5.28.2012

Nothing is Subjective

Here is a common belief, a philosophic cliche:  Everything's subjective. It's all in your head.

But what the heck does that even mean? What is it, precisely, that's in my head?

Well, this belief supposes that there is something — but it's not a thing, right? —  in each of us that has nothing to do with what's around us. There is a subject — a being of some sort — that lurks within that somehow has nothing to do with the air, with language, with other people or food or Nabokov or "American Idol" or the stench of that guy on the bus.

And not only is there this thing-that-is-not-a-thing that lurks within but there is an insurmountable distance between the world, with its filth and occasional beauty, and this subject that, presumably, is me.

But where and what is this pure me, this me that not only doesn't know the world but can't possibly know the world? Is it a piece of the eternal, pure god?  I hope so!

Now, if this subject is absolutely pure, untouched and untouchable, does it experience anything such as ideas or feelings or appetite? If not, what exactly does this subject do? How would I know what it even is? And if it can experience feelings or have ideas, where do those come from if not from the outside world?

I want to say that there is no such thing as subjectivity.  Everything I am — from my eyeballs to my colon to my concepts to my dreams and reveries and fetishes — is of this world. And everything I am not is of this world, too, including aliens and ideas and mosquitoes and your dreams and weird internal monologues.

And everything in this world runs up against other things in this world. When I see, breathe, touch, hear, smell, believe, think I am taking in pieces of the world — ideas, oxygen, chairs, cement, stars, love, grass.

Think about it: when you look at a chair, how does that chair enter your head? Is it really all in your head? Or is it that the chair, through its many aspects, actually enters your head (and belly and knee and aorta)? The world literally makes an impression on us. And we, in turn, make an impression on it. This is what we call perception. When we perceive, which we're doing all the time, we literally take in the world.

Our perceptions, then, are not subjective as if they were removed from the objects of the world. On the contrary, our perceptions are objective in that they are of objects (both visible and invisible). 

This is not to say that there is an objective truth that is monolithic, singular, and absolute. It is to say that there is an object that impresses us, makes a literal impression on us.

But as we're all different — the flesh of me is different than the flesh of you — the impression these objects make is different from body to body.  This doesn't make our experiences subjective; it makes them perspectival. I experience the world from my perspective — from this height, with these eyes, this huge ass nose, these fingers, this stomach, these knees, this skinny frame, these experiences, this cultural training.  And you do the same with you and all your stuff.

We each experience the world from our own perspective. Leibniz says that each monad expresses the entirety of the universe — but from its perspective. This perspective is not subjective.

Now, there is a wacky, surreal ongoing internal monologue we all have — all that non stop chatter in our heads expressing our fears, desires, and echoes of experiences.  This is a private space, perhaps even impenetrable by others. Perhaps even impenetrable to ourselves. Joyce tried depicting this explicitly in Ulysses and, in a way, again in Finnegan's Wake

And I love this voice. I don't love its anxieties but I love its oddity, its madness, its relentless particularity.

But this voice is not subjective.  It's still the perspective of me and my body and my experience with this world. Each of us is an eddy of the cosmos, a local swirl of universal becoming. Nothing is subjective.  Everything is perspective.

5.26.2012

What is Smart?

When I was, like, 9 I was reading some book that had some facts about the moon in it. I came upon one fact — or thought I did — and just couldn't believe it.  I was so blown away by this fact that I ran to tell my big brother, then 13: "Can you believe," I panted excitedly, "that the moon is only a quarter of a mile long?"

Ok, so perhaps I should have known this was absurd. But, c'mon, I was 9. Distance at that point was literally meaningless. Well, my big brother — certainly a smart boy, to say the least — knew this was absurd and immediately began laughing. He took the book from me and read the entirety of the passage: "'There are craters on the moon a quarter of a mile long,' you dufus."

I was humiliated.

But not that humiliated. Because I just didn't care.  I didn't read carefully because knowing this or that was never of great interest to me.

To this day — and, yes, I have a PhD from UC Berkeley where I taught for eons — I know shockingly few things. History, countries, presidents — I just don't know about these things. And, frankly, I don't care. It's not that these things are inherently uninteresting or not worth knowing. It's that I, me, Daniel Coffeen — I just don't care (A Man for All Seasons, anyone?).

It's metabolic. I've just never taken to facts and, when they do come my way, they find their way out, quickly. It's the same with tempura — comes in, goes out. 

In our society, we take smart as knowing things. Jeopardy, we imagine, is a smart person's show. Me, I'll know some obscure answers because, well, I have a PhD in Rhetoric for fuck's sake and certain things did make their way into my memory. But I don't know the overwhelming percentage of answers.

My brother, on the other hand, soaks in data. He knows things. He reads about something and he remembers it. He is an ardent, and successful, pub trivia game player.

Whenever there's a question about knowing something or there's a game of Trivial Pursuit afoot, people think I'll know the answers. And I feel, for some insane reason, that I should. Ain't I the smart guy, after all? (Mind you, this all could be an internal dialogue. Still, it doesn't happen in a vacuum; it is a moment in a discourse which exceeds it and defines it.)

When I was teaching a large introductory lecture to rhetoric, I used to open the course with, among other things, the declaration that I'd be teaching them nothing. Rather, I'd be teaching — or trying to teach — a skill. This was not an introduction to human biology or Medieval history; it was an introduction to rhetorical theory. And I never saw it as my job to teach terms or facts; I saw it as my job to teach a certain way of thinking rhetorically — of thinking critically about anything and everything.

So what is smart? My brother knows a lot of things. But, I have to tell you, this is not what makes him smart — it's what makes him both pedantic and dangerous in an argument. But he's smart because he makes sense of things, because he makes connections between disparate realms, because he can make sense of anything.

I used to tell my students that the rhetorician — the sophist — can figure anything out because he (or she) is trained to figure out the terms of any discussion — whether it's heart surgery, the flute, theoretical physics, or macro economics. What I taught — at least, what I tried to teach — is how to see the lay of the land, how a discourse constructs itself, what its terms are, what the assumptions are, what the pivotal terms are. 

This is to say, I tried to teach the skill of thinking. Douglas Rushkoff says that this is, in fact, the mandate of today's teacher. After all, with the interwebs, the kids can know more than you in a matter of seconds.

"What makes a good teacher today is remembering that teaching used to be done from a book. You stood up there with a book, and told the kids what they needed to know and remember from that whole book. Or you were the provider of knowledge – the actual data. Now kids have the data at their fingertips. Wikipedia knows more about the subject than most people teaching it. So what’s your job then? To help with pattern recognition, making connections, understanding context, story, and so on. Helping students try on different strategies as if they were character sheets in an FRP" (read the interview here).

This, alas, is always the way I've measured intelligence — by the speed and creativity with which one a) gets it, whatever "it" is; and b) makes surprising sense of things. 

Smart is not knowing things. Smart is knowing how things go. 

5.20.2012

The World is Full of Itself

The world is full of itself. It's not just dense, every square millimeter accounted for — it's infinitely dense! Every square millimeter is infinitely divisible. Take your hand: we can zoom in closer and closer and closer — we can zoom forever — and know what we'll find? More hand!

Often, we imagine the world is this static platform on which there's stuff. And then there's us who spend our time maneuvering around this stuff.  But between the stuff and between us is, well, some stuff but also a whole lot of nothing.

The rise of modern science is premised on this very belief — that there is such a thing as nothing. They call it a vacuum. Scientists do experiments in a vacuum to understand the laws of....something.  Which seems odd, doesn't it?

But there have always been those who believe there is no such thing as nothing. They have been known to call themselves plenists which, once I write it here, is hilarious. Thomas Hobbes was a renowned plenist, among other things, no doubt. Leibniz, too, in a different way. I fancy myself a plenist. 

This is to say, I believe the world is a plenum — it is full, absolutely full. And always at its limit. It can grow (or shrink) but it is still, always and necessarily, full and at its limit.

When I look at, say, a flower I am not looking through nothing. Between the flower and me is so much stuff, an impossibly thick layered quilt of stuff — oxygen and nitrogen, sure; some carbon dioxide, no doubt; but also ideas, history, sentiments, moods, textures and shapes of diverse invisible planes. Between the flower and me is nothing less than the world.

Even the machines in the Matrix understood this. Look what happens when a bullet tears through space: it tears through the viscous stuff of the world.


We are packed in here with the bees and the chickens and the spiders and the chairs and the gases and the ideas and the books and the dreams and the stars. And, miraculously, we can still move. That's because all this stuff is more than just solid, liquid, and gas. There are other states, too.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that between the world and me is something called flesh. He claims this is an element such as fire, water, earth, and wind. This flesh embraces us, all of us. It embraces everything. This cosmic plenum is an infinite hug. 

5.12.2012

Words Lined with Flesh

At times, I try to write as I speak — em dashes, colons, and commas punctuating the rhythm of my speech across the page. 

But written words are not transcriptions of spoken words. Nor are words prompts for the speaker, the writer a ventriloquist making his dummy speak. Neither writing nor speaking came first; neither is primary. They are two registers of language that overlap in multiple ways while enjoying their respective modes of making sense.

Where does the written word take place? The eyes, of course, literally choreographing their movement from left to right (in English); affect, as our moods and sensations ebb and flow, shift and permute; our understanding, as new ideas and insights come forth. And, sometimes, these written words make the mouth speak, the lips move, sound and air emerge.

But there is someplace else, someplace stranger. It is on the tongue and in the throat — and yet these words are not spoken. The tongue does not move; no air passes the wind pipes. Still, there is an almost-whisper of the words across the palate. This is "language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophany: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language" (Roland Barthes).

I am not talking about the pure sensuality of language — although I am also talking about the sensuality of language. I am talking about the location of this sensuality, the words reverberating in the throat, almost as if they were spoken. But these words not only are not spoken: they don't want to be spoken. They insist on the page. This is the place where they reside: this spectral space between writing and speaking, between body and sensation — the sensation, the silent reverberation, of words in the body.

Nabokov is, to me, the most obvious practitioner of what Barthes calls "writing aloud." There are no doubt sections of Nabokov that ask to be read out loud. But, usually, his words want to stay on the page — they are distinctly written. And yet they articulate the body in sumptuous ways.  To wit:

"Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small grey hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day" (Ada, or Ardor).

This can be read aloud. But it's awkward — the sentences are long, the rhythm difficult. The lips stumble as we read it aloud; we confuse b's and d's; we lisp. No, these words resist being spoken.  And yet they are so corporeal, so sensual: they play in our throats even if our throats can't speak them.

Of course, there are many written words that don't want to be spoken because, well, they are not corporeal. They are formal, dead, or awkward due to poor thinking and even poorer operation of grammar. These words are zombies looking to feed on living flesh; to speak them is to die a little.

And so when I was teaching people to write — something I did for 10 years at UC Berkeley — I'd ask them to hear their own voice, to mimic its rhythms in prose. My goal was to try to get their bodies into their writing to make it more sensual, more rhythmic, more alive. I didn't want to read zombie papers.

However, were I to continue teaching them how to write, I would tell them something else: Now, don't write as you speak. Articulate the body but don't be a ventriloquist: don't make the body speak. Rather, make the words speak in the body — loud but silent. 

This writing exists in an incredible space, a spectral space, undulating between the visibility of the written word and the invisible, silent sensuality of the body. 

5.11.2012

The Ethics of Aesthetics, or Judging the World by its Cover


"At this point I cannot suppress a sigh and a last hope. What is it that I especially find utterly unendurable? That I cannot cope with, that makes me choke and faint? Bad air! Bad air! The approach of some ill-constituted thing; that I have to smell the entrails of some ill-constituted soul!" — Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals.

When I was a kid and getting sick, my mother would ask me to breathe on her. I now do the same thing with my kid. Why? Because sickness stinks. There are times in my life when my odor changes and, yes, I find myself stinky (others may, and do, find me stinky all the time). And then I know that something is off, that's something's wrong. We know the world by its stench. 

(Watch a dog who's outside. His nose bends and twitches to the steady flow of odors both familiar and not, making sense of the world as it comes to him. His ears, too, lean this way and that. This is the animal thinking and it's beautiful.)

In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche writes, "What is it, fundamentally, that allows us to recognize who has turned out well? That well-turned-out person pleases our senses, that he is carved from wood that is hard, delicate, and at the same time smells good." 

This is such a deft move that reverses Platonism swiftly, mercilessly, and hilariously — there is something fundamental but it is not hidden, not obscured by the flesh. On the contrary, we are turned out, visible to the world, our entrails hanging out for all to see: we are as we appear.  We are how we make sense of the world, how we digest it. We are metabolic engines, taking in the world, processing it, playing it back. What we choose to take in, how we metabolize it, what we shit out and what becomes our flesh is who we are. (I was always suspicious of rabid Hegelians: what happens to a person who digests all that?)

So when it comes to "The Problem of Socrates," well, "We know, we can still see for ourselves, how ugly he was. But ugliness, in itself an objection, is among the Greeks almost a refutation. Was Socrates a Greek at all? Ugliness is often enough the expression of a development that has been crossed, thwarted by crossing. Or it appears as declining development." (From Twilight of the Idols, if you care.)  Nietzsche dismissed Socrates for being ugly — yes, for his face being ugly, but Nietzsche does not separate this from the ugliness of Socrates' thinking, his relentless negation. (Nietzsche, of course, also loves Socrates — which is why he even feels the need to address him.)

When Nietzsche turns the world inside out, he does not merely reverse priorities making the beautiful moral and the ugly, sin. No, the logic of reversal is the logic of morality, the logic of opposition.  So when he turns morality upside down and human being inside out, he erases opposition, as well. This is a reversal that inaugurates a fundamental reordering.

Nietzsche is not privileging the outside over the inside. He is not the classic aesthete bored with politics and such and just wanting to get his manicure and absinthe. No, Nietzsche gives us something much more thorough, much more devastating: he eliminates the inside all together. There is no inner you. You are what you do, how you go, how you smell. Accidents don't happen to you. You are everything that happens to you.   

This is not shrugging off of all ethical obligation. On the contrary, your responsibility has become total. No more saying, "Why do these things keep happening to me?" They keep happening to you because of how you go. Maybe you can discipline yourself to go differently; maybe you can't. But it's not you doing it to you (as there is no inner agent acting on you); nor is it the world doing it to you. It is just you and how you go in the world — which is redundant as you are how you go in the world. 

Nietzsche's aesthetics is his ethics. His mode of aesthetic assessment is his ethical assessment. He does not judge actions by their principles but by their behaviors, by what they actually do in this world. Consider all those who stand out on street corners with clipboards asking you for money for this or that cause: they may feel ethical as they represent a so-called good cause but, by aesthetic-ethical assessment, they are nudges. (Of course, there may be other ways to conceive standing out there with a clipboard other than morality vs. nudge — it pays, it's social, etc.)  

The entire critical apparatus shifts: not only does Nietzsche introduce aesthetics as his ethics, he critiques ethics aesthetically. That, in fact, is the whole On the Genealogy of Morals — an aesthetic critique of Judeo-Christian morality.  Where it claims superiority, he finds ressentiment, self-loathing, ugliness. He does not assess morality by its claims but by its actions. And they stink

To make sense of the world, to make one's way, does not demand a rigorous moral code, a so-called moral compass. It demands a refined sense of smell.

5.02.2012

Difference Delirium


The Goldberg Variations are a difference delirium to me — order within this will to infinity.

In proposition 57 of The Monadology, Leibniz writes, "The same town looked at from different angles appears completely different, and is, as it were, multiplied perspectively. In the same way, it emerges that, because of the infinite number of simple substances, there seem to be as many different universes as there are substances. However, these are only different perspectives on a single universe, according to the different points of view of each monad." That is to say, from God's perspective, there is only one universe (leave it to Borges to flesh out Leibniz's possible worlds) but there are an infinite number of perspectives on and of that universe, each different.

And this, Leibniz continues in #58, "is the means for obtaining as much variety as possible, but with the greatest order as possible. In other words, it is the means for obtaining as much perfection as possible."

To create as much variety as possible and yet not give way to chaos; to create a grammar of existence that can breed infinite difference: What a will! Leibniz isn't driven to order the world, to classify the world, to limit the world. Or, rather, he is driven to create an open order with infinite classifications and infinite limits. For Leibniz, the world is full, contained, and infinite. That's even stranger!

Leibniz's world is delirious as every piece of matter is infinitely divisible: within every drop of pond water is an infinite number of ponds, each infinitely divisible, each containing an infinite number of ponds. It approaches the sublime, threatening to explode our cognition, if not our bodies. But his world is not sublime — it is not just infinite stuff but an ordered infinite stuff, everything connected to everything else and, together, forging the world itself. Each monad expresses the entire universe — from its perspective. 

It is this will to delirium, to maximizing difference, that attracts me so strongly. I love this image, this thought, this world view: to see this way is to see the world shimmer, glimmer, and glow. And this is what I want from logics, from ideas, from notions and thoughts and beliefs: I want difference delirium.

This is my attraction to rhetoric over language. The sophist sees perspective in every utterance, argument in every direction to infinity — not combat or conflict, mind you, but the staking of positions, the forging and undoing of territories both visible and invisible. There is no stable ground, no "background" (whatever the fuck that is), no place where nothing is moving — not to the sophist.

This is my attraction to Bergson who sees a world always and already in motion — a world of creative evolution. Change, for Bergson, is not something added to the world: it is constitutive of the world, constitutive of matter.  That is so fucking incredible! Matter — the stuff of the world — is constituted by change! The world is an endless ooze dense with infinite interactions of infinite variety.

And yet it's still not chaos. It's not just a mumble jumble of stuff. There is order but it's not order from above. It's emergent order as things follow immanent laws.

This is why I am so enamored of Lucretius who, in seeing atoms fall through space, finds swerves, inclinations, a tendency to go this way or that.

And, of course, Leibniz, Lucretius, and Bergson are all quite different from each other. I don't want to conflate them but to express a common will: a will to difference delirium.  It's what I find in Sarah Sze, in Matthew Ritchie, and Julie Mehretu — mappings of this delirium yet each in a very different style, with a very different world view.

I like to see the world this way. It feels enlivening, vital, invigorating. I may enjoy Kant now and again, and maybe even a tad of Hegel, but only in as much as they become these incredibly strange constellations in the teem.  I like right angles and geometry and conceptual categories — as long as they're thrown into the mix. This makes life even stranger, even more delirious, like seeing the lava lamp ooze suddenly form a perfect square.

Do I need this delirium to be true? This is beyond truth and lies. It does feel right to me — right, here, meaning that it feels like health. Everything in its right place and there are an infinite number of things and an infinite number of right places.