1.12.2019

Writing, Chaos, Remembering, Forgetting

A writer's will is the winds of dead calm in the Western Lands. Point way out he can start stirring of the sail. Writer, where are you going? To write. Here we are in texts already written on the sky. Where he doesn't need to write anymore. A slight seismic with the cat book. Always remember, the work is the mainsail to reach the Western Lands. The texts sing. Everything is grass and bushes, a desert or a maze of texts. Here you are ... never use the same door twice. Sky in all directions ... on the word for word. The word for word is word. The western sail stirs candles on 1920 country club table. Each page is a door to everything is permitted. The fragile lifeboat between this and that. Your words are the sails. - 
WS Burroughs


I just sat down to write about how my thinking these days has been less, well, ardent. Pointed. Didactic. I think things only to have said things open up their own radical doubt, their own dispersion and eventual effacement — thoughts in quicksand, as Emerson might say. It's as if the great tumult of it all erases the discretion of my thoughts and I find myself in the Big Soup, the sublime, where thoughts' borders are short lived and explosively multiple or folded in such impossibly complex configurations that I lack the stamina to keep up: origami to infinity, that place where chaos and the complexity of order blur. My thinking of late doesn't want to come to a point; my writing doesn't want to hammer or drill. 

For that is how I often took to the keyboard: to drive my point home (where- or whatever that home is. What does a writer hope when he assumes such drive? What does he want to do to and with the reader?). I have something to say. Listen to this! That mode of thinking and writing demands a certain kind certainty, even if said certainty is of uncertainty. (In fact, people who claim to know nothing tend to be so sure they don't know things, becoming a negative expert; I'm looking at you, Socrates; and, well, myself). (Phrases and structure often announce our age; the way I use a certain x signals that I came of intellectual age in the 90s, my prose ripe with telling traces of Derrida. (Trace, too, is a word — a figure — we of a certain age inherit from Derrida. Trace is a beautiful, fecund figure, surprisingly visceral — despite its meaning. Traces and ghosts: Derrida's greatest contribution, I believe, and where Derrida is closest to Deleuze and Guattari.)) (How many parentheses can we put in a row? Or embed like Russian dolls? Which becomes an aside to what? Burroughs says he can't imagine writing without parentheses. The fact is there are always parentheses, even when there aren't; writing is asides all the way down, even if silent, even if invisible)(Punctuation enacts a certain synesthesia, sight inflecting sound. Punctuation, of course, does more than that: it articulates a rhythm that moves the text's ideas along with the bodies of readers, an invisible conductor, a way for ghosts to shape experience — a trace of the writer perhaps.)) When I write these days, I hear all the echoes, see and sense a wild wealth of traces — historical, social, rhetorical, conceptual. This has me temper my certainty, shift directions in my writing: writing which was once moving towards a point, a mathematical equation all adding up to something suddenly sees its own lack of ground as well as how it's cross-crossed with so many other trajectories, how it forks and splays and fractures and frays all opening up other ways thinking, and writing, could go — and then I am Wile E. Coyote amid his resounding existential reckoning, realizing there's no ground beneath my feet.


I love when sentences get so long. How do you remember where you are — grammatically, conceptually, and rhetorically? Writing long sentences is what I imagine driving NASCAR is like: it demands such concerted continuous attention, trying to steer this barrelling sense-machine which has its own mad momentum you're at once creating and responding to. It's so easy to get distracted, scratch an itch, forget where you were, and have the whole thing crash and collapse into gibberish by the side of the road.

I usually sit down to write because I like the sensation of writing, not necessarily because I have something to say. I like the feeling of opening up. Writing is always an opening up or an opening onto, a reaching towards. I see the writer more and more as Burroughs imagined her: a medium, a cog. I am not the source of this just as a river is not the source of its water. I lean back into what's there as much as forward into the screen, my body and mind a conduit. Or: the writer is an athlete, a shortstop, poised for a ball that could bounce any which way, at this or that speed with these or those hops and is ready to snatch it to make the next move to complete the play. A great turn of phrase is a well turned out.

The proliferation of figures — rivers, bridges, shortstops — reveals the morphology of an idea and the fundamental plasticity of prose. Words are not a sure and firm passage from here to there. The transmission of writing will never have been a straight line (this strange temporal construction — "will never have been" — is another beautiful figure I inherit from Derrida. But is inheritance the right figure? Is it Derrida's trace? His ghost? Is it my possession of Derrida? Or my possession by Derrida? You suddenly see the ideology of grammar, the way language leads us into conceptual constructions. As Nietzsche says, when we say lighting strikes we double the action, positing a doer behind the deed. Such is what our language demands, a subject and a verb. When there is perhaps only a verb: lightning).

What happens when the writer doesn't try to keep ideas in their lanes? After all, writing is not a NASCAR race. What happens when the writer writes and, in so doing, summons all possible paths — and follows them? At some point, it seems to me, all thinking runs into or against this schizo condition. Usually, it plows ahead, blinders on the horse so she stays on the track. But, from time to time, the writing gives in and goes every which way — Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, Clarice Lispector's Agua Viva, Burroughs' cut-ups. All writing negotiates its own dissipation.

Thinking and writing are acts of what Deleuze and Guattari call deterritorialization and reterritorialization — they colonize some areas, leave others, all while forging their own space. When we write, as when we live, we're always carving out a space, removing something that was there, add phrases and ideas from somewhere else, digging paths between disparate territories, moving through this or that thinker, concept, book — and then planting a flag: This! All writing is an assembling of various and diverse figures and forces into a localized territory. All writing says yes to some things, no to others. Writing is metabolic, an algorithm of not just inclusion and exclusion but of combination — an algorithm of laughter and forgetting alongside a chemistry of thought, body, and affect.

Of course, the way of standing towards this, towards this flag planting, differs. Some want to forge a large continent of rock, construct an immovable edifice; others, a forest; a botanical garden; a labyrinth; or maybe just some grass across fields and into pavement's cracks. So many ways of standing towards the word! Towards the world! So many different postures of the writer! For me, it's interesting, if at times disconcerting, to feel the adamance of my linguistic stance falter before the sublimity of it all. I've seen people, usually on LSD, become rendered mute before the world's sudden sublime illumination. It all becomes too much. Writing, like life, demands forgetting in order to write anything. (I am haunted by Borges' Funes the Memorious who remembers everything:""[H]e seems to me as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, older than the prophecies and the pyramids....Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.")

Writing, like living, demands an ever-shifting algorithm of forgetting and remembering, a play of Yes and No. The adamant Yes of didactic writing leans into the No-saying of life, actively forgetting the play of forces that would unmoor it. The less my writing affirms, the more my writing says Yes to the forces of the chaosmos, of life, body, desire, history, yes to the forces of ghosts and traces of ideas, yes to the meandering of wills and the play of meanings: yes to the great drifts of becoming.

1.08.2019

The Peculiar & Conspicuous Lack of Writing Pedagogy


This book is an easy, fun, and engaging way to introduce high school students to some of the ways of language. Add this to the state syllabus and I can't help but feel that the world would be a better place. Or at least more interesting.

It suddenly occurs to me that, as a country and culture, we spend shockingly little time teaching — or learning — about language. We teach 14 year olds how to do algebra; we make them memorize Newton's First Law; we sometimes give them a basketball to play with. But we don't teach them about the performative nature of language, the role of rhythm in communication, the manifold ways a piece of writing can be structured. Nor do we teach them how to reckon such things, how to be critical readers of their environment or themselves. These kids might learn some arbitrary grammatical rules and some ludicrous technique for doing a "report." But they are never exposed in any concerted way to the joy, complexity, and mechanics of language — which they use all day every day! But they'll know how to "do" negative exponents (without understanding why)? Really?

My son, a freshman in public high school in San Francisco — a rich and "enlightened" city, we think — does not have one class called, "How the Fuck to Write." He has an "English" class in which they discuss race and citizenship — good topics, no doubt. But this English class never discusses the ways of language and how students can relate it to it in this thing what we call writing — which said students have to do all the time (in texts and emails, if nowhere else).

We seem to consider critical thinking  when we talk about race. But how can we talk critically and richly about anything, not to mention race, when we don't teach any way to make sense of communication — of the books, tweets, movies, news programs, art we're teaching in the first place? My son's class read a book called The Hate U Give and then discussed how the heroine became a good citizen. But the class never discussed anything about the book itself — its structure, the play of perspectives, its rhythms. And this was the closest he came to being taught how to work with words. Certainly, his algebra and physics classes never discussed language. So I don't want to blame the English class. It's a failing of the entire state mandated syllabus. It's a conspicuous, glaring, painful failing of our entire pedagogy which is itself a failure of our presumed civilization. None of his classes offer any critical framework, any tool or concepts or tactics to make different kinds of sense. And none of them, certainly not his English class, offer any pedagogy of language, of writing or interpretation.

How is this madness possible? There is surely some screwy ideology at work. If you want a docile crowd that perpetuates the prevailing machine, don't teach its constituents to be critical. Don't teach them how to think across disciplines, to understand that the medium is the message, to disrupt the means of communication and information dissemination, to undo or scramble the very structures of sense-making. Make them parse grammar and take all information at its word. Get them to debate on the terms of content, not the mechanics of structure. Then the structures — of experience and social relations — will remain untouched, free to continue their insidious forms of enslavement. 

But we can't just blame ideology or "the System" as that gets us nowhere. The fact is any pedagogic system perpetuates itself as it teaches its way of doing things as the right way of doing things. This insight — that a system teaches its own ways — comes from my understanding of what I'm calling the performative. That is, our school system doesn't come out and say: "This is our structure; repeat it." Rather, it never puts its own way of going to analysis, to critique. It's simply the way things are done: Read this book. Write your "report" in this way. And so that's what students believe is the way things are done. So the next generation of teachers teach the same way. Hurt people hurt people.

For sixth through eight grades, my son attended a private school — an experimental, makers' school of a sort. No academic subjects per se: these kids would learn through doing, through projects they'd concoct on their own and enact throughout the year. But even here, even this school that fancies itself hands-on and experimental, there is a conspicuous lack of writing pedagogy. Yes, they participate in NanoWriMo and so, for most of them, they write concertedly for a month. But there is little to zero discussion of how language works; different kinds of structure; the role of style, tone and rhythm; the way performativity inflects all writing. They don't even read different kinds of texts to explore different modes of writing. How hard is it to have them read some Walt Whitman, Marshall McLuhan, Clarice Lispector, Junot Diaz, or any number of writers who play with language in interesting ways? Like public schools, they read books for the content, never for the structure. At this school of all schools, there are still no tools of critique, of conceptual play, or critical writing. They believe tinkering and making must involve drills and objects, not words and ideas. It's as maddening as it is baffling.

(After the school shooting in Florida, this school decided to join the ranks of schools nationwide and walkout at the same time. My kid asked: Why? They had no answer. So he didn't walk out; he stayed behind and goofed with his friends. I couldn't have been prouder! Not because I didn't support the walkout. But because he questions everything and his school had no answer; it just toed the party line. Which both he and I found so very disappointing.)

I now understand why people can't write. They can't even really write emails or texts with any grace or nuance. And they surely can't write college papers or business presentations. We are a nation of functioning illiterates. Those who think themselves literate call themselves, with peculiar pride, "grammar nazis." Eeesh! And oy! Grammar is not a set of arbitrary rules — don't end sentences in prepositions; don't begin sentences with and or but; don't use fragments. All of that is nonsense. Grammar is not about following rules! Grammar is anything you can get away with! I think of Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Those who defend writing defend the death of writing by adhering to 19th century grammar and its enforced rules rather than expressive, poetic play. This drives me ape shit.

But I'm starting to think that if there was a syllabus for teaching critical writing (as distinct from, say, fiction) to high school students, perhaps the mere availability of material and the introduction of tools and concepts could shift the way this is all done. A matter of praxis, not theory. Keep it simple. Hand teachers a curriculum.

No doubt, our entire approach to education needs to change. We still have 7 year olds, 12 year olds, 16 year olds sitting in chairs memorizing formulas and facts. It's so 19th century industrial age, training us for the assembly line. And, of course, it's aggressively repressive of youth's will to play, to scramble categories, to be poetic. What gets me is that the so-called alternative schools that talk of play don't understand youth and how to work with it beautiful unwieldiness.

But, in the meantime, it seems we can teach basic literacy to our state-enslaved students without overhauling the entire system (which would entail overhauling more than our curricula). And that means teaching them not just to decipher letters and symbols but to grapple and frolic with language, with communication, to try to read and write in a way that is expressive, engaged, playful. 

1.03.2019

What's the Point of Writing?




I sit down to write less and less these days. It's not for lack of things to say; nor is it for lack of discipline. I have plenty of time and plenty of thoughts — although I'm not sure said thoughts want to come to points only to be poked, prodded, extended, forced into metaphors and examples and the same old turns of phrase, all those thises and thats and that is to says of which I am so fond.


Writing often limits the play of an idea or observation. Of course, such constraint is not inherent to writing; it's just how writing is taught. Writing can explode a thought or observation, fold it into surprising  configurations, give ideas or observations tendrils, make them sprawl, multiply, peter out. It can make ideas less coherent, messier, more visceral, and more beautiful for it. If only that's how writing were taught! Or, perhaps, if only that were one way of writing that was taught. I'm dumbfounded by the absurdities that my son, as a freshman in a San Francisco public school, is taught. Watching him has me considering the things I've been taught in classrooms, the things I've taught in classrooms, and the what, where, and how people are taught about language and writing as they go about their lives. I suddenly see that there is shockingly little concerted attention paid to the pedagogy of language. That's probably best kept for another post where I can wax on, delve, come to points and such about these matters, where I can make a concerted argument. (Writing is always a matter of propriety, one way or another). Where I can make a point! Try to change things! Is that why we write? Why I write? Who am I going to change? Why would I want to do such a thing? Who am I to change anyone? Come to think of it, all of my pedagogy has been focused on creating people I might enjoy talking to. Because I don't enjoy talking to most people. It's not their fault; it's nothing they're doing wrong. It's me, not you. Truly. I just prefer people with my sense of humor, my ironic tendencies, my intellectual perversions. In the meantime, it suddenly seems so downright bizarre to me that there is much more attention paid to algebraic equations than there is to the mechanics and mysteries of writing. I mean, why the fuck are they teaching my kid how to decipher equations and not discussing the rhythm of punctuation;  the pyrotechnics of prose; the way words operate affectively, sensually, and conceptually at once and always in a different calculus; how a word can inflect an idea and vice-versa; how a piece of writing tours an invisible space, a choreography of thought and feeling, a play of seduction, of expectations and revelations; how language entails a certain violence as it coerces thoughts, eyes, mouths, culture (as you read, your eyes and mind are in the hands of the text); the role of tone and character as the very act of writing effaces you (your writing is not you; its relationship to you is nebulous at best; this means you, as writer, can assume any character, use any turns of phrase, borrow the lingoes and jargon of any class, race, time period, gender (I, for one, enjoy slipping between erudite fruitcake, made up olden day formality, and out of date slang all tempered with a taste for alliteration — but only in writing, not speaking (did I lose track of my parentheses?))); how odd it is that writing can both describe and perform the same action, in this case, the words I'm writing right now are the very act of me thinking how inane it is that we're never really taught writing and is a description of me doing that very thing (writing doesn't always or only come later, after the event, as a report; the act of writing is an event, too). 

Anyway, sometimes my thoughts do reach for the structure prose proffers. I use the word proffer more than most. Funny how we become attracted to a word, a phrase, a gesture; and then, after a bit, it's gone. You can see why Burroughs calls language a virus: you catch it, it takes you over, then runs its course and dies out. Or kills you. Or mutates. Or finds a kind of symbiosis with its host (you). So, yes, sometimes I lie on my couch and think and my thoughts may come together here and there to form something that could become an essay or article.

But these days, more often than not, an idea comes, sits for a bit, maybe even longer, but neither the idea nor I feel any need, compulsion, or desire to follow, structure, or compose. Its duration is enough. It's plenty. Flashes, smiles, notions, images, flickers of thought, all an avant-garde movie or a diary or the place at which a diary becomes a surreal montage as identity kaliedoscopes and drifts into these threads and fractures of thought.

Paragraphs frame an idea and pace a paper. This is something I used to teach in my classes. A paragraph should be able to stand alone; it is a discrete insight even if qualified by what precedes or follows it. But it's not just a conceptual break; it's a physical break for the reader or speaker. When readers see no paragraph indentations, they know they need to be in shape as there's nowhere to stop. That indentation gives the reader a ledge to sit on and catch her breath. I've always been jealous of those writers who don't use paragraph breaks like that, who feel no need to give their readers a respite, who demand you plod along, keep up — or forge your own resting point in the middle of the river. Forge is another word I use a lot. Proffer and forge: my linguistic viruses. And, usually, lots of paragraph breaks. I'm a pleaser like that. But I want to explore less discretion in my paragraphs (see above).  


These days, I'm working on a lecture I'll be giving on Nietzsche for an independent online university. When it's done, I'll give the details should you be interested. But, for now, I'm thinking about how to corral Nietzsche into a two hour lecture that my son will film in my house and around San Francisco — I imagine there will be buffalo as seeing them alongside hawks and squirrels always makes me think of the vicissitudes of the will to power, the taut attention of the vulture and the equanimity of the buffalo — which all has me thinking about the slippery ways of the performative which, in turn, brings me back to my earlier point (did I have a point?): How can we educate our children for at least 10 years — by law! — and not teach them about the performative? This may be the most critical absence in our culture; if we all learned to reckon the performative, we'd read life so differently. We'd stop taking people at their words; we'd include action as information and, at the very least, make more interesting sense of things. Is that a reason to write and teach? Hmm.

So while I've taught essays and books by Nietzsche dozens of times the fact is, these days, I live with Nietzsche. I don't explicate him. Mind you (what a phrase!), I enjoy explicating Nietzsche because it becomes a kind of possession as I lean into his rich shtick and let it permeate my vibratory flesh before oozing out my mouth in a breadth of extreme manual gestures. But I don't explicate much of anything these days except when my brilliant female cohort inquires. And then it is gloriously fun to wax on about ressentiment. Nietzsche's shtick reverberates in my being, an echo I can always hear, feel, enact. But that is quite different than lecturing on Nietzsche as now I need to think about someone on the interweb coming to me, watching me gesticulate for two hours, then walking away with a sense of Nietzsche. From living with to explicating to explicating as living with. Or some such thing.

Why write anything? Well, I like writing as a process, as an event in which ideas, words, the social, and I meet and negotiate each other. It's sensual, often erotic, at times deliriously so. I think of writing less and less as composition and more and more as channeling, letting my thoughts and words be nudged by forces that far exceed my little if inflated ego.

Yes, more and more, this is what I want from writing: to succumb rather than to compose — succumb to the ebbs and flows of words and ideas rather than composing some symphony. I'm less inclined to be the one reigning rogue ideas in, grooming the frayed edges, making ideas fit into paragraphs. I want to be the medium, leaning back as the ideas leak out my fingers to meet language and become this. I want to be as surprised as the next guy by what comes. I feel less compulsion these days to deliver the nuggets I so enjoyed when I was younger. I strove for intellectual, linguistic dim sum — discrete pockets of deliciosity. Now, I say: Let it come down.

In writing, as in life I suppose, I have nothing to prove. Nothing I want to accomplish. I don't care if anyone reads what I write; I don't care if my words are never read. I don't write for posterity; I don't write to perpetuate myself.  Of course, I have written to perpetuate, extend, amplify myself; that may very well have been my dominant driver. I think I wrote to prove to people that I was smart. But now, honestly, who cares? Surely not me. These days, I'm not interested in being heard, being recognized as this or that. And I'm certainly not interested in making an impact on the world (whatever that is). I don't want to write as an audition for my right (write?) to exist! I just want to go well for and as me, as this, with whatever words may or may not dribble out. 

I've been thinking about Nietzsche and his view of the world as revelatory — his view is not revelatory; the world is revelatory. Language is tricky like that: it asks for distinctions between actors and actions, between subject and object, when experience more often than not belies such distinctions. Which is part of Nietzsche's argument in On the Genealogy of Morals: we say lightning strikes when lightning is itself always a striking. To say lightning strikes is to posit a subject behind the action, a doer behind the deed, when all there is is the deed. What is lightning that doesn't strike? It's not lightning. I suppose, in some perverse way, I don't want to write. I want to be writing.




11.11.2018

This


My first, and for now only, tattoo, inked on my arm last month on my 49th birthday. This is one of only two things I know will persist with me over time (the other is my love for my son).

This is not a beautiful word. It lacks the lusciousness of luscious, the mellifluousness of euphony, not to mention the euphony of mellifluous. It doesn't enjoy the crisp rigidity of a good fuck; nor does it skip down the tongue as dolorous does. In fact, it's a rather awkward word, lisp-like in its utterance while being conspicuously inconspicuous on the page. Few notice and not one lingers over this.

But what this lacks in sumptuous and emotive texture, it makes up for with subtle conceptual complexity — or, rather, its resistance to concept all together. For this will not be generalized and it refuses to travel. In fact, it is that which can never be generalized, insisting on itself to infinity. This is always this.

And yet it is so supremely generous. For while this is always this, this is always different. At one moment this is that and, in the next, it is something else entirely — all while remaining this.

The linguists Emile Benveniste and Roman Jakobson refer to words like this as indexicals. Charles Peirce does, too, but I came to it through Benveniste and Jakobson and feel like I owe them something, to thank them. Mind you, it's not a moral obligation. Despite no longer being an academic and hence having no need to cite my sources, I still drop names in my writing — not to prove my erudition or substantiate my claims but as a conjuring of cohorts and their concepts, a territorialization, forging a conceptual-affective space — even if only temporarily, an Andy Goldsworthy sculpture that's there then gone. Anyway, an indexical doesn't have a fixed referent such as, say, dog or love. It is a function: the act of designating within a given event.

I is another indexical. I obviously doesn't mean Daniel Coffeen; I is a function that designates a speaker or writer who is doing something. When I say I, I designates me; when you say I, it designates you. This makes for a constant slippage when reading someone else's I. In some unavoidable sense, when you read I, you become I. And so when I'm reading the I of, say, Kathy Acker, I become Kathy Acker; I repeat Kathy Acker just as Kathy Acker's own I will never have been her own. 

When I was reading Acker some 26 years ago, I was struck by her relentlessly unreliable pronouns: he would become we, she, I. The experience was exhilarating, delirious, liberating as my very identity became scrambled in the act of reading. This is the case with all writing to a greater or less degree. When we read someone else's writing, we inhabit and are in turn inhabited by the metabolism of another — or others. Reading and writing take us astray of ourselves. Of course, most books work hard to confirm themselves and their readers. And most readers seek such confirmation, nodding their heads in agreement as they make their way. But this demands an active repressive mechanism as you have to work not to become the I of another, forgetting that when you read I, you become I.

Despite the best efforts of most teachers and dictionaries, language is a living creature that undoes all it inhabits. For there, always in its midst and letting it operate, letting it be used in everyday life, is the indexical. And there, among the indexicals, is I: a blank spot of no, and every, identity. That which anchored Descartes — that I that thinks — and which we imagine as being the home of our ego is, in fact, an opening occupied by whomever. I is not the site of identity's confirmation; on the contrary, I is where and how identities bleed, mingle, overlap, become undone only to be remade again as something different.

Language is filled to the brim with words that have referents — pixel, purple, fecund, absurdity, nomenclature, fetid. But indexicals punctuate our dictionaries with these gaps, these revolving doors. I, this, here, now: these words only come to fruition in their use, coming out of someone's mouth or scrawled across a page. They are essentially temporal (what structuralists call diachronic rather than synchronic). They refuse to be generalized; they don't have traditional definitions. They are functions that designate radical particularity, that articulate thisness, the haecceity of life.

For Benveniste, indexicals are what allow us to occupy language. The I, he argues, is a portal that allows speakers and writers to enter the linguistic code and wrap it around themelvses, to inhabit language from the inside. "Language is so organized," hew write,  "that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire language by designating himself as I." Without the I, language would be a closed system, all the words already defined, all communication existing at level of generality, all words already defined — and we'd be looking at it from the outside. But I lend(s) language temporality, opening it up to the flux of the world, to the event of life as we crawl inside its code and (re)create from within.


One reason I never got a tattoo is I couldn't imagine anything persisting with me over time. All is flux, I figured, and as my skin relentlessly shifts and sheds, it articulates the flux of life perfectly. There was a moment when I first came to San Francisco, in 1991, and considered getting a tattoo of an old fashioned typewriter. It seemed romantic and cool. But I knew then that that romance might fade; that, in fact, I'm not one for the typewriter; I'm a word processor guy who enjoys cutting and pasting. And I couldn't think of anything that I believed would persist for me through time. (Mind you, that was my criterion for a tattoo; people get tattoos for all sorts of reasons.)

But then last month, on my 49th birthday, I got my first tattoo. It is one of only two things that will inevitably persist for me, with me, as I age. The tattoo, on my left bicep, is one word written in my own handwriting: This. 

This is always and necessarily this. It persists and yet, generously, is always different. It is at once stubborn and absolutely open minded. It is the articulation of life's relentless internal differentiation, an articulation of the one principle-that's-not-a-principle that will always drive me: difference. It is in my own handwriting as every this is different; I didn't want the generalized formality of a pre-formed font. That would belie the thisness, the haecceity, of this. It is this as written by this hand in this moment. And yet, while particular to that moment of inscription, this remains ever changing, ever adapting to the here and now. 

This remains this, an event of repetition, ever re-creating itself in the moment without relying on an idea, concept, or thing. This forges itself with itself, as itself. While the word dog relies on something else — namely, a dog that is not present — this relies on nothing else, needs nothing else, to give it meaning. It forges its own meaning from within its environment, as part of its environment, an autopoietic act of self actualization creating meaning from within the event, as the event of designation. It's astounding!  A miracle! This is the call of radical affirmation, the great Yes-sayer that is always content with itself, with its place in the world. It never looks elsewhere to confirm it, define it, to give it meaning. This is always this — and that is enough. As Alan Watts might say, this is it.

I would never have a word on my body that was declarative, constative, referential — that needed something else to give it meaning. I didn't want my favorite Nietzsche quote or my favorite Nietzsche concept, amor fati, inscribed on my body (not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not for me). While amor fati says love fate, this performs the love of fate.

People sometimes ask me why I got this tattoo. Which is hilarious to me as it is its own best explanation that, in the end, refuses any why. Of course, I could tell them about Emile Benveniste and indexicals or about my history with the word (it's the key to the title of my dissertation, Read This Text). But all that backstory is just the placard next to the painting, avoiding what's before us, avoiding the insistence of life happening here and now, turning a deaf ear to the perfect eloquence of the event emerging in the very act of reading what's scrawled across my admittedly skinny bicep. All there is is this.

11.07.2018

Attraction


This is what attraction can look like. This bridge and that wind are all up in each other's business. It's downright erotic and certainly intimate. Which is why it behooves us to consider our attractions. What gets all up in your business?

I never cease to be amazed by attraction. I am drawn to you — but not her, her, or him. I'm drawn to this book, these ideas, these foods but not those. What propels me, draws me in, this way rather than that?

You go to a new school or college or an office or a party. There are lots of people there, any of whom could be your friend. But you end up spending time and creating relationships with only some of the people. No doubt, there are certain obvious cultural forces at work. In a new environment, we tend to tend towards people who look, act, and talk like us — people of our class and race.

But clearly that doesn't suffice. There were certainly lots of middle class Jews where I went to college — I think it was 30% at the time — and yet I only ended up being friends with a small number of them. What was it about those people?

Well, everyone has certain energetic harmonies and rhythms of intensity. This need not be so woo woo. We all have a certain speed and tolerance for noise, talking, bursts of enthusiasm and such. I know that the speed with which I talk coupled with a relentless will to wit — if often failing — and a certain emphatic umph repels most while attracting others (just look at the reviews of my lectures). This all speaks to certain metabolic propensities. While, like chocolate mousse, I am too much for some, I hit the spot for others (though usually, as with chocolate mousse, in small portions).

Of course, these energetic and rhythmic convergences change shape over time. We've all had this experience: we are smitten with someone and their energy only to find weeks or months later that, well, it's just plain old fucking annoying. And, by the same token, there are those we pass over for seeming too boring only to find, with time, that their quiet articulates a simmering, even seething, cool that fits quite nicely with one's own way of going, thank you very much. We are all temporal creatures, ever in flux.

All this is to say that attraction happens at the level of bodies, between and among flesh and its style, its mode of operation. Just as comets and space dust are drawn just so by other celestial bodies, we are drawn by our own constitution — by our physical and affective comportment, our visible and invisible shapes — towards some bodies and not others (while some repel us, like magnets flipped the other way). 

What goes between people and people goes between people and food, music, books, ideas. I remember when I was working out my doctoral field of study, "20th Century French Literary Theory," with the fantastic Charlie Aliteri, he suggested I read Maurice Merleau-Ponty's essay, "C├ęzanne's Doubt." Which I did. I then proceeded to read pretty much everything Merleau-Ponty wrote (even reading much of it in French just to be saturated). It stirred me, lit me up, drew me in and set me free. When I next met with Prof. Altieri, he was flabbergasted by what I'd done. "Don't you find him too priestly?" (I think that was his word but don't hold me to it.) But more than his words, it was the look on his face, as if I loved eating something he found vaguely repulsive, bowl after bowl of tripe. Some tripe is ok, his look said, but that much? What kind of person are you?

(I feel the same about Hegelians and Heideggarians. Actually, I feel that way about most people who are an anything; my own appetite tends towards the hodgepodge rather than allegiance to any one thinker. In any case, I always looked suspiciously at people who studied Hegel in depth. What kind of body, I'd wonder, is attracted to Hegel's ponderous System and its magical dialetic or the downright humorless Heidegger? How do they digest all that? I imagine it's how some people feel looking at the ducks hanging in the windows of Chinatown. Who's eating that? (I love that duck, mind you, and I love it hanging in the windows.).)

In any case, my point is this: attraction is an ethical act. We judge people for the things that attract them. Indeed, Nietzsche would say we should. How can you trust — how can you enjoy — someone who reads British philosophy? For Nietzsche, we are the things that attract us. A "well turned out" man, Nietzsche argues, instinctively chooses what's best for him. We surely know the opposite: those who return over and over again to the very things making them sick — Doritos, abusive partners, drugs. Which is all to say, the things that attract us speak about us, reveal us. Attraction is the silent but audible sound of our way of going in the world. We can say all kinds of things, do all kinds of things, pose all sorts of ways. But attraction happens in the midst of, and despite, our best pretenses.

Attraction is an immanent operation. It happens between and among these bodies right here, right now, doing this or that. Of course we rely on allopoietic operations — external knowledge and codes such as morality and laws — to make selections about people, food, art. But such external terms do not determine attraction. Attraction is autopoietic: it happens within this sphere, between these bodies, as these bodies. As with gravity and magnetism, the event of attraction is a complex calculus of bodies in motion interacting with each other at various levels and points all at once. It's not conscious or active per se. Attraction happens behind our backs, as it were, without our knowing (our grammar articulates this passivity well).

This makes attraction so intimate. It calls to us from the literal fiber of our being. This is why we often get nervous approaching someone to whom we're attracted: our very comportment is shaking. Think of the comet being drawn inextricably into the sun, all the feelings it must feel — the delirium, joy, fear, relief. Indeed, what could be more profound than being attracted to another human being?

I'm constantly surprised that articulating one's attraction to another is often met with recoil and even anger (although when attraction is one-sided, it can be menacing and hence the real fear people have when someone comes on with them).  You just want to fuck me and that's it? Don't you respect me for me? That retort is, to me, insane. If I'm attracted to you, I'm attracted to you. I don't separate your body from your mind, your wit from your waist, your ass from your ideas. You are this way of going that includes wit, waist, ass, calves, humor, scent. And I'm digging it.

But we are plagued with the residue of inane dualistic, nihilistic thinking that believes attraction is physical, animal, hence fleeting and less important than the rationality of our souls. But attraction is more of a gestalt operation: we are drawn to the manner of a thing. Mind you, this doesn't mean all attraction is eternal, divine love. That's absurd. But it does mean attraction is always a force to reckon — and not to be dismissed as just attraction. We can believe someone is attractive based on their body and not their style — or the other way around. But when we're attracted to someone, it's body and style. It's the way it all hangs together, even if not in equal proportion. You can't separate the visible from the invisible, the body from the way of going. 

I often take inventory of the things that attract me such as my long time propensity for bourbon and then the shift to tequila, then gin, then tequila again, and back to whiskey. In that trajectory, I see my body, my self, navigating my place in the world. When young, the weighty viscosity of bourbon grounded my skinny, wiry ways. As I aged, such a tether became too much so I reached for the ethereal ebullience of tequila. When my stomach began to burn with tequila's heat, I turned to gin's harmony with ice. And now, feeling a certain will to slow wisdom, I enjoy whiskey's thick legs. These were not conscious moves; they were my body being pulled this way and that to keep me healthy.

Needless to say, not all the things that attract me fuel me; on the contrary. Some people have offered that my attraction to alcohol is an ill formed instinct, keeping me sick and subdued. Navigating attraction and appetite — which is to say, living — is not a science. We feel our way through it. So to take account of one's attractions is to take account of oneself. As I move beyond booze to food, places, activities, art, and relationships, I begin to get a pretty good picture of how I go in the world — and where the operation is ailing me. For the things that draw us in articulate us, form us, hedge us, kill us — or fuel us.

While attraction will have its way, this doesn't mean you can't change what attracts you. It takes discipline but you can shift your instincts, train yourself to be healthy, to be vital. This doesn't mean choking down wheat grass or kale smoothies because you heard they're good for you. That's not disciplining your instincts; that's listening to some blogger. No, training your instincts means not adhering to some external code but listening more closely, more attentively, to one's own metabolism.

I see attraction as a gift never to be taken lightly. As we're hurtling through this world, making so many decisions, navigating cars, kids, money, passwords, mothers, loves, some things emerge and call to us. That's the universe whispering to us, tapping us on the shoulder, all come hither-like. Attraction is a cosmic come on.