12.31.2008

Swoon and Cavort: "Der Lauf Der Dinge"



part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTwEuMzpxHk
part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Cm8c4K3h_E

There are many astounding components of this brilliant film, this exquisite art work. There is the seeming simplicity off-set by the Rube Goldberg complexity; the way you always think you know what's going to happen next and then are pleasantly surprised that you were, in fact, wrong; the no frills environment—casual, dirty, certainly not a gallery—combined with the no doubt psychotic attention to detail, a work that is anything but casual.

And there is no doubt a lot to learn about the way things go, about the forces of this world that propel—fire, gravity, momentum, temperature shifts, how the very curvature of the world makes for the motion of the world, how there are so many different ways things can interact and yet there seems to be some kind of consistency of principle, of principles, at work.

There is, as well, a great lesson about narrative and film: things can go together in rigorously non-conceptual ways.

But there is something else to learn, something else to witness, something that, I think, proffers pleasure as easily as it eludes the eye: the world is affective. As the title of the piece declares, this is the way of things, of the materiality of the world. But in putting the piece together just so, the artists have introduced an invisible element that propels as much as any incline.

There are any number of ways to get from point A to point B, any number of ways to introduce and continue motion. Here, we witness ways that are funny, witty, surprising. And yet the artists have not really created this world—they don't as much create as stipulate. This is not to denegrade their work. On the contrary, what they've accomplished is more astounding, more miraculous, for having not been created. They've let speak the animation of the world, an animation that exceeds physics and mechanics, an animation that tickles and giggles, that swoons and cavorts, that flirts and frolics. Suddenly, the world bristles and brims—with itself! What else can we ever ask of art?

In "The Way of Things"—"Der Lauf Der Dinge" (I like the German title much more; it's hilarious: say it out loud to yourself and tell me you don't laugh), the artists proffer the delight of the world itself. They do no give us an artifice, a human drama played out in the physical world; they never resort to the cheap tricks of personification. The wit, the glee, is there in the things, of the things, between and amongst the things. (Scientists have much to learn from art.) What they accomplish is as noble and generous as it is bewildering: they nudge the world just so and let loose the great giddiness of things.

12.26.2008

William Burroughs: These are my tools


There are so many reasons I love this image. Look at his hands on the gun—this is not a prop. This is his tool. Some use paint brush. Not Burroughs: he uses a shot gun. But it's not with the affect of a punk; he's not flipping the bird and mooning the art world. No, with an air of absolute refinement, he stands resolute in the gallery, the artist standing before his art, baring his tool: a shotgun.

When asked once what he needed to write he responded that he needed his scrap books, a typewriter, and a pair of scissors. A pair of scissors—so matter of fact. The cut up technique is not a negation of the word, of narrative, of character, of literature; it is its liberation.

The cut up and shotgun art are not negative functions. They create new grammars, new possibilities of creation.

What makes this image so great—so effective, so affective, so powerful—is that Burroughs does not grimace or smile or wink. He could not be more serious just as he could not be more affirmative. His posture, his grip on his gun, says, "Welcome to my world of creation."

12.23.2008

On Teaching, part 1

I have no desire to make people experts. I never want to be the teacher that professes mastery over a subject (of course, I am not a master over any subject, so, well, there's that). I don't give a flying fuck if my students are down with every pedantic point of Deleuze's critique of phenomenology.

Of course, I don't want to simplify the material for them—and I don't think I do—but I sure as shit don't care whether they grasp every fine point. I am not training 19 year olds to be scholars, to be academics. Undergraduate education is not professional training for the academy—that's what grad school is for. Fuck citation.

No, what interests me, what I try to teach, is a relationship to ideas, to texts, to the world. The focus of my teaching is not as much the material per se as it is how one stands towards the material. I want people—my students, sure, but everyone—to enjoy reading Nietzsche and Borges and Nabokov. I want them to be generous towards the world, to find the best thing in this or that film, this or that book, this or that work of art.

I don't want to create a bunch of nay-sayers, hermeneutic cops who roam libraries in search of ways this or that text fails. I want them only to read texts that set them on fire, that get their hearts pounding, that twist their brains and bodies into new postures, origami-like.

I never taught a text I didn't feel was great. Why would I have students read anything I didn't think was astounding, something worth at least one hurrah, a hallelujah, a wooopeeee or three—or at least a wow and perhaps a huh? Why read the shit of the world? Why read the mediocrity of the world? Life's too short—or too long, depending on how you look at it.

And so I've always tried to teach a way of going with ideas, with books and film and art. Ideas are not distinct from a life lived. When I teach, I invoke my life, often. While this may be narcissistic I do it purposefully with a certain pedagogic goal: to show how an idea plays itself out in a life—how ones talk to his wife or child, how he interacts with family, friends, foes. Ideas are not distinct from life (I learned this from Kierkegaard—thanks, Soren).

College is not a job. College is not training for work—even for work in the academy. College is the time to take on different approaches to this life. When I was in college and first read Nietzsche, then Foucault, I was liberated from the contraints of myself—from my banal understanding of politics and power, from my staid assumptions about how the world works. Reading these texts, life yawned with opportunity, with possibility, with excitement. This is education.

A tip from McLuhan: education is exposing, and perhaps destroying, one's environment, the invisible structures that keep us doing the same old shit.

For many students, undergraduate life is their one concerted exposure to inellectuals, to the life of the mind. So when I have them in my classroom for 16 weeks, I want to show them a lit up life of the mind—a life that not only is not dry but, on the contrary, is passionate, sensual, practical, personal, that the intellectual life has rewards that exceed getting a fucking A.

And, of course, I want to change my students—irrevocably. I want them to see the world, see themselves, see school, see ideas in fundamentally news ways, in ways they never thought possible. I don't want to let them keep ideas separate from their lives; I don't want to let them segregate their lives between school and life, as if class was something they had to clock in, clock out. I want the ideas I teach to bleed across their classes, across their lives.

12.19.2008

Going with Marc Lafia’s "Paradise"


Preamble
Despite appearances—and yet, precisely in and of appearances—, we fray. We undulate, radiate, stammer, and bleed; we vomit, cry, shit, come. We are enmeshed in complex emotional and financial economies, in networks that at once constitute and exceed us.

Elaborate institutions deploy themselves to organize the morass, straighten the edges, align the borders. Quite young, when our excesses are readily apparent, we are told to sit still in our chairs which together with our little desks are meant to be our borders of the social, to be crossed only when asked. Our bodies, which have an annoying tendency to leak, are sewn up (at least in public). Our homes become extensions of this discretion, stipulations meant to keep us contained, discrete units.

Film, too, organizes us—our bodies and emotions, our experiences, the social body itself. With its institutional pre- and proscriptions, it makes assumptions of such stipulations. Of course there are characters who have names, who have this or that history, this or that motivation. Of course there is a story, a reason for this characters to be here, to interact, to move. Everything is neat; everything is clear; everything is in its place. The camera is here, the action is there: the filmmaker, camera in hand, records the action.

And yet there have always been films that work with different assumptions (or without assumptions, as the case may be)—David Lynch, Godard, Welles, Cassavetes, Bunuel, Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine, Gillo Pontecorvo, Abel Ferrara, Terrence Malick, Wong Kar Wai, Claire Denis. The list goes on but is not excessively long. For all these directors, there is a certain a viscosity of sense, of identity, of celluloid itself. People, cities, desire, nature take each other up in varying ways forging networks of drift (albeit in very different ways; everyone has their own way of drifting).

Film is a media in which movement is privileged and hence allows for a certain release from the fixity of borders. Film wants to become, not be. Film is perhaps uniquely capable of presenting the great teem of humanity, its messy, beautiful writhing, its incessant flows and waves and burps.

Moving With
Paradise oozes. It is a messy movie that moves, ceaselessly. Sure, bodies in the film move—they dance and flap their wings, they run and play and frolic, they vomit and scream and moan. But the film, too, moves. It doesn’t just capture the movement of others; it moves.

This movement of this film is complex. At times it moves as if on a parallel track. But more often this movement is with bodies, of a rhythm forged between and amongst film, camera, bodies, and affect: an emergent jazz score. (I accidentally typed “jizz” and that might have been correct, too, as this film, despite no nudity and barely one kiss, is supremely erotic. Paradise relishes.)

Look at the boy and girl, lying together in the grass, sharing grapes and grape lollipops, the presumed original and imitation sharing equal privilege of taste, neither a derivative of the other, each going with the other as well as with tongues and tastes. Bodies move on and over each other. Emotions, too,—or, better, affects as emotions are too human, too familiar; affects are indifferent to humanity, exceed humanity: affects move in, out, in, over each other.

And then there is the seeing of this scene, a seeing that never stops moving, that never gives us mastery of the encounter. We never see the bodies from afar, as if the camera were simply recording, as if we as viewers were voyeurs given privy to some private affair. On the contrary, this seeing—of the camera and of the viewer—is constitutive of the scene (or seen), an active agent caressing, coddling, cuddling, provoking, teasing, loving.

The film palpates us and asks for us to reciprocate creating an affective flow of flesh and film. The film bleeds the senses: this film is not just seen but felt. It is a sensorium, an orgy of sorts but not a pornographic one. It’s as if Paradise seeks to deploy Eros—not just lust or pleasure—, celebrating the body’s writhe.

So the film goes. A writhing meander, the film rises and falls, much like a sprawling symphony , much life desire itself, with its peaks and valleys, its motifs and variations (a fetish is a kind of motif). There is order here but it is an immanent order. It is not an undifferentiated morass but a morass with internal borders that emerge before our very eyes. At each moment, the film feels that it may careen off the screen, that it may simply collapse under its own weight or fly away due to its lack of heft. But no: miraculously, it hangs together. This makes watching the film exciting as we are privy to the intense drama of sense emerging. Will it all hang together? What impossible glue will suffice?

With no ardent narrative to tell the film what to do, the film is free to be part of the mix, not just recorder of the event: the film joins the film, the recording is recorded. And not just in those explicit moments when we see the camera or sound man or script. At the risk of sounding, well, stupid if not just redundant, in every moment of Paradise, the film is in the film or, better, the film is the film (it is not a record of action).

This is paradise (and Paradise) where all the world’s a (sound) stage, where there is not first a world and then what we do in it, what we do to it. Paradise is the temporal ooze within humanity, a way of going with the world, not in the world. (This is not to say that paradise is being one with the world; I’m saying it’s being many with the world, many ways of going, many desires and speeds and rhythms and consistencies and shapes all commingling. Lafia gives us a paradise that supersedes God and Darwin by offering creative evolution—a Bergsonian paradise, all differentiated becoming.)

Rather than hunkering down into our discreet egos to weather the torrent of becoming, in paradise we embrace the flux. Things here will not be sewn up tight—not our mouths, not our identities, not our emotions, not the film, not our senses or our sense. To go with this mad teem of the world carries risk, danger, and it is gloriously messy. Tears, vomit, laughter, and love flow unabashed. Paradise, it seems, is not quaint.

How do we find this paradise? How do we become? Well, it is certainly not by following the same old rules of containment. We need to begin from somewhere else entirely where we can jettison the assumptions of identity, of cause and effect, of linear time. We need a new grammar—of film, yes, but perhaps also of life—that will allow, facilitate, and amplify becoming.

Only an amateur is free or oblivious or indifferent to the institutional requirements of discretion—character, plot, action, reverse shots, tracks, cranes—to move this intimately, to sprawl this madly. Indeed, there is something amateurish about Paradise. But how could it be any other way? As Marshall McLuhan says in The Medium is the Massage, the amateur is anti-environmental and hence capable of real change by ignoring the invisible ground rules that dictate behavior, the very things we don’t see because we take them for granted—story, identity, causation. Only the amateur “can afford to lose”—to lose his mind, to lose the world, to loose the world.

Paradise, then, is amateur in the same sense that Godard’s Breathless is amateur, that Cassavetes’ Faces is amateur, that Julien Donkey Boy is amateur—and that William Burroughs, Joyce, and Beckett are amateurs. There is no polish of production, no liposuction, only the exquisite experiment of cinema (or literature) and its way of taking up life, of becoming life. (And it is so beautiful I, for one, wanted to scream, to punch myself in the face out of joy. And it is funny like only such unrestrained madness can be, when it’s no longer just a question of slipping on a banana peel but of slipping on the writhe of life.)

There is not just a freedom here from the familiar but the exploration and proffering of new grammars, news ways the world itself could go together. Burroughs doesn’t just cut the texts up, he puts them back together. Amateurism is not a negation but a joyous affirmation. Godard doesn’t just throw off the conventions of cinema; he invents new ones. He utilizes the jump cut, the hand held camera, shifting soundscapes, dialogue whispered in the ears of the actors to capture their reactions, not jut to rid the film of staid mannerisms but to reveal the impossible, luscious, excitement of fresh manners.

Paradise enjoys a hard earned amateurishness, like Godard’s, like Cassavetes’, like Burroughs’. It doesn’t come easy. It only comes through a thorough enmeshment with the medium, with a certain understanding of what film (or language) can do, its possibilities, its elasticity, its breaking point. The viewer of Paradise, then, will not be surprised to learn that the director, Marc Lafia, has been a film and image maker for at least 30 years, that he worked with programmers at MIT to make his own “projector” that allows him to project multiple screens at once while controlling the speed, sound, and size of each; that he made hundreds of films, some as short as 10 seconds, some as long as two hours, using said projector; that he has created an incredible computational reworking of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers for the Tate Museum; that he has worked with a breadth of directors on music videos for Madonna, Michael Jackson and more; that he has made the beautiful feature film, Exploding Oedipus. The point is not to lay out a resumé. The point is that Paradise comes from a profound reckoning with the very limits of the moving image.

The film, then, isn’t haphazard, even if the haphazard is employed as a technique. It demands a different kind of mastery. To be able to work with actors, sound, film, time, language, life so that they are at once free and bound, shaped and shapeless, takes poise, a willingness to bend while still managing to keep it together. It demands the enormous fortitude to lend chaos shape, to bend it, shape it, and let it happen. The actors in this film are amateurs in the best sense, laying it all—laying themselves—on the line as Lafia wrestles, wrangles, coerces, seduces, hedges the very forces of the earth, of the cosmos, the burbling of desire, of life, to bring us Paradise.

What fortitude! What generosity! It is a fortitude and generosity born of love. Paradise is nothing less than the seeing of Eros—with the double genitive of that “of”: we see Eros just as this is Eros itself seeing. Eros is not sexuality. Eros is creation, generation, affirmation. This film makes love.

Only an amateur could harness Eros like this. The professional is too trapped in regularity, in his regime, his rules. Love is mad. Love breaks barriers, shatters borders, liberates the gleam of becoming. Only the amateur could tap into this tremendous power of Eros and activate the mythopoetics of paradise itself, a paradise that is anything but innocuous and safe. Only an amateur could make a film this threatening that unabashedly puts you on the spot with brazen sentiment, goofiness, humor, eroticism. Only the amateur could undamn life and let loose the great leak of our being, ushering in a paradise that is messy and brimming with life.

To see Paradise is to see the diverse powers of life struggle, mingle, intertwine. We see Solange, the teacher, gifting the world, initiating the play, while trying to maintain a sense of order. We see her husband run and forage and risk tearing at this order and the ensuing tensions between them. We see eddies and swells of activity that turn around the invisible magic of charisma and control as he foments concerted madness among the others. In a sense, Paradise deals with the grammar and limits of possession, not in the sense of owning but of being possessed. Burroughs speaks often of possession, that it was such a possession that prompted the killing of his wife. Possession is not a way of abdicating responsibility; on the contrary, we are (among other things) our possessions. We are possessed by moods, by feelings, by desires, by the moods, feelings, and desires of others, of the earth, of the world. Sometimes, an airplane passing overhead is enough to shift the entire affective landscape and next thing you know, you no longer want to fuck—you’ve been possessed, even if only partially, by jet plane-becoming.

Possession, like the becoming of life, happens in the middle voice, neither active nor passive. Paradise speaks in this middle voice, where we are how we go, we are our becoming with—with the world, with others, with grass and water and airplane, with our tongues and inexplicable desires, with the liquidity of cinema. To watch Paradise is to enter this middle voice, to be moved out of the safety of one’s discreet seat and enter the fray of film itself but, luckily, without becoming completely unglued.

Paradise is a disarming film. It sheds our usual tools of comprehension, our reliable apparatus of containment. It has to get one’s bearings as the film, inevitably, flirts with unintelligibility. There are no characters as we know them, no names, no heists, no clear plot, no concept, no tale of love (the film is love, not about love), no lessons learned. In one moment, we see people in winter clothes; in the next, summer clothes. Has time passed? Perhaps it’s gone backwards or even sideways. Where are they? Why are they here? Whose voice speaks? These questions dissolve in their very asking, giving way to the undulation of the film, to the great mess of existence.

Paradise is a happening, an event, and is therefore unruly. On the screen, young men and women—all good looking in an unforced, non-Hollywood way—run and scream, utter inchoate phrases and philosophic fragments; they flap their wings like birds and act quite silly. At times, the film literally screams at you, vomits, moans; it melds with the earth and with the air.

There are times watching this film that you might feel embarrassed by all this, like watching porn with your parents. But it will be unclear for whom you feel this embarrassment: the Actors? the Filmmaker? Yourself? Embarrassment, after all, is an all-too-human trait, a postlapsarian symptom. Let it go. Get messy. Leak along with the film. Become.

Watching Paradise is an exhilarating cinematic experience. If you find yourself uncomfortable, if you find yourself self-conscious, if you find yourself feeling like this is simply all too silly, I say: Just go with it.

11.27.2008

A problem of the species, not politics

A Thanksgiving thought:

My problem, my issue, with Marcuse is that he thinks of this issue in political terms. Perhaps we can organize the body politic differently and, voila, we'll have pleasure once again.

But the problem is not political or economic or social: the problem is the species. It is incorrect to say that capitalism rids people of their pleasure, as if capitalism were some alien force turning people into zombies and vampires. People—these people, what Burroughs calls the White Man Virus—are zombies and vampires, ergo, capitalism. Capitalism doesn't make zombies and vampires; zombies and vampires are capitalism.

And zombies and vampires are, by nature, more voracious, more imperial, more dictatorial. After all, he would have pleasure is having pleasure, not fucking over the planet, his friends, his family. The weak—those missing souls of their own and who must therefore suck the vitality from others—won, as they will always win. They are the mob and will hence always outnumber the individual, the Johnson, who wants only to be left the fuck alone.

Capitalism is not an economic engine. It is the term for the breeding of zombies and vampires. It is the mechanism with which vampires blanch the world of pleasure seeking individuals. Capitalism is the name of this virulent virus, this strain of human being, that is bleeding the world.

11.15.2008

Body of Pleasure, Body of Labor

"'Polymorphous sexuality' was the term I used to indicate that the new direction of progress would depend completely on the opportunity to activate repressed or arrested organic, biological needs: to make the human body an instrument of pleasure rather than labor." --Herbert Marcuse, from Eros and Civilization.

OK, OK, so I am only just beginning to understand what Marcuse wrote over 40 years ago. You see, I thought I was immune from things like capitalism, that I could frolic and play, turn the world to my own liking. But one—or, perhaps, I—reached an impasse: the demands of the life I lead ask me to be rid of pleasure and become a foil of capitalism.

The work world is transforming the body, ridding it of its desire to enjoy the world. After all, the horny body, the sumptuous body, does not want to sit at a fucking computer all day, every day, banging out Power Point presentations. The sumptuous body wants to linger over a meal; the sumptuous body wants to make very slow, deliberate love; the sumptuous body wants to eat acid and stake a long stroll.

And so capitalism is breeding enjoyment out of us, making us impotent with Prozac and Ambien, with computer screen generated migraines and depression. Of course, capitalism still needs its labor force and so it must give us a way to reproduce; ergo, Viagra. But once cloning is in full swing, there'll be no need for hard ons.

Hard ons get in the way of productivity. Why do you think sex is barred from the workplace? We're afraid to express any desire whatsoever for someone who shares our workplace. It's insane. It seems the struggle to rid the workplace of so-called sexual harassment became another foil of capitalism, an opportunity to flush the work world of all desire.

And then they ramp up the work week—40, 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a fucking week! And, no, you can't touch anyone at work! You can't even look at anyone with the slightest sexual intention. So where the fuck are we supposed to find our pleasure? Nowhere. We're not supposed to be sexual beings; we're supposed to be productive beings.

What's so insidious, of course, about capitalism is that it makes us think we're enjoying life. It co-opts the pleasure principle, turns it to its own use. So you think you're enjoying life when you buy another stupid fucking useless phone or shoes or get a haircut—or even when you buy sex. It fills the airwaves with the hint of sex—but it won't actually allow you the opportunity to have it. And so we feel like we're being pleasured when all we're doing is buying more shit.

Because none of this is enjoyment: it's consumption. Enjoyment is slow, deliberate, considered, decadent. Enjoyment is a body enjoying itself; it is the biological, organic drive for pleasure, the organism finding pleasure in its own experience.

Consumption is allopoetic: it is based in contingency. So when I buy the new 42 inch plasma tv or get a lapdance or buy a bottle of Cristal, I'm not enjoying my body's experience of these things: I am enjoying my consumption of them. My pleasure is not in and of my body; my pleasure melds with the object—the lapdance, the shoe, the tv. I therefore come to think that the expression of my pleasure must come from these things—not from my own body.

Again, it all seems so obvious—now. The question is: What the fuck do I do about it?

10.24.2008

A Point of Clarification

May I say? I am always so thoroughly surprised that anyone reads this blog. As is obvious, I rarely post and what I do is usually an essay I've written offline. I am perplexed by the rhetorical complexity of blogging. This is not a critique of the medium just a statement of fact about the relationship between me and blogging.

So: it seems some bile drenched, uh, person has left a comment that is so rich and complex that rather than delete it, I will use it as fodder to explore this medium that so eludes me. This commenter stumbled on a blog written by a fictional character of mine, Henri—the central figure in my novel.

Yes, I said it: I am writing a novel. Man, it's fun! How liberating! I was becoming so fatigued with writing precious, tight, Deleuze-tinged essays. And fiction is so new to me, I am so thoroughly terrible at it, that every sentence I write is an education. First person or third and the complex play of voices in between and amongst; rhythm and flow; texture and tone; description: every piece is a challenge. Things that are obvious to writers are beguiling to me—and I love it.

So, yes, my novel and a chance to be free of academese once and for all. The goal of said novel? Well, to shed this voice of academic, philosophic preciousness. And to learn some things about how language and voice work. And, mostly, to be funny. I want to laugh at the things I write.

My Henri—poor Henri—is a terribly depressed, suicidal, sexually, uh, deprived and angry Jewish man. Think: Portnoy's Complaint meets Notes from the Underground. I started the novel in the first person but I think it was too much—this pissed off man screaming at you became tiring. So I shifted it to 3rd person to better frame him, give him some nuance through another voice.

And I tried an experiment: I started a blog written by Henri. My goals were to test a voice—his voice, not the voice of the book. And to see how people reacted to him as this is an essential part of the novel. What happens when this angry little man starts speaking his mind? He imagines he will be eviscerated—and, in many ways, he is during the course of his short, odd life.

The responses of this particular commenter—see the comments in some of my posts below—are so funny and interesting they even surprised Henri: "I was gonna post that on Ratemyprofessor and report you!," she writes.

What a strange instinct—to report someone, as if this were either 3rd grade or some fascist regime. And I love that the authority to which I will be reported is Ratemyprofessor.com. It's so odd and hilarious I'm not sure where to begin or even what to say. The best (or worst) part is that she's proved poor Henri's point—we do live in a sort of fascism where the crime of saying the wrong thing is met with anonymous reporting to higher authorities (Ratemyprofessor being a less potent 3rd Reich, but potent nonetheless in its own way, for sure). But she has provided priceless fodder for my book—so thanks!

The blog has other goals. One is shameless: to see if I could drudge up some controversy and create buzz for my book. In one fantasy scenario, I'd be fired from UC Berkeley. That would be too good, too perfect: to be fired by the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley for things I say or, even better, for things written in a blog under a different name. Man, if I were more opportunistic, more committed to my art, I would have tried harder to engineer that and turned it into a press and publishing opportunity. But I'm neither that brave nor that cunning—so I got laid off due to budget cuts. How terribly unglamorous. Foiled again.

And the other goal of that blog was to explore the oddity of voice in this blogosphere where, presumably, voice is untethered from identity, from humanity. This little hate filled commenter, of course, reveals that this untethering ain't so easy. And that, perhaps, the blog in its immediacy forges a peculiar intimacy between writer and words that somehow makes it seem more true, more honest when, in fact, it should be the exact opposite.

What attracts me most about blogging is the potential for a certain kind of freedom, a delirious proliferation of voices, where one man—or woman—can become 20 men or women—or 20 men and women. Doesn't the blogosphere promise the glory of the author's death and the birth of language?

10.11.2008

The Moving Image


“In short,” Deleuze writes, “cinema does not give us an image to which movement is added, it immediately gives us a movement-image." That is to say, the film camera does not capture stills to which movement is later added by the projector, by an external media; that would be to miss movement all together. “Movement,” Deleuze tells us via Bergson, “is distinct from the space covered." Movement is more or less continuous while the space covered is divisible. Hence, “you cannot reconstitute movement with positions in spaces or instants in time: that is, with immobile sections.”

It is not that cinema invents the movement-image; Bergson discovered the concept independently. But is cinema the only art to proffer the movement-image? Prior to cinema, or outside of cinema, are there examples of the movement-image? In what sense, if any, can we say that an ostensibly still image moves? Is this movement the same as a movement-image?

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan claims that “[v]isual space is uniform, continuous, and connected." But that doesn’t seem right to me at all. Take the painting above by Matthew Ritchie: Is this visual space uniform, continuous, connected? The work may not move in any linear fashion but it most certainly undulates: there is a distributing (and not just a distribution) of intensities, of speeds, of temperatures. The eye does not take in the work uniformly; consumption is not immediate. But nor is the painting: this will not have been a matter of the viewer making the work move. Rather, the viewer moves with the painting, with its flows and lines, its speeds and vibrations.

We cannot say, then, that the movement of the work is the movement of the viewer, of his mind or even of his eyes (although it is both of those things as well). The painting takes the viewer on a journey, not to an imaginative place, not to concepts or ideas (at least not necessarily; there may very well be a conceptual speed and intensity as well, not to mention a speed of communication between and amongst concepts), but a perceptive journey. As Deleuze and Guattari maintain in What is Philosophy?, a percept is distinct from perception, from a perceiving subject. The movement at work in Matthew Ritchie’s painting is the movement of the image.

In his reading of the French artist Gérard Fromanger, Deleuze maps the distribution of temperature in Fromanger’s photographs/paintings. “[I]n each painting,” Deleuze writes, “there is a voyage, a circulation of tones." The image, then, is not still, not uniform or continuous. Indeed, “[a] circuit of exchange and communication begins to be established in the painting." That is, colors speak across the canvas to each other, lines criss-cross, they swerve and bend. There are points of inflection, moments at which things turn: yes, moments.

I can’t help but think of the so-called abstract paintings of Modernism. Pollock, like the roving camera of film, puts himself in motion, writhing over the canvas. Miró became obsessed with birds, with the possibility of a line that could take flight, unobstructed. Paul Klée’s line, like Miró’s, wiggles and prances and folds and bends; at times, there are arrows so we can keep track of all the movement. There’s a great Klée drawing I saw recently. It was not as rounded as I imagine Klée’s usual work; there was an odd geometry as the lines turned at sharp angles, forming a strange portrait. The title was, “Moderately Slow.” We call Calder’s work “mobile.” (The mobiles are 3D Miró’s; it is not, then, that movement is made explicit; it’s that movement shifts from two to three dimensions.)

This circulation of intensities, this communication of tones, these lines of flight: is this the movement-image of Deleuze and Bergson? How does this movement of the image relate to the moving image of cinema? What makes the cinematic image different from the painting or photograph? From Bazin to Deleuze, there seems to be agreement that movement is the distinguishing factor. But if we agree that images do move, what distinguishes the movement of cinema from the movement of a Klée drawing?

According to Deleuze, the movement-image of cinema involves the perpetual modulation of matter: “the movement-image is the object: the thing itself caught in movement as continuous function. The movement-image is the modulation of the object itself." The movement-image is not a representation, a capture, but “matter itself.” But this can certainly be said of a painting or photograph as well. As Merleau-Ponty suggests, Cézanne’s apples are not representations of apples at all: they are apples, again and anew. Great images do not refer, they do not point: they are matter, they are the world modulating itself before our very eyes.

Deleuze therefore seems to locate the point of distinction elsewhere. “Photography,” he writes, “is a kind of ‘moulding’: the mould organises the internal forces of the thing in such a way that they reach a state of equilibrium at a certain instant (immobile section). However, modulation does not stop when equilibrium is reached, and constantly modifies the mould, constitutes a variable, continuous, temporal mould.” The movement-image is “a transformation of the mould at each moment of the operation.”

This is deceptively complex so let me follow its different threads. Deleuze claims that the internal forces “reach a state of equilibrium” and then suggests that this is an “immobile section.” But is an equilibrium necessarily immobile? Kant claims that confronted with beauty, say a flower, the faculties of the viewer are set in a motion that will not resolve; he calls this “free play." And yet, unlike the sublimity of a storm, beauty affords a kind of harmony of the faculties: an equilibrium of sorts is reached and yet free play persists—a moving equilibrium. I might even say that there is only an equilibrium in and of the movement.

Of course, for Kant, this free play is a free play of the faculties; it refers to the motion of a mental state, not of the object. But if we assume the phenomenological perspective, the seer and the seen are intertwined: the motion of the mental state is continuous with the motion of the object without becoming the same movement. It is not a matter of pure reflection, of an unadulterated echo, but of repetition, a continuous bloc of becoming that includes object and viewer in a relentless conversation, a relentless and mutual touching that is neither determinative nor arbitrary but mutually constitutive. So while we may say that an image may or may not achieve a state of equilibrium, we have not said that this image does not move.

Now, I almost said that the image must move, that movement is a condition of it being art. But seeing Andreas Gurky’s enormous photographs in person, I hesitate: his images are disquietingly still. Some clearly aim for stillness—an empty Prada shelf, for instance. But others, such as those of throngs at a rock concert or the Tokyo Stock exchange, objectively contain movement. There are all the tell-tale signs: blur, and sometimes there is what seems to be a double-shot, as if two photographs, taken moments apart, were layered on top of each other. And yet even these images do not move; they won’t budge. There is no depth perception; focus and blur have nothing to do with distance and proximity. There is no vantage point, as if a living moment were captured, as if motion begins the moment the shutter releases, or that the eye of the photographer is in motion, capturing this fleeting event. What McLuhan says of visual space in general can be said of Gursky’s photographs in particular: they are “uniform, continuous, and connected.” They are a parody of the visual. There may be internal differentiation, but there are no points of inflection; nothing happens here. Even in the soccer field, with a player down, there are no events. Indeed, I’d say that a color field painting enjoys more internal differentiation that Gursky’s photographs. It’s almost as if he works hard to still the movement of life: his image of Pollock’s image makes this explicit as Pollock’s lively drips come to a screeching halt under Gursky’s watch. And yet “watch” is not the right word for he is altogether absent. There is not vantage point to these images; there are not great shots that he captured. Neither the camera nor the cameraman are in motion: stillness is absolute. I might say that the movement of a Gursky photograph is its non-movement (for it is not a death or even a dearth; the photographs are affirmative.)

And so an equilibrium may or may not be achieved, an image may or may not move, but what is it that distinguishes the cinematic image from other moving images? Deleuze tells us that the terms of the “mould” are different. This notion of the mould comes from Bazin. But Bazin sees a very different cinema than Deleuze. For Bazin, cinema is fundamentally representational; hence, he begins with an analysis of the photograph and engages the notion of the mould, an impression of reality. But Deleuze’s cinema will never have been representational; as he says, the movement-image is matter, nor just a mould of matter.

I am not saying a painting and a film are the same; I am not trying to break down the boundaries between them, playing the skeptic, trying to force language to its limits. No, my point is this: the difference lies not in movement per se, not in duration, not in mobility but in the boundaries of movement. There is a difference between a film and a painting or photograph: the temporality of the frame. What Deleuze says of the respective statures of the moulds is true for the respective statures of the frames; in the cinematic image, there is “a transformation of the [frame] at each moment of the operation.” The frame of the cinematic image is in perpetual flux, dissolving, reforming, shifting without pause. The frame of a painting is more or less static. Even if we can say that the frame of a painting is in motion—say, Matthew Ritchie’s sprawling works that leave the wall, dripping, as it were, onto the floor—the open frame nevertheless enjoys a consistent trajectory: it may be in motion, it may be infinite, but it is one differential equation. A film, on the other hand, shifts equations as it will. Even Calder’s mobiles have a boundedness, a frame that is in motion but never dissolves: each mobile is one, albeit elaborate, differential equation.

At times, the frame of a painting next to the endless reframing of a film makes a painting seem stilted, claustrophobic—all the movement of Miró’s bird in that tiny space. And yet there is an odd exhilaration at the endless vibration, at the tightly wound flux of a Miró or Klee or Matthew Ritchie. At the zoo one day, I had a revelation while watching the big cats pace in their cramped cages. They were not bored; they were not looking for a way out; they were not frustrated. On the contrary, by moving steadily in their space, the cats transformed the 20-foot cage into a sprawling savannah of infinite horizons. Freedom, they seemed to say, cannot be quantified: this space is infinite because I occupy it, because I move in it. This is the thrill of a Klée sketch: within this bounded space, there is infinite movement.

But the swell and vibration of a Klée or Miró or Ritchie will never give way to the continuous modulation of the cinematic image. This is what Deleuze is after from cinema, from the movement-image: a pure becoming, every moment at the limit of its own dissolve, matter in a state of relentless transformation. The bounded, framed image will not know such dissolve; it will never give way to another state. On the contrary, it is this state of movement, this stipulated becoming, ad infinitum. It is at once condemned and liberated to repeat itself.

There is a strange of condensation to the framed image. I imagine a Matthew Ritchie as an entire film—all the dissolves and transformations—presented within one frame (albeit a frame that is always at its own limit rather than being the container of limits). In some sense, such a painting is film sped up, past the speed of light: his painting is the trace. On the other hand, his painting is a film slowed down so much that transformations endure, never quite come to a head, slur.

This moving framed image, then, is not sequential. It does not relate to a whole but is itself a whole (as Deleuze describes the movement-image: it has a local modulation as well as a modulation of the sequence or series itself.) Of course, there are framed images that are part of sequences, Robert Rauschenberg’s great set of zipper-attached prints, for example. But the movement or communication between the different images does not constitute the relentless dissolve of the frame as we see in cinema.

Perhaps, then, the movement of the framed image is not the movement-image at all. It may not be an immobile section, its equilibrium may or may not move, but it does not become another image. There is no modulation: it is all bounded fray, a framed set of vibrations, communications, swells. Of course, there are different kinds of such framed movement. Just as Deleuze proffers a topology of cinematic images—the affect-image, the perception-image, the action-image—so there is a topology of framed images: the swell-image, the vibration-image, the hot-image, the cold-image, the wisp-image, etc. A whole set of images, then, each with a dominant mode of movement. There’s the fold-image and its subsets: the convex-image, the concave-image, the sharp turn-image, the micro-pleat-image, the broad turn-image, etc; the temperature-image, hot to cold; cold to hot; and everything in-between; the speed-image; the rhythm-image; etc. I imagine there are thousands of possible moving image types.

Becoming Stupid, Becoming Strange, Becoming Image: An Introduction to Joyful Seeing

“Carry on
Until the scene becomes improbable
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements….” Georges Perec

As the image goes, so go we. If the image is an aggregate of elements always on the go—concept, affect, emotion all awhirl—our engagements with images are aggregates on the go, moving between theory, personal impression, philosophy, even the occasional ethical demand. What we offer—perhaps too quickly, too densely, too obliquely—is an ontology and an ethics: this is the world of moving image and how to reckon it, how to see it: how to become image. A techne, then, of seeing difference.

Look at Perec. He sits down at a cafe, enjoys his coffee, a beer, a cigarette. And from this perspective, with such unabashed pleasure, begins to see differently. He does not stand apart from the world; he does not distance himself. On the contrary, he consumes the world with all his senses—watching, sipping, listening. He stands amidst the world’s great teeming and, shaking off the blinders that obscure, carries on until he begins to see the unfamiliar. What is this vision? What is this algorithm of the look that sees the unfamiliar, the strange, the different? What is this vision that sees what’s happening and not what’s already happened?

At first glance, we find the world glossed over, so thoroughly enmeshed in familiarity that it in fact eludes perception. And so Perec commands us to “carry on,” to keep looking, to look again. And again. And again. Our vision must be active, persistent, repetitive. If we’re to see the world, we must dispense with the grid of the familiar, the geometry of categories. We must not plug what we see into the matrix of the known; we must not interpret, say A=B. If we’re to see the world, our gaze must move with the world, see and sense where it takes us—and where we take it. Seeing becomes an encounter.

Why this active, persistent, repetitive looking? Because this act of looking puts vision in motion and thereby enacts the movement of the world. Entangled in this active gaze, the world itself gets taken up, comes to move, and begins to forge itself anew. And vice-versa: by looking again and again our vision is taken up by the world, succumbs to its movement, to its relentless inauguration of itself. By looking again and again, both the world and the viewer free themselves from the system of signs that point to the familiar, to the known. And the world becomes a creative venture. As Steve Zissou, negotiator of the life aquatic, declares, “This is an adventure.”

This moving-vision reckons a world that is always in motion, always morphing. This is the world of Henri Bergson, a world in which change is not exterior to matter. On the contrary, change is immanent to matter. Taking his cue from Bergson, Deleuze tells us that matter is the movement-image, the image in a perpetual state of modulation, even if that modulation is imperceptible, microcosmic. The temporal thoroughly infuses the spatial, relentlessly shifting the make-up of this and that, recasting its borders, its possibilities. Marc Lafia’s algorithmic films, Permutations, teach us that the image does not need to be run through a projector in order to move: the image is always already moving precisely because the world is always already moving. The image is a site of becoming; to see, we have to become as well.

To see, then, is not to penetrate but to move with. These eyes do not burrow beneath the surface of things to discover what lurks within or behind the world; they do not discover the essence of things. Perec’s command is not look deeply but keep looking. He remains joyfully at the surface of things. “See more flatly,” he writes, see without hierarchy, without categories that predetermine. For Perec, the world happens right there. Where? There. This look does not seek the idea behind the attribute, the truth behind the accident, the cause behind the effect. These eyes trace how things go, seeing discrete events and emerging networks, flux and flow, harmony, disharmony, synergy, chiasm, indifference.

These eyes do not penetrate; they entwine. They lead and are led, a creative surrender, at once active and passive, neither active nor passive. Neither here nor there, neither being one with the image nor standing at a remove: to see the new entails this in-between posture, an in-between that is not liminal per se but capable, ready: poised. "Time passes. Drink your beer. Wait." Poise allows us to see what’s happening, to be ready for what may come, for what might move us in strange directions, into uncharted territory. Poise: this is what allows us to trace the movements of the image and not the story, to move neither ahead of the image nor trail behind it: to move with the image without becoming one with the image.

To see the new is a matter of inserting oneself amidst the hustle of life and letting it take one’s eyes just as one’s eyes take the hustle: a mutual, if disproportionate, assumption—a becoming image. The image does not solely determine the looking. To see well means being a keen origamist able to fold, turn, spin the image this way and that; to see well means putting all of one’s senses out there, not just one’s eyes and ears. To see well, one must be ready to smell the image, to feel across one’s body, with knee and intuition and dreams and blood, to sense mood, ambience, speed, density. But of course the viewer does not solely determine this look, this folding. The image makes demands. It has a speed, a density, a distribution of affect; the image is an entire percept machine. It takes up the viewer just as the viewer takes up the image, what Deleuze calls a nuptial. To see—to see without the blinders of familiarity, without the structures of symbols and bathos—is a cooperative act as viewer and viewed find themselves led astray, led into new territory, a mutual looking that sets the world a go.

In this mutual becoming, artist and viewer do not discover each other in a seamless détente. There may be a hermeneutic circle but there are so many other shapes, so many other trajectories of this event, so many other distributions of force, affect, concept: the circle of understanding between artist, viewer, and image is one possibility amongst infinite possibilities. Sometimes, we don't understand the image at all but find ourselves weeping, laughing, reflecting, thinking. There are times the image is downright confounding; other times, the image just sits there, inert, and we have to pick it up, extend it, aggressively fold it into something spectacular. Which is all to say, the viewing event is a site of aparallel inflection of all the parties involved—image, artist, viewer. To see the new is not solely to seek recognition or even understanding. Here, artist and viewer seek the wonder of the image, however it may go.





This poised seeing, then, is not a natural vision: we must discipline ourselves to see what’s happening and not what’s already happened. There is of course a great history of artists employing techniques and tools to bring on the strange, the new, engaging modes of dispensing with habit and seeing anew: avoiding “e” one day, seeing nothing but “e” the next; seeing only blue, every impossible shade of blue and nothing else: all of a sudden, the world is organized by blue, Yves Klein as god; playing exquisite cadaver with friends, family, and strangers just to introduce the network into creation, to see what we couldn’t have alone; cutting up the written word only to put it back together in the a new order, to see what comes; leaving the director’s chair, handing the camera to the grip, the actor, to whomever is so inspired.

What we seek here is a bit different than a technology per se—it is a techne, an art of reckoning the image, a posture of standing towards this filmic life. There is no doubt a great book or series of books to be written on these diverse technologies of seeing: Foucault's rupture, event, dispersion; Lucretius' shape, speed, clinamen; Bergson's intuition. In these pages, however, we do not as much flush out a technology as engage diverse ruses as we try to shake off the old technology of narrative and identification and, holding ourselves differently, engage new modes of reading, or rather, modes of reading the new, of seeing the emergent and the different rather than the familiar. We don’t want to recognize; we want to see anew.

And so we stand towards the image differently, we look for different things, we ask different questions of the image. We put on a deadpan gaze that is nonetheless engaged, an indifference that remains passionate, a non-sentimental pathos. It is that look on Perec’s face—a smile at once stupid and clever, a vague sadness, readiness and composure impossibly intertwined. Perec is always ready to take leave of himself; his eyes and words scan the field for what’s different, for what might take him somewhere, move him. And all the while that smile, that smile from the prick of the new, the exhilaration of the world taking shape, the joy—the unabashed joy—of life affirming itself before our eyes. This is a techne of joy.

This poised looking entails an odd posture, at once a recline and a reach. It is that lean forward towards the screen without falling in. Which is to say, this is not about collapsing the line between the real and the image, even if such a collapse has always already happened; this is not Baudrillard’s hyperreal but something else entirely. It is a posture of productive consumption, a collapse into the chair to digest more fully, a slump of satiation not emotional confirmation or sublimity: a coup d’image, if you will. It is not a matter of feeling happiness or resolve, of identifying with the character, of discovering what we already know: the becoming-image is not a mnemonic. We don’t want to say, “Hey, I know just how he feels.” Rather, we want to say, “Wow! I didn’t know that was even a possibility; I didn’t know I could do that.” We do not become the image, as if there were a destination; nor can we do anything we’d like with this image. We move with the image and the image moves with us as image and viewer meet in a new territory, a territory made in this very act of seeing.

This looking, “carrying on,” is creative. It does not tear at the world. It does not break with how things go. On the contrary, this techne of vision joins the world in its flux of folds and pleats and cuts. In this active gaze, both world and viewer stop being recognized: they begin to emerge, shapes taking form, territories distinguishing themselves even as they intermingle, rhythms diverging and coalescing in impossible harmonies.

And nor is this joy-seeking vision an invocation of natural seeing over and against an encultured seeing, as if beckoning return to a vision bereft of culture and history. Perec does not disdain the categories of knowledge; in fact, he enjoys categories, playing with them, creating new ones. He doesn’t put aside the human to get in touch with his natural vision. Categories and knowledge don’t go away; they just don’t determine the looking beforehand. To see is to know: an active knowing, a gay science, a knowing that is not the mnemonics of Socrates but a knowing that happens in the very act of seeing. It is a knowing that is as sensual as it is conceptual, as speculative as it is experiential, as categorical as it is particular. We do not disdain the concept in search of a primitive vision but, on the contrary, we seek the concept amidst the fray. This strategy of looking, then, does not distinguish between the natural and the human, between the conceptual and the somatic. It distinguishes between the static look and the active look, a look that fixes and a look that cuts and folds, is cut and folded. This look is not a return but a relentless surging forward.

Poised at the juncture of the world's emergence, this strange techne of becoming image is not premised on knowing what this or that is but on introducing the unknown, on not knowing what something is. This not-knowing, however, is not a breaking down of the known world; it is not a tearing asunder. Nor is it a discovery of what really is. On the contrary, it is the inauguration of the new within the heart of the old, the perpetual birth of the uncanny.

As a kid, I was confounded by zucchini: Who could enjoy such things? And so I’d lie in bed at night and say the word zucchini to myself over and over until it was devoid of meaning, until it became this kind of monster in my mouth, a sense-event without concept, without signification. And I’d shutter with equal parts horror and delight, laughing with the best possible laugh, the laugh of the world making itself in all its absurd, gorgeous splendor, making itself new in my mouth: zucchini, zucchini, zucchinizucchinizucchini. Zucchini. Zucchini. I put the word in motion, quite literally, and kept it moving until it shed its referent and emerged anew, until I emerged anew. But do not misunderstand: this movement is not from sense to nonsense, from concept to body, from sign to pure mark. For just as uttering zucchini stripped it of its referent, the tender green squash returned, forever changed, its vertical trajectory turned 90 degrees, a phallus sprawling sideways in the stutter of my palate. This was my way of coming to know zucchini, coming to know different tastes, different possibilities of enjoyment. The uncanny is this movement from the familiar to the unfamiliar without shedding the familiar once and for all. The uncanny takes up the domestic and sends it on its way. But it is not an exile: it is the birth of the nomad, always home and never home. Zucchini and I, becoming together, partners in world making.

This moving world does not offer referential or mnemonic signs. The world does not point to its meaning; the accident does not signify its ontology. We must come to the world differently, without semiotics and its signifiers, its symbols; we must put aside these old techniques of recognition. The world is not already known precisely because it keeps happening, making itself on the fly, birthing itself before our very eyes. This moving world becomes a flux of bodies and light and force, a lava lamp life, the most kaleidoscopic film you’ve ever seen. In this teeming flow of images, bodies of every sort—human, animal, conceptual, inanimate—dissolve, resolve, and cohere in a relentless play. There is no familiar plot line, no characters with whom for sure we can identity, no reliable borders distinguishing the human from anything else. This is the life aquatic, punch-drunk driving down Mulholland Dr. What we begin to see are shapes in motion, a calculus of life, trajectories that morph and twist and pleat, that bend and distend and prehend, forces and rhythms and consistencies that create as much as they rupture and tear. Rather than knowing, understanding, identifying, we see and are seen. We don’t decode symbols; we engage the image and become the matter we are.

We do not abandon concepts to the ineffability of the singular and the somatic. We work with different concepts, strategies, and tactics, asking different questions and always expecting to be surprised. First, perhaps, we understand that when the concepts of unity are put aside, chaos does not ensue. Rather, unities form within, a unity that is immanent to this or that, a unity that may very well be a multiplicity. The world makes itself, a relentless and infinitely multifarious autopoetic territorialization. An image—and it’s all images, nothing but images—construes itself, gathering force here, stealing memes and possibilities and shapes there. Each image is an entire metabolic propensity, a mode of gathering the world’s forces and matters, its limits and ruptures. The image is a sense-event, an aggregate of percepts, concepts, affects. This aggregating is an action, a movement, that traverses space and time and in so doing forges a space and time, a trajectory of becoming, a curved limit that extends to infinity. Every image is a metabolic engine, digesting concepts and affects until it becomes its own site of concept and affect. Every image is an entire way of going. Images—forms—do not turn on concepts but on operations of assemblage.

This initiates a fundamentally different project, or rather, a project of difference, of differentiation: “One is lead therefore to the project of a pure description of discursive events as the horizon for the search for the unities that form within it.” Rather than look for what something means, one looks for how something distributes itself, a description and not an explanation or interpretation. This mode of engagement demands that we see, not explain; that we follow, not decode; that we trace the flux not unify the differences.

We stand towards the image with a different posture and ask different questions. It is not a matter of discovering what school or movement the image inhabits but what school or movement the image creates, inaugurates. We have to allow the image to extend us just as we must extend the image. Deleuze discovers Bacon’s image in the haptic territory of the Egyptians, moving between eyes and hands. It is not matter of fixing the image in place but of propelling it into new territory, discovering its networks, how its tendrils reach across time, place, discipline. William Burroughs does not break the laws of literature as if there the laws pre-existed; he invents the laws, an entire grammar of undulation, a most surprising ethics. As we look at the image, it looks back and asks: What will we become? By abandoning signifiers, we are not abandoning concepts, sense, and language. We are introducing new modes of making sense of things, new technologies of reading; these are modes of becoming image.

This becoming is a job for the amateur, not the expert. The expert operates within a staid environment of firm borders. The expert judges, condemns, polices, determining what can get in and what can’t: this is philosophy, this is philosophy, this is not. How can the expert make sense of an emerging world when he spends all his time plugging everything back into the system, when he’s so busy judging? Even if he’s open to the system shifting, these changes are so stultifying they come only with the death of the event. “We must be rigorous,” declares the expert, “we must know everything, test it again and again until we confirm the same result every time. Then, we can amend the law.” The expert seeks the same in order to create laws that legislate this sameness. How, then, can the expert ever become with the world? How can the expert see what’s happening?

The amateur, on the other hand, can become precisely because she doesn’t know how it all fits together. Oedipus is not the only familial possibility, difference can sometimes differentiate itself, the subject is not always hailed, power may very well come from the bottom, the narrative may not be a narrative at all. There may not even be a concept or idea. It may be a wash of mood and affect, a play of light, of color and shape and speed. Only the amateur can operate in the network where associations traverse discipline, time, and geography. We tend to have no problem thinking that a film talks with politics but then why can’t a film talk with literature or philosophy or physics? The Battle of Algiers, with a detour through Foucault, proffers an entire thermodynamics of power, a physics of flows and forces.

To be an amateur, however, takes enormous discipline. In Philip Rieff’s great lectures devoted to the art of reading (the title of his course is worth repeating here: "The Aesthetics of Authority"), we were shown movies we were to read. As the lights dimmed and the warmth of the projector shone forth, it was tempting to slouch down, kick one’s legs up and let the film do its thing. This would be a mistake: such trespassers would be singled out with a pointed beam of light and asked, with a tone of undeniable authority, to sit at attention. For that is what reading involves: keen attention. The image-world is a relentless proliferation of affects, forces, limits emerging and rupturing, the world taking shape and taking shape again. To sit as Perec does in the café and see the strange does not happen automatically, even if it seems to happen casually. It is a matter of paying keen attention to what’s happening while happening oneself, a collideo-scopic encounter that sees more than just the presumed significant:

Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you?
Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see.
You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.

To force oneself to see is exhausting. It means looking at the world differently, stupidly, without already knowing what everything is. This is what Bergson asks of us in the opening of Matter and Memory: forget what you “know” and see. Suddenly, the world explodes, multiplies itself towards infinity: Look out! There is no longer the significant and then the banality of everything else. All there is is the banal. We can no longer ignore the stream of images that surround us in order to focus solely on what’s important, on what really matters. The usual suspects don’t apply. Without the hierarchical grid of categorical knowledge, the world becomes splayed along varied planes as order emerges, morphs, dissipates, re-orders itself. Ever poised, and risking her own cohesions, the amateur participates in the acrobatic becoming-sense of the world. The image may not offer the hidden mystery of arcane cyphers but it does demand creative eyes to find shapes amidst the great teeming. The world is unmoored, the image is set loose: we must now be even more attentive as we’ve surrendered our clichés in favor of the strange. This technology of becoming may democratize as it announces the ascendancy of the amateur. But this does evacuate us of the admittedly trying demands of seeing what’s happening.

Keep your eyes on Perec, that keen amateur, as he keeps his eyes on the world. His deadpan gaze may entail a certain kind of distancing from the world and yet it is precisely this deadpan gaze that allows him to take up the world, to touch it, to see it. His gaze gropes the world feelingly, as it is drenched in memory, the moment, imagination, possibility, the swirl of events:

Outside there's a bit of sunlight
the café is nearly empty
two renovators' men are having rum at the bar, the owner is
dozing behind his till. the waitress is cleaning the coffee machine

I am thinking of you
you are walking in your street, it's wintertime, you've turned up
your foxfur collar, you're smiling, and remote

Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls this the palpation of vision. Vision is only possible precisely because the eyes that see the world are part of that very same world: “The look…envelops, palpates, espouses visible things…[and] since vision is a palpation with the look, it must also be inscribed in the order of being that it discloses to us; he who looks must not himself be foreign to the world he looks at.” This feeling look does not meld one with the world. On the contrary, it is precisely this habitation, this worldly citizenship, that makes one a foreigner in one’s own land. It is precisely this odd proximity that allows the look to take up the world without already knowing it.

There is a friction in this vision, a heat that comes from closely following the contours of this or that. The chiasm sizzles. To Perec and Merleau-Ponty, one can only be intimate when one is rid of the familiar, when one allows the strange to speak, when one throws away the ready-mades and reaches for the world with a certain poise, with a dead-pan passion, with a surge that awaits and creates in the same gaze. It is a friction born of the question: How does this go? What does this do? Where can I take it? Where can it take me? It is a friction of becoming.

This viewing inaugurates the becoming of viewer and viewed alike as both take off, as both become images. Here, there is no anchored human presence that functions as a centered vanishing point. As McLuhan states, this is no longer the Renaissance where man is the measure of all things. The viewer and her human being is taken up by the image, is thrown into the flux, a force and shape among forces and shapes: an image amongst images (even if locally privileged). But this is not to evacuate the world of its pathos. On the contrary, the image is quite literally moving. Just look at the films of Wong Kar Wai—Chunking Express, 2046—or Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, Marc Lafia’s Exploding Oedipus, John Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence. They move us precisely because they never let us identify; they transport us, take us somewhere, lead us astray of ourselves. These images extend us towards the infinite limit we are always becoming.

The essays in this book do not identify with the artist or the characters or the story; they do not look for signs or culture or history, for anything that might preexist and determine what we see. What we seek is modes of world making, an array of concepts and affects, possibilities of life. Just as Cézanne would stand in the field, eyes wide, allowing the landscape to germinate within him, we try to let the various images germinate within these lines and words and gestures. More or less together, we create the world with the image, although not necessarily in synch or seamless harmony: they don’t form a march. Rather, each essay moves according to its own rhythm, its own immanent pace and punctuation of becoming. As we take up different kinds of images—cinema, photographs, words, design, drawing—these essays mark possibilities of the image, of how it can go, its modes of behavior. The result is that while each essay reckons a particular moment or work, this collection forges a constellation of the image. Call it a performative onto-ethology of the world-as-image.

These essays are amateur readings of the image, encounters. They do not seek to be definitive but to be exploratory. There are, for instance, three essays entitled, “This is Cinema.” They do not erase each other; they do not supersede each other; they do not conspire to form one master theory of film. Each sees from its perspective; each proffers its own world, its own logics. The essays in this collection therefore tend to be fast, often dense. They are spins, takes, perspectives that embrace their perspective. But that’s all there are—spins, takes, perspectives. These views inaugurate the becoming of world. They may be localized perspectives but they seek nothing less than the very making of this world. And the making of the world is inevitably strange precisely because it forges itself and its logic at the same time. There is no pre-existing structure: what we see is what we get.

There are as many ways to see the new as there are events. Perec sits in the café and with an allatonce focus attentively drinks the world. Nietzsche philosophizes with a hammer, at once demolishing ideals and tuning the world. Bergson discerns the flash of an image, the intuition of how a thing creatively evolves. Clarice Lispector splays herself along the unpredictable flows of an agua viva. William Burroughs cuts the world up and puts it back together, inventing new grammars along the way. Carlos Castaneda apprentices himself to an imaginary warrior, takes mushrooms and flies off the cliff along the winds of the nagual. Guattari follows the schizophrenic on a stroll through uncharted territory, beyond the pale of subjectivity. Deleuze crawls inside the skin of others only to perform impossible acrobatics. Every artist in this collection engages some tactic of the strange; they are all agents of the image.

Our goal is to become with these images. And in so doing to become more intimate with the world, more intimate with ourselves. This is our pleasure, this is our demand, this is our delight: to become with the world.

9.13.2008

Speaking of Seeing Seeing

For those who care or are perverts of some sort, I am recording and podcasting my Rhetoric 140 course at UC Berkeley this semester, entitled, "Seeing Seeing, or How Images Go."

You'll find them here: http://danielcoffeen.podomatic.com/

8.17.2008

Seeing Seeing, pt 2

Look in the mirror. Stare into your own eyes. What do you see? It's not just your eyes. You see your eyes seeing you. And, what's stranger, you see your eyes seeing your seeing of you.

Eyes, then, are not solely things that see but are things that are seen. Eyes are at once camera and screen. They are always consuming, taking up the world. But, at the same time, they are always playing the world back.

This feedback loop may not be continuous. The eye that sees may be the eye that plays back what it sees. But this play back is always, and necessarily, modulated by the complex algorithm of the body's life—its memories, its associations, its diverse trajectories. Of course, there may be times that this circuit is more or less immediate: seeing a horrific event may yield horrific eyes.

Now turn away from the mirror and look into the eyes of the person next to you. You don't just see his eyes. You see his eyes seeing you. And, what's stranger, you see his eyes seeing you seeing his eyes. This is no doubt what makes eye contact so potent, so powerful, a most provocative gesture, inciting lust, violence, desire, confusion. I see you crying; I'm thinking about a joke a friend once made; my eyes smile; you think I'm callous; and so on.

Seeing another inaugurates an infinite circuit: no resolve, no center, no certainty, an endless mutual inflection. The only way out is to turn away or cement one's own gaze, hold it so steady that the circuit is able to find a local anchor.

But things are more complicated. Not only do you see another person seeing your seeing of you. You see his seeing of everything he's ever seen and experienced—birth, his parents, squirrels, films, books. When I see you, I don't just see you seeing me seeing you. I see your seeing of everything that you've seen, including the shared space we're in. And I see your seeing of me seeing all the things around us and all the things I've ever seen. When someone in a long airport line looks at me conspiratorially, as if we see the same indignity, I try to make my eyes say: "I don't see what you see, I don't see in the same way you see. Go see for yourself."

To see another person is to see an entire playback—a film in which this other person's face and body are the screen—of a life: it is to see an inflected node within an enormous network, an elaborate economy, of images. To see another person is to see a moving interpretation of this life; to see another person is to see a film, a seeing and playback of the world. This means that I am a film(ing)—a recording screen—interacting with other film(ing)s, both of us recording and playing back each other according to our respective algorithms.

Now look at a painting, a portrait. The portrait looks back at you. You see the person in the picture seeing you but probably not your seeing of her—but this depends on the portrait. It is quite uncanny to look at a face in painting and find it seeing you seeing it. In any case, you do see a seeing of what you're seeing; that is, you see the seeing of the painter, a seeing that is a touching of paint to canvas, a haptic impression. Each painting, whether figural or abstract, declares, "This is a way to see the world; this is a seeing; come see how I see." This is why I will never tire of Van Gogh's "Starry Sky" or his sunflowers: they are always a seeing that is alien, strange, and thoroughly enjoyable, funny, surprising, intense.

When I see a painting I see the painting. And I see what's in the painting. And I see a seeing of what's in the painting. And my seeing becomes something that is seen, that can be seen. My seeing is enfolded into the fabric of the visual, even if only for the film that I am: it is inscribed on, in, and for me. My seeing of this seeing makes an impression on the general fabric of visual, even if that impression is only stamped on the fabric that is my film. I am, after all, a screen.

Seeing, then, is not outside of the film, outside of the playback. The act of seeing the world is part of the film, is seen. We see seeing. And we are seen seeing seeing.

5.19.2008

My Speech to the Graduates, v2

I want to talk to you today about pleasure.

Pleasure demands a certain slowness, a lingering, a languoring. You have to savor the complex palate of the tequila, let the emphatic umph of the Uni play across your tongue, lay in bed and nibble your sweetie's nape—slowly, very, very slowly. You need to take the time when you write to find the proper phrase, rhythm, figure. You have to let your mind and prose meander through and around and with an idea. You have to watch the great films once, twice, three times, a dozen times to truly appreciate them. You have to chew your food slowly, lay in the daytime sun, and enjoy your evening cocktail. You have to stroll, not run.

These are the things that are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. The America you inherit is an uncivil beast that moves at an ever more rapid clip, consuming dignity with spite. Take travel, one of the great luxuries of contemporary life. Travel has been stripped of its humanity as lines of people disrobe before disgruntled strangers. And when you question this degradation, this humiliation, you are told it's all for your own good. And, at times, you may actually believe that.

Do you understand what I just said? You actually believe that it is in your own best interest to be humiliated and degraded. This is how far we've come, how degraded we are, how terribly awry we've gone. Our fear has become such that we abandon the very things that make us human, the very things that bring us joy, the very things that make life livable: pleasure, civility, dignity.

Now take this thing we call work, this thing that causes you such great anxiety. And it should—but for different reasons. In today's America, a job demands you be at the office at a given place and time, usually quite early, and 5 days a week, regardless of how well you slept. You go to your inevitably gray cubicle beneath fluorescent lights and situate yourselves in front of a blue screen. This is exactly how I'd describe a prison—a fucking prison! None of this is healthy, physically or mentally. You talk to a variety of people, many of whom are boring, stupid, and incompetent if not cruel, stupid, and resentful. You spend time in meetings ill run at best, hate filled at worst. You grab some overly salted food for lunch, eat it at your computer, and spend the rest of the day dehydrated and bloated with gas. Perhaps you seek the restroom as a respite, a place to pass gas in peace or at least have some solitude. No such luck. The bathrooms are public and so you piss and shit and fart next to your office mates before you head back to your now stinky cubicle, bloated and thirsty.

Work is an elaborate holocaust of dignity.

This used to be a 40 hour a week assignment—40 of your best hours spent uncomfortably gaseous, helping make some moron you'll never meet richer than he already is. This 40 hour exercise in humiliation has become 50, 60, 70 hours long. I'm not making this up. The dot com revolution broke down the line separating work from play—so now you work all day long. You can wear jeans, have your nose pierced, and listen to Black Metal music. Work doesn't care—as long as you work.

You've been co-opted, children.
The machine of work realized that it doesn't care if your tongue is pierced or tattoos line your flesh. They don't give a shit; they just want your warm body working. They even give you ping pong and foosball and let you have a beer now and again. And you think you're the one who came out ahead! You're working 60 hours a week and you think you won! The Google campus is hailed as liberation because they serve you lunch! Even prisoners on death row get fucking lunch. We are dead men walking, Starbucks infused zombies.

This is today's America. There's no room for rebellion as every effort to resist gets folded into the machine. All the avenues of resistance have been co-opted—poetry, fashion, music, even drugs as the pharmaceuticals replace the acid labs as the suppliers of your high. Look what's happened to the green movement: Clorox runs ads claiming to be green. We drive so-called green cars. Green cars! That's an oxymoron. You want to be green? Stop driving, you morons!

America is an ugly, cruel beast. Dropping bombs on Arabs is not the disease, it's the symptom. It's time to get creative in our revolts.

But as big and stupid and mean as America is, it's also big. And this gives us some room to operate. Maybe not for long as robotic drones fill the skies, leaving nothing unseen. But, for now, there is room. You don't have to walk mindlessly into this mire. There are options. Consider Alexander Supertramp, who burned his money and his i.d. and headed into the wilderness. Or Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz, a onetime physician who in the 1950s quit his practice, dropped out of the mainstream and raised a family while living a nomadic surfing lifestyle. All 11 people in the family—the parents and nine children—lived in a trailer, ate organic food, roamed the country, and surfed. The kids were home-schooled; they celebrated the Jewish sabbath every Friday night.

That's right, you heard me: these are Jews. And if a nice Jewish boy can do it, you certainly can.

Or take Mike Reynolds, an architect before the Feds stripped him of his license. He builds houses off the grid, that generate their own electricity, have their own sewage, and live off of the water that falls from the sky. He's been harassed and sued and arrested. But he's still going, making it possible to live free of the mayhem. And it's not just that these houses are actually environmentally sustainable, which they are, it's that they make life—your life—sustainable.

You have to get creative in your tactics. You have to demand your pleasure. Because the world you're inheriting is hell bent on disallowing you your life. You have to create the time to savor this life, to deflect the time-soul-life suck of what we call the real world. But it isn't the real world; it's the cruel world. You can make a more palatable real world, a world worth living in, living for, a world capable of sustaining life.

Demand your pleasure.

5.17.2008

My Speech to the Graduates, v.1

As an adjunct professor with a propensity for saying the wrong thing and who commands no respect whatsoever in the academic— or really any—community, I will most likely never be asked to deliver a commencement speech. But watching a recent graduation, I couldn't help but think: what an excellent but all too often neglected opportunity. The possible speeches I could give swirled through my mind. Here is one such imagined speech, written with a certain histrionic fervor.

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I want you all to think for a moment: Are your parents happy? Do they consume life with unabashed joy, with voracious abandon? Now think of all your friends' parents: Are any of them happy? Are they lit up—by life? By ideas? By art? By their respective spouses?

I have to tell you: the life prescribed for you—work, marriage, children—is a drain on all that is vital in this world. Somehow, somewhere, we were all suckered into signing an egregious social contract in which we promised to give up 60 hours a week working in some humiliating job aimed at making someone else rich so that we can barely afford to pay our rents and car payments and utility bills and ensuring that we have no time actually to raise our children so we are left to deal with our children—which itself demands endless negotiating and placating because god forbid a parent should tell a child what to do—which all leaves us so wasted, exhausted, spent at the end of the day that we can barely muster an intelligent conversation with our spouses—not to mention do anything more, uh, satisfying with same said spouse—that all we can do is pour a heavy snifter of Scotch, pop a Valium, and watch ESPN until we fall asleep, only to awake and do it all over again the next day.

And don't imagine that the work you seek is noble and that this makes you exempt from the death trap that surrounds you. Your work may be noble; it may at times even be interesting. But it remains work and the demands it places on your body and soul are inexcusable. No matter how noble your work, it should not demand 60 hours a week—and the best hours at that! No, our society is a meth-infused, speed driven culture of unabashed consumption, hell bent on exploiting all vestige of energy, including the life that pumps through your veins.

This is the anxiety that should be haunting you as you stand at the precipice of the so-called real world. You should be shaking in your boots thinking: How do I avoid this death trap? Where in the world can I find peace, delectation, civility, pleasure, delight, appetite? But instead you entertain the anxiety of how, exactly, you will enter this horrendous, vampiric cycle of soul death. You wonder: How will my degree prepare me for work? When will I be mature enough to be a parent? What if I don't meet Mr or Mrs Right?

These are the wrong questions. These are the questions of a soulless, witless, joyless culture that is plummeting, rapidly, to its own demise. I have to tell you: As graduates of this institution, there is always work to be had. They—that ubiquitous "they"—will always have work for you; you're the ones who make them money. Don't think for a minute that you have to woo them; they are all too ready and eager to suck you dry. The trick is to parry the lunge of their soul siphon—not to head directly into their waiting mouths.

This insane, demented, completely out of control system—you have to work, you have to marry, you have to breed—is unsustainable. It devours the one thing that sustains it, namely, life. Why do you think there are Starfucks—excuse me, Starbucks—on every corner? Because people enjoy drinking half-assed coffee drowned in a quart of hormone-enriched milk? No, because they have no vitality left in their veins so they turn to caffeine—so they can continue working! Capitalism exhausts your personal reserves so it forces you to seek a whiff of vitality from elsewhere–namely, a double Grande Latte.

I ask you to consider, briefly, the cafes of Europe or South America. They are leisurely places where people talk, relax, enjoy each other's company, enjoy the day. Now think of Starbucks. It is not a place of pleasure; it's a place of work! The image of our coffee shops is marred by the ubiquity of laptops. We do not live in a culture of pleasure and delectation, a culture of life affirmed. We live in a culture that seeks to exhaust all of its resources, including its own life.

Now picture lunch in Europe or in South America. Long, leisurely affairs filled with delicious food, conversation, some wine, perhaps a brief siesta. Now picture Americans eating lunch: some grotesque wrap distractedly devoured over a laptop. I have to tell you, this is not a recipe for health, for vitality, for long life. This is an engine hell bent on devouring all remnants of energy. Why? Because it is has no reserves itself. This is a vampiric culture that needs the blood of others to sustain itself.

It's really a very basic question of physics or of economics, depending on how you look at it. The system eats its own source of power until it is drained of all natural resources. It is a system premised on the logic of the vampire: I'll suck your life to make my own; you suck someone else's life; and so on. It is not an infinite deferral; it is an infinite drain, a zero sum game. Take merely a cursory glance around and tell me I'm wrong. We're in free fall, plummeting fast. Can you smell the whiff of impending pavement?

So I say this: Change your question. When your parents ask, "But what will you do with a degree in philosophy or rhetoric or literature?" say: "Wrong question, Mom. Wrong question, Dad. The question is: How will I deflect and defer the hungry teeth of the vampire? How will I maintain my appetite for life, my joy at thinking and tasting and tinkering? How will I avoid the miserable lives that have turned you into Ambien drenched, sexless, joyless zombies?"

You have to jettison the very thought of a career. The question should never be: How will I work for someone the rest of my life so I have none of my own pleasures left? The question should be: How can I get enough money in the door with the least expenditure of my own energy so that I can maximize my own life, my own energy source, myself?

Now, as for children, ask yourself: Must I breed? If so, are you sure the neuroses of the nuclear family is the way to go? The fact is, human children are born way too raw, barely cooked, in fact. They are barely alive. Once they've left the womb, they need every ounce of your energy–and if you're a woman, this is literal—just to make it through a day. Babies are voracious; they need your energy to make it through the first years of life. I'm not saying don't breed; children are excellent. They are excellent precisely because they are insane.

But they do suck you dry with a relentless vigor. And the closed, little world of the bourgeois family is not the proper platform to breed on. Just look around you, at any family. No one looks very good as fatigue, indigestion, and disease punctuate their faces. There's constant bickering, passive aggressive pandering, cruel cut downs. The nuclear family is a failed experiment. The horrible, demented psychoses that swirl and whirl between mommy, daddy, and baby are horrendous, distasteful, and, again, unsustainable. We have to hire nannies because the tribe has gone missing—the extended network that it takes to raise children has disappeared. And we're left with this grotesquerie we call "family" that we mask in maudlin sentimentality.

So breed if you must—and it is a strong, biological drive—but ask yourself: At what cost this child? How can I make this work without losing myself in the process? Where's my tribe?

We live in a time of accelerated, shameless, unabashed consumption. Pleasure, delectation, enjoyment have gone by the wayside—they've been deemed too slow, too unproductive. We eat at our computers; we pound coffee to stay awake and pop Ambien to fall asleep. And by deigning to answer the idiotic questions of your parents and teachers—What job will you pursue?—you join this fraying existence.

The question is everything. The question frames the thinking. So perhaps you ignore everything I say here; perhaps you assume I'm just some jew quack ranting about the system. Perhaps you're right. But I suggest this to you: Just because someone asks you question—such as, What will do you with your degree?—you don't have to answer them. You can change the question.

Question the question, always.

And seek pleasure—slow, considered, thorough pleasure— because it is disappearing quickly.