Cleanliness, Stench, and the Seams of the Social, or Living Amidst Yourself

I spend a lot of time at home, alone. I work from home so am here all day, for the most part. I don't really like going out and seeing people very often so, most nights, I'm home alone. Two nights a week, my son sleeps here. Otherwise, not many people enter my house. (I suddenly feel like I'm writing a distinctly ill-advised dating profile.)

As I spend a lot of time here, the house literally becomes an extension of me, and me of it — a nuptial, as Deleuze and Guattari might say. I love that figure of the nuptial. It's not desire that brings these things together, although there is desire to be sure. Nuptial articulates a more technical coming together that is still sumptuous, with a hint of the unruly within the union-that-is-not-a-union (a nuptial is not a merging, a becoming one; it is a 'bloc of becoming' constituted by multiple bodies. Their 'famous' example is the wasp and the orchid). It's an odd word to say. Nuptial. It feels like it should be dragged out longer, have more syllables. For all those vowels, it's somehow slurred, that t at times becoming a ch as the finale alternates between an upward swing — nuptOOal — and a collision of consonsants, nuptchl. The concept and action involves both, not without a certain eroticism running alongside and within other intersecting economies of connection and interaction, a more or less involved intertwining along the limits of bodies that is intimate, fundamental, even if tangential). Where was I? Oh yeah: so my house and me, a nuptial, yes. The smells of my body, my sweat, my soap, my cooking, my whathaveyou pervade the space as the space affords opportunity and architectures of engagement. I wear this house like this while it bears me like this. Visually, there are signs of me everywhere — scraps of paper, uncashed checks, old receipts, scribbles of my work, my writing, the bureaucracy of everyday life. There are tidbits of food, crumbs of gluten-free bread, stray leaves of baby arugula, lost peas, a dusting of coffee grounds.

Which is to say, I live thoroughly with myself. Sometimes, it feels like I've peed on the walls and in every corner, marking the space unquestionably as mine — both a proud planting of a flag and a desperate, weak and sad attempt to claim a piece of the world. (Actions and things are multivalent.)

There is a tipping point, of course, a juncture at which my residue turns fetid. Rather than articulating my vitality, the delicious leftovers, they become malodorous markers — and progenitors — of my disease.

Some people are very clean. They eradicate every sign of every event that transpires in their house. They make the bed after they wake; they fold the towels after showering; they wipe the counters clean, put the dishes away, sweep the floor after every meal. They even put their clothes from the day away. This last one confounds me. Clothes that are worn but not dirty need a weigh station, a purgatory, some place to linger, to air themselves out, to ready themselves for the next wear. You can't fold them up and put them in the drawers; they have too much of the the city and me on them. But leaving them about on the floor just means they'll accumulate more schmutz (without the benefit of even wearing them). And yet they're not so dirty that they need to be washed (not to mention washing wears clothes down). So I strew them — strew is an awesome verb! — in a laundry basket.

Anyway, the will to clean so fervently seems to me like a kind of self-loathing, a will to wash oneself away from the world. On the other hand, stewing in one's own fetid self isn't exactly a sign of vitality. It usually speaks to a certain malaise, a self-immolation by one's one stink.

This becomes more complicated once people start to enter the house for this or that reason. When friends come to stay, I am sure to clean the bathroom and kitchen; it'd be rude to inflict them with my various stenches. But I don't scrub, dust, shine, and polish. What about when my son's friends come over? I don't want to scare them with my filth. We all remember being in certain people's houses and knowing a cleanliness and filth limit. On the other hand, these kids are 11 so what do I care?

Women are another matter all together. I briefly dated a woman once who kept her place spotless — and commented upon it repeatedly. She actually asked me that were she ever to visit my place, would she be grossed out? It made me see my house in a whole new light, tidbits of my grotesquerie everywhere. Rather than face this, or feel this, I stopped seeing her.

One's clothes and house mark these practical, palpable junctures — seams, to borrow Lohren Green's word — of the private and public, the personal and the social. Words do, too, of course but in a more abstract way. Home and clothes are borders that have more borders — walls, doors, closets, drawers; underwear, pockets, wallets, purses — all marked with our mortality. They involve a fine and relentless, if unnoticed, patrolling.

I definitely enjoy living amidst myself. Yes, it sometimes — well, often — goes too far, turning my life into decay. But I like the faint smell of my sweat in the pits of my shirts; I like the crumple of the blanket that warmed my feet on the couch the night before; I like the books I'm reading out and about, transmitting their promises and possibilities. I don't want to put my life away after using it. I'm just not sure anyone else wants to see — and smell — all that. And so I spend a lot of time at home, alone.


What Do You See When You Consider the World?

Making sense is cinematic.
I see a multi-screen production — no reel here.

There are so many ways to parse events, to distribute bodies and their relations. Take what we call the news and bombings and such. The media try to establish a particular frame of causes and effects. Meanwhile, Facebook feeds offer alternate causes and effects.

There is, alas, no right or singular way of making sense of things. Events are multiple. How we distribute them, make sense of them, depends on our metabolism (our humors, inclinations, speeds), our circumstances (from cultural and historical to immediate things like hunger and the need to pee), our point of focus (from right in front of my face to the sprawling horizon of the cosmos).

What do you see when you see the world? Where is your point of focus? How do you see things going together, coming part, co-mingling? How do you distribute the flux? And what does it look like? Feel like?

Me, I see flux as the condition of the world — a great, indifferent stream of all things. Nietzsche sometimes calls this Nature. It is what happens beyond good and evil, outside of any science and human knowledge, everything aswirl — rocks, ideas, planets, gamma rays, tequila, love, that itch on my right shoulder blade, cars, consciousness (whatever that is), kids. I see an endless morphing into different shapes, bodies attracting and repelling each other, often without ever coming into direct contact (an orbit, for instance, is a kind of attraction between two bodies which may very well occur without either knowing about the other. The Earth just thinks: Weeeeeeeee! Watch me go round and round! Meanwhile, the sun thinks: Man, it's hot! Watch me fly through space! I wonder what all those rocks out there are doing?).

This flux coheres and gives way, in the same breath, to this moment, this moment, to this writing, this itch, this feeling, that feeling, this idea, this life happening now: agua viva. I don't see consciousness as something different than this stuff; it's part and parcel. And yet it's not material. Mind, consciousness, whatever we call it, exceeds me, streams through me, animates itself in me, as me, just as it streams through the sun and Pluto and you. And yet it is not one thing, either. There are planes of the invisible, architectures of affect, fluxes of forces, some of which we are aware of, most of which we are not but that we nevertheless live through, necessarily — sun flares, smells, gases, magnetisms of all sorts, pushes and pulls, tugs and gropes of trees and pollen and moods and ideas.

What do you see when you consider the world?

Philosophers, of course, paint us elaborate pictures of what they see — only they do it in concepts and words. Each philosopher sees something different and asks us to see like that. Bergson says that when we read philosophy, we're coming to an intuition of what that philosopher intuited, what she saw, what she sees, how she distributes the world, the flux, bodies, affects, relations. Other artists literally paint the picture. See? There's what I see. Writers do it with affect and character and plot and rhythm and syntax.

People do like to distribute the world into buckets. Dualities, for instance, are quite common: body/spirit, temporal/eternal, good/evil, signifier/signified, subject/object. These make a certain sense in the abstract. They sure make things easier to talk about. The structuralists distinguished between diachronic and synchronic language: language as a system and language as a spoken, actual event. This made it easier to talk about language as a thing separate from its use. Then Derrida came along and said: Wait, uh, isn't language always already spoken? Is there any language that isn't? Where would that be? There's nothing outside the text. Which is slightly different than, yet related to, Alan Watts coming along and saying: This is it.

I've never felt dualities. I feel multiplicities ricocheting, marbling, mixing, boinging all about — in me, as me, around me, with me. The structure of dualities seems like an idea, a configuration, that has no real relationship to experience. Or at least to my experience.

And yet the possibility of duality is one way to configure things, to make sense of things. As such, it is something, too, that is part of the ricocheting, marbling, co-mingling, attraction, repulsion. Which is really weird: amidst infinite multiplicities and differentiations, there is also a more or less rigid duality  — at least as an idea, as a moment within the flux, as a possibility. Stillness, in a sense, as a movement within movement.

Making sense is a kind of cinematic act, putting together all these images into a moving sequence of relations. Maybe stillness is the long take, Tarkovsky. My cinema doesn't run on a reel, going from here to there. It's a multi-screen production without an arc and with characters who morph into other creatures, human and not, living and not. Which is why I've always felt at home reading Burroughs.


Sense & Sentence

We take sentences for granted. Of course we write in sentences. It's how we make sense to one another. Or, well, that's not quite right as we don't always speak in sentences and we understand each other, more or less. So we demand that we all write in sentences because, uh, hmn, uhhhhh...why?

The sentence is a sense machine, a technology that takes up various elements — doers, actions, qualifiers, objects — and distributes them in a certain relationship. In its rules of operation, there are agents independent of action — the I is distinct from the seeing, running, reading — that do things to and with and for and toward the world. These terms of distribution and operation are themselves premised on certain assumptions, for instance, that doers and actions are in fact distinct.

Nietzsche says this a lie. The agent and the action are not separate; there is no doer behind the deed. In his example, the lightning doesn't strike. Because what would lighting be if it wasn't striking? You can't separate lightning from striking. And yet that is precisely what the sentence mandates we do. In Nietzsche's grammar, lightning lightnings Or, better, just lightning — as a gerund, an action as a form (and vice versa). 

But if you were to write that, your teachers and everyone else for that matter would correct you. That's not a proper sentence, the comments would read in the margins. The demand to write in sentences is a demand to make a certain sense that is linear, in which distinct bodies do things to other bodies. To write in sentences is to forge an entire cosmos with its own ideology, its physical and ethical laws, its own proscriptions and way of meting out justice (those red marks on your school essays!). But there are other universes of sense with different laws and different ethics.

William Burroughs refused the sentence as the dominant mode of sense making. His sentences sometimes lack subjects or verbs; subject and verb don't always agree; sentences meander without finishing. Often, he writes in fragments, word-images, a kind of collage: Outside a Palm Beach bungalow waiting for a taxi to the airport. My mother’s kind, unhappy face, last time I ever saw her. Really a blessing. She had been ill for a long time. My father’s dead face in the crematorium. “Too late. Over from Cobblestone Gardens.”

Poetry, of course, rarely operates with sentences. See how ee cummings breaks sense in order to create friction as words starts to collide, running into commas, the order of sentences giving way to the poignancy of desire, of longing. The experience insinuates itself into the exposition, making the linearity stop and present itself as immediate and palpable.

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body.  i like what it does,
i like its hows.  i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones,and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric furr,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

This all makes different sense. As David Theruailt (read his great blog), Sean Ziebarth (his prodigious blog), and I were discussing the other day over a leisurely crab cake conversations Mermen posters and pedagogic allusions, fragments offer a sense of sense that often feels right, that articulates the fragmentation of thought and life and meaning and experience that we all know so well. And yet we continue to teach the sentence as if it were the only way to write and, well, make sense. As if everything ordered and in its place were somehow edifying rather than stultifying.

But what if we taught writing differently. What if we focused on different architectures of sense —  conceptual, narrative, affective, purely linguistical or rhetorical (such as repetition, alliteration, and the like), through associations of form, meaning, history. What if we taught the rhythm of sense making that moves between and among meaning and mood, affect and association. What would its pedagogy look like? What new kinds of comments would show up in the margins?

Mind you, I like the sentence. Besides being highly effective for a certain mode of exposition, I like it precisely because of its strictures, because it sets limits. Which is a constant challenge: how do I make this sentence work, wind, fly, meander, drift? How do I make this linear trajectory multiple? How can I take in this technology and put it to other uses?

The sentence, then, as one mode of sense among many. Too much fragmentation and we enter chaos — not necessarily nonsense but no-sense. Nonsense can be affective, effective. No-sense is a still birth. It's a subtle balance, this sense, perched as it is on the frontier of form and becoming, shape and movement, chaos and order.

Burroughs always traveled with his writing tools: a typewriter, a box of writing cut up into pieces, and a pair of scissors. Sense is not always linear as the sentence imagines it. Sense goes in different directions, often all at once. It stops and starts again. It folds and breaks and leads us astray in the best possible way. It at once provides footing and undoes that footing. Which is what all great writing does. It doesn't just lead from subject through verb to object. It situates us at the cusp of chaos, running the seam of flux and form.


The Horror of Beginning a Film, or The Limits of Sense

The beginning of movies holds a particular horror. The film has to go from zero — literally, a blank screen — to some kind of form, some kind of sense, in a flash. This space is absolutely uncertain, a nowhere, a no-sense, an abyss. Sitting in the audience, we reach, grab, and grasp as we try to assemble sense from the flickers before us, looking for a way in, something to stand on, some way to orient ourselves so we can say, perhaps silently to ourselves, I know what's going on here. 

The movement from no-sense to sense yawns with the possibility of infinite nothingness — and worse, infinite no-sense. It's one thing to face the black abyss. But it's another thing to be given something that you know should make sense, something that has apparently been created with the precise intention of communicating sense, and it still doesn't cohere into anything you can grasp, that you can recognize. Something is happening but you don't know what it is. This is madness, sense perception without sense, and it's terrifying.

We all know people who can't stomach this fear. They immediately begin asking questions: Who's that? Why's she doing that? What's going on? This seems to inspire universal hatred. Which makes sense. After all, what is life if it's not the very act of forging form from the flux, making sense from the no-sense? And to have someone else clinging to us for life is literally unbearable; it's the tug of the drowning pulling the rescuer under. 

Hollywood films, aware of this and having no respect for the intelligence of its audience, work hard to mitigate the horror of beginnings. Before the film is even out, studios plaster the world with ads and press releases, with talk show appearances and press screenings, all this to orient the audience before the film has even started. So when we go in, we already know what to expect. Oh, this is a romcom! A robot action packer! An indie drama? These designations come with certain modes and methods of assembling sense that are more alike than they are different; Little Miss Sunshine shares the same structure as The Rock (although The Rock is a far superior film). 

But this passage from no-sense to sense is never univocal. And there are infinite paths to sense, to all the different kinds of sense — conceptual, affective, local, fleeting, universal, transcendent. And, to make it more complex, that initial blank screen will never have been blank. It is always already filled with cliché, with inherited knowledge, with modes and signs of sense that are well worn, familiar, that come pre-packaged as sense-packages so we, the audience, don't have to do any work. The sense comes pre-cooked. 

The filmmaker has so many ways to go. She can give us a sense we think we know and then disrupt it — Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Or she can make the terms of sense making part of the sense making, as in Scream. Evil Dead 2 disrupts sense making, giving us local moments of sense that defy expectation — the room of objects laughing and our hero, at first disturbed, begins laughing as well, going with the event rather than fearing it until we in the audience do the same, laughing with the madness of it. (Horror movies have a license to play with sense making in Hollywood that other films don't seem to.)

The avant-garde, of course, loves this moment, this movement from no-sense to sense. Think of the beginning of Un Chien Andalou. It opens with the classic text, cliché of clichés, "Once upon a time...." And then we see a man sharpening a blade; he looks up at the moon; suddenly, there's a woman's head which he grasps and, holding her eye open, slices her eyeball with the blade. This is the figure of avant-garde sense making: forging gaps — literally cutting the tissue of sense. 

For me, great films are a bit horrific in that I know there's a sense there but I can't find it quite yet. This is in fact the entire logic of David Lynch's films: there is a sense, a logic, but it will forever elude you. He doesn't just give us nonsense or no-sense. He gives us images that do make sense on two orders: local and obtuse. That is to say, the images make a kind of local coherence, never adding up to a concept or clear narrative turn but offering an affective coherence, even if complex and multiple. 

And then he does something else: he gives us the sense of a sense we'll never understand, a logic that eludes. The end of Lost Highway finds Robert Blake whispering in the ear of Bill Pullman. They know what's happening. But we don't. Nor does Lynch, we presume. But there is a kind of master logic that will remain forever off screen, out of view, beyond our comprehension. 

This entire discussion begs the question: What is sense? I want to say that it's a cohering into a this that is multiple and may even be infinitely complex but which nonetheless is a this not a nothing. This this can cohere via a concept — all these different things are dogs or modernist art or love — or via a local magnetic pull, as when an asteroid collides with a planet. Sense can be affective — all these things feel this way. Sense is a form amid chaos, however nebulous. 

But to enjoy this kind of sense — these nebulous, less familiar modes of coherence — demands a certain generosity. Yes, the filmmaker forges a certain coherence. But so do we as viewers, as readers. Some watch Lynch films — or Cassavetes' or Marc Lafia's or Buñuel's — and they turn away, as if there were nothing there, as if no sense was being made. Not me. I want that sense that is precarious, tenuous, that comes into being as readily as it dissipates. There is a riskiness there — a fear, perhaps, but a thrill, a delight, a surging, an urging, a procreant urge of the world, life risking itself to be interesting, to be beautiful, to tease and dance at the limits of chaos and order — to play at, and with, the limits of sense.


In Defense of Gesticulating

I move my hands when I talk — a lot. That is, I move my hands a lot when I talk. And when I talk a lot. But, really, whenever I talk.

I never really thought about this. It's just what we do. I come from a family of gesticulators hailing from a city of gesticulators. So it wasn't until I found myself in San Francisco, then teaching at Berkeley, that said gesticulating became apparent. I'd like to say it made me feel like a linguistic acrobat but, alas, the reality is I suddenly felt like a clown. Or like I had some psycho-physical disorder in which my hands and arms and sometimes whole body twitched and contorted as I spoke.

Mind you, this didn't stop my emphatic gesturing. On the contrary, and perhaps as a sort of rebellion, my gestures became more pronounced, more elaborate, enjoying greater scope and physicality. There have certainly been spilled coffees and cocktails, the occasional face, ass, shoulder, and breast bearing the brunt of my gesticulations. So it goes. I do always turn with a befuddled, dazed, and sincere apology as I smack flesh or cup.

But this is how I talk. It's even how I write. As I inscribe these very words, my hands tends to linger, shake, and gesture as they approach the keyboard, as if to coax meaning from the pitter patter of keys and their attending pixels. For me, as for those in my family and from the New York of old — I can't and won't vouch for present day Manhattan and I am pretty damn sure no one in Brooklyn is gesticulating — the kids these days fear the emphatic, at least in words, preferring to let their facial hair speak for them — for me and whence I come, language is embodied and meaning is gestural.

Usually, people like to think of language as a tool set: I'll pick up this word to designate this meaning or sensation. But that's just not how language works. As Merleau-Ponty, the great French phenomenologist, tells us, we have this language as we have legs and body; we reach for a word as we reach for an itch. Language runs through us as oxygen, gin, toxins, and what have you runs through our veins. We cough words, breathe sense, speak gestures.

Meaning is an event, not a designation. Which is to say, meaning doesn't only predate our occasion, our being on the scene. We make meaning; we conjure meaning. And this is a physical, affective, and conceptual enterprise all at once. To reduce language to mere designation, to reference, is to miss not just the nuance of meaning but the joy, pleasure, and erotics of communication.

To speak is a come on — to others, to cashiers and OK Cupid would-be dates and friends and the world itself. It's to conjure, billow, and bellow swells of inflection. We steer meaning as we steer the world and steer ourselves and are, in turn, steered. We don't just point elsewhere when we speak and write. That's what zombies do; that's a living death. No, we living beings forge the world through gestures semantic, physical, and affective.

Language is odd like that. I, for one, love the act of summoning words to the page and throat and ear. Language, as Barthes tells us, is lined with flesh. Nabokov knows this well just as all great writers do — Borges and Melville and Junot Díaz and TC Boyle and ee cummings and Lisa Robertson and Tom Wolfe and Hunter S and Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and, at his best, Walt Whitman and, of course, Emerson and Clarice Lispector and Luce Irigaray.  I always found Judith Butler's writing rather arid and bereft of such gestures but, when studying Hegel with her, I was most struck by her subtle and nuanced gesticulations as she moved through the Phenomenology in person.

To speak and write is, at the same time, to conjure and create. It's not just to designate and point. When we speak, we bring forth everything that has been in order to inflect it just so to make new meaning, new sensations and affects. And this act is as conceptual as it is physical. So of course I move my fucking hands as I speak: I'm making the world here.

We lean into meaning, into the world, with our bodies and our shoulders and words and grammar, with our stomachs and hands. As we speak, we move meaning around, distributing affect and sense. This takes words, sure, but it also takes hands and limbs and everything else. This shit ain't easy. Making meaning is a demanding act, a gestural act, a gesticulation within the fray and flux of it all.

So, yes, I move my hands as I speak and even as I write. Because the right inflection of the world is hard come by. It's earned through participation. When I move my hands this way and that, I'm weighing words and their meanings and their moods; I'm moving them about, literally, even if they're invisible; I'm conjuring and creating with my toil and sweat, with my inflection at once linguistic, verbal, semantic, and physical; I'm summoning a turn of phrase and steering it into the goddamn world; I'm feeling the impact of a trope, my hands and limbs so much collateral damage or, better, an emphatic umph animated by sound, sense, and affect. Of course I'm using my hands! I'm using everything I got. What are you doing?