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.