7.27.2015

Negotiating Power

For most of my life, I've spoken my mind, as the saying goes. Growing up in my house, this was considered not just good and right but downright noble. And so, in grad school, I let those around me — from professors to students — know if I found them less than intelligent. Needless to say, I had few friends in grad school.

I continued on this path as I entered the so-called professional world. I actually had a job job once, at an agency, and when people would profess how interesting a project was, I'd inevitably say, with certain contempt and disdain, That's what you call interesting? Try reading Kant. That's interesting. This is just banal bullshit to get us paid. Needless to say, I didn't last long at that job.

I was the same anti-social douche when I was teaching. Sure, I thought I was just being me, man, just laying it down. But, well, my colleagues were annoyed and, soon enough, I was no longer teaching.

I imagined that my work would speak for itself. At my job job, I did good work — even though I found it banal. Teaching, I taught my heart out, giving my health and vitality to those students and those lectures.

But that was stupid of me. Doing a good job and succeeding professionally are obviously not the same thing. All jobs are run through with a power structure in which someone else has more control over my employment than I do. This is in fact true of any situation. In any given social circumstance, someone has more power — through will, charisma, momentum — who can shun you from the moment, from the group, who can humiliate you.  

Confrontation almost always ends badly. First and foremost, it's a massive expenditure of energy. And, as I approach the mid-century mark, energy is in short supply. I just don't have it in me to parry and punch. But even in the best of times, why waste energy on such an expenditure? Better to expend it on merriment, decadence, delight. (I've been reading a lot of Bataille.)

And, often, very little is gained by being confrontational. Sure, in certain intimate relationships, confronting a problem head on can be beautiful. But with someone in power, with power over you, it just tends to end badly. What, exactly, is gained? Sure, it feels great to call your boss an idiot but what does that do for you? A nice moment that quickly turns to mayhem.

There is a subtle art to negotiating power in its manifold forms from boss to girl you like to nutbag on the street careening through a drunken schizo rant. The world brims with the cruel, the mad, and the vampiric. And we must tend to ourselves — to our health and vitality — as well as to the world.

Politeness is an underrated tool. A certain social protocol can be exquisite, maintaining distance while making a connection, allowing both you and the others to maintain their respective privacy while still noting them, accounting for them. Politeness is a conjunctive disjuncture.
 

Going with the world does not mean we need to do everything the world tells us to do. Sometimes — perhaps often — reading the way of things demands dissimulation or indifference. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau proffers a ruse — la perruque — as a way of reading with the terms power puts forth. La perruque entails looking as though one is working while actually putting the resources of capital to use for oneself — writing a novel when you’re supposed to be writing a tagline, building a rocket for yourself instead of a car for Ford.

Obviously, if you never write the tagline or build the car, you’ll be fired, lose your ability to pay rent, be tossed aside. Navigating the situation hence entails heeding what needs to get done, putting on the proper look of diligence and mirth, and then quietly going about one’s own business. La perruque is not a going against but a mode of going with. Tyler Durden's professional experience, especially as a caterer, pushes this to a limit.
     
The good reader sizes up the situation and makes the most of it. This is true whether reading a book, a film, a person, a martini glass. If you find yourself eating a meal that makes you sick, you stop eating. So it is with a book or film or art: turn away, put it down. But in the social, one cannot always walk away so readily. This is why when reading the social, and particularly when enmeshed in a power scenario, one must resort to the ruse in order to make the most of things. Confronting your boss by calling him an incompetent moron is rarely a keen reading tactic — if you don’t end up losing your job, you will make the everyday intolerable. Of course, there is a certain delight in calling out one’s incompetent boss. And, at times, it might be the best possible thing to do, no doubt.
    
But there is a beautiful kind of mastery that entails making the dysfunction of the social — and of work in particular — productive. This means abandoning one’s principles of honesty in all situations. It may mean ridding oneself of dignity, at least in appearances. It may mean sitting there and letting your moron boss think he’s the smartest guy in the room while you know — you know— that’s not true. It means nodding and smiling — “Yes, of course, I’m on it!” — while quietly doing the things that make you happy. Take the check, tend to yourself, and scurry on out of there.
     
Reading the way of things is complex and is not simply a matter of succumbing. It is a matter of negotiating a calculus of indifference, passion, health, life. What kind of expenditure — personal, financial, spiritual — will such-and-such demand? While you may cling to your principles, this doesn’t mean you need to announce your adherence. You can look like you’re one of the crowd when you’re anything but.
     
This does not mean one should always eat proverbial shit. There may be very good reasons — revolutionary or personal — for announcing your feelings. And, sometimes, this announcement may be dramatic, extreme, confrontational, even violent. But always ask yourself: What is the play here? How can I make sense of this situation so as to maximize it — not for the company or the boss or even for yourself per se but for the good of the world, for beauty and grace, for the moment and what it seems to be demanding? This is not a call to unbridled selfishness. It is a call to the complexity of reading the social, of making sense of this exceedingly complicated world.
     
And, of course, this is not algebra; the reader isn't solving for X. There is no one right, best thing to do. The situation is multiple for all parties at all times. You are Pi in which no one knows the next number until it's happened. 


Going with the world is not an abandonment of oneself — that would be going for. And the smart reader of the world does not go for his work or his principles. He goes with them. He enjoys a complex constitution of desires, loves, limits, propensities, metabolisms. To read well means maximizing the event of which the reader is constitutive. To completely abandon oneself is not to read well; it is to be a lackey, a disciple, a slave.
  
Let’s consider the Pixar film, Toy Story, for a moment. The film gives us two relationships to things. On the one hand, there’s Andy who plays with his toys as they were “meant” to be played with — the cowboy acts like a cowboy, the astronaut like an astronaut. Now, Andy does take some license but the terms of his play always conform to some traditional narrative from which these toys were born.
     
And then there’s Sid. Sid does not think, for one moment, that he has to obey his toys or the terms prescribed by their meta-narratives. Sid looks at toys and sees play, combination, the head of this one should go on that one, this foot should come out the ear, a hole needs to be drilled there. 


Reading the way of things may be generous but it's not an abandonment of self. There's a way to say No to power, to the humiliating demands of capital and management, that don't involve truth or principles or integrity — they involve playing smart, navigating the madness of the world in the way that best maximizes the situation.

7.18.2015

What If Education Doesn't Have a Core Because Education Isn't About Knowledge?


This is a picture from the Brightworks website. This is not a picture of a dynamic way to present the same old curricula. This is a picture of a different understanding of what education is: a process without a core.   

Next school year, my son is going to a different kind of school called Brightworks. Its tagline — yes, it has a tagline — is: Everything is interesting. We can create anything. They don't teach subject matters such as History, English, Math. They build things. They work together to solve problems that are both conceptual and practical. They analyze and critique. (He hasn't started there yet so I could be wrong about the school and I could be misrepresenting what they do; if so, I apologize. But this is my fantasy about what they offer.)

When I began telling people about it, I always assumed they'd say, Awesome! That's what school should be! And some, no doubt, have said exactly that. But a surprising number of people, usually people in my social periphery or new found acquaintances, say: Oh, that's how they teach the core subjects? They make stuff?

And this is when it occurred to me that many people truly believe that there are fundamentals that we need to teach kids. The problem with schools, they'll admit, is how these things are taught, not that they are taught at all! They never question the idea that there are basic facts that we all need to know. We were taught them as kids; and so, dammit, our kids will learn them, too!

But what, I ask you, is the possible reason my kid has to memorize the capitals of Mississippi, South Carolina, and Florida? I truly cannot imagine anything less interesting, important, or relevant to anyone anywhere for any reason. And this is what my taxes, my son's time, and the energy of the teacher is being used to do. It's downright bizarre.

I say this to a woman I met recently and, boom, just like that she's yelling at me. At first, she thought I was kidding. Because, to her, of course kids learn the state capitals! When I pushed her to understand why that was relevant at all, she said it teaches a sense of place. Now, I love the idea of teaching a sense of place, of honing the sense, exploring what it even means to be a place, how a place comes to be, what defines it and how we know it. But how in the world does memorizing the capital of Mississippi teach a sense of place?

She then began yelling at me — she was passionate on the subject for reasons that elude me — that this is what is wrong with kids in San Francisco (mind you, she is neither a parent nor a teacher): they're entitled. So, somehow, learning state capitals is not about teaching a sense of place but about disciplining children. Needless to say, I ended this conversation and went on my merry way.

But I suddenly understood that this issue of an educational core is a kind of existential tether for people that functions at both the personal and social level. There must be certain things to ground us. And what better to serve that function than a core. A core sits deep and steady. It is what really matters as the world flows relentlessly around it. We need this core, it is imagined, precisely because so much is in flux.

Now, I understand that as a nation and a social body we might want there to be certain things everybody knows and can do. School as state sponsored indoctrination into the ways of government, law, police, and money makes sense to me. (In Discipline and Punish, Foucault helped me understand why schools and prisons look alike: they are panoptic agents.)  I personally don't care about any of those things but I understand why they might be taught.

But why are they teaching my kid how to add and subtract negative numbers? Mind you, I can imagine a scenario in which teaching such a thing could be incredible. Adding negative numbers! Talk about exquisite complex logics that teach someone how to think! But that was not what he was taught. He was taught a few tricks so that if he saw this on a page — -47 + 23 — he could write the proper answer in the space provided. What the what? Again, like memorizing state capitals, it's a completely insane exercise with no value for any one for any imaginable reason.

Teaching facts at all seems silly today. Want to know the capital of Mississippi? Look it up on the interweb that's sitting in your pocket. We don't need to teach facts; we don't need to give spelling tests; we don't need to teach tricks so kids can add negative numbers. We need to teach other things such as how to collaborate; how to critique events, media, literature, power; how to put disparate things together to make new senses of the world. That is, we need to teach kids to think, not to know.

There are aspects of what we call Math, Science, English, and History that could involve thinking rather than memorizing or knowing. But does one "know" Math? Or does one learn how to operate with numbers and their diverse relations which entail complex logics of exponents, parts, wholes, trajectories, infinity? What does one learn to do in English? Know who the great authors are? Or, rather, is it to learn how you can go with words and books, how to operate with meter, rhythm, concept, and sequence?

At my kid's new school, they're not trying to teach Math and English in other ways. It is not an alternative delivery system of the same old crap, making vitamins taste like candy. No, this school is trying to teaching thinking, how to operate with the world and all the things it can do and might be able to do if only you came at it from a different angle. They don't teach kids to know; they teach kids to think, to operate with the world.

Thinking and doing are dynamic activities. They are actions. They therefore cannot be a core as a core sits stable at the heart of things. Here, there is no heart of things. There is no there there, no place to reach, no resting place. Education is not about accumulating knowledge until you graduate and are done. It is about fostering a will to assemblage, to take things in and put them back together differently, to critique, to love the world by thinking with it, not master it by knowing it.

So called alternative education should not be about offering a different how for the same old what. Rather, it should offer strange and beautiful new hows to teach strange and beautiful new hows. At his new school, my kid will not be trapped in a chair aimed at the teacher who conveys the word from on high. Nope. He'll be in the mix, not with teachers but with what they call collaborators who work with the kids, not at them.

Education is a process. It's not a thing. There is no core because everything is in flux. The trick is to learn how to go with it, how to operate with the world as part of the world. The logic of a core and its will to knowing is killing us, one student at a time. We should be fostering a love of the world in which everything is indeed interesting.

7.11.2015

The Failure of True Detective S2 Reveals the Brilliant Mechanics of David Lynch



Admittedly, the season is only three episodes in. But seeing as there are only eight episodes, and seeing that I've endured three hours of the show to date, I feel like I'm allowed to make broad generalizations about True Detective's second season, at least about certain aspects of the show.

It was obvious from the get go that the show was nodding its head to David Lynch — to "Twin Peaks," that procedural from another world, and to Mulholland Dr. They go out of the way to show us the Muholland Dr sign as our heroes drive. And then there are all those transitional shots of LA from above showing either intersecting, knotty freeways or an electric night time sprawl. Soon enough, so-called weird characters begin showing up followed soon thereafter by a dream sequence and a surreal, creepy performance in an empty seedy bar. The Lynch allusions abound.

And yet to ape the figures of something does not make you that thing. I can dress like a dog but I don't move, smell, hear, or digest like a dog. In fact, as I've been watching True Detective, it's made me think of all the things that make Lynch Lynch which are all, to the last, missing from TD.

I was about to write first of all but, with Lynch, there is no first of all. His films have always already started; time is warped — which is to say, time is time and time isn't linear, despite Hollywood's best attempts to convince us otherwise. What is the beginning of Mulholland Dr. if the ending enables the beginning, the sleep begins the dream — and vice versa?

Anyway, even if not first, there is the route of the procedure in this procedural. What makes Lynch Lynch is that he sees and offers a distinct epistemology in which the road to knowledge is distinctly not an accumulation of evidence. He never gives us 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. One of the great things about Special Agent Dale Cooper is that he sees different kinds of signs, follows paths of intuition, dreams, and synchronicity. He operates with as much metaphysical as physical evidence. This sets the very trajectory of the procedural off its tracks, unhinges it from the narrative arc of discovery. 

Now, in the first season of "True Detective," we get a slurred procedural as the road to discovery is secondary, if not tertiary, to the ways of the detectives themselves. Their attempts to make meaning of themselves, and of the world, is their procedure. Not so in season 2, at least to date. So far, all we've seen is the classic "Law & Order" accumulation of witness stories and physical evidence. And few things are as downright banal ("Law & Order," at its best, disrupts this procedure with the mechanics of the law, of what can be considered a crime and what can win a prosecution, offering surprising narrative shifts).

Lynch operates in a world in which knowing is never direct because the line between dream, cinema, and real is always already fluid. Cinema is not a tool to capture the world. Just as dreams are not a reference to waking life but are part of life, existing on their own terms with their own logic and mode of behavior, cinema is not a reference to the real. For Lynch, cinema life is to real life what the dream world is to the waking world: two intimately interconnected worlds, distinct yet intertwined, which taken together forge spectacular ways of knowing and being.

In Lynch's films, cinema — its history, tropes, and mechanics — is constitutive of the film. Cinema — the camera and history — doesn't sit outside the action, removed from the fray. On the contrary, it is folded into the frame which, in turn, breaks the very limits and operations of the frame. Think of the great scene in Mulholland Dr. in which Rita and Betty (their names at the time) come home after the intensity of Silencio to find the key in the handbag. When Rita walks out of frame, she's gone completely— the frame of the screen becomes the frame of space, cinematic space trumping so-called real space.

But this presence of something else within the frame, this presence of cinema, pervades every shot. Lynch rarely, if ever, proffers a simple establishing shot or gives us a conversation with that pretense of objectivity, the reverse shot in which we see one person speaking, the other listening, and on it goes. Not in Lynch. The very perspective of the camera is not objective; it is, indeed, a perspective, the presence of film within the film, the camera folded into the frame through its focus and movement. Look at this famous scene below. Note how the camera slurs and bobs as it moves, as if it had an opinion, a point of view, a way of operating that is not solid, known, or even knowable once and for all.



But in "True Detective," despite all its references to Lynch, the camera remains expository, relaying to us the information as if it, the camera, didn't have a way of going unto itself.

Yes, Lynch has what we consider weird characters. And yes, there's weird music (which is the sound of cinema run through itself, at once historical and mechanical). But they are not just things he sticks into this movies; they are the very fabric of a certain cinema, a cinema that knows in its own way, that operates according to an internal logic that belies ready exposition. You can't be cool just by slipping on a pair of shades. Cool is away of going, not a drape of references.

7.05.2015

The Logic of Sports, or Understanding Phenomenology via Baseball

I'm watching the baseball game the other night when there's a double play ball hit to first. The first baseman fields the ball, steps on first, throws to second. The shortstop, covering second, catches the ball then concertedly leans in to tag the doomed, sliding runner making his way from first.

It took me a second to understand why the shortstop was applying a tag rather than just touching the bag as in most double plays. But I quickly realized it's because the first baseman touched first first — that is, before throwing to second —, thereby eliminating the force applied to the runner now sliding into second. Because first base was free — the hitter was out when the first baseman tipped the bag with his foot, ball in hand — the runner running to second was no longer forced to go to second. First base, which was "closed" when the ball was hit, was now "open" because the hitter was out, thereby eliminating that initial force — and obliging the shortstop to tag the runner rather than just touching second base.

Yes, I realize that to many of you, this is nonsense, impenetrable and utterly boring. But this is precisely what I love so much about it — about sports, about watching sports: they enjoy an elaborate internal logic, ripe with mechanical laws that are distinct from, say, the natural laws of physics. These are the laws of baseball; these are the terms for how bodies interact in this space, under these conditions.

In this sense, sports are like any theory or philosophy or work of art: they proffer their way of going. They have a logic and way of operating that is distinct to them, that is immanent. These terms and rules are what differentiate this way of going from other ways of going. Each sport is an entire cosmos, with galaxies and solar systems and laws that rule the terms of interaction between bodies.

But what makes the logic of sports different than, say, the logic of a Matthew Ritchie painting is that it is a logic born of the experience of playing the game. Sure, there are sources beyond the game itself — notions of fair, force, foul, out — that determine how terms can even be construed. But then there is the experience of playing the game and the particular ways the notions of "fair" and "foul" are worked out. Why, when a hitter tips a foul ball into the catcher's glove with only one strike that hitter is not out, but if the exact same thing happens when the hitter has two strikes, well, in that case the hitter is out? The answer is complex and only makes sense if you've played, or watched a lot, of baseball.

Sure, I could explain it to you. It's not that the rule is sublime, immanent to the experience and nothing else, denying words. No, there is a conceptual logic that comes from the experience. But to explain it you only builds the gap between the one who knows the rules of baseball and the one who doesn't.

Here it goes: A hitter is allowed three strikes; foul balls are considered strikes. But foul balls the hitter hits after the second strike, while counting as a strike, don't count as the final strike. Why? Because that hitter is still in it, not out of it. He's still not being totally fooled by the pitch. He can only be called out if he can't even make contact — either by not swinging (due to cowardice, ignorance, or being duped) or swinging and missing. Except if, on that third strike, the hitter just tips it and the catcher catches it, then the hitter is out. Why? Because he's allowed only three strikes; if, by his third chance, he can only just tip it into the hands of the defense, then those are all of his chances to evade the defense.

All of this is to say that while you may have no idea what I'm saying, there is nevertheless a logic. It's neither arbitrary nor so tied to experience that its logic is ineffable. The reality is even stranger: the logic can be explained to, but not understood by, those who don't know baseball.

This is of course true of all sports. Try explaining the rules of tennis, football, soccer, rugby, cricket to someone who's never played. It's a peculiar challenge that will finally fail until that person plays, or studies, the game for a while.

This can be intimidating, for sure. My son has avoided joining a baseball team, despite his interest and ability, because he doesn't understand the freakin' rules and doesn't want to be embarrassed. I tell him that no one actually understands the rules until playing. But he doesn't believe me. Why? Because, in our culture, we tend to believe that there should be a clear,  set of rules that determine behavior — not the other way around.

But the relationship between rules and behavior, like the relationship between idea and form, is not one way as, say, Plato might argue. The two are intertwined, as Merleau-Ponty would say, neither the rule nor the act coming first. They go together, making life complex and often difficult to understand — until you actually live it. And then it's still complex and difficult to understand.


6.29.2015

The Pull of Bodies & the Sexual Economy Today


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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