9.02.2012

Careening

The music I love, the art I love, the films and writing I love, the ideas and conversations I love — they all careen. They tilt and teeter and tack on the edge between chaos and order. They may dip into nonsense — think of Burroughs' cut-ups — but they rarely wallow there as they perform the miraculous task of emerging from chaos without being cliché. 

What is the crime of what we call motel art? It's that it's dead, canned, it's already happened: it's a cliché. It seeks to confirm rather than create. This is not necessarily to knock it: it is a motel, after all, with a high turn over. It makes sense to try to confirm rather than create — even if many of us find this gesture horrific, a living death. And what is scarier than that? The fear of the zombie is the ultimate fear: it looks like life but is actually dead — à la 99.99% of films made in Hollywood for the past umpteen years.

(Gratefully, most Hollywood films look like death, making them thoroughly horrific but less scary — there's little risk of falling for one of them. The truly scary films are those that try to pass as living,  the films of Soderbergh and Aronofsky, that people consider "fresh," "smart," pushing at the limits as they regurgitate the worst bullshit with a little avant garde dressing.)

The task of art, of creation, — of life — is to harness and hedge the flows of the cosmos, those sensations and feelings — percepts and affects — that stream, ricochet, collide, combine, ignore each other: the relentless flux of everything. The temptation of cliché abounds and is truly the devil: it can sound so sweet. Just end with a fade out! Play loud and fast! Just drip paint everywhere! Artists are those who resist at every turn.

There are three great risks of this task. One, you become vaporized, obliterated, hurled into the cosmos as just another particle — you end up speaking gobbledygook. I saw this happen to people I knew in college during acid trips: all sense of sense vanishes. They'd be overwhelmed by the sensations of it all streaming at them, through them, as they became immobilized, drooling and muttering.

Two, you stand too strong and sure, hunkering down into known, stable structures — categories, concepts, sentimentality (which is different from sentiment), bathos: in a word, cliché. This is hard as cliché can feel great, look great, sound great — but still be cliché. And clichés abound. As Deleuze writes in his book on Francis Bacon, the artist's canvas doesn't begin blank. On the contrary, it begins full, overflowing with known images, with cliché. Bacon would therefore begin by grabbing a broom, dipping it in paint, and smearing the canvas, introducing chance into the fray from the get go.

Or three, you resist cliché so overtly that you, in fact, recapitulate it. To do the opposite of cliché is not art — it's still cliché. I think of a teenager not wanting to become like her parents so gets a tattoo.  The tattoo, in and of itself, does not break cliché. In fact, to act in opposition to a law is to follow the law, albeit negatively.

The trick, it seems to me, it to take what Deleuze and Guattari call a line of flight, to careen along the border that separates sense from nonsense, order from chaos, the unknown from the known — a border that is itself always moving, always emerging — to dip into the cosmic ocean of chaos in order to forge new sense, new modes of going, new possibilities of becoming. 

I am not talking about free jazz but I'm also talking about free jazz. I'm talking about a certain unpredictability, a sense of danger, the risk of nonsense that manages to cohere into something, into a this, a this which insists on itself — an haecceity which never settles for the known.

One of the incredible thing about Grateful Dead shows was how the band moved seamlessly and constantly between melody and jam. They'd be playing some song — a more or less highly structured event, reassuring, domestic. People would sing along. And then the band would start jamming, noodling around, taking leave of the melody and entering new territories: they'd left the house to become nomads. But the experience didn't end there. This was never solely a move from structure to flow, being to becoming. No, their jams would move in and out of melodies, in and out of homes — is that St. Stephen? Dark Star? Uncle John's? These flickers of recognition would just as quickly give way to quick sand. It was this continual movement between song and flow, melody and jam, domesticity and nomadism, that defined the psychedelic experience. The ground appeared and disappeared, over and over again in ever different ways, careening at different speeds and rhythms — making your mind, your life, careen. At its best, this was an incredible Yes saying experience.

Of course, the Dead, like everything else, can become a cliché and the dedicated followers domestic in their own right — they know just what to expect and when to expect it. Little surprises them. They may be traveling non-stop but along well worn paths. What looks like becoming is, in fact, being. Every new way of going risks becoming cliché. Think of Pollock's drips, not to mention all of Abstract Expressionism: it became motel art 20 years later.

O, but to careen! To feel gravity's pull (pace REM), to light up as you tilt towards the oceanic abyss without becoming submerged, carried along your line of flight through a miraculous, ever emerging momentum, to teeter, to play dress up in the same breath you burn down the house: to be uncanny, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, to exist at that seething juncture where order comes into being before dipping back again into the fray, over and over again. 

A lecture I gave years ago at Berkeley on Deleuze, cliché, and creation: 



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