6.30.2012

On Gaultier: Putting on the World, Literally

Gaultier's flamboyant bricolage: Steal from everyone, everywhere, shamelessly.

So I'm walking through the Jean Paul Gaultier show at the de Young museum in SF and, I have to say, it is exhilarating. It is exhilarating to see such unabashed voracity.

It is delirious: European Victorian, sherpa wear, Japanese geisha, American Indian headdresses, African masks, Navy boys, the human body turned inside out. Nothing is out of bounds. He literally puts on the world, his appetite endless as he borrows — nay, steals — from everyone everywhere. (Stealing is what all artists do: they take from others and make it their own. Borrowing is for the tepid.)

And it is nothing less than exquisite delirium. Not only is the world folded over itself at odd angles — so is identity, selfhood, and gender. All is up for grabs and everything looks fucking great.

Experiencing this beautiful delirium, this post-national, post-gender, post-identity world, two main trains of through ran through me.

What is Gaultier's style? In some sense, it seems so obvious. How can anyone miss a Gaultier? And yet what makes his style his style is strange in that it entails this trans-global, trans-historical theft.  I want to call his style flamboyant bricolage: he doesn't just take; he doesn't just take shamelessly; he takes and gussies up, making everything runneth over. He amplifies. Compare this to other design houses — to Prada, to Gucci, to whoever the fuck (I don't know anything about fashion).  Where they seek an original signature, Gaultier seeks to sign the world itself, excessively.  

When we — my 8 year old son and I — walked out of the show, I asked him: Does everything look the same? Or does everything look different? He thought about it for a second, then said: "Both." Exactly!

The second thing that ran through my head is this: Americans are so fucking sincere. And this is interesting. After all, we are presumably the nation of multiplicity, founded on pluralism in the name of pluralism.  And yet rather than this engendering fluid identities and genders, it's made us sincere sanctimonious pricks — whether we're brain dead liberals or mind fucked religious nut jobs, it's all the same: self-righteous sincere nonsense. 

We see this all over the interweb, all over Facebook. With an opportunity to play with identities to infinity, what do we create? Endless, seemingly honest declarations of self. I'm not saying everyone is honest on Facebook. I'm saying everyone believes they're honest, strives for honesty. There is not put on!

Warhol has never been more dead and it makes me want to weep.

Gaultier's world is a place of nothing but put on — there is no seeking of sincerity.  Identity, to Gaultier, is a put on from the get go — take from everywhere, from everyone, and strut. You are not you; you are what you wear. It takes a man from France, a culture that strives for homogeneity, a place that gave us the "individual" and the Cartesian subject, to take this same subject and disseminate it, play with it, multiply it to infinity.

The post-modern came from France — not from the US, that nominal place of multiplicity.  Sure, we've had our prophets of play — WS Burroughs, Warhol, Ween, and many more. But in the morass of our multiplicity, our instinct is to find an anchor of identity and sincerity. Meanwhile, the French — who never seem like the most playful bunch with their rigid culture — seek the put on.

Go figure.

6.28.2012

In Defense of Mental Masturbation

Mental masturbation is casually bandied about as a pejorative. But what, precisely, does it mean?

Well, presumably when you mentally masturbate, your thinking is not productive or practical. Just as certain prudish people would have us abstain from the unproductive ways of onanism, those who would censor "mental masturbation" believe thoughts should make something. Like semen, thoughts should be put to use.

To me, thinking is a practice in and of itself and hence is inherently practical. Thinking is a kind of doing such as, say, running. It's an activity. Unless we say that running is physical masturbation as it's not practical. After all, you're not running to get anywhere such as the book store.

The runner might retort that his running makes him more physically fit which, in turn, makes him happier and healthier.  In that sense, running is a practical activity.

But couldn't I say the same thing about thinking? Maybe I'm not trying to solve a problem but I'm making myself smarter and therefore healthier and happier.  Oh, and the endorphins! Good mental masturbation is a great natural high.

And then there's the fact that thinking makes connections between things and, in so doing, creates the world. So when people are sitting quietly thinking on their own and not trying to solve a problem per se — when they are mentally friggin' themselves — they are making novel connections in the universe, creating new possibilities of life. And what, I ask, is more productive than that?

So maybe that's not what people mean when they use mental masturbation pejoratively because that would just be silly and, alas, stupid. Maybe it's not the mental aspect at all that is the source of the insult. Maybe it's the articulation of the thinking.

For example, when I was teaching, I'd sometimes find myself following a peculiar line of thought that had occurred to me mid-lecture. I could tell at some point that my students were not following me. It's not because what I was thinking was so startlingly smart. It was usually because my thinking had turned rather idiosyncratic — it was a train of thinking of my own making, decipherable to no one else, more or less. But this line of thinking would have an odd kind of allure, seducing me, enticing me: Come hither, it'd whisper in a throaty whisper, and I would.

Now, this is often a supremely pleasurable thing to do: to follow an idea into strange territory, making bold — if,  at times, stupid — leaps of logic. But talking about it to others quickly becomes not just strange, annoying, and pedantic. It becomes obscene. Ergo, mental masturbation.

In this case, the crime of mental masturbation is akin to the crime of so-called TMI — divulging too much personal information in a social setting. It's a matter of etiquette. But continuing to call it mental masturbation is anti-intellectualism, the ploy of the dim witted. And it gives one of my favorite activities a bad name.

So I'm taking back mental masturbation from the anti-intellectuals. I think alone and for pleasure, dammit, and I'm proud!

6.13.2012

Ambivalence is Beautiful

Ambivalent is not generally considered a desired state of being. We don't hear a lot of, "Oh, I am so freakin' ambivalent about you!" No, it seems we are supposed to be clear and certain, our feelings focused, sure, and — here's the catch — monolithic.

Me, I rarely feel one thing. I get a call from a friend asking me to go out and I think, "Well, I kinda wanna. But I'm tired. And driving's a drag. And while I might want to go out, I'm not sure I want to go out with that friend — not tonight. But maybe it'll be fun. And I should get out more often. And I haven't seen him in ages."  I closed this train of thought but I could go on, Beckett-like.

Ambivalence is not just a state but a necessary state. It is constitutive of this thing we call life: to feel is to feel multiple, even opposing, things. Freud imagined us as being constituted by a fundamental ambivalence of life and death, Eros and Thanatos. And I know just how he feels.

Of course, just because it's constitutive doesn't mean it's desired. We constantly refine, edit, discipline ourselves. This is what it means to be part of a culture, part of the social. I may be aroused in the street but I don't pleasure myself there and then, not usually.  So perhaps ambivalence is a "natural" state — whatever that means —  to be overcome. We seek to cut down ambivalence with the scythe of certainty.

But, frankly, I like ambivalence. Not always and on all things. It's nice to have certainty, to be sure and clear as one takes on the world. But such certainty also yields assholes, adamant pricks, self-deluded righteous idiots. Such monolithic pathos makes for crappy, simplistic art, lousy reductive television and movies that are at once a colossal expense and bore.  

Life happens in and amongst the play of sentiment. Life is not just ambivalent: it's multivalent. We think and feel multiple things at the same time. And rather than trying to subdue or quash said teem, I want to speak and feel in elaborate baroque harmonies. 

Imagine, for a moment, when talking with a lover if all parties embraced ambivalence, welcomed multivalence. Imagine the generosity and the openness towards the other this would entail. We wouldn't demand that our lovers love us every second with every fiber of their being. We'd know, we'd understand, we'd expect — nay, we'd welcome — their ambivalence, their indifference and their distaste. And we'd know that their love was even greater for it.

Imagine if film, TV, art all did the same. The Wire wouldn't be the exquisite oddity it is — such complexity, such greatness, would be the norm and our theaters would be filled with models of behavior that weren't inane but, on the contrary, fostered generosity, multiplicity, the beautiful play of complexity that is life.

It's true that leadership seems to demand monolithic focus. A leader, we imagine, speaks with certainty, with clarity of vision. I know this demand has kept me from a certain professional success — clients ask me questions and I see all the different sides. In fact, I'm very good at seeing all the different sides and laying them out. I see complexity clearly. Someone, however, has to pull the trigger. And that person is rarely me. Why?  Because I'm ambivalent.

Still, I return enthusiastically to this ambivalence. I don't try to silence it. On the contrary, I work as best I can to articulate it — to give voice to the chorus of sentiments that stream through me, that are me, that are life. To me, the teem of life is beautiful and I'd have it no other way. 

6.05.2012

You Are Nothing but a Little Engine and Everything is Great

You are not you. You are a mechanism of processing the world — of taking in, making sense, digesting, and playing back. This takes many forms — your skin, hair, liver, thoughts, fears, anxieties, burps, dreams, blood pressure, fetishes. You take in the sun, for instance, and your engine makes all sorts of things — sun spots, lighter hair, good mood. You take in Heidegger or pasta or a Jennifer Aniston movie and suddenly you can't shit right.  Everything you take in is processed and played back in multiple ways.

Your mode of taking in is called perception. The world enters you through the various openings of your mechanism — your eyes, skin, mouth, ears, nose. However, these are not just openings but filters. This is obvious when you see the nasal hairs peeking out of your nostrils.

But these openings function as filters in other ways such as when you look at one thing and not another. In this case, the eye is the tip of a more elaborate filtering system driven by mechanisms of appetite. The little engine that is you needs certain things to make it go. Some cars need diesel, some higher or lower octane gas. You need "American Idol" while he needs JL Godard. Different engines need different things. 

But isn't this decision making to look at one thing and not another the "me" that is not a mechanism? How do I choose such things?

Well, that assumes there is a you that is somehow untouched by the world. But what part is that, exactly? You are a product of engineering as one engine's protrusion found itself in another engine — or via any of a number of other mechanistic configurations. You were made. And you are continually being made, and making yourself, by all the other stuff you take in — food, books, people, air, Funyuns.

The world is awash in things both visible and invisible. You are one of these things. What distinguishes one thing from another are the mechanisms of its engine. When many things seem to have similar engines, we create a category: that is a rock, that is a human being, that is an idea. But if your engine were to move very, very slowly; if it were, in many ways, quite stubborn, only taking things in rarely — well, you might be a rock and not a human being.  And if you never seemed to be quite present and yet left by a strong sense; if you were always abstracting your body — well, you might be part idea. 

There are all sorts of mechanisms. Some people do use rock mechanisms just as some rocks use certain human mechanisms. What makes a rock a rock and a human being a human being is not essential or absolute. It is a moving thing defined by its mechanisms. So when mechanisms are used by different kinds of things, the categories-that-were-never-true-categories bleed. Some people retain lots of water, like a camel. Others have water pass right through, like a river. The line between this and this — between, say, human being and rock being — is not always so sure as neither are beings and both are engines.

Please note that I am not supposing a mechanistic determined world — although, were you God, you might be able to determine all actions based on a single flap of a butterfly's wings (or so says Leibniz). But as there is no god, or you are not this god, what we're left with is not a world that is always known but, on the contrary, a world that is never known. Because everything is engines — that is, activities as distinct from beings — we only know the world through actions. Hence, we can't know the world beforehand; we know it by what, and how, it makes.

All right, all right but who cares? What does this do for us?  Well, for me, it changes the very way I approach my world. Rather than always thinking something is wrong with me, I think something is wrong with my engine and I try to engineer a better outcome. Am I taking in the wrong things — books, porn, gluten, meat? Am I doing something funny with what I've taken in? Is output the problem? Where in the system lies the problem and how can it be adjusted?

And it changes the very way we approach knowledge. Rather than classifying things by their beings, we can classify things by the mechanisms of their engines. This creates whole new and ever shifting categories of things. And introduces the human to the non-human. Which can be quite useful as rocks and things have a lot of keen mechanisms we can use.