7.31.2012

Visual Sound

I'm sitting at my desk typing this and, out of the corner of my eye, I keep seeing a piece of white cardboard.  It's probably around three feet from me.  Meanwhile, from the other room, Frank Ocean sings and mutters to me.

Where, I ask you, is this sound?  Well, it's right here, in this room. Sure, it comes from the living room but, as everyone knows, sound travels. And so what emanates from the living room is not just in this room, it's winding into my ears, into my body.

Now what about that piece of cardboard? My instinct is to say it's over there. But if it's over there, how come it feels so close, impossibly close, like it's in my eye, in my head, in my body?

Vision is strange. It eliminates distance, folding the horizon into my body — and, I suppose, folding my body into the ocean (pace Merleau-Ponty and his erotic chiasm). 

When I see something, I take it up — with my eyes. It's tempting to imagine seeing as distant, as not touching. But to see is to grasp — in the words of Merleau-Ponty, to palpate. I love that: to see is to handle, to finger, to touch, to grasp, to molest, to fiddle and fondle. Vision happens at a remove but, super hero like, is able to bring that thing that's three feet away, 1000 yards away, 90 million miles way right here!

But it's not just that the thing sits there and I, with my super sticky eyes, grasp it. It, that thing, traverses all the space to come to me. In fact, even if I don't want to take it up, have it enter my body, it hurls itself at me across the room or across the cosmos.

Space, then, is not empty. That cardboard and I are not sitting in empty space. No, we are sitting in an infinitely dense space, a space filled with all these things — desk, screen, pen, pad, books, dust, phone, glass of gin — traversing space, becoming elongated, stretching themselves to me.  I am a focal point thanks to my eyes — my eyes which are as much fingers as they are ears, able to reach but also at the mercy of what presents itself.

One of my favorite things is watching a dog's ears move — they are literally feeling their way through and amongst sounds. I can't do that.  My ears just sit there and all the noise of the world pours in. I filter somewhat, tuning out this and that. But all that sound pours right on in.

The same is true of sight. I filter, even closing my eyes now and again. But so much, impossibly much, pours into my body through my eyes.

So then I look around my apartment, my bachelor apartment that is sometimes co-inhabited by an eight year old boy. There is stuff everywhere — legos, wads of tape, scraps of paper, socks, crumbs, stray lettuce. These things ricochet through this space creating a cacophony until, one day, I can't stand the sound and begin picking up the scraps, vacuuming the dust, tossing the lettuce in the compost, putting 4,327 lego pieces in a bucket.

Sometimes — nay, usually — I think to myself: that cardboard is over there so what do I care? It's not like it's really in my space. But that's not right. That piece of cardboard — what the heck is it? Oh, it's from a clothes hangar — sits there and emanates, like Frank Ocean, pouring into my eyes, into my body, filling this space between me and it with itself.

7.27.2012

Where is My Mind?

Your head will collapse
But there's nothing in it
And you'll ask yourself

Where is my mind


Way out in the water

See it swimmin'

I was swimmin' in the Caribbean

Animals were hiding behind the rocks
Except the little fish
But they told me, he swears
Tryin' to talk to me, coy koi.
-Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis) 

Who is the third there walking beside you?...
Who beside there walking the you?
-William Burroughs

Where is my mind? Sometime, I imagine it as my brain. But that can't be quite right as my brain is just, well, stuff — grey and squishy — and my mind seems untouchable. 

So, when I think about it a bit more (using my mind? Does my mind think?), I tend to imagine it as being in my head, swirling around my skull looking kind of like my brain but more ethereal, even vaporous.

But why my head, exactly? Is there mind in, say, my fingers? Well, my fingers are certainly capable of knowing things — not just remembering things as if by rote muscle memory. No, my fingers make sense of the world, feel their way through experience and into knowledge and action. It sure seems like there's mind in my fingers.

Of course, we might say that my fingers are just extensions of a nervous system that runs through the brain control center: through the mind in my head. In this vision, my fingers don't actually know anything. They are servants who act at the whim and desire of my brain-mind.  In this image, my brain is the root system and my fingers are the branches, fed and nourished and thoroughly dependent on the brain-mind-root.

But I want to suggest a different image: mind as rhizome (pace Deleuze and Guattari). In this view, my mind is not a place but an action, perhaps a force, that moves through my body, that permeates my body. Mind is a receptor as well as a processor: a metabolic mechanism that takes in, distributes, makes sense.

My fingers, my tongue, my knees, my colon, my eyes,  my skin, my toes: they all take in the world, distribute sensation and meaning, and generally make sense of things.  I'm not sure mind is all places all the time. It seems to have some connection to place. And yet it is not that place per se.

Yes, mind exceeds physical space while running through it. My mind, then, is not really my mind, as if beginning and ending at the limits of my skin.  It is mind run through me, inflected by me, by my body and experience. But this mind that is my mind runs beyond me.

When I was in high school, I had an experience with trees — I knew them and we conversed. There was one tree I met years later, a ginkgo in Philadelphia, that had a fantastic sense of humor and always made me laugh, hard. That may sound insane but only if you imagine mind as being mine and not being a force that exceeds me, that is intimately bound up with the mind of other things such as trees.

During this same period, a friend and I experienced an intense duration of telepathy. We'd known each other since fourth grade; we were now in college together. And I can still summon that exquisite sensation of being in his mind — and he in mine.

Again, this may sound strange. But anyone who's interacted with a pet or animal should understand this well. So nothing could be less strange.Why? Well, because mind is not mine per se; it's not my brain or even in my brain even if it runs through my brain (as well as my belly and feet and nape). My mind is an inflection point, a perspective, a piece of mind in general.  And it runs through me, you, trees, as well as your dog Cosmo.

And yet there is no mind in general. There is not one mind, no mind of the cosmos, no unified mind, no Big Mind. No, mind is an infinitely differentiated, planar force that flows in and of and through and with all the rocks and trees and bugs and asteroids of the world. 

William Burroughs and Brion Gysin explored the properties of the mind and discovered there is always another that walks beside you. Between you and world, between you and another, is always a third a mind. Telepathy was something they just took for granted: "I know from my own experience that telepathy is a fact. I have no interest in proving telepathy or anything to anybody. I do want usable knowledge of telepathy. What I look for in any relationship is contact on the nonverbal level of intuition and feeling, that is, telepathic contact."  Why? Because the mind is not a brain and is not contained within my body even if it is inflected by my body.

Mind, like affect, is a force that runs through us, takes us outside of ourselves, connects us to the inhuman as well as human cosmos.  It is how we participate in this world, know this world.  It is how we become with the world.

7.26.2012

What Information?

When I was in college, my sophomore year I lived in a house with five friends. We were all good students, as they say, as well as robust consumers of various psychic stimulants. And we had The New York Times delivered because, well, it needs no explanation. Right? Reading the Times is one of those things good, liberal, white, educated New Yorkers do. We imagine it as a kind of stability amidst the flux, punctuating our mornings and commutes and conversations.

Did you read that Op Ed piece on health care?  No, no I didn't. Nor am I going to.

So one night during said sophomore year of college — this is Philadelphia, 1988, a depressed and depressing urban wasteland — I'm out and about in the sad, post-apocalyptic streets, my mind twitching and oozing and expanding and contracting and spinning for some 12 hours or so during which time I'd experienced and known and unknown many worlds. I come home at dawn, plop down at the dining room table, and glance at The New York Times, my body and mind and self still vibrating, reverberating, resonating with revelations equally banal and profound.

And there, in the upper left hand corner, is the Times' motto: All the News That's Fit to Print. 

I never read the Times, or any other newspaper, ever again. There was not one piece of information that was remotely useful, remotely illuminating, to me. I had seen things, known things, experienced things and none of it — not one shred — was in the Times. What they considered information and what I considered information had near zero overlap.  Only the weather — except it had NY weather and I was in Philly. So zero overlap.

Now, I wasn't expecting the Times to report on me and my visions. That's absurd. No, what I wanted was not reportage of me but of the realms of information, the realms of experience, that mattered. And there was not one thing in that rag that was remotely relevant to life at hand. And yet it had the hubris to declare: All the news that's fit to print.

If only it had said, "All the predictable nonsense we learned at press conferences from government officials," I'd have been fine with it.  But the belief, so readily accepted by its readers, that this was in fact all the news that's fit to print, made the Times dangerous, an affront that distracts people from the wealth of information that abounds always and everywhere. 

Listen, the Times is fine. Sorta. What drives me crazy is that people read it — or whatever newspaper — and believe they are informed, meanwhile ignoring the abundant information — the news — that surrounds them every moment of every day. And then wonder why they're miserable, their stomachs and livers and lives bloated with noxious sludge.

There is so much information that most people ignore. And yet this is the information that informs who we are and how we go — and what is more important than that? What is more political than that?

As I wake up and ready myself for the day, I am inundated with such information. My stomach, my head, my thoughts, my actions, my appetite: they all are telling me things, positioning me within the world. Meanwhile, the world is doing its thing — winds blowing, moods undulating, traffic accumulating, stars and bombs and minds exploding.  Infinite events are happening all at once and each is inflecting everything else and on and on it goes.

Meanwhile, all those winds and minds and bombs and stars in the world are shaping my stomach and appetite and actions just as I am, in my small way, inflecting the world.  This is politics, too.

Where's the newspaper that reports on such things? Where, for that matter, is the schooling? The documentaries, films, TV programs? Where is anyone talking about the flux of life that carries us along each and every day?

At the risk of being crass, consider one obvious bit of information: the rhythm with which you shit. It is a trace of the previous evening — those dumplings, that gin, that jolt of anxiety or excitement — as well as harbinger of the day to come.  After all, much of who we are — how we feel, how we make sense, how we negotiate  — takes place through the stomach. Oh, yes, the stomach is a vital inflection point within the engine of selfhood which, in turn, informs how we think, how we interact with others. What is it Nietzsche says — all prejudice comes from the intestines?

And so we wake and shit or don't shit. And it's more complex than that as the shit itself is rank with data: it declares, in no uncertain terms, how you're making sense of the world. Things are moving too quickly through you or not fast enough. Or you're full of gas as you unleash a punctuated mayhem. This is information.

There is much data that comes from the senses, from the visible world: your face, your aches, your shit, your hunger or lack thereof.  But there is abundant invisible information, too. You wake to a mood — you feel the world pressing down upon you, its weight a burden. Or its weight is a comfort, a cosmic embrace slowing movement to a palatable pace.  Or you wake energetic, eager to be up and about, bounding out of bed, greeting the day with voracious gusto.

This is information. This is the world speaking to you. This is the world speaking through you.

You may check the weather — sunny, a little wind, 63 degrees (I'm in San Francisco — that's our weather, more or less, every day and yet there is infinite variation: the wind can be a swirling agitating eddy; the 63 degrees can feel like 45 or 75 depending on the wind, the fog, the sun, the shade, your mood; and so on). Yes, there is plenty of data on the weather and it is welcome and interesting and important.

Some people check pollen reports. Much pollen can be an assault for some. And in San Francisco, where there is something always in bloom, pollen douses its citizens freely.

But there is no report for the mood.  Can you imagine it? Yahoo headline reads: "Odd Freakin' Mood on SF Streets This Morning."

One morning many months ago, I was driving to a work gig and, yes, shit was weird — cars were doing strange things like driving in wrong lanes, stopping suddenly, pulling into traffic against lights. My son was in the car and we both noted it. When I got to where I was going, my phone rang: it was my mother asking me if everything was ok — there had been an earthquake in Japan and there was news of a possible tsunami hitting San Francisco.

Now, I don't read the news because it doesn't give me the information I think is vital to heed the day. And I know that my mother's angst will let me know when there are things I need to know. So I find myself wondering: Is all this weird behavior due to the Tsunami?

The next day, my boy and I headed to the park where there was an amateur baseball game. We sat down to watch near one team's bench. I look at their shirts. And there, emblazoned across the front, was the team's name: Tsunami.

And what I learned was this: there was a tsunami in San Francisco. No, there were no real waves — of water, that is. But we were hit with waves that made people behave in all sorts of wacky ways. And yet there was no reporting, no discussion, no measurement or assessment of the situation. Why? Not because we lack the information but because we lack the way to discuss, articulate, and make sense of this information.

What information? The relentless ebb and tide of cosmic affective forces, the winds of mood and digestion and appetite that flow through us, in and around us, all the time.  All this data is right there in front of us. And yet we ignore it because, well, we're reading all the news that fits to print.

7.23.2012

Turtles All the Way Down

The other day, my son — now 8 — went on one of those exquisitely deranged monologues that young boys perform. At one point in this verbal spew, he found himself thinking out loud about the first word: "Someone sat there and said, 'Oogy woggy bloggy,' and that was the first word." The boy's brow was appropriately furrowed.

As a child, I imagined the same thing. There were these primitive peoples grunting and huffing and then one of them, like something out of 2001, said a word and, voila, there was language. That moment was so unthinkable, so absolute, so astounding to my young self: from mute to verbose, from inchoate to clarity, an insurmountable rift overcome in one fell swoop of impossible genius. Who was that guy who first grunted oogy woggy bloggy? What a grand feat!

But, of course, that's nonsense. There is no such thing as the world without language. Words did not come after...whatever (Big Bang? The miracle of human being? What?). Words are not an invention or a discovery any more than seeing or breathing or eating are.

The world is communication and we are signs just as everything is. Gravity, orbits, collision, explosion, ricochet: these are language, the exchange of information.  Just as tapping you on the shoulder means, "hey," an asteroid pummeling a planet — and vice versa — is a kind of "hey," even if overwrought.

We see and we are and from this seeing and being we gather information. We read the world — and are always reading the world, always seeing and being seen, always communicating. That is what it is to be alive. Everything is signs, marks, gestures, shoves, pushes, caresses — whether it's a tongue in your ear, a hand on your thigh, or a whispered declaration of love. We are signs who read signs. If we weren't or didn't, we wouldn't be — because even rocks are signs that read signs (in a rock way, of course, which is quite different than a mosquito way or canine way or Louis C.K. way).

We have this instinct to think, to imagine, a first: an origin. There! That's where it all began! This pervades our thinking: Who invented electricity? Who invented the computer? Who was the first to use the wah wah pedal? Or feedback? We have monuments and text books and holidays celebrating these firsts. This instinct even pervades how we imagine our personal narratives: when did I first walk, speak, consider death? We imagine a singular point — crawling and then, holy shit! walking!

But that's just not how things work. In an essay about history, Foucault writes, "What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things." (I read this in college; in fact, the title of my honors thesis — on Foucault's historiography — was, "The Dissension of Other Things." I believe I used a wacky font for the title page.) Which is to say, when we actually look at what we imagine is an origin, we find a network of forces at work: a dissension of other things.

Take a child talking. The fact is, kids are always using language. They come out wailing with all get out and that doesn't stop — forever. What do you think crying is? Some pure expression of an innermost emotion? Perhaps. But it's also language. I'm feeling shitty, mo fo, do something about it.

I never wanted to be called "Dad." I never had such a thing hence never used the word and it seemed so, well, bourgeois. So I wanted my kid to call me "Pop." Pop, I'd say, over and over again amidst his relentless gurgling, burping, cooing, and crying. Pop, pop, pop. But of course those wads of fleshy dough can't do "p" — too complex. I'd find him sitting in his infant chair mouthing "p" over and over but, alas, no sound came out.

Was this language?

Eventually, he began saying "da." And then "da da." I caved. That's me!  I'd put my big smiling nose in his face every time he said "da" and, sho 'nuff, eventually he began saying "Dada" to get my attention.

Is that his first word? What is first, in this case? And what is the word? He'd been doing all kinds of things that I understood just as I'd done all kinds of things that he'd understood — long before there was Dada.  The origin of his language is an intersection of forces and events.  In fact, there are so many forces, the intersection so embroiled in time and circumstance that I think we can safely say there is no origin.

This is not to say there are no inflection points.  Water does turn into steam — and it's amazing, a miracle, an astounding, unimaginable event. But, like all events, it has no single origin. Inflections points, while singular, are nodes or junctures within a complex confluence of events and forces. 

Take Big Bang. It's an absurd theory, really, as it is itself a question: What was there before this big bang?  This is what I say, what I believe: there was no big bang. The world is always already big banging — always already colliding, moving, expanding, folding, pleating, collapsing, extending. That is what the cosmos is.  It is not a movement from stillness to motion or from death to life. It's always been moving and that is life.

Take creation. We imagine some primordial soup of crap, some big ol' lightning strikes and voila: life. But that's absurd. It was already life. So here's a different reading that I didn't make up but wish I did. There's all this stuff colliding, conjoining, etc. And amidst this slop are various kinds of crytallines.  Crystals are interesting because they replicate themselves, including their mutations. So now these crystallines are doing what they do and those that make it through the tumbles and tides of that smoldering planet were pluckier, had some kind of protective skin or some such thing. And, over time, these crystals became more complex — they became amoebae and such.

There was no voila. There were confluences. There was dissension and harmony and synergy. And, above all, there was multiplicity.

Take a song. Is there an original version? Which one would that be? There's the one that made it to the record but is that the original? What about George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord"? Is the original the Shirelle's "He's So Fine"? Every song comes from multiple places and, once here, enjoys infinite variations — just like a crystalline or human being: it repeats with mutation.

No, there is no first, no origin. This life has always already been happening, turtles all the way down. 


7.15.2012

Critical is Sexy

When I was younger, I rolled with what came my way.  I'd drink and hang and eat and consume this and that with all sorts of people, some of whom I loved; some of whom I thought amusing; some of whom I found downright annoying, if not distasteful.

After college, I swore off such things. From then on, I'd lead a highly vetted life. And I've been quite successful. I don't spend time with people I don't enjoy thoroughly. I don't go to events that are not absolutely delectable.  But, alas, now that I am no longer married, I find myself occasionally dallying with forces and people I'd rather not — that is, if I want to, uh, enjoy female company.

Mind you, I retain my diligence and have a very low tolerance for behavior or events or anything, really, that doesn't suit me. I can see how old men become curmudgeons. But the other side of this is I can see how old men become wise and blissful: nothing but goodness.

Why settle for less?

Which brings me to my vetting criteria.  I like a certain beauty, of course. But I like smart more than beautiful. Which makes no sense as smart is beautiful.  I like funny. Funny is beautiful — and much rarer and hence more beautiful. But, above all, I like critical — not negative; not kvetchy; not whiny: critical.

What is critical? It is a will — a desire — to question everything, to root out one's own assumptions, to ask if this or that feeling is a feeling worth having, whence it comes, if it should be pursued or not. And I appreciate when this critical eye is aimed at everything — what we call politics, news, films, gender, me, words, life. And even better when its aimed at "us": what a relationship is and how it can go.

Now, I don't need or want this to be aggressive. I don't want someone constantly interrogating me or even interrogating themselves — out loud. And, often, a critique can end with: "Well, I just believe that because I believe it!" Which is a glorious thing. No, what I want is not someone who is afraid to commit to a belief but someone who assumes that critiquing their assumptions is a good thing, a skill worth honing, and is willing to consider the world anew.

Why?

Well, I turn, for a moment, to McLuhan and Foucault. McLuhan argues that we live in what he calls environments — which are very different than what the news and such call the environment. For McLuhan, the environment is the set of invisible assumptions we make, the actions and things and words we use that, in fact, use us: they coerce us, set the limits of what we can say and think and do.

An example he gives is the alphabet, an environment we don't even know to question. But consider it: each letter is a discrete unit;  to make sense is to move linearly — and to be visually decipherable (as distinct from, say, acoustically). Most people don't question the alphabet: they're taught the song at two years old and that's just how the world goes: A, B, C. But once you do, wowzer, the world brims. Why not acoustic space instead of visual space? Is there a writing that moves in all directions rather than linearly? What was hieroglyphics, anyway?

Foucault writes of discourse. There are words and modes of behavior that are, as Foucault says, "in the true." Say something outside of this and a) you have to explain yourself ad nauseum, literally; and b) you're immediately positioned as a pervert, asshole, or lunatic. It's really a that drives me crazy; b is just part of my life.

It is frustrating and exhausting for me to participate in discussions with quasi-strangers. The discourse that dictates how we talk and what we talk about is so limited and limiting — at best, I find none of it interesting and, at worst, I find it dangerous.  What sorts of things? Well, things like the presidential election; marriage; parenting; movies — pretty much everything.

I just don't use the same terms so what am I to do?

I can participate on existing terms: "Yeah, Obama let us down but he's better than the alternative!"  Jesus. I'd rather put a bullet in my head than utter such a thing — not because I have an opinion about Obama but because the very assumptions this utterance enjoys begin from a very different place than I begin.

I can try to change the terms of the discussion: "Well, what do we want from a president? Are these things even possible? What is the role of the government?" But then I'm exhausted and feel like a douchebag — probably because, in that situation, I am one. Such behavior is not socially acceptable.

I'm not saying I know any more than other people. In fact, I know less. I'm just saying that it would be nice if, in general, our collective discourse embraced a certain criticality in which questioning assumptions wasn't met with so much hostility and, worse, annoyance and befuddlement. Imagine, just for a moment, if you went to a party of strangers and the very way in which people discussed life — love, politics, art — was surprising! And you were invited to have your own strange perspective!

So why do I enjoy — desire — this critical will?

Because it is a will to see the world differently, to shed habit and cliche and engage the world as it emerges, as something to reckon rather than something to be known, mastered, and confirmed.

Because being an individual means being different and being different means seeing the world from your own perspective — and expressing that difference.

Because life is more beautiful and exciting and lively when you don't know what's going to happen, when you invite questions not just about the most hallowed truth but about the least likely ones, as well — those truths you didn't even know were truths you could question.

Oh, to be critical is to be alive, to affirm the flux of life. And what is sexier than that?

7.13.2012

Stories, Machines, Cinema: On "Moonrise Kingdom"

I finally saw Moonrise Kingdom — after the throngs were gone and I could have the theater to myself. And I found it extraordinary. Sure, there are at once too many characters and not enough — you want to know more about Bruce Willis' cop and less about Harvey Keitel. And the adolescent awkwardness is at once startling and doesn't go far enough. There is much to say on these matters, not to mention Wes Anderson's sense of the romantic, the precocious, adulthood and more.

But none of this has anything to do with what I loved and learned in this movie.  Moonrise Kingdom is cinema as machine — as engine, all moving parts, pulleys, and gears. Only it's not any old machine: it's a Rube Goldberg. Which is to say, it is a machine whose production is its mechanics rather than the end product: machine as means rather than means to an end.


The camera in Moonrise Kingdom moves in highly contrived, deliberate motions. It lets us know it's there and that it's part of the action. This is made explicit once our quasi-narrator enters the fray, even flipping a light on the camera.

We learn quickly that the camera moves with purpose: it zooms from Point A to Point B to give us something. This is not the free flowing movement of, say, Cassavete's Faces. This is highly specific, functional movement, as if the camera were moving along gears and pulleys, part of the scene's — and film's — mechanical structure.The action in the particular scenes are localized contraptions that make the camera-pulley move to the next scene-contraption. 

Often — too often — films are expository. Each scene tells us something we need to know about the story: someone did x; now they did y; and so on. Action moves according to a map.

But in Moonrise Kingdom, the film is the movement, like a Tinguely kinetic sculpture.


There is movement left to right, up and down, and affective, too. The plot is a series of triggers: Sam "flies the coop" which sets off the search which brings other characters into play which introduces new events.

This is, of course, what all stories do. They are little machines.  Just as a machine is a set of mechanical functions working in a conjunction of triggers and relations — pound this, wet that, move this along, flip it over, and so on — a story does a similar thing. It takes up different elements — characters, places, words — and creates a series of relations between them: John steps on Mary's toe; Mary feels bad, finds recourse with Lou; Lou feels gratified, dumps Greg; Greg goes to the mountain to find god; and so on. A story is a series of related functions: a machine.

Now, film is strange because it is literally a machine that makes stories (I suppose we could argue that language and paper is a machine — but that doesn't seem productive to me). Unlike writing, film moves and is visual which allows for more fluid and strange mechanisms to link things. Things can be visually linked — a blue thing can become an entirely different blue thing, a pointed thing can move into a soft thing or another pointed thing. And, as everything is in motion, movement on one side of the screen can move to the other side of the screen.

Like an industrial engine, a film moves creating all sorts of things as it goes — affect, mood, meaning, and most notably, light. What Wes Anderson taught me is that a director is a mechanic setting the speed of the pulleys, the turn of the gears, building the contraptions. For him, scenes are little machines, contraptions unto themselves, not illustrations of a story. They are not expository. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, they may serve a function within the greater narrative arc but it's the way of getting there that matters above all else.

This is joyful mechanics as distinct from industrial mechanics which is a foil of capitalist production — it always has an end. But a Rube Goldberg is not about efficiency; it's not about getting there. It's about movement — the joy of movement in and of itself, even if that movement is mechanical and not the free flowing wonder of clouds and smoke. There is a beauty and joy to Anderson's filmic mechanics: he loves to make things go in wondrous ways. 

7.08.2012

Of Philosophy and Fiction

As I ready myself before heading into the wide world — say, before a plane ride — I scan my shelves for a book, for something to enthrall, engage, and inspire me. And, each time, I turn to a book of philosophy, to Bergson or Guattari, to Leibniz, Bataille, or even Lacan.  I rarely grab a novel.

What is it I want from the experience of reading philosophy? What makes it different than reading a novel?

There are so many similarities. Argument and narrative are related: each arranges disparate elements into a flow that literally makes sense.  Many novels, I believe, borrow narrative structures so they replay familiar tales — of redemption, of discovery, of whatever. And as I am attracted to strange kinds of sense, I turn to philosophy.

Of course, there is plenty of fiction that enjoys strange sense — I'm thinking of Borges, Joyce, Burroughs, Nabokov, Clarice Lispector, Lydia Davis, Maurice Blanchot, Celine. There are hundreds more. And I've read many of them.

But what about characters? I like characters. Ignatius Reilly, Humbert Humbert, Alex Portnoy, Dr. Benway: great characters. Note that we are not asked to identify with any of these characters; we don't find ourselves in them (well, Portnoy aside: I find too much I identify with). On the contrary, they are presented to us as not-us, as difference, as confrontations (even if not confrontational per se).

And the philosophy I read has plenty of characters — and even more character. Nietzsche? Besides Zarathustra and Socrates and Jesus and the warrior and dozens more, the writing itself overflows with character. It's like reading Ignatius Reilly's rants. Kierkegaard? Nothing but characters, Hilarious Bookbinder among them. Kant is more challenging as he tries just to present his ideas. But this, too, becomes character. How about Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a book as close to bereft of character as you can find? But of course that's a ridiculous thing to say: the Tractatus has plenty of character, albeit that of an uptight, pompous prick.

So when I read philosophy, I am looking for much of what I believe others find in novels: the expression of the voice of a character.  I don't brush away the words to find the ideas. I don't ignore the style, tone, timbre, mood, rhythm, and intensity.  That is what I read for!  Which is why, perhaps, I am a rhetorician and not a philosopher.

What, then, separates philosophy from fiction? Not much. Philosophy, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, operates with concepts whereas fiction operates with affect. Of course, all philosophy is affective and all fiction has some relationship to concepts. But be more affective and you become fiction; be more conceptual, you become philosophy.

So I suppose I read philosophy because I like concepts. I even like the concept of affect. But I also like the affect of concepts. And so I read philosophy like it were fiction and I read fiction like it was philosophy — in that most tasty spot where concepts become a life lived and the affect of life abstracts to become concept.

7.06.2012

That Exquisite Vertigo

As a kid, I used to lie in bed cloaked in tighty whities and darkness, picturing the infinity of space, pushing myself to that precise moment when I could see all limits give way to the voluptuous blackness of eternal space and the the entirety of my scrawny, 9 year old self would quiver in a kind of existential orgasm. 

In some sense, much of my life has been an attempt to relive that exquisite vertigo when all ground gives way not to an abyss but to the billowing sumptuousness of infinity.  I am chasing a bizarre and beautiful dragon's tail.

And I found it in philosophy, in Nietzsche, Deleuze, Foucault, and Bergson; in the writing of Clarice Lispector, JL Borges, and Nabokov; in the art of Jeff Wall, Matthew Ritchie, Sarah Sze; in the films of Godard, Bunuel, and David Lynch; in the music of The Boredoms, Cornelius, and the Grateful Dead. All of these artists, in their own way, inaugurate a certain vertiginous experience.  They don't seek to ground you; on the contrary, they seek to unground you. 

Now, there are other things I want from life, from art, from people, from ideas. Sometimes, I want to be embraced, taken into the bosom  to suckle on the teat of some cosmic momma. There are days in San Francisco when the air is so crystal clear, I fear I will be swept up into the Milky Way, kicked off the planet into the wild blue yonder. At times like this, I crave the gentle embrace of the low, grey cloud cover the city is famous for: it is that maternal embrace, keeping my ridiculous self tethered to the planet, to my life, to humanity. And still other times, I want some idea I have to be extended — confirmed but extended. This may in fact be what I desire often: take what I know and make it fresh for me again — that way, I get some confirmation and something novel.

But what I really want, what inspires me and drives me and gets me giddy and aroused and my heart thumping and my body vibrating, is that sensation of vertigo — that feeling that everything I know has just given way but rather than falling into a pit of nothingness, I am sent aloft into the dense ether of possibility. (I imagine this is what Buddhist practice seeks in the dissolution of the ego: a free flowing connection with all things. Only, for me, it's not the connection per se that drives me, even if it's an effect: it's the orgasmic sensation — which is maybe what the monks are after, too. I don't know.)

When I was in high school, I had a great history teacher — Mr. Tucker — Robert Tucker, RIP — who would have us read Marxist revisionist historians. I'll never forget the moment when he had us read Gabriel Kolko's essay on the formation of the USDA. Not only was the birth of this governmental institution not meant to protect us, its citizens, from harm — it was created to protect the meat packing industry!  Wowzer! What I loved about that moment was the feeling of the ground giving way, that sensation of vertigo that didn't debilitate but liberated.

And so I went on to study rhetoric in grad school — yes, I have a doctorate in Rhetoric — because I wanted that sensation over and over again. And, even more, I wanted the skills to be able to create that sensation. I didn't want the password to the cosmos; I wanted to know how to pick the lock. 

My entire intellectual career has been focused on this one thing (more or less). I haven't sought truth — although I thought, for a while, that that was my goal. I have sought that feeling I had when I was 9 and so skinny and lying in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York in my weird ass house staring at the ceiling in the dark, conjuring infinite space right there in that room until my entire being reverberated with a cosmic harmonic convergence and gave way to an exquisite vertigo.

7.04.2012

On Email & Love

I love email. I am attracted to texting, too, but I find it an enormous challenge to be articulate, witty, communicative, and beautiful in such a small window. Ah, but email! With email, I can compose! I can refine, sprawl, pun, add footnotes and links, assume multiple voices in the same paragraph. Yes, paragraphs! I can organize my ideas, structure them just so with such and such flow and well considered nuance.

And yet this email remains, usually, a private communication. This is not a novel I'm writing — or even a blog post (another medium I love for different reasons). No, an email is a carefully composed missive meant for an audience of very few. What an incredible thing: to take the time to compose communication to another person. I think we used to call such a thing a "letter."

I am still utterly amazed by letters — that I can write on a piece of paper in my apartment, stuff this paper in another piece of paper, stick a small sticker on it that cost me 42¢, drop it all in a blue box on the street corner and some random dude will deliver it to the person of my choosing — anywhere in the world!  This blows me away. In fact, I find the idea so overwhelming, I rarely do it. (I do remain shocked that it costs so little and that people complain about said cost. If it were $15, I'd still think it was a deal — they deliver the actual paper I wrote on! My god, it's almost erotic.)

When face to face with a person, there is such a powerful bevy of forces at work. There's how I'm feeling that day — how I slept, what's happened to me, what I've eaten, whether I've pooped well or not. Then there's the other person who has all these same issues. Bring the two together and it's not simple addition of 1 + 1. No, two people together yield an exponent. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin call this the Third Mind which is itself a swarming, teeming, unpredictable multiplicity.

With so many forces at work, it is easy for ideas, words, intentions to go astray.  You go to hook up with someone and next thing you know you're fighting; or you go to break up and next thing you know, you're making out. And every variation thereof. 

Please don't misunderstand me  — which is an asinine thing to write as readers will always do what they will. Indeed, Harold Bloom says all writing is misprision, misunderstanding, and this is the source of creativity. Nevertheless, please note that I am not saying we should avoid human contact. That would be stupid, bizarre, and insane. Communication that flows face to face can be the most exquisite, the most resonant, as the Third Mind spurs new ideas, thoughts, actions. The frenzy of in the flesh communication is a beautiful, if at times sublime, event. Few things are as exquisite as being carried way with another. 

But, sometimes, being face to face shuts down communication as I stutter, stammer, get shy, get cocky, misspeak, slur, get grumpy and tired as a frenzy as forces, both internal and external, bear down upon me. With email, I can literally compose myself.  This doesn't necessarily mean communication will be any clearer; readers misunderstand as much as listeners. But email creates a different timbre of communication in which it's easier to stay cool — and be eloquent, to boot.

At the risk of revealing too much personal information, my ex and I negotiated our divorce through email. In person, the feelings were so strong and confusing, we couldn't even talk to each other. And the mediator was both expensive and a douche bag. But through email we were able calmly, respectfully, and alas productively to discuss and negotiate such personal, profound issues as custody. It was, frankly, astounding. 

And, like most people these days, I've founded romance via email. Which, as we all know, can be misleading as it is much easier to put one's best foot forward in email — it's a whole other thing when flesh and eyes and smells are permeating your words. Which is also why some relationships are best left to the virtual.

And so, yes, I love email. I love the easy way it lets me compose messages that aren't easy and the simplicity with which it lets me compose complexity. Personal computing might have killed the letter but it let personal communication blossom. I love that I can wrangle the teem of my emotions into refined, funny, allusive prose aimed at an audience of one.

Email affords such fantastic opportunities to present our best selves to the world — to those we love, to those we have loved, and to those we might love.

7.03.2012

The Power of Indifference

To say No demands attention. You consider, judge, expend energy rejecting. And when you really, really don't like that thing, well, you expend even more energy. You stew and rage, toss and turn, fixate. Which is why there is said to be a thin line between love and hate: both demand a profound personal expenditure of energy.

And which is why Nietzsche says to avoid saying No as much as possible. But only when you're in a situation where you don't have to say No.  Don't say Yes to things that will hurt you — things like Heidegger, Doritos, or Sandra Bullock. Say No, he tells us, when it's an affirmation of yourself, when it makes you stronger — not when it saps your energy.

This is a fantastic way to assess your life: How often do you have to say No in the course of your day? As food and people and events come your way, do you eagerly greet them with a life affirming Yes? Or do your intestines twist and whine as your body seeks to flee?

Think about it. You wake up to an alarm and think, No! Then get in a car and drive to work and think, No! Move you douchebag! Then you get to work and think, No! This is soul suicide.  And so on and so on: too often, too many of us are in positions where we have to say No a lot.  And it leaves us a crumpled, Ambien-soaked corpse at the end of the day.

Fortunately, saying Yes or No are not our only options. We can be indifferent.

Few things are as devastating as indifference.  Anyone who's ever been in love only to be met not with tepid attraction (which sucks) or with downright distaste (which also sucks) but indifference knows of what I speak.  And those who've been devastated by love only to find, over time, that this feeling has given way to indifference, know it all the better.

There is an incredible power to indifference precisely because it involves no expenditure of power. No longer is your attention grabbed, demanded, no longer do you contemplate, brood, scheme, toss: you simply walk on by. Hating your parents for some injustice continues that injustice, continues to sap you of energy. Being indifferent, however, builds your reserves, makes you stronger.

In some sense, this sounds so obvious: ignore the things that don't matter. This is ancient, Stoic wisdom. But in today's liberal world, indifference has a bad name, as it argues: How can you know you don't like something if you don't try it?

Indeed, how?  Children, I am told, recoil at very few smells. But one of them is carrion. They've never been taught that rotting flesh is, well, a poor dietary choice. And yet they know it. How? Because they, like all of us, know the world through more than facts and knowledge: they know the world instinctively. How are we attracted to some people and not others? To some food and not others? Because we are.

Nietzsche tells us that the strong man, the well turned out man, is the one who instinctively desires those things that make him stronger, healthier, more vital. The weak man instinctively chooses those things that make him weaker, sick, dyspeptic — think of greedy, stupid hands reaching for another Pringle as anal leakage winds down the leg. (What is more unsettling than seeing someone who's sick doing the very things that propel their sickness?)

"That a well-turned-out person," Nietzsche writes, "has a taste only for what is good for him; his pleasure, his delight cease where the measure of what is good for him is transgressed. He guesses what remedies avail against what is harmful; he exploits bad accidents to his advantage; what does not kill him makes him stronger." He guesses.

So this is what I'm saying: I don't have to see Sex and the City 2 to know I don't want to see it. I am guessing — but it's an educated guess. Call it a will to self preservation. And I don't have to spend any time thinking about it. I am absolutely and thoroughly indifferent. Well, almost: part of me recoiled just writing it here. But take all the horrendous books and films and plays and music that are made each year: Do I really have to try them all? Of course not. That would be absurd.

The only way to survive in this information drenched life is to be indifferent. If I had to make to say Yes or No to everything, I'd be dead — my intestines couldn't handle it. No, our very lives are dependent on our ability to be indifferent to the barrage of shit the world hurls at us.

Might I miss something great? Of course. Greatness emerges in surprising ways at surprising times. Might Sex and the City 2 be a subversive work of genius that changes my life forever? Well, sure. But it's a risk I'm willing to take.