7.09.2018

The Luxury of the Infinite Gaze


When I was a kid, I loved looking at the sky. But I was never interested in seeing things — planets, stars, clusters. No, I wanted my gaze to keep going, never to focus, to let my eyes be drawn infinitely through the cosmos.

Like many kids, when I was young I thought a lot about space. But I wasn't interested in planets and stars. I wasn't even interested in super novas, black holes, and space ships which are all insanely cool. And despite the fact that my step father was an astronomer who took the first pictures of Venus — I shit you not — and so there were telescopes aplenty, I had no interest in using them. Telescopes are for seeing things — planets, moons, stars, perhaps constellations or even galaxies. But none of that interested me. I didn't want to see anything. I wanted my gaze never to end: I wanted to see the infinity of space.

Some kids learn the names of this or that — the Pleiades (although I love that name with all those vowels!); Saturn's gigantic moon, Titan; Halley's Comet (although to see such a screaming across the sky is at once exhilarating and humbling). But none of that piqued my interest at all (I still don't care about the names of things other than enjoying the name itself; to me, the name is another celestial body).

When I looked up, I wasn't looking for anything. I was looking for the unnameable: I was looking for that infinite horizon with a gaze that just keeps going. What I learned back then is what I'd learn again, once from Merleau-Ponty then again from Osho: if my gaze doesn't end, then I don't end. My very act of looking extends me across and through the silky cosmic body — entwining me, entwining with me.

Lying alone at night tucked into my safari sheets, I'd track the movement in my head from the bed outwards — past my ceiling and roof, past the trees, through the clouds, past the everyday blue sky and moon, past the sun and planets, past the stars. What I loved was that the movement didn't end; it had no point of focus. There was nothing to see; there was only the act of seeing, seeing a world that in the same breath reveals and recedes, carrying my skinny little body along, extending me Plastic Man-like into that delicious delirium, that point free of orientation where there's no up, down, or side to side, just me going, spreading, splaying, extending through it all. Oh man! I'd shudder with what I'll call a prepubescent orgasm. But it was more expansive than that. If I wanted to be fancy, I'd say it was feminine in that it kept going rather than climaxing. Years later, I'd read Hélène Cixous and find the word that hinted at what I'd experienced: jouissance.

Thinking about it right now gives me the shivers — shivers of a very special kind of ecstasy.   

I was always confused by what people meant by "outer space." I was eight and I knew that there was no inner or outer space. Sure, those terms have relative value to a fixed point. But when I'd think about going to outer space — into that infinite cosmic body — I'd realize I was already there. Earth is in outer space. Just thinking that when I was a kid — and today, too— makes my heart go pitter patter. I see the swift pan back as we zoom out and out, the earth receding into the distance, becoming a speck in the infinite folds of the universe and, yes and yes, it's exquisite.

Such is the way of infinity: there's no fixed point of orientation. The language of proximity is only relevant if, say, you're giving someone directions or launching a spacecraft. But for my purposes, the luxury of thinking about space is precisely that there's no directions to give and no spacecraft to launch — and hence no question of proximity. I'm just zooming along like the Pleiades, Titan, and Halley's Comet.

Merleau-Ponty says that to look is to palpate. This continues to blow my mind. All too often, we imagine seeing as an act at remove: I am here, it is there. But, for Merleau-Ponty, to see something is to touch it, to bring it to you at the same time that it brings you to it — what he calls an intertwining or chiasm. Seer and seen reverse positions at infinite speed until they are swirls of a marbling.

So what happens when I don't look at any one thing but look into space without focus? I am palpating the cosmos itself: I bring it to me and it brings me to it. We intertwine. But rather than just marbling in place, the limit of our marbling extends in every direction. This gaze then enacts an internal swirl and an infinite extension, a going and going both inside and out. 

This infinite gaze is a going without purpose, with no point of focus, nothing to buy or think, no people to meet, nothing to say. Indeed, for Osho, this space is a vacuum, emptiness itself: It is just the vacuum, he writes, the space in which objects can exist. The sky itself is just pure emptiness. Look into it. // What will happen? In emptiness, there is no object to be grasped by the senses. Because there is no object to be grasped, clung to, senses become futile. And if you are looking into the blue sky without thinking, without thinking, suddenly you will feel that everything has disappeared; there is nothing. In that disappearance you will become aware of yourself. Looking into this emptiness, you will become empty.

I know what he means. This gaze does seem to evacuate me of the bullshit that one accumulates through the course of this all-too-often absurd existence — the worries about whether she liked when I did that thing, the idiot client who won't pay me, that ache in my shoulder. But rather than seeing it as an emptying per se, I see it as a matter of spatial scale: when I gaze into the infinite, the infinite gazes into me and so the things that once loomed large are now so minuscule as to be forgotten. And, as for Osho, there is a serenity to be found.

But, for me, space is not emptiness. On the contrary, it is full. Or, rather, it is fullness itself. It is not the place in which things are suspended. It is the stuff that enfolds everything. I find space viscous, thick, luscious. And so while this infinite gaze does afford me the serenity of putting my worries in their place, it affords me something else: the decadent surrender to the flesh of the universe and the ensuing exhilaration of cosmic affirmation as it fills me, carries me along, wraps me in its inky embrace.

I want to say that this gaze that goes is life itself in as much as there is such a thing, what Deleuze right before his fatal plunge called pure immanence or a life. Not this life, not my life, not your life: a life.

In any case, for me, this infinite gaze abounds. The very act of looking infinitely is fecund. It's a gaze that roars and boils over. It fills me rather than emptying me. But rather than filling me with the tasks and noise of this world, indeed rather than filling me with the beauty of sun and flowers or the wonder of black holes and supernovas, it fills me with life itself. I stand here and look and am filled with the infinite richness, the luscious thickness, of space, of the cosmos: of life itself. And what, I ask you, is more luxurious than that?

6.10.2018

Why I Love Astrology (and the Joy of Talking Out My Ass)


Like many around me, I'm guessing, I became interested in astrology thanks to the charming brilliance of Rob Brezsny. The way I see it, reading a horoscope is not about confirming who you are or what will happen to you. On the contrary, it invites you to see yourself otherwise, to see yourself swept up in the cosmic flow of it all, to shed who you are and become something else. Read more from him >


Let me say from the get go: I don't know much about astrology. I know about it the way people know about things — from magazine cartoons, dialogue in movies and tv shows, and mostly from Rob Brezsny's fantastically engaging horoscopes in the SF Weekly way back when. Which is to say, I don't really know anything about astrology.

This affords me a luxurious posture — that of talking out my ass. That's not a knock on me or talking out one's ass. On the contrary, it's my favorite way to talk about things. It's so liberating! I'm not encumbered by expectations of being an expert. It doesn't matter if I'm right or wrong! I'm at once detached and engaged. I'm beyond judgement. I'm not writing a column for "The New Yorker." I don't have a stance: I'm not some scientist — whatever that is — who for some deeply personal, questionable reason is trying to debunk anything; nor am I a devotee of really anything other than a 5:00 highball. I'm not a scholar and I don't "follow" my horoscope. Astrology is just something that I've glimpsed floating through the ether which has captured my interest now and again. Which is all to say, I've thought about astrology, probably more than you'd expect, but not enough to qualify me as anything other than some random guy talking about things he knows little about — that is, talking out his ass. And what, I ask you, is more luxurious than that?

Anyway, it seems to me that the first thought people say about astrology is either I believe in it! It's so true! Or: What nutty malarkey! How can looking at stars tell you anything about you or the future? Both responses use a common metric of assessment, namely, can astrology make claims to verifiable truth? It seems to me that this is coming at astrology from an odd perspective. Or, as the great French philosopher Henri Bergson would say, they both ask the wrong question, a false question.

Questions are insidious. While seeming to be open to the world — I'm just asking! Jeez! — questions already assume what counts as an answer. They thereby put the interlocutor in a difficult social position. Here's an example. A doting grandmother asks her four year old grandson: What's your favorite color? This assumes he has a favorite color; that one is generally expected to have such a thing; that in all the joy he takes interacting with a vast array of colors, he's being told that he's supposed to be ranking them — and not just in a vague, general sort of way. No, he has to have a favorite. One. Favorite. Color. That's insane! Don't we all enjoy colors in all sorts of ways? I wear black but I don't paint my walls black. What I like and don't like depends on lots of factors — mood, circumstance, desire. The question, like all utterances, already frames the world, already establishes the rules of sense. But unlike declarations — Astrology is not true! — the question feigns innocence. Be careful of questions.

The question the major discourse of our world asks of astrology is: Is it true? That question assumes that there are things that can access truth and things that can't. But what if I operate outside of any claims to truth? Say, for instance, that I do performance art. There is no question of an accurate or true performance; there is no way to verify what I've done. To ask if it's true would be absurd. We make sense of performance art without recourse to truth or verifiable judgement. We enjoy it or we don't. And we may have reasons for our enjoyment or lack thereof; we may have opinions on why others should or must feel the way we do. But no one would ever say:  I'm right and here's the evidence.

Now I'm not saying astrology is art as distinct from science. I'm with Nietzsche on this one: science is just art — poetry — that's forgotten it's art. What I'm saying is that we make sense of all kinds of things without asking: Does it tell the truth? So perhaps asking it of astrology is to ask the wrong question.

I've never had my horoscope read. But I do like the fact that it's referred to as a reading; it — whatever it is — is not self-evident. It is something that engages you and asks you to read it, to make sense of it, to engage with it and see what it wants, what you want, and what you can make of it together.

Now, it seems to me that the basic premise of astrology is that life — all life — is contingent and interconnected, that nothing is hermetic — or at least that human life and planets and stars aren't. That is, you are not a self-contained, self-determining unit. Rather, you are caught up in an impossibly dense web of factors and forces. What you call 'you' is a nexus, or are nexuses, where and when lots of different elements converge and diverge. So if I can track the bodies and forces that flow through you — the movement of the skies, the planets, moons, and suns — I can help you make sense of the universe in which you find yourself. In fact, this seems rather obvious. People tend to be in better moods when it's sunny and warm than when it's cloudy and foreboding. So why wouldn't the flow of bodies outside our immediate environment also inflect how we go in the world?

As Rob Brezsny writes on the ECSTASY OF THE INVISIBLE, an incredible phrase I wish I'd thought of:  Many life processes unfold outside of your conscious awareness: your body digesting your food and circulating your blood; trees using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to synthesize their nourishment; microorganisms in the soil beneath your feet endlessly toiling to create humus. You don't perceive any of these things directly; they're invisible to you. 

Tune in to this vitalizing alchemy. Use your X-ray vision and sub-sonic hearing and psychic smelling. See if you can absorb by osmosis some of the euphoria of the trees as they soak in the sunlight from above and water from below.

In any case, astrology doesn't say: This is you! And this is what's going to happen to you! Astrology is neither determinative nor predictive. It says: This is what the cosmic forces that flow through you are up to. How does it play with and through you? 

A common criticism of horoscopes is that they're written to fit everyone and anything. You'll always just read yourself into it, says the nay-sayer as if he's offered some kind of insight. To which I say: Uh, yeah, isn't that amazing? Isn't that what all great art does — forge a détente with you? Ask you to wind yourself into it and be remade in the process?

To read a horoscope is not to confirm yourself — Wow! That's so me! That'd be ridiculous. Who needs anyone to confirm the known? No, a horoscope is not trying to confirm you. It's trying to affirm you. It's offering a play of forces and asking how you fit into it all, how you find yourself there and then. That very act of reading yourself into it is the art, is the practice, is the ask. For a moment or three as you engage with your horoscope, you abandon your everyday habits as you lean into this knot of cosmic activity in which you are necessarily entwined and rather than confirming yourself, rather than discovering some future truth, you explore yourself, take leave of yourself as you unravel and re-ravel, contorting your body to see how you fit, reading your way into a self forever in a state of flux right along with the moon, the stars, and the sun.


6.02.2018

How Tests Kill Thinking



Academic tests, at least in the humanities, are odd things. Do I really need to prove that I read all of Moby Dick, know what year the Magna Carta was, or what happened at the Potsdam Conference? Sure, knowing these things is important if I want to be an expert and scholar in a field. After all, that's what an expert is: one who knows all that stuff.

But is that why we're teaching students in our schools and colleges — to turn those 14 year olds into Melvillian scholars who go on to give tests on Moby Dick to 14 year olds so they, in turn, become scholars who teach 14 years when Melville was born? That's how we create the closed, strange, politics-laden worlds of the academy. It's not how we teach students to think or enjoy books, history, ideas, art, or life itself. On the contrary, by teaching students that there is one answer that they need to know — and that they need to prove they know  — we drain the vitality from the surging splendor of learning something new.

Tests are police actions. Show me your papers! And part of me understands that impulse. When I was teaching, I'd find myself frustrated and annoyed that students hadn't done the assigned reading. I told them to read it, dammit! And I'm gonna punish them if they didn't! But I realized that that was my ego, not my pedagogy. The student has to decide if she wants to read the book, if she wants to engage with it, if she wants to learn. I sure don't need her to prove to me that she read it. What good does that do anybody?

The logic of tests is the logic of the univocal. There is one answer. What is it? Tell me! Tell me! Even essay tests are odd in that they demand a student think and write quickly. I always gave final papers, not final exams. I wanted my students' best thinking, not their fastest thinking.

School and its grades coerce us into thinking there are answers when all there are are approaches, spins, takes. Answers are the least interesting aspect of any inquiry. The question is everything. The question opens things up; the question frames, distributes and redistributes concepts, facts, perspectives. Answers do the opposite: they close thought down. I know the answer! I'm done!

So rather than asking students to take tests, we should be asking them to create tests. What even counts as a question? In a class of 23 students all studying the Potsdam Conference , I'd love to see 23 radically different tests. (I have to confess: I have no idea what the Potsdam Conference is, although I could guess; I just like saying it.)

Now, when it comes to licensing, tests make sense. Licensing is the way an institution polices itself, regulates itself. So of course licensees need to know how to administer the DTaP vaccine, do ear washes, know what a duodenom is. Of course, knowing these things doesn't have any correlation with how good the licensee is at his job — in this case, a medical professional of some sort. I have to say: I am pushing 50 and have never, not once, had a doctor tell me something I didn't know about my body or health. In my experience, the doctor and I follow the same decision tree on WebMD and come to the same conclusion. The art of diagnosis — for surely it is as much an art as a science — as if science and art are opposed, which they most certainly are not — anyway, the art of diagnosis is not taught and has little to do with passing an exam.

I also get why we have standardized tests. After all, high school students have an enormous variety of experiences from a ridiculously varied set of circumstances. For colleges to assess students, they need — or so they imagine — some kind of standard. That makes sense (even if I disagree).

And I, for one, always enjoyed the SATs. The questions, especially the math, are clever in that they don't rely on deep knowledge of math per se but on the ability to know how to solve a math problem.  I'm terrible at them. I know because I find myself using pen and paper when I know I should be able to look at the answers and know. I'll say this: the creators of those questions are a clever lot, truly.

But I'm still not sure what the SATs assess, exactly. In vocabulary, the text demands knowledge of roots and etymologies and, at times, rote memorization. Reading comp is a good test — although I had to fight my urge to discover alternate interpretations. I just figured out what the test wanted. And, alas, this might be the point of SATs: they test your ability to take tests. Which is useful in a school that gives tests. It wouldn't be so important in my hypothetical test-free school.

Because, at one point in my sophomore year of college, I decided I'd never take another test. I was in a class on French feminism. And the professor assigned an exam. An exam! In a class on feminism! It seemed so phallocentric: Give me the right answer or you fail!  What does Hélène Cixous call the perpetual state of mystical, orgasmic play that undoes the sanctity of the unified subject? Tell me! It was hilariously absurd. So I refused to take that test. "Tests are police actions," I argued, "coercing alignment with institutional knowledge, reinforcing the reigning discourse. You not only judge me but I judge my self-worth by my ability to participate in the prescribed knowledge field." I'd been reading a lot of Foucault. The professor was neither pleased nor persuaded and my grade suffered, as it were. But I didn't.

And I did persuade myself — and so I never took another exam. When I took my mandatory science classes — Physical Anthropology and Physics for Poets — I wouldn't answer any test questions. In Anthro, I flipped the test over — did I really need to memorize which lemurs are diurnal? — and critiqued the assumptions of the text book. In Physics, I flipped the exam over and tied the concepts we were studying to the philosophy I was reading. I got Cs in both classes (if you go to a fancy school and pay enough money, they refuse to fail you; a C was the lowest I could get; in a community college, I'd have failed, for sure.) As for the GMATs, I mostly doodled, filling in those little circles in silly ways.

Being asked to prove that I'd memorized the feeding habits of monkeys was, and remains, absurd. If I were requesting to go on an expedition in which I was expected to study said monkeys, of course an exam would make sense. But for an undergraduate student in a required physical sciences class? Why not teach me what physical anthropology cares about, the kinds of questions it asks and can ask, how the text book succeeds and fails and how it might otherwise be constructed?

To think is to distribute concepts, facts, bodies, forces into different configurations. It's certainly not memorizing how someone else did all that. Tests not only don't teach thinking; they squash it. And, worse, their status in schools make it such that students assess their own worth by how they do on tests. So, in effect, testing shuts down the act of thinking among all our citizens and hence among our culture at large. Which explains a lot about this world.

So I offer one simple suggestion. Rather than using one text book in a course, have each student write an outline for how they'd write a textbook for the course. And, at the end of the semester, rather than giving an exam, have each student go home and write a test.

5.28.2018

Grasping

Most nights, I find myself sitting alone in my house. Often — too often, I'm embarrassed to say — I feel something missing. I want something, most notably, I want some woman to give me the sense that she wants me. In today's world, this usually takes the form of a text. When my phone inevitably remains quiet, there is a whiff of rejection. So, much to my shame, I'll send digital missives into the ether. And regardless of what I write, what I'm actually saying is: Do you like me? 

Needless to say, this is not the way to attract a woman's attentions. It doesn't come from a state of calm desire; it comes from a state of desperate need. It's not a romantic or sexual gesture; it's a grasping to fulfill an internal lack. And I've yet to meet a woman who's even remotely tolerant of such a gesture.

This is no doubt the seduction of dating apps. All the blips and beeps, all those notifications, give you a sense that somebody, somewhere, is interested in you. What I've seen in my experience is that rather than let silence become the norm and risk that sense of death, people double down on the app, swiping more and more, messaging more and more, to get the taste of desire, to create a set of tethers, however false, to the social world in general and the sexual economy in particular. You hear all those beeps and think: Yes, I am desired! Most of the time, people don't even meet; the difficulty and messiness of the flesh is too much. And so they remain ensconced in a world of digital communiqués with the faint scent of desire and without the weighted hassle of real human discourse — or even intercourse. It's all so much grasping. I don't want to be alone! Desire me — even if it's false.

On the other hand, it's nice to feel desired. And the fact is, life is hard and often we feel shitty about ourselves. We feel not only unloved but unlovable. And to have someone we love say: It's ok, yes, I love you can turn a shitty night, a shitty mood, a shitty life right around. Should that be enough to turn it around? Should a person be able to feel loved and lovable on one's own, without any actual person expressing it? Yes, absolutely. This is why we hear Christians say Jesus loves you and God loves you. It creates a state of perpetual lovability. Which is beautiful. But it's hard to summon that and sustain it and I know I, for one, sometimes — perhaps too often — want some external confirmation.

In the meantime, we — well, I — grasp for things other than a woman's attention. Sometimes, it's just for some social tethers. We've all seen this, if not experienced it ourselves, on the Facebook. We post and comment to get it on with old friends, acquaintances, strangers — just to feel a little less alone. All the social media outlets amplify this — Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, Instagram, Reddit, Quora. We look for those likes and feel, even if only for a moment, that we belong with the world, that we're not just alone adrift in the cold, cold cosmos (even if, from the right perspective, that is bliss).

Sometimes, I don't grasp for feminine or social attention. The tethers I seek at these times aren't human. I pour myself some of this, eat some of that, pop a little of something else and soon I am feeling grand. I am beyond the petty needs of the social, of the romantic, even of the sexual. I am riding waves of thought and sensation. I may not belong with people but, right now, I belong with this cosmos. Watch me go!

But whether I'm texting a would-be or actual girlfriend, posting on the Facebook, swiping on the Tinder, or pouring myself a hefty glass of tequila, I am grasping. All because I want to feel enmeshed. I want to feel the embrace of the world, even if digital or drug induced. Because, on my own, I don't feel like I'm enough.

I am rarely willing just to sit with my state, whatever state that is. I'm always seeking an exit, an escape hatch, a distraction, a change. If I have low energy, I have an espresso; if I'm anxious, I pop an Ativan or pour a cocktail; lonely, I text, swipe, or post. I grasp at what's around me so as not to feel what I'm feeling. My lack, my self-loathing, seeks remedy anywhere and everywhere.

What's funny is that when I don't grasp — when I don't text or imbibe — but feel my utter aloneness on the planet, when I feel that steady drift through the cosmic ether, that is when I feel the greatest joy. This is what I'll do: I'll be sitting my couch feeling that lack and I'll consider my options — my phone, various people I know, my computer, my liquor and drug cabinet. Each proffers its own mode of a tether to the world. But then I'll reach for nothing, lean back into myself, and feel the tethers all snapping like Neo emerging from his pod in the Matrix. And, suddenly, I feel blissfully untethered. I am floating peacefully through space as this temporary coagulation of form. It is euphoric. Mind you, euphoria is not the most common reaction to my cosmic loneliness. But it does show me that grasping is not the answer.


There are of course less nefarious modes of grasping. I've met plenty of people — and I have been known to be one of them — who are constantly seeking self-improvement through this or that — different practices, books, philosophies. All of these come from the same source as me reaching for booze: something is missing. Maybe I'll find peace in two weeks of silence! Or by reading more Osho! Both of these things might be great practices; they might lend themselves to peace. But, as with booze or late night texts to women, they can also be desperate and needy, stemming from a place of self-loathing, self-discontent. It's all seeking when everything is always already perfect. There's nothing to seek.

All that said, I do have desires — I enjoy the attentions of women; I enjoy sex and romance; I enjoy bantering with the world; I enjoy my cocktails of every sort; I learn from Nietzsche and Osho. These are not tethers; they are desires. After all, we are ecological beings; we are always already and fundamentally enmeshed with the world. We breathe, eat, touch, talk, fuck just to live. So what distinguishes grasping from enjoyment? This is an elusive internal calculus. Often, I can feel the difference as each enjoys a different posture. When I grasp, I lean a little too far forward; I get twitchy; I feel the jones, as the say. When I desire, I saunter to the liquor cabinet and concertedly pour that drink. In both cases, I'm having a cocktail. The difference between the two is internal. And, alas, not always clear. 

We reach for, we reach with, the world — necessarily. We take in air, food, words, ideas, sensations and give out gases, gestures, more words. But there are different ways of doing so. Part of me wishes I never needed confirmation from the world, never needed a woman to tell me she desires me, never needed a boost or sedative, had all the wisdom I needed, that all my self-worth were self-generated at all times. But alas, at times, I want that confirmation from someone or something — from a woman, a glass of tequila, from Osho or Nietzsche. And, frankly, that doesn't seem so bad. It seems part of being alive — accommodating and loving those who grasp, offering a confirmation that they do indeed matter, that they are indeed loved and lovable.

Grasping may not be pretty. It may not be healthy. But it does seem like something we all do from time to time. We can, and should, work to reach with vital desire rather than desperate grasping. We should work to feel like enough for this world, perfect for and with this world regardless of what's happening — regardless of whether you've been fired, dumped, whether you're sick or depressed. Then again, sometimes it's just plain old nice to have the world reach for you with a loving touch, whether it's a kind word in a text, the keen insight of a tantric master, or the warm embrace of a cocktail.

5.23.2018

Difference & Duality

When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why the opposite of hot was cold. Why wasn't it, say, door? Or chocolate pudding? Or farts (I was 8 years old, after all)?

Cold, it seemed to me, was not that different from hot. After all, it's still a temperature; it's in the same general field as hot. Door, on the other hand, has very little to do with hot — although I suppose a door can be seen as a way to control the heat of a room. Chocolate pudding really has nothing to do with hot — although, I suppose, said pudding begins with heat. Farts? Well, farts are warm and I guess they can be hot!

Concepts, words, experiences: they have tendrils that wind this way and that. We live in networks, lines crisscrossing every which way as doors, chocolate pudding, and farts all find hot and cold in different ways, from different directions.

Anyway, what I'd stumbled on was the logic of opposition as distinct from the logic of difference. Cold is the opposite of hot. What confused me was that I believed that opposite meant different when, in fact, opposite means a form of likeness. Hot and cold occupy the same spectrum, namely, temperature. They are matters of degree within the same field. What separates them is quantity, not quality (even though hot and cold are radically different qualitative experiences).


Hot and cold are opposites. Hot and chocolate pudding are different. Opposition is a form of sameness; difference marks a point of distinction, of independence — although that independence is necessarily relational. Cold and hot are forever locked in the same architecture, two ends of the same line. Their fate is wound up, bound up, with each other. They move together.

Think of the so-called rebellious teen. She gets a tattoo because her parents told her not to. This teen's decision is still determined by that parental prohibition. It's not that different than obeying her parents and not getting the tattoo.
 
Difference, while relational, is emergent and ever in flux. Unlike hot and cold which are forever locked in the same relationship, door's relationship to hot changes based on circumstance. 

And difference is autopoietic, self-determining. I, this body here, wants a tattoo. What my parents say may not be irrelevant but it does not determine my decision. If I get the tattoo because my parents said no, it'd structurally be the same as not getting the tattoo because my parents said so. I just want this tattoo. That decision differentiates itself from the social field, from the play of child and parent, from the pressure of friends. It is self-determining, even if not hermetic.

To eliminate the duality of opposition is not to erase boundaries all together. On the contrary, it is to introduce boundaries everywhere, marks of distinction everywhere as bodies are perpetually differentiating themselves from each other.

Take a toe. There's a toenail, the toe itself — whatever that is —, a foot, a leg. What distinguishes one from the other? We can draw boundaries here or there, here and there, in order to distribute the body into its multiplicity. A toe differentiates itself from the foot just as the toenail differentiates itself from the toe. The distinction might bleed but it still holds: there is a point at which the toenail is clearly not the toe, the toe not the foot, the foot not the leg. Which is all to say that the logic of either/or, if the absolute limit, doesn't disappear; it's that these limits are in flux. There are limits everywhere only they're moving depending on perspective and circumstance.

There are all kinds of ways two things can be related, all kinds of ways any two things can be different from each other. There is, for instance, the double helix. This is an odd one in that the two strands never touch, never cross, and yet are fundamentally intertwined. The double helix is sort of like an oppositional duality only in flux with an odd kind of tension in which the strands always seem reaching for each other.


Marbling is a radically different mode of differential relation. Two things — there can be more, of course — are relentlessly differentiating themselves from each other, a constant game of push and pull. Black and white don't just become one thing, grey. Black and white retain their respective boundaries even as their boundaries bend and bleed.


Then there's the knot which is wildly multiple. So many different kinds of knots! Hot and spice form a kind of knot, I think, rather than a double helix or marbling.




There are any number of ways things might stand together with their difference. I think of gardens and tulips in particular. Each stands alone and yet they go together in a common gesture. But unlike marbling or knots, they don't need to; each tulip is just as content to stand alone as it is to bloom together. I want to call this tuliping.


Tuliping is quite differing from zooing. Zoos bring together radically discrepant things — lemurs, leopards, lamb — each within an environment in which it thrives. A zoo is like a book of cosmologies, a universe of universes.


What's the point of all this — these knots, tulips, and zoos, this marbling, this helix? Well, think about a duality such as good/evil, a figure that still dominates our storytelling in films as well as in our culture at large. Clearly, people and actions are never just good or evil. They are a nexus, a set of relations between and among forces, effects, affects, and ideas. Just because we say that good and evil are not opposed doens't mean we erase the difference between them. Rather, we suggest there are so many different ways they can relate to each other beyond duality, so many ways to architect their difference.

Mind/body is, of course, another common duality. I go to the gym for my body. I meditate for my mind. But anyone who's thought about either of these things knows that the gym is not just for the body and meditation is not just for the mind. To ignore the role of the mind in the gym is to ignore an essential part of your make up. I don't work out but it seems to me that working out while watching television is quite different than working out while meditating on and with your muscles, your breath, your heart. And meditation that only focuses on not focusing on one's thoughts misses all the teachings and sensations of the body.

You are as much mind as body — and yet the two are not the same. In fact, their relationship changes depending on one's actions. In sex, for me, they marble; in exercise, they tulip. Duality and opposition locks things into a fixed architecture. But life happens in the relationships that emerge in the motion of existence.

Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was obsessed with identifying a position of difference within Hegel's dialectical System. Hegel was the dominant philosopher of the 19th century who offered what he called the System: everything is a position that inevitably fails and gives rise to its opposite. This is what propels bodies, propels history, propels life itself. He calls this the dialectic. This drove Kierkegaard nuts. He longed for a position free of the System, free of the dialectic, free of opposition. The self, he said, is a point of irreducible difference. Here am I, says Abraham.

Yet this self is not a unity but rather is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, of the mortal and the divine. For Hegel, Jesus is the ultimate unity of man's internal oppositions. But, for Kierkegaard, Jesus, as with all people, is not the unity but the ever shifting dynamic between the finite and the infinite:

A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self…. In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

Ok, so that's an esoteric aside. But the thing I'd like to take away from Kierkegaard is that duality and its logic of opposition shut down life by creating one set architecture of sameness. But the self — and I'd suggest all forms, all bodies — emerges as the relationships between and among all our different elements. We are our ever-shifting terms of difference.