The Form Writing Takes: Essays, Books, Notes

Recently, I find myself disinclined to write. Which is funny — and a bit disconcerting — as writing has been my go-to delight since I was 20 and writing my undergraduate honors thesis. I discovered then that I could churn out the pages and that it filled me not just with delight but with vitality. I never feel more alive and entwined with the universe than when I'm writing.

For me, writing has never been an expression of thoughts I've had. It is thought itself happening right now across the page (or screen, as the case may be — although I do continue to write on my tiny Rhodia pad). Writing, for me, is an experience rather than a recounting. I am at the edge of my seat, literally, but also at the edge of my thoughts and the edges of words and grammar — reaching, delving, exploring, seeking the right word, the right turn of phrase, as ideas take shape before my eyes. It is thrilling, life at the limit of its own becoming.

Recently, I've published a book with a press I love, Zero Books (the official release date is August 26th). It's a book I've written and re-written many times over the last 20 years. So it feels good that it's out there in this present form; it is a pretty good summation of thoughts I've had — and believed, I suppose — for decades.

But I think that its bookishness, its closed borders, has dampened my will to write. Books are so final. In the process of publishing, I had to sign off on the manuscript's finality along the way. And now it's bound and printed, an object in the world. I can't tweak a phrase, add an idea, qualify a claim. There it is, repeating itself over and over to anyone who will read it. It's done.

This is a beautiful thing in its way. Like the Oulipo writers, I enjoy constraints. If I hadn't published this book, I'd keep writing it over and over. Which is beautiful, too, but in a different way. With the thingness of a book demanding a finale, a form is birthed, perhaps a bit misshapen but a life unto itself nonetheless. It will now do what it does, have the effects and affects it does. (Plato and Derrida differ over how they feel about precisely this fact: Plato is a bit anxious that writing has no parent to defend it; Derrida loves this undoing of subjectivity; but both feel the power of this detachment from the person.)

I always enjoyed writing books (although this is my first one published). I loved writing my dissertation; as I've written in the past, writing a book is constructing a house from the inside out — while living in it! You can add whatever room you want, knock down walls as you go.

But after my son was born, my ability to have the kind of time and space — practically and intellectually — was, well, eliminated. And so, tentatively, I took up blogging. At first, all my posts were essays I'd write first in Word before cutting and pasting into blogware. Over time, however, I took to writing directly into the blog UI. I enjoy this liveliness, my writing sitting somewhere between me, my screen, and the internet. I like this plasticity, that I can change it, write over it, write it again as I wish, when I wish, with nearly no obstacles. If a book is solid, a blog is liquid.

Essays are an incredible form, so generous (I wrote about them here). They afford me a freedom, a space and form to improvise and play.

But recently I keep having thoughts, flickers of ideas. I jot them down or verbally record them on my phone. In the past, I've thought of these notes as seeds that might germinate and become essays. But now I am attracted to their brevity, to the fact that they don't go anywhere. I like the fragmented nature of the note.

If I published just one note on this blog, in this interface, it would look silly, look almost wrong. And readers would be confused or maybe bored (of course, they may be bored right now reading this essay about not writing essays). Where, then, does the note live? Twitter, perhaps. That's certainly how I use my Twitter (talk about an Oulipo-style constraint!).

But I don't always want that constraint, either. I want the note to go as it will, fork as it will, end as it will. I can do this in my pad and my voice memos. But how do I publish notes? Maybe they're not for publishing; maybe notes are too private to be of interest to anybody else. We'll see, I suppose.


Reading the Way of Things

So, in collaboration with the fine publisher of Zero Books — the writer, Doug Lain — I am creating a series of video/podcasts that seek to explicate my book (available on Amazon but ask your local bookstore, please).  In this first part, I try to explain what I mean by a technology and, specifically, the technology of what I call exemplary reading — readings things as examples of other things.

That is, we tend to read things by not reading them but rather by plugging them into a preexisting category such as genre, ideology, history, or biography. Just think about museums: people look at the painting and then, immediately, read the writing on the wall. Rather than reckoning what's in front of them, they read the history and category of the painting in order to understand it. To read the world — to understand, enjoy, and make sense of things — we turn away from them.

In the following videos, I'll proffer an alternate mode of critique, what I call immanent reading — which, obviously, draws from Deleuze and Guattari's schizoanalysis but also from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. Immanent reading does not posit a thing in itself. On the contrary, immanent reading begins with the assumption of things are multiple, run through with other things. Immanent reading is not about discovering the truth of a thing but involves following, and (co)creating, the different ways a thing can go.


Teaching Criticism

When I consider my formal education, I try to think of how and when I was taught critical thinking. I know it was never a topic in and of itself. When we teach kids, we tend to teach a subject matter. This is American History and these are the things you need to know. And then come the names and dates and events which are usually the names and dates of government (and military) actions — and, sometimes, the resistance to said actions. Critical thinking is not even considered a thing to teach (by most and certainly by the mass makers of curricula and testing).

This is not too surprising for several reasons. Most notably, I suppose, of course we learn about the state seeing as education is state mandated and, for the most part, state administered (even private schools are bound by state curricula and testing). So the state teaches about itself, its own history and operation — which is to say, we teach propaganda.

And, well, teaching subject matter — names dates, events — is easy to teach and easy to standardize. We can all learn the same facts; tests have the same questions with set answers. All a teacher needs to do is write a name and date on the board then give a test asking the name and date. This makes teaching absurdly simple, testing absurdly simple, and quantifying and measuring "education" absurdly simple. The rising obsession with quantification only reinforces this. After all, how can we put a number to a student's newfound ability to think, critique, process, create? And if we can't measure it, how do we assess it, make policy, judge, hire and fire? How do we justify budgets? (See this brilliant scene from The Wire which I can't embed here.)

There are no doubt other reasons we teach subject matters rather than critical thinking — economic, historical, ideological, practical, existential reasons. Critique demands a certain posture towards oneself, others, and the state apparatus — a posture of questioning that leads to personal and social alienation. Not taking things for granted, questioning and tracking and undoing the very terms of engagement with the world: this is existentially and politically demanding — and risky. It can be uncomfortable. So why do it? I don't blame anyone, I suppose. Life is hard enough without alienating yourself.

What is critical thinking? I'll say it's examining the very terms of making sense, not accepting the assumptions we make, questioning our questions and approach, not letting any matter stand outside the field of examination. Criticism demands examining the form of analysis and not just the analysis itself.  Yes, we sometimes teach alternate takes on state sanctioned versions of events. And that is no doubt a good and important thing. But we rarely, if ever, examine how we make sense of things, what we consider a subject, how we go about deciding what an event is, what counts as evidence, what counts as a truth claim.

Let's take this subject we call history. How do we define an historical field? An historical period? An historical event? Why do we call it the Renaissance or the American Revolution or the Middle Ages? What terms have we assumed to designate them as such? What counts as historical evidence? What kinds of things are we even looking for?

When I got to college, I thought I wanted to study history. That's because of my American History teacher, the brilliant, late Robert Tucker, who had us read Gabriel Kolko's critique of the USDA. Kolko argues that the USDA was created to defend a besieged, dirty, and corrupt meat industry. The assurance of the government about out meat was not for the good of the citizens but for the good of industry. Things I took for granted were suddenly reversed. I found this exhilarating. I wanted more.

I thought I wanted more history. And then I got to college and the history classes were so predictable, so achingly boring. It was all names, dates, and events sometimes weaved together with a more or less compelling narrative. So I went to my advisor and tried explaining, rather incoherently, what I wanted. I kept saying I wanted history without wars and treaties and dates and big names. Where was the architecture? I asked. Where is the literature and art? Where is the philosophy? Where is the geology and weather? Can't historical trajectories be drawn any number of ways? Why were the historical eras all taken for granted — the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, World War I? I mean, were there really two world wars? Wasn't there just one — and the Japanese and Germans won? And what are the Middle Ages in the middle of, anyway?

And then I read Foucault's History of Sexuality and everything changed. Foucault rearranges the archival facts into very different story lines. Wars and such are conspicuously absent. He uses architecture, literature, philosophy, art, court transcripts. His distribution of eras is surprising: he finds continuity between the Catholic confession and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Turns out if you track behaviors and ideas rather than predetermined events, the very ways we think about our history shift. I ended up writing my honors thesis on historiography, comparing the methodology of Foucault to that of Lawrence Stone — what they assume, what they consider evidence, how they view time and human subjectivity.

My point is not that Foucault is right and everyone else is wrong. My point is that looking at fundamentally different ways of constructing the subject matter — in this case, history — leads to fundamentally different conclusions. And the very act of doing that — of not taking one way for granted but looking at multiple ways and then even questioning that instinct — belies ready and smug assumptions. It teaches students — people — to think differently and for themselves, to not just accept the status quo. Criticism teaches a certain generosity towards life, a desire to seek multiplicity within the inherited monoliths. Criticism can be part of any course teaching students to be lively human beings. And isn't that the whole point of this thing?


Perceiving in the City: The Affect Walk

As we walk through the world, particularly a city, we are always negotiating a bevy of bodies and forces — faces, smells, cars, sirens, pigeons, driveways, street side gardens, trees, leaves, desires, manias, anxieties. We distribute our attention and perception according to an ever differing calculus, lingering here, not there, some there. Perception is not a steady, even flow. It undulates, part of our metabolism, our speed and processing of the world. We are filtered engines that shift depending on who we are and our circumstances at the moment.

Usually, we're going somewhere and consider the path a means to an ends — hence not worth much attention. At times like this, our attention is elsewhere —  where we're going, catching the train, what might happen once we're there. We are adrift in a virtual plane of future possibilities. It's as if a grid of possible worlds were strewn over the streets, our bodies traversing one plane, our attention another. This is not a good or bad thing; it's simply what most of us do most of the time. 

When I am out and about, I often look at the sky, at the curvature of space, at clouds and their drift, glancing down now and again to ensure I'm not about to get run over, step in dog shit, or bump into someone. This is incredible: with one foot I step on pavement, with another, sky. The day becomes infused with a certain cosmic frequency, the hassles of the day dissipating within the ethereal vapors of the universe.

Other times, I'm overcome with something burbling inside me — anxiety, grief, fear. And then I barely notice anything at all, not other people, not the sky, not the train I'm trying to catch. I become a black hole: not even my perception can escape the gravity of my inwardness.  

There are ways of making our way with a contrived focus, a point of interest or whimsy. It could be architectural, following houses and structures that look interesting. It could be a color walk, letting our movement and attention be directed by a color — we walk with blue, with orange, with yellow. This is in fact a great way to steer out of habit, to take a different path than normal, a way to heed the environment rather than the future or ourselves.

And then there is what I call the affect walk. This is my favorite. It asks to heed the affect as you walk, to feel the mood — not of you but of the place you're passing. What's so great to me about an affect walk in the city is that the affect is constantly shifting; in the country, affect is more steady and persistent. Just think about each house — the architecture, all the experience and events new and old, the greenery, the fade of the paint, the inflection of wind and sun and pollen. And then there are the streets, the mood of drivers, a car screeching, a guy sleeping in his van, the honking of traffic, the sight and stench of garbage. There are other people or their absence and how that helps forge the mood of the place.

And then, of course, there's you. To heed affect, you must move out of any deep inward state, shed anxiety and narcissism for a bit. This doesn't mean shedding yourself which is impossible. No, it means leaning into the fray and teem of it all without leaning too far forward into the future (or into your phone) nor too far back into yourself. Sure, you will inevitably do one or the other or both as you make your way. But the affect walk asks for a constant readjustment, realignment, with the world around you, a beautiful balancing act — like surfing, I imagine.

What I love so much about the affect walk is it situates itself, situates you, at an active nexus of forces and bodies. A color walk is cool, sure, but blue is blue. Affect is a conspiracy, a collaboration of architecture, weather, history, human bodies, animal bodies, sound, light, smell. It demands a very special kind of attention that is not external the way, say, a color walk or future date is and not internal the way anxiety is. And it can be done anytime, anywhere — even while going to make an appointment. The affect walk is not the provenance of the flâneur alone. It is there for all, always.


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.