Towards a Philosophy of Rhetoric

 From the brilliant, charming "Clueless," an all too rare depiction of rhetoric praised rather than vilified.

Rhetoric is concerned with the everyday, with the ways things stand towards other things or, rather, with the way this stands towards that — how I stand in the crowded subway car, what I say to my son when his rapidly elongating body extends into my couch space, how much to beat the eggs before pouring it in my broth for egg drop soup. That is to say, rhetoric is less interested in a general theory of ethics than in the particularity of an encounter. 

These ethics — these interactions — need not be human. Trees and wind, for instance, have a complicated relationship, rhetorically speaking. Trees shape wind and wind shapes trees. I love the way the trees along the Pacific coast grow as if the wind were always blowing, the wind winding through the very structure of the tree. Those are some complex arguments they make to each other, elaboroate conversations, negotiations, jokes. (The funniest tree I ever met was a ginkgo in West Philadelphia.)

With its attention on the particular, even if this particular extends temporally backwards (the past is always present) and forwards (so is the future), rhetoric enjoys a resounding indifference to what we usually call truth. Its focus has never been universal claims or moral dicta (that's a word I bet you rarely use!) or what actually happened. It cares about this body and that body and the different ways they can and do go together.

This indifference has been the source of its criticism. Besides Socrates' ambivalent anti-rhetoric rhetoric, see any Hollywood movie about the law. Lawyers — who've come to stand in for the classical sophist, those who use arguments to get results rather than the truth — are inherently sleazy because they're only concerned with the outcome for their client, not the truth. And then the good lawyer has a crisis of conscience and leaves the law to follow Truth and Justice. Oy vey! The same old moralistic crap. In fact, all of our depictions of a good lawyer are those who believe in a moral cause that exceeds the law ("To Kill a Mockingbird," for instance, or "A Civil Action"). But a lawyer who's great precisely because he's indifferent to the truth? I can only think of one instance: that brilliant exchange in "Clueless."

This critique of rhetoric assumes that sophists manipulate the truth to get what they want. But what if there never was any truth? This is what makes rhetoric interesting and, dare I say, beautiful: it begins somewhere else entirely, somewhere outside the search for certainty, outside the need for universal claims, outside the desire to speak for others: to reference a great professor of rhetoric whom I only met through his books, rhetoric is beyond good and evil (yes, Nietzsche was a professor of rhetoric). It proffers a world view that feels no need to affirm, deny, or undermine the truth. Rhetoric isn't punk rock; it's not rebellious (except when it is): it's more like an aesthete, indifferent to silly bourgeois propriety.

Thinking about what rhetoric is and how it operates  brings me great pleasure. Talking about it begins to sound like philosophy — there are some concepts (kairos) and functions (appeals) and ways of operating. But unlike most philosophy, it doesn't seek a common answer to a question or a universal.  In fact, might rhetoric be non-philosophy à la Laruelle? You tell me.

In any case, rhetoric neither offers nor rejects such postulates. Rhetoric is not a position that rejects anything (unless it does). It takes (or doesn't) whatever comes. In this sense, rhetoric is akin to science in that both are empirical: the rhetor, like the scientist, perceives. But, unlike the scientist, the rhetor doesn't seek a formula for reproducing the same results over and over. The rhetor doesn't want to confirm anything. No, the rhetor just wants to get that kiss, feel that stretch, enjoy that cilantro pesto without too much garlic. Yum!

I think I'd say rhetoric is closer to what I might call taoism. I qualify that as I don't know much about taoism other than reading the hilarious Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu (I highly recommend both). I was going to say yoga but I feel like yoga has some element of prescribed practices — the poses. But if you take out the poses, rhetoric is indeed yoga: it's the practice of reckoning the now. In both cases, there's just a going with.

And, like toaism's wu wei (the do nothing way), rhetoric is neither active nor passive, neither creative nor consumptive. It flourishes in the spaces in between, in the relations between and among things (even the spaces within a me that will never have been a me). Taoism and rhetoric have no expectations, no oughts; they both play it as it lays. That said, rhetoric strikes me as having a bit more, uh, umph, a greater will to will. To wit, there are a lot of very quiet taoists but I've never met a quiet sophist.

I see rhetoric as a branch of phenomenology. Or vice versa (in a world of flux, genus and species often realign position). In my version of phenomenology, which comes from Merleau-Ponty not Husserl, the world is fundamentally phenomena, not idea. Ideas exist but they are events rather than determinative figures per se: they are part of the flux, wound up with material, rather than being an external thing that tells material what to do.

Anyway, I've spent decades thinking about rhetoric, fleshing out its logic — creating a kind of philosophy of rhetoric. Here are some postulates of rhetoric, a field free of postulates:

  • All is flux. Life is fundamentally temporal. Some things are slower (mountains, my grandfather) or faster (humming birds, light). The great French philosopher, Henri Bergson, argues that most philosophy operates with bad questions because it assumes time is added to space rather than being constitutive of it. Once we begin with (at least) four dimensions — time being the fourth — our foci and questions shift. Bergson follows this into philosophy; I follow it into rhetoric which, alas, has no in into which I can go. It's just this. Anyway.

  • Everything is emergent. Everything is always already in motion, always changing. We don't know beforehand what'll happen, what'll be (even if we can often make pretty good guesses about many things).

  • We are always already enmeshed in the social. There is no outside the fray, no position from which to assess so as to act. You're always already in the shit, as it were. Aristotle said something like this, I believe.

  • The inherent selfishness of rhetoric is undone by the fact that the very premise of rhetoric undoes the I at its core. There is no I because everything is relational: I am constantly being nudged by a bevy of forces — human, natural, cosmic, alien, affective. There's no moment in which I'm ME; I'm always changing with the forces and bodies around me. I am in flux and so am no I at all.

  • All words, all actions, all feelings are collaborative: they emerge from a conspiracy of forces — my body, my mood, my history, the culture that exceeds me, the things around me and their histories, affective flows, ways of going. The emergent moment is a joint effort.

  • The terms of this collaboration are never pre-set but are usually aparallel and in flux. We might think about this as the terms of power.

  • As everything is in flux and nothing is outside the fray, there are no hard and fast rules dictating behavior. But this doesn't create chaos. On the contrary, it births relentless limits and criteria. What's best for my health is quite different than what's right for your health. Trust me: you don't want to hang out with me after we've eaten ice cream. Our modern concept of diet is not rhetorical; it assumes all bodies are the same hence no one should eat carbs or everyone should eat kale or you should drink a quart of bone broth a day (which I, for one, recommend — but only if it's right for you. How do you know if it's right for you? Well, that's what makes the rhetorical life so damn interesting! There's never any certainty! All you have to go on is your going and your going has nothing to go on but more going. You make decisions and act according to an impossibly complex calculus that emerges so can't be programmed or known beforehand. The next time you're eating, pay attention to when you start and stop: what factors entered into play? How did you make those decisions? Such is the mystery of rhetoric — and life). Diet in its old sense is something else all together: diet is what you eat. A good diet is what serves your vitality and health. You can have other criteria. But I'm sticking with vitality and health (which is distinct from longevity).

  • As there's no outside the fray of it all, no position that's not part of the flux, we always stand in some position in relation to other positions. This is what we call perspective: we always enjoy a vantage on the world based on our bodies, our place, our position, our way of going. One thing I love about San Francisco is the way the city constantly juxtaposes itself with itself. There is not one or two big hills that overlook this or that. There are hills everywhere, like a crumpled piece of paper. One's perspective is constantly different.

  • And yet, to be clear, perspective is not subjectivity — as in I see red but maybe you see green. That's silly. I am in the world; you are in the world; that chair is in the world. We both see it — from different perspectives which include our physical point of view but also the things we believe, know, have experienced, desire, and such. The interior world, as Bataille calls it, need not be subjective — only opaque to others.
I used bullet points because it's funny. And makes my argument look organized. Which it is — but according to an emergent logic.


What is Rhetoric? (Take 1): A Podcast

Sometimes, I enjoy talking rather than writing. This is me rambling on about what rhetoric is and what the theory and practice of making sense of life as part of life means. Yep


It All Depends: Thoughts on Rhetoric & Philosophy

Rhetoric is the art of living and hence is the art of participating with circumstance. Should I not drink this whiskey? It depends. It always depends. Except when it doesn't.

These days, rhetoric gets a bad rap. People assume rhetoric is just so much fluff, a charming veneer at best, fatuous and vapid at worst. "It's just empty rhetoric," they'll say. Or the ultimate condemnation: "It's just rhetoric" — as if that were enough! (I remember my rabbi telling us in Sunday school that when people call you a dirty Jew, it's not the greatest but at least they felt the need to qualify Jew; when they just call you a Jew with venom, you know you're in trouble. This has sat with me all these years.)

Now, I'm no historian, but I believe for centuries rhetoric was actually a ubiquitous thing people studied: how to address the world. In any case, I got a freakin' PhD in it. Usually, when someone has a doctorate in rhetoric, it means they've studied modes of teaching composition; they'll probably seek a job running composition courses and curricula at a university. Sometimes, what academics call rhetoric refers to forms of argument — syllogisms, fallacies, and such. Other times, rhetoric is bundled with something called "communications." That's an odd one for me.

Even in my own department at UC Berkeley, most grad students don't study rhetoric per se. In fact, this is what's on the department website now: "The Rhetoric PhD program is best suited for students who wish to approach a specific area of academic inquiry, research objects or archive while working critically within and between academic disciplines in order to pose questions that transcend disciplinary divisions." There's no mention of rhetoric per se.

To be fair, when I applied to the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Department in 1991— the only place I applied — I had no concept of rhetoric. It was not a word I used. And it certainly was not a discipline I was familiar with (when I applied, I wouldn't have ended a sentence with a preposition; after studying rhetoric, I now unabashedly shed arbitrary grammatical rules. This is the luxury of what we call an advanced degree: I can casually ignore grammar rules. This makes for interesting discussions for me professionally as copywriters tend to love grammar. Grammar lets them feel in control, feel smart, and judge others. I shed that shit like a...I was gonna say like a snake sloughs skin, a common TC Boyle figure, but I shed faster than snakes slough and with more vim. I love parenthetical asides. Burroughs wondered how anyone could write without them. I know just how he feels). I was interested in what we tend to call Continental Philosophy (as distinct from Analytic Philosophy which is usually Anglo-American, or so the story goes) or maybe what we call Critical Theory or what is really 20th Century French and German philosophy. In my application, I claimed I was interested in exploring a "genealogy of addiction." In fact, I took up smoking as I was curious if I could feel a longing that exceeded my will (all my other dalliances had failed to do so). Anyway, my point is this: I began studying rhetoric without knowing, or even thinking about, what the heck rhetoric is.

But that all changed. In my dissertation, I offer a theory of rhetoric and explore its implications. This killed me academically as what I called rhetoric and what the academy calls rhetoric are so different. Other things killed my academic career, most notably, my love of teaching. Academic powerhouses who ruled my department — I'll let you figure out their well known names — have great disdain for teaching. And for passion in general. But that's not interesting as it's just another story of terrible people in power, a truth that pervades all fields. So back to rhetoric.

Rhetoric, I always said, is the theory and practice of circumstantial propriety — a heady mouthful for sure. But what I've come to understand I mean by that is that rhetoric is an everyday practice. Philosophy is not; philosophy is a rarefied skill. It involves being learned in philosophic texts, knowing forms of argument, and being able to construct such arguments. Rhetoric is everywhere, always. It is the odd logic and practice of making sense within circumstances as part of said circumstances — knowing what to eat, when you've eaten too much, when to lean in for a kiss, what to say to a sweetie, a client, a parent, a child.

Anyone and everyone can perform rhetorical analysis, too. How does this or that thing — a book, booze, lover, stranger, chair — approach you? How does it appeal to you? What does it want from you? How can you go with it? Philosophical analysis demands that you know philosophy. Rhetorical analysis only asks that you be you wherever you are doing whatever you do.

And that you be present. Rhetoric is akin to yoga, in this sense: it is the art — that is to say, the practice — of being present to circumstance without letting ego dictate all the terms. When ego takes over, it tries to force circumstances into a pre-determined mold of what should be happening; a keen rhetor, like a keen yogi, participates with circumstances rather than dictating circumstances. Of course, this participation may involve dictating. It all depends.

This, alas, is the mantra of the rhetor: it depends. There are no absolutes here. There are no hard and fast rules except that there are no hard and fast rules except, sometimes, there are in fact hard and fast rules. Should I not drink this whiskey? It depends. How do you feel? How will you feel later? How does it feel good to be you? What sorts of things happen if you drink the whiskey or don't drink the whiskey? Rhetoric begins with minimal assumptions about the good. But it's temporally and contextually sensitive, aware, present.

None of this is to poo poo philosophy. I love philosophy. But I read it rhetorically. I ask: What is its tone? Its structure? What world does it inhabit? What is it asking of me? I do not read it looking for truth or meaning per se (although I may find some of each). I read philosophy as I read fiction or art or people: is this a world I enjoy? A world that fuels my health, my vitality, my vim?

Many people get annoyed with rhetoricians for our casual yet insistent refusal to state a position. Rhetoric, after all, is the position of positions — including the absolute position that effaces the position of positions. This is a contradiction to a philosopher. But it's not to a rhetorician. Why? Because rhetoric is a fundamentally temporal practice. Philosophy finds contradiction because it wants mutually exclusive positions to occupy the same space. But to a rhetorician, there is always flow and change. There is always shifting circumstances. What's true? What's the right thing to do? Well, it all depends.


Thoughts on My Experience at the Symphony

When I was in my young 20s, I thought going to the symphony was sophisticated. So I went now and again. And I could say I was bored, which is certainly true. Bored off my ass (which is an odd phrase now that I write it). But it wasn't just boredom I felt. It was closer to confusion: I didn't know what the experience wanted of me. I didn't understand the terms of its appeals, its argument, if you will.

But I went this past Saturday night with my sweetie who was excited — an understatement — to see (to hear?) Sibelius' Violin Concerto. I could tell you it's the one in D Minor but he only wrote one concerto (thanks, Wikipedia!). Me, I'd not only never heard it, I'd never heard of Sibelius.

As I sat there, in a suit no less as that's how I roll (how is that, exactly?), many, many thoughts streamed through my head. Part of going to an unfamiliar experience is that the terms of its operation are more exposed. I don't have a habit there (other than the habits of being me). I don't know the rules; I take little for granted. Which affords me a great luxury: the ability to see the medium along with the message.

Anyway, we had fantastic seats: an orchestra box. I offer this as it was an important part of the experience for me. A box has its own door. For an aging man who enjoys his pre-concert cocktails, ready access to a bathroom seemed essential.

I don't mention this just to be silly. One of the conspicuous aspect of the symphony experience, as distinct from the rock & roll experience, is the demand it makes on the body. Rock & roll is about moving the body, however the body wants to move — stand, dance, rock, twirl, twitch, talk, walk in and out. Of course, the one thing you can rarely do at a rock & roll show is sit down. And this old man likes to sit down. So having a relatively comfy chair from which to enjoy the music was delightful.

But the fact remains that you can't get up and walk around. In fact, every cough, gulp, excessive leg movement suddenly comes to the fore. And, like that, I understood in every fiber of my being the productivity of repression. Sure, the symphony has rules that repress the body. Don't make noise! Don't move too much! But in so doing, my body's sundry needs and and desires became all too apparent. I could feel myself not moving, not pushing my chair back and putting my feet up, not making snide off color remarks to my exquisite date. The negative puts enormous attention on that to which it says no (pace Foucault).

And I found myself thinking about the distribution of affect and power within, and I suppose without, the orchestra. There's this written set of directions that dictates timing and mood — but, as it's only written, there are limits. There's the musicians who feel, who inhabit, their contribution to a greater or less degree as they let that one note linger or want to wait a nanosecond before coming in because, well, because that feels right, dammit! But there's a whole orchestra there and, gesticulating in front of them all with the biggest salary, is the conductor whose only job is to determine the timing and affect (two fundamentally intertwined things) of the part and the whole. I kept picturing the oboist shutting his eyes as he lets that one plaintive note moan a moment only to open his eyes and see a disgruntled, disheveled man putting a kibash on that oboe with a concerted wave of his baton.

A conductor is an old fashioned dj.

Conductor as conductor of affect is just plain old awesome. I think there should be more conductors in more positions, steering the timing and affect of all sorts of experience. This is an argument against, or not quite in line with, democracy.

The part-whole relationship within an orchestra can keep your head spinning for days. And I like it.

Then there's the experience of the music. Do I keep my eyes open or closed? Open can be interesting. I really liked many of the conductor's moves, especially this thing he'd do when he'd bend down low and point his open hand farther down, concertedly, as the basses and cellos descended. (For those who care, it wasn't MTT; it was a guest conductor.)

The first piece was a short little ditty by Sibelius entitled, "Finlandia." It was a nationalistic nightmare, for the most part. (Nightmare is certainly an overstatement but alliteration is a temptation I rarely resist.)

No doubt, the Violin Concerto is something — moody and odd and meandering and featuring a featured soloist violinist (that phrasing doesn't sound right at all) who seemed 19 years old and totally awesome. There are a few show offy Yngwei Malmsteen moments I could do without.

And then I sat back and tried to place when it was written. I was sure of one thing: the person who wrote that piece of music never saw, never imagined, planes dropping enormous bombs out of the sky. There is certainly some angst in the piece. But it's romantic angst, not neurotic angst. (I guessed 1907; it was written 1902-1906.)

This was made all the more obvious by the final piece of the night, Shostakovitch's Symphony 1. That piece was certainly written after planes had demolished cities with their payloads — the marshal angularity, the sudden anxious shifts.

Which made me think about affective events that dominate a spatio-temporal milieu. What kinds of art — visual, literary, musical — become possible after the mechanistic killings of World War I (does, say, New Zealand or Uraguay or Zimbabwe even know what World War I or II would even mean? Were they really world wars? Like I said, a lot of thoughts go through one's head at the symphony) or the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima?

Which made me think about a comment a musician friend of mine made about lot of contemporary music. There is this strain within minimalist techno-pop — think FKA Twigs or The Weeknd — that is built on a sense of menace. Not necessarily menace that the music is going to cause you but menace in the world, menace that needs to be made sense of, menace that creeps not like the marshal drumming of Shostakovitch's armies and bombs but like the twitchy tech grip of the Corporate-State Apparatus.  There's great sentiment in Sibelius' piece but there's no menace, no hums and tics of surveillance — not even the loud, dramatic death toll of Düsseldorf.

The play of generosity and the dictatorial is so different at the symphony than at a rock & roll show. Rock & roll lets you meander, talk, piss, drink but all the while it is driving towards you, pandering to bring you into its fold with a near fascict vigor. Songs may be complex but, live, usually have one driving figure, a melody or beat, that tries to sweep you up and out. At the symphony, I find it hard to find the melody, if that's even the right word. The music is all over the place in terms of mood and melody. And so, although my body is constrained by outdated etiquette (well, not all of it is outdated), the music lets my mind roam any old way. It's quite dreamy. And then I look out over the other heads and faces and find they, too, are in their reverie. While rock & roll often tends towards the one great Yeah!, orchestral music foments a multiplicity of dreams and images. Me, I mostly just liked being there, a strange place for me, wearing strange clothes, all these ideas ricocheting around my head, and a lovely lady by my side.


More on What It Is to Read Philosophy: Of Bird Songs in the Polyverse

Like a painter, a philosopher sees a world. This is what's happening, the philosopher declares, this is what the world looks like, how it behaves. The painter paints; the philosopher writes. But they are both presenting a world they see, a world of how things go.

Consider artists. Look at these images and tell me they don't occupy fundamentally different worlds. It's not that they see the same things and express them differently. It's that they see and inhabit different worlds — with different things, different moods, different things that count as something that matters, different ways of standing in the world, towards the world, with the world. An artist gives us a cosmos and a posture.

Bacon sees flesh hanging off bodies in an arena.

Rothko sees fields of affect with only a vague sense of form.

Whistler sees human life emerging from the amorphic smear of the world.

What world does Paul McCarthy inhabit?

Well, the same goes with philosophy. Philosophers don't all see the same world then proffer their own perspective. They see, and inhabit, different worlds. So when I read philosophy, this is first and foremost what I'm looking for. What world am I being asked to inhabit? What does it look like? How do things interact here? This is a form of understanding, sure, but it's different than what we normally call understanding. Which is to say, I can "understand" a philosopher's argument and still not see his (alas, it's usually his) vision of the world.

The instinct is to read some impossibly dense sentence and parse it, grapple with it, try to understand it. This is not a bad instinct. But it is a drive that is for naught if you don't also zoom out, see a bigger picture of what this philosopher is seeing. To focus on this or that page or sentence is like focusing on a painter's stroke or use of color. It can be revealing and interesting but it won't tell you what world you're inhabiting.

When I was in grad school, we weren't given much time to make sense of a philosopher. Usually, we'd read a book a week — Kant's Critique of Judgement one week, Nietzsche's Genealogy the next, Kierkegaard's Either/Or after that, and so on. It's kind of nuts and is mostly about attaining a false sense of mastery of a "field" of knowledge rather than engaging that philosopher's world. (In college, I took a grad seminar with the great Stephen Dunning in which we read one book: Gadamer's Truth and Method. Not only did I come to inhabit, and love, Gadamer: I learned what it is to inhabit a philosopher's world.)

At that same time, reading like that had a certain pleasure and taught me certain techniques for making sense swiftly. My most common technique back then? I'd try to short circuit the long process of living with a philosopher by smoking a joint and sitting with the book all night, flipping this way and that, feeling for a way in, trying to see what that philosopher sees, what he wants from the world, for instance, why Kant is even talking about the beautiful and the sublime, why aesthetic judgement is even a topic at all. Why these books? Why these examples, these questions, this approach?

This involves reading differently. One nifty trick is to ask the same question of each philosophy and see if that philosophy can even fathom the question, not to mention have an answer. This is the question I ask these days: Where do bird songs fit it in, if at all? The answer forces a thinking through of that philosopher's world as I grapple with the logic of that world. Try it at home!

These days, I'm exploring Bataille. I first read Bataille as a teenager. Never got it. I thought it was all about transgression, which didn't interest me. I'd rather live in a world where the things I love are the norm so there's no need for transgression; this is actually a significant factor in reading philosophy, or anything for that matter: Where is it situated? But more on this at another point.

Anyway, recently I found myself attracted to something in Bataille I couldn't put my finger on. So I've been reading pages here and there. I can't tell you which book he wrote when; I am not a philologist, historian, or biographer. At this point in my reckoning, I don't care. I'm sussing out the Bataille-verse so I can figure out where and how to put my ship down and begin living there.

For Bataille, life —from the everyday to the cosmic — is relentless exuberance: the world fucks and comes and shits and decays and seethes and bleeds. This is not an anthropomorphization. It's not that he takes human sexaulity and sees it everywhere. He sees fucking and coming everywhere, as forces of the cosmos that humans also do. And within this fucking and coming and dying and bleeding, there are all these interactions, all these exchanges of energy that make new things, that yield effects and affect from vegetal sprawl to nausea, all this excess of energy that breaks and disrupts and creates.

In Bataille's world, the sun is constantly jerking off on the earth, a bukkake not of dominance but supreme generosity. We live in a world in which we are being showered with vital energy all the time! And we don't need to return the favor! It is excess and this excess abounds (is that redundant? excessive?). Capitalism imagines streamlined productivity, the least amount of energy to create, and whatever excess is produced is put back to creating more — more, more, more but never a consumption, an indulgence, of said excess.

This is what Bataille sees: all these different terms of energy exchange, what he calls the general economy and which includes the financial economy. In this general economy, there is great seething squandering, repression, indulgence, channeling, hedging. The exchanges of energy that make the world, from the everyday to the cosmic, are big and inefficient as efficiency is not the point: it's the seething flow that matters, the exuberance, the spilling, the being swept up and away. Such is Bataille's world. There are bird songs at the periphery, sometimes gliding through, chirping their ejaculatory songs, an exquisite excess within the air.

Derrida doesn't see or hear any birds. Nope, no bird songs here. He lives and operates in that moment — and the ensuing process — in which he realized that to define a word, he had to know all the words in that definition, and then all the words in that definition, and so on and so on and so on — an infinite process that never gets there and, it seems, never actually began. He sees conceptual structures that at once perform and attempt to evade that logic (he calls this "deconstruction"). His hands are a little inky from the textual play but they're not too messy as he holds everything at its limit, his fingers in the margins. Despite the privilege he affords play, his world is quite clean — not orderly necessarily but clean. There's no blood, very little shit, a penis and a vagina here and there but not much sex — and certainly no damn bird songs.

Deleuze and Guattari live in a big crazy lava lamp of enormous complexity teeming with everything and anything human and not, terrestrial and cosmic. They see shapes coming into being and giving way everywhere, the relentless constitution and dissolution of form — rocks, crowds, books, concepts, music. Forces and bodies come together or don't in a breadth of ways. Bird songs create spaces, visible and invisible, differently than grass, asteroid fields, the nation-state, Freud, Francis Bacon. (And while there is certainly a line or two that runs between them and Derrida — the lack of origins, the multiplicity of texts, the play of movement — they occupy very different worlds. If nothing else, Deleuze and Guattari's world is extremely messy; Derrida would get uptight living there.)

Foucault sees bodies constantly being distributed by cultural-historical-existential forces, by language, people running up against things that they can say and can't say. And these distributive and distributed forces are always in motion, mutating over time, shifting relations to and among things at different speeds (although everything in Foucault's world moves much slower than in Deleuze and Guattari's; Foucault sees fewer explosive lines and more big, tectonic movements). There are bird songs but only ones he enjoys while goofing around. Mostly, he sees bodies being moved and managed, which he finds at once erotic and disturbing.

Nietzsche lives in a world of man's relentless creation, this urging urging urging always procreant urge of the world — only it's met with all sorts of other forces and urges, most of which are stupid and vile. There is a nature that exceeds everything we do, a nature we forget we're part of, a beautiful mercilessness to the stream of life. Like with Foucault, there may be bird songs but those birds aren't creating territories: they're beautifully indifferent to man, a joyful exuberance of nature.

For Bergson, the world is not so complicated. Like many philosophers after him, Bergson thinks philosophers muck things up. He looks at things and sees them; he doesn't wonder if he really sees them or what they really are. Look! A chair! He's quite reasonable like that. And everything he sees is moving. And he sees himself moving, too. And everything he feels emotionally is moving.Yet when he reads philosophy, it always assumes things are primarily still. He's quite concerned with the world of philosophy. But, mostly, he just sees everything always already moving, relentlessly forging itself. No bird songs here except as something else that moves.

Kant's world is the madness of reason. He doesn't trust or believe in his senses: the world does not reveal itself to him, or to anyone, through its appearances. There's a kind of paranoia there. But in order to dissipate that paranoia, he goes in search of ideas and concepts that can reveal the order of things, a secret structure of how things go. It all gets messy when he does engage the senses, when he look at art, listens to music, eats food, or enjoys a bird song. But through some nifty engineering, he manages to have some pleasure and still hold on to his reason, however unreasonable.

Socrates is an ironic shnook. He can't believe people believe they know anything, that anyone can be adamant about anything. The human world is so unsure and fleeting, how can they be certain? It's ridiculous! There is clearly some other plane where things persist above and beyond all this human silliness. Which is why he roams the streets badgering people who profess to know things, badgers them until that person either admits knowing nothing or, annoyed, walks away. This is why they killed poor Socrates: he was a nudge. And he does hear bird songs, and enjoy them, but like everything in this material world, their song gives way to a divine truth we can't see or know.

Like art and literature, philosophy gives us a world, not a truth, not the meaning of life. A meaning of life may present itself to you. I found such meaning when I read Pynchon. But meaning is not the promise of philosophy. A philosophy offers something at once more humble and more grand than meaning: it proffers a world.