2.28.2012

Bergson on Philosophic Images

Here, for the edification of all, is Bergson on the philosopher's image and how we might approach it — through imitating its style, embodying it. We don't seek understanding; we seek a certain sight. I love this passage:

"What is this intuition? If the philosopher has not been able to give the formula for it, we are certainly not able to do so. But what we shall manage to recapture and hold is a certain intermediary image between the simplicity of the concrete intuition and the complexity of the abstractions which translate it, a receding and vanishing image, which haunts, unperceived perhaps, the mind of the philosopher, which follows him like his shadow through the ins and outs of his thought and which, if it is not the intuition itself, approaches it much more closely than the conceptual expression, of necessity symbolical, to which the intuition must have recourse in order to furnish ʻexplanation.' Let us look closely at this shadow: by doing so we shall divine the attitude of the body which projects it. And if we try to imitate this attitude, or better still to assume it ourselves, we shall see as far as it is possible what the philosopher saw."  — Henri Bergson,  "Philosophical Intuition," in The Creative Mind, p, 109.

2.26.2012

Learning to Be Seen

 This is a fun exercise. Go through actors you know — like, dislike, don't care — and ask how they stand towards the camera, whether they let themselves be seen. Consider the ever dreamy George Clooney, who will never been seen; Mike White, who is somehow always seen; and Harvey Keitel who invites the gaze and then lets himself be seen.

So, yes, we live in the age of the always on camera. We lead public lives. And, yes, this makes for some anxiety amongst young and old alike. We elders cringe as we fear the camera; the kids cringe as they read comments and likes.

But there is nothing inherently good or bad about this inside out world. As with everything, there are some good things, there are some bad things, there are a lot of neutral things.  It all depends on the individual, on how he or she goes, what he or she wants.

What's most important is not how we slow down or speed up this involution. It's how we stand towards it, how we invent new postures of living, new ways of being in the world.

As Marshall McLuhan says, problems arise when we use old technologies to make sense of new environments — we use the horse and buggy to understand the railroad, the book to understand the video game.  Of course to a 65 year old literature professor, video games look like the devil, tempting kids not to read. But to the gamers, video games are a new kind of text that have non-linear narratives and move more than eyeballs. 

It seems to me, then, that in a world of an always on camera, rather than turn away, we need to learn how to be seen.  And, perhaps, know when — and how — to hide.

Here is something I wrote a while back about Marc Lafia's great film, The Revolution of Everyday Life

"The distinction the film draws is not between public and private but between demanding to be seen and allowing oneself to be seen. On the one hand, there’s Tjasa who imagines herself a radical fomenting change through situationist performances. Tjasa demands to be seen, screeching into the camera just as she screeches at others, to no one and everyone. Meanwhile, Lizzie, her lover, avoids the spotlight but finds a much more intimate relationship with the camera and with being seen. In a gesture of infinite generosity, she allows herself to be seen.

...In these two modes we get postures of standing towards perception, postures of being seen. We get an ethics (mercifully bereft of judgment)."


Revolution of Everyday Life from marc lafia on Vimeo.


How does one learn to be seen? What kinds of demands does this make on our personhood? What, precisely, is it asking of us?

I, for one, go cold in front of a camera.  I am a narcissist and feel my best when holding forth in front of a large group. But stick me in front of a camera and I get nervous, awkward, tongue tied.  How do I change this?  Practice, sure, but I'm talking about more than that. I'm talking about how I would have to change my self-perception, my literal and metaphoric posture. 

My instinct says it demands greater self-confidence and that age-old mode of wisdom: resignation.  That is, just giving in, letting go, surrendering all of body and mind and whatever else we are to circumstance, to the gaze. I think in resignation there is a kind of indifference — by succumbing all the way, we move past caring, past posing. 

But I know of resignation through Kierkegaard — and what the fuck does he know about life in the Spectacle? (If I were one of the kids, I put some sort of emoticon denoting I'm half serious, half not.)

Part of me thinks we have to move past the true/false dichotomy, past what we consider our true selves and our false selves, into a perpetually grey area where dissimulation is the norm (and hence, perhaps, simulation?).

Or is it the opposite and we need to affirm a line between that me and this me? 

I think of the famous story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man (I've heard other attributions but this one works well). Hoffman shows up on the set looking a wreck— he'd been doing god knows what for days in preparation for a scene in which he's tortured and then runs away. Olivier looks at him and says, "Dustin, chap, you look absolutely terrible." And Hoffman replies, "I've been preparing for the scene, getting into character." To which Olivier replies, "Well, why don't you just try acting?"

Which posture, I ask you, is the posture the always on camera demands? What new postures do we need to invent? How do we learn to be seen?  And what is exposed in that gaze? What do we reveal and what do we hold back? When do we act and when do we "be"? Or is that the wrong question?

2.22.2012

Philosophy is an Image of the World

Since I was young, I've had a vision of the world. I see impossible swirls, intricate marbling, curving planes intersecting, winding, assembling and washing out with varying intensity; I see ricochet, harmony, dissonance, indifference, a wash of colors and moods and ideas and bodies that don't necessarily correspond with the bodies my eyes see everyday.  The way I see the world is as if my eyes were closed and the images and effects that play on my eyelids are, in fact, what I deem reality.


This was made all the more visceral, palpable, when listening to music. In high school, then college, it was music that literally gave my vision voice. Even the name of the band that most excited me— Throwing Muses — articulated what I saw.


 Academically, I was bored for most of college.  Eventually, I read Foucault and Derrida and Gadamer and got excited — mostly by Foucault for he seemed to understand the infinite complexity of the archaeology of knowledge. 

But it wasn't until late grad school, on the verge of writing my dissertation — I thought it was going to be on irony and Kierkegaard —, that I read Deleuze's The Fold and Merleau-Ponty's Sense and Nonsense. And, suddenly, all those images I'd had since I was young came to the fore, found voice like never before.

There's a great moment in Bergson where he says the key to understanding a philosopher is seeing, in an intuitive flash, that philosopher's image of the world.  All the words — the thousands of pages, the elaborate argumentation — are spent trying to articulate that image.

There is something almost Platonic about this — the idea that can't be spoken. But it's in fact fundamentally different from Plato: the philosopher does not have an idea of the world but, rather, intuits how the world goes: he has an image, not an idea.  But what he sees is not just visual — it is operational, aural, affective, incorporating invisible as well as visible elements.

And the philosopher's failure to articulate his image once and for all is not because it exceeds language per se but because the image is infinitely complex and, well, we're not very adept at operating with words (we make them finite when they need to be infinite). Deleuze and Guattari, in many ways, are the most thorough in trying to articulate the mad images they see.


This is what is so arresting about a certain experience of art: sometimes, you see an image and it's shocking: It literally sees what you see, more or less.  For me, it was Miro, Klee, Pollock and then Matthew Ritchie, Julie Mehretu, Sarah Sze.


A philosophy, then, is not a set of beliefs.  It is not what we consider true. Philosophy — or at least this image of philosophy — is before truth: it is the image we see when we close our eyes and open them again. 

2.15.2012

This is Melancholy

Reckoning age is not easy, especially in this culture of youth. I, for one, like to imagine myself as 27, jewfro grad student, newly married but still stewing in the full potency of my past — I was in love, no doubt, and this love was fueled by all my previous loves. I could still feel Joy, my high school love, vibrating in my loins and heart and belly and schnoz. I could still feel the magnetic pull of Sabina, my college obsession, the resonance of her still palpating my heart.

With time, all this has come to fade.  Not the facts, mind you, not the memory per se. But the affective resonance of that memory is no longer there.  I don't feel that pining for Sabina that I did for so many years. I remember the pining. Indeed, I can regale you with tale upon tale of my longing, my humiliations, my joys. 

But the scent of the event has dissipated, its feeling gone. It is now a movie I saw ages ago — I know the story but I don't feel the power of it anymore. In many ways, it might as well have happened to someone else. I don't know it happened to me, not from the inside out.

And I find this loss unbearably sad. I am coming to understand, perhaps, that it is this loss that defines aging — not the loss of motion or hard ons or memory but the loss of our own past's resonance. 

Sometimes, I try to beckon these lost affects, try to charm them back into being, performing a perverse kind of seance for dead memories, for the dead me. It is a curious, difficult thing to do.  I  reach with all parts of my memory, not just for the images, but for the literal and metaphoric feel of it, for that sensation that permeated my belly, my blood.  I try to remember with my whole body, hurling not just my mind but my frame and flesh into the memory, into the vortex of the facts.  Sometimes, very rarely, I can conjure it for a fleeting moment, usually by finding virtual traces of their scent. 

I wish I had a better way to manage this loss, a way better than my seance which is all too pathetic.


This loss is what's become of my whole childhood.  All the joy and anger and fear I felt as a kid has now become a series of facts that may or may not be correct and is irrelevant, anyway. Their power, their resonance, is nearly gone all together.

This is not all bad. I have reconciled a lot of shit with my family, not because I forgive but because, frankly, I don't feel all the anger and disappointment anymore. What seems like my noble gesture is, in fact, just a reality of aging.

There are times, I can still see myself in high school, high as a kite, so vital, rocking out with Willy Jacobs to Jethro Tull. Fuck, Tull rocked me inside out. I was so enthused, so infused, by that maniac flautist.


So, from time to time, I will mine the Tull catalog — not on vinyl, even if I still own them all, but via Rdio on my iPhone — in search of that memory's potency.  I can find fragments of it on an album here and there, in a refrain, a lick, a musical apogee.  But, as with my seance for lost loves, this conjuring is short lived and, in the end, feels pathetic.  

Alas, this is aging. We become alienated from our own past, from our previous selves, from our youth. It can be liberating, sure, but I find the loss devastating.  But I suppose such is what we might call maturity: bearing precisely this loss — not the loss of memory but the loss of memory's resonance. 

2.12.2012

The web is an always on camera, or No wonder the kids today are so anxious


Picture this.  You're sitting around your living room with some friends and someone comes in, an acquaintance perhaps, and starts filming you. You're not sure why. Do you do exactly as you were doing before the camera entered the room? Or has your behavior changed — what you say, do, how you interact with others in the room?

Cameras necessarily shift social dynamics.  How can they not?  They are eyes, after all.  Only they're the weirdest eyes ever in that they are the potential eyes of everyone, everywhere, from now until eternity. That's gotta have an effect, don't you think?

Now take the digital camera which is at once camera, processing, screen, and distribution: the time from click to world wide viewing is nearly instantaneous. Well, that's gotta have some strange effects.

The social web is a kind of always on camera, ceaselessly capturing text and image — capturing imprints of ourselves — our likes and dislikes, the pages we view and how long we linger, the Yelps, the tweets, the reposts and shares and retweets and so on and so on.

Suddenly, we are all actors, all writers, curators, critics, and photographers who relentlessly publish and distribute.  We are all actors on the screen that is the web.

Think about it: We update our FB status with an insight, link, image, or report on the song we listened to or game we played. We comment on others' insights, links, and images. We Yelp and comment on others' Yelps; we tweet and retweet. We write emails and texts, mini-essays and haikus. We imprint ourselves on the collective social film which is a distributed, networked cinematic event.  

And then we await judgement from an unclear, and at times unknown, audience: applause, boos, or indifference that take the form of page views, likes and dislikes, comments, shares, reposts, retweets, deletes. Google Analytics is an applause meter. I got 193 uniques today! 17 people liked the photo of my Halloween nurse slut costume!

This happens all day, everyday: we publish, we perform, we are seen and we are judged by an audience with unknown extension — and anything we do could suddenly "go viral" and be seen by millions. This is not just life in a panopticon as we are not only always being watched.  We are always being commanded to perform — and then are judged for that performance.

No wonder the kids today are so anxiously and constantly checking their phones: Did they like that post? Did I do good? No wonder that the 25 year old girls who swarm our cities on Saturday nights are dressed like prostitutes: Gotta impress — and fast!

Indeed, there seems to be a very strange desire amongst the 20-somethings of today. They fancy themselves individuals — Look at me! This is my taste! — while at the same time they fear individuality: Do they like me? It's a crippling anxiety that leaves these 20-somethings stuck between safe sweetness (don't want to offend anyone) and merciless judgment (everything's a threat and a thin veil of anonymity affords casual nastiness).

While my generation, so-called Gen-X, has its own anxieties, this is not one of them. I may be happy or sad because some post of mine gets good or bad comments but, fundamentally, I don't give a shit. Like most of my actual friends, I have a life that precedes and exceeds my online identity such as a kid who doesn't yet check my status updates. I live in the old world where I don't interact with my real world friends online. And, like the anachronism that I am, I continue to publish to the web as if it were a printing press. Which means I don't publish pictures of myself at parties or eating breakfast.

This is not to say that I have a life and you don't.  This is just to say that the web plays a different role in my life than it seems to play in the lives of the kids today.  I can turn off the web. But the kids today can't, not really.  They're like Neo, born inside the matrix: they were always already turned inside out, always already enmeshed in the ever-emergent text that is the social web.

It's the anxiety of being filmed or being an artist but now played out through all facets of life and identity. Artists have the relative luxury of only being present for their art work; the rest of the time, they can live more or less free of scrutiny (the paparazzi, of course, is the first Facebook wall). But the kids today don't have that luxury; they must produce just to participate in society. 

The very conditions of identity, then, are the acts of being seen and judged by an audience of unknown scope and power.  

A Mobius Play: On Douglas Lain's "Wave of Mutilation"


I love pith. Douglas Lain's smartypants, hilarious little tome clocks in at 84 pages.  That's my kind of book. Grab me, twist me about, tickle my fancy, move on! And it can be yours for only $7.95!

Let's consider the title. It is, of course, a reference to the great Pixies song. But so what?  Well, for starters, it is an incredibly visceral, poignant phrase: not only is there mutilation but there's a whole wave of it! How absolutely terrifying! And yet, as Black Francis sings it, it's all so gosh darn cool. Bring it on!

And this is what Lain's book performs: the horror of reality unmoored; the joy of reality unmoored; and the unmooring caused by the joy of reality becoming unmoored.  It's a mobius play.



Indeed, this title is complex. "Wave" is at once a term for collective surging (do the wave!); the periphery of the ocean's tumult; and a technical term for an expression of energy (distinct from the particle). All three terms apply to Lain's book as some nuclear testing seems to have fucked shit up triggering a collective schizo madess, leaving us tossing in the waves of a reality ocean sans anchor.

And the title dates the book, lending it an historical perspective that is critical to the book's argument: the era of we so-called Gen Xers, we slackers, children of the Greatest Generation — a turning point at which our tether to the collective began to fray and give way to a certain postmodern confusion-ennui (as distinct from, say, French post-war ennui — this is Linklater, not Eliot or even Camus).   



And, as a reference (and not just a pretty phrase), the title seeks to reaffirm a tether to the real. That is, the referential function of language grounds us by providing a literal for the transient indifference of signifiers. Rather than words inaugurating an endless deferral of meaning, a relentless play, reference gives words a telos, a purpose, an origin and a destination.

But, as we've already noted, this title can be read multiple ways simultaneously, initiating the play that defers meaning ad infinitum. So the very title, Wave of Mutilation, at once performs the will to the real and the undoing of the real. The title does and undoes itself! It is a wave of mutilation!

Such is what Lain's book simultaneously explores and performs: the will to a collective real, to a ground, and its undoing, a mobius construction-destruction with the lingering possibility of a way out — or not — as the books asks: how can writing forge our collective narratives and orient us? Or does the very act of writing put our identities into play along with those slippery signifiers?

The tone of the book is non-chalant, dead pan, understated. And yet, right from the get go, things begin to careen, as if the world were off its axis — still spinning, sure, but a bit askew.  The very first lines of the first chapter — entitled, "Solipsism by a Motel Swimming Pool," showing us that the book will relentlessly juxtapose banality and drama — these first lines read: "I'm carrying Samantha's old portable Realistic brand cassette player...."

Everything in the book, like Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, is loaded, each figure performing this tension between the real and undoing of the real. And as the book carries on, things get stranger and stranger and yet the tone stays even, cool, without being indifferent (the slacker's posture par excellence).

As the world becomes unmoored, Lain gives us some truly exquisite images — strange and beautiful and hilarious and thoroughly idiosyncratic.  And through it all, he gives us this pithy performance, this exploration, of our collective — and personal — untethering, moving between the Bomb, history, breeding, architecture, love, and Portland nuttiness. 

He even gives a fantastic read of one of my favorite books, narrated by the brilliant schizo muppet, Grover, "The Monster at the End of this Book." And yet, in Lain's book, the title becomes a question: "There is a Monster at the End of this Book?" 
 And that succinctly, and with great pith, performs Lain's fantastic little book.

2.10.2012

The World Turned Inside Out: Judgment

We are obviously moving ever more towards an inside-out world: we live on the outside.

Now, perhaps we have always lived on the outside — this is the argument of phenomenology. But the shapes of this outside can differ dramatically as the play of fold, shadow, and revelation can shift.  So while life may always already be of the surface, the architecture of that surface is changing, becoming ever more flat, identity more splayed. I don't offer this as an eschatology, only as a comment and an attempt to understand what the fuck is happening around me.

What do I mean by we live on the outside?

I mean what you probably think it means: we expose ourselves, socially interact, in view of all (or many) via Facebook, blogs, comments, Tweets.  This is not a great revelation.  The line between the public and the private is being recast as surveillance probes the nooks and crannies of our lives — and as we, often joyfully, expose all to all.

Brianne Garcia, on Thought Catalog, wrote an essay arguing that the kids today are always already posing for the camera — they stand half-akimbo, leaning and gazing just so. Pictures no longer capture private moments; they repeat images that were public even before the camera clicked.

Just think of the digital camera for a moment.  It is not just a camera but an entire production and distribution vehicle: pictures can be instantaneously shared with the world at large. But it's even faster than that: with a digital camera, you see the picture before clicking the button.  They don't use viewfinders and lenses: they use screens.  They literally screen their image before taking the picture.

Again, this is not a condemnation of this phenomenon; it's an observation of the conditions of seeing and being seen and the beginning of an exploration of the implications. And, no, none of this is a great revelation.

Me, I only want to point out one thing: the merciless, brutal judgment that this turn inside out has occasioned.  Look at the way the kids speak to each other through Thought Catalog comments — either polite praise or nasty ass ad hominem dismissals.  The seeming ease with which a commenter will call someone a phoney or an asshole is staggering — or else it's a mindless, if emphatic, nod of approval: "Love this!"

And what's even more surprising and downright odd is the frequency of the invocation of the pretentious and the poseur — "This essay was so pretentious I'm rolling my eyes!"  "What a poseur!"

This, to me, is hilarious.  Isn't this the age of the spectacle, of the put on, of the always and already play acting, acting to infinity, acting all the way down? Isn't this the age of Wikipedia, the overthrow of the expert, the posturing ad infinitum?  Whence pretension as a pejorative? How can one be a phony? A phony what?

No doubt, my use of whence and pejorative and always already will incite such comments — surely, anyone who uses such words is being pretentious. And that is a different, but related, matter of the rampant anti-intellectualism of this country.

A few years ago, right here on this very blog, some anonymous reader had happened upon a blog I wrote in a different name and voice — that of my would-be novel's character, Henri.  (Read her comments, and my reply, here.) She believed she'd discovered my true beliefs and threatened to expose me to the world.  To this day, it's so strange to me: doesn't the internet mark the end of the tyranny of subjectivity, that need to be a real self?

And yet, somehow, the opposite has happened.  We must be real selves, neither phony nor pretentious. And we can't be extraordinary selves — or else we'd be phony or pretentious.

Kierkegaard was right: we watch the skater on the ice, moving ever closer to the thin middle and with each pass we gasp — and then think, "What's the big deal? I could that."  We cheer the skater and, in the same breath, hate him.

2.07.2012

On Banality and Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere"

So I'm watching Somewhere on HBO and I'm thinking: really? This is the vision of debauched Hollywood?  Where is Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant or the over-the-topness of Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond?  In Lost in Translation (I know a lot of people like this film but I found it underwhelming even if quite beautiful and, at times, exquisite), Bill Murray might not give us a whole lot but his face, his posture, speak to a richness of experience and character — the romance of being an individual. In Bad Lieutenant, Keitel is, as the kids say but don't understand, epic: he's the stuff of myth. 

But Stephen Dorff's Johnny Marco? He is so, well, bland. He's so everyday. In fact, there is nothing extraordinary about him — he doesn't dress flamboyantly; he doesn't have odd taste in sex (the strippers, well, they are odd but they just reiterate the banality of consumption); he doesn't throw fits or tantrums. He's just like you and me, only famous.

Fame, here, is not well earned.  He's not an amazing  musician (he's ok at Guitar Hero); he's not a great actor lost in his characters.  He is basically on American Idol or a viral YouTube video or he won Survivor. There is nothing fundamentally extraordinary about our stars today. It's all so, well, banal.

This, alas, is what the film gives us — the banality of consumption.  Sofia Coppola is not, and could not be, Billy Wilder or Abel Ferrara. She is the spawn of a new age, even if she comes from old school royalty (can you imagine Marlon Brando's Kurtz in one of Sofia Coppola's films?) The stars of today are, indeed, so well behaved.  It's the to the point where when Tom Cruise gets a little nutty and jumps on a couch, he's considered wacky.  

Now look at Cassvates, Faulk, and Ben Gazzara:


Or Abel Ferrara on Conan — he is lit beyond belief, bigger and more deranged than the Spectacle (even if constituting it — it's the constitution of the unattainable, of the excessive):


The decadence of yesteryear no longer glitters with either promise or romance. We are always already watched, always already judged. Throughout Somewhere, Dorff fucks beautiful women simply because he can. It is neither depraved nor decadent. The girls are beautiful. They all seem to have fun when screwing. And yet it remains banal, a non-event, a blip on the radar.  

Compare Coppola's Dorff to the silly Vincent Chase of Entourage. The promise of Entourage is naive, the promise of Hollywood from the 30s with a hip hop beat: fame and fortune and women women women! Ain't this the life, boys? Johnny Marco is Vince in 10 years: pussy is pussy, there to be had just like everything else, so what?

Somewhere is banal, no doubt.  But that is precisely what makes it so beautiful, so pitch perfect: it is of the banal, the beauty and banality of the banal.  There's no ugliness.  Reviews of the film claim it's just beautiful people kvetching (I don't think they used the word "kvetch," however). But that's the point — there is no ugliness.  Dorff is the star of a new day and while the romance, and fundamental enigma, of the individual has disappeared, our loneliness has not. The extraordinariness of the ordinary has vanished but that doesn't mean we don't get lonely — or that there's no beauty. 

Coppola's challenge here is monumental precisely because she doesn't have monuments to reckon.