myself in this other kind of fog, a cognitive-existential fog, a distraction of profound banality, a hum of no particular regard.

But it has the advantage of involving a minimal energy expenditure. I suddenly don't really care about the tugs and demands of my time and being, the hassles of relationships, traffic, work, apps, the horrors of the world at large. All that passes me by, more or less. It's my version of Nietzsche's Russian fatalism:  

Against all this the cultural worker has only one great remedy: I call it Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt which is exemplified by a Russian soldier who, finding a campaign too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything — to cease reacting altogether. This fatalism is not always merely the courage to die; it can also preserve life under the most perilous conditions by reducing the metabolism, slowing it down, as a kind of will to hibernate. Carrying this logic a few steps further, we arrive at the fakir who sleeps for weeks in a grave. 

The day-to-day of my white middle class but somehow broke world begs for the distraction readily come by thanks to Netflix, the interweb, HBO. Malaise, then, as a way to stand towards the everyday without becoming totally depleted: fatalism as survival.

But malaise becomes a living death, zombieism. It minimizes expenditure but it also minimizes accumulation. So I see why people look to the infinite universe for energy. They crave transcendence,  a shedding of all this — the inconveniences and humiliations of body and words and other people — and enter a seething world of infinite, eternal bliss. So many different philosophies, theories, and models beckon us, invite us to recognize this world as transient and irrelevant, a different and better order of things just past our line of sight. If you're gonna skip the here and now, it might as well be transcendence and not HBO.

But this is transcendence as the Great No to life itself. It's a certain suicidal will or worse, a will to nothingness. No doubt, there is something beautiful and enticing in such a promise. I get it. It's a more enticing promise than HBO. But it feels wrong to me. It doesn't sit well with me. It's premised on ressentiment, on a certain distaste for life — a distaste with which I empathize, mind you. 

Amidst this all, however, are those experiences I've had since I was young, those incredible moments in which the quotidian all-too-human demands fade and give way to a cosmic seething, the glorious hum of stars and sky and ocean, the cry of a Yes that exceeds all those Nos. This is not transcendence per se; it is a call to the seething now. When I sit at the beach and behold the sky, the cosmic swirling, I am infused with a newfound vitality. The cosmos offers energy without asking for much, if anything, in return. The trees and plants all find abundance in the sun and air. I can, too.

Transcendence, then, for me is a practical and material enterprise: it is a way to access enormous, indeed infinite, energy. It's a problem of matter and physics, not truths and hierarchies. To me, the infinite lurks everywhere, in everything, as the very condition of matter. The sky, stars, and clouds — the sun and wind and sprawl — provide the most ready energy source. But this seething exists everywhere. It is not out there per se. It's not matter of overcoming the body and everyday. It's a practical matter of being fueled up.

My metaphysics enjoys a non-hierarchical architecture. The infinite is every which way, integrated into every moment of the universe as an energy source, a life source, a way to accumulate energy without expenditure.

I suppose transcendence might be the wrong word, the wrong trajectory, the wrong architecture. Perhaps I'm talking about something else all together, a movement into and with the world, riding its waves of infinite seething as the way to be alive.


On Form

Right now, I'm sitting in a café listening to Brian Eno on my headphones. Sounds stream into my senses — my ears, sure, but also my cognitive and affective senses. There's some electronic humming, for lack of a better word, that is modulated, rising and falling in tone and intensity. There are some single keyboard notes meandering slowly about. The entire thing threatens to not be a thing at all but to be noise, unrelated sonic drones and dings. And yet the flow of sound, while seemingly undetermined by a concept or an external structure such as verse-chorus-verse, isn't arbitrary per se. There is a coherence — or, better, coherences.

What ties a thing together so that we can say it's this and not that?  From one perspective, form seems so obvious. Look! A table! A chair! A person! Form is simply what's given to us. But from another perspective, form becomes arbitrary and precarious, if it can even be said to be at all, form as a conspiracy of historical and cultural forces born of a human weakness to see order amid the disorder  of an indifferent universe.

Let's take this Brian Eno music again. I was going to write Brian Eno song but I'm not sure that's the right word. Song seems, well,  so determined, so definite. You can hold a song in your hand. I'm not sure music is right, either. Both words assume and predetermine in multiple ways. After all, if we interrogate the notion of music, don't we leave the realm of records and Spotify and begin to hear the music of birds, of conversations, of what we might call street noise? Isn't this what John Cage does in 4'33"?

In fact, let's look at that John Cage for a moment (what makes an essay an essay? Do I have to stick to one object? One train of thought? Does thought travel by rail?). What makes it something not nothing? Wait, that's not the right question. The question is: What makes it order not chaos? Or what makes it music not noise? Or my favorite question: what makes this piece hang together as a piece?
(The question is everything; in every question, there lurks a theory of form.)

Well, it has many of the cultural, and hence historical, trappings of a piece of music. It has a composer, namely, John Cage. It has a title, 4'33". It is played in a concert hall before an audience; it has a player who sits in front of his piano. And, as the title declares, it has a set duration.

All of these things are, of course, seemingly external to the music. When we actually listen to the music, we hear ourselves and those around us. We hear heating ducts, the buzz of electricity, coughs, fabric rubbing against fabric as legs cross and uncross. We hear breath. And perhaps we experience peace, anxiety, joy, annoyance, distraction. The only reason we call it a piece of music rather than just noise is a series of external elements.

What, though, is internal and what is external? There is no natural state vs. cultural state of things, nothing that pre-dates the world, that hence pre-dates phenomena. There are no things that don't interact with ideas (at least negatively) or impress upon the world one way or another. Everything is historical. And so everything, to this or that degree, hangs together by the forces of history, culture, and concept. These are not forces that are added to a thing; they are constitutive of a thing.

There is no pure thing, no pure form. Or, rather, all forms are pure with the things that constitute it. These includes materials, forces, ideas, social agreements, hiccups, and processes. Form, then, comes to be — or comes to become — neither through ideas nor materials but through an amalgamation, a calculus, an assemblage of both and more.

Which is to say, unlike for Plato and Kant and others, forms are not determined by ideas or categories. But neither are forms strictly physical beings. Forms are made of an intertwining of elements visible and invisible (pace Merleau-Ponty). 

So what makes a form a form? Back to Brian Eno. While his piece — and, yes, it's a piece even if in many ways it is multiple pieces and never quite a piece — enjoys many of the so-called external elements such as a composer, duration, performance, it has what we might think of as internal coherences, as well. The most obvious is the refrain (see Deleuze and Guattari). A refrain is a return of a theme, a repetition of an element — a rhythmic bass line, a certain repeated drone signal. But if the repetition becomes too predictable, it is no longer a repetition and, in some ways, it ceases to be music and becomes mechanical, the insistence of a factory (which is still a form but not a piece of music). As Deleuze and Guattari write, Home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds.

Picture the universe, outer space and all that. Picture the whirl of forces, the pushes and pulls and collisions of bodies. Picture solar systems and black holes. Picture magnets and covalent bonds. Bodies, invisible and visible, are drawn and repelled by and to and with each other. The world is aswirl in forces and bodies. The question of why is there form is therefore absurd. Of course there are forms! There are forms as there are bodies and forces and these bodies and forces conjoin and repel each other relentlessly. That's the way it is. They don't need ideas to do that. Ideas are part of that swirl.

But a form is not a fixed thing — and this is what throws a lot of thinkers off. If we imagine forms as geometric, as existing in three dimensions and only as spatially extended, then forms seem either definite or in such a state of flux that they cease to be forms. But if we imagine forms as always already moving, as being four dimensional from the get go, then we shift our understanding and questions. We need to begin with the calculus, not geometry.

A form is never just a form. It is forming. And the "it" in that sentence can be multiple things. For instance, from one perspective, I am a form: Daniel. From another perspective, my toe is a form (and not Daniel's toe; just toe or that toe there). Ideas and categories are forms, too. The idea of romantic love is a shockingly firm and determined form. Literature is a form. And, like all forms, literature and romantic love are multiple and ever changing.

A form, then, is a local cohering from and with a perspective. Form always has a trajectory that it forms with a perspective. Picture the Eames' Powers of 10: zooming in and out shifts perspectives and the very terms of a form. Now add people and animals rather than a disembodied lens and these perspectives and forms multiply exponentially. Forms are as sure as they are precarious.


On Attention

I'm sitting her right now on my couch, feet up on the coffee table, cocktail by said feet, the Warriors game on the TV, the inane but pleasant banter of Marv Albert filling the room.  All these sites of attention: computer, TV, cocktail. And this doesn't take into consideration all the other things — present and not — occupying some aspect of my attention: rice cooking in kitchen, friend in other room, possible social engagement in an hour, not to mention my entire life looming and stirring and making itself heard and felt directly and indirectly in nearly every fiber of my being.

Attention is an odd thing. On the one hand, there is a certain qualitative measure as my attention is divided between an ever changing calculus of a certain number of things to a certain degree — at this moment, this essay has 68% of my attention, the game 19%, what Reggie Miller and Marv Albert are saying 1%, what I'm eating for dinner 7%, the various and sundry aspect of my life the remaining 5%.

But attention is not a place, a set quantity. It is an act — an act of perceptive focus. When I focus on this or that, I am actively making sense of that thing, following its moves, its flow. And yet attention is not strictly speaking active for it is an act of making oneself a receptor of certain perceptions (and not others), letting them cohere as they will in my body and mind.

Attention, then, is an active form of submission to a force or event that is not just perception. Attention is discerning and involves something more than perception, another step in sense making. Or perhaps a greater intensity of perception, a greater sensitivity. Where we often parry perceptions — background noise, sirens, and such — attention lets all the nuance of a thing, a force, an event flourish.

When I'm writing this, I am focused on the words, on the flow of ideas, on what came before and what could come next while the game is a kind of ambient fog. Which is to say, the ideas, words, and act of writing impress upon me and, all the while, I am doing things with these perceptions.

Sometimes, however, I do too much with them at which point I am not really paying attention anymore, or not paying attention to the ideas but to the words or other ideas which attention reminds me of. The focal point of attention shifts relentlessly from the stir of ideas to how those ideas hit words to the shape of the essay as a whole to the absurd image of what an audience might be thinking (absurd as how could I know which is one reason I was long averse to publishing anything: it makes for another focal point — and one that's nebulous, at best).  For me, the best writing — or the writing I enoy the most — is when my attention focal point is it at the crux of ideas and words, that point where thinking hits language and the two entwine, working together to create this shape here.

Which, once again, leads us to a spatial understanding of attention: it has a focal point. But of course attention is spatial: as attention is a mode of perception, and perception is always worldly (even when tending to invisible bodies such as ideas, emotions, memories), attention must be turned this way or that. In fact, that's what attention is: a turning towards and with something.

Now, from time to time, I look up as this essay fades and I see Curry and Green and Durant negotiating space and time and each other, the basketball game and its elaborate sense making its way into me, through me, with me. At these times, when I'm not just watching the game but paying attention to the game, I am pervaded with its affective flow. I can anticipate shots, passes, drives to the basket. When I pay attention to the game, I am participating in its flows (which is different from when I'm just watching the game, acknowledging the score, who made what play, but the affective intensity is absent).

Attention is rarely, if ever, focused on just one thing. The different zones of attention form what the sophist/poet/philosopher Lohren Green calls a seam: between and amidst the attention of different events, things, and forces — between and amidst the different acts of attention — there is bleed, overlap, mutual or aparallel inflection.

Listening to music while writing is an obvious example. Certain music propels certain ideas, certain words, a certain flow. I, for one, can't listen to rock & roll or indie pop while I'm writing. The melodies are too demanding of my attention. Like most people,  I prefer less demanding music while writing. Right now, the game long over, I'm listening to Brian Eno's "Lux" which is not as drifting as his strictly ambient albums and not near as poppy as, say, "Another Green World."

But I'm not sure yet if it's the right music for this moment, for this essay, for this mode and intensity of attention I have right now. When it is right, the words are nudged from me, provoked, even given propulsion. The wrong music dizzies me or, worse, turns my prose dramatic or too subdued or too emphatic. For years, Erik Satie was the only music I could listen to while writing; I wanted my attention, my writing, to echo the Gymnopédies. Now, I don't want my words and ideas to be that precise, that distinct. Often, I listen to the Boredoms when I write as I try to inflect the intensity and pace of my attention.

I'm sitting in a café now and I just caught myself looking up and staring out the window. Only I wasn't staring at all. My vision was blurry; I wasn't focusing on the things in this space: my attention was elsewhere. I was looking for the focus of this essay, this paragraph, where it should go next. My attention, at that point, was less a perceptive processing as much as a search. It was looking for a focal point, like a photographer turning the whatchamacallit, deciding what to put into focus and what to blur.

Attention, then, can be intensely physical — as it is for athletes and surgeons and as it hopefully is during sex — but it can also zoom past all this stuff to find focus on an idea, a memory, a notion.

It's very odd to pay attention to attention. Funny enough, it's hard to pay attention to attention as the notion of attention keeps sending me astray, dissipating, diffusing, and deferring my attention.