12.31.2012

Synchronicity

You're in the middle of of a break up with your girlfriend. It's Friday night, you're out alone feeling strange, sad, reflective, buzzed. Hungry, you contemplate food. There are a million restaurants — good restaurants — within throwing distance. But for some reason you decide to get in your car — not your brightest idea — and drive to some sushi restaurant you've never been to across town. According to a compelling private logic, you persuade yourself that if you find a parking space, that's where you'll go, a sign that it's where you're meant to be. (Alone, we entertain stranger logics than we do culturally.)

Sure enough, you find a spot right in front of the restaurant. You park, turn off the engine, and with a sudden flood of emotion brought on by your good parking fortune, you decide to email your almost-once-beloved right then and there.

A bit more than buzzed, you spend some time, craft your sentences, try to articulate the 1073 things you're feeling at the moment. Finally, you edit as best you can on that stupid little screen and, as you hit send, wonder if that was your wisest move. And then you walk into the restaurant.

You realize you're more loaded than you thought. You start to scan the place for mood and availability. As your eyes move across the room, processing all this new data, you suddenly happen upon a familiar face — a very familiar face. But as it's out of place, it can't actually be there. That would make no sense. You do a double take (I like to imagine all experiences directed by Chuck Jones). But, no, there it is. There she is. On a date.

What the proverbial fuck? Not that she's on a date — power to her — but that you happen to end up here, now, like this.

Maybe it's just a coincidence. You're doing whatever it is you do and she's doing whatever it is she does and if you rolled the dice a trillion times, one of those times you'd end up at the same time in the same place. It doesn't mean anything. Sure, the two events — the two of you going to the same restaurant at the same time and place — have created a powerful, new event. But it's the same as two asteroids colliding in space. A big event doesn't necessitate meaning.

Or maybe it does mean something  — something really, really important. Like you're supposed to be together! What else propelled you through all these elaborate mechanics, all these decisions conspiring to bring you two together!

Now, no events are discrete. The things that happen to us are related to other things that happen to us. The most familiar of these connections is linear cause and effect which makes the connections between events obvious. My friend called me because I'd called him. Or my parents came to visit because they wanted to see their grandson. (If I were walking through the Mission one day and there, at a coffee shop with her AirBook open, was my mother I'd probably drop dead.)

And yet things happen to us all the time that are connected in ways we can't discern. Indeed, all things are connected in some way to all other things, a billion butterfly wings and such. These connections can be more or less resonant, more or less obvious, but they're always there. All events are part of ever fluctuating constellations, at once creating and being created. 

Sometimes, things happen to us that seem discontinuous — there is no discernible cause and effect — and yet are so intimately related we feel there must be some connection. Or at least a connection we should know. I mean when someone rolls a ball down the street towards me, it is so obvious how the ball came to me that I don't ask what the connection is. But when something happens like you find your should-be girlfriend in a random restaurant on a date, you find yourself looking around for the cause  — for surely there must be!

In our so-called scientific culture, your first thoughts concern the cause and effect. Did she tell me she was coming here and I forgot? Or vice versa? Is this restaurant close to something that connects it to us?

An obvious, linear, causal connection can't be found. And yet there she is! Here I am! Somehow, despite the 10,000 restaurants in this city, despite all the different times people come to eat, we came to the same restaurant — one neither of us had ever been to! And at the same time! My god, it must mean something! 

The uninteresting answer is that it is the work of some master plan, some divine providence, some inscrutable knowing that exists above these two events, connecting them in ways your eyes and human intelligence cannot possibly know. This is what we do when we can't explain things empirically: If I can't see it, it can't be! And so we look over the head of the event and appeal to some "higher" source.

And we are left with a thoroughly unsatisfying, and I dare say false, dichotomy.  On the one hand, god and a meaning that is exterior to the events, a sure meaning that guides — a soul to the body that is experience. On the other hand, we have "pure" chance and meaninglessness — shit happens, no big deal.

But it seems to me that both of these options are silly, that there are connections between events that happen in all sorts of ways beyond cause and effect and that these connections are not part of some divine plan. While we tend to focus on things that move linearly — our life trajectory, career, stories, movies, our laws of physics —the fact is things connect laterally, diagonally, and discontiguously, that is, skipping time and place to forge a connection. Indeed, some events skip across the surface of time, like a comet coming into view now and again. There are forces that exceed us such as, say, gravity. But there are all sorts of forces as we are not actors on the stage of the earth but constitutive and constituent of this cosmos.

And the cosmos is neither meaningful nor meaningless.  The cosmos happens. And this very happening is meaning. Which is to say, meaning is not to be found outside of what happens. Nor is meaning to be evaded. Meaning is something that happens, not something that is.

Back to your incident in the restaurant. It is neither just a coincidence — which says nothing — nor the act of a divine order. It is meaningful precisely in that it happened. What connects your being there and her being there is that you're both there!There is no secret stitching these two disparate events together. The fact of these two disparate events happening at the same time is the meaning!

The meaning is in the event. You can both feel it.  Meaning is ricocheting all over your mind, belly, loins, flying around the restaurant, summoning your old selves, your future selves, your possible selves. This event is a nexus of meanings — that is, the meaning is plural. 

Like all events, meaning is multiple made up of millions of threads — all your moods and desires and experiences as well as the moods, desires, and forces of the cosmos. A coincidence is not a premeditated conspiracy; it is an emergent conspiracy. The fact that you happened into that restaurant at that time and place means something. But that something is multiple. 

Synchronicity is significant. It is an intersection of forces, of flows. Such is the universe: flows of affect, debris, rocks, sensations, light often all mixed up and moving faster than light, the speed of thought, infinitely swift. Events and things collide, sometimes poignantly. This makes such synchronous events something to reckon — not that there's some secret meaning but precisely because it happened. You may want it to signify one thing but no one gets off that easy. Like all reckoning, it is multiple and uncertain.

12.24.2012

Images are Real, too: A Brief Interjection



The conceit of this New Yorker cartoon is all too familiar. Our technology and in particular our relentless imaging of the world is not only redundant — the world is there there! Why photograph it?! — but fundamentally flawed. We are losing touch with what's real. We're choosing so-called virtual experience over presumed real experience. Such silly human beings! Such stupid human beings! And, worse, such immoral human beings!

But it seems to me that this argument — an argument that dates back at least to Plato and his cave — has a poor understanding of images, technology, the network, what's happening today, not to mention the nature of phenomenon itself.

Let's consider the situation in the cartoon. They are looking at the Statue of Liberty. Is this the first time they've seen it? Of course not. They may have never seen it with their eyes but they've seen it in words and movies. They come to it already knowing what it is, its place in the world, what it means. Like all monuments, the Statue of Liberty is always already seen, overdetermined, exhausted long before it's even been "seen."

So she takes a picture of it. Is this picture only a pale replica?  Is that really what this cartoonist believes images are? It seems to me that the image on the phone is another image, another thing — related, perhaps, to the image of the Statue of Liberty they see without the smartphone screen but nonetheless distinct. The smartphone image is literally something.  It's not even virtual. In fact, it's right here. Look.

The camera does not capture a moment. It creates a piece of the world by taking aspects of the moment — light, mist, the Statue — and assembling something new. I consider the photographer a sort of collagist, taking up pieces of the world and assembling them just so.

And the fact is I am sure her photograph of the Statue is better — more interesting, more engaging, more beautiful, more strange — than the Statue "itself."

Now, I am not saying they are the same thing. Or that everything about seeing the Statue without the screen is present in seeing the Statue in the screen. In fact, I am saying that they are two different things — intimately related, yes, but certainly distinct. The Statue, first of all, is much bigger than that little image on the screen. It has a grandeur, a visual weight, that the image doesn't have.

But the image is not simply a diminution of the real Statue. It is a perspective, a reckoning, an interpretation, an engagement. When I look at that tiny screen, I see more than the Statue. I see the impossibly complex act of making sense of the Statue. And that's a lot more interesting — hopefully! — than that big ol' Statue on its so-called own. (Nothing is ever on its own. All experience, all perception, is enmeshed in a vast trans-historical ever-shifting archive of ideology, memory, power, culture, desire.)

Of course, the image is not necessarily more interesting. Most people create lousy images, images less interesting than the images I see with my eyes sans screen.   (There's always a screen, in both senses of the word.) My point is this: there's seeing the the big statue and then there's seeing the little statue on the screen. These are two perceptive experiences of two more or less distinct things.

Images are not less real than things precisely because they are things, too.

So now the woman in the cartoon posts her picture on the Facebook — let's put aside the complexity of Instagram for the moment, of apps that inflect seeing in the process of seeing. And I re-photograph it in a new context using command-shift-4, being sure to include other items on my desktop.


Have we moved further away from the original? Has the presumed original experience paled in comparison to the clarity of that first experience, the one without a screen (that will never have been first because we've already seen it in books and such)? No, that's silly. There is no original image, no first image. What might that even be? Amniotic fluid? Light coming in through the vagina? It's an absurd question. It — life, perception — is all just images. More and more images. (But is it a photograph? The multimedia artist, Marc Lafia, asks this in all the images he makes.)

All the teenage girls with their phones out at the Justin Bieber concert recording the ambiguous tween as he saunters about may or may not be living in a virtual world (funny how the accusation changes from material to virtual — and somehow remains the same criticism!). But they are not (necessarily) avoiding life. On the contrary, with their smartphones in hand, they're making more of life.

And what of this image, re-imaged here, of people imaging an image (Bieber)?


Too many discussions of the image — and, in particular, of our lives commingling with them in this Connected Age — turn on the distinction between the real and the replica. But that is an ancient distinction not relevant to our hyperreal times. The question is not: Are we living the real? The question is: Are we living well?

12.21.2012

Reckoning Holidays

In my family, we don't ski. We talk; we whine; we argue. We do indoor activities.

My big brother, ever the rebel, defied this (despite talking, whining, and arguing more than any of us) and decided he'd learn to ski. After a few times, he told me he was theoretically capable of making his way down the mountain in one fell swoop.

But the idea of the whole mountain was too much. He could see, he could grasp, he could imagine part of the mountain. But not the whole thing. Not in one continuous gesture. The horizon of mountain's bottom was, to him, infinitely far away. The mere thought of it was sublime: too much to think, to process, to make sense of.

And so he chopped up this infinite horizon into discrete chunks he knew he could handle: as he navigated the incline, he'd throw himself to the snow now and again. He created an immediate horizon, a point he could reach — even if only with a crash.

I was in school for ages — with graduate school then teaching, I didn't finish school until I was 39. School time is punctuated with a bevy of meaningful milestones, one coming after the other. There's September and the beginning of the semester. The first week of classes — new students, new ideas. Then starting a new text — "Death of the Author," Ecce Homo, Cassavete's Faces. Papers — always papers. And then grading papers; then returning papers. Meanwhile, many small breaks — Columbus, Thanksgiving, MLK. And longer, more substantial breaks such as Winter and Summer.

A word on Fall break, those mysterious days in October where students and faculty alike are granted a respite for no apparent reason. When I was an undergrad, this was newly instituted and came about, it seems, because undergrads couldn't make it down the mountain that stretched from semester's start to Thanksgiving and so had a tendency to throw themselves to the ground, usually from high places.  Without some way of breaking up that span, some students preferred death.

Anyway, school afforded me many ways to make sense of time, all these little milestones marking achievement, time passed, new times to come. This made me indifferent to the more popular markers of time such as weekends, New Year's Eve, Christmas. Besides being a yid, what did I care about such brief breaks? I had Winter break which superseded both Christmas and New Year's Eve. Which meant I could ignore them and enjoy the distinctly academic punctuations of time.

And then I left the academy.  Suddenly, September has no particular meaning for me. There are no new texts to teach, no papers to assign or grade, no flow of new students. Just me amidst the abyss of time.

Now, people who work regular jobs have their well regulated ways of marking time. The most common one, of course, is the weekend. Work people love weekends, a brief break from soul death. And then there are the prescribed holidays — Thanksgiving, the week from Christmas to New Year's (for some), MLK day (for some). Man, it's depressing just writing it here. So work folks make their own little milestones — they'll take their vacation in June, a sick day in August, a personal day in October.

But I don't have a regular job. I work for myself (and, of course, for my clients). I don't have to be anywhere every day. Which also means I don't have weekends per se. In fact, I often get work done on the weekends when there are no clients to email or call me.

And I don't get holidays or paid vacation. This is not a complaint. On the contrary, I have much more free time than my working friends. My point is this: I don't have any external tempering of time.  The only real recurring milestone I have is when my kid stays with me and when he doesn't. But marking my time solely around that seems, well, sad.

With no prescribed markers of time, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed, my brother at the mountain's zenith looking down. Can I make it all the way to the end without a break? I don't think so. It's not that I don't know how to fill my time. I'm very good at that. Indeed, leisure suits me. No, it's not that I don't know what to do without a schedule; it's that I can't see myself living through the entirety of my life without more immediate horizons in view. I can't just keep doing this!

Can I find what I seek in the holidays that everyone seems to enjoy so much?

I've always liked Christmas. As a hebe, I have no obligations: no one's buying me presents and I have no presents to buy. No one is inviting me over; no one is wondering where I am. And everything is weird on Christmas as everyone else is busy doing whatever it is the goyim do. They even shut down the stores! Which makes the streets eery and beautiful. The city is mine! I can't treat it as any other day. And so I am free to play, decadently and fervently.

And I love this about Christmas. But, for me, it lacks the resonance of a new semester, starting a new book, turning in grades. Sure, I like the frivolity of Christmas day, my utter lack of responsibility. But I don't look forward to it. It never really appears on my horizon. Which is to say, it is not a viable marker of time for me.

Then there's New Year's.  It seems like an ideal holiday, a ready made ritual of renewal. Only, as we all know, it's an ugly holiday filled with forced glee and poor drinkers.  Last year, I tried to claim New Year's by ingesting this and that and taking myself to the ocean. And there, for a good 20 minutes or so, I reckoned the infinite and my place in it, how I related both to the cosmos and the machinations of the quotidian. Yes, I thought, yes! This is my marker of time, my resounding, resonant reckoning!

But then the echoing hoots and hollers of the deranged masses drowned out my reverie and I was back in the commercialized nonsense of prescribed time. Because, you see, I don't just want — need — markers of time. I need them to resonate with me, to be profound and meaningful.

New Years is 10 days away. Do I try again?  Or do I abandon these rituals devoid of resonance and try instead to invent my own? It is easier said than done.

In the meantime, I remain a man in search of temporal punctuation. Because there is no way I'm making it down the mountain in one fell swoop. 

12.10.2012

To Know is Not to Know

At first, I found myself writing that every moment overflows with information. But that's not right. Every moment has the exact right amount of information. What overflows is my capacity — and my will — to note it all, make sense of it all. To know the world is not to experience certain aspects of it.

This ignoring is not willful. Well, that's not quite right: everything you do is your will.  So, yes, it's willful. But it's not necessarily conscious. We don't actively select to heed this, ignore that. I mean, we may be discerning about certain things, choosing to ignore a lover's passive aggressive comment or a child's incessant babbling. But we don't even know how to see the infinite data of the moment.

We come to the world already not knowing aspects of it. To be this person is to ignore this information while that person ignores that information: we are a metabolic function of selection and distribution. Think about meeting someone new, someone from your work or family out of context. What do they consider something to know that you also consider something to know? This can be as explicit as Justin Bieber, Burning Man, "Deadwood." Wait, who? What? In this age of fracture and network, we are all adrift — and at home — in the cultural diaspora. We all know different things.

The world teems. Consider any moment — reading this right now, for instance. There are the words you're reading, of course. And then there's all the stuff around this post — lists and numbers and such. And each of these is part of a vast network of information that makes this data legible. On its own, "12.10.12" doesn't mean anything. And then there's the screen you're reading on. Besides the screen itself, the affect of its glow, the manner in which it presents data and the entire history of data presentation and the rise of screen culture, there are even more symbols and marks. I, for one, have a dock filled to the brim with a variety of images all trying to declare meaning. The circle with the music notation in it says more than, "I am iTunes." It says it in a certain way. And then there's the dissonance that iTunes is not just about music. In fact, I use mine mostly for interfacing with my phone. I like the word interface — it seems like an appendage for a post ego age. Not sure I like it as a verb, however. And yet I do like that we turn nouns into verbs — it makes a mockery of Heidegger: the moon moons, the screen screens (which it does! what a nice moment!). Which leads me, in its way, to all the information I have about Apple, about interfaces in general, about how product naming works. Which has me think about all my work projects — the things I am presently naming, the interfaces I am creating, the brands I am forging. I hear a siren. What kind? Fire truck, I think. Fire trucks are the first responders to 911 health calls as firemen are all trained as medics. I hear so many dogs, clearly all different sizes but to me they're just dogs. Oh, there's MUNI. I have yet to get to the sensations in my stomach, the nuances of my mood, the varied smells that waft about me — not  to mention the gin I'm drinking right now: St. George Dry Rye. I am knowing this gin in many ways, if you know what I mean. If I were to catalog the information of this moment — not make sense of it, just catalog it — it would a) be infinite; b) ignore another infinity of information; c) qualify me as insane; and d) make me insane.

In Borges' "Funes, the Memorious," Funes' memory is absolute: he retains everything that he sees, that he senses — every leaf, every shift of the clouds. He can't generalize — which is to say, he can't forget the differences between things. He becomes immobilized and dies at 19: "He seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred to me that each one of my words (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures." 

This is Nietzsche's argument, as well: to know is to forget, to ignore all the details, the differences, the divergences. We squint away the teeming flux in order to see categories, to see truth (see the perfect essay, "On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense"). Such is the very premise of our knowledge. The only way we can call a pit bull, a dachshund, and a german shepherd all dogs is that we ignore the differences between them.

I have had moments when I am overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of information that abounds. And I've seen others in this state and it's disconcerting, to say the least. I've seen friends out of their minds due to this or that and become muttering and drooling souls, their eyes as big as the sky, their cognition all too human. It's not a pretty sight but it is exquisite. And humbling.

And yet, even uglier, is the glaring blindness to difference, the all too human will to brush aside the details, to ignore the wealth of information that abounds. Between the ugliness of propriety and the madness of delirium, which do we pick?

Fortunately, that's a false dichotomy. It's not a matter of knowing more or less — after all, we're talking about infinite information — but a matter of how you know. What distinguishes one knowing from another is not the quantity but the quality of knowing. He who knows well knows differently, knows vitally, knows tastefully. Rather than subscribe to the known ways of forgetting, he invests new ways of forgetting, new modes of knowing and not knowing, elaborate, exquisite architectures that recast experience, concept, categories, difference. He makes poetry of his knowledge. Nietzsche calls this the gay science. 

12.07.2012

Knowing with Pleasure

There are certain facts that delight me. Starfish, for instance, are vicious predators that attack by inserting their stomachs into their prey —  mussels — and there and then digesting their catch. Or the etymology of the word doom (I thank the sophist and poet, Lohren Green, for this): what began as a way to signify justice became the annihilation of everything. Doom, alas, was doomed.

I love these facts. They're surprising. They open up worlds, generously giving a glimpse of a cosmos for which they are just one poignant moment. Suddenly, the oceans teem with a speed and madness I had not imagined as I see the history of the world in doom's demise.

But I want to talk about something else: I want to talk about how I know things. And I'm not talking about the sources of my knowing — documentaries on Netflix, books, articles on Yahoo. I am talking about the process I undergo as I come to know the world.

For the most part, I think it's safe to say that people don't usually consider how they know. They consider what they know (fly fishing! 18th century astrolabe makers! coffee varieties!). They might even consider the source of their knowing (Yahoo vs. "The New York Times" — as an aside, I'd take Yahoo). But they rarely consider their manner of knowing — what they consider as something to be known; how they distribute experience and category; their criteria for accepting something as true.

In college, I was a history major. This was partly because I had AP credit so placed out of some requirements (a good criterion for choosing a major — I'm serious). And because I'd had an excellent history teacher in high school (Robert Tucker —RIP, sadly).  But, holy moly, was history in college boring! Wars, treaties, presidents: who the hell cares?

I longed for something else, to know in a different way. What about everyday people? What were they thinking, experiencing, living? And then I read Michel Foucault and everything changed. He shifted the focus from official documents to the breadth of the archive — diaries, sketches, pamphlets, court hearings, architecture, etiquette manuals. Foucault considers things that were deemed irrelevant to knowledge, things that were not to be known.

And by shifting the focus, Foucault does more than shift the content of inquiry — he shifts the very mode of inquiry.  These different things demand a different way of knowing. Knowing tends to work vertically — working down from a category to an example (deduction) or moving up from the instance to the category (induction). But Foucault moves sideways. That is, rather than looking at this or that domain of knowledge — politics, military, philosophy —, he lets his eyes wander across domains and finds that piano legs, architecture, and the rise of sociology were all obsessively articulating sex. Vertical knowing no longer applies. Here, a different architecture of knowing is required.

What excited me when I read Foucault was not that I found it true. It's that I found it pleasurable.  I was downright giddy — and still am.  Oh, to run one's eyes over the voluptuous body of the archives, to find associations, connections and divergences, to recast the world: this is nothing less than an erotics of knowledge.

Foucault taught me the pleasure of knowing. I shifted my attentions from what we usually consider as things to know to things we consider unknowable — moods, architectures of the invisible, the speed and intensity of ideas. Figuring out how to know such things is in and of itself a delight. To weigh a mood and consider how it affects a space, people, myself; to let it drift and find concepts, books, moments; to not just react to a mood but engage it in multiple ways: this is an experience of delicate and resounding sumptuosity. The dance of mood, concept, and language is exquisite.

To know such things, I can't just apply categories — That's an ox! That's an asteroid! That's neo-noir! I have to be willing to move about, to sprawl laterally, diagonally, vertically, to go every which way making connections, creating categories, making new kinds of sense. And as I am not beholden to maintaining the integrity of a category, I can indulge inconsistencies, divergences, differences. Indeed, rather than excusing them as most knowing does — official knowledge disdains difference and exception — I relish them. My knowing is filled with qualifications, whispers and asides, nuance, uncertainty, even doubt, not to mention passion, pleasure, anecdote, delirium. 

In this way of knowing, I rarely take anything at its word — I don't care what the person's authority is. Unless, of course, I like what they say. So when I read that the American Medical Association considers abstinence from alcohol a risk for heart disease, I smiled. Do I think it's true? No. Do I think it's not true? No. I don't care either way. I just like that they said it. My criteria for truth do not involve truth at all. Facts either delight me, empower me, or enliven me — or I pay them no heed.

Do I jettison all aspects of truth? Of course not. I do certain things because I believe them. In fact, I do a lot of wacky stuff — mostly involving my health — based on certain truths that I have assumed.  For god's sake, I pour colloidal silver up my schnoz by the bucket. But I take these truths less as truths than as temporary solutions, moments of efficacy and delight, of wonder and healing.

Knowing with pleasure is not frivolous. It demands work. After all, I can't just listen to the doctor, my mother, to scientific studies. This mode of knowing is a full time job. I might say that my knowing is less about knowing per se than it is about living well. Indeed, my knowing is my living. So why not enjoy it?

12.04.2012

Knowing Knowing

Every time I get sick, I have a theory as to how it happened. It was the disgusting woman on the bus sneezing. It was stress from work. It was the resurgence of some dormant malady. I've noticed this is true of people in general: they claim to know how they got this or that ailment.  And then everyone — and I mean everyone — has a remedy: Echinacea, zinc, colloidal silver, sweat, don't sweat, chicken soup, garlic.

How do we know these things?

Sometimes, our knowing comes from a doctor. After all, doctors are supposed to know about such things. Knowing means being told by someone else who claims to know — and who we believe for whatever reason. In some sense, we don't know; it's the doctor who knows.

Me, I rarely believe my doctor: she doesn't seem to understand very much about how the world works. And as for all the germ stuff, well, it seems like a conveniently belligerent model that recapitulates our state apparatus: kill the bad terrorist germs!  I see viruses and bacteria as a necessary but not sufficient condition of sickness.

How do I know this? Well, it's a complex process that's at once physical and reflective: I let the idea play through my body and mind, process it with what I know, my history, my experiences. And based on this elusive calculus, I tell myself: It's the stress! I go with the answer that just feels right.  But am I the best reader of my body? And does this count as general knowledge, as something that is true for anyone but me?

Sometimes, I read things on Yahoo! And while I may or may not enjoy the article, I rarely believe it. Who's Yahoo! anyway?  Once, I read an article claiming that men who masturbated often on their 20s were less likely to have prostate cancer later in life. Within weeks of that article, there was another one claiming that drinking alcohol was good for the heart. And I thought to myself: Now this is knowledge I can get behind!  Did I believe it? No. But nor do I not believe it. I do, however, like it.

How, then, do we know what we know?  And why don't we talk about how we know? We talk about what we know all the time. For instance, there is debate as to what students should be taught about Christopher Columbus: Is he a hero or a genocidal killer? And while these arguments focus on aspects of what we know, they never consider the way we know.

Knowing is not neutral or natural. We are taught how to know, albeit it unknowingly. Sure, we'll argue about Christopher Columbus but we never argue about how we know Christopher Columbus — or whether he's even worth knowing about. We know unknowingly.

Usually, those things we never consider as something to consider are the things ideology most wants to protect and should therefore be considered all the more. Indeed, one component of the way we know is that we don't consider the way we know, that we consider our way of knowing natural. Another way of knowing might know otherwise and consider the manner of knowing a critical component of a way of knowing: a self-reflexive knowing. 

Knowing demands a series of inter-related actions that are psycho-ideological. Which is a convoluted way of saying that how you know is constitutive of how you are in the world (psycho-) — and how the world wants you be (ideological). 

Knowing of course involves determining what counts as something to be known. This is different than the debate on Christopher Columbus in which the very premise of the debate is a common belief that Columbus is something even worth discussing. Indeed, it would be absurd to suggest otherwise. Such is the insidious way of ideology: to think otherwise is to be insane, absurd, or criminal (pace Foucault). Before we begin knowing, then, we already know. We know, for instance, that scientific studies are something worth knowing. We know that wars are something we should study. We carefully heed and parse presidential proclamations — we even make our children memorize them.

But the fluctuation and operation of moods? Nope — that's not a subject we can ever know about, not really. A doodle by an unknown person from 1863? Might be cool but it won't tell us anything — nothing as important as the Gettysburg Address. Everyone knows that, right?

A way of knowing distributes experience and category in its own way. For instance, there is deduction and induction: We begin with a category and deduce how an experience fits it. Or we begin with experiences and see what kind of categories we might make.

But there are ways of knowing that might have no categories, neither deduction nor induction, that move laterally rather than vertically. I co-founded a website many years ago, ArtandCulture, in which we presented a hierarchy of artists alongside an artist cloud. Pinback, for instance, was in Music > Indie but was also in a nebulous cloud that included Alonzo King Lines Ballet and Picasso — that is, a lateral association formed by affective resonances — horizontal associations rather than vertical hierarchies.  

And then there is how we decide something is true. Usually, we lean on authority: the doctor told me, the scientist told me, the teacher told me. But the criteria for truth can be elusive  — and may not involve truth. When I try to figure how I got sick, I look for an answer that works for me, not an answer that's true. Is this a kind of truth? Perhaps. But I'm willing to abandon it for a better working answer — and I'm not sure truth is something one can jettison.

I like to imagine a protean mode of knowing — a manner of taking up the world that shifts according to circumstance. And that doesn't need to be true. And, in fact, doesn't need to know anything at all — a non-knowing knowing. 

12.02.2012

Teaching, Violence, Enticement, Performance

Teaching, at first glance, may seem simple: it's just a matter of moving the student from one state to another. Show the student a map, tell him how to get there, and voilà: the student is taught.

But, alas, the situation is much trickier — and much stranger — than that. Because it's not a matter of moving students from, say, San Francisco to Lima. It's matter of moving students from the very people and world they think they know to an alternate dimension of space-time that they not only never imagined but never could have imagined. And where what it means to be and the very ways of knowing the world are, well, different. There is no map teachers can give their students — at least not one that's legible. 

Learning is impossible and actual. It involves an infinite movement from one state of being to another. And yet this infinite space is traversed — maybe not all the time but often. I remember my son muttering nonsense and then, behind everyone's back, speaking words. It was a miracle of sorts — a miracle that happens for babbling human idiots, more or less, every day. Still, I am completely overwhelmed by this: how can "da da da da" become, "Dada"? One is a series of sounds; the other is a conjuring of concepts, history, human beings. (For the moment, I'll avoid the complexities of learning one's first language. I always found Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations smart on this subject.)

There are no clear steps that can lead the student from point A to point B. Sure, there are signposts along the way. But, at some point, signposts disappear and the student must take the leap — Carlos at the end of Tales of Power leaping off the cliff: "Then a strange urge, a force, made me run him to the northern edge of the mesa. I felt his arm holding me as we jumped and then I was alone."

And then I was alone: this is the requisite state of learning. It happens alone. You can only be lead so far before you have to make the jump on your own.  

What, then, is the teacher to do? What is his role? How does he have the student take this jump?

There is the so-called Socratic method. But Socrates had only one goal: to have everyone recognize that they know nothing. His method leads to zero. After all, his model is premised on a suspect assumption: that we already know everything and hence learning is just remembering. I, on the other hand, believe learning is overcoming oneself and one's knowledge to become — and know — differently. So let's put aside Socrates for the moment and look at teaching methods. 

Well, there is the common approach violence. That is, force students to jump. Give exams. Pop quizzes. Try to make students take that leap. Scare them into it with police action: Learn or be punished!

Of course, this often backfires as students learn how to master the test without making any leap at all.  Just because you can pass a test doesn't mean you've learned a thing — other than how to take the test. Which is not a completely irrelevent skill. Nevertheless.

At some point in my college career — mid-junior year — I refused to take any more exams. I'd write papers, gladly. But I would not take any tests. When I was given tests in required courses, I'd flip them over and write essays. And, because there is such a fear of failing students at Ivy League schools, I'd pass. (I tried to fail a couple of times but, uh, failed.)

And then, when I became a professor, I refused to give exams — at least exams that tested students' ability to memorize facts. My exams, when I had to give them, asked things like, "In Phaedrus, is Socrates serious or not?" This drove a certain kind of student crazy. "What do you want, Professor Coffeen?" I want you to think differently, to think as you've never thought before. And, in the process, try to teach me something I've never known.

But the question remains: How does a teacher get students to move from their present state to a state of being they never could have imagined?

Well, I think believe there is always a certain violence to pedagogy. For me, violence took the form of repetition: I'd say the same thing over and over again as if, through sheer force, I could drill the ideas into their minds and bodies. And, come to think if it now, I may have used a kind of intimidation, putting students on the spot, taking their comments and questions to task in front of the class — a whiny Jewish version of John Houseman in "The Paper Chase" (in my no doubt megalomaniacal imagination).



But I believe there is another technique:  to make this new world look and sound and feel so tempting that students want to take the leap, want to leave behind their tired old ways of doing things. That is, to seduce them, to entice them. Now, I know I'm opening myself up to all kind of jokes, criticisms, and, were I still teaching, law suits. Please note, however, that I'm not talking about physical coitus. I'm talking about enticing students to take a leap — a leap that is scary, unsure, and disorienting.

So why make this leap?  Because there is the promise of something better on the other side. John Houseman, in his way, tries to entice students with the promise of nobility. When you know as I know, he implies, you too will be wise and grand. His teaching is more than an imparting of knowledge; it is a call to become otherwise — in his case, wise and noble.

But while we tend to think of knowing — of learning — as a duty, pedagogic enticement need not promise nobility. We tend to neglect the sheer pleasure of knowing — and, even more, the pleasure of modes of knowing.  It's not just the knowledge that delights us but the very manner in which we know. We imagine that knowledge is something we have rather than something we are. This is Nietzsche's great lesson: the way we know, the very manner in which we make sense of the world, is who we are. Knowing is not something extraneous to our becoming; it is constitutive of it.

And so rather than say, Come hither and be wise, as Houseman does, the teacher might say, Come hither and play. It's so sumptuous over here — to know like this, to live like this. To know in this way is so alluring, so delicious, so delectable, so pleasurable that students are willing to be confused and risk getting a C on a paper.

This no doubt demands something strange of teachers. They are no longer gatekeepers to a certain knowledge but proxies for a certain way of living.  Which is to say, the teacher is no longer a conduit of knowledge but is himself a body that knows — and hence lives a certain way. And teaching becomes a matter of performance, of living through a mode of knowing.  

In some sense, teaching is impossible as it turns on students learning — and learning is something done alone. Which leaves the teacher is a strange position. Try to make students learn. Or entice them to learn. And enticing in turns, demands the teacher to teach more than data: it demands he put on the life he promises.  

11.20.2012

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I grew up with a certain narrative of myself, of how I got from point A to point B, of why I'd made the decisions I'd made, of who I was and my motivations along the way.

This story changed radically, however, about 36 years into it. Which means I moved blindly along an accepted narrative trajectory for much longer than I should have. Frankly, it's rather humiliating.

There I was, cruising along with the same story playing through my head, a story told to me by my mother since I was a child. And it became a story I told myself. But it turned out this was really her narrative, the story she needed to tell herself to explain me to her. It had some to do with me but not a whole lot.

So why did I believe? Well, because she was my mother. And it was a nice story.  I wanted to believe it.

But it could not hold. Things started happening to me — ferocious things — that just didn't make sense, didn't sync, with my narrative.

You see, I was told I was a nice boy. I imagined I had friends, that despite my penchant for rude, dismissive, obnoxious rants, I was still somehow, well, charming and interesting. And while I may once in a while be "too much," I was still a nice boy so all was forgiven.

Oy, was I wrong. It turns out my know-it-all conceit and intellectual bullying combined with an aggressive propensity to offend social sensibilities was not charming or interesting. It was, and remains, assholish.

This was a startling fact to suddenly realize (yes, I brazenly split my infinitives): I am not, nor have I been, a nice boy. In fact, I've been an asshole for most, if not all, of my life. It was like the end of The Sixth Sense: he's dead all along! And you suddenly reread the entire film in light of this revelation and it all makes sense. This was me: I've been an asshole all along! And I found myself rereading my life, all those relationships and encounters, and it all made sense!

Now, please understand, this was not a harrowing moment — startling, yes, but not harrowing. And, in saying this, I am not asking for someone to say, "Oh, you're not really an asshole." On the contrary! I am relieved as my assholeness explains so much. I am grateful for this revelation. And, no, not because I can now mend my ways and become a nice boy. But because now I can embrace my asshole ways and adjust my readings of my place in the world accordingly. It's actually quite beautiful.

In any case, my point is not about whether I'm an asshole or not (what is an asshole? What do I mean by asshole? This is a matter for another time). My point is this: We tell ourselves stories to make sense of our place in this life, to explain what we should do, to explain others' reactions, to explain our own reactions. And we can forget that they are stories, that they are interpretations. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious douchebag, we are text.

Which is to say, we are other to ourselves. Our lives ask — demand — to be read. Now, I was about to say it demands to be read just as we read any text. But that's absurd. My life — all the things that have happened to me — and the latest Houellebecq novel are quite different.  But their difference is a matter of degree, not a matter of kind. Both are texts only they have different resonances — and different ways of resonating — with our bodies and ways of going.

(My reading of Houellebecq has reoriented my life in nearly as dramatic fashion as my reading of my own life — if not more. In fact, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories we read — in novels, philosophy, film, the media — begin to mix, to conspire into a common network of stories: a story of stories. Enter Debord, amongst others. So careful what you ingest — and how you ingest it.)

Since my revelation seven or so years ago, I have become a more active, vigilant reader of my narrative. And this is how it should be. After all, the past does not determine the future. I am tempted to say the contrary: our present recasts our past and, in so doing, reorients our future. And as the events of our present are always changing, necessarily, then our narratives are always changing. It's like a network of threads — a web — and how I toss it, cast it, gesture with it now reshapes the entire thing, backwards and forwards.

This reshaping — this reorienting — is relentless. We are constantly recasting ourselves and it's gorgeous.

11.11.2012

Arguments Are Boring

Back when I was teaching, the first rule of my class was: There is no arguing with me. Now, this would promptly prompt a certain reaction from a certain breed of so-called good student: Coffeen is so conceited! He thinks he's right! Which is hilarious for multiple reasons, most notably, because, well, uh, I was the fucking professor so, yes, I think I'm right. (While I miss many things about teaching, the assumed self-entitlement of students is not one of them.)

What made my rule particularly alarming — and presumably disarming — to these students was that these were rhetoric courses. And, to this certain breed of student, rhetoric is about debate, the art of arguing an issue. But the thing is: I have a very different view of what an argument is. (And as I was the professor, I got to teach my world view, however unfair students found this.)

To argue about something, in the traditional sense of the word, assumes that there is an initial agreement about the issues at hand, that the debaters share a common ground. How could either party take sides if there was not a prescribed space with sides to begin with? 

And, in my class at least, how could we possibly share a common space? After all, the students haven't yet been introduced to the new space. That's what the class is for. So what's there to argue about? Nothing at all. So I asked students not to spend their energy understanding rather than arguing.  For my course — like any real course, I assume — not only introduced a new space but a different conception of space. 

Here, in this rhetorical space, there is no established common ground ever or anywhere. Yes, there is this world. But we necessarily know it — see it, think it, speak it — from our particular vantage point. There are no grand issues that stand outside time and space. Everything is historical. Everything is perspectival.

Everything, in fact, is an argument. This is not to say that everything is contentious — that is only one possible mode of an argument. No, an argument is the assertion of a perspective. And everything — every person, rock, idea, pixel, mood — is the assertion of a perspective. Each thing — visible or invisible, organic or inorganic — declares: I go like this! 

The world is an infinite proliferation of perspectives, each thing declaring in an impossibly complex baroque harmony — equal parts resonance and dissonance — I go like this! So what's there to argue about? 

Of course, there are some things that say: I go like this so you should go like this! We call these fascists or cancer or sanctimonious pricks or moral, faux religious douchebags. And they often need to be dealt with — but not argued with.

The thing is, students are often taught that a good student argues, giving the teacher a run for his money. We get this, I believe, from a crappy reading of Plato. Socrates seems to argue with folks and, at the end, they've learned! But that's not what happens in those dialogues at all. Socrates just nudges everyone until they're no longer sure of themselves — and then everyone walks away knowing nothing. That is, Socrates uses argument not as a way to know but as a way not to know.

Now, a contentious argument may be fun for some people. They enjoy getting all worked up, feeling like there is a right and wrong. And you know what? This can be a productive release for all of us at some point or another. But as an essential element of education? Egad, no!

Few things are as soul crushingly boring as a contentious argument. Both parties get all worked up, spewing this and that, each getting more pissed off at the other. The so-called debate around the so-called issue of abortion is a great example (I still can't get over that it's called "abortion" — the stopping of something in progress. Shift focus to the woman's menstrual cycle, for instance, and it's no longer an abortion but a renaissance. Anyway....). The so-called pro-life movement and the so-called pro-choice movement are not speaking to each other. From the perspective of each, the other is insane. What's there to argue about?

This is the reason for a structured legal system: it creates a common space that allows contentious argument to take place.  But outside of the courtroom? Arguments get everyone involved nowhere at all. If I don't like someone's way of going, if I find it destructive or ugly, I walk away. Indifference can be quite powerful — at least in maintaining one's well being. 

Are there situations in which an argument needs to be met head on, when waking away just feeds it? Of course. This is what political resistance is all about. To wit, Occupy's reaction to unfettered capitalist greed. Occupy didn't argue. It, well, occupied — which is to say, it went a certain way that interfered with the way capitalism goes (capitalism demands labor and unquestioned consumption; occupy refused both). 

Now, I never asked my students to agree with me or like me or adhere to my world view. I could care less either way. But I did ask that they understand what I was saying. And arguing doesn't lead to understanding — or to much of anything other than ruddy cheeks and sweaty pits while adding just a little more bile and banality to the world. 

11.02.2012

On Language, Texting, & Being

I can speak some French. I took it all through school but learned it mostly when writing my dissertation which involved several French books that were, at the time, not yet translated. And for the books that were translated, I read the French not for accuracy per se but to get a sense for the writing — its style, its rhythm, its mode of being. 

Now, I love translations. I find the act of translation as amazing and erotic (such intimacy with another) as it is impossible (however actual). Nevertheless, the two books side by side — one in English, the other in French — are two different characters.

Anyway, at that point, my French wasn't terrible (this was 15 years ago).  But I refused to speak it. Uttering the words contorted my body, and my self, in ways that just never felt right. Even before hearing the words leave my mouth, as my mind and throat and mouth twisted and pleated to mutter, "Oui, et tu?" everything in me would begin to recoil as if I'd ingested some poison.

We imagine, perhaps, that language is a tool much as, say, a hammer is. I want to express myself so I grab this or that word and, voilà, I've communicated.

But that's not how language works. Language inhabits us, infiltrating our thoughts and bodies, coercing ideas and movements, choreographing our experiences. This is why William Burroughs calls language a virus: it lives in us, it needs us, it feeds on us.  No, language is not a tool: it is a miasmatic, hegemonic control force.

And each language is different, asks different things of us — the French tu wants something different from me than the German du and, in the process, makes something different of me. In college, my friend Matthew took the intro to several languages. In each class, students chose a name in the language of that class and Matt, to get in character, chose a different name for each. Walking through campus with him was strange as random students would address him alternately as Wolfgang, Wang, Esteban, Pierre, Achmed. 

When I was in grad school, I had to prove proficiency in two languages so, other than French, I chose classical Greek.  Or, rather, I tried to.

Berkeley has these language workshops over the summer. The Greek workshop is, in very small, nerdy circles, legendary.  The class meets six hours a day, five days a week, for 10 weeks. That's not so bad until you take into consideration the homework — it takes another 4-6 hours a day. I, of course, didn't believe them when they told me this. If they say 4-6, they really mean around two hours, maybe. I've always been fast like that.

Oh, was I wrong. Classical Greek is a beast of, well, mythological proportions, endlessly inflected with only general rules to guide you. So you simply have to memorize them all (simple, yes; easy, no — a crucial distinction). And it tore me asunder. In three days. At the end of which, I found myself on a curb, weeping. I'm not kidding. The language wanted all of me. It was literally killing me. So I took German — four hours a day, five days a week, eight weeks. And about an hour of homework. Really.

Now, after Greek, German was easy. Still, I found it exceedingly difficult to speak — not because it's a hard language but because I couldn't find myself in it. It wanted me to be something else, someone else. As the class involved a lot of conversation, this posed a particular challenge for me.

So I let the German wind through me until it found a voice. And what it found, to this day, surprises me: it found some fey, Weimar, proto-SS gay dude. All semester, I spoke German in this demented drawl verging on falsetto. My classmates, I assume, loathed me — and rightfully so. I'm not sure where it even came from — some distant memory of watching Cabaret?

Which brings me to textese — that language of abbreviation, icons, and emoticons: LOL, brb, ppl, diff, probly, u.  Now, I love much of this language. Or, rather, I love that this language exists, that one language has been distributed by a technology and birthed a new language, a language within the language. But of course that's all language is: lots of little languages (Deleuze and Guattari might call these "minor" languages).

There are people who mock and disdain textese as some sort of bastardization or dumbing down. That's absurd and, well, stupid. There is no such thing as "real" language. So much of the so-called grammatical rules are arbitrary or, rather, ideological. They try to keep subjects in their place and everything qualified just so with nothing left to dangle. So-called proper English is uptight, antiquated bourgeois English.  It's meant to be broken, tweaked, distorted for other ends and purposes. Enter textese.

And yet I refrain from "speaking" this minor language. I type out "you" and "people" and "probably." I don't write, LOL. I write, "That's hilarious."  At least usually I do.  I have found that occasion has demanded something different so I've been know to write, "Ha!" Which is my attempt at finding myself amidst these currents of SMS. 

My resistance is neither ideological nor aesthetic. I have no moral problem with textese and I find much of its patois charming. No, I can't do it for the same reason I can't speak French: textese wants me to be something, to be someone, I am not. A 23 year old girl? A high school dude from Fremont? I don't know. But I do know that it has yet to find a place within me.

And so, perhaps foolishly, I am left typing the language of textese's more formal forefathers. But such is my character: I like to sprawl, to whisper asides, to carry on in would-be purple splendor. And textese, for all its charms, will not have none of that. Alas, then, I speak what I am. And vice versa.

10.20.2012

Empiricism, or Leaning into the World

To be empirical, we imagine, is to be rigorously materialist: we know only what we can sense — with our five senses. Any shenanigans about ghosts or spirits or mysterious cosmic forces is the stuff of superstition, of mysticism.

But my empirical experience certainly exceeds my five senses. All kinds of things happen to me that I don't see, smell, touch, hear, or taste but which I sense — and know. Take this common experience: when you know — yes, know — that someone is looking at the back of your head.

Or when you walk in a restaurant — or classroom, movie theater, anywhere — and just feel funny sitting in a certain seat. Or when there's suddenly a very strange mood over the city coupled with even stranger behavior. Or when you're thinking of a friend you haven't spoken to in ages, who lives clear across the country, and she suddenly calls you. 

One of my favorite Castaneda moments is when Don Juan and Carlos walk into the chaparral for their appointment with knowledge. Don Juan asks Carlos to choose the place to sit; Carlos looks about, befuddled as usual.  He chooses a spot — then Don Juan corrects him before identifying the place of power.  Don Juan, despite how he's been read and positioned, is not a mystic: he's am empiricist. He doesn't tell Carlos the secrets of the universe: he teaches Carlos how to operate within the wonder of the universe.


Some of these experiences are extraordinary, standing out from the quotidian wash. But experiences such as these happen all the time, every day, all day — from dreams to the flux of moods to synchronous moments to the odd sensations that seem to fill a space, a street, a room to the seemingly simple task of choosing a seat.

My point is this: the experience of everyday life is literally wonderful. Now, I believe this is the first time I've written this word — wonderful — and I don't think I've ever uttered it outloud but it is the right word: full of wonder, full of wondering, full of considering how things happen and not demanding a final answer but enjoying the ambiguities.

How do I know someone is looking at the back of my head? Well, we could wonder about that all day and come up with dozens of theories. And all of them would be beautiful, some of them silly, some of them persuasive, some of them dogmatic. But there would still be wonder.

This is what the empiricist does: he wonders about things. But not in a vacuum. No, he wonders about experience, following it wherever it takes him. He doesn't stop where his five senses stop: he keeps going into uncharted territory, into qualitative territory, into terrains that can't be readily measured and weighed but are no less real, no less empirical, for it.

Because these experiences are most certainly sensed. They occur here and now. They reverberate throughout our bodies and beings, even if we can't see them. You see your girlfriend with another guy or, more optimistically, you converse with an exquisite young lady you've never met but who makes your heart go pitter, then patter, and everything about you changes — and in ways that can't be thoroughly reduced to physiology.

Why would you even want to perform such a reduction? What a strange instinct! No, the empiricist is generous, seeking to give the sensual world its want, letting it frolic and meander in invisible cities, rather than binding it with known categories and numbers. 

Now, those who profess belief in mysticism repeat the ideology of the material empiricist: they assume there is one kind of experience that is material and then another kind that is of another plane — the spirit plane, the alien plane, the magical plane.

But there is no fundamental division. Experience is always strange, always alien, precisely because we are of time. We are always changing, always morphing, and so the new is always happening — even if, at times, it's very, very subtle.  The world is not a stable object to be studied. It's an event that's lived through.

And these events are at once visible and invisible, terrestrial and cosmic, material and eidetic, human and alien, organic and inorganic, articulate and inchoate.  To live through this world is move through its visible as well as its invisible terrains. This is all empirically constituted by multiple planes of experience, even if many of these planes can't be quantified. 

The true empiricist does not — cannot — divide material and immaterial experience. The true empiricist dives into the fray because he is always and already of the fray. When he has a strange sensation of some friend living somewhere else, he he does not dismiss or reduce it. On the contrary, he leans into it. That is his way of empirical knowing. 

The world, empirically, is bizarre. There is no known world on one side and a secret, magical world on the other. What we consider known is, in fact, much more wonderful than we suppose. And what we delegate a mystical secret is actually right here, right now. Just look — with all your senses.  Then lean into it.

10.14.2012

Of Solitude


Here is something I've discovered about myself  — which is such a strange sentence: Who is it that discovers this something if not me? Anyway, here's what I discovered: when too many people want a piece of me — friends, lovers, clients — I become unglued. The relentless dings of that god forsaken phone become my undoing, my drawing and quartering, each vibrate a burden of unfathomable weight crushing me.

And I get nasty as each request seems like a threat to my very existence — as if these innocent demands of my friends, lovers, even clients might tear me asunder, scattering my very atoms to the ether. 

On the other hand, when I withdraw long enough from the social teem — which I often do —, I notice that my phone stops dinging and then a bit of panic settles in: Maybe I don't exist? 

Alas, negotiating the social is a perpetual endeavor. After all, the borders that separate you from me are porous from the get go. I am never wholly me and you are never wholly you. We are, quite literally, made of each other — physically, existentially, emotionally.

There is no pure individual per se: to be alive is to be connected to the world, to take in air and food and language and ideas. All my ideas, all my words, all my self pereception is informed at every turn by my history, my environment, my class, my experiences, my interactions with others.  The point is this: if I am not really an individual, how am I — in Nietzsche's words — to become myself? 

In Fear and Trembling — a funny, smart, moving, and perhaps surprisingly readable little book —, Kierkegaard considers Abraham and Isaac. What blows Kierkegaard away, what confounds him no end, is Abraham's reaction to the whole business of being asked to kill his only son (the "only" seems redundant, doesn't it? I mean, if he had six sons, would it make it any easier?).

Abraham doesn't blink. He doesn't whine or question. And, above all, he doesn't talk to anyone else about it, including his wife, Sarah. How could he? She, and everyone else, would have no choice but to consider him insane, a would-be murderer. This, then, is God's test: Will Abraham take leave of the social, of the ethical, of all things that tether him to his place in this world? Will he be an individual, alone on the mountain top, not just willing to do this terrible act but affirming this terrible act — this absurd act?

Kierkegaard — or, rather, Kierkegaard's pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio — declares over and over again: either Abraham is a nut job, a murderer, a loon — or the father of faith.  

And hence Kierkegaard's definition of faith: we have faith not despite the absurd but on the strength of the absurd. Reagardless of the inane, demented ramblings of the so-called religious in this country, faith does not bind us. On the contrary, faith bypasses the social, giving the individual a direct relationship with the universal.

All my social forays will not afford me a glimpse of — not to mention participation with— the universal. What do I mean by "universal"? Well, I'm not talking about a universal truth or god. I am talking about participating in the infinity of becoming, that surge of the cosmos that sweeps us up, that surges through us and with us. (While this may happen with another person, it is not something someone else does for you.)

This may seem like an oxymoron: to be myself, to be an individual, I must join the becoming of the cosmos.  But it only seems like an oxymoron because we tend to think in terms of dichotomies: either I'm an individual or I'm connected. When the fact is I am always already both and neither. 

None of this is to disparage or belittle the social. That would be silly. But it is to suggest that the social does not suffice. That to look for confirmation of who I am from others leads to pervasive neuroses, to jealousy, insecurity, resentment. 

Now, solitude need not happen only when one is alone. It is something you can carry with you everywhere. And this is what really amazes Kierkegaard: Abraham comes down from Mt. Moriah and joins the social once again. He does not go to the desert alone to meditate or flee. He does not take a vow of silence and live in a monastery. No, he remains silent about what he did on the mountain but talks the language of the social everyday with those around him.

Abraham is what Kierkegaard calls a knight of faith, having a direct relationship to the universal while participating in the social. With each step he takes, he walks into the infinite and back. He does not identify himself with being a web designer, a lawyer, a chef — although he may love being one. He affirms himself amidst the fray not as this or that person but as an exquisite absurdity, as something that makes no sense, this is not identifiable in conventional terms, as someone extraordinary, someone that can leave the social behind — and yet who lives joyfully in the social!

This, I believe, is the trick to it all — to becoming oneself as well as to helping create a more livable social world: to carry solitude with me all the time whether I am cloistered in my odd little house, lying in bed next to a woman, or walking amidst the droves on Market Street.

Of course, learning to carry this solitude may take some actual solitude. It may take developing the fortitude of being alone, of not having the distraction of social drama, of defining oneself and one's time by whether she likes you or he's available to hang out. It may take learning to actually enjoy yourself, alone and profoundly. It may take a certain wallowing in oneself, in one's weft and stench. But being alone is not the same as carrying one's solitude. To affirm oneself absolutely as this way of going is a continuous internal movement. Alas, living alone will not suffice.  

To enjoy solitude is not to flee the social but to live more thoroughly with the social as an individual, to feel less threatened by its demands and requests. And perhaps even be a better citizen for it as, hopefully, I won't live and die by the fickle crowd and can hence be more generous. It's not a matter, then, of either being alone or being social. It's a matter of how best to live with the world.

10.07.2012

The Glorious Mess of Communication


Sometimes, we get frustrated trying to express ourselves. We can't find the right words. We end up sounding like we're pissed off when we're not. Misunderstandings lead to all sorts of problems with lovers, mothers, co-workers, children.

We imagine communication as a linear process in which meaning loses its valence as it makes its way from me to you. It goes something like this: Me > Meaning > Words > You. This model assumes an awful lot:
  • That there is a me — some singular, unified Me that has something called intention;
  • That meaning is singular — as if I have one thing to say;
  • That meaning is the goal of communication — and not, say, feelings or mood;
  • That words' job is to carry meaning — and this container, we assume, doesn't suffice;
  • That you are a you — and, anyway, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
     Alas, I don't assume any of these things. I assume:
    • That there is no one me — I am many forces, most of which exceed me;
    • That meaning is always multiple — we mean many things at once;
    • That there are aspects to communication other than meaning — affect carries the day;
    • That words don't carry meaning — words are themselves powerful bodies with histories;
    • And you are a lot more than you — I hope.

    Let me explain.
    When I speak or write or gesture, a veritable chorus of forces, voices, tics, memories, and ghosts have their say in the same breath. This is to say, when I speak, there is no singular, intentional being thoroughly in control. No, I am a node within a vast network of personal, cultural, historical, and cosmic forces that flow through me, a swirl of desires that exceed me and speak through me.

    This is not to say that there is no intention. Clearly, there is something we call intention. But this intention is only one component within an event that far exceeds anything I intend to say. In Annie Hall, Annie says to Alvy, "Well, she [a shrink] said that I should probably come five times a week. And you know something? I don't think I mind analysis at all. The only question is, Will it change my wife?" This is a so-called Freudian slip. Which, I ask, is Annie's intention — wife or life? Or both? Forces within us, and which we are not aware of, have their intentions, too.

    Now, usually, we mean a lot of things simultaneously. When a spouse curtly utters, Fine, what does he or she mean? Well, lots of things including it's fine and it's not fine.

    We communicate much more than meaning. We convey mood, attitude, belief, affect. When we converse, we inundate and are inundated with information — with meaning, with so-called sub-texts, with sensations and fears and feelings. Communication expresses more than meaning: it expresses a relationship to meaning.



    There is a lot going on in any communication — a TV ad, a stranger's glance, a conversation with your mother — other than the conveyance of meaning. Just consider irony, sarcasm, sincerity or, my favorite, phatic expression, those ums, ahs, and what was I gonna says? that keep communication open without uttering any meaning at all. Communication is not as much the conveyance of meaning as it is the inflection of meaning.

    And what about those pesky words? Well, words are not neutral containers of meaning. Words are excessive, brimming with histories and etymologies, with connotations and denotations, with a prism of senses. Junk sick dawn, uttered by William Burroughs, means one thing. Junk sick dawn uttered by your truly, means something else entirely. Rather than read this as a lack, we can read this a fecundity: one word, one phrase, births multiple worlds.

    Now, as for you hearing and understanding what I say, well, you're a complex of forces and desires just as this so-called I am.

    This leaves us with a very different image, a different model, of communication. Communication doesn't move from point A to point B, as if I were an archer trying to hit his bullseye. Communication is a moving network, a miasma, a cooperative and disjointed event in which something that is me, something that is you, and everything that is language, culture, history all conspire to make this event which will never have been one. Communication breeds multiplicity. It's not a matter of planting my feet in order to hit my target. It's a matter of leaping — or tiptoeing, shuffling, cannon balling — into the fray.  

    Sure, this sometimes makes living amongst other people difficult — I try to say something nice but she reads it as being aloof. But if we all remember that communication is not linear, that I am not me and you are not you, that there is so much between us and that this in-between is fecund, overflowing with information and wonder, then perhaps we can be less frustrated, less judgmental, and most importantly, more aware of the incredible richness of communication. Perhaps then we can embrace this glorious mess.

    10.03.2012

    The Possibilities of Theory

    The world teems. As Nietzsche says of nature, it is "boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain." There is no higher order, no "laws of nature" as if there was some great legislator ordering it all.  Culture neither progresses no regresses. It just morphs, always. The world does what it does: it's all one great, infinitely complex swirl of stuff and events.

    Day to day, we see things according to well enculturated schemas. Those there, those are men; and those, they're women. But, sometimes, we get a glimpse of the arbitrariness of gender, we truly see — we know — that they are just bodies more or less motion, all different. Taken together, they form diverse and various zones of intersection and divergence: a veritable lava lamp Venn diagram.

    We see this amorphic flux of all things and sense the grand merciless indifference of the cosmos. It is an exquisite, humbling, and terrifying experience.

    And then, perhaps, we see other ways of ordering these flows.  Men and women? Really? How odd. Look again and you'll see a breadth of genders. Or a fluidity of gender that is not part of a body, not immanent to you or I, but that flows like a force between us, through us, taking us up for a bit. Or we see swirls, sexual marbling. Or....what?

    That "or" is affirming. That "or" is life. That "or" is theory.

    All knowledge is a way of assembling, of distributing, the merciless, purposeless flux of Nature.  Science studies the flow and then, sometimes, says: This is the way it is. Here are the hidden orders. Philosophy, too, shares this tendency: This is what truth is, what morality is, what freedom is, what being is.

    And then there's theory. Theory is less sure of itself. Where science and philosophy have a tendency to write in ink, theory writes in pencil.  Theory is, well, theoretical.

    Theory gives us different lenses with which to see the world, to make sense of it. Of course, science and philosophy create theories, too. This is my favorite part of each: when they don't claim to know but suggest, hey, the world is 11 or eight dimensions. Or: Being is defined by nothingness. Or: there is no being, only becoming. Or...or...or. I love looking over my bookshelves and seeing this proliferation of possibilities, of universes, all of them and none of them true. As if they were all in one eight page Borges story. 

    From one angle, theory is art. It gathers this and that, propositions and events, things and tendencies, and weaves them together into some shape.

    Theory, like art, is a mode of making sense that enjoys the practice of making sense.

    When I taught theory to MFA fine art students, I didn't teach it as a way to explain or understand art. I taught this or that theory as a confrontation with this or that art. Each class, we'd read and discuss a text and see and discuss art. A theory is a sculpture and a sculpture is a theory.

    In the work of Sarah Sze, I see possibilities of seeing, possibilities of making sense of this world. "Things Fall Apart," she says, quoting Yeats and in the same breath superseding him. They fall apart not because the center cannot hold but because, well, they just fall apart and in so doing create something new.

    This is to say that Sze, in her whimsy of form and car and styrofoam, proffers a fundamentally different architecture of order than Yeats: where his world needs a center to orient it, hers proliferates centers. It is, quite literally, a different way of seeing the world.

    And that is theory: it is the art of making new sense of things. And then doing it again. 

    9.30.2012

    The Terrible Truths of Parenting

    Parenting a human baby is a nightmare. A deer is spawned and, within minutes, is walking. But a human baby is born raw, a wad of cookie dough that can barely breathe on its own. It's all because of our freakishly enormous heads: they're so big, and ladies' hips so small, that we spit the kid out half baked, its head still mushy so it can squeeze down the birth canal. 

    A newborn deer is walking within minutes. A newborn human is a helpless wad of cookie dough.
    (My kid got stuck at the gate. So they vacuumed him out, suction seizing his yet-formed crown and, with a more or less gentle suck, cajoling him from the warm embrace of his mother's, uh, canal. When he finally made his grand entrée, his head was elongated, a bluish Modigliani, an azure Conehead. It was, needless to say, an odd moment. Fortunately, heads are more elastic than plastic.)

    As a result, human spawn are needy little runts. They require relentless tending. And, as they're still so utterly helpless, everything — everything — is an issue. Which makes them screech and whine and cry with abandon and without end. Oh, yes, they are demanding. And not with the kinds of demands one can ignore. Their demands are often a matter of life and death, a gentle slap on the back reinvigorating a nascent respiratory system.

    Which is why human child rearing was never meant to be done by an isolated individual. Our birthing requires a team, a pack. We are wolves, not mountain lions. The human mother is literally drained of her vitality — the child, a vampire at her teet. To survive, not to mention to flourish, she needs the assistance of her community. 

    This is simply the inherent state of things: human child rearing is difficult, demanding a community of support. But the conditions of contemporary parenting, rather than seeking to alleviate these burdens — rather than working towards the vitalization of the parent — only exacerbate the issue. 

    Somewhere along the line, the family became a discrete unit set up in their own house, separated from the support of extended family. When my kid was born, we were purposefully thousands of miles from our respective families. We're independent, dammit! This isolation is the birth of the Oedipal nightmare as mommy-daddy-baby enact — nay, create — the neurotic drama we know so well. 

    As a culture, we are so sick such things have become the fodder of pop comedies. Isn't it hilarious that kids are spoiled? That, as parents, we have no lives? That we are desexualized? And are so tired we're almost dead?  Ha ha ha ha!



    It's not funny.

    When I was a kid, I loved the affect of adulthood. I loved the rare occasions when there were other adults in the house as food and booze and stories flowed. The horror of our familial politics and its perverse, all-too-familiar politics were temporarily put aside. The adults would drink and talk and laugh and discuss and argue — about politics, films, ideas, anything. And we kids could either sit there and listen or absent ourselves to play elsewhere.  In those days, neither parents nor children thought kids were the center of attention. 

    Me, I sat there amongst the adult. And even when I did excuse myself, I relished the sounds and smells reverberating throughout the house — the rumbling resonance of men holding forth, the clank of glasses, the whiff of whiskey and wine. It never occurred to me, to any of the kids, to run into the middle of the grown ups and be cutesy or whine or beg or demand.

    We were humbled by adult culture. We could participate, sure, but on their terms. I knew that if I was to say something, it better be something thoughtful. 

    Today, a kid walks into the middle of an adult conversation and proclaims loudly to all, I'm bored. I don't care, you little fuck stick. Go play with any number of the ten thousand toys and gadgets in your room.

    Just look at the lines of sight at any such gathering: the adults will be looking at the kids. And their voices will be in this this horrific, seemingly patient tone: You're bored, Jasper? Why don't you tell everyone about your soccer game. I'm sure they'd love to hear! No, no we wouldn't. Please, for god's sake, send that little runt away.   

    Look at any gathering of families today. What sounds do you hear? What odors do you smell? It's all the whine and chatter of kids, the inane baby talking of parents, as the smell of over-priced organic mac & cheese wafts through the room. There is no adult conversation, no sustained discussions of books or life or love. There is no rumbling resonance of adult males holding forth. It's all been replaced with the cloying tones of child placation. Some little shit head kid wants something different to eat and three adults a) discuss the child's wants with exaggerated care; and b) jump from the table to prepare something else.

    Somewhere along the line, we decided kids rule the roost. That the best way to parent is to negate our adulthood, hide our personal wants and needs. Kids, we believe, should be shielded from adulthood.

    But then how are they supposed to learn to be adults?

    And who says this is what they want, anyway? Sure, give the little beasts free reign and they'll take it. But I know as a kid I loved — loved — being humbled before adults, knowing that I was less interesting and longing and training and aspiring for the day when I would have interesting things to say, funny observations to make, when I could be a raconteur, whiskey in hand.

    Because I knew at age 6, at age 8, at age 12, that I was a moron. That adults knew more, were funnier, sharper, had interests and needs, an intellect and a life, that exceeded mine. And this was welcomed, enjoyed, a pedagogy and a delight: it was as assuring as it was inspiring.

    This is what I try to teach my son. That he is interesting and smart but that adults know more, have thought more, and that if he just shuts the fuck up and listens, he might learn something. After all, he's in third grade.

    Alas, this is not the culture of parenting we, uh, enjoy today.  My friends with kids are intellectuals, artists, poets. They are not what we might imagine typical bourgeois, suburban parents. And yet family gatherings with them are awful. There are no parents getting lit while the kids play. That is a fantasy. In reality, there is relentless interruption and tending to these entitled jackasses (and I mean that most affectionately, of course). 

    Sure, we all think we'll be different. When I'm a parent, we proclaim defiantly in our deluded 20s, I'm gonna be different. I'm gonna make my spouse as important as my child. We'll spend time with friends, drink, talk, fuck — and our kids will be the coolest! That's great. But the reality is you are up against a powerful culture, a discourse of parenting that is not only all encompassing but has a psycho-juridical apparatus as its disposal — the Law of Judge Oprah. 

    You take your kid to the playground and every parent there starts talking about their kid. It is a truly ghastly experience:  Chloe still wets her bed. And I care....why? Maximillian still sleeps with us. Jesus! Really? When do you fuck?

    Of course, in the absence of extended family, some of this is welcome. The playground is where and how we can learn to parent. But try to talk about anything else — say, a film or idea — and you will be shunned. Show a lack of "proper" attention to your kid, and you actually risk the intervention of Social Services (pace Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom).  A friend of mine posted a picture of his six year old son, shot from behind, peeing at a urinal. A so-called friend of his wrote him to take it down due to the "sickos and pervs" out there. But who, I ask, is the sicko here?

    With a certain irony, the human condition, with these big alien heads of ours, makes child rearing a life draining task. It sucks the vitality from us with merciless vigor, leaving mere husks in its wake. The much hallybooed zombie apocalypse is here. It's called parenting. 

    Coda
    I am insanely in love with my son. The fact that I feel any need to say that is exactly my point: as I question the ruling discourse of parenting, I feel a need to defend myself. The thing is, I don't want him to be like the spoiled little fucksticks I see everywhere. I want him to be thoughtful, passionate, humble, engaged, kind, polite, aware, articulate, generous. I want him to sense that there is a wider world out there filled with exquisite complexity, mystery, wonder — a world of ideas, art, films, books, relationships that he can't yet understand. But that, one day, he will. 

    9.23.2012

    Hedging the Flows: On Marc Lafia's "An Anatomy of Pictures"

    An image from Lafia's Anatomy of Pictures. See more >

    The conceit seems at once clear and strange. Images of art from books  overlaid with found stuffs from nature — twigs, seaweed, shells, leaves — and then photographed. But what's happening here? 

    At first glance, there is something funny and disconcerting — and perhaps funny because disconcerting. These works of art that are so elaborate, brimming with history, sentiment, labor, love, and desire. And they're not even works of art — they are pictures of works of art, monumentalized in a book. It's all-too-human. And then there is this detritus, these scraps of nature — a dead fish, a sea shell — lying there stupid. This deadpan fish seems to be mocking our human shenanigans. And yet, at the same time, the stupidity of the fish elevates the toils of human being.





    From one angle, then, these images draw a distinction between the human and the natural — and specifically between art and nature.  After all, art comes from artifice and what's less natural than that?

    But by placing these things in such juxtaposition, we are invited to find commonalities of flow between art and nature. We can see this in the purely formal aspects of the works. Put aside the subject matter, the history, the accumulation of cultural signs and knowledge and we are left with forms, lines of varying intensity. Suddenly, art and nature are not opposed. On the contrary, we are invited to see it all as flows, as shapes, as motions, as gestures.


    The curves of a woman's body, the curves of the carved stone, the curves of the found rocks: they are of an ilk, all flowing together in a mysterious cosmic calculus, different modulations of a common source.

    As the diverse of art images — they traverse time, space, culture — commingle with the stuffs of oceans and brush, we suddenly see the tectonics of art practice, all those movements and styles marking shifts in the very constitution of the earth. "Works of art," Lafia writes, "have genealogies and material form and like living forms continually change over time. The processes that produce art works, the materials and techniques, its raison d'etre in a culture, as these things change, art works and the activity of art and what we see as the art work also change and adapt." Just as the movements of the earth — its plates, its rocks, its flora, fauna, animals — shift, together, with the cosmic winds, so does art.  Looking at Lafia's images, we see thousands of years of non-linear history (pace Manuel Delanda). 

    This is not to say that nature and art are the same. What Lafia does is orchestrate this distinct flows so that they inflect each other, move in and around and with each other, at times flowing into a common river but more often flowing at different speeds, different tempos and temperatures and intensities.


    Look at this image. The natural objects fit with the face of the sculpture. But the two realms do not unite. We see, we sense, we know the different trajectories as there are limits, at once clear and blurred. And in a perhaps surprising reversal, it's the art object that is slow, monumental, tectonic while the natural objects are accelerated, giddy, pleated with whimsy as if drawn with the hand of the street artist.

    Here, neither art nor nature comes first. It's not a matter of origin but of flow — flows of ever different stuffs, ever different speeds, ever different trajectories. The difference between a dead fish and a painting is not that one's artificial; it's that each distributes time, space, and matter in different way. As Henri Bergson says, they are not different in kind. They are both images.

    From this view, a fish — a shell, a leaf of grass — is a self-construing work of art. It gathers together diverse elements from its environs and transforms them into itself — kelp, water, ripple, bubble, pebble, rock become gills, tail, slime, teeth. Every fish construes itself differently. A species is a school of art, all the fish following the same basic premise and rules, a kind of Dogme 95 as the species, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, plants its placard. This is us! We flow like this!

    So what of Lafia's art work? Well, the emergence of these works began with a very old fashioned exercise: he wanted to sketch. Which is to say, these works were born of the mimetic drive of art, to reproduce, to represent, the natural world.  But something happened along the way.

    "in my desire to do some sketching i had gotten some books from the wellfleet [Cape Cod] library on anatomy, some works from the naturalists, haeckel and others, and some art history books. i wanted to make some drawings to bring these two things together, anatomies across forms including human, plants and animals. drawing takes a lot of time, and is very concentrated and i like that. so in the afternoon light, on the expansive woods and lawn in front of the bay, I put a small silver fish just found on a walk, on a book page with a drawing of an outline of a wolf on a lounge chair in front of me. i took out my hb pencil and looked down at the fish on the page and the outline and spent the next hour with eraser making markings on paper.

    "then to record what i was doing, i took out my camera and took a simple picture. and then i could see that the camera draws a picture, sees what i can not see. the camera, and the photograph it takes, makes, is a plastic, has plasticity, has a language, the camera sees through its instrumentation something we do not see with our eyes. what i saw was that the fish was reading the wolf. it was a fish that showed me the wolf, a real fish on the drawing of a perfectly scaled and anatomically correct wolf. the scale of the fish with flies hovering about it was perfectly aligned with the scale of the wolf as it lay on this 9 x 12 page."


    From mimesis to instrumentation and its framing, hedging, and stipulating of the cosmic flows: in this process, Lafia moves from the classic desire to represent the world to the modern practice of steering flows. The modern artist is not a master. He does not as much create as he does hedge: Pollock letting paint fall as it might; Duchamps putting a bicycle wheel in a museum; Goldsworthy making the tides his collaborator.

    And Lafia, gatherhing these multi-layered genealogies of art and making them move, making them flow, with the elaborately pleated bodies of shells and fish to forge these...what? What are they? Photographs? Paintings? Sculptures?

    No, none of these old world terms apply because Lafia is not using a medium to represent the world. His work — like all modern art — re-architects, re-engineers, the relationship between human and inhuman becoming, between nature and artifice. Lafia is not representing the world but putting on the world, putting images to work with images. Lafia, alas, is an imagist, an image maker, an agent of the image. Like our fish-artist, he gathers elements from his environs — books from the Wellfleet library, debris from the beach — and steers them, massages them, folds them into this placard, into this anatomy of pictures.