The Way of Things is Multiplicity
Consider a human body as a text. It has so many complex functions not all of which can be reduced to totally physical behavior. I am blood and liver and hair and skin and desire and anxiety and love and dreams and eyeball and nose and kidney. And I keep changing — physically and affectively — as time passes, as food passes, as I interact with the world. I am teacher, writer, husband, son, father, friend — and each of these is multiple, each of these shifts as circumstances shift. I am this thing that is many things and that keeps changing, always and necessarily.
A book, a painting, a flower, a film, a meal: each is a more or less complex amalgamation of elements working more or less in tandem. Perhaps the colors or words or tastes fuse into a greater whole; perhaps the different words, colors, tastes ricochet off each other or ignore each other or forge distinct experiences. Tequila can often enjoy a distributed flavor palette, carrying itself along distinctive taste channels on the tongue — vanilla, citrus, pepper, grass, leather, sun. Bourbon, meanwhile, tends to be unified, falling across the tongue in a consistent ooze.
But if a text is multiple, what makes it a text? Well, this all depends on the circumstance. As a thing is writ with multiple elements, it is writ with multiple internal limits. So a reader could read one particular element within a thing, making that element the thing read. For example, my body is made up of my toes, nose, eyes, blood, liver, heart, desire, loves, needs, wants, dreams, fingers, lips, tongue, taste. But I may only read one of these things, say, my big toe. In this case, my big toe is the text which is itself made of multiple things — a nail, skin, wrinkles, hairs, cuticles, shmutz. The limits of this or that thing is configured by the reading event: who is doing the reading, where, when, why, how. A foot fetishist and a doctor would make very different sense of this big toe.
This, among other things, lies at the heart of certain debates about medicine: What are the terms of a body and its dis-ease? Some claim a holistic approach, that everything from blood to memory to desire affects the health and vitality of a body. Others suggest that medicine is basically all physical: let me look at your blood under a microscope, even if I never meet you, and I can tell you what’s wrong. Different doctors operate with different limits, internal and external, of a human body.
These limits may extend wide and far and remain nebulous. A martini glass is part of a network that includes whiskey glasses, shot glasses, pint glasses, neon signage, the Thin Man movies. The multiplicity of a thing, then, extends beyond its immediate physical boundaries; a thing contains its history and its culture. Jacques Derrida finds traces of other texts every time he reads, one text bleeding, echoing, quoting, ricocheting against other texts. (This is what has been called “intertextuality.”). The oeuvre of William Burroughs, for example, might include his “novels,” his essays, interviews, his readings of his novels, his shotgun paintings, his cut-up poems, his collaborations with Brion Gysin and Kerouac, his letters to everyone, most notably to Ginsberg. It might also include his diaries, pictures of him, all the writers and texts he references — Denton Welch, Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, Carlos Castaneda — and those he doesn’t reference but that certainly run through his writing — Rabelais, Philip K. Dick, even Nietzsche. Then again, perhaps I want to limit myself to his so-called novels (I qualify because I’m not sure what a novel is and whether the term applies to Burroughs’ books) or only his mentions of alien homosexuality or his rhythm.
A text, then, is a network of signs and effects, of gestures and affects, of moods, modes, and meanderings, of forms and functions. It is not just many things — many things that manage to cohere without unifying — but the very manner of taking up those things. A thing enjoys an internal process of differentiation that we might call its metabolism, its way of processing the world. Such is its way, a way that affords the reader multiple paths, diverse sites of entry or pick up, numerous possibilities for taking, cutting, stealing, borrowing, following.
After all, human bodies are presumably made up of the same stuff — blood, skin, organs, limbs, muscle, cells. But look around the room and see all the different ways these same elements hang together: this one slouches, this one jaunts, that one twitches. A thing is not the sum of its parts. A thing is the mode of putting all the parts together. A thing is not just visible and invisible stuff. It is temporal, as well, a four-dimensional text. A thing enjoys a style.